Most liberal elites love to present themselves as passionate advocates of democracy, but in truth, many harbour a distrust of the masses and a desire to concentrate serious decision-making power in the hands of a few. Reactions to Corbyn, Brexit and Trump have highlighted this.
Generally, across civilisations there exists a divide between those who have faith in the ability of ordinary folk to participate in the management of societal affairs and those who think societal affairs should be managed by an elite few. The point was summarised by Thomas Jefferson in 1824 when he observed that ‘men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties’: ‘democrats’ and ‘aristocrats’. Democrats, he said, ‘identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests’. Aristocrats, on the other hand, ‘fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes’.
While most contemporary elites – that is, broadly speaking, professionals across government, business, cultural management and the more articulate sectors in general – like to present themselves as democrats, the truth is that many are, in thought and practice, aristocrats. Take a politician like Theresa May, for example, who while espousing her belief in ‘putting power in the hands of the people’ earlier this year, was simultaneously trying to exclude from Brexit policy-making the very body through which the people are represented – Parliament. Or take Donald Trump, who while claiming at his inauguration to be giving power ‘back to […] the people’ was simultaneously filling his Cabinet with bankers and Wall Street tycoons. But such aristocratic behaviour is not merely confined to conservative elites like May and Trump. As the unique political events of recent times have highlighted, Jefferson’s aristocrats are pervasive among liberals, too.
In the UK last year, many were revealed among so-called ‘liberal metropolitan elites’ whose attitudes towards Brexit voters betrayed a sharp distrust of the masses. They protested that ‘ignoramuses’ and ‘know-nothing voters’ (as the supposedly liberal Professor Richard Dawkins referred to them) should not be entrusted with such important decisions. Brexit voters, as the Guardian and New Statesman journalist Laurie Penny wrote, were just ‘frightened, parochial lizard-brain’ people. A similar attitude was betrayed by liberal elites in the US, whose patronisation and mocking of Trump supporters in the build-up to the election likely disaffected more undecided voters than it did galvanise them (as was the case with the Remain campaign’s ‘patronising’ videos for the EU Referendum). A more direct form of aristocracy, however, came from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), who were exposed for conspiring with Hillary Clinton’s campaign team – in an utterly anti-democratic move – to rig her nomination and disadvantage Bernie Sanders’. Moreover, Clinton’s own anti-democratic tendencies were exposed when audio was released of her commenting on a 2006 Palestinian election that didn’t go her way: ‘We should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win’, she said.
Back in the UK, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party revealed an abundance of aristocrats amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They, together with most of the political and media establishment, worked tirelessly to undermine and block his democratic election as leader simply because they thought they knew better than the majority of the membership who voted for him. As the Cambridge-educated former Labour MP Tristam Hunt said to students at his old university following Corbyn’s election: the party is ‘in the shit’ and it’s the responsibility of the ‘top 1% [to] take leadership going forward’. Ex-Blair advisor John McTernan asserted that if Corbyn wins he should be removed ‘swiftly and quickly’. When asked about the potential reaction of the grassroots voters to such an anti-democratic move, he retorted: ‘yeah but who cares about the grassroots? […] it doesn’t really matter what the grassroots say’. Then there was the deputy leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson who condemned the 2014 decision of Ed Miliband to push through the ‘one member, one vote’ system that enabled Corbyn’s election. The decision gave Labour members the full democratic power to elect their leaders, a decision Watson called a ‘terrible error of judgment’. Ironically, if the same system ruled the US elections, Clinton would now be president because she, like Corbyn, overwhelmingly won the popular vote. But unlike Watson, the PLP and most of the UK liberal media who scorned the popular voting system when it failed to produce the Labour leader they wanted, US liberals after Trump’s election were itching to adopt it. Of course, direct democracy is only favourable when the result swings your way.
The Liberal Leninist Elite
But there’s another irony to the aristocracy of certain members of the PLP, and it’s to do with how they alleged last year that some of Corbyn’s supporters were ‘Trotskyites’, ‘entryists’ and ‘Bolsheviks’ attempting to infiltrate their party. The fact is that the centrist, Blairite faction of the PLP who’ve been attempting to subvert the democratic election of Corbyn, are themselves closer to the Bolshevik-Leninist position than they know. Indeed, the Bolshevik-Leninist ideology holds, quite simply, that a revolutionary ‘vanguard party’ of intellectuals – the clever and more capable people – ought to lead the masses to their utopian future because the masses are too ignorant and incapable of doing it for themselves. This is quite clearly an aristocratic and elitist doctrine opposed to democratic participation and self-determination, exemplified by Lenin’s dissolving of the factory committees and elimination of workers’ control following the Bolshevik revolution – a ‘dictatorship’ and ‘unquestioning subordination to […] the single will of the leaders of labour’ is necessary to achieve the aims of the revolution, Lenin argued. Such ideology is far from liberal or left; it is in many respects ultra-right. Mainstream left thinkers of the day like Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsh and Paul Mattick recognised this about the Bolsheviks. Bertrand Russell and Rosa Luxemburg both expressed worry about the Leninists centralising power, as did Trotsky before he joined them. Yet it’s an ideology incredibly similar to the kind held by the centrist, Blairite wing of the PLP and many liberal elites throughout the West. In fact, just as the Bolshevik-Leninists had consolidated power in the Soviet Union, prominent American intellectuals across the Atlantic were espousing very similar views about the role of the masses in society.
Take the acclaimed liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann who, in his influential works Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), wrote that ‘the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class’. ‘Executive action is not for the public’, he said; they should remain just ‘interested spectators of action’ who are called upon occasionally to align themselves with ‘someone in a position to act executively’ – the ‘responsible men’. Then there was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud who is known widely as the Father of Public Relations due to his pioneering work in the field of thought-manipulation and mass-persuasion. In his influential book Propaganda (1928), he argued that because the ‘average intelligence’ of the public is so poor, it is imperative that they be ‘managed by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide’ them. Or take Professor Harold Lasswell, the highly influential political scientist and leading scholar in the field of communications and propaganda. He wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (1930-35) that we ‘must put aside democratic dogmatism about men being the best judges of their own interest since men are often very poor judges of their own interest’. In the same decade, Reinhold Neibhur, leading American theologian, professor and public intellectual who was highly influential among Roosevelt-Kennedy liberals (he also happens to be Barack Obama’s ‘favourite philosopher’), wrote in his seminal work Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics (1932) that ‘Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplificaions which are provided by the myth-maker [Lippmann’s ‘responsible men’] to keep [the] ordinary person on course’.
Certainly, it’s not hard to see the ideological thread running through these views, the Bolshevik-Leninists’ and many of today’s liberal elite; in essence, they all manifest a distrust of the masses and a desire to keep them from participating in serious decision-making – they are all aristocratic in the Jeffersonian sense. Of course, a crucial difference between the Bolshevik-Leninists and Western liberals is that while the former sought authoritarian repression to manage and keep the ignorant masses at bay, the latter sought to control them through techniques of manipulation and mass-persuasion – techniques now practiced and extended across PR, marketing, advertising, mass media and the entertainment industries more generally. It’s no coincidence that today’s political elite, both liberal and conservative, harbour immensely close ties with and rely heavily on experts across these industries to manage and bolster their ‘brand-image’, to control and distribute information and to generally mould public opinion in their favour. Lippmann called this the ‘manufacture of consent’, while Bernays similarly called it the ‘engineering of consent’ – ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society’, he wrote (if this sounds Gramscian, it’s because it is!).
What is perhaps most contemptible about all of this, however, is the deceitfulness with which many apparent liberals operate; presenting themselves in public as passionate advocates of democracy, while in private seeking to concentrate power and manipulate popular opinion in their favour. ‘I agree the will of the people should prevail’, declared Tony Blair in response to Brexit, while simultaneously forming a cross-party coalition of elites (including Nick Clegg, Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Lord Alan Milburn, Chuka Umunna) aimed at influencing the will of the people and reversing Brexit (incidentally, the agency managing the PR strategy and marketing for the project is Freud Communications, headed by PR mogul Matthew Freud – great-grandson of Sigmund and relative of Edward Bernays). Similarly in the US, Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump was ‘threatening our democracy’, yet only a few months prior she herself had undermined the democratic nomination of Sanders, despite virtually every poll indicating that he had a better chance of beating Trump than she did. And as the influential Labour Lord and ex-Blair cabinet minister Peter Mandelson admitted earlier this year, he was working ‘every single day […] to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office’. In other words, he was working every single day to overturn the democratic decision of the majority of the Labour membership.
What is so evident in all of this is that, despite how they present themselves in public, many liberal elites are just as aristocratic as their conservative counterparts. They too harbour a distrust of the masses and a desire to concentrate serious decision-making power in the hands of a few. While this could remain relatively concealed during a period of political consensus, the collapse of that consensus, which Corbyn, Brexit and Trump represent, has revealed it with striking clarity. It would seem that, faced with their faltering ability to dominate the political sphere, many liberal elites have sought desperately and unflatteringly over the past two years to undermine and block the democratic participation of the masses who no longer want – nor have faith in – their leadership capabilities. Indeed, if there is anything we can take from the political events of recent times, it’s that if liberal elites wish to play any serious role in the politics of tomorrow, then they really ought to start listening and reacting to the masses. In other words, they really ought to start becoming democrats.