The Wisdom of the Elites and the Troublesome Masses

Most often the elites of the society entertain themselves with ideas of a better, more just, social order. Grand schemes are constructed; great ideas seem to sparkle through the air. At some point, all those dreams seem attainable. But, when the elites turn to the masses with a to-do list, the masses respond in puzzlement.

In a week´s time, the new president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, will be inaugurated into office. In what has been the country´s first direct presidential election, Zeman received 55% of votes in the second round, surpassing his opponent Karel Schwarzenberg by approximately 10%. However, what was so remarkable about this particular election was the stark polarization of society it created. It was a truly singular clash of two counterparts of society: the old and the young, the uneducated and the educated, the poor and the rich, the left and the right. There were of course exceptions, yet the latter seems to have “lost” this duel.

Image courtesy of Nicanor González Méndez, © 1903, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Nicanor González Méndez, © 1903, some rights reserved.

During the electoral campaign, Zeman presented himself as one of the people, the smart farmer; laughing into the face of the overlords, the ungrounded diamante of jovial manners. His opponent, Schwarzenberg, a member of an ancient aristocratic family, the exact opposite: the noble elite, caring lord, polished up gentleman of chosen manners. The result was obvious: the elite united behind Schwarzenberg, the masses behind Zeman. The latter´s populist rhetoric sang true to the disenchanted public; be it an attack on Schwarzenberg’s elitism, or a vigorous defence of the obviously reprehensive displacement of thousands of Sudeten Germans after WWII from the then Czechoslovak Republic. Of course we know who won…

In pursue of a better understanding of the elite/masses divide, let us now place ourselves, both in time and place, to the distant lands of early post-colonial Latin America of the 19th Century. While obvious differences exist on the sheer matters of scale, I believe this is a well illuminating example, albeit slightly controversial. After the Libertamiento, emotions were raised over the future organization of the Americas. The key question asked by the elites was: “is our demos ready for democracy?” In the early 1820s, constitutions were drafted containing all the liberties the enlightened man could dream of: universal male suffrage and federalist guarantees. They were soon to fail dismally, being replaced by centralist constitutions, which in turn turned into dictatorships, all within the time period of about 30 years. Caudillos emerged, strong men of the people, to apprehend rule by means of Weber´s charismatic leadership. By the 1850s, the majority of the elites were persuaded that the population, unready for democracy, was to be guided and educated, quite like the child who shall one day turn adult. The idea was that reign should for a time being reserved only for the educated elites, in order for the country to take the right steps forward. This was to be only temporary, until the masses as it were catch up with the elites. Ideas of enlightened dictatorships swept the lands of Latin America, and were completely wrong. Damage done during those times can still be felt to the present day, most notably through the legacy of alienation of the public from politics.

There seems to be a general tendency in such behaviour. It is most often the elites of the society that entertain themselves with ideas of a better, more just, social order. Grand schemes are constructed; great ideas seem to sparkle through the air. And, all those dreams seem attainable. But when the elites turn to the masses with a to-do list, the masses respond in puzzlement. Who can then blame the latter for falling short of the requirements set forth by the elites, or the elites for falling into despair over their failure? Inevitably, this question will be asked: “surely, if the political decisions are too complex for these poor people, it ought to be to their advantage if we take over for them!” Such questions I claim were asked throughout modern history, at times when the elites faced the solid brick wall of mostly unresponsive masses, be it by Robespierre, Bolívar, Lenin, or Bush.

There is a certain thin blue line to be unravelled underneath this natural tendency. It is the fact that as those that are denied agency become further alienated from the decision-making elite, they more easily fall prey to populists, who claim to be the true representatives of the “common folk.”  These people present themselves as “one of the people,” thus avoiding the pit of elitism, while simultaneously representing the worst of it. Fundamentally, as long as the elites are in contact with the masses, as long as decisions are explained thoroughly and no one is excluded from participation, the masses seem quite content in following the leads of the elites. It is only when the large population is not accounted for, when political crises evolve and legitimacy is eroded, that the population turns to its messiahs, usually opportunistic caudillos to offer quick solutions.

If given the chance, masses rise up against the elites in opposition (electing populist candidates for example) when the latter discredit themselves by their behaviour in such a way that their sanctimony effectively disappears.  The point is that if it´s the lack of political engagement that leads to unfavourable outcomes, then restricting this even further seems ill-fated from the offset. That said, a society where such proposition is unknown or disregarded, will enter into a vicious circle, as the elites try to harness the masses to their views by excluding them from any kind of participation, which in turn spirals up the feeling of estrangement between the two classes.

We have seen such a development in the Czech Republic over the past few years. The political sphere has become more and more alienated from the average beer drinking farmer of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, and the elites have repeatedly failed to address this problem. This masses/elite gap culminated during the current government, where the Minister of Finance in particular has been starkly reluctant to explain his steps more positively to the general public. The fact that Schwarzenberg is the acting Foreign Minister of this government made him public enemy no.1 in the eyes of the masses.

Seen from that perspective, one cannot look at the support Schwarzenberg received from every corner of the republic from public “elite” figures as conducive to his campaign. In many cases, the public voted against the elites, rather than for Zeman. His election may be interpreted as a clear message that the minds of the elites have risen too high above the ground, so high that they have forgotten about the larger population. Already, one can hear talks around the intellectual circles of the country about the masses not being ready for widespread democracy.  To take away more power from the people however, would be counterproductive (as written above). What the country needs now, on the contrary, is to finish the process of democratization it started on more than 20 years ago. Let us hope that that way, as years move on, the elite/masses alienation will gradually disappear, and the society will once again speak in one, unified voice.

Leave a Reply