What if populism isn't as incoherent as it seems?
The idea of a ‘metropolitan elite’ is a handy target for people who oppose strong democratic institutions. But does this mean that’s all it is – a malign fictional entity used to misrepresent a generally benevolent and necessary layer of society?
I would argue, to the contrary, that the ‘metropolitan elite’ is a real thing, and one which needs to be challenged in a number of ways:
1. There is an identifiable and semi-exclusive social grouping of people who are directly involved in influencing lawmaking and policy.
The obvious examples are the politicians, politician support networks (bag-carriers, people who work for the parties, etc.), the executive (as opposed to administrative) parts of the civil service, people who work for quangos, regulators, think-tanks, the campaigning parts of NGOs, political parties, policy research professionals, the professional commentariat and journalists, some parts of the legal profession, a particular group of media professionals, etc.
It even stretches to academics, artists, writers or comedians who comment on the affairs of state in some way. These are a loose collection of people who nevertheless have a lot in common.
With the rare exceptions of local activists/politicians or trades unionists that manage to bust their way in, they have similar social and educational backgrounds (often having studied with each other). They generally live within a short commute of the relevant ‘political village’.
They will take their holidays at the same time, to similar places, have similar lifestyles (not nine-to-five, in many cases) and possibly even similarly atypical diets.
An enterprising developer at Facebook could probably corral this exclusive group of people together fairly confidently. Buzzfeed could develop a ‘How Elite Are You’ quiz where we all rack up points and a scatter-graph of results shows very few people with more than one mark and less than six on a one to ten scale.
(As a London-based union official with some political access, I reckon I’m roughly 6/10, though AC Grayling retweeted me the other day, so I may have briefly nudged ‘seven’).
2. These people have lots of common material interests. They also have lots of common unconscious biases.
Whatever else they do when they make decisions on our behalf, they probably shelve any plans that would make life more difficult for their own social groupings.
3. We are relatively complacent about this social caste because they have managed to project themselves as a ‘meritocracy’. This is a big mistake.
In reality, this social grouping is deeply unrepresentative of society, and very probably not the best group of people to have doing this job if we had processes that genuinely selected the right people to do these jobs in all of our interests.
(If you’d like this argument fleshed out properly, have a read of former Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth’s short comprehensive book on meritocracy.)
4. Every other professional group as been successfully disrupted and made redundant by new technologies in recent years. This one hasn’t.
They’ve managed to preserve their self-serving inflexibility in ways that few others have done. Part of the reason that this Beltway clique is more obviously despised now than they have been previously is because most other comparable professions have been forced to adapt. Anger is the product of un-met expectations and they have never been as un-met as they are today.
Have a look at The Future of the Professions, a book about digital disruption, and see who doesn’t even get a mention. This relates to point two above. Members of this group is great at vetoing changes that don’t suit them. At some point this will become unsustainable – and we may be witnessing the warning tremors already.
‘The metropolitan elite’ is a morbid symptom of a liberal democracy that is not able to renew itself in competition with its rivals, (dictatorship, kleptocracy, oligarchy, technocracy, etc).
The role it performs in a liberal democracy could be carried out in ways that are more inclusive, more focussed on the interests of everyone, less subordinate to the interests of that elite, and more in keeping with our expectations of modernity.
I think many ordinary, non-political people understand and support these arguments a lot more than professional politicos realise – even if it isn’t often or clearly expressed.
This political moment that some people are calling ‘populism’ is a long way from the incoherent brain-burp that a lot of the metropolitan elite think it to be. These are sensible concerns and, if we don’t address them, those malign rivals to democracy will.
Paul Evans is a writer and trade union official. He writes in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @Paul0Evans1Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.