Has any concept more completely defined and disfigured public life over the last generation than so-called elitism? Ever since Richard Nixon’s speechwriters pitted a silent majority (later sometimes “the real America”) against the nattering nabobs of negativism (later “tenured radicals,” the “cultural elite,” and so on), American political, aesthetic, and intellectual experience can only be glimpsed through a thickening fog of culture war. And the fog, very often, has swirled around a single disreputable term.
The first thing to note is the migration of the word elite and its cognates away from politics proper and into culture. Today “the cultural elite” is almost a redundancy — the culture part is implied — while nobody talks anymore about what C. Wright Mills in 1956 called “the power elite.” Mills glanced at journalists and academics, but the main elements of the elite, in his sense, were not chatterers and scribblers but (as George W. Bush might have put it) deciders: generals, national politicians, corporate boards. “Insofar as national events are decided,” Mills wrote, “the power elite are those who decide them.” The pejorative connotations of “elite” have remained fairly stable across the decades. The word suggests a group of important individuals who have come by their roles through social position as much as merit; who place their own self-maintenance as an elite and the interests of the social class they represent above the interests and judgments of the population at large; and who look down on ordinary people as inferiors. Today, though, it’s the bearers of culture rather than the wielders of power who are taxed with elitism. If the term is applied to powerful people, this is strictly for cultural reasons, as the different reputations of the identically powerful Obama and Bush attest. No one would think to call a foul-mouthed four-star general an elitist, even though he commands an army, any more than the term would cover a private equity titan who hires Rod Stewart to serenade his 60th birthday party. Culture, not power, determines who attracts the epithet.
There are two opposed explanations for this situation. One would be that access to political, economic, and military power is today more meritocratic and open than access to filmmaking, humanistic academia, freelance writing, wine criticism, and so on. Do people no longer complain about the power elite because those with power are no longer elitist? Culture, in that case, would constitute a last vestige of unearned prestige in an otherwise democratically constituted society. The other explanation would be that it simply goes without saying these days that the materially consequential areas of life are lorded over by self-recruiting elites. You wouldn’t speak of a business elite, a governing elite, or a firepower elite because, now, that would be redundant. Complaints about cultural elitism would then be merely a sign that in the world of culture (unlike that of power) there is still an ongoing contest between elitism and equality that in all other realms has already been decided. By the deciders.
To the first idea, that cultural vocations are uniquely elitist, there is more truth than is fun to admit. Majoring in literature or art history rather than economics or biology, never mind hotel management or marketing, suggests a certain privileged indifference to material concerns (even when this rests on actual indifference instead of piles of money). And if you’ve gone into serious debt by attending college, afterward you’ll have noted that it’s the do-gooding NGO or the progressive magazine that expects you to take an unpaid internship, and the publishing house or academic department that offers you a pittance. Goldman Sachs and Google, which pay real salaries, seem in this sense less addicted to exploitation, and more interested in income redistribution, than the Nation or the Yale English department. And this is to speak as if everybody went to college, which of course they don’t. Recently the immortal Eric Hobsbawm voiced a familiar thought about the difficulty in creating a progressive coalition between “the educated, Guardian-reading middle class” and “the mass of the poor and the ignorant”: “It is possible for the poor to identify with multimillionaires, as in the United States, saying, ‘If only I was lucky, I could become a pop star.’ But you can’t say, ‘If only I was lucky, I’d become a Nobel Prize winner.’” Everybody knows about American Idol, but where did Paul Krugman and Toni Morrison try out? Likewise, it’s probably easier for most people to imagine how you start Wal-Mart (you open a store) or come to head up CentCom (you enlist in the army) than how you get to be editor of the New Yorker.
And yet if these days the cultural elite is more impenetrable than any other, it can’t be by much. Proportionally, there aren’t many more Horatio Algers of Washington or Wall Street than of the Harvard faculty or the Times masthead. If the Senate is no longer so exclusively the haven for the idiot sons of rich men described by Tip O’Neill, this is chiefly because the rich no longer see why their sons should have to grow up before idiocy reigns. As for corporate boards, these consist mostly of parents of rich kids, who were once rich kids themselves. Class mobility in the US peaked around 1980, and has been on a downslope ever since. A child here is likelier to remain in his parents’ social class than one in Europe, though there too the trend toward mobility has been reversed. It’s the US armed forces, pop stardom, and professional sports that confer prestige and power in the most egalitarian ways. Otherwise it’s an elitist society with a meritocratic alibi that we’re running.
How does this work? For a century and more, the university degree has been the vital bourgeois credential. The same Hobsbawm wrote in his classic history of the 19th century — the bourgeois century — that, starting in the 1880s, “the chief indicator of social membership increasingly became, and has remained, formal education.” In what they call the classic age of capitalism, this hadn’t yet been the case; the bourgeoisie earned money, not diplomas. But once the upper middle class consolidated itself, a degree became what a patent of nobility had been for the aristocracy, establishing who was in and who was out.
The effects in the US were contradictory. On the one hand, colleges, in their role as four-year drinking clubs for rich boys, knit their alumni into a WASP mafia pledged to socioeconomic self-preservation. Distinctive speech, sports, and garb set them off from the general population, never talent. But as historians have noted, the WASPs were winningly cavalier about their reproduction as an elite. This is evidently what happens when a ruling class consists one half of heavy drinkers and depressives, and the other half of sincere egalitarians: poof! The rise of the SAT (a project of two Harvard presidents), the postwar commitment to “need-blind admissions,” the GI Bill — all of this transformed the universities into the main device of social mobility in the US, world leader in mass higher ed. The university has always both consolidated social class and eroded social class. Crudely, from 1880–1930 the consolidation function was dominant; from 1930–80, erosion increasingly crumbled the bourgeois palisades; and since 1980 or so, while considerable erosion still goes on, consolidation now counts for more.
A few well-known causes of the change lie outside the universities themselves. The obscenely undemocratic model by which public schools are funded by local property taxes means that kids tend to be better educated (and college-admissions counseled) in wealthier school districts, not to mention private institutions. And the SAT, having once upon a time, for all its bias and flaws, compelled the recognition that the inheritance of brains and dollars are independent variables, has been bent to different purposes by the private tutoring that rich families use to Photoshop the cognitive portraits of their ADD offspring.
The main reason, though, why universities are today more elitist than meritocratic is simply that going to one costs so much. Overall inflation since 1980 is 179 percent, while the price of a college education has risen by an astonishing 827 percent. Income distribution has skewed radically toward the rich across the same period. These days one year at a private college consumes less than a fifth of the income of a family in the wealthiest quartile. The same year, even after financial aid, would cost a family from the poorest quartile four fifths of its income. Meanwhile college grads earn 83 percent more than high school grads, and those with advanced degrees, 159 percent more.1
Over the past generation, in other words, US higher education went from being the main lever for equality to being the laboratory in which the elite — in the broadest sense — clones itself. During the era of high growth rates and spreading prosperity from the end of World War II to 1973, the American upper middle class was content to let its membership expand along with the economy, hence the primarily meritocratic role of the universities in the so-called Golden Age of capitalism. With the return, in the ’70s, of slower growth and worse recessions, the upper middle class began to close ranks, and the universities, pulling shut the iron gates around their leafy quads, decisively aided in the process. Hobsbawm on the late-19th-century university might as well be describing the neoliberal campus of the early 21st: “Its main function was not utilitarian, in spite of the potential financial returns from trained intelligence and specialized knowledge. . . . Schooling provided above all a ticket of admission to the recognized middle and upper zones of society.”
Still, elitism, that widespread term, usually refers to a much narrower phenomenon than just a fancy education. Recall that in 2004 the educational backgrounds of the cultural elitist John Kerry (St. Paul’s, Yale) and the cultural populist George Bush (Andover, Yale) were remarkably similar. Kerry’s elitism signified not that he had gone to such schools but that he appeared to have learned something there, including — l’inutile beauté — French. The ineducable Bush meanwhile suggested solidarity with the uneducated. A Harvard MBA merely proved that any interest he had in knowledge was purely mercenary. In a business society where mercenary motives constitute a kind of innocence — It’s my fiduciary responsibility to increase shareholder value is our I was just following orders — this much could be forgiven.
The mercenary or commercial consideration seems crucial. The elitism charge mostly exempts those who’ve been to expensive colleges so long as they’ve only learned how to make money there. This absolves not only CEOs but doctors and lawyers, provided they don’t engage in humanitarian work. (Are medicine and law considered “elitist” because rich people can afford better doctors and lawyers than the non-rich, as well as more easily become doctors and lawyers? No private tutoring required to guess the answer is no.) The term even spares Ivy-garlanded culture producers who earn a lot of money making movies and TV programs that people without a lot of money or education enjoy watching.
Who, then, is guilty of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society.
The funny thing about such cultural antielitism is how steeped in the work of the left-wing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu all “real Americans” would appear to be. Bourdieu’s Distinction famously unmasked “good” or distinguished, educated taste as so much “cultural capital,” a mere panoply of status markers. To favor a more challenging type of book, a less strictly tonal sort of music, a less representational kind of painting — or, more to the point today, a less completely shitty grade of film product — mostly demonstrated that you came from a higher social class. And many Americans have come to agree. So when Al Gore said his favorite book was Stendhal’s Red and the Black, this could be boiled down to mean, You know what? I’m an upper-class guy who went to Harvard. Of course, everyone with power in America is an upper-class guy who went to Harvard. But this isn’t held to be the problem.
The noxious thing about the cultural elite is supposed to be its bad faith. Everyone else in America more or less forthrightly confesses that they’re trying to grab as much money as they can, and if somebody has meanwhile forced a liberal education on them, that doesn’t mean they’ve had to like it. Upon making their money, real Americans are furthermore honest enough to spend it on those things that evolution or God have programmed humans to sincerely enjoy. In winter recreation, this might be snowmobiling — genuine petroleum-burning fun! — as opposed to cross-country skiing, a tedious trial of aerobic virtue. In wintry Scandinavian literature, it might be Stieg Larsson rather than Knut Hamsun. Oppositions of the same kind — between untutored enjoyment and the acquired taste — can be generated endlessly, and are. Half the idea is that genuine, honest people differ not so much in their tastes as in their economic ability to indulge those tastes; there exists an oligarchy of money but no aristocracy of spirit. The other half is that less sincere people — elitists — lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts. Instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background, they pretend to like boring books, films, and sports. Cynical common sense, a draught of table wine Bourdieu, permits you to see through this maneuver.
An apparent political lie often corresponds to the one about taste. Take Walter Berglund at the end of Franzen’s Freedom (where the culture wars usually mediated by the media are waged in a face-off of neighborly harassment). Tragicomically, Walter tries to get his neighbors to outfit their cats with bibs, to protect the local songbirds. Ostensibly he is agitating for a better world. But his SUV-driving neighbors feel that he is mostly showing off, exhibiting himself as a better person with superior values. Instead of saying I have a deep neurotic craving to regard myself as a good man — a confession that, as Franzen makes clear, would be true enough — Walter, so his neighbors feel, fancies himself a lover of birds, an environmentalist. (It was in college, of course, that he became obsessed with overpopulation.) To the vulgar Bourdieuvian, “progressives” mainly want to suggest they’ve achieved a kind of moral progress — thanks largely to a costly education — that nobody else has.
Never mind that Bourdieu was far more subtle than this in Distinction. The diffusion of a non-Bourdieu-reading-but-nevertheless-Bourdieuvian view of culture, including intellectual and political commitments, has spelled a real catastrophe. True, entrée to the universities and the culture-shaping professions they feed is distributed very unequally, and not that much according to merit. And, yes, culture under capitalism is never merely culture; it’s also always capital. But culture is also culture, with a positive content inside the class-bound form.
What would elite culture look like if you forgot about class for a second? Essentially an opposite point of view to Bourdieu’s was offered by Ortega y Gasset in his 1929 classic The Revolt of the Masses (which foresaw that European variety of politico-cultural populism known as fascism). The beautiful blindness of Ortega’s analysis was to ignore social distinctions in favor of existential differentiation. Aristocrat and mass man were, in his mischievous usage, not social categories at all but separate dispositions: “Doubtless the most radical division of humanity that can be made is that between two classes of creatures: those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be in every instant only what they already are.” The mark of superior people, in Ortega’s sense, is that they consider themselves inferior to what they may become. Self-improvement, for all that it smacks of the self-help shelf at Barnes & Noble, is also, in this way, the rallying cry of the only kind of elite worth having.
Ortega’s señorito satisfecho, on the other hand — the little satisfied mister — is perfectly content with the mediocrity he has already attained and the common-sense vision he already perceives. His education stands at an end before it’s begun. Conveniently he confuses formal democracy, or the equal right to an opinion, with a democracy of quality in which all views possess equal value — until some are proved superior by commanding a mob following. Today The Revolt of the Masses reads like an existential X-ray of the soul of Bush or Palin, creatures of different social classes who account their similar stuntedness an achievement. This is the antielitism of the elites — by no means confined to the GOP — whose adherents despise the knowledge that things could be better, that they themselves could be better. Meanwhile they secure the ruin of our country by insisting on its perfection.
Certain varieties of culture — and politics — are much more likely to get branded elitist than others. It’s striking, for instance, how few complaints one hears about the elitism of movie, TV, or pop music production, when these usually require millions of dollars to get off the ground. Equally few protests are uttered about the barriers to entry in running political advertisements. In fact it seems to be especially with reference to basically verbal spheres — spoken or written words addressed to a general audience, and politics as a matter of public debate rather than practical state coercion — that elitism most often comes up.
In some ways, this is strange. You can watch movies and listen to music for tens of thousands of hours without learning the first thing about directing films or composing songs, just as you can purchase a lot of meals or electronics without becoming a chef or an engineer. Language, on the other hand, once you grant universal literacy and mediatized standardization, is among the hardest resources to monopolize, especially now that the internet has rendered the costs of publication negligible. No one can read a lot without learning how to write, or pay close attention to articulate speech without becoming more silver-tongued himself. Language is that rare thing to be able to consume which is also to be able to produce it. This doesn’t mean that the garrulous universities, with their seminars, lectures, presses, and journals, and the logorrheic publishing world — in the widest sense of books and blogs and journals and newspapers — are today vehicles of a truly democratic culture. (Access to them is too undemocratic for that.) Still, the verbo- sphere they constitute is more actually and more potentially democratic than any other cultural sphere. Everybody reads and, these days, writes. Everybody talks and listens.
It’s educated language and egalitarian ideas that particularly elicit the accusation of elitism today, and particularly in combination. A paragraph snipped from a recent issue of the Nation offers an emblem of the age. Here a professional historian complains about the alleged contradiction between the great critic Perry Anderson’s radical democratic politics (“what counts now for him in Europe is the revival of popular politics and the struggle against growing economic inequality”) and his high-falutin’ vocabulary: “More discordant with his avowedly democratizing goals . . . is his prose. Connoisseurs of Andersoniana will enjoy recherché gems such as ‘amphibology,’ ‘capsizal’ and ‘conflictivity.’ . . . Such language stands as testimony to [the] elitism . . . of a small substratum of the postwar British left whose basically Leninist conception of radical politics led them to abjure too close a contact with the masses, whose ultimate victory they supposedly championed.”
Would it be too Stalinist to exile to Siberia anyone who thinks big words are Leninist? Because actually if you want to know what an amphibology is, the internet will tell you for free. Then — it’s amazing! — you can use the word yourself. It refers, says Wikipedia, to fatally ambiguous grammatical constructions like the used car dealer’s rhetorical question: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? The relevant amphibology for our discussion, then, would go something like this: The struggle for equality isn’t over, we still have a cultural elite. This could mean either that the lingering existence of a cultural elite testifies to the persistence of class privilege — or else that today the cultural elite is the only thing standing between us and the full spectrum dominance of the power elite. Both notions are true, but the latter truth has gone unadvertised.
One can see that developments in higher education formed part of the general capitalist crisis of the early ’70s. To make colleges less restrictive, on a class basis, had the unforeseen effect of making college students more, not less, opposed to the class basis of society at large. It was one of the brilliant moves of the right not only to brand higher education as an instrument of class domination, but to ensure that the educational system increasingly functioned in such a way as to make the accusation stick.
A truly democratic America, offering (among other things) universal higher education as well as equalized funding for primary and secondary schools, would still possess a cultural elite, but simultaneously a more talented and less resented one than we have — than we ourselves are — today. The resentful right, under the banner — hoisted alike by Beck, Huckabee, and Palin — of common sense, flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having. The violence this bigoted proposition has done to the talents and capacities of millions of people is incalculable, unforgivable. But of course the resentment of the class character of education thus mobilized is entirely legitimate. Only in a different and better and — why not say it? — more democratic socialist society could Bourdieu’s view of culture at last be supplanted by that of Ortega. Meanwhile, better than to vindicate elitism in so many words would probably be to adopt the humble program of self-improvement.