Elite decline

This past week, I saw the phrase “elite decline” on Twitter, in these comments on Amy Chua’s testimonial for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and how she basically ratted on her own conflict of interest:

Just two days later, I happened upon another remarkably similar example:

Set aside all the other baggage accompanying this particular disgrace and with Mr. Musk in general. Set aside also his claim to “humanitarian” reasons. Here is a very rich person explaining that he gives money to politicians to buy himself priority access which the rest of us don’t get. He apparently did not consider this anything to be ashamed of.

“We’re at the stage of elite decline where they literally don’t know how they sound to ordinary people, where they have no idea that trading favors among the elite is corruption.” Where it just doesn’t occur to them that something should ever not be available for them to purchase.

Is this a change? Has it ever been fundamentally different? It sure seems like the idea of one fair standard, applied equally to all, once commanded more respect even if violations abounded in practice.

I don’t know. I do know that for all that it’s always popular to think of the system as corrupt, most Americans don’t even have any idea of the day to day, every transaction at every level corruption which can be found in many societies.

I can’t help suspecting instinctively that such corruption is deterred at least as much by a belief that it would be unacceptable, as by rules and enforcement institutions.

Is that belief endangered by elite figures discarding all pretense that there are standards which matter? By, e.g., a United States Senator* who avoids all contact with the ordinary constituents whom it’s his job to represent, yet brags about a one-on-one meeting with a very rich person who is not a constituent (but happens to be the president’s daughter)?

Maybe. Meanwhile, of course, the elephant in the room is that American culture is now being jammed on all channels 24/7 by an unprecedented corrupt authority figure, who is currently US president. It’s somewhat difficult to draw comparisons here, though, given that “slips” aren’t really even a thing when someone bellows and rages all the time, violently blending denunciations of corruption (on others’ part) with completely inappropriate admissions with complete nonsense, in a ballistic word-salad.

Is Trump part contributor, part symptom? The past few days also delivered a Guardian essay with this to say:

In a 2016 documentary titled HyperNormalisation, the filmmaker Adam Curtis created an expressionistic, montage-driven meditation on life in the post-truth era; the title was taken from a term coined by the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak to describe life in the final years of the Soviet Union, when people both understood the absurdity of the propaganda the government had been selling them for decades and had difficulty envisioning any alternative. In HyperNormalisation, which was released shortly before the 2016 US election, Curtis says in voiceover narration that people in the west had also stopped believing the stories politicians had been telling them for years, and Trump realised that “in the face of that, you could play with reality” and in the process “further undermine and weaken the old forms of power”.

There’s a dispiriting paradox in the suggestion that “people both understood the absurdity of the propaganda the government had been selling them for decades and had difficulty envisioning any alternative.” I feel like “understood” might not be the right word; perhaps it’s more the degradation of elite mechanisms for shaping popular belief. Possible reasons for which could become an entire book…

At all events, as confidence in a system—as something that even matters at all—is replaced by cynicism and suspicion, the result is by no means a revelation or awakening. Absent trust, absent the hope necessary for creativity to blossom, general “difficulty envisioning any alternative” is indeed likely.

Antonio Gramsci is often quoted as writing that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

I suppose that “elite decline” certainly goes along with the old order dying, and that thoughtless admissions of such is easily categorized as a symptom.

Meanwhile, I have already been speculating that attempts simply to stop the decline and restore what was seem futile. Inoffensive promises of reasonableness, moderation and restoring norms may offer tactical successes, for a while. In the larger picture, however, I think the future will only be won by something bigger and more dramatic than tape and bandages.

That’s my hunch.

* Not remarkably, the same US senator who does this.

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