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Monday, October 01, 2012

The Circulation of the Elites

Vilfredo Pareto, after being a reformer interested in abolishing privilege for some time, finally realized that efforts at abolishing privilege never seemed to actually do so: they merely ensconced the leadership of that movement to abolish privilege themselves in positions of privilege. He called this "the circulation of the elites."

So let's say, as some friends of this blog wish, we successfully campaigned to eliminate "white privilege." (I put this in scare quotes because I think what we really have today is "people who act like upper-class whites privilege": the daughter of Chinese immigrants who goes to Yale and then Wharton is a lot more privileged than the white, single mother of three living in a trailer park in Appalachia: the Chinese woman has learned to behave like the "white" upper class, which once was indeed all white, but today will admit anyone who adopts their values and customs.) The result would not be an abolition of privilege; we would simply get a new privileged class consisting of those who led the revolt against "white" privilege. What revolution in history did not have such a result? The Roman Revolution gave us the Emperors; the American Revolution the Virginia Dynasty; the French Revolution the Reign of Terror and then Napoleon; the Russian Revolution the Communist Party apparatchiks. Is there a single counter-example to be found in all of history? If so, I am unaware of it.

What is possible, and has been achieved at times, is to get an elite that feels some solidarity with us ordinary folks, and tempers its self-interest with some concern for the public good. If we get that situation, it seems to me pure foolhardiness to strive to overthrow them because they still are privileged.

8 comments:

  1. Gene, can you provide examples of the latter?

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    1. Rome from 450-150 BC. Medieval Italian republics. England from 1550-1750. Switzerland today. Denmark today.

      Of course, this is merely to say, "To a greater degree than other times or places." It is no claim that any example I've cited was/is a utopia! You may go and list 50 abuses of privilege for each place; my point is, "Sure: at least it was not 500 abuses."

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    2. Marris, think of it this way: some elites *must* be better than others, given that they are all different. If you find yourself in a society with one of the better sorts, that's all you can hope for.

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    3. That's one of the nicer things about the American aristocracy. They tend to be self-effacing and decidedly less ostentatious than elites in other countries. Perhaps there's an element of self-preservation in their modesty and philanthropy, but it seems to ameliorate the angst that stems from inequality.

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  2. Hi Gene: I should & probably will blog about this piece, which will represent the end of me crashing on your blog couch all these months. Love the dip, BTW! But for now I'll suggest, re your scare quotes, that you think of white privilege, as a term, being the partial derivative of a complex social equation. SES matters. Educational attainment matters. Geography matters. Gender matters. Sexuality and sexual identification matter. And race matters. White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, cisgender privilege each obtain ceteris paribus. (The most powerful of them attain even when ceteris are well beyond paribus. But at minimum they work CP, like partial derivatives.

    So the immigrant daughter and trailer-park mama example isn't making a hash of white privilege as a concept. It's just showing points on the surface where the other terms in the social equation can be more telling.

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    1. Race matters, but... IF your behavior is flawlessly upper-class white today, then it would be to your advantage to be black. All the elite institutions will welcome you with open arms to demonstrate their lack of prejudice. (Of course they still are prejudiced: they're not going to hire someone who speaks Ghetto, or Brooklynese, or Appalachian to be a top executive!)

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    2. Hi Gene: There's an extent to which that is true. The extent to which it is true is white privilege in action.

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    3. OK, then we are just arguing over whether that is a good term to describe the situation we both see holding, and not about the facts on the ground.

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