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Walter Russell Mead on our Oligarchical and Technocratic Elite

I am still busy with several posts and a couple of book reviews, none of which are finished and some offline activities. In the interim, Lexington Green sent me this post by Walter Russell Mead. It is long but brilliant, spot on and thoroughly devastating:

Establishment Blues

….By contrast, we have never had an Establishment that was so ill-equipped to lead.  It is the Establishment, not the people, that is falling down on the job.Here in the early years of the twenty-first century, the American elite is a walking disaster and is in every way less capable than its predecessors.  It is less in touch with American history and culture, less personally honest, less productive, less forward looking, less effective at and less committed to child rearing, less freedom loving, less sacrificially patriotic and less entrepreneurial than predecessor generations. 

 Its sense of entitlement and snobbery is greater than at any time since the American Revolution; its addiction to privilege is greater than during the Gilded Age and its ability to raise its young to be productive and courageous leaders of society has largely collapsed.

…We have had financial scandals before and we have had waves of corporate crime.  We have had pirates and robber barons.  But we have never seen a collapse of ordinary morality in the corporate suites on the scale of the last twenty years.  We have never seen naked money grubbing among our politicians akin to the way some recent figures in both parties have cashed in.  Human nature hasn’t changed, but a kind of moral grade inflation has set in and key segments of the American Establishment are increasingly accepting the unacceptable as OK.  Investment banks betray their clients; robo-signers essentially forge mortgage documents day after day and month after month; insider traders are lionized.   Free markets actually require a certain basic level of honesty to work; if we can’t be more honest than this neither our markets nor we ourselves will remain free for very long.

Many problems troubling America today are rooted in the poor performance of our elite educational institutions, the moral and social collapse of our ‘best’ families and the culture of narcissism and entitlement that has transformed the American elite into a flabby minded, strategically inept and morally confused parody of itself….

[ Emphasis mine]

….A leadership class is responsible for, among other things, giving a voice to the feelings of the nation and doing so in a way that enables the nation to advance and to change.  Most of the American establishment today is too ignorant of and too squeamish about the history and language of American patriotism to do that job.  In the worst case, significant chunks of the elite have convinced themselves that patriotism is in itself a bad and a dangerous thing, and have set about to smother it under blankets of politically correct disdain.

This will not end well.

Read the rest here.

I have written about the deficiencies of the elite before, mostly in their inability to think strategically and create a coherent foreign and national security policies but their increasingly oligarchical attitudes of favoring self-dealing fiscal, regulatory and social policies, at the expense of their fellow citizens or the national interest is cause for great alarm.For example a legion of recent national security officials from the current and previous administration, a few barely out of office, have just accepted large wads of lightly laundered Saudi cash to lobby on behalf of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, a nutty, cultish, Marxist terrorist group that formerly worked for Saddam Hussein. This with no sense of embarrassment or shame that they are putting a dingy cast on their prior public service or awareness that doing so conflicts with solemn oaths some of them have made to the Constitution of the United States. 

How many are also taking Chinese money, I wonder?

We need a new elite

24 Responses to “Walter Russell Mead on our Oligarchical and Technocratic Elite”

  1. Mercutio Says:

    We need, not to overthrow the old elites so much as to circumvent it.   E.g., the British royal family may be ridiculous, but it also is harmless.  America’s current elite needs likewise to be neutered.   Until and unless America’s elite is similarly neutered, it simply is too dangerous to be attacked.  The problems Quadaffi now is causing his challengers would be nothing compared to that which America’s elite could deploy against those who would challenge it. Essentially, our job is the painstaking and annoying task of setting up new institutions that actually get the job done while the current elite parties away.

  2. zen Says:

    Very Sun Tzu-ish advice.

  3. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Mead reads better than Codevilla because there’s no spittle on you after finishing the essay.

  4. J. Scott Says:

    This Tolstoy quote comes to mind: "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." This is an element of our dilemma with the elite as Mead points out: even if they acknowledge their complicity and their errors, they will probably continue to put self above all else—kind of like Romney trying to talk himself back from Romneycare. I’m encouraged that more and more elites are being exposed. The only difference between the Madoff confidence game that landed him in the pokey, and Social Security/Medicare is that the latter is kept alive via due process of the law—but both are confidence games; both defraud.

  5. Andy Says:

    Agree, that was the best thing I’ve read all week.  Also one of the most depressing.  I don’t think anything but a severe crisis will shake things up enough to prompt necessary changes.

  6. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    I’m not sanguine at all about the future of America.  By nature I’m an optimist but here I cannot be so.  Nonetheless, I think that Generation X, which is probably the last generation to avoid the mind-numbing self-esteemism that the Generation Y has been, and is currently being, drowned in.  As a rule, they are often poorer than their parents, who are currently the beneficiaries of the blooming entitlements programs.  And they are skeptical of power structures, which, these days, is not a bad thing.
    Gen X is a small cohort, much smaller than the boomers and Gen Y.  Perhaps they will bring a short-lived stability and perhaps a return to morality as well, especially as they move into the child-rearing years.
    But hold onto your hats for Gen Y.  That will be ugly…

  7. zen Says:

    You can blame me. Damnit. I hate it when my brain scrambles names. Will fix, all apologies to Dr. Mead.

  8. Pundita Says:

    Not to play wet blanket but it would be a huge help if the U.S. foreign policy establishment first learned to rely on analysts who could chew and walk.

    Case in point is Walter Russell Mead’s recent description of Pakistan’s relationship with China, which is so poorly informed it’s embarrassing – as embarrassing as the analysis he did last year on Pakistan.  That time he spent a few days in the country interviewing all kinds of Pakistani authorities and experts. Then he wrote up an analysis which omitted every truly significant factor about Pakistan including the caste system.

    This time, he clearly didn’t know that Pakistan’s military has always had a close relationship with China’s bosses.  And yet his lecture was hailed by the Business Insider as "The column everyone is reading about Pakistan."  Unfortunately the Insider is right.  Mead is one of those opinion experts Washington turns to when it needs to say something that sounds informed when it holds forth on Sunday morning TV talk shows and pressers about a foreign relations issue.  Forget the fact that an expert may know nothing about the issue. 

    Another case in point is Robert D. Kaplan, who got ahead of the pack by coming up with a grand strategy for the U.S. in South Asia in his book,  Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.   An Indian who read the book commented (at Foreign Policy, if my memory serves) regarding his statements about the monsoon, ‘But but he doesn’t know anything about the monsoon,’ or words to that effect lol why am I laughing it’s not funny.

    Then there were the geniuses in the U.S. military who got it into their heads that the way to  victory in Afghanistan was to take the advice of some guy who’d lived out of his car in Berkeley before he’d batted around Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus, we got Stanley McChrystal ramming three cups of tea down the throats of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and ordering them to act as if they worked for the LAPD.  

    The only NATO contingent that showed any sense during the height  of  POPCOIN (population-centric counterinsurgency) was the German one, which reportedly confined itself largely to barracks and called in air strikes whenever the natives got restless. This caused some civilian deaths but prevented Germans from being blown to pieces after they’d finished drinking the third cuppa with the natives.

    I could go on in this vein for the next hour but to wind it up:  I understand that Mead is making a sweeping indictment and talking about much more than foreign policy, but before tackling the big stuff, let’s start by confronting the fact that expert opinion became a white-collar industry.  So whether or not one is qualified to hold forth on a topic, if the right think tank or university is speaking and has the right access in Washington, it’s guaranteed to get a hearing.

    By many twists and turns this led to where we are today: with the U.S. military falling victim to hoaxes  — not only Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea,  which turned out to be full of exaggerations and outright fabrications, but also the Mullah Mansur hoax that the ISI pulled off.

    We’re not going to be able to rout a corrupt and immoral elite unless we re-acquire something that once upon a time was practically an American’s birthright:  common sense. 

    How to pull off this feat? I submit it’s not so much an elite group of universities running things or even the university system that’s most responsible for the withering of common sense in this country since WW2.   I suspect it’s the application of the system too soon in a person’s life that’s the culprit. 

    There is an American named Paul Glover; some of his ideas have (I suspect) been ‘borrowed’ by Greens and Leftists and even by the Locavare movement.  He’s never written out his entire philosophy; he’s a kind of Yankee Tinkering Genius type who’s too busy coming up with practical solutions to commit the underlying concepts to writing.   But from what I’ve gleaned from his writings and life story, envisions the United States as a series of interconnected nodes that can be self-sufficient when necessary.   That puts him  maybe a century ahead of his time.  

    How did he come to such an idea?  Partly because he walked from one end of this country to the other, to get a real feel for America. He walked from Boston to San Diego; it took him months. Now there’s a novel idea:  getting to know your country before planning on how to help it   The other part is that while he did get a college education, before that he’d become a master of many trades. 

    .   I think if all but certain types of people (e.g., intellectuals, mathematicians, teachers by temperament, etc.) are put too early through the university system of education, IMHO it can strip them of the life experiences and thinking styles that are the bulwark of common sense.  

  9. Mercutio Says:

    To follow through on my prior post, a good working model for the day-to-day, routine approach to neutering the current elites is Jeeves in the PG Woodehouse comedies. Although nominally inferior, Jeeves actually is in charge of the situation, everyone else depends upon him, and he winds up getting what he wants.  He is inside everyone else’s OODA loops.   For those who insist on referring to the French Revolution and the Versailles analogy, the character Figaro likewise serves as a model.

  10. sro Says:

    WRM is a perfect example of those being ill-equipped.

    "But we have never seen a collapse of ordinary morality in the corporate suites on the scale of the last twenty years. "

    Complete, 100% wankery.  The idea this got out of control in 1991 is beyond infantile.

    Are there really people who are so stupid they thought Reagan and Friedman would lead us to something other than this reality?

    "take the advice of some guy who’d lived out of his car in Berkeley"

    Ah, the der dolchteeglastoss meme.  Brilliant, I’m off to troll Redstate with that one.

  11. Pundita Says:

    Nobody stabbed anybody in the back, and the POPCOIN debacle is too well documented for anyone to claim that’s what happened.   So if you’re looking for the phrase to sum up POPCOIN in Afghanistan, how do you say, "Shooting oneself in the foot" in German?       

  12. Seerov Says:

    "We need a new elite" (zen)
    Zenpundit, does your bourgeois nature allow you to truly understand what you wrote here? 
    Who are "we" by the way?

  13. Seerov Says:

    Also, who are the elite?  What are their spiritual beliefs?  Where are they clustered geographically?  What is the "nature of their game?"

  14. zen Says:

    Advent of a "Bourgeois"society, ancient or modern, usually represents the apex moment of a civilization, when men live free instead of having their lives dominated by the tribe, caste, throne and altar. That should be enough to figure out the "we" and "they".

  15. Dan Nexon Says:

    I’m not sure about that ‘inability to teach Patriotism’ thing. We’re talking about a reinterpretation of Patriotism in terms of unbridled self-interest rather than civic virtue. But, at a deeper level, I think this may be tied to the slow (but accelerating) death of liberal arts education and its replacement with a "what skills and tools will you acquire" approach — one which is, sadly, even getting built into the process of accrediting colleges. 

  16. sro Says:

    Greg Mortensen’s work is more real and nuanced than any strategy the US military has originated in Afghanistan:

  17. zen Says:

    Hey Dr. Dan,
    " But, at a deeper level, I think this may be tied to the slow (but accelerating) death of liberal arts education and its replacement with a "what skills and tools will you acquire" approach — one which is, sadly, even getting built into the process of accrediting colleges."
    Full agreement.
    At heart, it is an oligarchic strategy to deprive a large swath of the population of a systemic opportunity to acquire critical thought by turning most universities into vocational schools. There’s nothing wrong with vocational ed per se but not as a replacement for a college education.
    And this trend is hand in glove with the ferocious drive to impose a concrete thinking/ history and science free/remedial-rote-testing model as a national k-12 curriculum to make certain that even affluent suburban areas cannot have alternative educational models that are not based on private tuition ( Homeschooling, to the surprise of homeschoolers currently cheering the attacks on teachers, will be promptly killed by Federal and state regulations once the public schools are under the control of educational contractors to prevent homeschooling from becoming a middle class mass escape hatch. Just watch). 
    Most of the folks advocating these things aren’t bright enough themselves to realize that’s what they are doing – they are in it for the prospect of making a buck as contractors or attacking a social class ( academics) seen as political enemies.  But the billionaires and politically connected, young Ivy league MBAs orchestrating the show certainly do.

  18. Seerov Says:

    Zen, the Bourgeois stage is merely just "good times" with the leftover equity and capital remaining from the founding tribe’s, caste’s, race’s, throne’s and/or altar’s material and spiritual progress.  It will run out (it is running out).   
    More important(!), don’t think for a second that this elite (that you speak of replacing) don’t themselves live according to their own tribal, spiritual, fraternal, and aristocratic rule-sets. At the same time,  these elite sell the bourgeois its own spiritual identity through the information systems (entertainment media, news media, education).  The "princesses" of the bourgeoisie can be found on every suburban school-girl’s bedroom wall.  
    Real power is the in-group’s ability to keep the ‘other’ (out-group) living according to the in-group’s narrative.  The in-group (transnational elite) provide the mythology for the others (the global masses) so that they can achieve their larger goals.  This same dynamic exists on the individual level (think of the abusive man who makes the woman believe that she is piece of shit who deserves to be beaten).  Meanwhile the elite live according to their own tribal, spiritual, monarchical, and social class rule-sets which allow them to answer the Iron Question:  "Is it good for the _____" fill in the blank (?) when deciding how to position for their interests.   
    When the equity and capital runs out, (as described above) then all the bourgeois has to fall back on is 6 foot vinyl privacy fences (unless they foreclose).   
    The elite allow the bourgeois to exist precisely because it doesn’t maintain tribal, class, spiritual, racial, etc loyalties.  They can count on them to be motivated by improving their neighborhood, car, kitchen, title, whatever, while the elite take care of each under their own symbolic-system.  The bourgeois is the perfect tool for a parasitical elite to juice a population.  They tell you "diversity is strength" (and you say "as long as someone can afford the house next to me they must be alright")  while their communities, organizations, and planning meetings share the same demographic profile as Buckingham Palace.    
    With the right leadership, I do have hope for the bourgeois.  I realize most people are meant to follow and there is nothing wrong with that.  The current elite insist on force integrating the West with the "developing world" for the bigger global cattelization project. The elite are organized and prepared to pursue their tribal, spiritual, fraternal, social class interests.  They have an endgame which features their God’s eye standing watch over all of us.  But they also produce a narrative that makes you out to be the enemy of humanity if you pursue your own tribal, spiritual, and communal interests?  I wonder why? 

  19. Seerov Says:

    "I realize most people are meant to follow and there is nothing wrong with that." (seerov may18th0149am)
    Of course, I’m not implying Zenpundit be a follower.  This blog facilitates important discussions and a blog like this is not a follower’s enterprise. 
    Just thought I’d point that out. 

  20. zen Says:
    Hi Seerov,
    No offense taken.
    "Zen, the Bourgeois stage is merely just "good times" with the leftover equity and capital remaining from the founding tribe’s, caste’s, race’s, throne’s and/or altar’s material and spiritual progress."
    In a word, no.  Your premise here is incorrect, or at least we are using the word "bourgeois" to describe two different groups of people. 
    The "bourgeois" as a class represent economic dynamism of creative destruction, not neatly manicured lawns, Starbuck lattes and plasma screen televisions gotten on credit from Best Buy.  Tribal and aristocratic societies collect wealth, and frankly not very much of it, but they are terribly inefficient at creating it and as a result, are usually desperately poor and backward. Ancient Athens was an inconsequential polity under it’s aristocracy and tyrants and a naval superpower and commercial empire under Solonic Democracy, which empowered common Athenians to produce and accumulate without being defrauded by a predatory overclass. Great Britain grew wealthier as the commons strengthened and vestigial feudalism was replaced by a market and rule of law, the shopkeeping class and the manufacturers weren’t looting the Peerage.
    Our emergent oligarchy are for economic game-rigging, stasis, technocracy and implicit caste to freeze themselves on top. They are tax-farmers at heart, like the ancient tribal chiefs or village priests or French noblemen of the ancien regime. They hate real economic mobility and liberty because they and their progeny have nowhere to go but down.
  21. Seerov Says:

    I thank for your comment.  I guess my point from the beginning would have been better served not using the word "bourgeois?"  There is this "class" of sorts in America who are very misinformed and who are very influenced by media.  These people don’t want any problems.  They care about career, house size, status, but also family.  They generally don’t think about complicated subjects very deeply.  They watch Chris Mathews or O’Reily and then they think they know something.  They’re generally more interested in the NFL, or drinking beer on the weekends, or maybe entering their 3 year old children into beauty contests.
    If you really want to replace the elite, how do you expect to win these masses to your side?  The current elite have media power that can vilify anyone.  They have more military power than anyone in history.  They have organizations that do nothing else but make life hard for people who wish to change their order.  
    How far are you willing to take this?  I believe you’re an educator of some kind?  Are you ready to be on the 11 o’clock news in your town being framed and portrayed as an "extremist?"  Are you willing to see your family harassed?  I’m sorry to be so blunt but if you’re truly talking about getting rid of the current elite, you should know that they strongly disagree!  They’ve been around longer than you think and they’ve dealt with tough times before.  And, as I studiously explained above, they organize by tribe and spirit and it is strengthens them as they create "order out of chaos." 
    So "bourgeois" is probably a bad term.  But I don’t believe that these people (whatever we call them) are capable of the struggle you insinuate purely under the flag of commerce.  Something else has to move them?  Remember, you’re talking about removing the most powerful people ever, who have the most advanced technology ever.  They will bring suffering down upon those who question their authority.  
    I don’t know if you’re "bourgeois" or not?  But I do wonder what your answer would be if you were offered a high level job (that really interested you) in an agency or a company with the stipulation that you stop writing about getting rid of the elites?     

  22. zen Says:

    You greatly overestimate both my influence and the attractiveness of a sixth tier appointee position. 
    No one would offer me such a job and it’s just not worth the huge hassle involved, unless you intend to use a grunt policy position for $85 -105 k as a "pay your dues" rung on a ladder to climb higher ( that’s partly why there’s a huge hassle, to deter non-careerists from public service). Ehhh, not for me, thanks. I know ppl who have worked and do work for the WH in this and prior administrations or at particular agencies and why they quit for the private sector. It’s just not that great.
    I think the elite ought not be viewed like, say, the Soviet nomenklatura or the Catholic hierarchy just prior to the Reformation. They don’t have that kind of homogeneity and discipline (yet). They’re a politically divided amalgam of factions that grafted themselves on to the Eastern Establishment in the 70’s and 80’s when that elite morally collapsed over Vietnam; they are fragilely united by social, educational and business ties but it is an uneasy mix. They never really fused as a class, the newcomers never internalized the Old Elite’s mores nor were the old mores formally rejected. Instead, they watered them down and added political correctness with varying degrees of hypocrisy.
    The problem with the elite is the decline of their collective virtue (Roman sense) and the good news is that the state of affairs bothers some members of the elite themselves, Mead being a case in point, is stating openly what many of them say privately. You can divide them ethically into those who see the need for self -reform, a complacent plurality and those whose self-dealing is so egregious and at odds with the elite’s own informal rules of the game, loose as they are, that they are making the rest nervous by agitating the public/killing the golden goose. We need to flip the majority of the elite against the greedy and stupid worst elements, not cause them to close ranks to defend the worst of their own from the rest of us.

  23. Seerov Says:

    This subject of the elites and their "game" is without a doubt an important subject.  The range of "explanations" regarding these people can be mind blowing.  There’s a man from England who claims these elite are actually reptilian aliens with interdimensional travel and shape shifting capabilities.  The funny part is watching what people actually get most offended by his speculations! (they think "reptilian" is actually a "code word") !   
    I’ll try to break down my main point that I hope anyone reading this would take away. 
    When thinking about the subject of the elite, remember that they have a spiritual, tribal, fraternal, economic network that it positions with to reach its goals.  It believes very much that it has the right to impose its symbolic-system on the earth’s people (maybe beyond?).  It has a chain of command that we can only speculate on who truly sits at the top (what’s the nature of his game?).   
    Any people who remove and replace the current elite will also need to have a spiritual, tribal, fraternal, economic network.  They’ll need a strong belief in the their own mythology and destiny and also have the WILL to stand up to an elite who’ve been running things since at least the Holy Roman Empire.  They’ve had a good thousand years to improve their positions.  In the Infantry of the US Army they teach you to always improve your position the longer you stay in that location.  These people (the elite) have had a good thousand years (some speculate even longer but that’s sort of dicey stuff for this blog) to improve their positions. 
    So I’ll go on a limb and make a prediction:  If the current elite ever do get dethroned, I predict that the people doing the dethroning will have its own spiritual, tribal, and scientific symbolic-system in which it organizes in order to accomplish its mission. These people will also believe that their mission was allocated by the creator of the universe (just as the current elite do).   
    A group organized purely on commercial interests (right) and/or "social progress" (left) will not have the WILL to topple the current elite. 

  24. Seerov Says:

     If the current elite ever do get dethroned, I predict that the people doing the dethroning will have its own spiritual, tribal, and scientific symbolic-system in which it organizes in order to accomplish its mission. (SEEROV)

    Since it is very unlikely that such a group exists at this time, we may have to learn to live with this transnational elite?  More important THEY HAVE TO ACCEPT THAT NOT EVERYONE IN THE WORLD WANTS TO LIVE ACCORDING TO THEIR "RULES-SETS" (Or their SYMBOLIC-SYSTEMS) . The most important human right is the right to live according to your "narrative" and be able to express it freely.   
    This current Anglo-American-Judeo elite (geographically concentrated in NY, Hollywood, DC, London, Israel, and other parts of Anglo-sphere and Western Europe) believe they have the right force integrate the Western world with the "developing world." They also believe that they have the right to use kinetic military power pretty much anywhere in the "developing world."  Westerners are used to deliver military power in the developing world while the people from the developing world are used to force integrate European derived peoples and spaces from the map (except the elites themselves, they and their institutions are pretty much "white"). 
    I’m pretty sure international law prohibits force integrating populations and unilateral military power?  And since there probably isn’t a single force (rival elite) on earth powerful enough to dethrone this elite, perhaps the people of the West and the people of the developing world should consider discussing their common interests?  We can learn to respect each other’s way of life and refuse to be enemies of each other when it is both of us (Western and Developing world folks) who are being hoodwinked by the same transnational elite. 
    There’s a enough space on this earth for everyone to live according to their own symbolic and scientific systems.  This should be humanity’s mantra when approaching issues at any scale (personal -> local -> global -> galactic). 

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