A Reintroduction of the New Elite
Recently I read Nina Randmann’s article “The Irony of the New Rich”. In this she makes the interesting argument that it is only relatively recently that our society has begun to build the wealth and power that the people at the top are now enjoying. In fact, she points out that the history of American society, so far, goes back to the days of the gentry.
The gentry families were a product of the common man. They were not the source of all wealth in America but they did help build the wealth. During the first and second centuries, they were a major force in creating wealth. As those centuries ended and their influence waned, as they passed on, wealth then became concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of rich people.
What was so fascinating about the new affluent was that they were not the people of power or high authority. Indeed their power and influence were as restricted as the power and influence of the middle and lower classes. In fact they were merely middle class people who, at the time, were not yet in the ranks of the wealthy.
Why did the book deal with the gentry of the eighteenth century? Nina Randmann explained, “Wealth that comes from one class of people gets divided among many. These ranks are themselves much smaller than the very top. The very wealthy get richer while the rest of us get poorer.”
She was interested in the book’s theme because, “Rich people have a way of building on their wealth, a way of concentrating more power in fewer hands.” She thought that this could be caused by the fact that the middle class had almost disappeared and that the working class was not any more empowered. In the book she made a number of references to what she called the paradox of power. There was power in the upper classes, but it had become concentrated in the hands of the small minority.
She argued that it is not simply the existence of the new elite that is problematic but the manner in which that elite exercise their power. They were different from other types of wealth and power holders. They were not undemocratic. They did not abuse power, they just did not exercise the power to take over the entire political system.
Not only were they not undemocratic, they were not in control of the power that was in their hands. As such they had to rely on compromise, party politics and modern social and economic engineering. By the end of the twentieth century, according to Randmann, the wealth was being divided in a manner that was impossible under any other circumstances. That is why they were getting richer, she said, but had lost their ability to act as a single unit and were therefore increasingly unstable.
She argued that there had to be a more powerful concentration of power within the upper class to keep them together and keep them from becoming a mob of losers who could take over the whole country. The problem with the elite class as they are presently constituted is that they are not seen as the single factor responsible for their success. They are seen as a certain type of person who happens to be in power.
Those people in power, by definition, are those with a very high level of education and many others are attracted to their positions. If you are already well educated, you are likely to continue to climb the corporate ladder and if you have some money you can move from job to job. But those who do not have power, those who are unemployed or on low incomes or who are living in working class areas are locked out of the career ladder.
For some people the idea of holding some form of power may seem attractive. But they are in danger of losing the belief that the powers above them can actually be trusted. The idea of the upper class now as they were then, being able to exercise some form of power, that is, the notion that they could make decisions on behalf of their community or group has been shattered.
She argued that there was a need to reintroduce the idea of the new elite. They would have to be seen as part of the democratic process rather than of a separate strata of people who could exercise power on their own. Only then would there be an opportunity to change the attitudes of the voters.