The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

In Part 5 I discussed Hannah Arendt’s view of the role of the elites in the rise of fascism. She defines the term elites as the artists, composers and intellectuals in Germany and Austria in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. We use the term “elites” more broadly today. Depending on the context, it might mean some or all of the following:

1) a few very rich people. This group is described by Robert Reich as

…the major corporations, their top executives, and Washington lobbyists and trade associations; the biggest Wall Street banks, their top officers, traders, hedge-fund and private-equity managers, and their lackeys in Washington; the billionaires who invest directly in politics; and the political leaders of both parties, their political operatives, and fundraisers.

2) the people whose views are most respected in some scientific field or some academic area;

3) pundits, writers, media people, and the talking heads and experts who appear in their outlets. The experts themselves fall into two categories. One group comes from academia, and generally are actual experts. The other comes from think tanks, national issue-oriented organizations and other holding pens where they try to influence policy and wait for an opportunity to move into government.

4) top government people, including those in the legislature and their top staffers, top administration officials and of course, the President. This group also includes members of the deep state, the permanent group of military and security officials and bureaucrats who stay on election to election.

Taking these groups together, we have a working definition of the Establishment, and by separating them along the lines of their political party identifications, we have the Republican and Democratic Establishments.

You’ll note there is no mention in my list of artists or composers, and no mention of “intellectuals”. We have a complicated relationship with any kind of intellectualism, as Richard Hofstadter explains in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a book I read in college, reread later, and kept, I thought, until I went to look for it. Nicholas Lemann discussed it in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, from which the following is taken.

It helps in understanding Hofstadter to know what [Hofstadter] takes intellectualism to mean. Here is a passage that comes as close as any in the book to a definition:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

I’m not sure how well that definition works with Arendt’s general description, but there certainly was a group of intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th Century, and I think there would be general agreement on its members. Today, we don’t actually have many intellectuals in that sense. Instead, we have experts, people wired into the economic and social structure who are thought to have special expertise in some area of study. Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit wrote a book about this issue, Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. This is from a review in the Economist:

He starts off by ruling out what most of us would take as archetypal intellectuals: scientists who explain science to lay people (eg, Steven Weinberg), philosophers with an influential vision of society (eg, John Rawls or Robert Nozick) and literary intellectuals of high Bohemia (eg, Susan Sontag). No, his public intellectuals are really pundits: people who opine about issues of the day on television or in newspaper columns. On the theory that if it’s real it must be countable, he ranks what he calls the top 100 on the basis of scholarly citations, media mentions and web hits.

Here’s Posner’s expanded list of over 600 public intellectuals. Arendt made the list, and it’s fun to see the people who are quoted or sought on the internet 15 years ago; for example, David Brooks and David Broder are there, next to each other. Posner says the problem is that the then current crop of pundits (who are a subset of that list) is really bad at opining. As you would expect from the founder of the Law and Economics movement, he explains this with simplistic ideas about supply and demand. He says there are too many commentators, and that they are not held accountable for their errors, which is obviously true.

There have been a number of studies of the ability of experts to predict the future. In this review in the New Yorker Louis Menand (also on the list, and deservedly) discusses Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip Tetlock, a Berkeley psychologist and researcher. It turns out experts aren’t good at predicting the future either in their own fields or in other areas.

Posner is quite right that those who spout what Paul Krugman (on the list) calls zombie ideas are never held accountable for being totally wrong. Instead, their views are considered highly valuable by policy makers. This, of course, shows how badly Posner has missed the real problem. Pundits and experts who shriek about deficits and inflation in today’s economy are prized by those who serve the interests of the rich, and who provide their PR.

Until the last few years, the elites have generally agreed on policies on most issues. You can see a good example in the way the New York Times discusses the refusal of the Republicans to govern, as in this astonishing piece by Jennifer Steinhauer. The destruction of institutional norms that once made government work under our ancient Constitution is now perfectly normal for our elites. For another, and more dangerous example, there is nearly universal agreement among the elites that prosecuting bank executives for their crimes that crashed the economy would not be possible. In fact, the elites generally agree that none of them can be held accountable for any of their actions, regardless of the damage done . We can no more punish Rick Snyder for poisoning Flint families than we could punish anyone for Iran-Contra or the top executives of American Water for failing to notice that the water they had privatized and sold to the people of Charleston WV was sickening. It mustn’t be done.

That kind of consensus indicates that the large bulk of our public intellectuals are completely indifferent to and unaware of the level of anger at the corruption that affects every aspect of our public lives. Zephyr Teachout explains corruption succinctly: the use of public office for private gain. Our elites refuse to accept this definition. There is no better proof that we need new elites.

Note: this post was updated by expanding paragraph 1) above.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

18 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    i don’t know this comment is very responsive, but it gives me a chance to make a point that has bothered me for, really, years and that i have never previously had an opportunity to voice.

    – the bankers, individuals, should have been prosecuted. there really can be no dispute of this.

    – the doj argument for not doing anything of that sort was that existing laws made it unlikely that a successful prosecution could be brought. that may be a legitimate legal reason, but in this context it severed merrly as a covering excuse for doj lawyers who were protecting bank executives because they were gov lawyers one year and the next year, defenders of bank executives.

    – now, finally, to the point i have wanted to make:

    you prosecute the banks’ leadership, beginning of coarse at the lower echons and working up, because you want to get to discovery.

    discovery, competently done, is better than conviction. discovery could uncover how the schemes, e. g. loans to poor folk without the standard underwriting, foreclosure opportunism, and the like, actually worked.

    what attorney general holder, crime honcho lanny breuer, and treasury secretary geithner did was nix any opportunity for us the citizenry to know who did what and how they did it in the great housing/derivatives con game.

    discovery, not conviction, should have been the goal.

    by “discovery” of course i’m refering to the legal process of taking testimony under oath.

    • orionATL says:

      well, well. whaddya know:

      on the importance of legal “discovery” to the political process and the reasons to avoid it:

      http://crookedtimber.org/2015/08/07/on-the-one-year-anniversary-of-the-steven-salaita-story-some-good-news/#more-36461

      [… Update (11:15 pm)

      After reading Leinenweber’s opinion, Brian Leiter affirms a point I’ve long been making about the threat of discovery:

      Thus, the court asked the question:  if the facts are as Salaita alleges, does he have a valid breach of contract claim, and the court gave that a resoundingly affirmative answer (coming pretty close to ridiculing the university’s position that there wasn’t really a contract).  The breach of contract and the First Amendment claims are Salaita’s most potent in terms of damages.  It was obviously agreed in advance that Chancellor Wise would step down given an adverse decision, presumably because the University knows that the outrageousness of her conduct will be exposed to view once discovery begins and presumably also thinking that it will be easier to settle with Salaita once they are rid of the University official who said, “We will not hire him.”  My bet is that, in order to block discovery, which would throw open to public view the bad behavior of many actors behind the scenes, and in order to avoid the damages attached to losing the breach of contract and First Amendment claims (which they would almost certainly lose, and for which the damages could easily amount to compensation for his entire career, i.e., 35 years of salary and benefits, plus additional damages for the constitutional claims), the University will now try to reach a settlement in which he is reinstated (subject to some face-saving terms for the University, like Salaita promising not to scare students in the classroom), and compensation is limited to damages for the last year plus his attorney fees.  This is a very good day for tenure, for contracts, and for free speech…]

      the case robin is talking about involves a palestinian-american professor named steven salaita who specializes in american indian history – the parallel to palestinians is precise in my mind – who was hired by univ of ill cham-urbana, then fired just before the semester began because he wrote angry tweets about the brutal treatment of palestinians by the israeli soldiers in the recent israeli suppression of gaza. the tweets were a pretext. salaita was fired because wealthy jewish contributors to the univ complained privately to the chancellor, phyllis wise.

      my point, again, is that the doj could have taken the bank executives and their minions to discovery. that would have been enough to inform the public and, maybe, trigger legislative action.

      • JamesJoyce says:

        DOJ is no Martin Luther…

        They are enablers bought by a Mafia entity. No reformation is possible with money now deemed speech and corporations people.

        The mold is cast. History will repeat.

      • JamesJoyce says:

        Yes… Jews behaving like Nazis does present a problem. It is a big blind spot for the oppressed who now oppress or use fear as fear was used against them.

        History sucks for the inconsistent hypocrite. It’s like a shit stain on white pants…

        Quite obvious, even for those blinded by a fascist right, but that ilk will just look away now as then.

        Human behavior is unchanged, only the names and players.

      • JamesJoyce says:

        Wise…

        Great case of the runs. Fascist always retaliate for political speech and expressions which do not meet miesteguizen standards.

        Nice to see a jurist reject fascist garbage, on its face. A wise decision.

    • galljdaj says:

      lil bush and his administration did ‘2 things’ the brought on the rape of the Nation.

      They raised the limits on Govt insured loans from 450 Thousand Dollars, to 750 Thousand Dollars.

      Second. They changed the regulations on what a ‘security investment’ is, to allow the bundling on loans into a buyer be ware security, thereby eliminating the laws on Fraud.

      Who did the bribe work is the real question.

    • orionATL says:

      what i think is missing in the world corey robin describes is the means for individual citizens waked by the word to effect change.

      how does any energized public change a policy in the u. s. a today?

      well, “should they” is one question that needs to be asked, keeping in mind such cries for action as a fence between mexico and the u. s., and the ceeding of control of public lands to economically interested ranchers living next to them.

      but assuming “yes”, then how?

      here we run into the problem of the imperviousness of our political masters (legislative, judicial, executive, lobbying) to political pressure from groups of citizens.

      once elected or appointed, a legislator or judge is impervious to demands to change – see the behavior of doj prosecutors and federal judges over the last 15 years re the bill of rights and re the seperation of powers.

      one suggestion to increase the chance of needed change happening and of public intellectuals, more precisely political intellectuals, being able to lead that change is a wide-ranging whistleblower statute, that and related laws that prevent governments and corporations from hiding their actions or intent.

      one of the key factors in maintaining power illigitimately is the suppression of information by threat of harm to individuals having knowledge to share and the public interest in mind to share it – snowden and assange, the man without a country and the hostage respectively.

      wide-ranging “no legal and no economic harm for disclosure” rules would drastically change our society for the better.

  2. JamesJoyce says:

    Nothing the corporate fascists of GERMANY offered became reality. It was a massive tobacco commercial…

    Wall Street has done same and continues….

    In fact watching certain series on history channels highlights how GERMANS seem like many Americans, unconcerned with atrocities committed in the name of preemption while loving the cheap gas, never mind inefficient constants and use of force to secure access to resources.

    Historical ignorance is a fist, which dazes and confuses those unconcerned with the past. It permits opportunists to advance predicated on fear…

    Take his coat…
    Shut him up…
    Punch him in the face…
    Take the oil…
    Take the coal …
    Put him in the cold….

    Intellects need not apply here. Soiled shirts are all that is required. Wall Street is a whore using fear to mitigate culpability in egregious crime.

    What’s next? A computer chip and a gravy train?

    “Until the last few years, the elites have generally agreed on policies on most issues. You can see a good example in the way the New York Times discusses the refusal of the Republicans to govern, as in this astonishing piece by Jennifer Steinhauer.
    The destruction of institutional norms that once made government work under our ancient Constitution is now perfectly normal for our elites. For another, and more dangerous example, there is nearly universal agreement among the elites that prosecuting bank executives for their crimes that crashed the economy would not be possible.

    In fact, the elites generally agree that none of them can be held accountable for any of their actions, regardless of the damage done . We can no more punish Rick Snyder for poisoning Flint families than we could punish anyone for Iran-Contra or the top executives of American Water for failing to notice that the water they had privatized and sold to the people of Charleston WV was sickening. It mustn’t be done.

    That kind of consensus indicates that the large bulk of our public intellectuals are completely indifferent to and unaware of the level of anger at the corruption that affects every aspect of our public lives. Zephyr Teachout explains corruption succinctly: the use of public office for private gain. Our elites refuse to accept this definition.

    There is no better proof that we need new elites.”

    This is the reason for first amendment protections. Elites have always burned Brunos and gotten away with it… Who holds our compromised elites accountable as we hold a banality of evil accountable, to this day?

    Nobody…

    WTFF?

  3. Tom S. says:

    Funny you should mention Nicholas B. Lemann, son of Thomas B., nephew of Stephen B. Lemann, a family described in the investigation files of NODA, Jim Garrison in May, 1967.
    You certainly would not know that if you were only acquainted with Nicholas B. Lemann’s
    anti Garrison article published in the January, 1992 edition of GQ Magazine. Lemann elected not to disclose his family background in the article, in his rebuttal to a letter to GQ Magazine
    submitted by Zachary Sklar, nor in Lemann’s answer to a defamation lawsuit resulting from the article.: http://jfkfacts.org/assassination/comment-of-the-week-17/#comment-858943

    I was very surprised to discover that a decade later, Lemann was appointed Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The background is that the brother-in-law of Nicholas B. Lemann’s father and uncle Stephen was David G. Baldwin, a former covert CIA agent described by Garrison’s assistant D.A., William R. Martin as an employee of Clay Shaw.
    http://jfk.education/images/WilliamMartinMay24.jpg

    Baldwin was also the godfather and first cousin of Jim Garrison’s wife, Liz, aka Leah Elizabeth Ziegler Garrison.: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-knckgt3ASNI/Vrd2i7xQ1aI/AAAAAAAACvo/5jaPhYc302k/s512-Ic42/BaldwinFirstCousinCarpenter.jpg

  4. Bay State Librul says:

    Good article.

    My definition of intellectualism is using fucking big words, instead of simplifying ideas for your readers.

    Like e·qui·poise –balance of forces or interests.

    What I like about Krugman is that he is a damn good writer.

    • martin says:

      quote”Like e·qui·poise –balance of forces or interests.”unquote

      Ha! I had to look it up too.
      note to self…use “equipoise” to confound wife when arguing over finances. However, be prepared for frying pan retort.

  5. bevin says:

    New elites?
    Or no elites.
    That is the question. The assumption shared by these elites is that elites are inevitable, whereas, in reality, they serve very specific purposes. They are the bodyguard of liars, half truth tellers, apologists and hagiographers who surround the principles of inequality in power, injustice in distribution and disregard for human rights, without which cannibalistic exploitation would not be tolerated.

    And their basic message-the bottom line in their pleadings- is that ‘elites’ and hierarchies, injustices and inequalities are inevitable; ordained eternally; part of human nature.
    Look at the members of these ‘elites’ and what becomes apparent is that the common quality they share is deference to power, a respect for the status quo and a resignation to the need to compromise with ‘reality.’

    That last is what, after all, Krugman et al, in his section of an elite which also comprises Cesar Chavez’s widow and John Lewis are urging upon the poor black voter: “Clintons are inevitable, make what peace you can with them We have and we anticipate great things from it.”

    Elites are not self selected by competition among the ‘gifted’ but recruited by ‘the powers that be’. Or, to put it another way-and advance towards explanation- by the ruling class which uses its political power, its command over ideology and, in the last analysis, violence to facilitate its exploitation of the mass of people, or 99% of them.

  6. Rayne says:

    Thanks for your ongoing work examining contemporary totalitarianism, Ed.

    One facet of elitism deserving review is privilege, which can be identified by the ability to choose, and the levels at which choice can be exercised with little personal cost.

    As an example, look at Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, his administration, and the state’s GOP-majority legislature. Snyder’s government chose to spend little on safe drinking water for Flint. The people of Flint had virtually no choice in the matter, taken away from them by the emergency manager forced on them by the governor and the state’s GOP-majority legislature. The elites were those who will never be exposed to Flint’s tap water, who made a choice without any worries they will be punished in a manner matching the damage wreaked.

    The luxe party Snyder threw for his wife in a public venue during the crisis was the epitome of privilege’s blindness to others’ suffering, quite literally “Let them eat cake” as children were poisoned. In this respect, elitism hasn’t changed much since the 18th century. Elites can make extravagant choices — to hell with the little people left with no choices at all.

    • Jonf says:

      I think you have a great point here. Elites are those who are able to get away with great harm, to put it bluntly. That harm can be the lead in the drinking water in Flint or the fraud that brought us the Great Recession ( and that we experience to this day) plus the ability to control resources. Yeah those resources that make themselves very wealthy and even more powerful. It helps that most people pay very little attention to these matters.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    David Brooks is not an intellectual. He is a member of the “elite” by virtue of his income, the traditional American way to join. He acquires his income of more than $1.5 million a year through the superficially agreeable way he advocates for right wing causes. His arguments are predictable and fatuous, his logic deceitful. His “facts” are carefully selected, often out of context; indeed he sometimes makes them up entirely. Mr. Brooks is engaged in rhetoric, not intellectual debate. He is an heir of Edward Bernays, not Richard Hofstadter.

    Hofstadter’s public intellectual went out of fashion beginning in the mid-1960s, about the time Ronald Reagan summarily dismissed Clark Kerr as head of the University of California. The three weeks in office governor became famous for his not so intellectual description of dissenters: they all looked like Tarzan, walked like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah. The Vietnam war was also hard on intellectuals, especially after so many lobbied Kissinger to end the war that he and Nixon often lied about and used to stay in office. It didn’t help that Kissinger, like Herman Kahn, an intellectual devoured by ambition, argued that full-scale nuclear warfare was winnable by the side with the most audacity. That argument worked about as well for French poilus going over the top into massed machine gun fire.

    Hofstadter’s public intellectual went out of fashion because being one required intelligently considering the many sides of an issue, in context, and forming a reasoned opinion about where truth lay – often far from the proverbial middle so nauseatingly espoused by today’s talking heads. The elites, their bankers, lawyers and lobbyists, and the politicians they sponsor, much prefer talking heads, who respond to money in a Pavlovian way. Public intellectuals? They are as easy to herd as cats.

    • orionATL says:

      thank you. a fine memorium.

      the problem, i think, is that individuals never are an “elite”, though that is a perfectly acceptable use of the term.

      an “elite” is really, where it really counts for effective action or change, a group of individuals.

      and yes, david brooks is merely a “nytimes intellectual”, whose real function, like that of russ douthat, maureen dowd, and others, is merely to satisfy the yearnings of a class of subscribers to hear what they have learned to expect from that columnist repeated back to them once again.

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