I have been anxiously awaiting the public release of Chris Hayes’ book “Twilight of the Elites” (available at Powells, Amazon) for some time now, because this is a book that leaves one yearning for conversation, dialogue and, yes, debate, about its content. So for the tl;dr crowd, let me begin by saying this was a book I found so stimulating and immersive that I cannot wait to be able to discuss it with a larger audience.
An oft-photographed sign at OWS events is the much-quoted “SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT.” Hayes’s eminently well-written book outlines in a plethora of areas exactly why that is the case, and how we got there. Even if you think you are aware of the depth of the rot plaguing the highest levels of our society, you will likely earn a new level of outrage by reading this book.
At its heart, Twilight of the Elites is an indictment of the meritocracy—or what passes for it. A compelling revelation that comes early in the book is the bastard etymology of the very word “meritocracy.” The man who coined the term, Michael Young, did so in a book that was written as a satire, though not read as one by the general public.
Much of Twilight’s framework comes from the work of Robert Michels, whom Hayes invokes to attempt to explain how and why it is that “the pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and capital.” Michels, grimly, believed that “oligarchy is inevitable” and that any organization will inevitably breed hierarchy.
With this as our context, Hayes goes on to argue that a functioning meritocracy needs The Principle of Difference (the idea that natural hierarchies of talent exist) and The Principle of Mobility (there must be a selection process that rewards merit and punishes failure). The problem is that “eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic society will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility” and once that occurs:
Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.
In the ensuing chapters, we bear witness to a well-cited series of examples, stories and evidence of the erosion of meritocracy. Hayes illuminates well how “intensely competitive, high-reward meritocratic environments are prone to produce all kinds of fraud, deception, conniving, and game rigging” through examples of Wall Street plunder, Congressional and regulatory malfeasance, and steroid use in baseball.
But it is not simply that our elites are failing. It’s that they’ve insulated themselves from accountability, and even compelled journalists to craft false narratives. Hayes points out that simply having access to elites for journalists “has a tendency to produce cognitive capture” which Hayes points out is “an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion.” But the immersion does more than convert those meant to hold power to account. It allows the elites to absolve themselves of judgment via their own insularity. Things that seem unethical can be rationalized away by insiders through inside jokes:
The inside joke, and its close cousin the open secret, develop as a kind of moral defense, a way for the agents of fraud to distance themselves from their own culpability: If it’s worthy of a joke, it can’t be so bad, right?
What Hayes describes here is a reality I experienced during my time on Wall Street–-that quaint industry where traders joke about ripping the faces off of their clients.
We are also privy to a romp through the psychology of the elite, a section that had particular resonance for me. In one illuminating anecdote, Hayes relates how despite the fact that Fox News president Roger Ailes enjoys a dedicated table at the hottest lunchtime spot in all of midtown, he complains frequently of being an outsider, and of being disrespected. This type of attitude is the result, Hayes argues, of the two main psychological effects that ceaseless competition reaps: an ironclad belief that they’ve earned their success, and a compulsive self-obsession.
Perhaps my favorite section of the book was the one devoted to analyzing the elite economic conference Davos. Hayes aptly and insightfully describes that at Davos, the “social hierarchy that extends ever upward instills a potent combination of egomania and insecurity.” This is a perfect crystallization not just of Davos, but of Wall Street, Big Law, and many other areas of the elite. The combination of egomania and insecurity leads to a bottomless pit of desire for MORE—more money, more status, more power—that rivals any good addiction. As Hayes puts it, “To be successful, one must never be satisfied, and so no one ever is.”
In the final chapter, Reformation, Hayes begins to prescribe solutions to the problems he has so ably diagnosed: “we need to bring about a social order that combines the best things about each era of equality, one that shrinks the yawning social distance that now makes elite failure inevitable.” This task is difficult because equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity “are not so neatly separated.” Hayes writes:
If you don’t concern yourself at all with equality of outcomes, you will, over time, produce a system with horrendous inequality of opportunity. This is the paradox of meritocracy: It can only come truly to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality.
This leads me to the major question the book left me with: how is it possible to have a more equal society while simultaneously maintaining meritocracy, which portends the existence of an elite? Hayes pointed out in a section on Wall Street that quotes from Karen Ho’s brilliant book Liquidated that fitness on Wall Street is measured by one’s smartness—which often means one’s ability to bend the regulatory rules, or even outright cheat. In my mind, meritocracy will always tend towards corruption, as the elite will construct “merit” to mean whatever it needs to mean in order to keep themselves in power.
In the course of two pages in the final chapter, Hayes first outlines why “normalcy must be disrupted”—the bubble of the elite must be burst—in order to have lasting effect. He goes on to credit Occupy for doing just that, for forcing “mayors and police and media” to pay attention. But he then insists that “disruption as disruption isn’t enough,” that you must “locate another base of power that can credibly challenge the power of incumbent interest.” Hayes’s prescribed solution? “A newly radicalized upper middle class” [emphasis mine].
And therein lies the source of my contention. We have gone with Hayes in this journey detailing the corruption of the elite, wandering with him past their many errors. And now, faced with the end of the book, we are told that the solution rests in a different elite. Rather than the 1% as the ruling elite, we need…the upper middle class to get involved to fix the upper upper class. This idea was raised earlier in the book, at the end of Chapter Four, when Hayes says, “as unreliable as elite authority has been over the past decade, we can’t fix what needs fixing without it.”
In Chapter One, Hayes writes that “We don’t acknowledge that our most fundamental shared beliefs about how society should operate are deeply elitist. We have accepted that there will be some class of people that will make the decision for us, and if we just manage to find the right ones, then all will go smoothly.” The “right ones” for Hayes seems to be this radicalized upper middle class.
I disagree with Hayes on this point. While I recognize that Hayes is referring in the book to the most recent decade, I still think it’s worth nothing his conclusion is ahistorical—the civil rights movement was not won by a radicalized upper middle class—and it reinforces a common-but-unhelpful mentality that change can only come from the top down, from those with an already established power base, never from the roots.
I do agree—fully and deeply—with Hayes’s conclusion that radicalization is necessary. Where we perhaps differ is that I hope for a more democratic radicalization. For true change to occur, we must move out of the realm of journalistic observation, and into the realm of outrage, across all classes.
And this is where I do believe that Hayes needs to give more credit to “disruption as disruption.” Whether it be bird-dogging Darrell Issa, mic checking and questioning CEOs accustomed only to applause, or filling the streets in the hundreds of thousands while banging humble pots and pans to reject neoliberalism and repressive laws like Bill 78, direct action has the potential to break through the echo chamber, to burst the isolated bubble of the elite. And for those without the privilege inherent in the upper middle class, it is one of the only avenues left.
In the final, eloquent lines of the book, Hayes tells us that, “Equality is never a final state, democracy never a stable equilibrium; they are processes, they are stuggles. Our task now is to realize that that struggle is ours.”
My great hope for “Twilight of the Elites,” is that readers will put down this book, and join us in the streets. Beginning with Hayes himself.
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