The virtues of good, enlightened, accountable elitism

Toxic, global, corporate capitalism must be called to heel.

By Phil Hall

My father, Tony Hall, a globe trotting journalist and editor of international news magazines, a socialist and political activist, believed in the virtues of elitism. He believed in rule by enlightened elites. But don’t we all? Of course he said this sotto vocce. There were elements of Leninism in my father’s elitism and, perhaps, an over-romantic vision of the role of peasants’ and workers’ Soviets. Don’t forget, this Platonic, Soviet vision of an enlightened and just society electrified the entire world in the first quarter of the 20th Century.

Tony Hall in Ethiopia in 1973. He alerted the world to the famine taking place there

For Tony hall, enlightened elite meant ‘Goodness’. It meant a democratic socialist elite operating in a socialism where capitalism had been dethroned, though not necessarily completely rooted out. At heart, Dad believed in a society where decisions about the public good were taken by good people working in government, people who did not not cow-tow to the machines of corporate profit-making.

Are we really lions lead by donkeys?

Some of the people I know and associate with are lions. Generally speaking, they are intelligent, educated, moral and competent. They are good. If you are reading this, you might be one of them. The concept of an enlightened elite is a broad one. There is plenty of room for many tens of thousands of people to participate as a member of a well-intentioned, governing elite.

Farmers’ protests in India, photo by Randeep Maddoke

No one wants to be lead by donkeys, or dangerous buffoons like Boris Johnson. But who imagines that the Naxalites (or the Sikh farmers) can govern in India? Who thinks the Zapatistas should rule in Chiapas, or Sendero Luminoso in Peru? Who agrees that certain key Brexit voting communities in the north should be the ones to decide the future of the UK.

… this Platonic, Soviet vision of an enlightened and just society electrified the entire world in the first quarter of the 20th Century

In academia, we are asked to judge Plato’s government of philosophers as a terrible thing. It is not. In part, the criticism of this idea is because of a growing misanthropy and distrust, and lack of faith in humanity. Faith in humanity has been eroded by memories of historical atrocities and injustices, memories that remain fresh. It has also been eroded by new atrocities and injustices that continually remind us of how far we have to go.

Also, Plato’s idea that philosophers should govern is opposed because it goes against the prevailing ideology. Rational philosophers in government would not leave so much of their decision making to the so-called ‘wisdom of markets’. They would oppose the selfish intentions of the reigning global, capitalist olygarchy.

But, at root, most of us, I think, do believe Plato is right; all of us perhaps except for a few immature, embittered, despairing, half-baked intellectuals who arguing for chaos; for childish versions of anarchism, or dog-eat-dog right wing libertarianism.

No one is saying we need Blairite technocrats again, flunkeys at the service of the rich, but we should argue strongly for a competent, educated, experienced, elite; one that properly represents the interests of the entire society, an elite that represents that society in a global community that has shared problems and aspirations. Let’s not pretend that the least educated, most victimised people know better. Remember, ‘the people’ voted Brexit.

The existential threats that face humanity – many of which have been exactingly defined by Nick Bostrom – are enough to defeat any argument for a more ‘natural’ arrangements of governance.

Long live the courage, work and intellect of the Soviet people. 1962

What was communism good for?

Communism is good at winning world wars. It is good at undertaking ,and completing, big projects like the building of great dams, or sending humans into space. It works where a concerted effort has to be made. Communism, of the sort we have experienced, is a system which can build pipelines in record time. It provides people with a fair degree of equality, with free health care, social protection, jobs, a vast quantity of shitty social housing and plenty of rubber stamped low and high culture.

Communism, in places like the former USSR and Cuba, freed people from an all-consuming addiction to products; that horrible fetishism. In so doing, it allowed people to assign their own value to things.

Communism removed some of the alienation people in capitalist societies still feel when almost every aspect of human existence has been commodified, every emotion employed to manipulate and meaning reduced to status. State socialism brought us closer to our fellow humans and to nature in a community of equals. You need to have experienced communism properly to understand that last statement in your gut. Disregard the miasma that surrounds communism’s memory, study it, study its history and understand it for what it actually was.

The tourists who used to visit communist countries – even when they were not socialists themselves – would feel that something was qualitatively different about that society; they would feel that there was something new, fascinating and wonderful about Cuba, for example, but they didn’t fully understand what it was that they were sensing.

The existential threats that face humanity … are enough to defeat any argument for any more ‘natural’ arrangements of governance.

Despite its advantages, clearly this form of  communism was moribund. It was destined to die because decision making almost always flowed downstream and never upstream. Few people had agency within communist societies apart from the leadership of the party. Individualism was discouraged, or even severely punished. There was little or no accountability for the ecological messes bureaucrats caused, or for the failures in supply, or for the small and the vast abuses of power, or for the stultifying boredom of it all. Perhaps the worst feature of that bureaucratic society was that it was a perfect place for corruption and decadence to flourish.

… in 1991 the shit hit the fan for the former USSR.

Top-down communism ran out of steam. All the life has drained out of it. If you had opened the gates in the USSR most of the talented people would have run away. Fortress communism is not a viable economic and social system for human beings because such a system, to be successful, needs an enormous amount of civic participation, democracy and free and critical thought. There was little of that in the old USSR.

Within fortress communism, it is true that people were provided for, but they only had freedom where there were gaps in control. The USSR gradually became a zombie society. No moral, intelligent human being can argue the case for such a society convincingly.

Phil and Tere in Kiev in 1991

In this respect, my father and I parted company. While he was merely a fellow traveller, I actually travelled. I did a degree in Russian and studied and then worked in the former Soviet Union. ‘OK‘, I can hear some of you comment, ‘Perhaps your class allegiance is suspect. How typically middle class you are!‘ Certainly, I am no expert. But in 1991 it didn’t matter anyway, because the shit hit the fan for the former USSR.

Individual agency is a virtue of capitalism

Capitalism has the great virtue in a social democracy of giving the gift of agency to almost anyone who lives its centres. By centres I mean places in Europe, Japan, Korea, the USA and Canada and Australia and New Zealand. This gift of agency also holds for many developing, capitalist countries, too on the periphery.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and then Keir Starmer ignores this capitalist, entrepreneurial dimension of the former working class.

You cannot deny that people want to have control over their own lives and they want to be free to express themselves and to be creative. Capitalism is much better at this than socialism. Remember, many of the so-called working-class in the north of England don’t want to work in mines or factories any more. Instead, they aspire to being their own bosses and starting their own micro or small business. Yes, they were a part of the working class, but they don’t want to be any more and they won’t vote Labour. For many of them it is not really because they feel Labour has failed them, rather they now have the instincts of the petite bourgeoisie on the make. They have different aspirations to the working class – paying taxes is a bind. There are far more real working-class people – as defined in terms of relations to production – in the immigrant communities.

Going to Work (1943), commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and then Keir Starmer ignores this capitalist, entrepreneurial dimension of the former working class. They see Northerners and ‘the poor’ as all being petitioners to the state with their begging bowls stretched out.

In the past, before the war, the UK had a vast servant class, but no one wants to be a servant any more unless they have to be to survive, just as few people want to work in factories and mines now.

… before the war, the UK had a vast servant class, but no one wants to be a servant any more unless they have to be to survive, just as few people want to work in factories and mines now.

Capitalism, especially in its more enlightened centres, allows for a degree of individualism. There is always a wonderful shamanic element to the person who has a great idea for a new product, or a service. These are artists, of a sort.

Then there are the welcome opportunists: the Indian shopkeeper who opened on Sundays in a small town in the 1970s, whose child is now a doctor working for the NHS. There is the woman who sells cold drinks on a hot day, or hot drinks on a cold day. There is the person who does your nails so well, or your hair. There are the less beloved, the plumbers, carpenters and electricians. The owner of an enormous road haul truck. The traveller who discovers the delights of Pitaya fruit, stealing it away to his own country, calling it by another name: ‘Dragon Fruit’. There is the Bengali restaurant in Brick Lane. Even the Stone cold profiteers have a part to play, they are the ones who bring Coca Cola to some wooden duka in the driest refugee camp in Somalia. Bless ’em.

The first Costa Coffee shop in Vauxhall, now owned by Coca Cola

Are Nando’s and Costa Coffee really evil?

What should be the limits to growth of an enterprise that puts so much effort into trying to divine the needs and wants of other people, and into supplying them.

There were articles in The Guardian years ago by people who wrote about the evils of Nandos and Costas. This may confuse you. Why are Nando’s and Costas evil? They are chains, you see. They clone the high streets, you see. But who has the right to put limits on that success? Who decides when Nando’s and Costas stop being wonderful little shops and start becoming part of threatening corporate empires?

We can agree that Starbucks is not the best of companies, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble are worse. We get murkier and murkier. Think of the Kochs, Nestle, Goldman Sachs, Exxon-Mobile and BAE Systems; all of whom seem to have very little to recommend them.

… corporations can kill, maim or harm millions in their search for profit.

Ruthlessness in the search for profit affects everyone badly. There are cigarette manufacturers who kill, armaments manufacturers who kill, car manufacturers who kill, chemical companies that produce opioids, oil companies that alter the climate, tech companies that produce mass surveillance software. Corporations kill, maim, or harm millions in their search for profit, their purpose is not just to sell spicy chicken and strong coffee to passers-by.

In the darkest part of the corporate webs are the pirates and economic rapists, the evil shape shifters: Blackwater, Rentokil and Rio-Tinto Zinc. What do they call themselves these days? Then there is organised crime. Organised crime which launders its money through all of these legitimate networks.

When it comes to meteorites, global warming, pandemics and the negative consequences of global corporate capitalism, we need powerful, enlightened, democratically accountable elites to take control and make rational decisions and carry out actions that are in the interests of society.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

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