These days, it's lonely at the top. For 5,000 years, nearly everyone agreed that the best thing in life was to belong to elites of birth and wealth. "When the poor catch sight of [the elite] they murmur, they groan, they praise," St. Augustine wrote in the fifth century. "In between their praises, they say: 'These are the only ones who matter; these are the only ones who know how to live.'"
But now everything seems to be different. The one point on which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump apparently agreed in their first presidential debate was that Augustine was wrong. Clinton, said Trump, is disqualified from being the most powerful person in the world because she belongs to the political elite, having spent 30 years in government (including eight in the White House). Trump, replied Clinton, is even less suited to lead because he belongs to the economic elite, having begun his career by borrowing $14 million from his father ("a very small loan," Trump responded).
The world appears to have passed a great watershed. Today, only merit matters. Privilege gained by birth or marriage has become a drawback.
Or has it? In an earlier column, one of us drew attention to how, a century after the age of "Downton Abbey," the West seems once again to be becoming a world in which a few people are masters and mistresses while much larger numbers serve them. In this column, we want to go further. Despite the presidential candidates' egalitarian self-presentations, it seems that all over the world, the kind of ruling elite with which Augustine was familiar is on the comeback too.
The Agraria That Augustine Knew
In his slim but hugely influential book, Nations and Nationalism, philosopher-turned-anthropologist Ernest Gellner argued that Augustine's world ended two centuries ago, when the Industrial Revolution swept away the old order of peasants, lords and kings. The structure of almost all premodern societies, Gellner observed, could be represented by one simple diagram:
Gellner called this social structure "Agraria" and suggested that in it "the ruling class forms a small minority of the population, rigidly separate from the great majority of direct agricultural producers, or peasants." At the top, the members of the political, military, clerical and other types of elites are all culturally quite similar to one another, regardless of where they live. A double line in the diagram marks the chasm that divides this elite from the mass of people they rule. Everything about life in Agraria works to keep the two groups distinct and "exaggerates rather than underplays the inequality of classes and the degree of separation of the ruling stratum." Culture works to reinforce the double line, with everything from clothing to language driving home the point that the aristocrats, nobles and gentlefolk are completely different animals from the base, vulgar and villeins.
"Below the horizontally stratified minority at the top," Gellner observed, "there is another world, that of the laterally insulated petty communities of the lay members of society" — that is, peasant villages. Gellner called these villages "laterally insulated" because peasants do not get out much. Through most of history, few farmers went more than a day's walk from their birthplaces. In Agraria, peasants in each district tend to have their own dialects, rituals and traditions — living, says Gellner, "inward-turned lives, tied to the locality by economic need if not by political prescription." For the masses, distance divides; what happens to commoners in one part of an empire may have little effect on commoners in another part of that empire.
The broken vertical lines in the diagram symbolize the fragmentation of the peasant world, in sharp contrast to the wider world that its rulers inhabit. The elite class is internally stratified by military, administrative, clerical and other specializations, but unlike the peasants, the actions of these experts reach across the entire state or empire. In the Roman version of Agraria, for instance, a senator, lawyer or well-paid professor could travel from Britain to Syria, eating larks' tongues, drinking Falernian wine and dropping the same witty allusions to Homer and Virgil in every villa he stopped at. The peasants on his hosts' estates, however, could not have gone more than 20 or 30 miles without finding themselves, in effect, in a foreign country.
Erasing the Double Line
Through almost all of recorded history, the most successful political systems were multiethnic empires that grew by joining ruling elites together (or violently replacing one ruling elite with another). It rarely mattered much to peasants whether they spoke the same language or worshipped the same gods as their distant rulers, and the rulers shared the sentiment. "The state," Gellner suggested, "is interested in extracting taxes, maintaining the peace, and not much else, and has no interest in promoting lateral communication between its subject communities." Agrarian empires did not waste time on nation-building.
The 19th and 20th centuries, by contrast, were entirely about nation-building. The Industrial Revolution swept Agraria away in just a few generations. Fossil fuels released a vast flood of energy, calling for a much more sophisticated division of labor. "Perpetually growing productivity," Gellner noted, "requires that this division be not merely complex, but also perpetually, and often rapidly, changing."
Rather than staying on the farm and doing as their forefathers had done, people had to be able to learn new skills and move to where labor was needed. "The immediate consequence of this new kind of mobility is a certain kind of egalitarianism," said Gellner. "Modern society is not mobile because it is egalitarian; it is egalitarian because it is mobile." As a result, a diagram of industrial society would not be full of lines, like the diagram of Agraria. It would be an empty rectangle, within which people move freely — because, as Gellner put it, "A society which is destined to a permanent game of musical chairs cannot erect deep barriers of rank, of caste or estate, between the various sets of chairs which it possesses."
This was becoming obvious in Europe by the 1840s. "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify," said Marx and Engels. "All that is solid melts into air." If deeply held beliefs about religion, race, caste or even sex stood in the way of the expanding market and the deepening division of labor, those beliefs had to go.
This new kind of mobility called for an equally new kind of culture. In Agraria, only a few could read and write, and literacy functioned largely to widen the gulf between mass and elite. In industrial society, however, literate culture functions to unite people into a nation. Industrial society requires "a very prolonged and fairly thorough training for all its recruits, insisting on certain shared qualifications: literacy, numeracy, basic work habits and social skills." This, Gellner argues, has genuinely turned the world upside down.
"At the base of the modern social order stands not the executioner but the professor. Not the guillotine, but the (aptly named) doctorat d'état is the main tool and symbol of state power. The monopoly of legitimate education is now more important, more central than the monopoly of legitimate violence."
Agraria and the nation-state are as opposite as can be imagined. Gellner concluded,
"One of them generally wills itself to be stable, and the other wills itself to be mobile; and one of them pretends to be more stable than social reality permits, while the other often claims more mobility, in the interest of pretending to satisfy its egalitarian ideal, than its real constraints actually permit."
Hence the slightly absurd spectacle of one politician after another claiming that neither immense wealth (Ross Perot in 1992), nor membership of a political dynasty (George W. Bush in 2000) nor both at once (John Kennedy in 1960) disqualified him from belonging to the only club that matters any more — the middle class.
In the 20th century, Agrarias that refused to let go of the past proved utterly unable to cope with societies that were willing to change. Between 1911 and 1925, the world's remaining multiethnic empires — Qing China, Romanov Russia, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Qajar Persia — all collapsed in the face of competition from modern, post-Agrarian states. By the early 1980s, when Gellner was writing, the contest between nation-state and empire appeared to be over.
The Empire Resurrected
As is so often the case, though, deciding who won is partly a matter of perspective. In Gellner's day, the big arguments were between Marxism and liberal social science, and so he had much more to say about class structures within nations than about relations between nations. Today, however, globalization's advance since the fall of the Soviet Union suggests that the individual nation-state might be the wrong scale for analyzing social dynamics. Power seems to be passing from national capitals into the hands of a more global elite that shares much in the way of a common language, culture and worldview but has no single home address.
If this is correct, then Gellner's diagram might be relevant to modern times after all, because we now need to see social organization from a global scale. In their modern iteration, globally connected elites straddle space atop the world, sharing more with elites from other nations than with commoners from their own, and coordinating with those elites to shape global institutions to their mutual benefit. Meanwhile, ordinary folk of different national origins have relatively little in common and little direct impact on one another's lives. Agraria has not been left behind after all; it has just upscaled.
When the first Agrarias were created 5,000 years ago, ruling elites largely relied on force to bundle peasant villages together into political units. Today, the process seems to work differently: Rather than conquering other nations, elites are effectively migrating from them toward institutions that operate above the national scale. Political philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, for instance, argue in their book Empire that "sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule," which they call "Empire."
Negri and Hardt suggest that this amorphous, postmodern global Empire of financial, cultural, political and military leaders,
"establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command. The distinct nationalist colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow."
Within Empire, nation-states occupy an equivalent position to Agraria's laterally insulated communities — which puts most of their citizens into the shoes of premodern peasants, separated from the members of other laterally insulated communities by barriers of language, economics and politics. Meanwhile, a New York financier might have more in common with counterparts in Hong Kong or Frankfurt than with compatriots who are farmers in Mississippi or autoworkers in Michigan, just as a Hyderabad technology entrepreneur might have more to say to business partners in Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv than to peasants just a few miles away. Such is the nature of our new/old world: Elites around the globe are quite similar, while the Michigan autoworker and the Indian peasant might as well be on different planets.
A New Old World
This presents national elites with a choice. A century ago, the Qing, Romanov and other traditional rulers had to choose between hanging on to Agraria and jumping ship to the new nation-states. Today's ruling elites face a similar choice between their national loyalties and leaving the sinking ship to find a place in Empire's new transnational elite.
In a widely read essay in The National Interest, political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that in this brave new world, "Someone whose loyalties, identities and involvements are purely national is less likely to rise to the top in business, academia, the media and the professions than someone who transcends these limits. Outside politics, those who stay home stay behind." Many of the cosmopolitan types who make the jump to Empire, Huntington suggested, "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations."
Like the ancient Roman aristocrat moving from villa to villa but never leaving his cultural comfort zone, virtually all of today's top people — despite their worldwide recruitment — are fluent in a single language (English) and attend the same handful of universities (mostly in the United States and Britain). Moving constantly around the new global polity, socializing in private and first-class airline lounges and luxury hotels, they can share gossip and inside jokes with people who read the same materials (the Economist, The New York Times and, of course, Stratfor) and subscribe to the same political and economic theories of market liberalization. The double line separating cosmopolitan elites from laterally insulated masses is almost as strong in Empire as it was in Gellner's Agraria.
In the past 30 or 40 years, a postmodern Empire has been taking shape that has extraordinary similarities to the supposedly extinct Agraria. Whether this is something to celebrate or denounce remains an open, and complicated, question. On one hand, between the 1910s and 1970s the developed world saw falling income inequality, rising living standards, spreading democracy, expanding education, the decline of domestic service and the extension of full rights to women and many minorities; on the other, it also saw two World Wars and a nuclear standoff. Since the birth of the new Empire in the 1980s, by contrast, many of these positive trends have slowed or begun to reverse, but the world has also enjoyed unprecedented peace, witnessed groundbreaking technological advancement and seen its poorest billion people (mostly in Asia) lifted out of poverty.
However we evaluate these changes, though, everything from the rhetoric of the U.S. presidential debates to the Brexit decision and the worldwide retreat from globalism suggests that more and more people are worrying that they are being downgraded from empowered citizens of democracies to laterally insulated producers under a new imperial elite. Novelist L.P. Hartley famously said that "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." But it seems to us that the past is nowhere near as foreign as it initially looks. In fact, it is getting less foreign every day. William Faulkner perhaps came closer to the truth when he said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."