Wednesday’s Book Review: “Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy”

Twilight-of-the-ElitesTwilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. By Christopher Hayes. New York: Crown Books, 2012.

Is the meritocracy that runs the United States both dysfunctional and corrupt? Is it one or the other? Is it neither? Those are questions that Christopher Hayes ponders and he finds much to comment on in the current situation. He takes his cue from C. Wright Mills’s classic book, The Power Elite (1956) which describes the class distinctions, economic relationships, and ideological alliances between the U.S. ruling class. They included political, military, and economic elites, as well as opinion leaders and the social privileged.

Hayes fundamentally believes that this meritocracy, as it is characterized here, has “rigged” the game of life to ensure that those currently privileged—regardless of the manner in which they might be privileged—have sought to maintain their status at the expense of all others in American society. This has led to corruption and incompetence at every level, and that no serious consequences come as a result of these poor performances. As a result, we all look at political leaders and see their malfeasance or worse exposed without any negative consequences. The same is true for business, the military, and elsewhere. Over time, according to Hayes, the meritocracy has become oligarchy. The inequalities present in society have become exacerbated through this process.

Hayes goes on to discuss the “social distance” between those at the top of the ladder—the ruling elite—and the remainder of society. Over time this has ensured that those in leadership positions have little understanding and, many times even less, sympathy for the plight of the masses. This disconnection has ensured that there is little structural changes to the system to help mitigate the problems of the most unfortunate in society. He comments on a longstanding problem of the ruling elite, since they have little knowledge and considerable “ignorance of the plight of those who are in its darkest corners” (p. 216). Consequently, few changes take place until those suffering take actions to make their situation understood. He offered the examples of gay men with AIDS in the 1980s, the indigent in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and the subprime borrowers as evidence of this situation.

Hayes notes that this issue in the post 2007-2008 economic crisis has become more desperate. He comments: “No longer is ours a ruling majority that has lost sight of the plight of a hated or invisible minority. The ration has flipped. The majority of Americans now feel deeply as if they have been relegated to minority status. We are all subprime now” (p. 216). Those at the top of the ladder seem very far removed from the vast majority of the American people. “The distance between those who will bailed out and those who will not is the ultimate social distance, and it has grown so vast it now stains the bonds of representation that hold the republic and its people together” (p. 217).

This is a desperate situation in many ways. This desperation spawned both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, although on whom they placed the blame and their proposed remedies differed. It’s a sense that the game is rigged, that there is no possibility of success, and that the ruling “meritocracy” is either unwilling or incapable of making any systemic changes to the structure of society.

Hayes does not go that far, but this sense of desperation and if it continues is a prime ingredient for revolt and perhaps revolution. Another crisis, Hayes comments, could solidify the unrest of both the left and the right into a class consciousness that could move against the power elite.

This is an important book that raises an important issue in modern American society. Scholars have been studying the rise and evolution of social movements for generations, and except for the immediacy of the discussion in the aftermath of the economic crisis of the last decade there is nothing in this book that would not be familiar to those who have read Mills, Robert Michels, Seymour Martin Lipset, Christopher Lasch, Max Weber, and many others. What Hayes has done exceptionally well is tie some of the best scholarship on this subject to the current crisis. This is not under any circumstances, however, a work of scholarship. It is a journalistic analysis of depth and substance that makes accessible considerable knowledge from a broad base of intellectuals. It offers engaging discussion of a very present tense situation.

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