Rethinking elites

Rethinking elites

Shamus Rahman Khan (Columbia University)


In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, chants of ‘We. Are. The 99 Percent!’ rose from Wall Street. Occupiers sought to bring attention to the differences between the haves and have-nots. Surprisingly, at the core of this social movement was a scholarly paper written five years earlier by a pair of French economists. In that paper Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez argued that the rich were the engines of inequality. This challenged a basic aspect of my own home discipline of sociology. For when we sociologists study inequality, we most often look at the poor. But what if the poor are not where the action is?

My own career has been spent studying the elite. I am hardly prescient. Piketty and Saez’s work inspired me; reading it alongside that of Pierre Bourdieu guided me to pursue a dissertation on elite education. I was fortunate enough to have attended one of the most elite boarding schools in the world. I returned as a teacher to that school in order to observe the lives of the American elite. If I were to describe my scholarly project, it would be to help us better understand inequality by exploring the lives of the elite; most often, I tend to take a cultural approach.

While the word ‘elite’ has become increasingly common in both our academic and daily discourse, we’re not always clear about what we mean by it. Some commentators have objected to the term on the grounds that the etymology of ‘elite’ elevates those consecrated by it as being, ‘the best.’ Such an objection is reasonable given that the elite may well be the luckiest. Most elites are elites because they had elite parents. Even if they built their own fortune, chance played a considerable role: for the most skilled elites, there is the luck of being born into the right country at the right time and having their endowments match the expectations of the age. Therefore, critics of the term elite typically prefer the phrases like, ‘the upper class’; or, if their class analysis is particularly political, ‘the ruling class.’

I do not disagree with the general point that, for the most part, the elevated status of elites is more deeply tied to chance or social conditions than to individual-level skill. Yet still I prefer the term ‘elite’ because while it can encapsulate economic class analysis, it isn’t limited to it. This helps us think about the non-class basis of power. There is something important yet implicit in this last sentence, and it must be made explicit: understanding elites requires studying the workings of power. Power may be based upon an economic position, but not exclusively. Power can be political, cultural, racial, national… the list goes on.

Based upon my review of the scholarship in this area, I define ‘elites’ as those with vastly disproportionate control over, or access to, a resource. That resource must be transferable into other resources. There are a series of advantages to this definition. First, by ‘control over or access to’ I hope to suggest that elites can either have possession of a resource, as those who are very rich have possession over their bank accounts, or, they can occupy a position of power, such as a governmental official. The dynamics of this relationship are rather different. In the first instance, an individual directly holds power; in the second power can be exercised through an organizational position.

Further as there are different kinds of resources that can serve as the basis for social power and advantage. Therefore, there are also different kinds of elites. Another problem with terms such as ‘the ruling class’, or ‘the upper class’, are their presumed unity. A diversity of elites often results in a tension between elites. Particular elites will often seek to increase the relative value of the resource that they control (or control the most of). Rich people want money to be worth more relative to other resources; artists want to increase the value of culture; and of course, academics want knowledge to be the most important aspect of a society.

And so, when trying to understand an elite, we must ask who are the relevant elites, what is the basis of their respective social power, and what is the balance between resources? We might use the analogy of currency markets here and think about different resources as different currencies. What is the relative value of economic power to, say, cultural power? What is the ‘rate of conversion’ of a social tie into an economic advantage? Answering such question is a critical aspect to understanding the elite.

Just as the dollar fluctuates against the Euro, so, too, do resource markets vary across time (and place). In some societies, status reigns. In others, cultural failures (not knowing how to properly eat a formal meal) can lead to economic collapse (losing a critical business deal). To study the elite is to study these processes. As such, our models are relational. That means that we cannot understand the economic elite except in relation to other elites who have separate bases of power. Finally, this power must be understood in relation to the non-elite. How disproportionately distributed are resources in society? Such questions about resource distribution suggest that the study of elites is not simply about power, but also, fundamentally about inequality.

With this basic framework in mind, I’d like to turn to a brief discussion of elite culture. When thinking about elites we should, of course, also think about social networks, political power, and the racial, gendered, and global dynamics of elites. I focus on culture not because it is, a priori, the most important, but instead because it is what I know the most about.

In my book, Privilege, based upon my year living, teaching, and researching St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, I argued that one of the paradoxical consequences of the collectivist movements of the 1960s was the triumph of the individual and the death of the collective. Groups gathered together–Blacks, women, gays and immigrants–to argue that the properties that grouped them and were then used to explain or justify their disadvantage should not matter. We should all have opportunities based on our capacities, not on characteristics ascribed to us.

The elite have vigorously adopted this rhetoric, and they have also enacted it in some of their practices. They look more diverse, including some of those they formerly excluded. And while they certainly know that their individual traits, capacities, skills, talents and qualities are cultivated, they suggest that this cultivation is done through hard work. Access to opportunities is granted through capacity rather than birthright.

In another paper on ‘Elite Identities, I argue that elite culture today is a culture of ‘individual self-cultivation’. Yet, there is something pernicious about this presentation of self. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the truth of the elite experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we seem to be on a pathway where we increasingly refuse to socialise these costs. State support for public goods has given way to state support for private provision through markets; such markets have exacerbated inequalities.

If we look at who makes up the ‘most talented’ members of society, we see that they are very likely to be the children of the already advantaged. One of the best predictors of being an elite is whether or not your parents were elites. Yet if the world is a meritocracy of talent, then why are so many of the talented children of the wealthy? We could even push this further and wonder, why it is that as elites have more fully embraced the cultural framework of openness and merit, their stranglehold on advantage increased, both in terms of the likelihood of their children to succeed and the economic rewards they have enjoyed over the past 40 years?

To a certain degree, it is because the economic experience of the elite is countercyclical. I will draw here on the American experience, which may not be completely representative, but also hardly seems an outlier. To see what I mean by ‘countercyclical’ we might ask ourselves, from 1945 until the 1970s what was the economic experience for two groups: average Americans and very, very wealthy Americans? If you were an average American in the immediate postwar period, you would experience some of the lowest levels of inequality the nation has ever seen. You’d also experience modest mobility – particularly as social programs provided both a safety net and access to educational institutions. You’d enjoy substantial mobility over your lifetime and be less hindered or advantaged by your parents’ wages than your parents were by theirs.

But if we were to look within the top .01 percent, we would find something very different. Elite wages were comparatively stagnant – to a large degree this was because of incredibly high marginal tax rates. But not only were wages stagnant. So, too, was membership within the elite; at no other period in the 20th century were wealthy Americans as likely to have inherited their money.

And so while the average American lived in a world of comparatively low levels of inequality and modest mobility, the very, very wealthy lived in a world of relative wage stagnation and comparatively low levels of turnover.

And what about after the 1970s? How different is our story? As it turns out, it is very different, and yet, fundamentally the same. The average American has experienced wage paralysis and stagnant mobility. People’s mobility over their lifetimes has increased, though this is an artifact of women’s increased labor market participation; women have made real wage gains, but male workers’ wages (which is to say the majority of workers) have been locked in place, even declining slightly.

However, if we were to look in the elite, we would observe something quite different. Today, the likelihood of being in the top .01 percent is not so strongly related to having parents that were within that group as it was in the 1960s. There are more ‘new rich’ today than in the immediate past. And the wage gains that we observe within the top .01 percent are dramatic; since 1975 the top 90% of Americans have enjoyed 108.6% of the growth of the American economy; the top 0.01% have actually seized over 20% of value created by America’s economic growth.

In short, for the elite the recent experience is one of dramatically more mobility and more wage growth than in the past. When elites look around they see growing wages and more new members joining their ranks because of wage work not capital rewards. This is an experience of growth and movement – a vital economy.

But if you’re in the middle of the American wage distribution, you don’t see this at all. What you see is relative stagnation. The economic dynamics experienced by the elite are radically different than those experienced by the rest. And the elite, like most of us, are subject to ‘availability bias’ – meaning they overgeneralize from their experience believing it represents everyone’s (if you’re interested in this argument about economic countercycles and want to see some of the more scholarly work that supports it, see my forthcoming paper on the subject).

Society has recessed in the minds of the elite; if anything, it is a producer of social problems. What society did was to create the biases of old institutions – racism, sexism and exclusion. The resulting view is one where society must be as benign as possible, sitting in the background as we play out our lives in a flat world. The result of this stance is a new efficiency, the market.

This is an ingenious move. We can blame social problems on the processes whereby we thought in terms of collectivities. With such barriers removed, market equality can take over. We live the results of this triumph today, and it has been a world with less equality, less mobility and a more empowered elite.

Meritocracy is a social arrangement like any other: it is a loose set of rules that can be adapted in order to obscure advantages, all the while justifying them on the basis of shared values. Markets allow elites to limit investments in all by undermining public goods. This allows them to increase their own advantage by deploying their economic spoils in markets; they receive returns to these investments, those without resources to invest are left behind.

The elite story about the triumph of the individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, and that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed. The elite have used the image of a flat world to their tremendous advantage and the rest of us have suffered.

Finding a way out of this morass is the great challenge of the 21st century.


Shamus Rahman Khan is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York. His book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul’s School, won the C.Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.