Are the elites turning on each other?

By Glenn Stehle

[T]he Revolution offered the opportunity of tearing the mask of hypocrisy off the face of French society, of exposing its rottenness, and, finally, of tearing the façade of corruption down.

-HANNAH ARENDT, On Revolution

Once in a blue moon events conspire to “tear the mask of hypocrisy” off the face of what John Gray has called “the ruling mythology.”   Could we be living through such a moment?

Probably no greater evidence of this is to be found than in a recent speech Ross Gittins, economics editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, gave before the Australian National Conference on Resources and Energy.   This is what Gittins — clearly no friend to the working person — had to say:

We all pursue our self-interest, but we all cloak our self-interest in arguments about how this would be in the best interest of the economy. All I’m doing is stripping away the bulldust.


What hasn’t yet occurred to many business people – but you can be sure is well understood by the politicians and their advisers – is that when industries lobby governments for favours or in opposition to new imposts, the various industries are in competition. It’s easy to imagine the government’s coffers are a bottomless pit but, in fact, there’s only so much rent to go around….  The truth is, when one industry gets in for a big cut, there’s less left in the pot for the others.

–ROSS GITTINS, “The Political Economy Outlook for Reform,”

Stunning is the only word to describe the three admissions Gittins makes, not just in the fact he made them, but also in the matter-of-fact way he does it.  Let’s summarize:

1 )   Businessmen “cloak” their “self-interest in arguments about how this would be in the best interest of the economy,”

2)  The profits and well-being of various industries are very much dependent on what government does, as opposed to what Mr. Market does, and

3)  Businessmen are bellied up to the government trough, but there’s not unlimited largess to go around, so the various industries are in competition with each other.

All I can say is:  WOW!  Talk about tearing the mask off the myth of market fundamentalism!  Amitai Etzioni points out in The Moral Dimension that neoclassical economists have struggled long and hard to “leave out half of the story:  The use of political means for monopolistic goals.”   Now Gittins, all of a sudden, is fessing up, and in no uncertain terms, to the other half of the story.   The subterfuges of neoclassical economics are thrust out into the open.  Not only is the importance of government to corporations’ bottom line admitted to, but also the great lengths they will go to in order to manipulate government policy.

One can’t help but be reminded of when the mask got ripped off of French high society, when Louis XVI’s “ill-fated cabals and intrigues” and the “willfully corrupted manners” of “Court society” came to light.  Louis XVI’s predecessor, Louis XIV, had been able to keep these regal practices “apart from the style in which he conducted affairs of state.”  Louis XVI, on the other hand, was not so fortunate.  And when the mask got torn off, the “lower strata responded by violence and brutality” to the “mores and ‘moral’ standards, the intrigues and perfidies of high society,” which were “nothing but a rather awkwardly construed frontage with which to cover up, and win time for, an even more inept intrigue” (Hannah Arendt).

How did things come to this?  The unmasking seems to have come about due to the spread of powerful new ideas in combination with shifts in the concrete conditions of life.  For any number of reasons a society can stop expanding.  The production and distribution of goods, eventually reflected in standards of living, stalls or declines.  This pits elite against elite, as well as the frustrated struggling majority against elites of any stripe.  This is what seems to have happened in France. 

As the economic condition of France deteriorated in the 1780s, competing factions of the elite vied to capitalize on the newfound ideas of liberty, equality and popular sovereignty in order to marshal popular support for their own particular causes.  First the monarchical government, invoking equality, tried to enlist the people in the struggle to do away with the privileges of the nobles and the clergy.  The nobility and clergy paid no taxes, plus were entitled to massive government pensions.  Just one noble family, for instance, received pensions of 1.5% of the total annual revenues of the crown for doing nothing    (Eugen Weber, The Western Tradition, “39.  The death of the old regime” ).   

The privileged groups – nobles, clergy, gentlemen, lawyers, and intellectuals – struck back against the royal government, “brandishing slogans like liberty, and natural law, and representation in order to defend their privileges.”  They argued they should be liberated from paying taxes, but of course not from their generous pensions and other perks.  Mme Roland, in her final moments as she was being led to the guillotine, poignantly captured the hypocrisy inherent in the clergy and nobility’s brand of libertarianism when she cried:  “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”

The revolutionary “fuses were lit,” therefore, not by the peasants and workers, but by the elites themselves.  However, it backfired on the elites.  When the Third Estate finally did come to power it proved quite capable of taking care of politics itself and all the economic privileges of the elite, whether of nobility, clergy, or officers of the crown, were abolished.

In Australia, as Gittins explains, we also see various privileged sectors currying popular support, trying to cast their special economic privileges as “a popular cause.”  Historically, however, this has not been an easy task.  As Weber goes on to explain in the next segment, “40.  The French Revolution” of the The Western Tradition, not even a highly talented politician and administrator like Napoleon was able to pull it off, and in the end popular sovereignty exerted itself and thwarted his efforts.


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