Review: The Entitlement of Elites

On 2nd November 2017 we were thrilled to be joined by Robert Ashby (former chair of the Board of Trustees of what was then the British Humanist Association, now Humanism UK) for a presentation on The Entitlement of Elites. 

With thanks to Tony Brewer for the detailed review of the talk below.

Robert started by describing his main interests: humanism, particularly the question of why we have religion; the Green Party, particularly the problem of dysfunctional democracy; and ‘serious’ photography, particularly the new topographic movement, which he described as capturing the evolution of landscapes and the impact of industrialisation.

He introduced his topic by asserting that once a society has grown beyond a certain level of complexity and scale it generates elites that create justifications for their entitlement to govern and control, and garner the gains from economic activity. The other side of this coin is that poorer sections of society find themselves lacking the power or the money to equalise their relationship with the elites, and are trapped in a system designed to reduce their opportunities and maintain their subservience.

He then described the evolution of inequality, starting with hunter-gatherer communities in which everyone is equal and interdependent. This led on to agrarian societies, with the emergence of shortages and surpluses, storage, the need for writing and number systems, and the growth of land ownership and inheritance. Next came religions, with the formalisation of social relationships in marriage and parenting, rituals, group identity and bonding, and social hierarchies. This stage grew in size and complexity and led to the emergence of economies with identifiable markets, money, finance and banking, rentiers and capitalist industry.

In this context he described ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’, a situation in which individuals acting in their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good, typically depleting or despoiling a resource that, supposedly, is in common ownership. Contemporary examples include exploitation of rivers and oceans, deforestation, pollution of the atmosphere, and disposal of waste. This attitude, in turn, justified the philosophy of ‘each to his own’, ‘finders-keepers’, ‘I’d be silly not to’, and colonial exploitation.

Having sketched out the evolution of inequality, Robert then described some of the characteristics of inequality. He cited the distribution of wealth in the USA, with the top 20% owning about 80% of the national wealth and the bottom 20% almost nothing. Worse, the top 1% owns a whopping 40%. He mentioned the strong correlation between inequality and poor health, with Japan and the Scandinavian countries having low inequality and many fewer social and health problems than the USA, which has very high inequality.

He then talked about the problems of poverty and the characteristics of precarity, which he described as living a precarious existence, with uncertainty about job security, income and material and social welfare. He contrasted the entitlements of the rich, supposedly based on hard work and superior intelligence, with the miseries of the poor, supposedly the inevitable results of laziness and wastefulness. He stated that, contrary to popular view, poverty is not a moral failing, the poor do not ‘deserve’ their poverty, and that the idea that the rich deserve to be rich so that their wealth can ‘trickle down’ to benefit the poor is a fallacy. He condemned the so-called leeches on precarity – the money lenders, betting shops and dream retailers who exploit the very short time horizons of the very poor.

The rich maintain their privileges by exploiting the asymmetries of access to legal systems, health services, education and control of the media. They ensure that the characteristics of capitalism become tacit assumptions of a working economy. These include privatisation, the efficiency of markets, the deservedness of wealth and poverty, the benefits of inequality, the shrinking of the state and the disempowerment of labour.

Having described some of the mechanisms by which the wealthy create and justify their wealth, he finished with the question ‘Is inequality inevitable under capitalism?’ and concluded that, unless things change radically, it probably is. The three big changes that are needed are: i) the aligning of business and economic activities with acceptable social outcomes; ii) changes to the mechanisms of democracy and the distribution of politics and power; iii) the emergence of constrained and conscientious capitalism.

He also distributed a reading list:

  • The Spirit Level, Pickett & Wilkinson, 2009
  • Sapiens, Youval Noah Harari, 2011
  • Meme Wars, Kalle Lasn (Adbusters), 2012
  • Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Piketty, 2014
  • Inequality and the 1%, Danny Dorling, 2014
  • Talking to my Daughter about the Economy, Yanis Varoufakis, 2017.