An 18th Century European lord puzzling over the accelerating decline of the aristocracy only had to look in the mirror to find his answer. Chronic inbreeding ensured the degeneration of the gentry, and yet even though the nobility well knew this, they were powerless. The entire European system of class and governance rested upon the idea of hereditary rule, even as it sowed the seeds of its own demise.
Elites always need more than just raw power. They need a justification for rule to establish legitimacy, at a very minimum in their own eyes, if not those of the lower classes. Today’s elites are no different, and their claims to legitimacy no better than that of modern Europe’s doomed nobility. They must inevitably fall, though the questions as always are -- how long and at what cost?
In the millennium after Germanic warlords overran the weakened Roman Empire, they established a system of rule based on hereditary right. Over the centuries the gene pool gave out on them, evidenced not only by chronic disease, but in appearance, fertility, and intellect. When Spain’s King Phillip IV hired Diego Velazquez to paint his portrait, he asked the painter hide his oversized “Hapsburg jaw”, the result of relentless inbreeding. Though Velazquez is arguably the greatest painter in history, there was only so much he could do. A century later another great Spanish painter, Francisco Goyapainted the family of Charles IV, a controversial work because it depicted them realistically, which was not a good thing.
The aristocracy -- or at least the brighter among them -- understood what was happening, but as hereditary right was the fundamental basis of their claim to authority they had no choice, even though it was self-destructive.
Today’s elites define themselves very differently from those gentry of old, but their justifications to take and keep power are even more obviously self-destructive. In general terms, these elites define themselves as graduates of exclusive schools of higher education, globally oriented, contemptuous of traditional Western values, and indoctrinated in the ideas such as multiculturalism and catastrophic global warming, though they would likely never put it that way. Rather, they would define their class as virtuous, that virtue residing in essentially in their resumes and worldviews. Since wealth and power alone are not sufficient to gain class entry, you get a lot of so-called virtue signaling, by which members can recognize and honor one another.
Not that wealth and power are disqualifiers. Conveniently, this definition of virtue does not prohibit the amassing of great riches and power, which allows plutocrats from George Soros to Al Gore to John Kerry to Hillary Clinton to rationalize and justify their immense wealth by the virtuous thoughts that bounce around in their heads. It’s okay for Gore to jet around from mansion to mansion burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels because he believes in philosophies that contradict his actions. The excesses of a tiny elite won’t make much if any difference on a global scale, as opposed to massively reworking of social, governmental and energy policies for everybody else. And as the global elite need to move around quickly and work comfortably, private jets, multiple homes, and gourmet diets are not just justifiable but necessary.
Having communal virtue within a society is not necessarily a bad thing, depending upon the virtues and assuming they are shared society-wide. But there is a growing gulf between what modern elites perceive as virtuous and what everyone else does. That is potentially disastrous, as elites ignore the masses as unvirtuous peons, giving the masses a choice between submission and rebellion.
There is some historic precedent for this gulf and its detrimental effects, even if the idea of elites defining themselves almost exclusively by a subjective conception virtuousness is relatively novel. The Roman republic only did this in part, as it obviously had classes based on birth and dumb luck. Still, for centuries Roman conceptions of personal and communal virtue were applicable to all Roman citizens, not just elites, which allowed the nation to prosper and also permitted (for the time) liberal social mobility. That most famous of Roman noble families, the Julians, originated as commoners, a fact that they did their best to hide, and perhaps left at least one notable descendant with a chip on his shoulder regarding the Senatorial class.
The eventual weakening and dissolution of the Roman republic was largely coextensive with the idea of virtue residing exclusively in the upper classes. When Cicero wrote in the first century BCE that “All craftsmen spend their time in vulgar occupations; no workshop can have anything enlightening about it” the writing was on the wall for the Roman republic. By then the Romans had come to see military service in much the same way, as universal duty gave way to a professional army, which gave way to mercenaries, leading to the destruction of Rome itself (albeit much later.) Can anyone gainsay that Cicero’s attitude mirrors that of today’s elites as they jet about working on their PDAs, gleefully clucking aboutclosing down coal mines?
What’s particularly frightening about today’s virtuous Western elites is how inherently destructive to society their virtues are. Indeed, pursuing elite virtue today essentially means doing things with objectively damage society, whether it is cutting off valuable energy sources, weakening conceptions of excellence and hard work, increasing public debt to perilous levels or a half-dozen other hair-brained ideas.
Angela Merkel is perhaps the optimal example of this dynamic. Not only is she totally divorced from the burdens that heropen immigration policy is laying on her countrymen, who must now live cheek by jowl with hostile migrants who threaten their livelihoods and personal safety, she is voluntarily and objectively destroying her own nation. It appears baffling until one considers that, like those damaged intermarried nobility, she has no choice.
Merkel’s own conception of entitlement to power rests on perception of her own virtuousness. Other than her virtue, by the ideations of her own class (which otherwise rejects class distinctions), she must press on with the policy of open immigration from Islamic lands because open borders are a virtue, while recognizing Islamic radicalism is the epitome of the absence of virtue.
While Merkel is an exemplar of self-destructive elitist virtue, most current Western leaders, to include the current American president and the Democrat that intends to succeed him, share her basic values and view of virtuousness, meaning that Germany’s fate, however it resolves, will presage the fate of the West.
Modern democracies offer some potential remedy for the unvirtuous masses short of rebellion or submission. The British Brexit and the rise of populist political movements on both sides of the Atlantic reflect this. In America, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are imperfect tribunes of the people, but for all their flaws, they are the only noteworthy response to the dominance of these corrupt and entitled elites of “virtue.” That these elites are busily sowing the seeds of their own demise is a pretty sure thing. The big questions are how long it will be, and how much damage will be done before they fall.