The Treachery of the Elites

by Georg Schmid (Author)
Monographs 220 Pages


This book gives explanations for the growing gap in wealth and income and the rise of anti-democratic movements. The power of the elites today is supposedly founded on merit (education, intelligence etc.), but a closer look shows that a well-marked-out pool is just self-re-producing. The power these in-groups wield often leads to moral insensibility, made worse by a condescending attitude towards people further down the food chain. The pre-dominance of the model of the nation-state, with its centralism and top-down structure, is one of the roots of this problem, as is the lack of comparisons and value judgements; examples from transport and urbanism show that they are possible. The deplorable situation is made worse by the “anti-“social-media scuppering open and productive discussions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • 1. Sentinels, Guardians, Custodians
  • 2. Does Power Corrupt?
  • 3. It’s the Attitude, Stupid
  • 4. Elites: Entitlement and “Meritocracy”
  • 5. Reciprocity
  • 6. The Rest of the West
  • 7. The Rich and the Rest
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The title of the present book refers to Julien Benda’s famous La Trahison des Clercs.1 However, it is not a paraphrase. The intention here is to analyze a variant of the treason Benda had in mind in the interwar years. It is not just the intellectuals who are the objective this time: the imprecation goes further than that.

The strife for power surely remains one of the distinctive features in the fight for symbolic-semiotic dominance. It is not restricted to the caste of the intellectuals; if anything, today’s intellectuals tend to be much less nationalistic and racist than the clercs in the mold of Barrès and Maurras. Today’s true masterminds are of another caliber altogether, few intellectuals are among them.

The titles of the translations of Benda’s work are illustrative. Treason in the U.S. edition of 1928 The Treason of the Intellectuals) seems fitting, so does betrayal (The Great Betrayal, in the British edition). Treachery may sharpen what is meant to be anathema. More than just cultivated people (those who think they are) hang in the balance. In fact, the entire fabric of society.

To be sure, élite (or simply elite) has a wider meaning than the term intellectual. It is also more nebulous. In a way similar to the one in which you could pose the question “who betrays whom and with what motivations,” you can also ask, élite in relation to what other body of society, or who determines who is élite and who is not (or not quite). Is it possibly just a kind of auto-definition, bringing self-admiration in its wake?

The moneyed élites pose the least problems in terms of definition. Other élites are devilishly difficult to determine and describe. Still, there are approaches promising at least approximations. It is possible to analyze power structures, you can also try to figure out how the myth (in most respects it is but that) of meritoriousness came about. There is, then, the conundrum of who measures and judges qualifications and the legitimations resulting thereof. Or you can pose the question why quid pro quo doesn’t really function anymore (if it ever did). There is no real reciprocity in the social relations. That could well explain a part of the ill-humor to be diagnosed just about everywhere. This is not least a result of the attitudes displayed by those who assume to be something better – a major hypothesis in this book.

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As the world – or to be more precise, the West– as we have known it seems to come to an end (or at least changes its outward appearance beyond recognition), we are finally led to a plausible assumption: for too long we have invested our intellectual energies and the financial means in questionable things, at the same time we have reverted to class societies thought to be behind us. This is not about yet another declinist chimera: it is about what we have done wrong. More specifically, “the élites.” (The “lower classes” didn’t do that much better).

It will be shown that the ruling classes owe their predominance not just to financial might or prerogatives derived from their descent, not even solely on non-pecuniary power provided by a state apparatus but is generated by a difficult to comprehend elusive force here referred to as semio-symbolic. How the respective power is vested is rather mysterious and will perhaps remain so. Even gifted scientists, scholars, artists can ascend to more exalted spheres only when chosen by a market governed by capital, be it symbolic or merely material. The leading intellectual is chosen by her or his usefulness for the authorities and agencies who are in charge of the systems in place. Basically, it is a closed circuit.

Elite thus is a terminus devoid of well-defined contours. Attempts to define it have not been successful, even the OED seems somewhat at a loss – the choice: “part of a society, a select group” seems somewhat deficient. One of the reasons for this failure can be seen in the multifariousness of the very concept. The meaning varies widely, it can refer to political power, financial predominance, some obscure prerogatives, it can relate to prestige, influence, visibility and so on, it can be self-ascribed or allocated, but it has to be and made to be credible and accepted.

Elites can remain discreet and in the background, they are not always so manifest as to appear irritating or annoying, often they exert their power in a circumspect manner, sometimes, however, they conduct themselves in a vulgar, bullying way. In all cases, their power is enormous and all too frequently underrated. Their potency is becoming particularly alarming when they remain in the shadows or are, at any rate, too little noticed. That was the case with the so-called social media. We found out too late that the internet was not just a blessing but also a calamity. It is the basis for hate mails, fake stories, conspiracy theories, all kinds of lunatic rubbish. In this sense, it is probably necessary to rethink the whole concept of “elites:” in part, at least, they have been substituted by armies of criminal idiots.

Be that as it may, it does not make sense to chase definitions of elites – they are everywhere. The nexus between them and the newly enabled connected people has to be examined. The ill humor manifesting itself just about everywhere in increasing measure is arguably due to a lack of understanding of the ←10 | 11→new distribution of power relations between elites/masses. Displeasure breeds resentment and rancor and revengefulness. Discontent mutates into hatred. At this point, a discrepancy must be diagnosed. The term “elites” is so amorphous that it means too much: it can refer to first-class scientists and experts as well as to “celebs” of all kinds (from rappers to football stars) who are credited for their questionable merits far beyond any recognizable value).

Instead of looking for definitions of elite, this book presents a range of aspects of a phenomenon too complex to be summed up by one simple explanation. Among the questions that will be brought up is the problem of entitlement and meritoriousness, the lack of reciprocity between the social classes, the fact that, of course, power does corrupt. In some respects, the centerpiece of this book is Chapter 3, It’s the Attitude, Stupid, where it is argued that much of the present-day annoyance can be explained by analyzing the imprudent, often insulting way in which some members of the elite conduct themselves. Such problems will be discussed in regard to different though sometimes comparable contexts; some reiteration (and thus repetition) is no accident but intentional as a variety of perspectives and approaches can result in different insights.

This book has been long in the making. During the earlier stages of writing health problems hobbled it, then another book, a collaborative project with a rigorous planning horizon interposed itself, and finally COVID stopped everything in its tracks. In regard to the latter impediment no excuse is required. It is also too early to tell to what an extent the global public health crisis will eventually necessitate changes in the preceding argumentations. For the badly planned time schedule I humbly apologize.

1 Julian Benda: La trahison de clercs. Paris: Grasset 1927.

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1. Sentinels, Guardians, Custodians

A lot of people were (and remain) shocked by Brexit and possibly even more so by the Trump phenomenon. Both events were more than elections or referendums, respectively; they were part of a series of catastrophic political events. The people shocked by these two series of events leading up to the disasters had held the opinion that a system of safeguards, in place at least in the West for many decades, would prove to be sufficiently stabilizing to prevent the collapse of an order created and incrementally perfected after 1945.2 This system came crashing down, beginning in 2016. There have been warning signs; immediate precursory signs were amply provided by the great financial crisis since 2008 and its consequences. There is no end of such destructiveness in sight, particularly now with COVID.

How to refer to the system which seems to be crumbling if not tumbling? The Anglophone word liberal comes close but does by no means tell the whole story; it also is routinely misunderstood in the non-Anglo world – whereas “the Anglos” in their turn still have considerable difficulties to understand somewhat differently accentuated societies. So suffice it to add key notions and principles such as tolerance and trade, social democracy and cosmopolitanism, capitalism and emancipation or civil comportment and responsibility and others, neither of them belonging to the same set of values, concepts, ideas. Many of these are seen as not related, if not contradictory and mutually exclusive, but they certainly, in their combination, had decisive constructive power in this paradigm.

Never mind how we call it. We have other worries. So let’s stick with the term liberal (those who don’t agree are free to say “leftish liberal” because it was that, too), remaining aware that words can have differing, variable meanings in different Kulturkreise. No doubt, some of our present problems should be traced back to the perpetuity of a lack of understanding even among close variants of what we’ll call liberal societies. Witness for example many British or French commentators’ tiring incomprehension of much of what now sails under the acronym of DACH (Deutschland, Austria, Confoederatio Helvetica [Switzerland]). ←13 | 14→Anyway, what can in practicable shorthand be referred to as “liberal epoch” apparently has come to an end; it came into being after 1945 and has been drawing to a close around 2020.

How was it possible that this epoch is now in mortal danger? There were many people who, as they say, did their thing and were reasonably confident to explain and analyze situations and processes in an adequate manner. “It would be kind to say none of this made a blind bit of difference. In fact, it’s worse than that: for many people, everything we said was discredited by the fact that we said it,” Simon Kuper bitterly diagnosed confronted with what Trumpism and Brexitism revealed.3 So had something been done inadequately? The assumption that liberal utterances – scholarship, academic teaching, responsible journalism, even conversation – could provide some sort of shield, a protection against a return to the worst excesses of the first half of the twentieth century, turned out to be entirely mistaken.

Signals were misread, warnings were thrown to the winds, entire sets of alarming indications simply ignored. Seven decades of peace, at least in Europe (with the notable exception of Yugoslavia) were misinterpreted: they turned out to be no guarantee for continuing stability. A system of sentinels was felt to be in place to preclude the appearance, let alone dominance, of an antiliberal, antidemocratic, antihumanistic general societal tone and tendency. The guards failed. Worse, it seems they had an effect contrary to what they were intended for. It is correct (if a shade florid) to state that it suffices to hold that 2 + 2 = 4 to make populists, by sheer reflex, say it must be 5; and that it can be assumed that “[…] whatever we do now is almost irrelevant […] Still, [Kuper goes on], I will keep writing […] because I like it and can’t do anything else.”4 The same is also true for the present author, some years later.

Kuper’s words merit a number of comments. As said elsewhere in this book, the term populist has been so grossly over-used that it has become meaningless. Second, the ”we” should be clarified. It obviously refers to an “elite class” of writers (and readers), as opposed to hoi polloi. (In the preface a first attempt was made to differentiate between different types of elite). But who would have thought only a few years ago that the gap between these classes had become so enormous? There were warning signs aplenty, the extent of the divergence was underestimated. Third, to keep on writing (and providing arguments, debating, trying to convince) is at the very least an honorable intention and possibly the ←14 | 15→only conduct conceivable for the much-despised intellectuals. They don’t have more rambunctious means at their disposal.

Biographical notes

Georg Schmid (Author)

Georg Schmid was Professor of Modern History at the University of Salzburg; he also taught at Kansas University, University of Western Illinois, Paris VIII; his areas of research include modern and contemporary history, transport and urbanistics, semiology, and film.


Title: The Treachery of the Elites