The Australia I was born into before WW2 was probably the most anti-elitist culture the world has ever seen. Vigorous efforts were made to stamp it out in every aspect of life. So a few reflections on how that worked out may be illuminating. We didn’t try sortition in politics, but many other tactics. The point of this isn’t any claim to virtue. Anti-elitism was often a symptom of that resentment against which Nietzsche protested. The point is to understand how practices work and what effects they have.
Elites, at least for purposes of this discussion, are social groups that achieve some high degree of monopolisation of a valued social function and profit by making it difficult to join that group. That monopoly is exploited to benefit the group inappropriately. Remedies for elitism all look for ways of breaking down those monopolies. What means are favoured depends on what is seen as the crucial source of the power to exclude.
One simple diagnosis is that an exclusive focus on a free market can sweep away both political and social bases of elitism. In a free market anybody can offer any service at any price they choose and anybody with money can buy it. It really works, but instead of promoting equality in social and political power, it leads to plutocracy. As regards income, the labour market works by supply and demand. The plutocrats compete for the services of the most skilled, who are in short supply. The best in any respect are necessarily few. So the price of skill goes up. At the other end of the market, those with no particular skill are in oversupply, so wages are driven down. Here the poorest are competing against each other.
On the wealth front big money makes big money. It finds ways of buying whatever it wants, including political power and social status. We did not like that and set out to oppose the privileges of wealth in a host of ways, while keeping a market economy. So tipping was socially deplored. People like waiters and taxi drivers were to be paid a proper wage and offer a professional service. Offering them a tip was an insult, like offering a bribe.
So, how to guarantee everybody a fair wage? By setting a minimum wage for every occupation. The market still allowed you to pay or demand more for exceptional skills in a particular job, but nobody is allowed to pay less than the minimum without incurring a fine. So how were those minima for different jobs set? In principle by negotiation between employer organisations and trades unions, but increasingly by impartial arbitrators with power to adjudicate competing claims and protect the public against collusion between employers and employees to exploit their collective monopoly. The whole system culminated in the Annual National Wage Case, in which the top employer and employee organisations submitted their rival claims for a general wage increase in the light of changed conditions to the supreme arbitrator.
Combined with a very protectionist economy, sustained by geographic isolation, it worked surprisingly well up until the seventies when countries started to lose control over their own economies in the interests of free trade in everything, including labour and money. It was a less dynamic economy than many others, but pretty comfortable. Oz ideology exalted “the battler” the poor guy struggling to get a “fair go” and looked with horror at the contempt that others showed for “the loser”, who was deemed to ignore the opportunities offered him.
As for politics, we were pretty satisfied on the whole that the political system did serve as an adequate counterpoise to the power of money and of social status. The people who rose to the top were often from lowly beginnings and we alternated between Labour and Liberal (conservative) each of which offered similar policies, but with differences of emphasis. Power tended to rotate between the major parties as the party in office was seen to have grown stale.
The system did not offer much scope for innovation. But we didn’t think that elites or big money were a problem. We had pretty strong controls over them.
When globalisation came, the whole system became unsustainable. As a nation that depended on trade we had to follow the international system. Naturally, the task of introducing the radical changes necessary fell to a Labour government. A Liberal government would have been open to the charge of doing what big business, especially the multi-nationals, wanted, and would have been too timid. Bob Hawke, the former head of the union movement had no such inhibitions. He and his colleagues changed nearly everything, but hung on to a high minimum wage, without the predicted increase in unemployment. Jobs were exported by the shipload, and capital invested in local industry destroyed wholesale, but somehow the economy continued to grow at a steady 2.5% for the nest twenty-five years.
What soon became clear is that we had handed over an enormous amount of power to the mega-rich and the elites that served them, both of which were almost entirely outside our control. So we no longer controlled exchange rates, but handed them over to the big market players. While the local economy remained stable, the exchange rate fell in a few years fro 115 Us cents for an Oz dollar to 65 US cents. Of course our importers and exporters had to protect themselves against such fluctuations. So they had to buy currency futures from the same people who manipulated the rate. Those money traders made huge amounts out of very small fluctuations in demand for a currency without ever buying of selling a real commodity. Hedge funds deliberately engineered slides in value.
A remedy that has the support of many economists is to impose a small tax on each transaction. The big money comes from minute profits on computer-generated information and action that is repeated at lightening speed, wherever there is the slightest discrepancy in supply and demand for a currency. But such transactions have no unique location. Only global authority could hope to monitor it and impose a tax. But we rightly shrink in horror from global authority based on the sort of political processes we now employ at the national level.
That is not to say that reforming local and national politics is pointless It can still do a lot of good in many matters that remain under local control. In the case of the US, where most of the mega-rich are still located, it might even be possible to achieve some degree of control over them because of the risks of relocating. That worries the rest of us. In that case what is done will be dominated by US interests, and the rest of us will just have to accept that. No wonder we shudder when we listen to Trump! But improving the US political system, as sortition probably could, is not necessarily going to help us and probably not the US either in the longer run, as it is forced to pander to the mega-rich to keep on board their money and such taxes as they deign to pay.
The point I want to make is that the world has changed, irrevocably. That insistence is not obfuscation. To put it crudely, democracy on the local and national scale can deal with those matters that play out on that scale. But when it comes to many global matters and scientific matters ordinary people just have not the experience or the skills needed to get a grasp of what is wrong and what can be done about it. They may often be well aware that there is a problem of a certain sort but have no idea of what to do about it. That is not just about the plebs, but all of us without exception in most such matters. In a world that is structured by arcane scientific knowledge and technology as well as natural processes we “lay people” cannot hope to master, we inevitably depend on the elites who have some claim to understanding at least some aspects of those matters. That involves a lot of complications.