It is becoming customary nowadays to present slogans as fine thought. Not surprising. Hard times have a way of forcing people to look for simple solutions. Trash the elite is one such slogan. Doing so is supposed to get us manna. It won’t.
Immanuel Kant in his 1784 essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” wrote: “…when things are considered in broad perspective, a strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs reveals itself, one in which almost everything is paradoxical.”
Nothing can be truer. Yet, this principle — and I term it such on purpose — is flouted in most human thought, especially by ideologues. Any concept that is put up as an absolute category or put in practice as a political programme of action begins and ends by violating the truth contained in the quote from Kant.
For a start, slogans use terms loosely and often incorrectly. Take ‘elite’. What elite are we talking about? Is the term to be taken in singular or are we talking about elites? I would consider top-notch academics, doctors, engineers, jurists, business, et cetera as elites. That being so, I cannot see how trashing these elites would serve the purpose of pulling this country up from its bootstraps. If anything, trashing them would rubbish us.
If elites are inevitable, if nature is unequal, how do we create averages? What to do about average Joes and Janes? This is where we created democracy, the system that stresses mediocrity and caters to the mean. It finds the idea of the survival of the fittest as too savage and competitive. So, in theory, even the best — the elites — must submit to rules. The men who can climb the towering, intimidating peaks of the Himalayas and the Karakoram are special. But when they come back to the mundane, urban existence, they must submit like all the average men and women to the banality of rules. They must get traffic tickets for speeding like everyone else does.
Equally, while average Joes and Janes must have chairlifts to take them to hilltops, it would be a travesty of the human spirit if someone were to decide to put a restaurant atop Mount Everest. That’s a place best left for the best to conquer. It must not submit to the banality of our exercise in getting the mean right.
This is the paradox. The elites will always provide leaders in different spheres of life. But we must create laws to make even the leaders submit to averages when such submission is required.
Will Durant set more store by the great men in history than events. Great men impact events; great men are also, for the most part, reformers. The whole idea of reforming something has a hidden assumption. Situation X sucks; it calls for action A in order to lead to situation Y. Situation Y allows us to lead our lives in the way that situation X did not. Corollary: situation Y is the answer to all our troubles. Action A is, therefore, necessary, even to the point of sacrificing one’s life. We have to sacrifice in order that our children might live happily ever after. Revolutions are based on this, as is the entire concept of reforms, violent or benign.
But precisely at the juncture of the two conflicting values lies the paradox. The solutions of today are the problems of tomorrow. The heterodoxy of today’s revolution is the orthodoxy of tomorrow’s statist set-up. Today’s voice of dissent, if successful, is tomorrow’s gospel. Communist totalitarianism is the other face of fascism, as Hannah Arendt noted so presciently.
A century and half down from Kant, Isaiah Berlin wrote about the importance of the paradox: “Liberty, in whichever sense, is an eternal human ideal, whether individual or social. So is equality. But perfect liberty (as it must be in the perfect world) is not compatible with perfect equality. If man is free to do anything he chooses, then the strong will crush the weak … and this puts an end to equality. If perfect equality is to be attained, then men must be prevented from outdistancing each other, whether in material or in intellectual or in spiritual achievement, otherwise inequalities will result. Similarly, a world of perfect justice — and who can deny that this is one of the noblest of human values — is not compatible with perfect mercy. The two values cannot both be realised.”
If democracy were to throw up, through the principle of fair voting, elements that sought to destroy it after coming to power, then we face the dilemma of whether we accept democracy as an absolute value and allow it to be destroyed in the process or dilute the principle and save democracy from thus being destroyed. In the first instance, absolute faith in democracy may destroy it; in the second instance, holding it in abeyance may be its only chance of survival. True, it is difficult to figure out where to draw a line, when to determine how much democracy can actually be allowed, at what time and by whom can such assessment be done, but then that is precisely the point: the concept cannot be reduced to simple categories of black and white.
The slogan for Kant’s enlightenment was ‘Sapare Aude’ (‘Dare to know’). German Idealism, like the broad Romantic Movement, celebrated the individual and his liberty. But as the thought panned out, enlightenment got wedded, as it would have, to the rationalism that informed the Empiricists and the Positivists. As Bertrand Russell argued, the German Idealists were “not intentionally subversive”.
Yet, that is exactly what happened. Political systems got subverted on the basis of enlightened rationalism and individual freedom. At precisely the same point, the paradox kicked in again. Systems created in the name of revolutionary thought resulted in totalitarian regimes.
Thought must celebrate the paradox. Elites are important but so is the mean. And for systems to work, the interactive dynamic between the two must be watched, understood and, very often, monitored. The elites must work for the overall good and submit to the rules of the game. They are essential for any society but they must function in the controlled environment provided by laws.
This article was originally published at: The Express Tribune
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.