Symposium: Elitist anti-elitism

Elite mediocrity

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

David Flint The Twilight of the Elites Melbourne, Freedom Publishing, 2003 (250 pp). ISBN 0-957-868-25-1 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

If Australia’s elites had had their way, entry to Australia would now be substantially under the control of criminal people-smugglers based in Indonesia, and Saddam Hussein would still be hosting and encouraging terrorists and developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, with impunity (pp. 1–2).

The elites’ international agenda includes the subjugation of national sovereignty to international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which is ‘based on an unproven theory and clever European diplomacy’ (p. 179). Domestically they want a treaty with aboriginals, which could lead to the dissolution of Australia (Chapter 5). The elites pursue a treaty despite the fact that ‘The Aboriginal people after the settlement in 1788 were never without rights’ (p. 83). In law and order, the elites detest the concept of individual responsibility, and ‘so the theme is care and consideration for the wrongdoer, not for the victim’ (pp. 17–18).

‘The victories of the elite agenda have too long damaged Australia’ (p. 235).

As Australia abandoned its religious and cultural attachments in favour of an elite libertarianism, a new ideology came to supplant the old Judaeo-Christian beliefs which had been with us from 1788. … The elites had in effect become the effective guardians of Australian society, without any formal endorsement by the people (p. 53).

How did they achieve this dominance?

Until recently it was a simple matter to remove contentious issues from the electoral debate through the device of a private consensus between the elites on both sides of the political divide, the bureaucracy and the media. … So the elite agenda was achieved by an elite consensus, without popular support and even against the people’s will (p. 22).

However in recent years, the elites have suffered a series of reverses, such as the defeat in the republican referendum, and then their ‘devastating defeat’ in the election of November 2001, when ‘they managed to attract no more than 10% of the national primary vote’ (p. 1). So after dominating for 30 years, the elites are now in their twilight.

This is the essence of David Flint’s book. Flint is the head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority and a former chairman of the Australian Press Council. He was a very prominent supporter of retaining the monarchy during the republican referendum of 1999. The main target of this book is the ‘elites’ who supported the republic, and who, in Flint’s view, have had a pernicious effect on so many areas of Australian public life.

The analytical heart of the book—and a word that occurs every page or two—is the venerable concept of elite. The term has been in popular use, since at least the nineteenth century to describe social distinction because of rank or performance. Its meaning then was mainly, but not entirely, complimentary.

During the republican debate, Flint was criticised for misusing the word 'elite'.

Elite theory entered social science with the work of the Italian scholars Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) and Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), who counterposed it to class theory. Pareto and Mosca saw history as the circulation of elites, but also saw dominance by some elite as inevitable. Indirectly their work led to a strain of political analysis still common today among elite theorists such as John Higley (see for example, Higley et al. 1979 & 1998).

Its other main source of popularity in contemporary social analysis came through the work of C. Wright Mills and his book The Power Elite in the 1950s. This book at national level, and other works on the nature of local power structures, set in train a long-running debate between ‘pluralists’ and ‘elitists’ about the distribution of power in American democracy.

Around the same time the word re-entered popular social commentary as a term of criticism from the Left. Private schools and old universities, for example, were described as elitist, the term jumping between describing their social composition and their professed standards. Around the same time in the United States, as civil rights and feminist movements and ideas became more prominent, sneering terms like limousine liberals were introduced to criticise people who were progressive on such issues while enjoying a very affluent lifestyle. In Australia the parallel term then was claret socialist, now replaced by chardonnay socialist, denoting either a change in the wine market or a weakening of ideology.

In this strain, elitist became part of the lexicon of the popular commentary of the Right, by contrasting their alleged preoccupations with populist certainties and real concerns. Flint’s work is in this tradition.

During the republican debate, critics apparently said that Flint and other monarchists were misusing the word elite, and that those like himself leading the monarchist case were also members of the elite. In this book, Flint replies: ‘This is to misunderstand the use of the word that was made popular by American author Christopher Lasch (1995). To him, elite opinion is opinion of the upper-middle-class liberal—that is, liberal in the American sense. This tends to be left-wing on social and cultural issues’ (p. 2).

This global reference to the distinguished American historian and social commentator Christopher Lasch’s book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy conceals just how different Lasch’s analysis is from Flint’s. Lasch’s elites include, for example, executives of transnational corporations, who have no sense of loyalty or obligation to the place where they live and work. Lasch laments the widening inequality in American society, and especially the declining position of the lower middle and working classes. He criticises the declining tax base of the cities, which has led to the erosion of public facilities. None of this is mentioned in Flint’s book.

Lasch has other targets of criticism, which are somewhat more in line with Flint’s, but at best, Flint’s reading is one-sidedly selective. (Neither should Lasch’s endorsement of populism be misread. It is very specific: an American historian endorsing the contemporary resonance of the egalitarian themes of the agrarian populists of the late nineteenth century.)

Because he ignores the history of his central term, Flint falls into common traps of misuse.

However Flint’s sloppy use of the concept is even more idiosyncratic than a one-sided reading of Lasch. A little later he writes: ‘The word elite is a … reference to a way of thinking now common in the media, in some university faculties and in the arts’. So for Flint the word elite applies now not to a group but to a way of thinking. The social location of political beliefs and ideologies is an interesting topic, but Flint here simply dissolves the whole question. At the very least, this cavalier approach to the history of a word and the indifference to its common usage in order to invent a convenient version of one’s own, is to show huge disrespect for the English language.

There are well-rehearsed issues in elite analysis in the social sciences, involving for example the internal coherence of elites and their relative openness or closure. Because he ignores the history of his central term, Flint blithely blunders into common traps of misuse. For example, conceptual stretch is evident in the way he uses elite to describe both what he sees as the dominance of post-modernism in humanities disciplines and the judicial activism of the High Court. It is obvious, however, that these are very different social groups whose memberships have little to do with each other, and that they have very different views of the world.

This sloppiness in the use of its central term detracts greatly from any analytical value the book might have, but empirically it is just as unsatisfactory. The bulk of the book is a series of chapters contesting the ‘elite agenda’ in particular areas. They are very lightly researched. Typically Flint takes what passes for evidence from some like-minded author in Quadrant, News Weekly or a Centre for Independent Studies publication. Except for references to newspaper articles, he rarely gives supporting evidence precisely. He leaves key propositions either undocumented, or makes a vague, global reference to a book or publication. On the whole, the accounts are too thin and partial to be of use to anyone seeking to find out more about them. Versions contrary to Flint’s preferred view are most often simply ignored, or else quoted skimpily to create a straw man.

His style is to make bold, simple assertions with an air of confidence that suggests no alternative can be countenanced. These assertions are rarely persuasive to those who do not already believe them, but they are not always easy to engage with in any brief way—for example: ‘The leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ‘led to the collapse of the vast Soviet empire’ (p. 164).

His expertise on Iraq also leads to confident simplicity: ‘There are only two constitutional models worth considering for Iraq—Westminster or Washington’ (p. 173). One doubts that Westminster or Washington (or Baghdad) sees it this way.

Both these constitutional models are majoritarian, which contain few post-election constraints on a majority government. In an ethnically and culturally diverse country either model can lead to minorities feeling permanently frozen out of government. In Iraq, such models would lead to a Shi’a government, which Washington might fear would become too close to Iran, and internally would lead to discontent and suspicion among the other groups. It is more likely that an electoral system based on proportional representation, with power sharing constitutional arrangements to ensure that all groups have a continuing stake in the new system, will be adopted.

Flint’s book ranges very widely, including for example a defence of George III and British rule before the American War of Independence (p. 14), and it is impossible to address many of his claims. Perhaps the strangest of his arguments concerns abortion and population growth. He begins by noting that ‘The high communist abortion rate was no doubt a consequence of the low value put on human life under Marxism, and the long-standing pro-abortion policies pursued by Marxist governments. Such regimes had population targets—they turned the abortion tap on and off precisely when it suited them!’ (p. 120).

Flint's simple assertions are rarely persuasive to those who do not already believe them.

Then he notes Australia’s relatively high abortion rate, although does not consider what turns the ‘abortion tap’ on and off here. His next big leap is to put abortion into the context of debates about population growth and immigration levels: ‘If the (abortion) rate could be reduced to that prevailing in 1970 … about 50,000 more babies would be born each year’ (p. 123) and so lower immigration would be needed. This equation presumes that the abortion rate would be reduced not by better contraception and fewer unwanted pregnancies, but by more pregnant women choosing not to have an abortion. Why they might do that is not considered. Soon after this he has a section lamenting the social damage done by the number of children born out of wedlock, and the large cost of welfare to single mothers.

His diagnosis of the health system is also breathtakingly simple: ‘In brief, the (health) system worked well. It was then “reformed” and Medibank, renamed Medicare, created. … Because of the cost of (medical) technological advances, but more because of those reforms, expenditure on health since then has grown by 176%’ (p. 149). This ignores any comparative perspective, which shows that Australian expenditure on health care has grown at roughly the same rate as other OECD countries, rising from 4.7 per cent of GDP in 1960 to 7.0 per cent in 1980 and 8.3 per cent in 2000. In contrast in the more commercial American system, health costs rose from 5.1 per cent in 1960 to 13.0 per cent in 2000, while under Britain’s national health scheme they rose from 3.9 per cent to 7.3 per cent (OECD 2003).

I noted a couple of dozen of such problematic and strange claims, often made in determined ignorance of evidence to the contrary. But this is sufficient to give the tone and style of the work. It is a depressing book to read because of its sloppiness and its smugness. Australia’s elites may or may not be in their twilight, but Flint’s book surely represents the high noon of Australian conservative mediocrity.


Higley, J., Deacon, D. & Smart, D. 1979, Elites in Australia, Routledge and Paul, London.

Higley, J., Pakulski, J. & Wesolowski, W. (eds) 1998, Postcommunist Elites and Democracy in Eastern Europe, St Martins Press, New York.

Lasch, C. 1996, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, W.W. Norton, New York.

Mills, C.W. 1956, The Power Elite, Oxford University Press, New York.

OECD 2003, Health at a Glance. OECD Indicators 2003, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.

Rodney Tiffen is Associate Professor in Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. He writes extensively on media issues.

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