The Classless Republic

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I cannot see the least possibility of recreating either an elite republican class (if, by “elite,” one means an untitled aristocracy) or the American Republic itself.  The notion of a republic is a product of classical political thinking, which is now virtually dead in the Western world, and never appeared elsewhere.  Not only has the classical political tradition become virtually extinct, the ability to think in classical terms seems to have been lost as well.

Classical republicanism cannot survive a modern social and political anomaly that no political tradition before the postmodern era could possibly have envisioned.  That is the rise of an elite that is revolutionary, not conservative or even establishmentarian.  A republic characterized by a bicameral government in which both the upper house and the executive branch are hostile to the traditional notion of an establishment is antithetical to the work as well as to the vision of the American Founding Fathers—in fact, of every republican theorist and statesman.  The resulting chaos is as great as if Louis XIV, instead of attempting weakly to accommodate the revolutionary spirit that succeeded in toppling the French monarchy, had himself become an enthusiastic convert to Jacobinism.  A society in which the destructionists, the antiestablishmentarians, and the professional political and cultural sappers are not only drawn from, but actually constitute, the elite class is the most extreme case of the world turned upside down.  Unfortunately, the world cannot survive upside down, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee standing on their heads for the rest of their lives.  The situation is as unnatural to human society as a country run by the inhabitants of a mental asylum would be, and as sustainable.

Alexis de Tocqueville thought that a true aristocracy must be based on land ownership.  He was right.  When the material prosperity and the political and social power of an upper class, or “elite,” are based on something other than land, which is an actual portion of the bounded national territory, the establishment eventually ceases to care for, or feel a commitment to, their country, its people, and its future.  The transition from landed to industrial wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries weakened that commitment, without destroying it completely.  It was left to the postmodern globalist economy—based on abstract wealth, on information, and on electronic communications—to erase altogether the attenuated loyalties of the elite class.

Over half a century ago T.S. Eliot, in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, had his say on the insufficiencies of the meritocracy as compared with the virtues of traditional aristocracy.  By definition, meritocrats rise on their merits.  They also fall on them, as they are supplanted and cast down by rising individuals who contest their hold on society’s top niches, in the same manner that a coalition of nomad lions seizes a pride from older or weaker males, or those with less prowess in combat.  While meritocrats are capable of making individual contributions to society, they, their families, and, more importantly, their descendants do not remain long enough at the top to establish a system of dominant values and guiding traditions for future generations to preserve and follow.  Consequently, while talent and ability are always renewing themselves, the permanent things come to be regarded as transient ones, dependent upon social whim and fashion, while the traditions that bind and develop a society over time are denied a chance to develop.

It has been suggested that a particular type of educational institution might be devised that is capable of training a responsible elite class.  That, of course, is what the French have been attempting since Napoleon founded the lycée system.  In fact, something of the sort has existed in the United States since World War II, when James Conan Bryant of Harvard proposed that “democracy” be made synonymous with an equal opportunity for all to enter the meritocracy (which would then be democratically entitled to lord it over the lives of the great mass of commoners).  Robert B. Reich, President Clinton’s secretary of labor, in his book The Work of Nations (1992), paints a portrait, as devastating as it is fawning, of what he calls the “symbolic managers”: the latest incarnation of the exclusively educated New Class whose narcissism, social irresponsibility, and contempt for their social and intellectual inferiors makes Marie Antoinette look like Jane Addams.  Noblesse oblige can be inherited, but never learned.

Bertrand de Jouvenel thought that power could be defeated only by cells created by itself that, in time, would work to destroy power from within and usurp its place.  Such may indeed be the case with power in America.  Yet it is hard to imagine how the constituent members of such a cell, nurtured within the body of the Beast, could have the faintest notion of the principles of republicanism, in fact of the classical tradition itself.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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