A minority with a specialized area of influence and competence is referred to as an elite. A modern society normally has several elites. The best known are the political elites. Others are referred to as the military elite, business elite, landed elite, industrial elite. religious elite, professional elite. etc.
Elites tend to support each other. As minorities, they often have common vested interests though they also compete for power, influence, scarce resources and position in society. The more ambitious members of the elites come forward to form the ruling elite. The elites are, by definition, selfish and parasitical. Elitism is not possible without successful institutionalization of elite interests. Elites succeed in defining the national interest in terms of their sectional interests.
Democracies of the west, as well as ‘peoples’ democracies in communist countries, are most conducive to the development of elitism. Most elites have privileges secured by law. Often entry is barred by stiff rules of membership.
We may also distinguish between integrated elites and alienated elites. European societies have integrated elites, whereas the post-colonial Asian and African elites are alienated elites. The European elites speak the language of their country and are, so to speak, ‘home-grown’. The elites of western civilization have propelled their societies from the ‘dark ages’ into the modern age. The west is proud of its civilization, and its elite rightly claim credit for what they regard as their finest hour.
The elites in Asia and Africa, on the other hand, are alienated elites. They often do not speak the language of their own people. Their education, life-style, and achievements are part of the success story of an alien culture and civilization. In the history of their countries, these elites represent, and are the beneficiaries of, the nightmare of colonialism. They are the influence left behind by the colonial powers. Now these elites act as the instruments, agents, and tentacles of global imperialism. Because of their alienation from the tradition, history, culture, language and faith of the masses, the post-colonial governments run by these elites often enjoy even lower levels of legitimacy than their erstwhile colonial masters.
In many non-Muslim countries the alienated elite is looked upon with awe and respect. There the present stage, bad though it is, is better than anything their own history can offer. The western-oriented elite in such Asian-African context represents the highest stage of development and progress that their societies have reached. India is a good example. The Hindus of India had been under Muslim rule for almost 800 years before the British raj. For India, history is the long story of the Indians’ failure to rule their own country. Independence from Britain brought the Hindus political power almost for the first time. For them, British was best and the British-created elite is the high point of achievement.
For the Muslims of India, and indeed throughout the world, the colonial experience was a nightmare. They had been the dominant political and cultural influence for a thousand years before the period of European colonialism began. The western civilization has emerged in the dominant role at the direct expense of the Muslims. The Muslim masses, even the Muslim elites, have a strong memory of their long and proud history and civilization. Because of the dynamic force that is Islam, Muslims also have an equally strong expectation of a great future. Muslim societies today represent the lowest point reached by them in this nightmare of history. In this historical situation, regimes led by alienated elites cannot possibly produce legitimate governments. Hence the ‘sea of instability’ in the Muslim world, and relative stability in non-Muslim countries.
The dominant elements of a society who benefit most from the ‘existing order’ and are prepared to act together to ensure the continuance of the system are often referred to as The Establishment. The members of the establishment are individuals as well as institutions. It is related directly to the economic dominance as well as the ability to control or manoeuvre the political system. Within the establishment, there may be fierce conflicts and competition among groups. But such groups engaged in competition and conflict realize that their higher common goal is to preserve the system. The establishment in this sense represents a set of values common to competing groups.
The establishment also provides a set of rules for the conduct of social conflict. It sees to it that the losers in the inter-establishment conflicts still have some rewards. Thus, after an election has been held to decide which group (political party) from within the establishment will fill the scarce position in government, the losers also get paid positions. The ‘leader of the (loyal) opposition’ gets a salary and his ‘shadow cabinet’ can look forward to holding office in the future. Loyalty to the establishment is rewarded in many other ways, such as with diplomatic assignments, salaried chairmanships and membership of committees and boards, overseas trips, and~ so on.
The establishment is that minority of people in a society that never loses.
This article was written in 1983 - Ed.
Muslimedia: April 1996-August 1996