Does a socioeconomic elite class have value to people who aren't in it?

Bertrand Russell, in Power, wrote something to the effect (can’t recall the quote verbatim or put my hands on the book) that, whatever one’s politics might be, there can be no defense for an aristocratic ethic – these few are to enjoy the good things and the others merely to minister to them. He added that aristocrats have always behaved in a way no other ethic could justify; and, as an English earl, Russell ought to know something about aristocrats.

Taking that ethical position as a starting point – is it arguable that the existence of an elite class in society (whether hereditary or meritocratic or, as in the contemporary U.S., a mixture*) is of some benefit to the other classes, or to society as a whole? Does it have a value that would be lost in a classless society (assuming arguendo that such a thing were possible)?

A conservative friend of mine sometimes talks of all the good things wealthy philanthropists give the world, in work for charity and patronage of the arts and education. This is undoubtedly true. (As a librarian, I am very sensible of the things Andrew Carnegie did to establish public libraries in the U.S.) But do they give more, or more efficiently, than government could?

There is also the value of an elite class as a training-ground for public service. In Britain, the gentry have historically provided society with its top civil servants, military officers, clergy, local justices of the peace – in general, leaders. Now, any society, however egalitarian, will have some kind of “institutional elite.” That does not logically require said elite be drawn mainly from a social elite class. But, is it perhaps better if it is? Do people raised in wealth and privilege make more effective leaders?

Many people ascribe an elite class a kind of esthetic value, which makes it a kind of end-in-itself. Certainly most things we remember about past ages were either done by elites or made possible by their patronage. Who would want to study the history of the Baroque Period if it were all about the peasants and artisans? We want to read about the refined aristocracy and the magnificent art and architecture they paid for!

John Maynard Keynes, writing on the Soviet Union, once said, “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of human advancement?”

I’m playing Devil’s advocate in terms of my own mostly left-wing views here, but this is a topic I think merits discussion.

If an elite class were based on a truly meritocratic system, I would be all for it. But for every altruistic aristocrat or patron of the arts, I’d guess there were about a dozen Paris Hiltons, just based on my encounters with wealthy people. As far as the class producing great artists or leaders, I tend to think that is due to them having more opportunity. Most of the peasant class who might have been artistically inclined probably were detered by the threat of starvation, and most of the leaders among the lower classes were no doubt labeled troublemakers and either discouraged or hanged.

OK, I’ll bite, and use the same answer Ayn Rand gave. If you take away from the most productive people the fruits of their productivity, how long do you think they’re going to keep working?

There has to be some method of promoting productivity. If everyone is rewarded the same no matter what they do there’s no point in producing anything, and people soon start producing the bare minimum neccesary to avoid punishment. Pretty soon there’s nothing left worth stealing and the redistributionist house of cards comes tumbling down.

Does this mean I support an aristocracy? Far from it, aristocrats fill the same function in society that Tony Soprano does, except Tony at least provides people with drugs and prostitutes, aristocrats don’t even do that.


1)for the people who aspire to it & hence serves as motivation.

2)for those who agree with the overall sensibilities of the elite & depend on their survival to maintain the status quo.

That’s really a hijack. Even a classless society could have income differentials. See George Orwell’s prescription for a postwar socialist Britain in The Lion and the Unicorn

Class is, in any case, much more complicated than income level. The best analysis I’ve read on this is from The Next American Nation, by Michael Lind – (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996), pp. 141-145:

Note that this overclass is a hereditary/meritocratic mixture. It is possible to work (and/or marry) your way into it; but most of its members were born into it, and that does make a real practical difference in its culture and in the way it relates to other classes.

  1. is easy to understand (although it would apply with as much force to raw income as to class status, which is not the same thing – see above); but would you care to expand on 2)?

See also Class: A Guide to the American Status System, by Paul Fussell (New York: Summit Books, 1983), pp. 27-50:

In the last chapter, Fussell identifies a tenth class, a “Class X” of declassed intellectuals and bohemians.

Even this fine-grained analysis might be too simplistic. For one thing, it ignores divisions between ethnic groups. A working-class black and a working-class white might work in similar occupations for similar incomes; but they grow up in different social environments, speak different dialects, attend different churches, listen to different music, socialize with circles of friends almost entirely of their own color, and almost certainly will marry (or, at any rate, reproduce) within their own race. The divisions are much less sharp than they were 20 years ago. (I know white kids who listen to rap and hip-hop, and who call each other “nigger” and “dog” as terms of affection, and whose closest friends and romantic interests are as likely to be black as white.) But they’re still there. Are the white prole and the black prole in the same “class”? In 10 or 20 years, maybe; today, no, IMO. They both occupy the same horizontal layer of the social pyramid but there is a vertical line of separation between them.

Perhaps a better question to ask is whether Fussell’s analysis is dated. In noting the death of the American lower middle class due to economic forces in the 1960s and '70s, Fussell acknowledged a society’s class structure can change significantly in a short period of time. And his book dates from 1983. How well does it describe the America of 2004?

Sorry, I meant, of course, “How well does it describe the America of 2006?”

Preview. Preview. Preview.

Well, if you’re a butler, a maid, a jeweler, a luxury car dealer, a horse breeder, a caviar merchant, a fine art dealer, a bodyguard, or a gardener, then the more wealthy aristocrats there are the better your business is.

And I’m not so much sold on the notion of the “overclass” presented by Lind. He’s not describing a new aristocracy, he’s describing the upper middle class.

What class am I? My dad is a union electrician, his brother was a draftsman, my mom is a legal transcriptionist, one grandfather was a carpenter, one was a lumberjack. Blue collar, working class, whatever you want to call it. I have first cousins who have been on and off welfare, boyfriends in prison, blah blah blah. That’s my family.

Except, am I working class? I don’t think so. What kind of a class is it when you don’t belong to it if you think you don’t belong to it? It seems to me that in a real class system I’d always be a member of my class, no matter how much money I made or what job I had or where I went to school…I’d always eat with the wrong fork, speak with the wrong accent, go to the wrong church, have the wrong shape of nose, like the wrong sports, read the wrong books. My every action would betray my class origins, and I’d have to go to enormous effort to conceal them. Except this doesn’t seem much like the way things work in America, when the President pretends to watch NASCAR and eat pork rinds and puts on a rural accent. What kind of class system is it when I can be a member of the white overclass, yet my first cousins are white trash welfare cases with boyfriends who are in and out of prison?

Anyway, this is a bit of a hijack, but we can’t really talk about class without, well, talking about class. In my mind, there’s a big difference between a traditional hereditary aristocracy, who are just the descendents of sword-swinging mafiosi on horseback, and some guy who went to an Ivy League school and has a high-paying managerial job and listens to NPR and doesn’t have a regional accent.

I suppose it depends on what ‘elite class’ you are refering too. You mentioned the aristocrats (actually as and Earl he was Nobility but who’s counting ehe? :)) and that whole useless bunch of outdated dinosaurs. Do they give value to the people not in their class(s)? Well, initially I suppose they did…in the form of protection money. The peasant and trades classes ‘benifitted’, at least in theory, by the Noble/Aristocrat/Gentry classes in that they were protected (again, in theory) from attack by other bands of thugs with pointy thing. In addition they received some kind of government and stability (again in theory).

It wasn’t a very GOOD benifit, but they did derive something from it early on. Later of course…well, there was always America to flee too I suppose. :stuck_out_tongue:
If by ‘socioeconomic elite class’ you mean modern industrialists…yeah, I think folks not of that class derive something from them. A hell of a lot more benifit than those peasants and trades folks derived from the noble classes. One has only to look at the current standard of living in countries that have industrialists of some stripe or other. Most markedly look at the contrast in Europe today vs Europe a 100 years ago (while still in the last grasp of their leeching nobles)…or earlier. Contrast that with the US at the time and its no wonder we were constantly flooded with imigrants fleeing the madness.

If by ‘socioeconomic elite class’ you mean the idle rich…well, I don’t actually think there are all that many of them out there, certainly not enough to make a difference. Even there though other classes derive something, in the form of taxes on their wealth and in the form of various jobs to provide goods and services for those idle rich folks. Plus they derive seemingly endless fun in getting to sit at bars and on message boards and bitch about them…that ought to count for something. :wink:


After reading everything said and cited so far, and after much careful consideration of the OP’s question, I’d have to say the answer is a resounding “it depends.” What does it depend on? Social structure, primarily. Social classes – and all classes are social, for they are all divisions of a society into different groups – can exist for a myriad of reasons, depending on the overarching moral order of the society. Now, that’s the general case. Let’s get specific: America, now.

Right now, the US of A is a highly individualist society. The pure individual is held as the ideal to which everyone is expected to aspire. To that end, the bootstrapping rags-to-riches story is the predominant narrative element of American culture. One consequence of that, as pointed out by BrainGlutton’s cite of Michael Lind, is that those who already had shit-tons of money when America got rolling simply made sure they held onto their wealth, and relaxed.

Once upon a time, however, social classes served far more use than offering a vision of upward mobility. During the middle ages in Europe, the law was such that legally a merchant was a different entity than a serf, a knight different from a merchant, a noble different from a knight, and so on. A knight could kill a peasant and pay only a small fine. Classes in this society served to perpetuate the institutions (such as land ownership, and marriage (which in turn was a purely political combination of two family’s land assets)) that allowed food production and resource management to stay organized. But then the Enlightenment came, and suddenly we were all equal under the law. America took that concept in its teeth and ran with it. New institutions replaced the old, and instead of a sense of community and serving in one’s place, we now have the every-man-for-himself idea of capitalism.

So the answer to the OP’s question is, yes, elite classes can have enormous value to the entire society, by serving as the backbone to the social structure (this is just another way of saying they enforce the common practices that allows everyone to stay on the same page).

BrainGlutton’s own posts and quotes have already pretty much shown this is an all but impossible discussion. The idea of an “elite class” is going to be vastly different from culture to culture, and in the United States especially it is extremely difficult to define such a class.

Before this can even be debated I think we need a simple and workable definition of “socioeconomic elite class” and I’ll be surprised if someone can come up with one that would apply to the United States that can survive scrutiny.

Still pretty well. Fussell’s analysis is confused by the fact that he can’t get around his own middle class notion of class (and make no mistake, his class X is extremely middle class in their attitudes) and the fact that he’s bought into class stereotypes hook, line and sinker, but if you can ignore that, he makes some good points. There are dividing lines among those who want to have enough to get by, to be comfortable, to be successful (and known as successful), and those who aren’t particularly concerned with any of those things.

Now, as to the value of the upper class, don’t forget that there are at least two flavors, the aristocrats and the patricians. For the aristocrats, think of the wealthy in the antebellum south, and for the patricians, the antebellum north. The practical difference between the two is that patricians carry a strong sense of nobless oblige, and as such they do have a positive impact on the rest of society.

Care to expand on that? Why do you think (landed) aristocrats do not have a sense of noblesse oblige?

I don’t have any idea. Note that the aristocrats I refer to are a subset of what you’re calling the aristocracy.

Well, turn it around: Why do you think patricians do have a sense of noblesse oblige?

I don’t know if there’s a general answer. As I understand it, the upper class of the antebellum North were influenced by Calvinist philosophy, and may have picked it up from there.

The group at the very top has very little value, because all they do is receive income. If every last upper class person in America died tomorrow, the nation’s fortunes would improve slightly at worst, greatly at best. The managerial/professional/entrepreneurial class is very important. They could be and often are easily replaced by upwardly mobile folk from the middle class, but collectively they represent a strong endowment of skills and ability.

The poor are people who are done to, but they also do things: they do the bulk of the hard, boring labor in society that members of the middle and upper class would be driven nuts by. Individually they are supremely replaceable, as a group they’re necessary at present (if machine tech that can operate robotic hands and eyes gets off the ground, they won’t be necessary any more).

A socioeconomic elite class is not the same as an aristocracy. An aristocracy inherits it’s position from birth. One cannot become a member of that class unless they are born into it.

A socioeconomic elite, however, represents an ideal which people can aspire too. Whether you are an actor, businessman, athlete or educator, there should be some ideal you can aspire to, even if you can never achieve it. The alternative is a mundane, hopeless existence shared equally with everyone.

I find a certain irony in the fact that our modern aristocracy are mostly here to entertain us, not the other way around.

Thing is, the “elite” aren’t more productive as a rule, they just have more power / ownership. Bill Gates doesn’t produce the various products of Microsoft, his employees do. Frankly, if your arguement was true, society would collapse because the people who do most of the work get the least rewards.

My answer to the OP : No, on the whole. IMHO, the “social elite” are generally amoral predatory scum, parasitic fools, or both.