Praise of the elite


Strange is the fate of certain words, linked in part to etymology, in part to the spirit with which they are used. For example, bureaucracy, i.e. the administrative complex of each body, does not necessarily have the worst meaning prevailing today, which evokes paperwork, cumbersome procedures or quibbling formalisms. In France, the Grand Commission of State, a highly deserving official of an efficient and selected public apparatus, is a highly coveted post. To emanate from the model of the Ena (Ecole Nationale d’Administration), founded by De Gaulle with headquarters in Paris and Strasbourg, is a reason for prestige and pride. Obviously, if the structure is slow, the faceted staff or the rusty mechanisms, the use and sense of the word will also change. Unfortunately, this is the case in Italy: where the fate of the term “bureaucracy” will be marked until the regulations become more streamlined, the offices more efficient, the employees more diligent. Let’s say that hope is always legitimate.

Perhaps the worst fate, and certainly unfair, is reserved for the word elite. That is to say, the ruling class or power group, which is mostly misunderstood by those who do not belong to it. Nomenklatura in Russian, establishment in English. Especially in times of widespread distrust of the leaders of politics and culture, the term tends to become synonymous with closed caste, oligarchy, lobby or worse, coven. While in its noblest meaning the elite should represent the best that society and culture are in a position to express, evoking values of merit, quality and selection. The Beautiful World, the Gotha. In French élire means to choose. In Latin it says eligere. In short, we are talking about the elected, the chosen members, those subjects judged to be the best and most qualified to entrust roles of representation and management. For Cicero, viri electissimi.

Let linguists question themselves on the most correct meaning, and let’s try to interpret better the idea of elite: since, as is known, each word corresponds to a concept.

Commonly dominates the prejudice that would want people and elites opposed. The despot against the people, the arrogant power against the masses and so on. But here one central and decisive fact is neglected: all – the dominant institution as well as the antagonist movement – cannot prescind from an elite, that is from a moment of direction and organization that cannot be collective. The Bolsheviks had Lenin, the Jacobins Robespierre, our resurgence figures like Garibaldi and Cavour. The Italian communist Togliatti – a character, however judged, of refined intellectual stature and rare political intelligence – was called “The Best” by his own followers. In other words, the elite is functional to the system as to the anti-system. If this is true, then the concept loses those features of conservative closure or antiquated hierarchy that are often attributed to it. Today it would seem that in the dominant mentality the primordial scheme of the elite prevails against the populace, where the wrath of the plebs rises to value and ignorance to paradigm. The most common example, to quote once again the case of France – we are talking about a French word – is given by the so-called yellow vests: which often hurl themselves, often in a roughly physical way, against the Elysée or its symbols. For the moment, the movement has not gone beyond a general discontent, without content or cultural references – as Sartre and Marcuse had been in May in Paris, or the Enlightenment in 1789 – nor voices or interlocutors capable of relating to institutions. If and when the phenomenon will ever give itself a political form, a structure and a strategy, at that point it will necessarily have to express an elite.

The elite has always transformed the mass into civilization, the insurgent into a citizen, curiosity into culture – school, learning, training. To discredit it is not democratic but foolish, and it is equivalent to a general impoverishment.

Gian Luca Caffarena

 



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