Tuesday, 2 April 2013

On Elites and Social Justice

So this started when @miss_mcinerney re-posted a blog by @sturdyalex. It's a very well written polemic which comes down to the assertion that there are too many posh boys running the country who don't have a clue.

I don't disagree with his conclusion that we need more diversity in politics - but was mildly piqued by his implied assertion that you need to have experienced poverty to understand it; and to want to do something about it....

Anyway I replied that "most effective progressives in history have not themselves been poor". This led @HFletcherWood to send me one of his blogs that quotes US teaching guru Steven Farr:

"No movement for social justice has ever succeeded without leaders who have suffered that injustice".

This is a great line. It's also wrong. And it was at this point I needed more than 140 characters to explain my point.

So here are my two counter-contentions:

There have been successful movements for social justice led almost entirely by elites.

There are few - if any - examples of successful movements for social justice that have not required the support of elites.

To support my contentions here is a very crude typology of "movements for social justice"

Type One: movements led almost entirely by elites

The obvious example here are the campaigns to end the slave trade in Britain and slavery in the US. These changes had to be driven by white elites because slaves themselves were almost completely disempowered. A small number of ex-slaves like Equiano in Britain and Frederick Douglass in the US played key roles in the respective movements but change was primarily driven by rich white people with a social conscience. Another example might be the labour reform movement led by Lord Shaftesbury in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Type Two: movements led by social elites with strong non-elite support

An example here would be the post-war introduction of the welfare state in the UK. While there was clearly a strong groundswell of support for better welfare/health provision (just look at the 1945 election result) the movement for change was led by wealthy liberal reformers like William Beveridge; Beatrice Webb and Henrietta Barnett. Most of the key reforms were introduced by the Atlee Government packed with similarly wealthy reformers (Atlee himself; Hugh Dalton; Stafford Cripps etc) alongside trade unionists like Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Another example would be the rise of the Republican-Democrats in post-revolutionary America. Again the movement tapped into a strong groundswell of support but was led by wealthy plantation owners like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.

Type Three: movements led by "sufferers of injustice" but supported by elites

A good example here would be the civil rights movement which was undoutedly led by Martin Luther King and other great civil rights advocates like Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis. Without them it would have taken much longer to introduce any meaningful rights for black Americans but they needed the support of elites to make it happen. In the third volume of Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Johnson "Master of the Senate" he narrates the extraordinary machinations LBJ undertook in order to get the 1957 Civil Rights Act passed. Continued support from the Kennedy brothers; Johnson and incredibly dedicated government officials like Nicholas Katzenbach was needed to get the much more significant 1964 Act passed. When the movement stopped engaging with white elites after King's death it drifted into black panther-style separatism and opportunity for further progress was significantly reduced. Another example here would be the suffragettes who needed support from the Lloyd-George administration to win their fight.

I can't think of any examples of movements for social justice in democracies that were successful without support from elites. Those who have sought to actively alienate elites fail. The poor need the rich.

I now expect to be monstered by some proper historians...


  1. Isn't this just pointing out that power is held by elites and that to effect change you have to have power. Even where someone starts as a non-elite member, when they gain power they become part of the elite. A good example would be Margaret Thatcher perhaps or the early Labour Party.

    I do agree that without converting / persuading / becoming the elite, ordinary people can't have much impact upon their own.

  2. It's curious that you don't mention any of the 'warped' social justice movements that have exploited democracy for their way in to legitimate power and then imposed their own terms, usually in the form of a dictatorship. This doesn't dispute your sound theory that social and political (and military!) elites either need to support these movements, or look the other way when injustice takes place in the name of a self-labelled, caring yet paternal figure - big brother, fascism, national socialism, communism and marxism all come to mind. But then progressive to some might mean something completely different to others, it really depends where you believe you are progressing to. Congrats on your first post.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, Sam. I can see that condensing it into 140 characters would have been a challenge...

    I wonder if we all understand the same thing by the term 'elite'? Is it just about class? Power? Wealth? Education?

    When it's used as a criticism (as with the word 'posh') in this country (often against politicians) it seems to me that it's usually an attack on those who were privately educated. As someone who's taught across both sectors (though I was educated entirely in state schools) I feel frustrated when the type of school you went to is seen as a legitimate reason for prejudice. Especially when so many who attend independent schools are only able to do so because of financial support schemes.

    What do you/others think? I know you've worked for the Independent Schools Council as well as for the DfE.

  4. A small variety of ex-slaves like Equiano in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and emancipationist within the United States contend key roles within the several movements however modification was primarily driven by wealthy Caucasian race with a social conscience academic essay.