Elites, Politics and Development

Last week, the contention was on whether politics can be pro-poor. While I am yet to come to a conclusion about that, the issue has shown itself to be a real can of worms. The bringing in of elites into the discussion ultimately raises the questions – what have elites got to do with development? And to answer this question another needs to be answered first… who are the elites? These are surely very complex questions and made more so by the fact that I had been following a debate on the Economist with the motion This House Believes That the Global Elite Serve the Masses. I could not help but marvel at the coincidence that the Economist should choose such a topic on the same week that I am grappling with understanding the role of elites in development. It however, became less of a surprise when I followed the massive arguments on both sides, which in one way or the other, pointed to the fact that elites are a massive influence on how the future of the world is to be shaped.

The proposer of the debate felt that the “modern subsidised elite… provide goods and services that the masses value. And, for all we know, the consumer surplus may exceed the subsidy. What is more, the élite pay high taxes that subsidise the consumption of the masses. In America, the bottom 50% of earners pays no federal income tax at all, while the top 10% pay 50% of the national total. In Britain, most people consume more than they earn.” Wow! I literally clapped for him… but not until I read the opposition’s remarks that “Instead… look more closely at the record of the elite in recent years… the question should not be whether such ideas are beneficial but whether the elite could have done better. In many respects their record in recent years, particularly in the West, is poor. Economic growth could arguably have been faster and technological progress more pervasive. The average growth rate in the Western economies is much slower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Caught within the ‘fly bottle” of this debate, it was not surprising that I had some difficulties at the beginning of Tom’s lecture. From his definition of elites, my mind immediately became flooded with questions… is the concept of ‘elite’ the same in the Western world as it is in Africa? Do they have similar roles to perform? Are the expectations from the masses the same? Is there any such thing as ‘global elite’?

Then I got it! There lies the main area of my confusion… the use of the word ‘global’ in the debate motion and the fact that the Moderator, Proposer and Opposition all failed to capture what they meant by ‘global’. Their arguments failed to reflect the universal nature of the proposition. Maybe by luck or by design, this realisation made it relatively simpler for me to follow the discussions during the seminar. I had arrived at certain conclusions though:

First, there is a marked difference between the African elite and that of the West. This is not only from the perspective that the African elite “…tend to be especially powerful. (And) often command a particularly large slice of the national income, and the influence that goes with it.” (Hossain and Moore, 2002) But most especially that their histories are very different. While it would seem the problem of elite’s participation in the political and/or economic development of the western countries could be seen as an issue that is beginning to decline, the situation of the African elite is different in that their roles were defined by the very process of their creation – to be one that exploits rather than help the masses. Fanon clearly stated that the mission of these national bourgeoisie “has nothing to do with transforming the nation” as it is content with playing “the role of the western bourgeoisie’s business agent” and serving as the local instrument of neo-colonialism. Nkrumah, one of those who was quick to spot this a long time ago pointed out that the African elites (bourgeoisies) were a far more serious problem  than colonialism for while colonialism had been slavery from without, neo-colonialism was slavery from within, and as such more dangerous. (Nkrumah, 1965, 50) Jean-Paul Sartre, who calls them the “manufactured native elite”, cogently explains that

The European elite undertook to manufacture native elite. They picked out promising adolescents, branded them as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture; they stuffed their mouth full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. (Sartre; Preface  to Fanon; p. ix)

These native elites did not limit themselves to high-sounding phrases but in many other ways mortgaged the economies of their countries in a bid to maintain their privileges. This is because the African elites or bourgeoisie:

…lacks something essential to a bourgeoisie: Money. The bourgeoisie of an underdeveloped country is a bourgeoisie in spirit only….consequently, it remains at the beginning and for a long time afterwards a bourgeoisie of the civil service…..it will always reveal itself incapable of giving birth to an authentic bourgeoisie society with all the economic and industrial consequences which this entails.

Until there is a good and accountable partnership between the government and the people with whom sovereignty resides and through some process of direct dialogue and initiative, a few individuals will continue to present their ideologies and selfish interests as national creed, thereby eroding the powers of the people[i]

[i] Francis O.C Njoku; Development and African Philosophy, p.182

One thought on “Elites, Politics and Development

  1. Hi!
    I find your essay on elites wonderful. Just some little contribution. I feel that-from an African setting, the idea and role of elite politics can be best appreciated. To be sure, those who are conversant with African politics may simply baptize it as Elite Politics. As you rightly quoted Satre in Fanon’s work, the smaller elites (let me understand that you mean those of third world economies) are products of Western mega elites. Permit me to add that elite politics is hereditary, for the children take over their parents and so the cycle goes on and unfortunately not to the interest of the ruled. You settled for dialogue as solution, how best can this be actualised?


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