What happened to noblesse oblige?

If you look around at universities, you are supposed to see the future elite. Even in the Netherlands, where there are currently over 250.000 enrolled bachelor- and master students, the image of students belonging to a relatively wealthy and talented class in society still prevails. Do I see myself as part of the elite? I don’t know. And to be honest, given the fact that the concept of ‘elite’ has become something of a swear word during the past few years, I’m not sure whether I want to consider myself elitist.

One thing is clear: criticism on the global elite is mounting. The rise of populist, anti-establishment political figures and parties like Donald Trump, Front National, Geert Wilders, Alternative für Deutschland and the  UK Independence Party has recently gained momentum. Although these movements have different histories and political aims, they all share a resentment for anything that smells elitist. Whether it is the political establishment that does not take democracy seriously (as with the recent EU-Ukraine referendum in the Netherlands) or multinationals who cleverly engage in tax avoidance (Panama papers): the elite is to blame!

Today, the concept of elite is mostly associated with ivory towers, nepotism, bonuses and mismanagement. Some of these accusations are undoubtedly true. American politics is more intertwined with the corporate sector – through Super PACs, for instance – than ever. Money seems to play a bigger role during elections than solid arguments. Moreover, the ignorance of the financial sector towards bonuses and taxes is absolutely repugnant. From this, you would almost think being elitist equals arrogant politicians and manipulative executives.

Have things ever been any different? Yes and no. Power corrupts, today as well as in the past. The elite has always had two faces: one grim, the other virtuous. We tend to remember only the former, with images of the despotic French king Louis XIV (“l’état c’est moi”) and the decadency of the European nobility. The ‘happy few’ controlled most of society and tried to maintain their privileges at all costs.

Yet the other side of the coin is at least as important to remember. Apart from all their privileges and excesses, the elite was characterized by the motto of noblesse oblige: wealth, power and prestige comes with responsibility. This can be broadly interpreted, like the responsibility to distribute resources fairly or the responsibility to promote moral and social values. As the famous investor Warren Buffet puts it:

“If you’re in the luckiest one per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.”

For me, noblesse oblige can be seen as a precursor of modern socialist ideology. Before a part of society organized itself into left-wing political movements, wealth and power were kept in check through the virtues expressed by the elite. The result was a delicate balance between power and social harmony. Far from being saints, the elite was able to legitimize their rule by genuinely acting in the interests of the common folk.

Noblesse oblige (2)How very different are the actions of the elite today. The idea of noblesse oblige is dead. Politicians and business leaders are completely detached from the normal world, convinced that their privileged position in society is due to merit alone and allows for the unlimited pursuit of wealth and power. There can only be winners; (in the spirit of rapper 50 Cent) it’s either “get rich or die tryin'”. Instead of self-confidence, it is the fear of falling that pushes the modern elite to relentlessly acquire larger mansions, faster cars and ever higher bonuses.

If we want to stop Donald Trump from becoming president, we need to take a good look at ourselves. As the presumed future elite, do we want join the materialist rate race, caring only about how we can beat others and claim our superiority? Or do we acknowledge a modern version of noblesse oblige that stresses we also have the responsibility to promote fairness and prosperity, for all. So stop talking about Trump and make that change yourself.


Author: Felix den Ottolander

Owner of China Hand (www.chinablog.com)

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