Let's eject the real Big Brothers

At last, a proper challenge to the culture-hating, barrel-scraping, focus group-worshipping populists in power
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The Independent Culture

The New Elites: making a career in the masses by George Walden (Allen Lane, £18.99, 224pp)

The New Elites: making a career in the masses by George Walden (Allen Lane, £18.99, 224pp)

In the sterile atmosphere of the culture wars that dominates the current dialogue - or custard-pie throwing - over the arts, there is general agreement over one issue. Elitism is reprehensible and disagreeable. We're all against it; we're all populists now. George Walden agrees and his book is a rousing, funny, cantankerous assault on élites; or rather, on the new élites. He identifies as the new élites those very people who make a career, hold a position and keep a reputation by attacking the old élites in the name of the people, devoting themselves to the unquestioned primacy of majority tastes. These - as the Marxist-Leninists might have said - are the running dogs of the masses, the complaisant cohabiters of populism, the self-interested supporters and exploiters of the power of the majority. This book ought to make George Walden very unpopular. It will make some people rather cross. Does he deserve to succeed?

Walden's thesis is that the old élites - of money, social position, education, of minority cultural tastes - have long since been unseated. That is both inevitable and desirable as society evolves. But society needs its élites of skill, of excellence, even of knowledge, if a highly articulate, liberal democracy is to function. These true élites - of information technology or bio-genetics, for instance - must and will be new as knowledge itself grows and takes new forms.

So far, so easy. Walden's own novelty is to identify something different: a new, controlling super-élite in Britain of people who have established their position by invoking the will of the majority and justifying it as the only legitimising activity. For these new élites, "populism has become the only acceptable approach to political, social and cultural thinking". These are "oligarchies whose influence depends on their ability to reflect the mood of the moment by catering to society's need for perpetual change". They undermine those "pinnacles of intellectual influence which are seen as pockets of resistance to the prevailing culture".

Walden argues that the new élites can be recognised by their slavish advocacy of populism, which he defines as "giving the public what they want, or are deemed to want, and telling them that it is good". The last part of the sentence is crucial. These élitist populists insist that things are brilliant just because they are popular. He might add that the corollary is even more noxious. Anything not popular (defined by numbers or money) cannot be good or have any value with which society needs to bother itself, still less to subsidise.

That this campaign can happen at all, let alone operate so effectively, comes about in Walden's view because we abuse and misunderstand the very idea of the "mass". Perhaps the British like it that way. The sterile "élite versus mass" debate can only exist in a polarised world of extremes - a class-based antagonistic world where élite is up and mass is down; an old-fashioned world of ancient political and economic battles.

Walden believes that if we could see the mass differently - not as something made up of others but as an entity which includes ourselves, not as the bottom of society but as the middling average - then the fetid swamp in which the current debate exists could be drained.

He lays about him with impartial enthusiasm against these cynical collaborators and opportunists. Quoting from Kierkegaard, Gramsci, Heidegger, de Tocqville, Flaubert and many others, he draws up a wide-ranging charge sheet. He attacks egalitarian educationists whose achievement is not only to "manufacture a workforce" but to "manufacture consumers, and the philosophy of education could scarcely be better geared to producing the right kind of consumers from the business point of view". He attacks the mass marketeer for whom, as for the cultural egalitarian, the historic past is another, irrelevant, country. Now "feelings are supreme simply because we all have them. Intellect, being less equally distributed, is seen as divisive."

Walden manages to be sharply topical, as when he identifies as worthy of especial ridicule "the arts person oiling his way into the affections of the young... or the BBC executive promising both more accessibility and the maintenance of Reithian standards". The aptness and accuracy of these references suggests that his thesis has a sound analytical base.

But this is not a veiled "pro arts-and-culture" book. Anyone who has been involved in the great cultural custard-pie fight will wince at Walden's description of much arts talk as being "high falutin' and ingratiating, patrician and deferential, uptight and élitist". No matter that he castigates Arts Council Chairman Gerry Robinson for adopting a " de haut en bas stance towards the public cloaked in the velvet tones of ultra-democracy"; or ridicules Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, for being afflicted with a "sentimental fervour peculiar to inverted élites where culture is concerned".

We are all named in the charge sheet that follows from our acceptance of, or tacit connivance in, the "logic of ultra-democracy. Now that the old élites are vanquished or on the retreat, the creative energies of the people are finally released". Hence New Labour's propaganda about "creative Britain"; once everybody is creative (and who are you to say they aren't?) then those old stuffy élites of poncey artists and know-all intellectuals can get lost.

Not surprisingly, Walden saves some of his most savage criticism for politicians. They fool themselves but also fool the voters when they promise the "best health service in the world" yet refuse to discuss the cost of the means to provide it because focus groups don't like the mention of extra taxation. Instead they level their attack at (élitist) hospital consultants as the true obstacle to improvement. In this hermetic world, where politicians listen to what the people say and then play back to them what they have heard and call it democracy, the true intellectual capitulation of a society which relies on the unmediated wishes of the majority is identified. "To promise... the unattainable has become a gauge of a caring politician"!

Underlying it all, in Walden's view, there is a new deference in society. This is the "the deference that mass opinion affords to itself". The new élites are those who ride along with this new deference and exploit it for their own purposes.

Walden is not without hope. There are those who buck "ultra-democratic" culture: publishers who produce books they believe in; critics who reject pre-publication puffery; television producers who persist in making "worthwhile" programmes and don't shrink from defining what makes them worthwhile. And he looks to a final reassurance - that of time.

All previous élites have perished; so will this one. And their record of playing up to mass taste even when they do not believe in it, of refusing to state what they do believe in, and of sheer cowardice before the forces of the market, will make a sorry, often hilarious, read. It does now; George Walden has provided it. Will he make a lot of people angry? I do hope so.

* John Tusa is managing director of the Barbican Centre; his book 'Art Matters' is re-issued by Methuen