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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Replace the Aristocracy with the Anthrocracy

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

The death of Elizabeth has gotten me to think about the validity of aristocracy continuing to exist as we move deeper into the era where technology advances in a variety of directions with unknown consequences and traditional mores continue to come under pressure. Signposts back to the past are becoming more difficult to see, even as billions desperately cling to them.

The word “aristocracy” derives from the ancient Greek word meaning “the best.” In

The Republic, based upon Socrates' teachings, Plato asserted that

"...those who ought to govern are those who are trained to know about politics and are trained to know what politics is about. To know about politics is to be able to produce and assess accounts of political processes; to know what politics is about is to be able to produce and assess accounts of the issues that people engaging in political processes use these processes to deliberate and decide."

In other words, those who govern should be experts.

Continuing in this line of Grecian thought, Aristotle distinguished between oligarchy and aristocracy.

“Election by wealth is oligarchic, while election by merit is aristocratic.”

Virtue is the defining factor of aristocracy as contrasted with “freedom” as the defining feature of democracy.

Populism contrasts with aristocracy.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of populism:

Populism is an appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.

“Ordinary” is a particularly slippery term. At one time in my life, I was quite close to four men. Rick was a mixed-race Puerto Rican and Black. Steve, a white guy, was, presumably, some sort of a student at the University of Chicago or had at one time been, maybe for like half a semester. Louis was Black as was Bobby. Rick pumped gas at a station down the street from me and made most of his money dealing weed. He was tight with Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. Steve’s means of employment were unclear. I never saw him without his prescription sunglasses and working man’s cap. I came to believe that he slept in them. Louis read avidly on many topics. He worked on a garbage truck. One payday, I recall his articulating the following with perfect precision of speech. He wasn’t angry; he was stating a fact: “There is no possible way that they could ever pay me enough for the indignities that I have to endure.” Bobby was a connoisseur and cosmopolitan, who was so broke that, when we walked into a nice restaurant, he ordered “The Hobo Special,” which he defined as a glass of water and some sugar cubes along with some bread and butter.

Aggrieved 1/6/21 Rioters

All were men that the OED would likely define as “ordinary,” but at the moment in time when I knew them, they carried themselves with a strikingly aristocratic bearing. They were courageous. They faced the “police riot” that characterized the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. While I haven't seen them since then, I’m sure that life dealt them all some staggering blows, but these “ordinary” men taught me lessons in being for which I will grateful as long as I am me.

It was also very true that many/most of the men and women who took that courageous stand against the police in Chicago that summer were part of a popular uprising, but they were unequipped to govern a complex society. They believed in a particular cause vehemently, but they were nothing like the trained experts the early creators of democracy thought of critical to social stability and progress. A populist movement can be very appealing to those caught up in its passion, but it can descend quickly into chaos, lawlessness and incompetence. When populists have been in charge, their track record of achievement has been spotty, Populism is great at starting and driving change, but it tends to silence the minority voices and dissent democracy depends upon for learning,

Spaceship Earth is going to work a lot better as a new aristocratic class -- The Anthrocracy -- emerges.

The Anthrocratic Class is already making its presence felt. It is made up of people with a range of characteristics. It most effective members manifest the populist ideal of treating everyone with dignity and real respect, and they also possess deep expertise that comes from being trained at something (and maybe many things) they happen to have an innate talent for. Frequently, these women and men will radiate the kind of self-confidence that makes them immediately attractive to others. The humility they have - both naturally as a result of their fundamental character - and acquired by paying attention to lessons of living makes them the antithesis of demagogues. They are about being awake and present; petulant narcissists are about themselves first, last, and always.

Of course, the Anthrocrats are human. They make mistakes. They have regrets. They grow. They fall back. Sometimes they’re sure of things when they ought not to be. Sometimes they are not sure of things when they should be. They have their critics. They come from every walk of life. They are magisterial. It can be easy not to notice some/many of them.

Money might give one power, but it doesn’t make one an Anthrocrat. Nor does the possession of money, privilege, and access mean that one cannot be an Anthrocrat. It’s a class based on demeanor, values, and competence.

If everyone in history had the leisure time and access to education and a broad range of experiences that those with money and privilege have, we’d have a lot more aristocrats.

Aristocrats derive from a particular tradition, although it is largely watered down. In the West, they have been called “all-arounders,” i.e., men and women who are good at many endeavors. They aren’t necessarily oriented toward making money. Many do carry on the tradition of raking in more capital, in part because they are steeped in the family tradition of doing so. But they have the time and resources to think, study, play and create if they want to. The money is likely to be there. In fact, if they’re anxious about money, they probably aren’t all that aristocratic. That’s like a really bourgeois way to think and operate. Philanthropy is characteristic of the aristocratic class.

King Charles III was relentlessly bullied at Gordonstoun boarding school

The few real aristocrats I’ve known share some traits. They went to serious schools. Vocational preparation was not the only or the pre-eminent focus of their education. They learned how to think. They were exposed to many kinds of ideas. They engaged fully with topics in school and in life that subsequently were of real interest to them. They were expected to assume leadership positions in society, and they became aware of and developed their leadership capabilities. They both created and inspired organizations. Their class positions, their lack of concern with the constraints that so many people must confront, and the acceptance of their influence in a multiplicity of contexts led them to be at ease and courageous in positions of authority.

I’ve also known personally or become aware of a bunch of so-called aristocrats through the media that are nothing but bums.

Given that innate talent and intelligence are randomly distributed across all demographic groups, that tail end of the bell curve where one is likely to find those “virtue” oriented aristocrats the Greeks were so excited about, it likely to constitute a very small percentage of the entirety of the aristocratic population. Because of all the resources, training, and access they have, their numbers may be a little higher than that of the general population, but probably not much.

Howard Gardner seems to have proved that there are nine types of intelligence:

This IQ bell curve reminds us of the likely random nature of the distribution of all of them.

Talent is also widely and probably randomly distributed. Talent can be defined as “a superior, apparently natural ability in the arts or sciences or in the learning or doing of anything.”

Of course, as Lana Turner demonstrated, luck plays a significant role in whether one’s intelligence and talent intersect with opportunity. But credibility must be given to the adage that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

There are trend lines at work in the Anthropocene that could vastly expand the opportunities for “ordinary” people to have access to the sort of education and life experiences that aristocrats have had and have taken for granted for centuries:

  • Awareness of inner life has become more prevalent. Two stats to support this assertion: there are now approximately 190,000 clinical psychologists in practice in the US. The field continues to grow steadily. Lord knows they’re needed! Something like 600,000,000 worldwide suffer from anxiety and depression. Millions of people describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” And, of course, billions more identify as religious. Putting aside critiques of these three activities, they frequently indicate a strong interest in the inner life, the life of the heart/mind/consciousness, and the life that aristocrats have had the freedom to explore.

  • Technological advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and renewable energy (to name but three) will mean that a lot fewer people will be needed to do what constitutes today’s “work.” What’s happened to agriculture will happen to many other industries and occupations.

  • The internet has made first-rate, advanced education become much more accessible and inexpensive via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). For example, Coursera offers 19 specializations in Physics, including 247 courses touching directly or indirectly on particle physics. EdX offers 43 courses in History, e.g., “Women Making History: Ten Objects, Many Stories.” One can enroll in a four-year curriculum in Astrology. Here is what seems to be a complete list of MOOCs. Even hands-on occupations like piloting an airplane are being taught online and the prospect of flight training via simulation must be an enticing possibility for major airlines that can’t find the pilots to fly their planes.

  • Support high quality, low cost public education at every turn. For example, the proposal to make community colleges free of tuition costs has been circulation for several years and free early childhood education has been advocated by the Democratic Party and others for even longer.

  • And, of course, there are tens of thousands of free or inexpensive events and analyses generated constantly by organizations of every conceivable nature. The several thousand organizations identified by the Security and Sustainability Guide can be a useful resource to those with a geopolitical perspective.

The philosopher (and aristocrat), Bertrand Russell, asserted that it is deeply wrongheaded for people to be tied to jobs day in and day out for forty years and then retire and wait around to die:

Bertrand Russell

"If we allow work to occupy every waking hour, we are not living fully….Leisure, previously something known to only the privileged few, is necessary for a rich and meaningful life…The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need for slaves. Our capacity for play and light-heartedness has been eclipsed by the cult of efficiency. A society that took leisure seriously would be one that takes education seriously – because education is surely about more than training for the workplace. It would be one that takes the arts seriously because there would be time to produce works of quality without the struggle that artists have for economic independence….Such a society would lose the taste for war because war involves “long and severe work for all.”

(Paraphrased from the article about Russell in DK Publishing’s The Big Book of Philosophy.)

The Anthropocene is going to be very rough on anyone without a good/great education.

The ability to learn and to act on what one learns is the hallmark of the aristocracy’s success. That is why the well-to-do are so willing to pay the exorbitant tuitions that elite universities charge their children. That kind of education is within reach for everyone who wants it today. Grasping that opportunity is resulting in the creation of tens of thousands of people who can become and are becoming Anthrocrats.

Of course, there are powerful obstacles facing this happy scenario.

As the quote from Aristotle noted at the outset, wealth doesn’t equate with merit or virtuousness. However, unlike many other variables, wealth is not randomly distributed.

Although it’s happening in fits and starts, the ‘Cene is pulling the world ever more tightly together. While the one percent can fight it off ruthlessly for a long time, this pie chart is a recipe for revolution and disaster. I don’t know where and don’t know when, but this predictable calamity is likely to occur sooner than we think.

With a few exceptions, racial and ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of the poor and the disenfranchised. An end to racism, in particular, and ethnic and religious intolerance more generally can bridge the gap between the virtue ascribed to the aristocrats and freedom, which Aristotle describes as the central feature of democracy.

We’ve had so many examples of talent and wisdom possessed by members of second-class citizens on Spaceship Earth. Imagine an Anthropocene where these arbitrary and absurd divisions are abandoned. Imagine a quantum increase in the size of Anthrocratic leadership! Millions of people possess this virtue the Greeks admired. Enabling them to manifest their competencies fully can save democracy.

Although they have died, James Baldwin and Nina Simone are but two examples of the Anthrocrats that are already showing up.

James Baldwin, 1924-1967

The complexity of Baldwin’s reflections on race, sexuality, and politics anticipated the confusion and nuance of the Anthropocene today. Baldwin was and remains renowned. His influence will be felt down through the halls of the future. He did not get the rapt attention he deserved during his lifetime, however. His is still a name that most Americans do not know, and, if they did, many of them would ban his books. For the ‘Cene to make the scene, to survive and thrive in the indefinite era of realization that beckons it, people like Baldwin should be respected as royalty.

Not surprisingly, Nina Simone was a friend of James Baldwin.

One of eight children growing up poor in segregated North Carolina in the 1940s, Simone faced racism at many, many turns. She was an extraordinarily gifted classical pianist, who sought acceptance at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was devastated when her application was denied. Many are convinced that Simone, like Billy Holiday, was hounded by racial prejudice. In the 1980s Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That may have been genetic and always present. On the other hand, it may have also been a result of the pressure of having such incredible talent and being continuously oppressed because of the color of her skin.

How would you feel if the Klan had the right to hang you simply because they wanted to? That would sure make me nuts. QAnon and Company are itching to bring us back to those days and before.

Royalty for Nina in the ‘Cene!

So, let us not renounce aristocracy. Let’s reframe what we mean by it in the Anthropocene. Let’s make it more inclusive, bigger, and yeastier.

[1] The words “ordinary,” “disregarded” and “elite” all need to be unpacked.

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