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Different kinds of elites (and different kinds of elitism)

In his NetSquared presentation with Howard Rheingold, Paul Saffo said that social movements, online and otherwise, “need elites” in order to effect change.

At first, this struck me as a popular myth — that social movements never accomplish things through activism alone — when in fact that’s been pretty spectacularly disproven.

But then Paul continued, and said that what he meant was “thought leaders” like Dr. King — an instructive example, since his oratories and marches were supported by a network of churches and supporters and specific strategic planning that made his leadership possible.

Earlier, Angela Glover-Blackwell noted that traditionally, social change organizations had acted as the representatives for the vulnerable. Now, those voices are breaking through without the need for these nonprofits — a potentially threatening prospect.

That made me think about the different kinds of “elites” that social movements and social networks engender. In my mind, there are four:

  • Power elites are the traditional decisionmakers, who might also be termed Weberian elites because of their support by the state. They have a strong hold on direct power, though has been shown through nonviolent conflict and the “paradox of repression” (think of the dictators overthrown by popular movements) they nonetheless depend on a limited sort of consent from those over whom they rule.
  • Resource elites are those who have the infrastructure (or the capacity to develop it) to make things possible — be that change or stasis. Traditionally this has been people with the most money or natural resources; a relevant aspect of this today would be people (or communities) with the most access to technology.
  • Idea elites are the ideological leaders who emerge, either hierarchically or communally, from a given social movement. These are the people who develop policy and drive debates — but much of their power comes from the movement itself; while they can lead to a limited extent, they are always in danger of losing their power to the next big thinker.
  • Literacy elites are those who can “read” the situation. They might be the ones most familiar with the technology (be that movable type or Movable Type) or the ones most adept at community organizing. Today, they might be the teenager who can navigate among the SNSes (and, as Howard Rheingold pointed out, may even be unaware of their political power).

It seems important to me to keep these different types of elites in mind as we think about the intersections of technology and social change. One way of achieving change is by appealing to the state’s powerholders — traditional power, that is. But throughout history, coalitions of people without this power have banded together to effect change. It may be that among the three other types of elites, a social movement can emerge that represents true democratic change.

One final thought: Daniel Ben-Horin made an off-hand comment about how many people had been trained in a kind of vanguard activism — acting in the “best interests” of people. I think focusing on these different kinds of elites allows for something closer to Paolo Freire’s “cointentional education” in which everyone is a student and liberation is bound up together.

Update: Ethan Zuckerman makes a related point in his presentation when he says the new mantra for advocacy organizations should be: “Don’t speak. Point.”