July 13, 2024


‘States when in trouble or in fear yearn for the rule of the elders”, wrote Plutarch, the first-century Greek historian and philosopher, as he reflected on “whether an old man should participate in politics“. Only the old, he believed, possessed the wisdom that comes with age and the calmness that comes with experience. “The state which is always throwing away the old men,” he argued, “must of necessity be filled with young men who thirst for reputation and power, but lack a statesman’s mind.”

Of what Plutarch might have made Joe Biden’s poor performance in last month’s debate with Donald Trump and his insistence on remaining the Democratic candidate in the presidential election in November? Plutarch admitted that old men could be debilitated, but “the evil occasioned by their physical infirmity”, he maintained, “is not so great as the advantage they have in their caution and prudence”.

Whatever his thoughts on Biden may have been, Plutarch would likely have recognized aspects of the contemporary political world. It’s not just that the two men running for US president are 81 and 78 years old. American lawmakers are also gray. The median age in the House of Representatives is 58, and 65 in the Senate. More than a third of the senators are over 70.

Nor is it only in America that the old rule. Vladimir Putin is 71, as is Xi Jinping. India’s Narendra Modi is 73; his Pakistani counterpart, Shehbaz Sharif, a year younger; and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina three years older. Benjamin Netanyahu is 74, while Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is 88 and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 85. The oldest current world leader, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, is a full decade older at 91 Biden.

Sure, there are youthful leaders. The French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, is at 35 the youngest on the world stage. But maybe not for much longer. After the votes are counted in Sunday’s French parliamentary election, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, of the far-right Rassemblement National, could be on the verge of becoming the new prime minister. Nevertheless, the tendency towards “gerontocracy” – the rule of the old – is a striking feature of the contemporary world.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” said the American historian and philosopher Samuel Moyn observed. In the premodern world, respect for the elderly was woven into the social fabric, a means of maintaining social order and discipline. “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding,” as Job puts it in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.

The advent of modernity seems to have changed the social status of the ancients. “At the birth of political modernity,” argues Moyn, French revolutionary, in overthrowing the ancient regime, “expressly targeting the empowerment of the elderly”, aiming to “overthrow not only aristocrats in the name of commoners, and fathers in the name of sons, but more broadly to overthrow the age-old commitment to gerontocracy to be tamed for the sake of the younger majority.” But over time, “the authority of elders” restored and replaced “youthful pretense.”

The paradox of contemporary societies, especially in the west, is that at the same time as the old have a great grip on political power, the elderly are often neglected, without support in our more atomized, individualized societies, the social networks that once provided sustenance . badly worn. The paradox is also that we live in societies that celebrate youth and youth culture, yet give the keys to political power to aging leaders.

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These paradoxes arise because modern gerontocracy is the product of societies in which power and wealth are concentrated within certain families and within a certain class, and in which sclerotic political systems are designed to minimize disruption from outsiders.

In Born to rule, their forthcoming book on “the making and remaking of the British elite”, sociologists Aaron Reeves and Sam Friedman note that, for all the talk of the transformation of the elite and of “new elites”, the ruling order itself in many reproduce. in the same way as a century ago, and that there is a lot of “continuity when it comes to who gets into the elite and how they get there”. Certainly new social groups – especially women and ethnic minorities – claimed the privileges of Britain’s higher authority. But, Reeves and Friedman point out, those born into the top 1% are just as likely to make it into the elite today as they were 125 years ago. The same families, schools and institutions form the country’s ruling classes. This inevitably leaves the old who are already entrenched in wealth and may possess great advantages.

At the same time, political systems established to bring about democratic transformation have evolved into structures in which stability is paramount, and which are designed to minimize political disruption. From Britain’s first-past-the-post system, to the use of second rounds in French elections to maximize any vote against insurgent parties, to a US Senate that offers sparsely populated rural states equal representation to large states with significant urban populations , political and electoral systems create palisades for protection against threatening outsiders.

Plutarch’s fear that the turbulent youth would “rush headlong into public affairs and drag the mob into confusion like the storm-tossed sea” still haunts many, although today the fear is not so much of the young as of “populist” leaders are not. . The efforts to minimize disruption also enable old leaders to cling to power. Both the machinery that ensured Biden remained the Democratic presidential nominee despite concerns about his age, and the difficulty his internal critics are having in replacing him, illustrate this process well.

In the west (though not necessarily elsewhere in the world), demographic shifts, especially aging populations, play an important role in maintaining the power of the old. Beyond demographics, however, lies politics.

Gerontocracy is cousin to plutocracy. The issues we face are not primarily those of the old and the young, or a war of the generations, but of class and power, the entrenchment of wealth and efforts to marginalize rebellious outsiders. As Britain ends 14 years of Tory rule, and in a year in which half the globe goes to the pollsshould we worry less about gerontocracy as a system, and more about the underlying reasons that keep the old, whether old people or old ideas, in power.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk



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