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Fading American dream: Sundar Pichai is a metaphor for a new kind of elitism in US

Sundar Pichai — the 43 year old Indian American — is Google’s new CEO. Google or, in the words of John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge, Googlezilla, is a vast behemoth — a networked firm — a mutated successor to the likes of erstwhile General Motors — that almost has no boundaries, spans the globe and is a metaphor for the forces of globalisation, and technology and the convergence thereof. Much has been said about the rise of Pichai to the top position at Google and indeed it is a position that is enviable, prestigious and influential. Most of the commentary around Pichai’s rise revolves around the ‘American Dream’, the meritocracy implied in it and the openness of the country to immigrants — talented or not. Indeed much of this is true and gainsaying it would be silly.

I would, however, after conceding the merit of the ‘American Dream’ and its resilience adopt a contrarian position here. I would posit that the confluence of technology, globalisation and liberalism have, especially, in the United States led to the creation of a new class of people: the nouveau elite who are the children of the marriage between technology and liberalism. Call them ‘cosmocrats’, or ‘rootless’ denizens of the world, this elite owes no real allegiance to any state, nation of culture but their orientation is toward and for technology. (The aim here is not to denigrate or lampoon this class but put a finger on the nature of the phenomenon). This is not an original insight; it has been identified and elaborated upon by The Economist Newspaper. To paraphrase the Economist, this new class of people are ‘Great Disrupters’; they have changed the rules and underlying dynamics of many businesses — even ones that were held to be too conventional and traditional to be impacted and affected by technology.

 Fading American dream: Sundar Pichai is a metaphor for a new kind of elitism in US

Sundar Pichai. AFP

Reflecting perhaps, Joseph Alois Schumpeter’s forces of ‘creative destruction’, this elite pushes the boundaries of convention, tradition and even the ‘imaginable’ and comes out with path breaking discoveries and tools. To cite a couple of prosaic examples, who would have imagined the Smart Phone a decade ago? Who would have thought that banking — a staid and rather conventional business with high barriers to entry — would be a disaggregated business with space for nimble, tech savvy competitors? Examples galore exist to illustrate the impact of the new class.

The question is: is the development of this class and what they represent salubrious?

Yes and No. Yes, because anyone with talent, oomph and gumption can touch the skies, so to speak. Pichai’s case is a case in point here — a veritable ode to the meritocracy and the ‘American Dream’. There, however, is a dark side. The trend, if it may be called a trend or development, smacks of elitism. While talent is talent, but for it to be groomed and reach efflorescence, education and grooming are the necessary concomitants. It is only the highly educated that can aspire to be part of this elite. It leaves out the ‘less fortunate’ to suffer and struggle it out in the domains of the banal and the ordinary.

Now consider the ‘American Dream’, this new elite and the rest. American society and polity is defined by the spirit of raw capitalism; this implies cut throat competition and even social Darwinism. Only the best and the brightest, in this schema, are entitled to the ‘good life’. The less gifted or the less unfortunate are left to suffer the gale of social Darwinism; in this schema, it is their fault to be what they are. I am not rooting for or even implying socialism here but merely positing the hierarchies that elitism and social Darwinism entails.

Globalisation coupled with the elitism inhering in it and the privileging of a class of peoples ‘who have it’, has led to the hollowing of the middle class in the United States. The working class has borne the brunt of the development and there is growing resentment against this in the country. The spasmodic backlashes against immigration in the United States accrues, more or less, from this development.

While it would be imprudent to call it a ‘class war, but it stands to reason that there is angst in the United States against privilege and the status it accords. The ‘average’ white young man from the South, may or may not understand the larger forces behind this development, but would perhaps naturally vent out his frustration at the brown, Indian ‘geek’ or techie for the loss of status and employment opportunities. The ‘American Dream’ has now morphed into an elitist privilege.

It is only the ones who have a great education, the right environment to use this education, mentoring and the confidence that all these accord. For many, the ‘American Dream’ is fading into the mists of the past. This can only be insalubrious. The country that prides itself on meritocracy and reward for grit, gumption and hard word is perhaps unconsciously drifting into a new elitism. While I have good will and admiration for Pichai and his stellar achievements, but he, shorn of exuberance, is a metaphor for this new elitism. The United States is a dynamic nation and has remarkable capacities for course correction. For the benefit of its peoples and perhaps even the world at large, the time for this may be now.

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Updated Date: Aug 12, 2015 13:23:14 IST