Elite privilege – the new form of inherited advantage and the antithesis of meritocracy

24 MAY 2024

Elite privilege – the new form of inherited advantage and the antithesis of meritocracy

A new book by a leading Charles Sturt University academic and a colleague describe how, in recent decades, elite privilege has gone from strength to strength while male and white privilege have been on the decline.

  • A new book published today explores the practices and processes that sustain, legitimise and reproduce ‘elite privilege’ and shows how we are all implicated in the system
  • It argues that elite privilege is not a mere by-product of wealth but the organising principal for an unequal society
  • The authors stress that social change cannot occur unless people understand what it is that needs to be changed

A new book by a leading Charles Sturt University academic and a colleague describe how, in recent decades, elite privilege has gone from strength to strength while male and white privilege have been on the decline.

The book The Privileged Few is by Professor Clive Hamilton (pictured, inset), Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, and Myra Hamilton, Associate Professor in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School.

“The privileges enjoyed by the rich and powerful are not only unfair but cause widespread harm,” Professor Hamilton said.

“These range from the everyday slights and humiliations visited on those lower down the social scale to the distortions in the labour market when elites use their networks to secure plum jobs, not least in new domains such as professional sports.”

The Privileged Few shows that elite privilege is not a mere by-product of wealth but an organising principle for society as a whole.

The authors explore the practices and processes that sustain, legitimise and reproduce elite privilege and show how we are all implicated in the system, both facilitating it and tolerating its harmful effects.

“Building on our original fieldwork and a wide range of other sources, The Privileged Few paints a vivid picture of the micro-politics of elite privilege, highlighting the vital role played by exclusive private schools,” Professor Hamilton said.

Ranging across topics as diverse as ‘glamour suburbs’, philanthropy, Rhodes scholarships and super-yachts, the book delves beneath attempts at concealment to expose how the elites keep getting away with it.

Professor Hamilton said the book arose from listening to the sometimes rancorous conversations at dinner tables and bars about the rich and their privileges.

“These subterranean rumblings came to the surface during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, when much resentment and bitterness was expressed about special treatment for the rich and powerful,” he said.

“That’s what prompted us to begin the book, to examine the question of how elite privilege works on the ground.

“We identified the machinery of privilege, which is perpetuated to a large extent by exclusive private schools. We found it operates as a new form of hereditary advantage and nepotism. It is the antithesis of meritocracy.”

Professor Hamilton noted that the early sociologist C. Wright Mills famously said that the purpose of sociology is to turn private troubles into public concerns.

“That’s what we are hoping to do, by exposing how the system of elite privilege works and how it conceals itself with justifications and rationalisations,” he said.

“Social change cannot occur unless people understand what it is that needs to be changed.”

The Privileged Few is published by Polity Books around the world on Friday 24 May.


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Clive Hamilton, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or via news@csu.edu.au

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. He was the founder and executive director of The Australia Institute, Australia’s foremost progressive think tank. He has held various visiting academic positions, including at the University of Oxford, Sciences Po and Yale University. His many books include Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate changeDefiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene and Hidden Hand: How the Chinese Communist Party is reshaping the world (with Mareike Ohlberg). His opinions have been published in Nature, The New York TimesLe MondeThe Times and The Guardian.

Myra Hamilton is an Associate Professor in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. She is a sociologist and social policy scholar with a focus on inequalities arising from gender, age and social disadvantage. A principal concern of her work is inequalities in the sphere of work. Her research explores how public and workplace policies can build equity and wellbeing over the life course.


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