Biden, Putin, Xi, Modi: what is it that keeps old ideas, as well as old people, in power? | Kenan Malik

‘States when they are in difficulties or in fear yearn for the rule of the elder men,” wrote Plutarch, the first-century Greek historian and philosopher, as he pondered “whether an old man should engage in politics”. Only the old, he believed, possessed the wisdom granted by age, and the composure that came with experience. “The state which always discards the old men,” he argued, “must necessarily be filled up with young men who are thirsty for reputation and power, but do not possess a statesmanlike mind.”

What might Plutarch have made of Joe Biden’s abject performance in last month’s debate with Donald Trump and of his insistence on remaining the Democratic candidate in the presidential election in November? Plutarch recognised that old men could be enfeebled, but “the evil caused by their physical weakness”, he insisted, “is not so great as the advantage they possess in their caution and prudence”.

Whatever his thoughts might have been about Biden, Plutarch would probably have recognised aspects of the contemporary political world. It is not just that the two men running for US president are 81 and 78 years old. American legislators are greying, too. The median age in the House of Representatives is 58, and 65 in the Senate. More than a third of senators are over 70.

Nor is it just in America that the old govern. 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 the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is 88 and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85. The oldest current world leader, Cameroon’s president Paul Biya, is, at 91, a full decade older than Biden.

Certainly, there are youthful leaders. The French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, is, at 35, the youngest on the world stage. But perhaps 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 trend towards “gerontocracy” – the rule of the old – is a striking feature of the contemporary world.

“It was not supposed to be this way,” the American historian and philosopher Samuel Moyn has observed. In the premodern world, respect for elderly people was stitched 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 coming of modernity appeared to transform the social status of the old. “At the birth of political modernity,” Moyn argues, French revolutionaries, in overthrowing the ancien regime, “explicitly targeted the empowerment of the elderly”, seeking “not only to overthrow aristocrats in the name of common people, and fathers in the name of sons, but more broadly to tame the age-old commitment to gerontocracy for the sake of the younger majority.” Over time, though, “the authority of elders” became restored, and “youthful pretenders” displaced.

The paradox of contemporary societies, especially in the west, is that at the same time as the old have great grasp of political power, elderly people are often neglected, lacking support in our more atomised, individualised societies, the social networks that once provided sustenance having grievously frayed. The paradox is also that we live in societies that celebrate youth and youth culture, and yet give the keys to political power to ageing leaders.

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

In Born to Rule, their forthcoming book on “the making and remaking of the British elite”, the sociologists Aaron Reeves and Sam Friedman observe that, for all the talk of the transformation of the elites and of “new elites”, the ruling order reproduces itself in much the same way as it did a century ago, and that there is much “continuity when it comes to who gets into the elite and how they get there”. Certainly, new social groups – women and ethnic minorities, in particular – have laid claim to the privileges of Britain’s upper echelons. But, Reeves and Friedman point out, those born into the top 1% are just as likely to get into the elite today as they were 125 years ago. The same families, schools and institutions shape the nation’s governing classes. Inevitably, it leaves the old already ensconced in wealth and power possessing great advantages.

At the same time, political systems that came into being to bring about democratic transformation have evolved into structures in which stability matters above all else, and which are designed to minimise political disruption. From Britain’s first-past-the-post system, to the use of second rounds in French elections to maximise any vote against insurgent parties, to a US Senate that provides 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 tempestuous young would “dash headlong upon public affairs, dragging the mob along with them in confusion like the storm-tossed sea” still haunts many, though the dread today is not so much of the young as of “populist” leaders. The attempts to minimise disruption also enable old leaders to cling to power. Both the machinery that ensured that Biden remained the Democrats’ presidential candidate despite concerns about his age, and the difficulties his internal critics face in replacing him, illustrate this process well.

In the west (though not necessarily elsewhere in the world), demographic shifts, in particular ageing populations, play an important part in sustaining the power of the old. Beyond demography, though, lies politics.

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

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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