Elites, democracy and the taint of the clever
Has our obsession with success created an electorate of the aggrieved and the disenchanted?
Years ago, after a family do, my brother-in-law and I had a drink at the back bar of his local. Joe was a regular; many of the other regulars had also been to the function. I am not uncomfortable in such bars. I spent a fair few years in my twenties working on building sites and on the council. I had lived, for most of my childhood, on a commission estate. But Joe’s mates knew that in the meantime I had become a teacher, and that even if I was speaking in an acceptable way, I could reach for the full sentences and don’t-bullshit-me trivia if I wanted to. From time to time, they would detach themselves from their conversations and check me out. To begin with they were neutral enough. Once the beer started to flow, however, the feet and the opinions began to be planted a little more squarely, and the only thing that stopped them from becoming openly hostile was the fact that Joe was there. Some of the guys no doubt had chequered school histories. Others may have got through without too many problems—though equally without too much engagement. They were all deeply suspicious of intellectual curiosity, and their antennae were alert because their sanctuary was harbouring an intruder. For some, this suspicion was visceral: an entrenched enmity against braininess that could only be ascribed to their self-respect having suffered real humiliation in its presence.
It begins in the early days of school, this realisation that assessments of your intellectual capacity are going to affect the things that you do. At first it is just a matter of the tasks you get and the groups you get to sit with. You notice that you are sitting with some children more than others. Other kids seem to be reading more quickly than you can, and you wonder whether this matters. Sometimes the teacher talks to one group of children about sums you don’t understand, and sometimes she talks to you, in a special patient tone, about sums you can do. Over time, such details accumulate, and you learn that it does not matter how hard you try, you are never going to please the teacher as much as the children at the table near the door. This realisation is as fundamental an understanding as any you will come to. As with all such moments, you do not know what it means so much as register the way its implications are expressed. There are phrases such as ‘tries hard’ on your report card. You win the award for effort, but you know that it does not matter. Over time you lose interest in your work. Eventually it simply becomes more fun to muck around than to do as the teacher asks.
Whether these differentiations are based on innate abilities or misconstructions that compound over time hardly matters, in terms of their effects on your life—although it may matter hugely, in terms of the way society deals with it. All that counts for you is that society sorts people on the basis of judgements about academic ability. For those judged lacking, there are few inadequacies reinforced with such relentlessness. Year after year you must manage the relegation of your classes, the shame of the test results, and the grey, resistant blur of a school-life whose ameliorations lie in mischief.
There is, you have found, one way to make sure that the pain of disappointment does not recur, and that is not to try. Better to claim—even to yourself—that you could have done it if you had put some effort in than to endure, once again, the hurt of doing one’s best and coming up short. Not trying allows you to believe in yourself: trying, and failing, makes it impossible. Besides, it turns out you have allies. Most of the other children in your classes have come to the same realisation. Together you evolve an armoury of stories and jokes with which to counter the exhortations of your elders. You bond with gestures of not caring, and reinforce those bonds with defiance; you start thinking of successful students as ‘swots’ and ‘goody-goodies’. It becomes personal: you don’t like the way they keep their heads down; in some schools, you bash them up, and throw their books into the toilet. You settle, deeply, into the communion of the disengaged, and turn your eyes towards your peers for validation.
Whether the differentiations were made on the grounds of nature (intelligence) or nurture (education), for strategic reasons you frame the judgements you are subject to in terms of the latter. No-one gives ground on intelligence. But education can be cast as a false growth—an unworthy, desk-bound achievement pursued by the venal. So education becomes the focus of resentment.
Such strategies make school—and life—bearable. But they come at the cost of negative feedbacks that are much more powerful than you understand when you first invoke them. By the time the lectures start about the difficulty of getting work for those without skills, it is too late to do much about it. Since there is no way of putting long-term plans into effect, your attention shrinks to the short-term—to the weekend, to the party, to the trouble that is your one breath of release and exhilaration. And all this just happens—with the obviousness, the relentlessness, the surprise that one finds in a tragedy.
Bit by bit a set of resentments is interiorised into an alternative moral and aesthetic universe. Anything tainted by association with the clever is reinvented as an object of derision: music with violins or saxophones—or too much emotional openness: which might mean anything from Crowded House to Wilco. The ABC, of course, which is as boring as talk about politics. And books—which are strictly for those without lives of their own. Art is just showing off with pictures by the affected—though some art’s okay, as long as you don’t call it art—graffiti, for instance, or tats. There is, in this list of exclusions, nothing that allows the vulnerability of thoughtfulness, because in the world you now subscribe to you cannot afford vulnerabilities.
As a corollary to this alternative compendium of the abject, there are stock narratives and characters through which you negotiate the interface with those professionals—the lawyers and accountants—who tie you down with the arcane, and who do not hide the benefits of doing so. Many of the narratives you tell contain a moral it is hard to deny: there are the foreigners who are brought in to work for below-award rates and to steal your jobs; there are the educated bastards—teachers and priests—who turn out to be pederasts; there is the white-collar worker who steals $5 million by fraud and gets two years, while the guy who robs the servo gets five. There are corporations that never pay tax and tradesmen sent bankrupt by the ATO for doing favours for their friends. There is some point to your perspectives.
Ultimately status is about sexual possibility. If one figure haunts the dividing line between the credentialled and the unwanted, it is that of the pretty, educated young girl, out of reach and completely uninterested. As you get older you become baffled by the way sources of respect that once seemed ubiquitous and inarguable—and that once may have led you her way: sporting prowess, strength, the swagger of your stories—mostly don’t count for much when the bills fall due. At 22 it seemed that you may have lucked onto an alternative route. By 40 you have nothing in your hands. There is a ground-bass of sexual anger in the vehemence of men whose lives have turned sour: it, too, is an element in the animus that fuels resentment of the educated.
Book-learning has been suspect for most of Australia’s post-invasion history, but until recently, the educated have been neither powerful nor numerous enough to affect the self-esteem of the population at large. In the nineteenth century the largest educated group—churchmen—were subject to considerable colloquial disparagement. Doctors, on the other hand, were mostly treated with respect: presumably their skills were so obviously beneficial, the antagonism towards study was waived. Mostly, however, we valued the physical skills: the rider, the shearer, the tradesman. There was a shamefulness associated with earning one’s keep at a desk: it was a sign of not being red-blooded enough. Children read shrewdly for the skills they will really need later, and for most of our history, few judged they would need much from their schoolwork. In recent decades, however, that has changed. There has been an unprecedented shift towards business and professional skills based on intellectual ability. Sometimes it seems as if this shift has all occurred in one lifetime—the lifetime of the boomers—although no doubt it is part of a process that has been going on for longer. If, once, prejudices against the educated were only marginal because the educated were marginal too, there is now a closer correlation between academic and material success, and a greater proportion of the population trying to take advantage of that. Now, academic achievement is a consistent predictor of how much one will earn, where one will live—and whether one will even have a job.
Capitalism is an inherently judgemental way of organising things. It thrives on information and on the judgements it yields: about sales, about output—about employees’ performances. The individual is governed by these assessments for every move that matters: for switching jobs or asking for a raise; for being job-ready in the first place. Since everyone plays the same game, it is only fair that everyone is judged by the same rules: one implication of which is that if those who do well under the system must have had qualities that made them worthy of reward, those who do not must have been somehow inadequate. By optimising equality of opportunity and workplace mobility, we have also become more exposed to the humiliations of failure: everyone’s abilities are in relief, and there is nowhere to hide.
Once, we might have masked such blows by falling back on other judgements—on our sense of decency or morality. The old class systems, for instance, may have been profoundly unfair, but since one’s position was fixed, one did not have to participate in a narrative where self-esteem was constantly at stake. Small communities, too, have their hierarchies, but they also have their generosities, and the tact with which the illusion of equality is maintained even in deeply unequal societies is one of our more forgivable duplicities. Societies in which judgement was passed less often—in which a considerate theatre of oversights minimised the pain of difference—are, however, becoming less common. In the capitalist world, goodness is unlikely to be included on one’s list of qualifications: experts at compiling proposals in terms of efficiencies, we would not see the point.
Now there is a direct line drawn between one’s material success and one’s worth as a human. And because material success is so often dependent on academic achievement, resentment of academic ability has become a proxy for anger at exclusion from the things it leads to. So it has become a fault-line through developed societies: a sometimes indistinct line, because there are also so many voices that see virtue in education, but one that, from the opposite side, splutters with anger and disempowerment. It is visible in the support for Trump and Hanson. One of Trump’s main attractions was that he did not have an educated manner. Perhaps, in the hard-scrabble world of New York real estate, it was a disadvantage to treat the other person with respect: he clearly doesn’t behave as he does because of a lack of educational opportunities. It doesn’t matter, however, where his manner came from. It is enough that he doesn’t speak with the polite but alienating thoroughness of the college-educated.
Never before has education been on one hand so valued and on the other so maligned. The term ‘elite’ used to refer to those with political or financial power. But that meaning seems secondary now: the most resonant current use of ‘elite’ is as a pejorative against the articulate. Even if one works in a convenience store and lives in a share house, if one has, say, a liking for art-film or enjoys conversations about politics, one will be a member of the sort of elite that is resented by a large proportion of the population. Sporting elites are fine, of course: one can’t have too many of them. Nor does it seem to matter how much money one has, or power: as long as one speaks the language of the ordinary person. It is the language that is the problem, since it creates distances greater than any foreign tongue would: these usages accuse you of not being good enough in your own.
If our society were to fail, one of the reasons might be that the nature of decision-making had grown so complex that it became impossible to frame arguments for decisions in ways that were meaningful for those who were affected by them. It may be we are seeing signs of that now. Two of the things that democracies need in order to function are under threat: they must believe in the value of their citizens—all of their citizens—and there must be agreement as to the nature of evidence, so that their arguments can at least have a common basis—so the sides can, at least, talk to each other. These conditions should not be incompatible—indeed, they should reinforce each other. At the moment, however, both are insecure. On the one hand, we have created a society where those who fail, fail visibly, and are blamed for their failures in ways that can lead them to conclude that talk about equal rights is only talk. After all, it is not clear that the educated really do believe that the uneducated are their equals: it might be more accurate to say that they are their potential equals—people, that is, who really would be equals if only they had an education. The articulate, too, form judgements based on language. And perhaps, sometimes, they have listened to the words of the disadvantaged, when they should have been thinking a little about their situation.
All this would be difficult enough to confront even if there weren’t disagreement about the nature of the argument: we are, after all, talking about judgements so universal the whole society has been founded on them. But at the moment it is not even possible to hold a discussion about the way to proceed—on this or any other matter. The alt-right has learned—or remembered—that one way to make one’s claims stick in the public space is to disrupt and discredit the means by which they might be refuted. The centre is searching to ‘find the right language’ by which to counter the claims of the right—as if, with the right words, everything could be explained and people would come to their senses. But the widespread rejection of evidence-based argument in journalism and science is a sign of how completely those who do not follow the arguments have stopped listening to those who do. Donald Trump found the right language, and it doesn’t contain coherent arguments.
Belief in evidence used to be a sign of trust in the professionals: even if the line of reasoning was not understood, people trusted that it was there for those who did understand. Not any more. In the view of the right, the articulate no longer have permission to speak. Sometimes the centre and the left acknowledge this, and pay it lip service, but they don’t really know what to do about it: they continue to make their arguments as they have always done—as if they really were still engaged in an endless series of debates that result in real conclusions and decisions. But their opponents aren’t listening. Why would they be? They know that’s what the educated are good at. They don’t have to listen, because the protracted semiotic warfare of the right has given them permission not to: the long words and careful expressions, the middle-class clothes and the politeness are all proof enough—these are the shorthand now for a self-disqualifying arrogance. It may be there is nothing anyone can say by way of argument to those who have decided in advance that the nature of the speaker invalidates anything they might say.
I, too, keep thinking that it must surely only be a matter of the right phrase, the irrefutably lucid argument. But not all arguments are won by words. Benign civil governance has come unstuck before—it may be that it is coming unstuck right now in Hungary and Turkey. It is unimaginable, but if democracy were to fail, it would almost certainly be a result of the machinery by which it created its successes. •
Follow us for more: