Sunday, July 11, 2010

Elitism for the Masses, Revisited

So, I'm reading George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? Essays and Reviews (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2009), and I'm surprised at how much I disagree with him. It was because of Scialabba's review of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's The Political Economy of Human Rights years ago that I first got really interested in Chomsky's writing, and I've liked some other work of Scialabba's that I've seen, so I started assuming that our views were similar, and you know what happens when you assume.

I appreciate the fact that, like me, Scialabba is in the university but not an academic -- he graduated from Harvard in 1969 but became an office worker there, managing a "mid-sized academic office building" for many years. Unlike me, he was raised Catholic and joined the reactionary and ascetic group Opus Dei, but in college he fell under the spell of secular modernity and abandoned his thoughts of a religious vocation. He's only a couple of years older than I am, so our trajectories have some similarities, but our interests and values are often quite different.

For example, in the book's second essay, "The Sealed Envelope", Scialabba laments that "the masses have fairly consistently disappointed their well-wishers, including me" (26). This is a common complaint on the Left, and I've made it myself, but Scialabba proceeds from there to accept
the argument for elitism: that most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic. There is no disgrace in this: most of us are not gifted musicians or mathematicians and feel no shame about it. It is not, obviously, a precise analogy: fellow citizens influence and sometimes govern us; musicians do not. But in another respect the analogy may be valid and actually encouraging. Mathematical and musical ability can be fostered, up to a point, especially if the effort begins in childhood. And generations of what might be called equal early-environmental opportunity may level differences in aptitude. Might a similarly benign civic pedagogy produce a similarly vast rise in the general level of republican virtue?

Once again, conservatives without imagination will wearily or indignantly object that civic pedagogy on a mass scale – any effort to produce rather than merely permit social virtue – must end in totalitarianism. Conservatives (and liberals and radicals) without imagination are, I suppose, always numerous and influential enough to be worth arguing with. Some other time, though; what haunts me most keenly at present are not Isaiah Berlin’s and Leszek Koliakowski’s pontifications nor the grandiloquence of the nouveaux philosophes, but rather these sadly, quietly authoritative observations of Ortega y Gasset:

The most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. … As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men – and women – are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. The few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated. … These are the select men, the noble ones, the only ones who are active and not reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving.

Any number of objections will doubtless spring to a generous mind, but one that can hardly do is that the distinction Ortega proposes is not “the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity.” If humanity will always be a mass of dough leavened sporadically by a yeast of heroes, then why talk of “radical democracy”? Capitalist democracy requires only consumers, fermented occasionally by entrepreneurs. The resulting loaf is not very nourishing, but a lot more so than Stalinist or pre-modern brands. And if Ortega is even roughly right, what other kind of democracy is possible? [27-28]
Scialabba makes things too easy for himself by labeling everyone else either "without imagination" on the right, and possessed of "a generous mind" on the left, leaving him with Ortega somewhere in between. Psychoanalyzing one's opponent, while satisfying, is not an argument, and it's argument that's lacking here.

It doesn't matter whether Ortega's division of humanity is "radical" or not. One can divide humanity any way one likes -- I'm sure you've heard the joke about there being two kinds of people, those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don't -- but in order to use such a division as the basis for politics, it is necessary to show that the division has some basis in the real world. Neither Ortega nor Scialabba does so. Scialabba assumes that "humanity will always be a mass of dough leavened sporadically by a yeast of heroes", and accepts "that most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic." It's not enough to assert such things, they must be supported. Scialabba simply begs the question.

It's not obvious that humanity can be divided into "those who make great demands of themselves" and those "for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection" -- but even if this is the case, it isn't obvious that society is presently ruled by those who make great demands of themselves and are consequently the "yeast of heroes" possessed of "the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner pose required for citizenship in a republic." Who, I wonder, could Scialabba have in mind? Ronald Reagan? George Bush? (Either one.) Rush Limbaugh? John McCain? For that matter, Barack Obama?

But leave Republicans aside. It was "the best and brightest" of the Democrats, quite full of their own civic virtue and superior learning, who waged the Cold War and, among other spontaneous and joyous efforts, got the United States into Vietnam. Scialabba himself, in another essay collected here, tells how
The New Republic’s editors and contributors, especially John Dewey, urged “realism” and a more indulgent view of the uses of force. They were confident that “intelligence” (that is, they, the intelligentsia) could turn the forces set loose by the war to creative social purposes at home and abroad, could turn mechanized lunacy into a “democratic war.” But to do this it was necessary to ally themselves with – in fact, to subordinate themselves to – state power. They did so enthusiastically, and thereafter (like many liberal supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq) devoted a good deal of polemical energy to jeering at radicals and pacifists, whose scruples, the “realists” claimed, could lead only to isolation and impotence" [36-7].
Or as Noam Chomsky wrote,
One might speculate, rather plausibly, that wealth and power tend to accrue to those who are ruthless, cunning, avaricious, self-seeking, lacking in sympathy and compassion, subservient to authority and willing to abandon principle for material gain, and so on. ... Such qualities just might be the valuable ones for a war of all against all. If so, the society that results (applying [Richard] Herrnstein's "syllogism") could hardly be characterized as a "meritocracy." By using the word "meritocracy" Herrnstein begs some interesting questions and reveals implicit assumptions about our society that are hardly self-evident [For Reasons of State (Pantheon Books, 1973), 355].
Of course, this isn't what Ortega meant by people who make great demands of themselves, or what Scialabba meant by those who have the imaginative range and inner poise necessary for civic virtue, but it's not clear what they did mean. What disturbs me is that Ortega appears to be drawing on the "life force" fantasies that were common among many intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw evolution as a movement up the Great Chain of Being. These were compatible with, and encouraged, the blood-and-soil racism that flourished on both sides of the Atlantic -- and there too, the superiority of the rulers was assumed, not proven.

On the other hand, I'm not persuaded that "the masses" never make great demands of themselves. (But then, neither Ortega nor Scialabba tries to persuade; they simply assert.) Scialabba recounts how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously "renounced his wealth and his career in order to teach children in rural Austria, only to conclude that peasants and children alike were as vile as Cambridge dons" (26). This would be better reversed: Cambridge dons, and Wittgenstein himself, were as vile as peasants and children -- but then the division between the rulers and the masses would collapse. If they (or should I say "we"? from the viewpoint of the rulers, Scialabba and I are part of the masses) are often intellectually and morally lazy, so are the rulers, with much more destructive results.

Nor do I agree with Scialabba's "unimaginative conservative" that our present social arrangements "permit civic virtue"; rather they have evolved to suppress it. All efforts to keep the proles and peasants in their place, though, encounter resistance, often successful. The poor and downtrodden, being too ignorant to realize that they lack "civic virtue" and are mere complacent "buoys that float on the waves", have an alarming tendency to demand more, both of themselves and of the societies they live in. So we get such surprises -- to the elites, anyway -- as the 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti; the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua; democracy movements in South Korea, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere; and the refusal of the Vietnamese people to submit to foreign rule, whether French, Japanese, or American. Even in the US, the people don't always listen to the wise leaders who try to instill civic virtue in them. These efforts may not lead to "radical" democracy, but they are seldom allowed to. How can these upheavals be reconciled with Scialabba's "case for elitism"? I don't think they can, but they also trump it, and they indicate to me that Scialabba gave up on the people too easily.

As for Scialabba's "benign civic pedagogy," he seems to assume, as much as any unimaginative conservative, that it can only be imposed from above. But as Amartya Sen wrote in Development as Freedom (Oxford, 1999, p. 79),
There is an interesting choice here between "technocracy" and "democracy" in the selection of weights, which may be worth discussing a little. A choice procedure that relies on a democratic search for agreement or a consensus can be extremely messy, and many technocrats are sufficiently disgusted by its messiness to pine for some wonderful formula that would simply give us ready made weights that are "just right." However, no such magic formula does, of course, exist, since the issue of weighting is one of valuation and judgment, and not of some impersonal technology.
Sen also remarked (151):
Are the citizens of third world countries indifferent to political and democratic rights? This claim, which is often made, is again based on too little empirical evidence .... The only way of verifying this would be to put the matter to democratic testing in free elections with freedom of opposition and expression -- precisely the things that the supporters of authoritarianism do not allow to happen. It is not clear at all how this proposition can be checked when the ordinary citizens are given little political opportunity to express their views on this and even less to dispute the claims made by the authorities in office. The downgrading of these rights and freedoms is certainly part of the value system of the government leaders in many third world countries, but to take that to be the view of the people is to beg a very big question.
This observation applies no less to the First World masses, I'd say. I don't think I'm either a "radical democrat" or a "utopian" one; I expect the process of democracy to be messy, as Sen says, and the people will often be wrong. But the mistakes (and the crimes, come to that) will be theirs. I don't believe it's the masses who are the problem; it's the self-styled elites.