Barack Obama recently asked “where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from?”. Since one definition of an intellectual is “someone capable of entering a room containing a tea cozy without putting it on their head”, the answer might be the Tea Party movement. A more serious answer might be that we are not so much seeing anti-intellectualism but an antipathy to the “clever-clever” bastards who got us into our current mess.
As a Brit, I can mainly suggest issues from the UK. Firstly the obvious failure of the British intellectual leadership. Corruption and incompetence found in all areas of the British elite. Bankers, MPs, police and journalists; all have been caught out over the past decade.
Then consider that the intellectuals of the 1940s and 50s brought us the NHS, state pensions and union representation. Perhaps unions became too powerful but the intellectuals of the 1990s and 2000s set about eroding the gains of the working people while centralising power in large corporations. Alternative, and often collective organisation such as building societies and even football teams were privatised. Great wealth was created for a minority while the rest of us have the illusion of wealth generated by excessive debt, a succession of consumer gadgets and faster fashion cycles. Meanwhile factors which really affect our lives are not figured into analysis of wealth at all. Average house sizes are shrinking and commute times getting longer. Even The Economist has been running articles claiming that “Gross domestic product (GDP) is increasingly a poor measure of prosperity” yet our intelectual leadership continues to promote unfettered capitalism as the New World Order.
The new global elite want the role of the last democratic institution (the state) reduced to nothing more than ensuring laws are lax and citizens desperate in order to lure global corporations to base their activity (though not their tax payment) in the UK. The offer is sweetened with the promise of cheap labour imported from abroad, educated at the expense of somebody else and dressed up as “diversity” to keep the Left on side. In reality, the individual now stands almost alone before the power of global corporations and dare not demonstrate any more diversity than their coffee preferences.
That the elite are oblivious to the lives of ordinary people was made obvious recently when British chancelor George Osbourne warned that leaving the EU would precipitate an 18% drop in house prices. This might have appalled the global rich who have stashed there ill gotten money in London property but must apear sound economic policy to those desperate to get a foot on the housing ladder.
Meanwhile, at every turn, we are told that we need to work harder, to become even more efficient to “compete”. The UK does not have enough educated people so they must be imported from countries which have even fewer educated people. Mr. Obama speech on anti-intellectualism stressed that kindness, compassion, honesty and hard work often matter more than technical skills but this message seems lost on everyone.
If we question or complain about globalisation, about immigration or about capitalism we are deemed stupid or xenophobic. A recent Facebook post chimed in with this. It read: “Totally failed at life? Then why not blame a foreigner, it’s so much easier than taking responsibility for your own choices“. The implication being that if you are poor or homeless or unemployed or suffering some physical or emotional trauma then it’s your own fault and the society in which you live does not give a shit. A similar series of comments on a newspaper site stated that if your couldn’t compete against non-English speaking, uneducated immigrants then your were a “loser”.
Of course the clever and well educated can never admit their contempt for the poor and uneducated and so politician of all stripes pay lip service to defending the rights of the poor……. but only in a theoretical sense. Politicians argue that their policies will benefit the underclass in the long run ….. but in the long run we’re all dead.
It is true that education increases life chances but we can’t all be doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. This is the myth of American style meritocracy. A massive marketing machine indoctrinates us with the fallacy that we can all attain great wealth. We are encouraged to accept our current state of inequality or poverty believing that if we try just a bit harder then we too can be part of the top 1%. This is bollocks!
Contempt for the poor and uneducated permeates UK politics. If one of the underclass dare to stammer out their poorly articulated objections about the reality in the here and now then they are intimidated with pompous overblown rhetoric and dubious facts and figures. In 2014 I had a twitter exchange with David Aranonovich the journalist and son of communist intellectual Sam Aaronovitch. He had appeared on BBC political debate program Question Time discussing EU membership with a homeless and jobless man who had protested that the person who had interviewed him for state housing had been an immigrant. Aranonovich insinuated that the guy was a racist and, in a later twitter exchange, said “We all face competition here & abroad. Nothing is guaranteed….” – While we might expect such a callous opinion from a Tory it is staggering that this is the opinion of a leading member of the British Left. Of course, the Tories are worse. In their pursuit of austerity they ignore the criminality of the (intellectual) bankers and target the (uneducated) poor. It has taken the threat of BREXIT for the British leadership to begrudgingly admit that, while England morphs from post war land of warm beer and Ford Cortinas to a multicultural New York style super-city, mass immigration is detrimental to the working poor.
Currently the EU and USA are negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It’s probably true that unfettered free markets in goods, services, and yes, in people (in the case of the EU) can create greater efficiency which leads to greater GDP but this no guarantee of benefits to all members of society. The recipients of efficiency gains are never the workers but the elite who own and run the corporations. The Economist has postulated the current wave of advanced technology will mean that, in the future, it will be easier to earn a living by owning capital (being rich) than by finding work.
Merely insulting and sidelining the “losers” of this questionable “progress” is bound to create an alienated underclass who look elsewhere for their leadership. In a TV program last year the Tory MP, Matthew Parris, was discussing the people of Thanet who have elected a UKIP MP. He argued in favour or EU membership and declared that the people of Thanet were “Just wrong”.
Let me explain something to Matthew Parris: Electing a government is not just about choosing clever people to grow global GDP. The key aspect of democracy, the attribute which makes it more desirable than any other system is not just the wisdom of crowds. The absolutely key aspect of democracy, the thing that makes it superior to all other systems both practically and morally is that EVERYONE gets to vote according to their own perspective. If the daily lives of a section of the electorate are in sharp contrast to the shining vision presented by eloquent politicians then it is legitimate for them to seek different leadership. UKIP may or may not deliver for the people of Thanet but they are right to vote any damn way they please.
So, to return to Obama’s question. I suspect that asking about the root of anti-intellectualism is the wrong question. Since the affluent and well educated members of society have conspicuously betrayed the poorer, less well educated and less articulate members of society the real question is why the hell should anybody trust intellectuals ever again?