January 1, 2017

The Twilight of the Elites?

Paul Musgrave revisits Chris Hayes' book Twilight of the Elites in light of the 2016 election. It is an excellent review, beginning with Musgrave's assessment of Hayes' book as a competing kind of "deep story":

One emerging theme of my post-election reading has been the importance of deep stories — the sorts of core beliefs, narratives, and faiths that people take for granted. ....In Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes supplies what I think is a more accurate, or at least more resonant story: the Betrayal of the Elites. Hayes argues that American institutions, refashioned after the Second World War to accelerate the assimilation of “ethnics”, women, and other minorities, have become a self-perpetuating ring of credentials and connections that betrays their original meritocratic rationale. As US elites have come to believe that they have received all the signs of the meritocratic elect–they went to Harvard; they went to the best grad schools or hedge funds; and their kids do the same–they are ever more affirmed in their belief that they are only enjoying their just desserts. If others have less than they do, well–they shake their heads sadly–perhaps those less fortunate are only receiving what they deserve.

Musgrave primarily critiques the book for its overly parochial view. Surely there are other societies with the same dynamics, and surely this moment is not unique even in American history, correct? This is true, but something that all of these discussions tend to downplay is the question of what necessarily produces the perception of expertise. The WASP/aristocratic view is clear: a sort of pseudo-mystical view of noblesse oblige and genetic privilege. In order to undercut the artistocrats, the professional classes created a mythology in which their superior education, technical rationality, and mastery of policy and legalism gave them a unique ability to manage modern societies. The pragmatic businessman, scientist, and inventor, in other words, was superior to the irrational and coddled prince. In reality, this myth masked the true weakness of the professional's position: he lacked the legitimacy of noble birth yet also lacked true solidarity with the downtrodden masses.

In fact, there was more than a bit of tension between the professed egalitarianism of liberals and their actual wariness and suspicion of those below them. This wariness and suspicion sometimes manifested itself in brutal violence, as was the case when the revolutionary French regime massacred the rural conservative Catholic inhabitants of the Vendée in the late 1790s. The proletariat also flocked to the call of social bandits and reactionary populists instead of enlightened social reformers. Communist regimes took this tendency to an extreme, at first expressing frustration with the backwardness of the populace and then resorting to extermination to clean the slate. There is a built-in complex of insecurity and resentment that stems from both the bourgeois fetish of education as well as the particular problem of where and how the professional derives social legitimacy.

This is why I am largely skeptical of ideas such as Universal Basic Income (UBI). It is easy to see, for example, a future in which UBI is revoked after social reformers grow frustrated that the displaced truck driver does not immediately devote his efforts to learning to code self-driving automobiles or virtual reality products via MOOC classes and continues to vote "against his economic interests" (a code word for support of non-liberal political causes). "Let them starve!" is sadly going to be the predictable response. But this aside is somewhat of a distraction from what I am building towards about expertise and legitimacy. The reason why the mythology succeeded was that there was much underlying truth to it. Specialized education, technical rationality, and expertise was needed to control the industrial economy. Surely there was something of a self-serving element to this myth in the way it carved out a separate sphere between economics and politics. But it also benefited from the manner in which industrial expertise could be clearly demonstrated through measurable inputs and outputs!

World War II also, as a triumph of centralized managerial planning and calculative rationality, seemingly proved the superiority of the professional in the most perilous of undertakings - all out warfare. It provoked a crisis even within the military and forced soldiers to have to parrot the mathematical musings of their civilian colleagues in order to maintain their social authority. This provoked much resentment, but what could anyone do? The cultural potency of the term "Manhattan Project" suggests that it's hard to win an argument with blast yields of at least 15 kilotons of TNT! However, the kind of rational spectacle seen in the machine economy did not easily transfer over to other areas of society. And the kind of hyper-quantitative measurement utilized to dispense outcomes in the domain of machine economics also did not scale up that well either. Over time, as the professional class became larger and larger, more internally divided, and less tied to its technical roots its legitimacy and power steadily declined. Hence it is natural that it would become incapable of self-regulation and self-policing and especially incapable of not drinking its own very potent distillation of ideological Kool-Aid.

The dawn of the "knowledge economy" and the "post-industrial society" would prove to be the undoing of the professionals. In addition to the political and economic consequences of "turbo-capitalism," expertise and social legitimacy became more and more tautological and self-referential. And while the social prominence of the professional had always to some extent been rooted in cartelization and collusion, these dynamics became more and more obvious to those outside the circle. Meanwhile, those within the circle had internalized an ideology that cast those outside of it as irrational peons and disreputable rabble. To make matters worse, the dynamics of an economy rooted around the exchange of information was also destroying the economic lifeblood of professionals and animalizing them into a precarious existence marked by a Lord of the Flies-like competition for the precious few remaining guarantees of an economically secure and culturally meaningful life. The dawn of a "database culture" also made a mockery of the professionals' mastery of facts and structured knowledge. Who needs facts in a world that revolves around subcultural memetic primitives arranged and re-arranged at the speed of a tweet?

By the 2016 election, the last gasp of the declining professionals was the politicization of everyday speech and language. Like the late WWI-WWII German military offensives, this yielded some tactical and operational gains but also did not stave off catastrophic strategic collapse. It put the losers of this failed campaign in the strange position of simultaneously arguing that basic social, economic, and cultural matters were not up for discussion and everything else was problematic and needed to be torn down. Moreover, this was a dangerous escalation precisely because the professionals lacked escalation dominance. They could not, at the end of the day, beat reality TV show stars at the art of forcibly imposing an illusion. It was like bringing a super-soaker or a Nerf rifle to the gunfight at the OK Corral. So what now? Musgrave concludes with this ominous note:

A longer and broader perspective on the matter might have led Hayes to the next step: the possibility that the economics of media and culture–of the noosphere itself–have been so fragmented that the possibility of elite consensus governing a vertically integrated society, as more or less all developed and Communist bloc countries had attained ca. 1945-1975, has disappeared. That period was as ephemeral and epiphenomenal as trench warfare or mass aerial bombing raids. The combination of the omnipresent human drive for levelling and of broadly disseminated access to the means of producing ideas will not prove fertile ground for persausion over the desirability of re-submitting ourselves to elites who are–and let us be honest–worn out and barely competent at best. Re-forming the conditions for unified governance will likely require the same sorts of fundamental ordering as the Second World War provided globally and the Civil War provided domestically.

This is probably correct. And the "fundamental ordering" that Musgrave talks about is coming very soon. While I suspect that current predictions of the coming age of artificial intelligence and other advanced automation technologies will likely be very, very off I do think that some kind of severe political and social dislocation is inevitable. This will likely produce a new class of elites, many of which will claim competence at the art of managing automation much like their ancestors did in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it also will likely prompt significant political unrest that will pose enormous challenges for whoever aspires to rule the United States and other advanced industrial societies. If the worst predictions are correct, such unrest will surely make 2016 look like a tempest in a teapot.

Tags: review