The Deadly Mediocrity of Elites

by Rebecca Qing

3 December 2017

Photo: Pablo Fernández

Each year, usually around the start of term in October, one particular story will dominate the papers. It will invariably centre around some prestigious institution of note – Oxbridge being a common culprit – and take aim at its admissions policies through the lens of access. This October, the Guardian reported that one in three colleges at Oxford failed to admit any black students whatsoever. In May, a photo of fourteen black male Cambridge students, posing in solidarity with one another and future black Cantabrigians to come, went viral. The movement for greater diversity continues within the University gates. Movements such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Decolonise your curriculum’ have further contested the history and practises of these institutions from the inside, demanding a critical revision of the dominant narratives, undeserved hagiographies, and distributions of power that underpin the practices of the Ivory Tower.

These efforts are important and necessary. And yet, there is the inevitable question; how can we develop further movements for broad-based social recognition that does not put the burdern of the most menial, draining work – both physical and emotional – on the historically oppressed? The assertion, as Cornel West contended, that ‘in a place like Cambridge, W.E.B. Dubois should be integral to the curriculum’, must be compared alongside the ‘dominant centre’ that consistently and continuously attempts to cast these works out from its purview, relegated to a quiet and impotent tokenism.

The ‘diversity question’ has often centred around the marginal figures rightfully seeking access to these spheres of power. Redirect the gaze, however, to the gatekeepers of these supposed hallowed institutions and one starts to question; what have these figures of the existing ‘elite’, to which everyone else is encouraged to strive, really brought us?

Historian Perry Anderson, in an essay on the London Review of Books, paints a portrait of what he calls the ‘pervasive corruption’ of elites, carelessly strewing the neglected bodies of the working class, women, and minorities in its wake. Such careless cruelty seems at first glance typical of the fusty, brandy-addled British upper classes – but it’s a cultural phenomenon not of the British, but of the upper classes. France has seen Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Christine Lagarde all been scrutinised for under-the-table deals amounting to sizeable millions. Germany has seen two recent presidents, Horst Köhler and Christian Wulff, resign after being implicated in questionable business deals; two leading ministers have been stripped of their doctorates after unscrupulous academic practices. In Spain, the People’s Party treasurer Luis Bárcenas has been arrested for stashing away €48 million in undeclared Swiss accounts. In Britain, Tony Blair’s cushy post-prime-ministerial career has given him an alleged net worth of £60 million, amassed by palm-greasing deals with, Anderson notes, ‘South Korean oil company run by a convicted felon with interests in Iraq and the feudal dynasty of Kuwait’. And of course, the recent Paradise Papers has indicted the Queen in investing in millions in offshore accounts.

The moral corruption that comes with the cushy enjoyment of power knows no political affiliations. Although the dictum ‘to make an omelette, you must break a few eggs’ – often attributed to Robespierre and Lenin – is marshalled as a deterrent against the incendiary visions of political radicalism, it appears that the ruling class, with all its superficial political differences, is bound together in its readiness to ‘break a few eggs’ in its steadfast adherence to the current order, whether that means the mangled bodies in Iraq or the working-class evicted from their homes through the sloppy application of bad financial derivatives, to enjoy their proverbial omelette in the form of a self-satisfied mandate to rule. Our current Foreign Secretary has a degree in Classics. The Chancellor has scant formal training in economics. Our economy and foreign policy are alike in their murderous ineptitude. These politicians share a fascinating incompetence, grounded in the conviction that power is their birthright, ruling their absolute destiny. There is no reason for them to cultivate basic competence, let alone expertise. Why would they when talent is totally irrelevant to their certain hold on wealth and power?

Look to the intelligentsia, and the situation is not much better. Political power has always enjoyed a comfortable and inextricable relationship with elite academia (Theresa May –Oxford; David Cameron – Oxford; Donald Trump – the University of Pennsylvania; Hillary Clinton – Yale; Steve Bannon – interestingly, Harvard). Looking to the ‘public intellectual’ class, the self-appointed mainstream pundits have proven themselves to be terrible prognosticators of the future. All major publications in America supported the Iraq War; prominent pundits who signed their name to the effort included William Kristol (Harvard); David Brooks (the University of Chicago); Thomas Friedman (Oxford); Robert Kagan (Yale); Christopher Hitchens (Oxford). The list of those who enthusiastically trumpeted the benefits of globalisation in the early 2000’s runs the similar gamut of Ivory-towered academe: former Wold Bank Chief Economist Larry Summers (president of Harvard); Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf (Oxford); economist Paul Krugman (Yale and MIT) number among globalisation’s most ardent supporters. And for the financial crash of 2008; it is commonly held wisdom now that ‘no-one saw this coming’.

America has not ‘exported democracy’ to Iraq. Globalisation, for all its efforts, has created a widespread backlash that has led to the rise of ultra-right nationalist movements today. This is not to engage in the people’s court bashing of these individuals per se; Krugman, Summers, Brooks and Friedman have all expressed a retroactive regret for their past positions, and have attempted to re-calibrate their ideas as a result. And yet, the surprising resilience of the upper-intelligentsia in their powerful positions over cultural and political life begs the question: where are those who have expressed their opposition from the very beginning? These are, after all, the ones who actually have a more accurate understanding of the world – not coddled by the wealth and power that allows them to stew in their own mediocrity.

No one saw this coming’ was perhaps one of the more popular refrains in political discourse in the past year. Trump; Brexit; the surprise surge of Corbynism. If the past year in politics has taught ‘us’ anything, it is that ‘we’ know nothing. The pundits, the polls, and the papers all – for lack of a better phrase – ate shit. The indisputable authority of our philosopher-kings who guard the gates at the BBC and the New York Times; the Deloittes and the KPMGs; the Oxfords and the Cambridges, has been soundly shaken. ‘No one knew’, is the refrain, after all.

But the thing is, people did know. The 1990s saw the flourishing of an internationalist anti-globalisation movement, which is commonly traced back in scholarship to the 1994 Zapatista army uprising in Mexico, which began on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. Although the Zapatistas did not achieve their immediate goal for national revolution, their efforts brought into being a ‘International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism’ that included fellow travellers such as socialist Gandhian farmers; the Maori of New Zealand, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, as well as anarchist and radical trade unions across Europe; thus the roots for a strongly internationalist anti-globalisation movement were sown. The decision to go to war in Iraq was likewise met by a day of international co-ordinated protest on February 15, 2003; a rally of three million people in Rome is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest anti-war protest in history. That day, an estimated six to ten million people protested across the world.  

There is some irony to this. If there existed a genuine ‘free market of ideas’ that these very same mainstream pundits purported to support, they would have lost their own jobs a long time ago. Krugman, Wolf, and Friedman still enjoy pre-eminent careers, in spite of labelling anti-globalisation activists ‘pampered college kids’ and ‘a long-dormant American left is that of – yes! – denying opportunity to third-world workers’. Most pundits who loudly signed onto the Iraq War are still writing front-and-centre New York Times opinion articles (apparently the six million who opposed it were busy). In America, those at the heart of government remain staunch supporters of the ‘Washington Consensus’ that exults unfettered free trade, open markets, and privatisation; Donald Trump, after briefly flirting with some anti-establishmentarianism during his campaign, has come out since firmly in favour of America’s hard-line neoconservative foreign policy roots. Economists and policymakers who championed austerity practices remain largely unscathed from the financial crash of 2008 and the constant immiseration it has produced; some even moonlight a rather cushy existence as professional job-collectors. (Stanford).

In fact, in stark contrast to its outward proclamations exalting the values of diversity, the reaction of the professional upper-middle class commentariat and political class to these upheavals, which have demonstrated both their own myopia and the value of listening to alternative opinions – is to cling to their cloistered world view even harder. ‘Stupid’ and ‘irrational’ are the most common terms levelled at Brexiteers; philosopher A.C. Grayling (Oxford) is under the impression that arguing that reminding people of the ‘education gap’ between the Leave and Remain camps is a convincing argument to bring about the return of a civic-minded democracy. Any criticism of the centre-right American political consensus from the Left amounts to misogyny (you are criticising Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman) or participation in a deranged and insidious Russian plot. Corbynistas, when they’re not being ‘thick as pigshit’, are actively endangering democracy. At Universities, calls to interrogate the broader political and racial affiliations of those exalted in literary and historic canons amount to juvenile petulance (these ‘special snowflakes!’) or an outright move towards a race war.

This lazy, unkind anti-intellectualism – what Sara Ahmed has deemed a bad faith move to ‘hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship’ – places anyone who might offer a dissenting worldview in a very difficult position, forced to navigate through a tricky obstacle course where they may be bested by the charges of being ‘dogmatic’, ‘censorious’, or just plain ‘stupid’. This lose-lose scenario begs the question: what sort of diversity are these very same individuals and institutions exalting?

A corrective to our ‘diversity crisis’ may be found by a quick leap in time to 1886, when an artist named Vincent van Gogh visited a Parisian flea market and came across, as you do, a pair of dusty old shoes. He brought them back to his house in the city’s Montmartre district and was discouraged to find that the shoes did not fit. He decided to paint them instead. What began as a not-quite Cinderella story became a veritable fairy-tale in its own right; almost fifty years later, Van Gogh’s dusty old shoes would be taken up by philosopher Martin Heidegger as the prime example of what Heidegger saw to be the world-making nature of art.

A work of art in the world, Heidegger argued, revolutionises the world itself; it discloses new ways of seeing, and by doing so, changes the world by introducing truths and perspectives through the recesses of its canvas. Van Gogh’s shoes, Heidegger claimed, in fact belonged to a peasant woman; its humble subject matter belied its heroic stakes. ‘In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth’, he wrote; ‘its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field’. In boldly representing in its canvas the existence of a life too often relegated to the margins, the philosopher argued, Van Gogh’s painting made the world a little more truthful.

If ‘beauty is truth’ and ‘truth, beauty’, let this be the unshakeable case and modus operandi for diversity in a world that has confused ‘truth’ with power, and that has, when faced with the dual poles of intellectual virtue against a palatability to power, too often chosen the latter. Within the damaging myopia and comfortable insularity of their own culture, the ‘diversity question’ becomes PR exercise that sanitises the blood-stained histories of the halls of power, casting these spaces as universally valid aspirations; the penthouse-floor CEO office and a place at the Oxford lecture hall are roundly good things to which to strive; the teleological end of the ‘diversity’ narrative is the world as it is, but peppered a greater selection of genders and skin colours in these pre-existing slots of elite power.

It is safe to say that the Zapatistas will not be receiving an invitation to Davos anytime soon. And yet, diversity ought to discomfort and unsettle, rather than ease the consciences of a privileged few. Their world is narrow and crumbling under the weight of its lofty rhetoric (‘we are the entrusted philosopher kings’) failing to meet its actual practices (continuously getting everything wrong). Let us speak and disclose our own truths to power with candour and compassion; we will make the world more beautiful in the process.

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