The Booker Prize winning author Yann Martel wrote in The Life of Pi that reason was the fool’s gold of the intelligent. It seems apt in our times as a humiliated intellectual class ponder the prospect that Enlightenment values are on the decline.
The Indian author Pankaj Mishra wrote last month in the Guardian that the central place of reason in the organisation of Western societies was an inaccurate assessment of human motives. He cites the rise of anger and strongman authoritarian figures in countries varying from The Phillippines to the United States as rooted in primitive desires such as envy and resentment.
Freud viewed our intellect as ‘a feeble and dependent thing, a plaything and tool of our impulses and emotions’. Freud also wrote ‘that culture is something imposed on a reluctant majority by a minority that managed to gain possession of the instruments of power and coercion’. There could scarcely be a better description of the cultural Left and its domination of the arts and media in recent history.
Henry Kissinger echoed Freud when asked by the Atlantic Monthly what he thought of Trump’s triumph. He described it as a domestic revolution resulting from a mainstream feeling attacked and ridiculed by the intellectual and cultural classes.
While Trump and Brexit voters may have been voting for a mix of economic and cultural reasons, to recognise that your interests are not being served by a political class intent on serving elites, both economic and cultural, is hardly irrational. The culture wars are in many respects driven by the equivalent of the inner city academic resentful of his intellectually inferior high school friend who makes a fortune working in the financial markets or in business.
In response to a sense of injustice, the academic overreaches in competing for moral superiority and cultivating sophistication. The academic may not be able to afford the waterfront property, but he holidays in Ubud and reads obscure, ethnic authors. This overreach describes the centre left media and cultural classes as they responded to a financial class that benefited disproportionately from technology and globalisation.
Concern for ethnic groups and environmental initiatives function more as a signal of virtue and balm to the conscience while elites on both sides just continue to indulge. As academic Christina Ho illustrates in her research on school choice, many such progressives would run a mile to avoid their children mixing with disadvantaged ethnic groups or, God forbid, Aboriginals. The contact with the exotic is limited to cuisine and travel as inner city Greens voters mingle almost entirely with other wealthy whites.
But it is also unwise for those on the conservative spectrum to be smug about Trump’s victory, for it is equally a snub to the financial elites. It is the financial class inhabiting Wall Street, the City of London or Sydney’s CBD who have benefited disproportionately from the financialisation of Western economies, as speculation has come to be the highest form of human activity as determined by the market.
Nowhere is this trend better highlighted than by the fact so many former senior Goldman Sachs executives, from our very own Turnbull, to Mark Carney running the British Exchequer to the latest Treasury Secretary of the US, all hail from what can be safely considered as the most powerful professional network in the world. Those who argue Trump is the elite miss the notion of elite as they appear to the masses.
Urban studies expert Richard Florida wrote a book called The Rise of The Creative Class, an emerging professional group which he deemed ‘the decisive source of competitive advantage’. The book was feted widely and captured the zeitgeist of the decade leading up to the 2007 financial crisis. In it he argues the world is increasingly shaped by and for the programmers and financial engineers who deal not in tangible goods, but in algorithms, risk and financial wizardry. They advise the Old World plutocrats in industries such as property, mining or manufacturing, quietly sneering at their unsophistication as they take their money for giving indispensable advice. This idea was underlined by American political philosopher David Callaghan who wrote that the ‘dirty rich’ were the old school industrialists who polluted while the ‘clean rich’ were those that purchased the carbon offsets. When our Prime Minister, the ‘clean rich’ Malcolm Turnbull, began his term sprouting innovation for all and urging us all to become more lean and nimble, he was channeling the Florida template. But you’ll notice this language has rapidly been shelved by Western leaders for it is heard as a synonym for redundancy, restructuring and unemployment for large swathes of the population.
One way Trump is sticking a middle finger to the ‘clean rich’ is by appointing members of the ‘dirty rich’ such as the former head of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State.
The Florida worldview held aloft professionals as the class that creates much like farmers were in the imagination of Thomas Jefferson or the proletariat in the dreams of the 1930s. The centre Left across the Western world have in turn become the representatives of this professional class. Minimum wage and solidarity were no longer inspiring. Nor did they signal merit or excellence the way the professions did. Such concerns were replaced by the language of authenticity and personal fulfilment.
The current revolt is in part anger towards a professional class that increasingly prescribes for the mainstream. In cultural terms it has been the accusations of being racist or misogynist, which have been perpetual in recent years, the finger pointing aided by ethnic or feminist allies.
It is a cause of lament that it has also become more apparent among my colleagues in medicine. Public health experts and hospital specialists increasingly opt for moralistic stances on everything from eating sugar to drinking alcohol. I would argue my profession has a narrow, technical education with little foundation or appreciation of the central place of liberty in our civilisation, instead becoming utterly focused on the reduction of perceived harm at all costs. Many doctors have become Hippocratic Oath fundamentalists. The upshot is that while none of us are silly enough to believe that we are entirely rational creatures, democracy and reason, I would posit, are in rude health. May it continue in the year ahead.
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