Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The pathologies of the educated elites

Another really nice opinion piece from David Brooks, who notes the consequences, as we have moved from the industrial age to the information age, of progressive energy moving from the working class to the universities, especially the elite universities.

I’ve looked on with a kind of dismay as elite university dynamics have spread across national life and politics, making America worse in all sorts of ways. Let me try to be more specific about these dynamics.
The first is false consciousness. To be progressive is to be against privilege. But today progressives dominate elite institutions like the exclusive universities, the big foundations and the top cultural institutions...This is the contradiction of the educated class. Virtue is defined by being anti-elite. But today’s educated class constitutes the elite, or at least a big part of it...This sort of cognitive dissonance often has a radicalizing effect. When your identity is based on siding with the marginalized, but you work at Horace Mann or Princeton, you have to work really hard to make yourself and others believe you are really progressive. You’re bound to drift further and further to the left to prove you are standing up to the man...elite students...are often the ones talking most loudly about burning the system down.
The second socially harmful dynamic is what you might call the cultural consequences of elite overproduction...the marketplace isn’t producing enough of the kinds of jobs these graduates think they deserve...Peter Turchin argued that periods of elite overproduction lead to a rising tide of social decay as alienated educated-class types wage ever more ferocious power struggles with other elites...The spread of cancel culture and support for decriminalizing illegal immigration and “defunding the police” were among the quintessential luxury beliefs that seemed out of touch to people in less privileged parts of society. Those people often responded by making a sharp countershift in the populist direction, contributing to the election of Donald Trump and to his continued political viability today...elite overproduction induces people on the left and the right to form their political views around their own sense of personal grievance and alienation. It launches unhappy progressives and their populist enemies into culture war battles that help them feel engaged, purposeful and good about themselves, but ...these battles are often more about performative self-validation than they are about practical policies that might serve the common good.
The third dynamic is the inflammation of the discourse. The information age has produced a vast cohort of people (including me) who live by trafficking in ideas — academics, journalists, activists, foundation employees, consultants and the various other shapers of public opinion...Nothing is more unstable than a fashionable opinion. If your status is defined by your opinions, you’re living in a world of perpetual insecurity, perpetual mental and moral war...French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu...argued that just as economic capitalists use their resource — wealth — to amass prestige and power, people who form the educated class and the cultural elite, symbolic capitalists, use our resources — beliefs, fancy degrees, linguistic abilities — to amass prestige, power and, if we can get it, money...symbolic capitalists turned political postures into power tools that enable them to achieve social, cultural and economic might...battles for symbolic consecration are now the water in which many of us highly educated Americans swim. In the absence of religious beliefs, these moral wars give people a genuine sense of meaning and purpose.
Brooks notes a number of potential ways of countering these dynamics, all of which require the educated class. progressive or not, to address the social, political and economic divides it has unwittingly created. But he also cites another, perhaps more likely, path:

Perhaps today’s educated elite is just like any other historical elite. We gained our status by exploiting or not even seeing others down below, and we are sure as hell not going to give up any of our status without a fight.

 Brooks then points to a forthcoming book, al-Gharbi’s “We Have Never Been Woke.” al-Gharbi notes:’s educated-class activists are conveniently content to restrict their political action to the realm of symbols. In his telling, land acknowledgments — when people open public events by naming the Indigenous peoples who had their land stolen from them — are the quintessential progressive gesture...It’s often non-Indigenous people signaling their virtue to other non-Indigenous people while doing little or nothing for the descendants of those who were actually displaced...while members of the educated class do a lot of moral preening, their lifestyles contribute to the immiserations of the people who have nearly been rendered invisible — the Amazon warehouse worker, the DoorDash driver making $1.75 an hour after taxes and expenses.

 Brooks concludes:

That rumbling sound you hear is the possibility of a multiracial, multiprong, right/left alliance against the educated class. Donald Trump has already created the nub of this kind of movement but is himself too polarizing to create a genuinely broad-based populist movement. After Trump is off the stage, it’s very possible to imagine such an uprising....The lesson for those of us in the educated class is to seriously reform the system we have created or be prepared to be run over.




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