Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Toward a political metaphysics of stupidity

In his book What's the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank explains how Kansas was transformed from one of the most progressive states in the US into one of the most reactionary. Working class voters have switched their allegiance to the Republicans on "values" because the Democrats have offered no alternative in economics.

But there was a major hole in his analysis: what was fueling such widespread adoption of the values trumpeted by the Christian right: anti-intellectualism, homophobia, racism, fetal fundamentalism and misogyny? Why did so many Americans vote for Bush despite, or perhaps even because of, his stubborn incompetence and stupidity?

David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist, offers the beginnings of a convincing answer. He focuses on the evolution of the educational system into a system for building an increasingly caste-like society. He argues that, because of its sharply increasing costs, higher education "is no longer seen, at least by the white working class, as a plausible means of social mobility" and so "class resentments have been grafted onto educational attainment."

This reversal of the post-WWII trend toward constantly expanding access to higher education via the GI Bill etc., has made it increasingly difficult for people from working class backgrounds, even if they make it to university, to pursue the type of career one would choose for its values, i.e. for any other reason than making money.
If one chooses a career for any reason other than the money--if one wishes to become a part of the world of books, or charities, the art world, to be an idealist working for an NGO, an activist, an investigative reporter--for the first year or two, they won't pay you. This effectively seals off any such career for the vast majority of poor kids who actually do make it through college.
As a result social class is seen as tightly welded to education, and education of a type that is seen as simply inaccessible for large sections of the white working class. And so class resentment focuses more on the educated liberal elite (and their values) than on the corporate executives, who are the more proximate cause of exploitation of the working class.
Bush voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals as a class more than rich people, largely because they can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich, but cannot possibly imagine one in which they or any of their children would become a member of the liberal intelligencia.
The resentment at exclusion is exacerbated by the perception that intellectuals tend to see ordinary working people as "a bunch of knuckle dragging cavemen."

Resentment extends to other groups such as minorites in part because these minorities, in which genuine anti-intellectualism is virtually non-existent, continue to see higher education as a plausible means of advancement. Resentment of education may well also be one source of the misogyny and fanatical opposition to abortion given that women are making up an increasingly large part of the college population.

Religion, and fundamentalist religion in particular, gave working class whites a ready-made critique of the dominant forms of knowledge and values in society that affirmed their autonomy to decide what makes life worth living, to find self-affirming class values. Graeber goes on here to make the provocative claim that
what we are seeing here in many cases, is a battle over access to the right to behave altruistically. Selflessness is not the strategy, it's the prize...In value terms, the question becomes who has the right to translate their money into what sorts of meaning? Who controls the medium through which and the institutions through which our actions become meaningful to ourselves...
The argument here gets a bit more complex than I really want to summarize at this point but it is well worth thinking through.

Thanks to John over at Counago and Spaves for pointing to this very interesting article.


At 2/15/2006 3:19 AM, Blogger John said...

Nice post!


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