Elizabeth Farrelly’s latest piece in the Sydney Morning Herald has already fired up a number of my friends and colleagues mostly through Twitter. I am broadly supportive of her argument and points, while most are not. The danger the article presents is a knee-jerk reading that defends the democratic mass against accusations of mob stupidity. I think the article deserves a more nuanced reading.
It may be, as one correspondent wrote last week, that advertising works on the “80/80 principle”, the assumption that 80 per cent of Australians have an IQ average of 80.
Here she is writing about an assumption, not an actuality. Advertising assumes that 80 percent of Australians have an IQ of 80. She is no describing a reality, but the suggestion is nonsense (IQ is a statistical measure of intelligence, if 80 percent of the population had lowered IQ’s relative to a previous average then 80 would no longer be ’80’. ’80’ is roughly two standard deviations away from the actual average of 100). Rather, she is describing the way advertising functions to interpellate and produce subjects that act as if the general average IQ dropped 20 points. Advertising produces stupidity. I agree with this point.
For one person to live in an acre of grass and trees is perfectly harmless, even lovable. But for the numberless hordes to do it means an end to wilderness, clean air and polar bears. This must be obvious to everyone who has ever sat in the daily Sydney-to-Richmond traffic jam, yet we do not see it. Which is why premiers repeatedly stake their careers on building more roads, which just means more congestion. We don’t have to be dumb. It’s enough that our leaders think we are, and pander accordingly.
Her next point is about scale. It repeats an argument originally developed by the ecological socialist Andre Gorz. Gorz is one of the most under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century. He was a realist and not an idealist. He recognised that what we now call sustainability would eventually have to be the goal of modern societies. In Gorz’s example (if memory serves, in Ecology as Politics) he discusses the example of everyone desiring a chateau by the beach, which, clearly, is not possible. People recognise the limits of the beach and real estate, etc. as a luxury. Yet, everyone desires an automobile and so on, but does not recognise it as a luxury.
But democracy, the tyranny of the majority, may yet prove an own goal for humanity, mainly because of the weird trick it does with scale; allowing us all to pursue our own happiness as if we were the only ones on the planet. Allowing us to act like a vast family of solipsistic only children, steadfastly voting for lower taxes and higher services.
Farrelly introduces the notion of ‘happiness’ as something we pursue of our own interest. The great libertarian liberal myth of a society of individuals operating according to their own rational self interest sounds great until you realise that most people do not act rationally or necessarily even in their own self interest (ie stupidity as an infection). A variation of this is developed by Gorz who talks about “autonomous” (self-directed) and “heteronomous” (other-directed) activities.
Autonomous activities are truly self-managed. These are freely chosen tasks, performed by individuals or in cooperation with a like-minded group. Heteronomous tasks are constrained by social demands. Such tasks are imposed by the nature of the tools used, their organization, the division of labor and its global dispersal. The history of capitalism has involved the increase of heteronomous tasks at the expense of autonomous ones. The size of corporations and of the factories they have built, even the technologies used, have been designed expressly to thwart direct workers’ control. Heteronomy limits self-management.
Now, lets go out on a limb here. Lets imagine that ‘stupidity’ in our democratic societies is the misrecognition of heteronomy for autonomy. This is facilitated through the work of advertising and the media that asks us to assume certain goals as our own (in my PhD research I looked at the way enthusiast media propositioned certain challenges as worthy for enthusiast mobilisation, these challenges were congruent with commercial outcomes). Most people are familiar with the list of life goals that require great mobilisation to be achieved, but which serve as a resource for others to commodify and make money from: owning one’s own home, the esculator of consumerism, etc. Farrelly summarises all this under the term ‘happiness’:
It’s not that, as a society, we’re especially happy. More than we feel we ought to be. We feel that, under the circumstances, and given the vast quanta of food, pleasure, leisure, wealth and freedom at our disposal, there’s no reason not to be.
She then offers two ‘proofs’. The first is that true happiness is attained when it is not pursued. In other words, false ‘happiness’ as the ideal of ‘stupidity’ or misrecognised heteronomous action is set up in opposition to autonomous activity that is the outcome of activity when ‘happiness’ is not the singular goal:
Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s founding father, admits that the most reliable path to happiness is not to pursue it, but to commit to some greater, connective cause (be it housing the homeless or writing metaphysical sonnets).
Her second proof attacks the weakness of our contemporary political leadership who are too afraid to lead against ‘stupidity’ (or misrecognised autonomous activity that infects a population through the stupidity of advertising and the media) as indicative of a weak democracy:
En masse, when all of our small, personal happiness pursuits coagulate into one big, ongoing, democratic res publica, the result is an increasingly cowed and cowardly leadership with no higher goal than this; to service an increasingly petulant public by telling it precisely what it wishes to hear.
Of course you can have both cheap petrol and clean air, my darlings. Yes, yes. Big houses and swift individual transport, perfect health for free and forever, new toys all round, all the time – these things are everybody’s right. There there. Back to sleep with you.
The last point is about the way Western liberal democracies are hamstrung by the need to pamper to the ‘stupidities’ of the public. Even though leaders, and others, may recognise the need for decisive action about issues and increase the capacity for action to respond to various crises, our leaders must play the game of ‘politics’ for re-election and lead in a continually reactionary mode.
Certainly, freed from any need to pander to the 80/80 rule, they have at least one freedom Western-style democracies do not have – the freedom to act decisively.
This, of course, can be bad, very bad. But it can also be good, facilitating just the kind of purposive decision making needed to change habits quickly and cater to excellence rather than popularity.
Maybe it’s too soon to dump democracy, but I’d make voting a privilege; not a right, and certainly not an obligation. If they can’t be bothered to vote, the last thing you want is their help in running the country. Rather, we’d earn our voting rights by demonstrating at least some intelligent grasp of the issues and so force, or perhaps allow, our leaders to raise their eye-cues.
The job of the Left is to help produce subjects capable of heteronomous action, and from my appreciation of the current state of affairs the job of intellectuals broadly following the Enlightenment tradition is to critique ‘stupidity’.