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Meritocracy and the future of work

Why we must overcome the “cult of intelligence”.

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At the end of February, I served on a dissertation-defence committee at a certain venerable Old World university in Paris. The event took place in a building whose foundations date to the 13th century, in a specialised “salle de soutenance” constructed in the 19th century. The defendant was made to sit at a small desk beneath a looming podium, where we, the honourable members of the jury, were solemnly seated. The borrowed vocabulary from the world of the criminal trial is intentional and unmistakable. As usual I tried to play my part and look as grim and serious as possible.

The dissertation itself was excellent and the student gave a formidable account of his work. But the atmosphere of the whole affair was rather like that of a baroque chamber ensemble that insists on playing period instruments. We were, in effect, Live Action Role Playing (or LARPing), pretending to be scholars from back in the ancien régime, when such endeavours were a secure and meaningful part of our shared social reality.

Or at least I was LARPing. My French colleagues, relatively insulated by a protectionist state that has forestalled the collapse of culture perhaps by a few decades through top-down measures, might well still be taking these rituals for reality itself. Yet even here, on the Île-de-France Culture Reserve, it cannot but seem a bit strained to anyone half-awake to the world beyond the boulevard Saint-Michel. I mean, we received our convocations to the event by postal mail. If we wanted to go for a more comprehensive LARP, we might also have committed to shaving ourselves with straight razors before setting out to the defence by velocipede.

I would argue that pretty much everyone who still has a job that is not that of a first-responder, an infrastructure maintenance worker, or a food-deliverer, is LARPing. Or rather, we do have real jobs, but these jobs are not what we think they are. Since the transition to “distance work” a year ago, it is growing ever clearer that the true job of all of us, now, is to be milked for data by the provisioners of online content.

What we do now, mostly, is update our passwords, guess at security questions, click on images that look like boats to prove we’re not robots. We are trainers of AI and watchers of targeted ads. The mesh between our ancien-régime job-tasks and our new service to big data is so inextricable as to make any idea of opting out a pure fantasy.

[See also: The politics of everyday life: leisure]

The pandemic wasn’t planned, but once it happened it was seized upon to transition humanity into this new work arrangement much more abruptly than would otherwise have been possible. Whatever happens with the various strains of the virus and the various vaccines and the various roll-out plans, there is simply no going back. One way or another, and with exceptions here and there, a way will be found to make the stay-at-home order endure in perpetuity. What this means for the future of work is perhaps the most pressing question of our era.

For the first 15 years or so of my career as an academic philosopher, I took it for granted that what I was doing was both legitimate and well-defined, specialised in a way commensurate with the needs of society, and compensated by a salary commensurate with my contributions. Now I am struck by how little what I do differs from what hundreds of millions of other people do, all of whom are nominally in very different lines of work. We’re all just clicking on boats now.

I consider myself lucky to be one of those people who gets a monthly deposit in my bank account for all this clicking, and I have come to believe that some sort of universal basic income should be provided to everyone else who does not currently have this same luck. But do I deserve my monthly bank deposit? At least one of the voices in my head whispers that I worked hard and it is right and fitting that I should be recognised and recompensed. That voice, when it comes, is making its own small contribution to the never-ending debate, especially in the US, over “meritocracy”. 

My own view is that a straightforward all-or-nothing examination system, as in republican France or imperial China, is preferable to the twisted jumble of expectations in the failed meritocracy of America. Far better to just have a single test with some questions about the different kinds of triangle and the synonyms of “tyro” and so on. There needs to be some way to filter the general population in order to fill the limited number of spots in the functionary class, and a test that is in principle open to anyone seems better than a system of patronage, corruption and inheritance of cultural privilege.

But unlike many other people who believe that some degree of social stratification is inevitable, perhaps even desirable, I do not believe intelligence can or does play any role in this. This belief follows from my commitment to the view that we have no coherent idea at all of what intelligence is.

[See also: What the New Atheists miss about the meaning of God]

Intelligence is an inherently non-naturalistic notion; if you are a naturalist, there simply is no meaningful sense in which you may say that a philosophy professor is “more intelligent” than a chimpanzee, or indeed than a fish or a plant. All of these life forms are adapted to whatever challenges the environment throws their way. Evolving a large neocortex and running around on two legs is one such successful adaptation; putting down roots and evolving a ramified structure, which enables you to have 95 per cent of your body eaten by mountain goats and still survive, is another. In fact, from a certain point of view that’s an exceptionally “intelligent” arrangement, which may in part explain why, on the earth’s surface, plants weigh 225 times more than all animals combined.

Intelligence, then, is nothing but a prejudice, a will-o’-the-wisp and a je-ne-sais-quoi. Within our own species, I generally find that our willingness to call a person “intelligent” is highly circumstantial, and if we try to isolate the behavioural trait that gives the appearance of intelligence, it is generally something like a single-minded focus.

The phantom of intelligence haunts philosophers, even the self-styled naturalists among them. I was recently struck (that is, rendered disconsolate) by a passage I read in the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Other Minds, commenting on an “awkward question” posed by Bernard Williams:

What is the point of doing philosophy if you are not extraordinarily good at it? The problem is that you cannot, by sheer hard work, like a historian of modest gifts, make solid discoveries that others can then rely on in building up larger results. If you are not extraordinary, what you do in philosophy will be either unoriginal (and therefore unnecessary) or inadequately supported (and therefore useless). More likely, it will be both unoriginal and wrong.

No conception of philosophy could possibly be more foreign to me than this one. This might mean that I am not in fact a philosopher, or that it is precisely people like me that Williams and Nagel have in mind when they advise all but a few to even bother to attempt to “do philosophy”. But I think these men are merely giving voice to a dumb prejudice about philosophy that pervades our culture as a whole under the name of “intelligence”.

My view is by one measure more radical than those who insists we must overcome the “cult of smart”, while still presuming that smartness is a real trait of human beings just like height or eye colour; and it is at the same time much more conservative, as I tend to believe the system of meritocratic filtration should be preserved in some form. It is just that I think getting through this filter should only ever require interest and determination, not any innately superior mental capacity.

Any just meritocracy will be equally open to all people who have the requisite interest and determination, and will block efforts of the elite to game the system. It is likely that all meritocracies have an innate tendency to degenerate into games that lend advantage to those who are coming from a privileged background, whose parents are in a position to bribe administrators and officials. In the present cultural moment, however, we are not only seeing degeneration, but also significant contortions and a general crisis of legitimacy, which may, however worrisome it all is, also be instructive in offering an unusually clear glimpse of the real workings of “intelligence”.

It is clear that the main requirements for entry into the cultural elite are no longer the signs of what people once naively called “intelligence”, in the sense of knowing what “tyro” means, for example. Rather, the requirements involve principally a mastery of certain social cues or shibboleths that have only recently been stipulated into existence. “Thinking well” has rapidly given way to “right thinking”: the intelligent person is unmasked as a mere bien-pensant.

I have successfully inserted myself into many elite cultural spaces over the years, in particular those spaces that are understood to affirm and to validate the intelligence of the people admitted to them. In my more foolish moments I have believed that my presence in them was confirmation of my intelligence, though in retrospect it’s clear it was seldom anything more than a confirmation of my vanity. But the passwords for the portals of entry to the cultural elite are now being updated with alarming frequency, and to try to keep up with them feels little different than trying to remember whom I had previously identified as my “best friend in school” in the online security questions of my bank.

For example, all of a sudden my old friends in elite American institutions have begun appearing on Zoom with “he/him” or “she/they” next to their names. Such an addition is both beyond my technical competence, and, more importantly, beyond any conception of social ontology that I am able to comprehend. I know many people think this is a trivial issue, and that only an obstinate culture-warrior would dwell on it. But it is not trivial to compel someone to claim of themselves something they do not even understand, as a condition of their continued good-standing in the cultural elite. And so I come out looking like a troglodyte simply because I remain true to my conscience, which requires me to try to present myself honestly to others. Part of that honesty involves, for me, acknowledging the obviousness of the fact that, like it or not, I was born a biological male — I don’t particularly like it, in fact, but at the same time it’s just part of what Martin Heidegger would call my “thrownness” in this world, and facing up to that thrownness is key to the basic ethical project of my life as I understand it. 

[See also: The truth about post-truth]

In elite cultural settings in the US, it is not only that the range of acceptable opinions is astoundingly narrow, but much more than that, the range of acceptable interests more or less ensures that speech remains reduced there to a recitation of in-the-know allusions and easy cultural identifiers. The collapse of cultural discourse into periodic password-updates is also being hastened by the pressures of social media, where only a dozen or so things have ever proven to be simultaneously possible: electoral politics; the latest streaming content from Netflix and Amazon; a very small list of books, generated out of the right complex of zeitgeistlichness, PR savviness, and money; and, of course, race as the great monolithic structuring force of our world. This is a universe that no theodicy could ever justify, a far greater metaphysical misfire than one that contains, say, seven helium atoms and nothing else.

Just as much as believing the wrong things about, say, pronouns, showing a persistent desire to talk about things too far removed from this list is a sure fire way to get yourself removed from elite spaces. One becomes a “contrarian” (as opposed to what? a conformist?) not only by believing the wrong things, but also by thinking out loud about the things one really cares about for inward inscrutable reasons, rather than adhering to the shared, official, public curriculum.

Even on online publishing platforms such as Patreon and Substack, alternatives to the formal rules of elite cultural spaces, we cannot escape the zeitgeists of our age. On my own Substack, I would often like to write about Amazonian onomastics (in particular, the idea that proper names have souls), or the case system of Turkic languages, and yet I feel myself constantly pulled back to the metacommentary on “the state of the discourse”. It may be that the gravity of social media is so strong, as we are often reminded of black holes, that nothing, not even light, can escape it. But Substack, like any other media platform ravenous for clicks and shares, by allowing themselves to feed off of the same metrics that already govern Twitter and other venues, risks failing at their chance to become a true source of light.

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. He is the author of "Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason" (2019) and "The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is" (2021).