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Reality Would Like A Word.
Paging Tom and Daisy Buchanan
In earlier essays, I’ve talked about the shortcomings of the international Professional and Managerial Caste (PMC). This is not another diatribe against them (I try to avoid diatribes if I can) but rather a reflection on some of the reasons why they have made such an unholy mess of the world, and what may happen to it, and to them, as a result. If your definition of “hope” includes the progressive demise of the PMC, or at least a massive reduction in its influence, then this essay has a certain leavening of qualified hope, since I believe that the PMC has effectively run out of road in a whole variety of areas.
In an earlier essay, I talked about the infantilisation of much western political culture today, even in the case of serious subjects such as Ukraine. I think this is largely the fault of the PMC, a caste for which nothing is ever completely real, much of life is a game or a mathematical model, or a series of numbers in a report, and where you can always abandon things when they go wrong, and start again. As a caste, they are fundamentally frivolous, no matter how seriously they take themselves, and, like children, they never want to take responsibility or blame for anything. Their caste is protected not just by money (it includes poorly-paid university lecturers for example) but also by a strong ideological discipline, by bonds of education, experience, professional cooperation and even family. It closes ranks instinctively against people like you and me.
Above all, it is a caste that has been educated to think the same way (or if you think “think” is too generous, then to say and believe the same things.) This is partly at University, of course, but also at business schools and MBA mills later in life, at “conferences” and “seminars,” and “young leaders” courses. Even then, “education” is perhaps the wrong word, because it traditionally implies the transmission of knowledge, which is not a priority for self-styled institutions of learning these days. Rather, I was reminded of the novelist and critic Cyril Connolly’s Theory of Permanent Adolescence, based on his reflections about his time at Eton. He argued that the experiences undergone by boys in their formative years at English public school were so intense as to dominate their lives and arrest their development, and that that fact explained much about the British society of his time. Accepting that university students today are at much the same level of intellectual and personal development that Connolly’s schoolboy contemporaries at Eton were, I think the analogy is a useful one: the international PMC is so marked by the eternal adolescence of modern education systems that its development is essentially arrested there. Likewise, what binds its members is not the “education” they receive, which is often perfunctory, but the social attitudes, the personal contacts and the ideology they imbibe, as all western universities increasingly come to resemble each other.
Similarly, in Connolly’s day, it was accepted that public schools were not there primarily to impart knowledge, but to “build character,” through discipline, team games and the inculcation of a Christian ethic of service. It’s not an education I would ever like to have had, but it has to be admitted that its alumni went on to fight and die in wars, climb mountains, explore distant parts of the globe, help to run the country, and, in some cases, carve out distinguished intellectual careers, like Connolly and his exact contemporary George Orwell. Elite PMC universities and business schools fulfil much the same social function today: you may decorate your speech these days not with Classical references but with IdiotPol clichés, but the purpose of your education is still to ensure that you speak the language of power, and are so recognised. But on the other hand being a junior minister, a media hack or an NGO flunky isn’t quite the same as climbing a mountain, captaining a warship or working with the Partisans in occupied Europe.
Of course, universities weren’t always as they now are. Consider: even forty or fifty years ago, they were for the minority of students with an intellectual bent who wanted to study further. Many degrees were vocational (doctors, lawyers, engineers, even theologians) and others were to educate future teachers in what was even then becoming a graduate profession in most countries. Others constituted a general intellectual education for people who would go into government and administrative jobs, and still others maintained the general intellectual furniture of the nation: everything from archeology to zoology. Many other young people were content to go into work straight away, while others followed technical apprenticeships. Most of the university degrees had some practical application: even economists largely studied the actual workings of the economy. But many people without degrees could and did make excellent careers.
Mass attendance at university is a recent idea, and its origins seem to be different in different countries. In Anglo-Saxon countries it is generally dismissed as a financial racket, which in part it is, but it should also be seen as a typical neoliberal measure: a degree is something you should be entitled to possess if you can pay for it, or borrow the money to do so. (It’s also based on the (false) premise that education of itself is sufficient for economic growth and prosperity.) But in other countries, where university education is still effectively free, the objective is much more to hide very high endemic levels of youth unemployment. In France, for example, where passing the Baccalaureate entitles you to a university place, the “Bac” itself has been so devalued, in order to increase the pass-level and so the number of students at university, that students today at eighteen are two or three years behind their homologues of fifty years ago. (Because textbooks are nationally prescribed, it is possible to measure this decline objectively over a period of time.)
Mass university attendance, often without a corresponding increase in teaching staff, and the move to casual employment of university teachers in many countries, means that in terms of quality, degrees cannot be what they were. But it also means that degrees have to be stitched together that less intellectual students can pass, and such degrees, of course, become more popular with students generally as they are less difficult. Recent decades have seen an explosion of degrees in subjects like International Relations, Cultural Studies and Business Studies (the prototypical PMC degree) whose actual intellectual content is often negligible, and which does not genuinely equip its PMC students to do anything. Naturally enough, PMC graduates from such courses, with perhaps a postgraduate year at a Business School, or a Master’s Degree in Human Rights Law, slide effortlessly into jobs in management, NGOs, politics and administration, where knowledge of the subject matter is not required, but where social skills, networking and a sense of superiority that comes from an expensive education will ensure you succeed. Most people who have worked in large organisations can tell horror stories of such credentialed idiots who have ruined teams and organisations out of stupidity and ignorance. But that’s the PMC for you.
These people recognise each other by their declaratory vocabulary and performative acts, which are themselves largely a consequence of an education which privileges conformity and penalises original thought. To this extent, universities are largely a continuation of childhood. In the past, since, oh, the Middle Ages, university was the environment in which more intellectually-inclined young people grew up, both intellectually and personally, in the knowledge that not all their experiences would be happy ones. The modern idea that Life is not a challenge to be addressed, but a threat against which children must be protected, finds its natural conclusion in the prolongation of childhood up to and throughout university, where students expect to be protected from anything bad happening to them, and to have their intellectual weaknesses indulged.
The result, as anyone involved with universities today will confirm, is the explosive growth in “student services,” intended to perpetuate the role of the absent parents in the life of a student. As with parents, the results are often mixed and incoherent, and sometimes the different injunctions are hard to reconcile with each other. In most universities I have had experience of, academic requirements are treated with some flexibility, whilst social codes (often unwritten, or at least very liberally interpreted) are much more rigidly enforced. Plagiarism or copying might result in a warning, if you have a good excuse, whereas a misplaced word after a drink too many could be the end of your university career. Now this isn’t a rant about Young People Today (I don’t do rants): I actually feel rather sorry for some of the students I’ve encountered, who’ve elected to stay in the university system at a level beyond their real abilities or needs, because they don’t feel ready to face the outside world, but are afraid of making an error which could led to their expulsion from it. And I’ve met administrators at their wits’ end to know what to do with them. No teacher wants their students to fail, and many students today want to succeed, but the PMC-reconfigured university makes the lives of both more difficult than it need be. And the PMC is happy with this: it accepts that in order to achieve its own perpetuation, institutions may have to be ruined, and most of those involved with them have to suffer. In turn, this attitude reflects an essentially adolescent, frivolous approach to life, with the assurance of impunity for your own actions like an indulged child.
The PMC has no real interest in the transmission of knowledge at any level: indeed, knowledge can be a threat, because it creates separate centres of power with their own legitimacy. So we have seen the PMC embracing and suffocating sectors such as medical care, essentially by downplaying what it can’t understand (complicated medical stuff) and emphasising what it can (Powerpoint presentations of financial results.) After all, it’s easy enough to get actual doctors and nurses from abroad, isn’t it, and outsource your medical research and production to China? Until it isn’t. Likewise, government can be reduced to targets, declaratory policies, performative actions, and tweets, because government is not fundamentally serious, is it?. Until it is. Above all, even if the PMC accepts that people who really know stuff and can do stuff are actually necessary, it tries to keep its distance from them. A Professor of Human Rights Law is acceptable: a financial crimes prosecutor isn’t.
With the passage of time, the more ambitious and aggressive of the PMC educational graduates have gone on to take important roles in institutions, often in jobs that didn’t exist in the past, because they were not considered to be necessary. (It was widely noticed that in the same week that the war began in Ukraine, NATO appointed a full-time Diversity Officer. Priorities have to be respected, after all, and NATO, like all organisations, doesn’t actually do anything, it’s just a toy-box for us to play with.) And they use these positions of power to spread their ideology, through compulsory “workshops” and “training courses,” often devoted to subjects that have no objective existence.
This insouciance comes partly from collective ideological reinforcement (consuming the same media, mirroring each others’ opinions, keeping alternative views at a safe distance), partly from a sense of impunity (always another job somewhere if you screw up) and partly from the power that the international PMC has to enforce its ideology and cover up its mistakes. It is, in effect, the impunity of every ingrown ruling class in history. For example, even if you’ve never read The Great Gatsby you have probably come across this quote:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Which is pretty much the story of elites historically. Tom and Daisy were sheltered by more than money: they had social position, networks, “education”, and most of all Fitzgerald’s “vast carelessness”: they were so confident of their own superiority that they really didn’t care very much about ordinary people. That’s today’s PMC: the main danger they pose to people like you and me is the fatal collective, ingrown confidence that they and their ideas can never be wrong, and that in the end nothing is ever really serious. If they break something, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve already given the example of universities, but in fact the PMC attitude to all institutions is that they are (a) places where we can create jobs for people like us and (b) interesting objects to do socio-political experiments on. Schools are a similar case, as long as they are other peoples’ schools. So the PMC is still mesmerised by the flicker of the dying embers of the de-schooling ideology of the 1960s. You know, education as repression, setting children free to learn, breaking down the teacher-pupil hierarchy into a co-learning experience where there are no wrong answers. (When people in the 1970s tried to convince me that education was a form of violence, I used to ask them what they thought ignorance was.)
Wouldn’t it be interesting and fun, they thought, some decades ago, to apply some of these ideas and see what happens? OK, tedious people who actually know stuff tell us that this has led to catastrophic falls in reading and writing abilities of ordinary people, and employers finding they can’t get staff who can read well enough to stack supermarket shelves. But you’ve got to admit it’s a cool idea, and anyway we’re not responsible for the consequences. Once upon a time the Left, which regarded education as a sacred cause, would have stepped in to oppose these experiments, but the modern Notional Left no longer has a mass class base, and so doesn’t need or want an educated electorate, because it slunk off to join the PMC several decades ago. So the education of ordinary children becomes a theatre for performative experimentation designed to secure approving tweets. Authorities in France, in the face of continually declining educational standards, decided a few years ago that the real problem was … “homophobia” in schools, and so there should be a “zero tolerance” for it, except when it came from parents of strict Muslim beliefs, because racism. I think they are still trying to work that one out, but hey, that’s for poorly-paid teachers in rough areas to deal with the practical consequences of. Let’s design a new campaign against “transphobia” in schools now, with compulsory workshops for teachers. Needless to say, this vast carelessness doesn’t extend to their own children, who are educated in traditional establishments with strict discipline and old-fashioned methods of teaching. And so the gap between the education received by children of the PMC and the children of ordinary people grows every year.
Nothing is more fun and interesting, of course, than re-making others peoples’ societies. This game has the added advantage that anything you smash will have to be cleaned up by other people from other countries. Indeed, there’s a whole itinerant class of PMC “experts” who move from one country in crisis to another, leaving a trail of wreckage behind them, sometimes political chaos, sometimes real wreckage. Many years ago, half asleep in the airport in Vienna early one morning, waiting for a connecting flight to Sarajevo, I spied sitting across from me an earnest young man with a smart briefcase carrying the logo of the UN Mission to Cambodia, doubtless on his way to wreak havoc in one of the innumerable international organisations trying to remake Bosnia according to their heart’s desire. And the number of such people has only multiplied since, flitting around the world leaving a trail of normative destruction that Tom and Daisy could never have imagined. Because the PMC really knows nothing about anything, its representatives treat other nations, especially weak nations in conflict, as a box of Lego bricks to arrange in a pleasing normative configuration, without consequences. When Kabul fell to the Taliban a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help thinking of the delegation from the (western-created, western-funded) Ministry of Women's Affairs and associated western-funded NGOs I had once hosted; all middle-class western-educated women, generally speaking English. I hope they managed to run fast enough.
“Normative” is the word here. Because PMC education doesn’t actually involve learning anything useful, its representatives show a vast carelessness about what actually happens on the ground: all they ask is that what happened can be presented as a success, or at least an interesting learning experience, demonstrating that “measures of success” need to be more “granular,”or that “better coordination between stakeholders is needed” or finally that “our message needs to be more focused.” But there isn’t, and there cannot be, any acceptance that their ideas may be wrong, because they are by definition normatively correct.
This is not to say that the PMC has an organised ideology: far from it. What it has is a series of vaguely Liberal-based normative slogans, each owned by a particular lobby, which can sometimes collide with each other. In the past, for example, the PMC was trivially anti-militarist, without knowing anything about military issues. These days it is trivially (and aggressively) militarist, without having learnt anything about military affairs in the interim. So because there is a PMC-identified normative need to “rescue” some population somewhere that the media says is at risk, then forces must be sent off even if they don’t exist. Conflict, and even war, are not fundamentally serious in this way of thinking. Threatening war against Russia and China is just a rhetorical posture, like a tweet: it doesn’t imply anything serious will actually happen. If it does, well it’s over there and won’t affect us. Similarly, the PMC affects to believe simultaneously that women are a force for peace and so should be disproportionately represented in conflict negotiations, and also that women are as capable as men of fighting and killing, and should be promoted to the highest positions of combat command. But then armies, like all organisations, are essentially decorative and unserious: it doesn’t matter how they function, the important thing is what they look like.
In France recently, feminist organisations have been furiously lobbying for more resources to be devoted to violence against women by the police (which other parts of the French PMC meanwhile dismiss as hopelessly racist and want to abolish). But they were silent about the terrible assault and mutilation of a teenage girl in a poor area of Toulouse recently for wearing clothing that was too revealing, because the assailants were … well, you can guess from which community they were. Meanwhile some feminists from the immigrant community have urged victims of domestic violence not to report that violence to the police because that might “stigmatise” immigrants as a whole. And so on and so on, but the contradictions of the PMC ideology arise not from hypocrisy as such (though that’s always an issue in politics) but rather an incoherence of thought and a vast carelessness about whether the different slogans conflict with each other or not. The practical consequences of these confusions, after all, are for others to sort out.
Now before this starts to sound too depressing, let’s remember that the PMC isn’t actually as powerful as it looks, because in the end it doesn’t know anything, and can’t do anything. If you like, it’s a state which has the formal monopoly of force but whose police are largely untrained, and can’t actually cope with serious criminals. Indeed, for its survival the PMC is actually dependent on the real police, whom in most countries they are busy alienating, and who in any case are not going to die to protect their plush apartments.
Moreover, if you can’t appeal to their finer feelings (since ideologues are generally unreachable that way) you can hope to see them inconvenienced or even frightened, and in some cases this does seem to be happening, as subjects which were previously locked shut against controversy have started to open up. One such example is immigration.
Let’s say that when we were studying human rights law twenty-five years ago, we wrote a highly-praised end-of-term paper on the inherent right of citizens of any country to live in any other, and it’s been obvious all along that that must be normatively correct. Mass immigration also has to be a good thing pragmatically: more ethnic restaurants, lower prices with a cheaper workforce, easy access to cleaners and people prepared to work unsocial hours. It’s true that, even at the time, experts pointed to the dangers of wholesale importation of societies with very different customs and values, dumped in already under-resourced poor areas, often not speaking the native language and bringing religious and criminal networks with them, as well as to the absolute need to provide massive resources to assimilate and educate such people. But we remember arguing in our paper that the West had a Kantian categorical imperative to accept such people, and there was something in Kant about such imperatives automatically being possible, or something, wasn’t there? Anyway, in the weekly anti-racist commentary we write for a PMC-adjacent media, we usually argue something like that. The details are for others to sort out: our job is just to identify the moral obligations to place on them.
Except that things may be changing a bit. Darling, the Agency rang to say that our cleaner can’t come any more. Apparently her husband’s under a lot of pressure from the new neighbours not to let his wife go out work, and I don’t know where we’re going to find someone to come all that way into the centre to clean our 150 square metre apartment. Yes dear, and the restaurant we like in the square isn’t opening any more on the Saturday evenings: there’s been too much disturbance and violence from fighting between drugs gangs. What is the world coming to? And the manager of the local supermarket was saying they’ll have to close at 8PM every night now, because bus drivers are refusing to go into the suburbs at night for fear of being attacked, and so the staff can’t travel home. That’s a real pain.
None of the above is invented, by the way. Although for the moment the PMC has been able to enforce rigid ideological discipline on discussions about the recent riots in France, its grip on the discourse is clearly weakening, and it is just as clearly starting to be afraid for itself. A good guide is the readers’ comments section in Le Monde on articles saying that it’s all the fault of blah blah police violence blah blah structural racism blah blah, and which have in general been absolutely scathing. And Le Monde has a reputation for censoring the most critical comments, so heaven knows what they were like. When you’ve lost the readership of Le Monde …. Meanwhile intrepid explorers from PMC-adjacent media, venturing into areas of high immigrant population, are reporting in shocked, shocked, tones that many of the locals from immigrant families are thinking of voting for Le Pen as the only one who can find a way out of the current mess.
Then there’s all that Critical Studies stuff, which has created so many university Departments, and so many good jobs for the PMC in university administration, where you don’t actually have to know anything, but which act as a springboard to acquire power over other institutions as well. But suddenly, it seems that our children are taking all this Gender stuff seriously: they don’t want to enter into relationships any more, because the girls have been taught that men are inherently aggressive and violent, and boys have been made frightened of being accused of such things. And they were both taught that all human relationships are just power struggles and all about who has control. That was never the plan, and our vast complacency about the effects of the teaching is coming undone. Somebody should sort this out. And this business of changing sex, which was so cool when we read about in Iain Banks’s Culture novels, turns out to be a wee bit more complicated in real life: suicides and stuff. And then of course there’s Covid, where the PMC, who need Covid to be over so they can do brunch, have suddenly realised that Covid has its own views on the subject, and that declaring that something is over doesn’t actually mean it is. Who would have thought it?
At completely the other end of the spectrum, there’s the whole question of war, conflict and peace, and the use of violence. As I mentioned above, the PMC contains hopelessly conflicted ideas on these subjects, sometimes held by the same person on alternate days, but what distinguishes the PMC as a whole is firstly a total ignorance of military issues, and secondly a strong belief that their ignorance doesn’t matter. Nothing else can explain the frightening alienation from reality of today’s political and media elites: they obviously learned at Business School that demand creates its own supply (can’t remember the details now) and seem sincerely to believe that it’s enough to announce a new armoured division and entrepreneurs will leap into action to open factories to deliver tanks by the end of the year, and an Army can be raised overnight if you pay enough.
Sanctions, which are normatively right whatever the consequences, are something we learnt about in that International Law class, and they’re a really cool idea. Yes, there may be consequences for our populations and our economies and industries, yes, things might get smashed up, but then we retreat into our vast carelessness, and let other people deal with the consequences. Until, of course, the consequences start to affect us personally, in an unmistakeable way, as I think they will.
The PMC can only think normatively, and in abstract, left-brain terms. Ukraine is winning because reasons. If Ukraine is not winning, that would imply that the normative ideas that guide the PMC must be wrong, and that is impossible. So Ukraine must be wining. More importantly, Russia must be losing, and any force that makes that possible, including macho men with Nazi tattoos, needs to be supported. Because this caste lives in a world where discourse is the only reality, as they learned somewhere at university, can’t quite remember the details, they’ve grown up with the idea that control of discourse means control of reality. Repeat after me, these are not Nazi tattoos. When the truth is too painful to handle, you try to cancel it, and if that doesn’t work you find a safe space somewhere. The problem is that, whilst this approach can work in a system, such as a university, where you have total practical control, it can’t work when the real world comes knocking at your door, and you have to do something.
Which is increasingly the case. We’ve now got to the point where denying that problems exist, and enforcing silence on those you control, won’t contain the problem any more. It’s time for the PMC to grow up, but I don’t think they are capable of doing so. On an individual basis, most of these people are not very formidable: they are too insubstantial to be evil, too childish to be sinister. As a class, they stick together against outsiders, but beyond that, there is literally nothing that unites them except the vast complacency about everyone and everything else. But it’s doubtful if the affairs of the western world have ever been run by a caste of people who are more superficial, more insecure and more immature.
Which made me think, as one does, of another novel set in an equally rarified society and published more than a century before Fitzgerald’s. I’m thinking of Les Liaisons dangéreuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (there was an English language film version with Glenn Close some time in the 1980s.) The story concerns two evil aristocrats, the Viscount de Valmont and the Marquess de Merteuil. The Marquess persuades the Viscount to seduce Cécile, a teenager from a convent about to be married to the Count of Gercourt, because Gercourt is a former lover she has fallen out with. (“I was born to take revenge on men” she says at one point.) The novel’s glacial, virtuoso depiction of a world of ritual manipulation of others and empty serial hedonism oddly resembles that of Fitzgerald’s novel, and nowhere more than in the sense of absolute impunity enjoyed by all the main characters. They seduce people and smash their lives, and leave other people to clean up the mess. (Cécile eventually flees back to the convent). They form a caste, like Fitzgerald’s characters, which defends itself against outsiders, but where everybody seems busy exploiting everybody else (the Marquess enjoys torturing former lovers with the hope that she will take them back, for example.)
It’s tempting to see today’s PMC as a kind of adolescent bargain-basement version of the European aristocracy of the late eighteenth century, speaking a common language, insulated from contact with real people, moving from country to country, educated now at elite universities rather than by private tutors and on Grand Tours. And of course the aristocracy of Laclos’s novel came to a sticky end, a mere handful of years after it was published in 1782.
Yet Laclos himself doesn’t seem to have anticipated the Revolution, and although his main characters themselves both come to a bad end it’s not for political reasons, just as Gatsby’s pointless murder at the end of the novel isn’t really the product of anything except jealousy and misunderstanding. So whilst it’s tempting to fantasise about a revolution that will sweep this caste from power, their actual end (which I think is approaching) is likely to be more mundane and less abrupt.
As I’ve pointed out before, there is no ideology or movement in waiting able to take over from the PMC, and nor are there intermediate structures that might organise their fall and replacement. This is a shame, because in fact the PMC is vulnerable, and would be an easy target to sweep away. Rather, I think that bit by bit, person by person, and institution by institution, the PMC will start to fall apart under the stress of situations that cannot be reduced to tweets and Powerpoint slides. Where are you going to find the politicians who can unflinchingly look a strong, powerful Russia in the eye and respond with realistic concessions and promises of good behaviour rather than silly faces and insults? Where are you going to find media pundits who explain that global warming isn’t what we would like it to be, but what it is, and what we are going to have to do? How much longer are “human rights” groups that tell us that governments must not force people to do things to prevent the spread of Covid going to last?
In the past, we have seen the wholesale replacement of ruling classes. Here, I don’t think it’s possible. But neither do I see Damascene conversions. If you are a normative human rights hack who’s spent twenty years lecturing governments around the world on how they should behave, what are you going to do when such ideas are brutally pushed aside as western civilisation struggles to survive? Well, I suppose you could go and work in a supermarket, but then it’s questionable whether many such people would have the practical qualifications to do so.
There will be tears before bedtime.