The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The "Bell Curve" - a Marxist view

From 2009:

.....the “meritocracy” here is, in large part, what Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray were describing in the mid-1990s in their book The Bell Curve.4 As implied by the book’s subtitle, Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, they were attempting to provide a “scientific” rationalization for the rapidly rising income and class privileges of this particular middle-class social stratum in the United States—a stratum they euphemistically, although not modestly, dubbed “the cognitive elite.”

The authors wrote that while ideological differences, at least in words, would continue to distinguish “liberals” from “conservatives,” and the “intellectuals” from the “the affluent” (“the affluent” being their lingo for the capitalist class and its top managers and professionals), these “old lines” had in reality begun “to blur” on the most fundamental class questions.

“[T]here are theoretical interests and practical interests,” wrote the authors of The Bell Curve. “The Stanford professor’s best-selling book may be a diatribe against the punitive criminal justice system, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t vote with his feet to move to a safe neighborhood. Or his book may be a withering attack on outdated family norms, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t acting like an old-fashioned father in looking after the interests of his children—and if that means sending his children to a lily-white private school so that they get a good education, so be it. Meanwhile, the man with the chain of shoe stores may be politically to the right of the Stanford professor, but he is looking for the same safe neighborhood and the same good schools for his children…. He and the professor may not be so far apart at all on how they want to live their own personal lives and how government might serve those joint and important interests.”

What we can add—something Herrnstein and Murray already knew—is that neither the private school nor the “safe neighborhood” any longer need to be “lily white.” In fact, even well before The Bell Curve was published, that certainly was not the case for the middle-class Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park from which Barack and Michelle Obama most recently hail, and where they sent their two daughters to a private elementary school at a combined tuition cost of nearly $40,000 a year (a total above the annual income of about half of all families in Chicago, and at least 40 percent of families in the United States).

It is Obama’s comfortable immersion in this arrogant, self-congratulatory, and bourgeois-minded milieu that is responsible for the few “blunders” he made during the 2008 presidential campaign. In comparison to other Democratic and Republican primary candidates, Obama was cautious and disciplined during the campaign. He was determined not to let carelessness scotch his ambitions. That’s why his slips were revealing.

There were his widely publicized remarks at a fund-raiser in April 2008, for example, where he was speaking to a small group of supporters at a home in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood. Obama was so at ease in that company that he let down his guard. His class prejudices poured out for all to hear.

Working people in the small Pennsylvania towns where Obama had just been campaigning, he said, and in “a lot of small towns in the Midwest,” have been seeing job opportunities decline for a long time. “They fell throughout the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate, and they have not. And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

We working people, you see, may be “bitter,” intolerant gun-huggers, Bible-thumpers, and jingoists—but that’s “not surprising,” since we’re so insular, beaten down, and demoralized! (By the way, isn’t it hard to imagine a more insular “small town” than San Francisco? Or Manhattan’s Upper West Side? Or Obama’s own Hyde Park in Chicago? Talk about “rural” idiocy!)

From 2016:

....Let me read you the first few sentences from the second to the last chapter of The Bell Curve, chapter 21, entitled “The Way We Are Headed.”

“In this penultimate chapter”— Herrnstein and Murray could have written “second-to-last” chapter, but they had to justify their parents having spent $42,000, or whatever, to send them to Harvard or Yale — “In this penultimate chapter we speculate about the impact of cognitive stratification on American life and government. Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about.”

“Worry about” — that’s interesting language in what is supposed to be a scientific study. Then they go on to list these “worrying” tendencies:

“■An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.

“■A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.

“■A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution.”

So, that is the opening paragraph of the penultimate chapter. Now let’s say it another way:

We’re rich. We’re rich because we’re smart. You can tell we’re smart because we’re rich. Because we’re smart and rich, our kids are smart, and are going to be rich too. But there are a lot of people who aren’t getting rich, and they can’t seem to accept the fact that this is simply because their forebears were dumb. The liberals — those who are rich and those who aren’t — know this and live by it, but are embarrassed to say so. Most people, however, mistakenly think there is some connection between what we’re doing to get rich and their own deteriorating quality of life. We’re getting more isolated in that sense, and a little nervous about anyone wanting to take our privileges away. But we want to enjoy being rich. There is nothing to feel guilty about. We’re rich because we’re smart.

That is about the long and the short of it.

Then the book ends up with some proposals about what to do with all of us “at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution” — orphanages and so on, some of the things we have discussed already. If we can “face reality about the underclass,” the book says, then we can provide “the opportunity for everyone, not just the lucky ones, to live a satisfying life.” That is, you can learn to like being poor (or be made to pretend to like it).

But this is only possible, the book says, if we get rid of all the social programs and legislation that fly in the face of accepting this reality, such as the minimum wage; affirmative action; more money for public education (“For many people, there is nothing they can learn that will repay the cost of the teaching” — my favorite sentence in the book); the extension of Social Security protections; welfare payments; and so on. …

According to Murray and Herrnstein, capitalism achieved a wonderful thing by the opening years of the twentieth century. In the United States it happened even a bit earlier, they say. Before then wealth and social position had for centuries been passed on from one generation to the next through a rigid class structure — through aristocratic elites. Those in the ruling classes — from the kings and queens right on down — were often not very smart, notoriously slothful, and morally dissolute.

With capitalism, however, came “the career open to talent.” Anyone, they say, from any class background or of any nationality or skin color, could now rise to positions of political power and material comfort — on the basis of merit, intelligence, hard work, and moral virtue.

But today something further is happening, as the level of capitalist technology and computerization advances, they add. The intelligence and competence required to keep modern society up and running is inevitably concentrating wealth and power more and more in the hands of a relatively small layer of middle-class professionals, technocrats, managers, and academics — people, coincidentally, much like themselves. They call this “the cognitive elite.” There is nothing that can, or should, be done about this. That is just the way it is, and has to be, due to modern technology. …

Human beings, of course, have a genetic structure. But we are not computers. It is not just our hardware that changes. Our software changes, too, as soon as we start doing things with our hands and eyes when we are still just tiny infants. Social practice and experience make us what we are. There are also some things about human beings, of course, that do not change, no matter what happens to us socially. We come in two different sexes. We have different skin pigmentation. And there are many other examples. The world would be awfully boring if this were not true.

But none of this is reducible to some built-in limit to the potential of human beings, or of any socially defined group of human beings. Because that is what both classes and races are — they are historically determined social constructs, the product of the rise of class-divided society. The concept of race, in its virulent and pseudoscientific forms, in fact, is the product of only the most recent stage in class society — the rise and consolidation of capitalism.

All the great Marxists have gloried in how the building of socialism will enable working people to transform ourselves — to transform who we are and what we are capable of. …

It is labor that makes possible all civilization and the advance of culture. Working people begin to transform ourselves and strengthen bonds of human solidarity in the very process of building the fighting social movements and disciplined proletarian organizations without which the capitalist rulers will plunge the world into fascism and war.

The transition to socialism is not possible without the organization of working people to begin transforming ourselves and our attitudes toward life and work and each other as we fundamentally transform the social relations of production. 

The Militant - May 30, 2016 -- The rich want working people to like being poor

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