‘Intelligence’ as an explanatory concept 

I’m working on a paper with Tom Brock at the moment in which we’re trying to unpack the contemporary meaning that ‘intelligence’ holds in political and economic discourse. ‘Intelligence’ is something invoked in the same way that ‘merit’ and ‘will’ have been previously. For instance, see this extract from Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success pg 5:

In 1914 preacher/ author William Woodbridge posed the question of the day: “What is it that the upper ten possesses that the under ten thousand does not possess?” His book, That Something, revolved around an encounter between a fictional beggar and a financier who gives the beggar his business card and says the beggar doesn’t need food but rather “that something” that all successful men have. Inspired, the young beggar discovers the value of “Faith, Confidence, Power, Ambition…” and, finally, the power of his own will, which is “the talisman of success.” It is the will of the soul, writes Woodbridge, that explains why a few men are destined to be carried “on our muscle” like men upon horses.

What these concepts have in common is that they are explanations masquerading as descriptions. They impute characteristics to the successful which implicitly explain their success but in a vacuously circular way. They are overloaded because they reduce a complex interplay of factors to a singular characteristic that explains someone’s ‘success’: in doing so they become cultural placeholders that stitch together an ultimately untenable individualistic world view. These explanations of success can only work by imbuing quasi-magical capacities, something which we are arguing can be seen in their representation on film and TV. 

As the author above notes, these overloaded concepts often get invoked by elites to explain (and thus justify their status). From pg 5-6:

While the masses sought to divine the secrets of success—willpower? personality? faith? confidence?—some at the top came to believe their success was either divinely distributed or a matter of superior morals. John D. Rockefeller claimed, “God gave me my money.” When J. P. Morgan was questioned about his empire, which was built in large measure through stock manipulation, he said its source was “character.”

2 Comments

  1. After watching “Look Who’s Back”, I was thinking about Weber’s definition of ‘charisma’, which he links to discussions of authority and power:

    “[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”

    Weber argues that charismatic authority lasts because the leader is seen as infallible and any action against them would be perceived as a crime against the state. This help these leaders to develop a ‘cult of personality’, which is not something they necessarily intended. Their power becomes legitimised on the basis of these exceptional qualities, which further inspires loyalty and obedience from followers. What is unshakable about any given charismatic leader is their belief in the goal(s) that they have set. Should this be faulted, and support will quickly fade.

    What I think is missing from this is what you indicate above. That structural advantages are often unacknowledged or written off as chance, rather than providing the resources needed to secure such platforms, and thereby voice one’s beliefs. I once interviewed the founder of one of the most successful gaming networks on YouTube – the YOGCAST. He was telling me how his success was down to the ‘character’ of him and his co-stars. This was despite the huge financial support that he secured early on, which helped him turn help turn a tiny radio show into a regularly scheduled Internet programme. Reminds me of what R.K. Merton calls The Matthew Effect: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have adebdance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. The rich get rich and the poor get poorer when the model of success is built around early intervention and subsequent attempts to monopolise the market.

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