On this week’s Any Answers, there was a call so fascinatingly stupid that I’ve been intermittently thinking back to it for the last few days. In a discussion about the possible reintroduction of grammar schools, a couple who had been to grammar schools but were ‘forced’ to send their children to a comprehensive, explained how there was “no comparison” because the grammar school will be filled with pupils who are “bright and motivated” and come from “homes with very supportive parents who want them to be there”. In comprehensives there are “far more disruptions” and the “very brightest pupils have to lower their standards”. She went on to explain that her daughters both succeeded immensely at A Levels and university “simply because we could afford to give them private tuition” which wouldn’t have happened if they’d been sent to a grammar school. This understanding of the trajectory of her daughters reflected a broader social outlook:

I truly believe that we will never all be equal. Some of us are born beautiful, some of us intelligent, some us not quite as wealthy as others and some from supportive homes. We’re all genetically geared to have different hopes and aspirations. Not everyone wants to go to university. I really think that if a child wants to go and work in a shop, or wants to do marketing, we should teach them a decent work ethic and not tell that they’re second class because they didn’t get into a grammar school.

The presenter raises the possibility that grammar schools intensify inequality because it’s the already privileged who are most likely to gain access to them. But the caller says that the solution is to build more grammar schools so that “the children who are not quite at the top of the tree” get an opportunity.

A later caller offers a spirited defence of grammar schools, explaining how her own experience of grammar schools improved her life: she was able to get any job at work she wanted with just an interview because they could tell she was able & when her husband died, she was able to cope with everything she faced when taking over his business. She then explains how “the legacy went on to my children”, “one went to university and the other could do anything he wanted if he set his mind to it”, and her grandchildren are now “well placed to take advantage of this legacy”. Her experience sounds like an interesting example of Margaret Archer’s (contentious) point that social structures don’t constrain until you formulate a project that runs up against them. There are presumably many jobs this caller wouldn’t have got without an interview, or even with one, but these constraints aren’t experienced and they fade from view for her.

What fascinates me about this is how ‘intelligence’ serves as an umbrella under which a vast array of social, cultural and personal factors are subsumed: aptitude for academic work, supportive parents, stable homes, engagement with institutions, good behaviour at school. The complexity of the social world gets built into the designator ‘intelligent’ in a way that renders it opaque: the concept of ‘intelligence’ stitches together an otherwise untenable individualism. Yet both callers recognise the possibility of inherited privilege and yet this doesn’t undermine their determinedly reductive view of intelligence.

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.”

How Google Works is a fascinating book co-authored by Eric Schmidt in which he details, unsurprisingly, how Google works. In the section I just read, he describes how Google sets out to ensure that they only hire A’s, as detailed in loc 1413:

A workforce of great people not only does great work, it attracts more great people. The best workers are like a herd: They tend to follow each other. Get a few of them, and you’re guaranteed that a bunch more will follow. Google is renowned for its fabulous amenities, but most of our smart creatives weren’t drawn to us because of our free lunches, subsidized massages, green pastures, or dog-friendly offices. They came because they wanted to work with the best smart creatives. This “herd effect” can cut both ways: While A’s tend to hire A’s, B’s hire not just B’s, but C’s and D’s too. So if you compromise standards or make a mistake and hire a B, pretty soon you’ll have B’s, C’s, and even D’s in your company. And regardless of whether it works to the benefit or detriment of the company, the herd effect is more powerful when the employees are smart creatives and the company is new. In that case, each person’s relative importance is magnified; early employees are more conspicuous. Also, when you put great people with great people, you create an environment where they will share ideas and work on them. This is always true, but particularly in an early-stage environment.

But how does one ensure that only A’s are hired, safely keeping the potential plague of B’s, C’s and D’s at bay? This seems to be a matter of hiring people with “raw brainpower” because “Intelligence is the best indicator of a person’s ability to handle change” (loc 1478). But this can’t just be any smart person. They have to be Google-y. How do we assess this? By seeing if we like them. Loc 1523:

Another crucial quality is character. We mean not only someone who treats others well and can be trusted, but who is also well-rounded and engaged with the world. Someone who is interesting. Judging character during the interview process used to be fairly easy, since job interviews often included lunch or dinner at a restaurant and perhaps a drink or two, Mad Men style. Such a venue allowed the hiring executive to observe how the candidate comported himself “as a civilian.” What happens when he lets his guard down? How does he treat the waiter and bartender? Great people treat others well, regardless of standing or sobriety.

Hiring smart people who we think are nice. On one level, this is fair enough. On another, it’s deeply worrying, illuminating an elitist impulse – to hire ‘people like us’ with sufficient ‘raw brain power’ to cope – likely to be all the more pernicious because it basically misrecognises itself as egalitarian. They deny that this encourages homogeneity because they deny this entails only hiring candidates that you like:

You must work with people you don’t like, because a workforce comprised of people who are all “best office buddies” can be homogeneous, and homogeneity in an organization breeds failure. A multiplicity of viewpoints—aka diversity—is your best defense against myopia. We could go off on a politically correct tangent on how hiring a workforce that is diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, physical challenges, and anything else that makes people different is the right thing to do (which it is). But from a strictly corporate point of view, diversity in hiring is even more emphatically the right thing to do. People from different backgrounds see the world differently. Women and men, whites and blacks, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, veterans and civilians, gays and straights, Latinos and Europeans, Klingons and Romulans, 101 Asians and Africans, wheelchair-bound and able-bodied: These differences of perspective generate insights that can’t be taught. When you bring them together in a work environment, they integrate to create a broader perspective that is priceless. 102 Great talent often doesn’t look and act like you. When you go into that interview, check your biases at the door103 and focus on whether or not the person has the passion, intellect, and character to succeed and excel.

But how else to interpret the focus on ‘character’, the airport test (would you like to be stuck at an airport with your new hire?) and the whole notion of being Googley? Data driven hiring may hold out the promise of meritocracy but they fail to consider the possibility that these processes constructs ‘the best’ in a way liable to bring about the very outcome they’re trying to avoid. If it’s axiomatic that Google is already filled with ‘the best’ then it follows that the correct new hires will be those resembling the existing staff.

The same goes for managing people once they join you. Just like hiring, managing performance should be driven by data, with the sole objective of creating a meritocracy. You cannot be gender-, race-, and color-blind by fiat; you need to create empirical, objective methods to measure people. Then the best will thrive, regardless of where they’re from and what they look like.

It’s perhaps slightly unfair to use the term ‘eugenecist’ in relation to these remarks. But I’m interested in how the the notion of being ‘smart’ is constructed amongst digital elites, as well as how this might develop into  something much nastier as the broader political climate changes. From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 357:

Musk has talked about having more kids, and it’s on this subject that he delivers some controversial philosophizing vis- à- vis the creator of Beavis and Butt- head. “There’s this point that Mike Judge makes in Idiocracy , which is like smart people, you know, should at least sustain their numbers,” Musk said. “Like, if it’s a negative Darwinian vector, then obviously that’s not a good thing. It should be at least neutral. But if each successive generation of smart people has fewer kids, that’s probably bad, too. I mean, Europe, Japan, Russia, China are all headed for demographic implosion. And the fact of the matter is that basically the wealthier— basically wealth, education, and being secular are all indicative of low birth rate. They all correlate with low birth rate. I’m not saying like only smart people should have kids. I’m just saying that smart people should have kids as well. They should at least maintain— at least be a replacement rate. And the fact of the matter is that I notice that a lot of really smart women have zero or one kid. You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s probably not good.’”

This builds upon what I’ve argued is a fetishisation of intelligence within the broader culture. See here for the original clips.

An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.