Why intellectuals fail

the ivory tower


I actually kinda struggled in the beginning to think of the title for this post, whether I should put ‘why intellectuals fail’, or probably, ‘why demagogues succeed’. You may think these two titles give very few differences, but in an era where it is becoming increasingly difficult to define a populist, a demagogue, a ‘nativist’, or other titles in political extremism and their intensifying blurriness in the world of conventional politics, which I am very sure as hell someone out there is ready to launch the tirades, I would rather choose the former over the latter, while possibly raising a degree of criticisms from some of the intellects.

Also, debating whether the fair share of responsibility on the current rise of populism-laden politics lays squarely on the fault of intellectuals or on the so-called ‘demagogues’ is like playing a game of chickens and eggs. Such causality is prone to open-ended interpretations by different people who have distinctive views on this phenomenon. A lot of the commoners will blame the intellects, or the so-called ‘elites’, as being held accountable for their preference to anti-establishment leaders. On the other hand, reverse the worldview, and those ‘mask-wearing devils’ would place the blame solely on the stupidity of these people themselves, as well as the demagogues who continue to tout wrongly misplaced ideals and notions of the societies.

Whatever it is, here is the truth: just like the Schrodinger’s cat dilemma – whether the cat, having been put into a radioactive container, is alive or dead – both views may actually be correct. Nonetheless, as this post is intended largely as an op-ed, and as I am entitled to my own opinion, I would rather discuss on the question of how today’s global phenomenon is made possible, in large part by the ‘failure’ of the intellectuals themselves.

First and foremost, we can hardly deny the fact that these recent years have been pretty rocky for global affairs. We have Donald Trump currently organizing, colloquially speaking, the world’s largest presidential-scale entertainment show that out-Apprentice the Apprentice itself, the so-called 2016 US presidential election. His past statements in the last few weeks have been disastrous, yet weirdly speaking, over 40% of US electorate (comprising most of the adults living within the States) are still willing to vote for him, because, ‘the devil you know’. Any extraterrestrial civilization passing by our planet may likely voice their confusion about what is wrong with human civilization; even if Elon Musk’s simulation argument were true, the ‘creator’ of this universe-sized simulated world will also be confounded whether there have been ‘programming errors’ with the game itself. But, sometimes facts are just simply stranger than the fiction. And then this is followed by the rise of ‘alt-right’ political movements in various European countries; one of them almost won the presidential election in Austria this year (but a run-off election will be scheduled by the end of this year). Afterwards, we have witnessed ‘Brexit’; albeit given its status as a non-binding referendum, this has caused unprecedented impacts towards its economy, and to a certain degree, the stability of global economy as well. The Nigel Farage Show Season 1 is being aired, and it remains effervescent.

What do these illustrations have in common? People are losing trust on the establishment. On the politicians, on the ‘experts’, on the elites, not excluding the ‘intellects’, which I emphasize in this post. It is like – how I should describe it – what the experts say and what the people truly experience are reflected into two different versions of reality. One major tenet is globalization. Experts, intellects, much of the ‘elites’, all of them have been focusing on the benefits of globalization and its associated embroideries, like free trade, immigration, economic mobility, cosmopolitanism, what have you. Here’s the thing: do most professors in any Ivy League school (say, Harvard, or Princeton, or UPenn) precisely understand the suffering of a working-class family in Detroit, Cleveland, or any other Rust Belt cities? Do most faculty members and scholars working in London School of Economics, or any elite universities in London, Oxford, Cambridge, or other places alike ever visualize themselves being a working-class family living in Birmingham or other industrial towns in England whose manufacturing jobs continue to shrink? I ask these questions not because I try to be populist (indeed, I have been very fervently against the notion of populism itself), but rather to simply give a preliminary view of the existing perception gaps among the people inhabiting the ‘ivory towers’, and the rest who are ‘outside’.

Looking at Branko Milanovic’s chart – which I have attached in two previous posts, it becomes apparent that there are bigger forces that affect such skewed imbalances. Many people in the developed world have seen their real incomes either staying flat, or actually decreasing, in the last two decades. 80% of American population, while comparatively prosperous relative to the rest of the world, is economically insecure, as their incomes can hardly match the soaring living costs (although calculations massively change when the term is shifted into ‘disposable incomes’). A bigger percentage of people are more likely to be less wealthier than their preceding generations. McKinsey Global Institute, having conducted research on 25 advanced economies, estimated that over 65-70% of the population in those countries have experienced such stagnant – or even dropping – income growth. Who is the ‘easiest’ culprit to catch? It’s globalization. With jobs offshoring to emerging markets – notably China, but also other developing countries – the manufacturing sector is shrinking in terms of workforce. Productivity increases actually in cumulative terms, but the primary driver is automation and other high-tech industries, which employ increasingly fewer people than before to produce greater outputs. Capital income is growing faster than labor income, thanks to the increasingly dominant role of service sectors. Social mobility becomes more difficult to attain given such situation. ‘Experts’, as though becoming a new N-word, actively talk about ‘economic prospects’, ‘huge opportunities’, and other shiny, Pollyanna-ish terms, but once the scenery shifts, things change. More people are working on makeshift jobs – sometimes two, or even three – to make ends meet (apologies that I do not have the dataset for now, but try Knoema or Quandl to find if there’s any).

And then all the resistance begins. People pointing fingers to the government, one whom they think has become increasingly co-opted, or fallen prey into, vested political and economic interests. People start to ‘attack’ the ‘experts’, the intellects, delivering a death verdict that all the educated people are ‘part of the elite’. This is what has happened with Brexit; all we can only hope is that Donald Trump ‘ends’ his presidential-sized Apprentice show after the electoral race is over. Many start to think experts, intellects, and ‘all the educated’ are components of the government, the establishment, those in power; these people trust more on politicians spreading false flags, fake statistics, conspiracy theories, and all other matters that might want to make us mummify ourselves with tinfoil. These are the two sad things that I need to say: first, ‘we’ have been neglected by these intellectual elites. Second, and worse, many of ‘us’ have been exploited by those demagogues in such situations for their own political advantages.

Where are the intellects, then? I’m very sure that as most schools are pushing scholars to produce as many research papers as possible (which, sadly, have a high probability of being neither read nor cited in their lifetimes), they won’t focus so much time on probing deeper into the actual real-world issues ‘out there’. I apologize if this sounds like over-generalizing (again, this is my opinion piece), but such is the stark truth in the academia. The academics who perform better than their peers in terms of paper citation may be more likely to be invited into either government bodies or major corporations as advisers; this is what solidifies a lot of people’s views that ‘intellects are part of the establishment’! This is also why they would prefer listening to populist preachers (say: Breitbart, Infowars, which Eric Andre referred to as ‘war on info’) who offer bombastic – yet deeply rotten – info, rather than to the boring, formal, robotic-like explanation by these experts. They are more willing to have leaders that are ready to make mountain-moving announcements, rather than policy wonks who will deliberately consult with multiple parties, refer to research papers (occasionally), and continue adjusting their policies to ‘satisfy everyone’.

Of course more scholars right now are becoming increasingly proactive in addressing such issues openly, but given all the shocks we have endured in the last few years, it still takes time for more people within the academia circle to start ‘coming out’ and exchanging views more actively with the communities, which I personally believe (though not yet totally proven) can reduce the euphoria of populism that has taken hold so much of the developed world today. For sure, the ‘mummies’ inside the ivory towers need to be ‘woken up’.


To read more (from the websites of what you call the ‘elitists’):

McKinsey Global Institute – A new perspective on income inequality (to understand the surge of populism today)

Project Syndicate – A brief history of (in)equality

Quartz – Why Trump’s voters are not complete idiots


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