« L'Europe se fera dans les crises et elle sera la somme des solutions apportées à ces crises »—Jean Monnet
“This seems paradox and contrary to every-day observation.It is also paradox that the earth moves round the sun, and that water consists of two highly inflammable gases. Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by every-day experience, which catches only the delusive appearance of things.”
Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit, 1865*
In my previous post of this series on the relationship between populism and information I dealt with the macro effects of misleading information and overgrown internet access. In this post I deal instead with a subtler, yet dangerous phenomenon: the rejection of specialisation.
If one thinks carefully, Populism constitutes a form of rejection of specialisation at its very best. Such a reaction against specialisation was eminently exemplified by the isolation that the academics – and economists in particular – suffered during the Brexit debate: the simple fact of being “specialist” in something meant to be colluded with “the élites”. Indeed, being an “expert” on something implies knowing, about your own field, much more than the average person. In a climate of witch-hunt against the “élites”, being an expert almost automatically gains you a membership card of elitism. Brexit – but most populisms after all – is the battle of the “good, ordinary folk” against the “soulless, globalized élites”; to which experts eminently belong.
No surprise then that whatever the academic community pulled out of the hat in the attempt of winning over the brains of voters, their hearths – twisted by the holy crusade against the soulless globalized élites – were already lost far in advance.
The reject of elitism is, unfortunately, far-reaching. If one thinks carefully, specialisation – which constitutes a form of enlightened elitism at its best – constitutes the very fundamental organizational principle of contemporary democratic societies. Everything in our societies is about specialisation; professionally, division of labour has become a very effective vehicle for productivity growth; but democratic delegation, and therefore representative democracy, is also a form of division of labour and specialisation. A widespread rejection of elitism, if associated with rejection of specialisation, spells doom on the very concept of representative democracy. It is of no surprise then that those who fiercely campaigned for the break-up of the Union are the very same that spread distrust in representative democracy as well as on academic professions; their attack is directed against all forms of specialisation. And by no means it is limited to the United Kingdom, although the Brexit vote, by far, constitutes the uttermost success of the global movement against specialization in the West. The very same trend is observable in most European countries and in the United States.
The link between rejection of globalization and openness and the rejection of specialization is clear. Specialization is a strong vehicle for productivity growth; and household income, nowadays, is strictly connected to productivity. In other words, specialists in all fields are – for what concerns the labour market- the real winners of globalization; in the West, they have extracted the lion share of the (shrinking) labour part of global revenues. Those who have been left behind, failing to become specialists in their respective fields, have surely not seen their wages growing thanks to globalization (although it is disputed whether their real income has really shrunk, once discounted for the staggering fall in price of many products, electronics first of all). The “left behind” are the others, the non-specialists; their revolt is necessarily against the élites, as for any revolt, and therefore against specialisation, which nowadays is among the main vehicles to rise in the élites’ pantheon. Sadly, representative democracy, itself a form of specialization, may well be among the victims of the process.
Now: the economic rationale is not sufficient, alone, as a first-order explanation. Brexit (but equally Pegida, or the National Front, or the Trumpism in the US) is as much as about national identity as it is about perceived inequalities. Yet, as I discussed in a previous post, economics –gains and losses— are endogenous in the formation of identities. The élites, the specialists, are the most internationalised group the human kind has ever witnessed; whether by capital or knowledge, today’s élites are global élites. They are borderless, they speak a common language, they share a similar, liberal ideological mindset; they study in the same handful of few hundred universities worldwide; they speak, at large, the same languages (English or mathematics or both). Indeed, they constitute a “global class” with a largely symbolic allegiance to their nation of origins, but with a strong Europeanized identity and a cosmopolitan values set. Those who have profited of globalization and openness have experienced an alteration, a upward shift in their identities and allegiance; those who have been left behind, most likely have not. By tuning their message on national identity, political entrepreneurs seeking to mobilize the “left-behinds” are pretty much sure they will touch everyone that’s not in the global élite. The members of the global will react strongly against such a reactionary message of closure, as their own fortunes are connected with global openness and integration; as a consequence, the political spectrum will experience a new polarization over the “identity-openness” axis. By tuning their message on nationalism, conservative political entrepreneurs can successfully create a new cleavage, which they are prepared to exploit. In this new cleavage, economics plays not only the direct role described in the previous paragraph, but also an indirect role trough identity formation and cleavage emersion, as discussed just above.
Information impacts these dynamics in several stages. For once, instantaneous access to any source of information, regardless of its quality, makes the rejection of expertise much easier to achieve; anyone can claim of being “an expert”; everybody can perceive itself as an expert by looking up information and data (whether correct or misleading doesn’t matter) on the web; and therefore, not only the “specialised expert” becomes redundant, but also the sentiment of anger and the perceived injustice of society grows.
Second, the internet eases all forms of mobilization, including manifestations of anger and rage, which were previously socially censored in non-mediated contexts; it follows that the degree of rational discourse in the public debate is further weakened by constant, repeated, overwhelming aggression speech, which has precisely the goal of minimizing the role of facts, data and rationality in the debate- being these the instruments, in fact the only instruments, that real experts are accustomed to use.
And finally, as analysed in the conclusive paragraphs of my previous post, the information market is experiencing a downward dynamic in which providers of costless information (the kind of information accessed, usually, by non-élites and non-experts) are engaged in a fierce competition to sell news stories characterised not by their fact-based interpretation of reality, but rather by their match with the priors of the potential readership. The political entrepreneur who successfully creates a prior belief in the population tuned on the rejection of experts, specialisation and representation can be quite sure to win over the free-for-read media outlets, which compete precisely on their ability to fulfil those priors.
In sum, the western society is in a precarious equilibrium above a very slippery slope. Anti-elitism leads to rejection of experts, and therefore of specialisation; rejection of specialisation leads to mistrusting delegation, increasing our vulnerability to external pressure and propaganda; and mistrust in delegation leads, ultimately, to the demise of representative democracy as we know it.
Microgravity environment for social thinkers