A short history of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream, (2014). Bernard Keane & Helen Razer, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.
I am a big fan of both Crikey political editor Bernard Keane and the Saturday Paper‘s gardening writer Helen Razer. They are intellectually sharp, write with good humour and come across as eminently rational in their thinking.
Therefore, I was delighted to find A short history of Stupid in time to add the book to my Christmas wishlist for 2014. Yes, even über rationalist Marxist scholars have some use for Santa Claus!
Keane and Razer are friends and obviously share a dislike for stupidity in all its forms (and they are many); but they are not cut from the same cloth. Keane comes across as a socially-concerned and progressive individualist, verging on the libertarian, while Razer is more than willing to own up to her own proto-Marxist and critical feminist intellectual development. Razer is also a bit of a potty mouth, so if you are offended by the occasional use of c—t, f—k and s—t in your reading material, perhaps you should only read the chapters by the more (ahem) refined Mr Keane.
But I’m not fazed by Ms Razer’s crudities because I love her razor wit and sharp insights. Her chapter on reason and unreason is one of the best in the book and one paragraph in particular sums up her (and my) take on the psychological pressures of modern working life:
“When we fail at life as it is so broadly and meticulously prescribed, we call it mental illness. We have failed life. We are not permitted to think it is the conventions of life that have failed us.” (p. 164)
It has many good points and I recommend you read it, but A short history of Stupid is a very uneven book. This is partially because chapters are written individually and the writers have very different tones and registers in their prose; but the bigger issue is that the book doesn’t seem to really know whom its enemy is.
Daddy knows best: Paternalism–the Godfather of Stupid?
Bernard Keane’s chapter on the stupidity of paternalism, for example, suffers greatly from this problem. Is the issue the so-called “nanny state types”, or is it “the powerful” – social elites who control business and government?
Keane doesn’t seem to know, as this sentence demonstrates:
“Comparing not merely drug laws, but health-motivated ‘soft paternalism’ to religious persecution and censorship may seem a stretch to nanny-state types, but while differing in methods, all reflect the same logic: that the powerful have both the superior knowledge and the right to make decisions for the welfare of the less powerful, and to impose those decisions on them or use resources to seek to influence them in the desired direction.” (p. 95)
One thing bugged me about A short history of Stupid: there is no explanation of why Stupid seems to persist. This unease came to a head after I’d read Keane’s chapter on the stupidity of the War on Terror. This is a great chapter empirically, Keane points out that the dollar cost of the war—trillions globally since 2001—has not made the world safer, nor saved any lives.
All that this vast expenditure has done is make corporations rich and increase the threat from deranged Islamists such as the followers of Da’esh (ISIS). But what I wanted in the final paragraphs of this chapter was an explanation of the “Why?” question. Why does the national security state (in Australia as much as the USA) continue with its lies and unproductive expenditure on mass surveillance and the means of efficient military destruction?
In the end perhaps, for me, the biggest problem with this book is that it cannot offer any answers to this question, or to the widespread corrosive effects of Stupid.
Why is this so? Well, both authors, but particularly Bernard Keane, have a blind spot to the ultimate form of Stupid: the problem of the system itself.
Razer calls it “liberal democracy” and Keane calls it “liberal capitalism” and they ultimately concede it is all we’ve got. However, this is an ahistorical approach that denies the evidence of the past that it is the economic system that breeds inequality and that ultimately needs a certain level of ideological Stupid among the general population in order to prevent mass (and organised) public opposition that would be capable of overthrowing it.
Previously Stupid systems of political economy—such as slavery and feudal aristocracy—have been defeated and replaced, so why not stupid Capitalism? If Stupid is in the way, then it is serving some purpose of the ruling class.
After all, as Marx once wrote in his critique of Hegel:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Insert “Stupid” into that sentence instead of “Religion” and read it again—it makes perfect sense!
Religion is just one form of Stupid today: consumerism, magical thinking, paternalism, motivated reasoning and a belief in individual anecdote over empirical evidence are others.
This problem is clearly articulated for me in the previously mentioned chapter on paternalism. Keane’s lack of clarity about whom or what is the real enemy brings him undone. If the object of critique is purely an abstract idea such as “Stupid” then the social causes and the social forces that keep it alive are ultimately under-explored.
Keane’s equivocation is obvious: alongside the “nanny-state types” and “the powerful”, he also mentions “progressives” (p.96) as being perpetrators of the problematic Stupid of “paternalism”. Thus he ends up being philosophically close to a funny kind of what we might call “soft” Libertarianism. If, as libertarian ideologies profess, the “individual” is at the core of all social formations and is the subject of historical progress, then the system of so-called private enterprise (which is dreadfully misnamed) bears no responsibility.
To demonstrate this concretely, take this example from Keane’s long chapter on paternalism: he criticizes medical experts as being “paternalistic” for writing in a 2014 edition of The Lancet about the health effects of capitalism.
Keane’s criticism leads him to defending global corporations and their poisonous products against the vast evidence that their business models actually kill people, he writes: “paternalism reflects an economic tradition hostile to liberal capitalism” (p. 97).
For me, the problem in this example is not the allegedly paternalistic doctors and medical scientists, but liberal capitalism itself. But, for Keane, the problem is that the paternalists adopt an elitist attitude towards “regulating the economic choices of low income citizens” (p. 97).
This is the wrong way to look at this problem. It is the transnational corporations who regulate the economic choices of low income citizens (I’d call them the working class) by only making available to them consumption options that are unhealthy and encouraged by blanket advertising.
The burgers may be “better” at Hungry Jack’s, but they are not better for you than those of its global competitor.
If the fast-food choices offered to low income citizens are between two brands of sugar-laden, fat-soaked faux burgers made from discarded offal or sugar-laden, fat-soaked faux chicken nuggets made from bleached discarded offal and possibly containing vinyl off-cuts, what sort of choice is that?
It is a choice between almost indistinguishable varieties of diabetes-inducing, obesity-causing, heart-attack foods that lack all nutritional value and that will, in all likelihood, shorten your life expectancy.
In that regard I am with the doctors writing in The Lancet.
Fast food companies do not produce health-damaging products because they are overcome with Stupid; they do it because in a system of competitive capitalism where the object is profit and wealth for shareholders, it is cheaper (and therefore more profitable) to produce food-like products than it is to produce actual healthy foods.
The real problem is the Stupid System
For me, the ultimate Stupid is not to realize that blaming either well-meaning doctors for raising the issue of “industrial epidemics”, or the low income citizens for their poor consumption choices is not the answer.
Capitalism forces producers into making extremely rational choices: to keep their business afloat by exploiting labour and producing cheaply to sell at a higher price; or be socially responsible and fall victim to a more ruthless competitor. It is this competition that forces consumers into unhealthy choices—they have no real choice! That is Stupidity writ large, it is Stupid built into the system and it can only be eradicated by overthrowing the system itself.
Unfortunately, Bernard Keane is not into revolution, preferring to take the moral higher ground against a formless Stupid. I would argue this is about as effective as declaring war on an idea, say…oh I don’t know, “Terrorism”, for example.
On the other hand, Helen Razer is astute enough to realize that she doesn’t have any answers, she writes:
“I don’t know what to do about the state of the world, so I just choose to document it and mock it into the possibility of change” (p. 276).
I am as fond as anyone of sarcasm as a form of political guerrilla warfare, but ultimately, it will not bring down Stupid and it will not force the system into serious change mode. Only well-informed active people can do that. Unfortunately, A short history of Stupid offers no program.
Instead, the authors inform us, after nearly 300 pages: “Alas, we’ve got nothing” (p. 293).
Perhaps Keane and Razer are being a little too modest at this point as their final words—on the Pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce and his followers—point to a partial solution:
“…for the Pragmatist, there is truth, and it can be found both within and outside the text, and the search for it is a collaborative one” (p. 297).
I can agree with this, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The collective solution to stupid—which is not just an idea, but is intimately bound with social relations of inequality and exploitation—involves collective thought and collective action.
Stupid lies in not paying attention to the social relations of production and the political economy of a global system that relies on exploitation and alienation for survival. Stupid is then compounded when we refuse to join in a collective effort to change the world.
The worst kind of Stupid is the one that willfully ignores the evidence that the real problem is the system itself. Once we (pragmatically, perhaps) come to that realization, a solution to Stupid presents itself: socialism.
The quote from Marx, in the context of him outlining an effective critique of religion, with the word “religion” replaced by the word “Stupid”:
Man makes Stupid, Stupid does not make man. Stupid is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce Stupid, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Stupid is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against Stupid is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is Stupid.
Stupid [Religious] suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Stupid is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Thanks for coming. I’d like you to join with me in singing this fabulous anti-Stupid song by Joe Hill.
BTW: Joe Hill was murdered by the government for writing songs like this.
Still don’t think we need a revolution against Stupid?
Well, then you’d better listen to this tune again!
What an awesome piece. Truly the most debilitating aspect of the system of stupid is its inability to correct itself. That is way stupid and against all precepts of evolutionary life. If u want answers to this system of suffocating stupid, know that you will find them in the writings of Karl Marx .. the only real empirical analysis in 200 years of whether capitalism is any good or not. A heads up .. its absolute rubbish, like organized religion. Terrific song at the end there , hair raising stuff. A goddam terrific blog there sir
[YO, Dylan, sup? Tx for the ups, welcome to EM]
Clearly the authors don’t target the system because it isn’t targeting them. Hard to bite the hand that feeds you when your tummy is full.