Surviving in a Mediocracy


This blog is an outgrowth of a book on contemporary culture entitled Mediocracy. Some have assumed the title signifies the standard right-wing complaint that “things ain’t what they used to be”. It’s more complicated than that. There’s a constellation of cultural phenomena which are linked, though the nature of the link isn’t obvious. Dumbing down is part of it, but also gobbledygook, as well as: obsession with appearance; aggressiveness as a behavioural norm; the idea that reality is socially constructed; the dismantling of civil liberties.

I speculated that there was a single connecting theme, associated particularly with ideologies such as Blairism but by no means confined to the Left. A kind of anti-individualism masquerading as egalitarian, and justifying itself by reference to notions of “democratisation” and “fairness”, though in fact no less elitist than rival philosophies. With a tendency to redefine cultural concepts, à la 1984, to suit ideological objectives. For want of a better word, I called the connecting theme “mediocracy”.


Brave New Academia

I consider myself an academic who has been deprived of his livelihood. What do I mean by that? That doing research of significance is what I’m cut out for, but that the academic world over the last fifty years has metamorphosed into an institution in which people like me can no longer make careers.

The larger part of academia has become obsessed with jargon and formalism, at the expense of meaningful content. An academic’s principal options in fields such as economics, psychology or sociology are now (1) become a number-cruncher (do tedious empirical research with plenty of highly technical statistical analysis, much of which is likely to be questionable), or (2) generate pseudo-theory of a kind which reproduces the currently fashionable terminology. In either case, taking care to say nothing that conflicts with received wisdom. In fields such as literature or philosophy, there is only option (2). The high level of technicality and referencing typically masks the triviality — or absence — of genuine content.

The purpose of academia has changed from producing real insights to generating reinforcement for the preferred world view. Academics are encouraged to generate spurious legitimacy for anti-individualistic social trends such as the abolition of civil liberties, or the ‘rights’ of doctors and psychiatrists to make decisions about people’s lives. This started happening some time ago, but we have now reached the point where it is being espoused openly, by e.g. education ministers. According to the Chief Executive of HEFCE, "it was once the role of Governments to provide for the purposes of universities; it is now the role of universities to provide for the purposes of Governments."

An obsessive belief in the value of training and certification has helped to buttress a culture of technocracy, in which experts are seen as appropriate arbiters over people's lives, even though there is little evidence that the technicalities of academic training result in decision-making or other skills that improve on those of the average person. Academics have helped to shift the centre ground in the direction of more state intervention. This has been done partly by changing norms in areas such as moral philosophy. What was once extreme, e.g. killing handicapped babies, has become “moderate”. What was once moderate, e.g. reacting strongly to infringements of liberty, has become “extreme”. While one can't expect academics to have no ideological biases, the collectivised way the academy is nowadays run was bound to generate a monolithic consensus. Once established, we end up with a kind of ideological closed shop, with dissenters refused entry or hounded out.


Intellectual taboos

It should be obvious by now, to anyone who cares, that the principle of free speech is being gradually eroded in the West. Either by straightforward ditching, or — more subtly — by redefining it in ways designed to legitimise the prohibition of ideologically incorrect viewpoints. For example, not long ago an editor at the Index on Censorship admonished us for being too literalist about the issue.


"People shouldn’t think that the Index is against censorship on principle. It may have been so in its radical youth, but it is now as concerned with fighting hate speech as protecting free speech." (Rohan Jayasekera, commenting about the murder of Theo van Gogh.)


Modern collectivised academia (which ought in theory to act as a forum for free debate) is no different in this respect. Sacking academics for “racism”, because they have dared to consider the possibility that average IQs might differ between ethnic groups, is the thin end of the wedge. Next on the list is prohibiting climate change scepticism. After that may come the protection of other dogmas, e.g. that inequality is increasing. (I’m not advocating particular views on these issues; I simply note that some of the possible answers are becoming impossible to debate.)

Where we get dissident research being done at all, it is — inevitably — funded by bodies with links to commerce and/or right wing politics, since those are the only organisations with an incentive to challenge the il-liberal consensus. This is used by the mainstream both (a) to prove that there isn't a restriction on what research gets done, and (b) to discredit that research.

Some academics are starting to protest, and to demand that the state should stay out of higher education, but they’re too late. The state is now intimately involved with the university system, and it’s regarded as legitimate that society should control what goes on in publicly funded institutions, and should demand "value for money". It hasn't helped that intellectuals are generally much keener to blame marketisation than to blame a leftist government claiming to act in the public interest. Thus, as in other areas, criticism has been focused on the wrong target.

In any case, the issue of free speech only hits the papers when an established academic dares to deviate from the consensus. The more important censorship goes on inside the academy every day, as younger researchers find they are not going to get anywhere in terms of funding or career progression unless they toe the fashionable line.


Nonsense on stilts

There are academic disciplines, such as applied chemistry or cell biology, where the criterion of generating testable hypotheses still dominates. As for the rest, you can more or less take it as read that they've been infected by left wing ideology and/or what I have called "technicality" — unnecessary (and often totally vacuous) technical complexity. There is something curiously universal about the quality of technicality, so that you often can't tell just from the isolated content whether you are dealing with supposed economics, or maths, or theoretical physics, or philosophy, or even literary theory.


PROPOSITION 3.2 The model has a stationary perfect equilibrium. If the game is symmetric, then there exists a symmetric stationary perfect equilibrium.
PROPOSITION 3.3 Suppose that PA = PB and cA = cB. Then symmetric equilibrium is unique if one of the following conditions holds:

(i)           cA(z) = cB(z) = for some μ > 1;

(ii)         N ≤ 3 and Assumption C3 holds;

(iii) N ≤ 5, cA = cB is twice continuously differentiable, and c″A = c″B is monotonic non-decreasing. (1)


An organisation called the Post-Autistic Economics Network (PAECON) has formed around a group of 'deviants' who don't want to keep quiet about the fact that economics has become blighted by mathematical gobbledygook. Unfortunately, PAECON have got this issue mixed up with the claim that modern economics is biased in a right wing direction. They seem to believe this because economics tends to focus on markets. I think that's nonsense. It seems to me that the majority of post-war economists have been pretty desperate to find models which would justify intervention, it's just that it hasn't been easy. There's not much that can be proved with economics beyond the perfect competition model, which — unfortunately, from many people's point of view — is supportive of free market philosophy. That is why economists, and other social scientists, got so excited about the Prisoner's Dilemma (which allegedly demonstrates a market failure) and about game theory generally, and why John Nash is a much more prominent character in current economics textbooks than Ronald Coase.

The PAECON problem illustrates the curious fact that, even when it becomes impossible to suppress awareness that something is seriously wrong with some area of academia, the fallout is remarkably limited. Everyone seems to keep on going pretty much in the same old way. Another area which it has become positively fashionable in some quarters to deride (because it's easy to do so), but where the effect of the derision has been minimal, is postmodernist philosophy. However, a dodgy system ridiculing its own excesses can easily end up being a way to sweep the more endemic problem under the carpet. It can be awfully convenient to identify some useful scapegoats, in order to pretend you're on the side of the critics. (A propaganda device employed by communist regimes, among others.)

The fact that the most prominent critique of postmodern academia, Intellectual Impostures, has come from academia itself is taken by some as a healthy sign. It could equally well be a sign that criticism of academia, even when any (intelligent) fool can see the nonsense for what it is, is now only permitted for those who have received 'training'. (Even so, the authors of Intellectual Impostures were castigated by some reviewers for not sticking to their own area of expertise.) I also find it ironic that the book essentially consisted of two physicists ridiculing the uses to which modern physics has been put by certain philosophers, when what makes this possible is the fact that much modern physics has the quality of gobbledygook to begin with.

A tiny proportion of academics still generate material of appeal to the layman, disguising the fact that the bulk of contemporary research is vacuous. For the most part they do so by (a) rehashing old material (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies), (b) recovering old truths which had become unfashionable (e.g. Steven Pinker), or (c) making assertions which are tendentious to the extent they’re not trivial (e.g. Daniel Dennett, Simon Baron-Cohen, Jared Diamond).

People like me, who don’t want to generate pointless theory, or tedious data supportive of a pro-intervention agenda, or otherwise to reinforce the prevailing ideology, can not get on in modern academia. Perhaps until recently they could, if they were willing to accept third class status by working in areas or institutions which (career-wise) meant the kiss of death. But even that option has practically disappeared, at least in Britain.


Indifference and hostility


Robert Fisk is a man apparently not much loved by the blogosphere. Yet perhaps there is something to be said for him. When doing research for the Mediocracy book I scoured the pages of dozens of publications, looking for criticism of the prevailing state of academia and its "high on technicality, low on content" approach. Surely there were some journalists or intellectuals out there, not academics themselves, prepared to question this ludicrous state of affairs? In fact, with the exception of a few people like Ophelia Benson pointing out the absurdities of one specific area (postmodernism), I found not a single instance. Except this one allusion to there being a problem — by Mr Fisk.


It's a new and dangerous phenomenon I'm talking about, a language of exclusion that must have grown up in universities over the past 20 years; after all, any non-university-educated man or woman can pick up an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or '30s and — however Hegelian the subject — fully understand its meaning. No longer.


Other mainstream commentators don’t question this state of affairs, perhaps because they no longer think of research as something which is capable of being done outside academia, but simply as whatever happens to be done at universities. The definition of e.g. philosophy has become, “whatever is done under that name at a recognised academic institution”. Certification has become more important than content, and quality is no longer seen as assessable by an untrained person. The fact that many of the key innovations in the history of knowledge were made outside universities is conveniently forgotten. Someone working outside a university today can be ignored, since by definition they cannot be doing research.

An alternative response for critics — particularly popular among the Right — is to belittle academia in toto, and support demands for it to be selectively dismantled (e.g. keep applied sciences, ditch humanities), pseudo-marketised2, de-funded, monitored or otherwise penalised. One American columnist has even suggested that "by having leftist academics on college campuses, the rest of us have them right where we want them." A possible (though short-sighted) response for non-academics; not so good for those of us whose chance for making a living out of being an intellectual has gone down the sewer.

The few within the academic system who are still prepared to criticise publicly the changes being forced upon them (e.g. Antony Flew, Anthony O’Hear, Frank Furedi, Kenneth Minogue or Larry Summers) come from the older generation. When they’ve gone, there may be no one to remind us how things could be different.

The repercussions

Why does any of this matter? For two reasons. First, a society which stifles intellectual innovation is not a healthy society. Second, certain types of people — e.g. intellectuals not in tune with the dominant ideology — find it impossible to exist in such a society. They will either depart for a country which is less stifling, such as the US, or they will live lives of misery and deprivation. (Here are the real victims of ‘social exclusion’.) Or, as in my case, they’re forced to try to make significant amounts of money by investment, in the hope of one day being able to fund an institutional environment.

Some of my fellow academics say, “why whinge about it, just suck it up. Be grateful you can get paid to have an intellectual career at all”. They themselves do 'suck it up', and enter into the spirit of New Academe, helping to perpetuate a system that is basically rotten. It is not that I haven't tried. For a while I laboured hard to produce the kind of technical economics which is now de rigueur. But although I learnt well enough how to use the system of arcane jargon and techniques, it was never quite correct enough in the required way. I couldn’t quite disabuse myself of the desire to say something interesting or meaningful. “Don’t try to be original,” I was advised. “Crank the handle, copy someone else’s work, but with a slight variation.” “Technique it up” was another frequent suggestion. I.e. wrap up what you are saying in jargon and presentational gimmicks. Ultimately, my desire to be clear and consequential proved to be too much of a handicap: I realised I was never going to be permitted to be anything more than a C-list academic, and left Oxford. (A severe disappointment, given that my supervisor at Cambridge had once described me as one of the people most suited to research he had ever encountered.)

Of course, even in the most repressively dogmatic system there will be the odd lucky exception who somehow slips through the net. So we get the occasional academic prepared to question the orthodoxy of their own subject. Usually they do this fairly late in life, after first having made careers out of supporting the orthodoxy. Recently, for example, we had a couple of senior academics criticising the economics of happiness (some months after I had first done so).

Sometimes I wonder whether these 'rebels' are promoted in order to undermine the claim that there is anything wrong with academia. "See, it's perfectly possible to be a maverick and still have a respectable Professorship." Apart from the fact that criticism by such individuals is generally on the dilute side, the ability to point to a handful of 'dissident' insiders doesn't really bear on the issue of whether it's possible in general to make a career in academia if you are sceptical of the orthodoxy to begin with. Especially if you do not have a taste for recycling what you realise is vacuous, for the sake of climbing the professional ladder — with the possible compensation of making a secondary career from criticising what you previously endorsed, thirty years down the line.


Massification of degrees is said to be inevitable because everyone now aspires to higher education. Fine, but instead of letting the market provide this extension to the old model, it’s taken to mean turning the university system into an arm of the welfare state, rather like the NHS. I.e. run by the state, with everyone having equal entitlement to a low grade product, and subsidy based on poverty rather than ability. With the concept of academic selection increasingly regarded as unacceptable, and selection in any case becoming impossible as exams are engineered to achieve egalitarian outcomes, it is not surprising that the idea of university entrance by lottery is becoming a plausible option.

I have never seen a meaningful case made for a majority needing to go to college; this is now simply assumed in the most handwaving way (no substantive argument required) by both Left and Right. The hidden assumption that ability is not inherited is used to discriminate against people from social groups considered to be over-represented. The fact that little of benefit is acquired by most undergraduates is concealed by ensuring that everyone receives a qualification at the end of the process.

The net result is that academics are being forced to become badly paid handmaidens to a system which will be primarily about promoting equality and inclusion, like state school teachers already are. They are now also required to comply with increasing levels of state bureaucracy, and are monitored and assessed by government auditors — not that this is any more conducive to quality than its counterpart in the NHS.

The modern academic is expected to narrow his or her focus to a tiny detailed area. Specialisation is usually said to be an inevitable feature of modern research, but it’s partly a consequence of massification, and the implicit assumption that the whole academic enterprise should operate as a kind of a hive mind with every cog playing its small part. Democratisation demands that everyone get 'training' and have a go, and egalitarianism stipulates that no one is better than anyone else. This creates a system in which everyone is expected to find a tiny insignificant niche in which to make themselves comfortable. The level of support is cut, while the number of 'researchers' is increased.

Few people with influence appear to have much incentive to speak out about this. There are too many vested interests involved. And being honest for its own sake has become unfashionable. A small minority of journalists manage to make careers out of criticising the prevailing cultural ideology, but are apparently unwilling to do the slightest thing to help exiled academics like me or my colleagues at Oxford Forum, e.g. by mentioning dissident publications in their newspaper columns. Though being quite happy, in some cases, to make use of the ideas in their own writings.

It has of course become distinctly unfashionable to criticise contemporary culture. It’s been done, the story goes, now get over it. (Though the criticism we’ve had has been principally about the dumbing down, rather than about the vacuous technicality.)

It doesn’t help that there’s an awful lot of 'academic' activity out there these days. There are, for example, said to be ten thousand academic philosophers in the US. This creates the misleading impression that, whatever requires support at the moment, it is not intellectuals.

The web revolution and its limitations

Some think the web will break the stranglehold of the cultural establishment. Systems like Wikipedia, run largely by intelligent amateurs, can offer alternative viewpoints, and even criticise some of the more obvious prejudices of the establishment. (I believe Wikipedia’s success derives partly from the fact that much of the cultural establishment no longer generates material that is usable or useful.) The long tail effect may also help to preserve unfashionable products already in existence whose influence would otherwise be lost.

But technology by itself can only go so far: it can preserve but it cannot create. Significant cultural innovation requires some individuals to be free from the usual pressure of earning a living, and that still depends (as it has always done) on private capital — for which few on the Left or Right have anything good to say these days. There’s a tendency to confuse (a) the capacity of the web to criticise nonsense with (b) the 'wisdom of crowds', and to assume that it’s sheer numbers which make the web valuable. Look for example at the comments section of online Guardian articles (much heat, little light) and you’ll realise the folly of this.

Some people (including some outside the academic establishment) try to be professional intellectuals on the web, e.g. by having blogs with an academic flavour. I haven’t bothered myself, because I know the best payoff I could hope for would be a part-time career on the fringes of journalism. Any blogger expecting that society will recognise and reward their intellectual activity on its own merits will certainly be disappointed. The modern world does not work like that.

When my colleague Celia Green tried years ago to demonstrate her aptitude for research by pioneering several topics of research in psychology via her own research organisation, all that happened was that people already in the academic system used her ideas as the basis for their careers. And that was before the obsession with certification and institutionalisation had become as pervasive as it is now.


Fabian Tassano

December 2007

(1) Excerpt from: Professor Sir John Vickers and Professor Christopher Harris, ‘Racing with uncertainty’, Review of Economic Studies 54 (1987), pp.7-11.


(2) The issue of whether it would do good to marketise the university system is a complex one, not least because any strategy would almost certainly involve partial marketisation. For some background to this, see here.