fragments of an attempted writing.

I was reading Paul D’Amato’s The Meaning of Marxism, and I came across this, which is the sort of assertion that Free Marketers like to jump all over:

Given the opportunity, everyone is capable of learning the scientific, administrative, and mathematical skills necessary to play a direct role in running society, just as in pre-class society knowledge of terrain, plants, and animals, or of tool-making, was shared by the group, and not treated as the monopoly of a minority. (pg. 200)

The immediate capitalist objection to D’Amato’s statement will be this: that not everyone is thus capable, that a wide range of ability and capability is to be found among humans, and that the best and most successful societies are those which allow the most able and most capable persons to rise to those positions which demand the most ability and capability.

But this dismissal misses the point, and assumes that our social order actually corresponds to the myths of meritocracy which float about, rather than the social-strata banality and cult of mediocrity which abounds all around us.

I had a friend (he died in 2000), whom I have mentioned a great deal on the previous blog, whose name was Mark. Mark was at one time the youngest tenured professor in the U.K., a professor of neuro-robotic engineering, and he had one of those intellects which was so intimidating and commanding, even though Mark was a very approachable Welshman from a working class home. I remember one conversation when Mark and some of his scientist friends were explaining to me why Microsoft was not only a farce, from the point of view of a supposed meritocratic technocracy, but also an icon of coercion and distortions. One of the points they stressed was that Bill Gates was not, from the point of view of the science of computer technology or the application of computer technology, all that intelligent of a man. At the time this seemed to resonate with my, shall we say, “humanities based” intuition that told me that when Gates opened his mouth a notably intelligent person was not speaking. Yet Gates and his multi-national corporation, to be sure, have played a rather “direct role in running society.”

There are many other examples of this nature which come to mind. A conversation I heard on the radio with a bio-chemist who spoke of the ways that large pharmaceuticals fought against needed pharmaceutical science which would/could help the masses in affordable ways painted a picture of sober, intelligent scientists thwarted by less intelligent scientists working in cahoots with business majors who should probably only be considered marginally intelligent. We could go on and on, but Gates will serve well enough.

Gates is obviously able and capable of doing things which have dramatic effects on the entire world. But this did not come about by way of him being a scientific genius, or even an organizational genius. Gates' “genius,” if you will, follows a different model. There is a word for the psychology of action Gates embodies, and that word is a part of the classic Marxist vocabulary. The word is opportunist.

Marx considers opportunism an integral part of capitalism, and he noted the correspondence between opportunism and alienation. Bill Gates and the tactics of Microsoft provide a picture perfect example of this. Microsoft depends upon the suppression of technologically “better” alternatives (hence their buying the rights to technologies with the sole purpose of making sure they never get developed, etc.). Microsoft depends upon the classical capitalist technique of information asymmetry. Microsoft presents a myth of meritocratic value, but in fact its real success is that of the achievement of a superior vehicle of ambition, its ability to sell and resell itself as innovative, when more often than not it has slowed innovation. It has, however, directly brought technology to the masses, with some parallels to the ways Soviet industries did the same thing on a smaller scale. Microsoft has both made use of government regulation and been the victim of government regulation, but overall it has masterfully maneuvered various social and political systems, in spite of producing a product that virtually every computer expert in the world considers mediocre at best. Of course, the problems associated with software mediocrity keep a lot of people employed, but perhaps that is too cynical a view. We might note that keeping these people employed is not a means of wealth distribution, most of those employed are pawns in a game which concentrates wealth to relatively small number of opportunists.

When one starts to meet persons in executive and management positions in business and government, it does not take long to realize that most of them are not the brightest bulbs in the tree. There are certainly some very bright people in government and business, but I am convinced that the highest concentrations of exceptionally intelligent people are not found in government or business. This need not be the case. I believe it is the natural result of capitalism playing itself out.

But to get back to D’Amato’s point, of course he does not think a person suffering from a severe brain injury could administrate the IRS. But I think his bold assertion does take into consideration that most of those persons engaged in roles connected to the running of society are not particularly bright.

Having worked in a metal shop for a number of years, I saw people who had rather dismal public educations and who could not for the life of them use correct grammar two phrases in a row engage in custom fabrication which required cognitive skills which were very much akin to what is required in a typical high school geometry class. Most of these folks were intellectually capable of the level of thought routinely engaged in by those who play a direct role in the running of society. My coworkers did not often think about such things as the running of society in part because they were conditioned not to – their entire social experience was one which churned out cheap, non-union members of the proletariat who were not inclined to ask too many questions.

When I was in Russia in 1992, sometimes visiting towns which had not had Western visitors in a generation or two, I found (via translators) that the street sweepers wanted to discuss great works of literature and listened as a store clerk or tram driver would sit at a piano and play a bit of Rachmaninoff. That these persons were most likely the grandchildren or great grandchildren of those peasants which both Marx and the Tsars thought firmly bound to traditions of “backwardness” and stupidity is something to consider.

Capitalism rests on the use of character masks in which a Gates presents himself as something he is not, with nearly all of society believing him.


  1. What you've written about Gates is true also of Jobs of Apple and Ellison of Oracle. In fact, it can be said of much of hi-tech.

  2. The phenomenon you describe in Russia was one that my friends and I frequently remarked upon in western Pennsylvania - that it was the working class, much more than the bourgeoisie, who had an existential (as opposed to aestheticizing or status-related) relationship to literature, music, etc. There was also much less of a degradation of labor - I remember a story a friend told me once, about an old machinist who was fond of espresso, and so designed and built a commercial-quality espresso machine for himself.


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