Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Theories of the Class War

"There’s much to be said for class hatred." - Chris Dillow (Stumbling & Mumbling)

Fabian Tassano Week: This is the first of a series of posts with some sort of connection to the ideas of Fabian Tassano, the author of 'Mediocracy' (short-reviewed here) and blogger behind top 12 blog Inversions & Deceptions. The 'Mediocracy' book has caused rather a stir and quite a few negative reactions among the friends (of differing political persuasions) I have lent it to so far - these posts are intended to frame some of my perspectives on the ideas in the book and on the blog.

'Mediocracy' begins with a 'fable', describing the progress of a land called Telluria from an innovative culture driven by individuals of exceptional ability, to the modern state of mediocracy, in which the individual is neutralised and society is all, leading to a stagnant culture. It has all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer and doesn't in my opinion do Tassano's ideas justice, but it does highlight one important aspect of his thinking that is central to 'Mediocracy' and forms the subject of this post:

"Because of the heritability of talent and ambition, and the possibility of passing on the financial advantages acquired through aptitude, an entire social class developed in which exceptionality became relatively likely." - Fabian Tassano, Mediocracy pg10


Contrast Chris Dillow's post today:

"Just consider some of the advantages a middle-class kid has over his poorer contemporaries. He’s more likely to grow up in a home that promotes learning. His parents give him self-confidence and ambition. He has role models to show that people like him can have successful careers - the importance of which mustn't be under-estimated. In living in an expensive house, he gets into a good state school. And he benefits from positive peer effects whilst kids from the ghetto suffer adverse ones." - Chris Dillow


Now, is it me or has Tassano picked up on one of the key, usually unspoken, philosophical sticking points between what might traditionally be called left-wing and right-wing...And one that, I am perhaps going to surprise you by writing here, is a quite significant strike to the 'left'.

The argument that the presence in society of privileged classes is a consequence of heredity of genetic superiority in the areas of talent and ambition is a decidedly shaky one, even to a part-innatist like me (I believe that individuals' characteristics are a result of both genetics and environment, not just environment). This appears to be a crucial foundation of Tassano's 'Mediocracy' theory, yet scientific backing for the assumption is conspicuously absent from the book, and from the associated blog - searches of Inversions & Deceptions for appropriate terms (e.g. 'talent', 'heritability') did not turn up any light. He does turn up research that suggests a relationship between individual success and parental status (Link) but as he points out in the post no fundamental conclusions can be drawn from it.

Without this solid foundation, but retaining the mixed view regarding inheritance of individual characteristics (read Steven Pinker - 'The Blank Slate' for a thorough coverage of this critical area) I am left with a rather more mixed picture of the realities of social class than Tassano can offer.

So onto Chris Dillow's post. His comments regarding the improved opportunities a "middle class kid" has over his "poorer contemporaries" are, on the face of it, unassailable. But the rightist riposte is almost sure to be '...but how much of that is biological, rather than sociological' (e.g. bad parents might be more likely to have children who will grow up to be bad parents for genetic, not sociological, reasons). And if the evidence for this and related contentions is thin on the ground - and I suggest that it is -, it can be argued that is due to the left-wing bias of the academic establishment (as Tassano suggests is the case and Pinker discusses).

Dillow finishes, however, by suggesting that the solution to the class hatred (of his type, presumably) is to "abolish class divisions". This, as commenter Jackart insinuates (Link), is a lofty aim, and it is in the means by which this high-minded objective is achieved where I feel the 'leftist' view runs into problems. It is here that I begin to find common ground with Fabian Tassano. But, more on that later in the week...!

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