The Age of Anger and the Educational Divide

The angst generated by Brexit and the Trump election is still generating much comment with all sorts of views being expressed.

Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Guardian in an article titled “Welcome to the age of anger” asserts that emotions of fear, anxiety and humiliation played a significant part in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and asserts further that a rigid contemporary belief that what counts is only what can be counted and what cannot be counted – subjective emotions – therefore do not (count). He points out that these emotions are also what drove Germany into the second world war and are driving anti-western sentiments in China, Russia and India.

He quotes Robert Musil speaking of the critics of Enlightenment rationalism, who observed that the problem was not that we “have too much intellect and too little soul” but that we have “too little intellect in matters of the soul”. This is a statement that resonates with me.

He further observes that seeking the “rational actor” we fail to see the individual as a “deeply unstable entity” particularly prone to ressentiment, a French word describing an emotion “caused by an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness” and resulting in a sentiment that can be expressed thus, “that it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail”. (Gore Vidal). So ressentiment “is poisoning civil society and undermining political liberty everywhere” which is further exacerbated by the inability of our “grotesquely unequal societies” to satisfy expectations of the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment presented as ideals of modern democracy.

Pankaj Mishra observes that “Never have so many free individuals felt so helpless – so desperate to take back control from anyone they can blame”. He concludes that we need a “radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity”.

Mishra says a lot more and is worth a read here.

In a related article, “How the education gap is tearing politics apart” David Runciman, also in the Guardian, observes that the chasm in education between the poorly educated and the well educated elite is ever growing and “has become a fundamental divide in democracy” and “how people vote is being increasingly shaped by how long they spent at school” and to a significant extent, this is what helped shape the Brexit results. Runciman succinctly states the fears that “democracy will mean rule by the poor, who will use their power to steal from the rich” and “rule by the ignorant, who will use their power to do the dumbest things” and that “both these worries go back as far as Plato” (428/427 bce – 348/347 bce) and recur “at times of political crises”.

Walter Lippmann, an American propagandist of the first world war, wrote of democracy that it was impossible to believe “that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart”. Evidence and reasoned argument mean little to the average voter, he argued, and that only specialist experts could rescue politicians from the dubious instincts of the people and direct them to what evidence required.

Runciman argues that to think that 2016 was a return to a democratic norm would be a big mistake. Runciman instead suggests that the educated tend to flock together and share common values and vote one way, and that the uneducated would do much the same but vote another way. Greater freedom tends to produce more social stratification rather than social diversity and this tends to support political choices of both groups, the educated and the less educated, with the divide highlighting alternative values ‘often characterised as opposition between libertarians and authoritarians” and this “represents a gulf in mutual understanding”.

Neither Runciman nor Mishra offer solutions, just analysis. That is more than enough. The solutions must come from those who heed their analysis.

How is this significant for the Direct Democracy Forum (DDF)?

First, the DDF senate proposal permits participation of ordinary citizens in the day to day political process. But the DDF’s Senate is not a legislative body. It is an approval element of a legislative body. So, the Senate cannot approve a law where the poor raid the rich unless the experts (the legislators) actually pass such a bill and send it to the senate for approval. Nor can a DDF Senate legislate something abysmally stupid unless the same legislators pass such a bill and send it to the Senate for approval. One would hope that the DDF Senate, even if presented with such a bill, will have the good sense to reject the bill, because it would have first to debate the pros and cons of such a bill and those presenting those pros and cons would also be part of the ‘learned elite’, who we believe will no doubt seek to alert the Senate members of the pitfalls surrounding such a bill.

Thus meaningful participation in the legislative process would be accessible to anyone who volunteers and is selected to sit. For details of the process and of the proposed Senate, see here. It will be obvious that the senate would have the power to quash any legislation or regulation that it feels was elitist or otherwise undesirable, no questions asked, and would need to be convinced of the desirability of any bill or regulation passed by the legislators or regulators but, importantly, would itself be unable to initiate legislation.

This should address in part, the sense of helplessness felt by so many referred to by Mishra and to enable human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity in a structured, peaceful and democratic manner.

Then there is the sense that society is being divided between the well educated and the not so well educated. The only way to address that is to ensure that all have the opportunity to be adequately educated, according to whatever their intellectual capacity is.

Here the DDF are proposing a number of interlocking policies which will support an education system, paid for from funds made available through a Basic Income Grant and available nationally to all South African citizens. Thus, government would no longer be the primary employer of education resources. Instead the students and the parents would be the employers and educators would, amongst other features, suddenly have their ability to blackmail all of society with threats of nationwide strikes, curtailed, because there would no longer be one service provider but thousands of service providers, all of whom would need to be negotiated with separately. In short, the DDF are proposing a free market solution where freedom of choice is paramount. If you don’t like the choices offered your child at school A, remove the child and the fees he is paying from school A to school B or C, whichever school works best for you.

OK, the solution is not a quick fix. There are no quick fixes in a process with a twenty five year cycle from entry into pre-school to exit from post-graduate school, but improvements to the entire system would be immediately available to scholars and students in the system, from pre-school to post-graduate school, from day one.

Of course, one cannot have education without qualified, competent and enthusiastic educators. So educators would be well paid and education would be a prestige occupation reserved for the competent.

The DDF do not claim that this would remove the education chasm that is growing year by year, but it first would slow the growth and later on, with more and more scholars having access to quality education through the whole process, there would be less of a divide between the highly educated and the not so well educated, and an education would be respected by all of South Africa and would be delivered as a right, not as a privilege.

As to fees must fall, there is no such thing as a free lunch so those receiving the benefit of a tertiary education will have to pay for it, before, during or after receiving their degrees.

All of this is not a perfect solution but is much better than what we currently have in South Africa.

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