Talk that talk.
John Lee Hooker. 1961.
Is the “cultural left” possible? What I mean by “cultural left” is those who, in historian Todd Gitlin’s phrase, “marched on the English department while the Right took the White House”—and in that sense a “cultural left” is surely possible, because we have one. Then again however, there are a lot of things that exist but yet have little rational grounds for doing so, such as the Tea Party or the concept of race. So, did the strategy of leftists invading the nation’s humanities departments ever really make any sense? In other words, is it even possible to conjoin a sympathy for and solidarity with society’s downtrodden with a belief that the means to further their interests is to write, teach, and produce art and other “cultural” products? Or, is that idea like using a chainsaw to drive nails?
Despite current prejudices, which often these days depict “culture” as on the side of the oppressed, history suggests the answer is the latter, not the former: in reality, “culture” has usually acted hand-in-hand with the powerful—as it must, given that it is dependent upon some people having sufficient leisure and goods to produce it. Throughout history, art’s medium has simply been too much for its ostensible message—it’s depended on patronage of one sort or another. Hence, a potential intellectual weakness of basing a “left” around the idea of culture: the actual structure of the world of culture simply is the way that the fabulously rich Andrew Carnegie argued society ought to be in his famous 1889 essay, “The Gospel of Wealth.”
Carnegie’s thesis in “The Gospel of Wealth” after all was that the “superior wisdom [and] experience” of the “man of wealth” ought to determine how to spend society’s surplus. To that end, the industrialist wrote, wealth ought to be concentrated: “wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force … than if it had been distributed in small sums to the people themselves.” If it’s better for ten people to have $100,000 each than for a hundred to have $10,000, then it ought to be that much better to have one person with a million dollars. Instead of allowing that money to wander around aimlessly, the wealthiest—for Carnegie, a category interchangeable with “smartest”—ought to have charge of it.
Most people today, I think, would easily spot the logical flaw in Carnegie‘s prescription: just because somebody has money doesn’t make them wise, or even that intelligent. Yet while that is certainly true, the obvious flaw in the argument obscures a deeper flaw—at least if considering the arguments of the trader and writer Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. According to Taleb, the problem with giving power to the wealthy isn’t just that knowing something about someone’s wealth doesn’t necessarily guarantee intelligence—it’s that, over time, the leaders of such a society are likely to become less, rather than more, intelligent.
Taleb illustrates his case by, perhaps coincidentally, reference to “culture”: an area that he correctly characterizes as at least as, if not more so, unequal as any aspect of human life. “It’s a sad fact,” Taleb wrote not long ago, “that among a large cohort of artists and writers, almost all will struggle (say, work for Starbucks) while a small number will derive a disproportionate share of fame and attention.” Only a vanishingly small number of such cultural workers are successful—a reality that is even more pronounced when it comes to cultural works themselves, according to Stanford professor of literature Franco Moratti.
Investigating early lending libraries, Moratti found that the “smaller a collection is, the more canonical it is” [emp. original]; and also, “small size equals safe choices.” That is, of the collections he studied, he found that the smaller they were the more homogenous they were: nearly every library is going to have a copy of the Bible, for instance, while only a very large library is likely to have, say, copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The world of “culture” then is just is the way Carnegie wished the rest of the world to be: a world ruled by what economists call a “winner-take-all” effect, in which increasing amounts of a society’s spoils go to fewer and fewer contestants.
Yet, whereas according to Carnegie’s theory this is all to the good—on the theory that the “winners” deserve their wins—according to Taleb what actually results is something quite different. A “winner-take-all” effect, he says, “implies that those who, for some reason, start getting some attention can quickly reach more minds than others, and displace the competitors from the bookshelves.” So even though two competitors might be quite close in quality, whoever is a contest’s winner gets everything—and what that means is, as Taleb says about the art world, “that a large share of the success of the winner of such attention can be attributable to matters that lie outside the piece of art itself, namely luck.” In other words, it’s entirely possible that “the failures also have the same ‘qualities’ attributable to the winner”: the differences between them might not be much, but who now knows about Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare’s playwriting contemporary?
Further, consider what that means over time. Over-rewarding those who might happen to have caught some small edge, in other words, tends to magnify small initial differences. What that would mean is that someone who might possess more over-all merit, but that happened to have been overlooked for some reason, would tend to be buried by anyone who just happened to have had an advantage—deserved or not, small or not. And while, considered from the point of view of society as whole, that’s bad enough—because then the world isn’t using all the talent it has available—think about what happens to such a society over time: contrary to Andrew Carnegie’s theory, that society would tend to produce less capable, not more capable, leaders, because it would be more—not less—likely that they reached their position by sheer happenstance rather than merit.
A society, in other words, that was attempting to maximize the potential talent available to it—and it seems little arguable that such is the obvious goal—should not be trying to bury potential talent, but instead to expose as much of it as possible: to get it working, doing the most good. But whatever the intentions of those involved in it, the “culture industry” as a whole is at least as regressive and unequal as any other: whereas in other industries “star” performers usually only emerge after years and years of training and experience, in “culture” many times such performers either emerge in youth or not at all. Of all parts of human life, in fact, it’s difficult to think of one more like Andrew Carnegie’s dream of inequality than culture.
In that sense then it’s hard to think of a worse model for a leftish kind of politics than culture, which perhaps explains why despite the fact that our universities are bulging with professors of art and literature and so on proclaiming “power to the people,” the United States is as unequal a place today as it has been since the 1920s. For one thing, such a model stands in the way of critiques of American institutions that are built according to the opposite, “Carnegian,” theory—and many American institutions are built according to such a theory.
Take the U.S. Supreme Court, where—as Duke University professor of law Jedediah Purdy has written—the “country puts questions of basic principle into the hands of just a few interpreters.” That, in Taleb’s terms, is bad enough: the fewer people doing the deciding implies a greater variability in outcome, which also means a potentially greater role for chance. It’s worse when it’s considered the court is an institution that only irregularly gains new members: appointing new Supreme Court justices depends whoever happens to be president and the lifespan of somebody else, just for starters. All of these facts, Taleb’s work suggests, implies that selecting Supreme Court justices are prone to chance—and thus that Supreme Court verdicts are too.
None of these things are, I think any reasonable person would say, desirable outcomes for a society. To leave some of the most important decisions of any nation potentially exposed to chance, as the structure of the United States Supreme Court does, seems particularly egregious. To argue against such a structure however depends on a knowledge of probability, a background in logic and science and mathematics—not a knowledge of the history of the sonnet form or the films of Jean Luc Goddard. And yet, Americans today are told that “the left” is primarily a matter of “culture”—which is to say that, though a “cultural left” is apparently possible, it may not be all that desirable.