By Michael Brenner
A divide between elites and the populace is a recurrent feature of every large, organized society. That has been true without exception since the abundance generated by the mastery of agriculture/husbandry encouraged the growth and elaboration of early Neolithic bands. There are no known exceptions; but there are variations and modalities. A key to elite dominance always was the superior group’s monopoly – or quasi monopoly – of crucial knowledge. Before the introduction of writing, it took oral form. The subjects covered matters temporal as well as sacred. In those cultures, like Hinduism, where most practical matters were sacrilized, access to religious materials – the mythic eschatology, prayers, rituals – was crucial to consolidating the power of a priesthood in alliance with warrior castes. That alliance, overt or tacit, has been the foundation stone of elite rulership and economic control throughout history. Only over the past 250 years has it been challenged by the radiating influence of the Western Enlightenment.
Once sacred knowledge, supplemented by crucial profane knowledge, e.g. hydraulics, elementary mechanics, basic commercial accounting, was written down – first in hieroglyphs and then, about 1,800 BCE, in alphabetized languages – literacy became the principal instrument by which to consolidate elite power and privilege. Education aimed at expanding the number of citizens with the ability to access foundational materials never served the interests of the elites. On the contrary, they made systematic efforts to restrict it. Anthropologists and historians believe that literacy rates in ancient states was somewhere around 2%. In Greece of antiquity and parts of the Roman Empire it may have risen higher in the single digits – plus, perhaps, a few other ‘semi-literate’ persons possessing just a rudimentary knowledge and an inability to compose written communications. Scribes and town criers filled the gaps. In some cultures that remained the case right into the 20th century.
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In India, Brahmins strove to reserve access to the holy texts exclusively to themselves. Mass ignorance of what they said, their stipulations and justifications, was a powerful tool of social direction and social control. Until very recently, education was therefore the key to social advancement – which in Hindu India was almost always collectively by caste redesignation. The way it worked was that a low-ranked caste would use the knowledge – profane and sacred mixed – acquired by a critical mass of literate young to reshape their practices and self-presentation to conform to the standards of higher castes – and thereby to provide the religious cum (contrived) historical justifications for the new, preferred status. In effect, striving to get reassigned within the cast hierarchy rather than escaping caste identity. In a paradoxical inversion of the process, after independence incentives were created for marginal castes at the boundary of low Shudra and Untouchable to accept the latter status since the constitution incorporated ‘affirmative action” principles that reserved places in universities and government employment for persons from the qualifying “Scheduled castes.” Dalits of India Unite! You have Nothing to Lose But Your Schedules.
The British Raj saw advantage in perpetuating the traditional system of mass illiteracy. They rightly believed that an illiterate populace was easier to manipulate and to control. In cynical fashion, they restricted education to the slim cadre of natives they needed to administer the Raj, to secure it, and to perform supportive economic functions. In 1900, Viceroy Lord Curzon gave a state of the Raj speech in which he estimated literacy at 3% (1% in English). In 1947, it was only 11%. The Rajas and Nizams who ruled the native states saw their own interest in the same parsimonious approach to education. In other words, the part of the population with access to written knowledge under the Raj circa 1900 was roughly the same as it had been in the time of the Mauryas or Guptas two millennia earlier and lower than it had been in Ctesiphon or Antioch or Taxila. British strategy for holding India’s vast masses under their thumb was simplicity itself: keep them dumb and divided. Playing caste against caste, sect against sect, has been the trump card of Indian rulers since time immemorial – continuing right until today under Mr. Modi who is a master of the game.
In the end, their fatal error was to underestimate the ability of a politically astute, prideful few to arouse the inert masses.
The Christian Church went one step further. In the West, the Vatican for 1,500 years kept the Holy Scripture sealed in a language that only a handful of the Faithful could understand – much less read. (Economists these days achieve a similar purpose by writing in unintelligible Algebra). It served the proselytizing and institution-building goals of the early Church leaders to minimize actual reading of the Gospels. After all, there is no mention of the Trinity, of Purgatory, a celibate priesthood, or an organized church of any kind. Nor the misogyny that was inserted by calculating forgers- e.g. the entirety of Timothy I and late accretions to Corinthians 14. Women deacons are not referenced. The Gospel writers go so far as to offer divergent accounts of the Resurrection and two actually ‘overlook’ the Virgin Birth. Much of this dogma was propagated because early believers, including Paul, wrongly expected the Second Coming to be imminent. When the Day of Judgement didn’t arrive as anticipated by the Apostles (all of whom were illiterate as probably was Jesus), the master builders (all literate) took over to lay the foundation for an elaborate religious structure. How inconvenient if literate masses could notice all these awkward truths of the Gospel texts – while lacking the necessary training in exegesis to finesse them. Even more inconvenient were they to realize that Church leaders showed very little inclination to observe the teachings of Jesus in their own conduct.*
Organized religion’s sustaining logic broke down slowly in the West with the introduction of the printing press. Literacy spread with increasing rapidity over the next three and a half centuries. Technological, economic, demographic developments forced the pace. The United States was the pacesetter. By the Civil War, illiteracy was the exception rather than the norm, only approximately 10% of the white population could not read and write. Of course, subsequent waves of immigrants knew only their native language – and some were illiterate even in it. The former condition was compensated by newspapers in foreign languages that had a substantial readership right into the early post-war era. Today, Chinese and Spanish language papers are readily available in all large cities. It also is noteworthy that literacy was provided by secular, civic schools – a principle ignored by the current misguided Charter School movement.
Neuroscience in recent years has uncovered an intriguing new aspect of illiteracy. It appears that the mental process of acquiring literacy actually reconfigures elements of the brain’s neurological networks. Physiologically, the brain of a literate person is different from that of an illiterate. An important corollary effect of this transformation is to markedly enhance the mind’s analytical capabilities. In short, a literate person is more discerning of others’ behavior and intentions – potentially more skeptical. Hence, the interest of elites in keeping the masses not only ignorant but more inclined to conform to ritualized group norms. Something they have sensed instinctively. Later, they perfected indoctrination as the counter to the disrupting effects of literacy.
In the post-modern societies of the ‘West,’ the potential for social control through indoctrination seems unlimited. How else do you explain the behavior of millions who act voluntarily in ways that harm their well-being? On a routine basis, we observe phenomena of this sort that set new marks for credulity and illogically. The most glaring example is provided by the 73 million Americans who voted for the odious, mentally disturbed Donald Trump who had shown pronounced Fascist tendencies over the 4 previous years. That’s 48% of the electorate. By contrast, the Nazi Party never scored more than 33%; Mussolini’s Fascists never participated in a fair and open election. In Spain, in the crucial 1936 election, the far Right represented by the anti-Republic Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA), which was the precursor for Franco’s Falangists, gained 34%. In Austria, the last free election of 1930 gave the proto-Fascist parties (loosely defined) about 21% of the vote. In Romania, the Fascist Iron Guard, under the label of the Legion Party at the 1937 parliamentary elections, came in third with 15.5% of the vote. What all those countries experienced was Triumph of the Fascist Will. Let’s also bear in mind the turbulence of the times – two decades of economic distress, the destruction and dislocation of WW I, post-war grievances over Versailles, irredentism, Communists, etc. as compared to trauma-free United States circa 2020. Perhaps, the future film version of our times should be titled “Wackos Without Cause.”2
The susceptibility of the literate to indoctrination is even more evident in the financial/commercial sphere. Consider the ease with which business plants an appetite for products which the buyers don’t need, desired only yesterday, and whose very existence they learned of last week – like the latest electronic gadget ‘upgraded’ every year or so. The godfather to the refinement of modern advertising/public relations techniques was Freud’s nephew Bernays who, settled in New York, drew on the insights regarding group psychology of his uncle. (The main elements of Bernays’ strategic philosophy are conveyed in this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOUcXK_7d_c)
It also is noteworthy that the American Advertising Council awarded its 2008 prize for the best campaign to Barack Obama’s Presidential run.
A general rise in the population’s access to information and, thereby, potentially sharper analytical skills is met by elite rulers with more subtle means of maintaining subordination. An infinite variety of entertaining distractions of course. The propagating of beliefs that encourage uncritical loyalty is the crudest but most effective method; e.g. nationalism, dogmatic ideologies like Fascism or Communism, fundamentalist sects Islamic/Hebrew/Christian/Hindu/Buddhist/Shinto. Crowds (physical or by electronic association) are more susceptible to manipulation that solitary individuals. Even more prosaic doctrines can overcome reason: e.g. “government is the problem not the solution;” or, “there is no such thing as society” (Thatcher). Both of these fatuous formulations have shaped mainstream attitudes despite their contradiction of all common sense and experience.
In historical perspective, the central point is the very high correlation between the rise in literacy and the erosion of social domination by religious and aristocratic elites. Literacy also was favorable to, and an underpinning for popular sovereignty, i.e. democracy. (The emergence of non-traditional tyrannies is another story with its own logic and dynamics as briefly noted above). New economic elites, though, replaced the old elites and used their financial/commercial power to control public life as well as the distribution of wealth and privilege. Their dominance was curbed, and in respects broken, after more than a century of struggle, with the triumph of social democracy in the West after World War II. The stunning regression that we have witnessed over the past 40 years represents an unprecedented, massively successful counter-revolution. Until the last few years, it has received remarkably little attention. That phenomenon itself is a big part of the explanation. (Thomas Palley provides an illuminating interpretation of this historic phenomenon in the attached article).
In broad terms, one can hypothesize that the reassertion of elite control in an age of mass literacy has two causes. One is largely cultural: the degeneration of mainstream culture into multifarious forms of juvenile entertainment whose social purpose is not very different from the Roman “bread & circuses” strategy. Social media are the companion of the transformation. Admittedly, today the sponsors of these mostly baneful innovations are more participant corrupters rather than cynical conspirators. Money is the driving force. This comprehensive development, in turn, deepens the widespread anomie that is a distinguishing trait of atomized, highly mobile modern societies. Egotism, self-absorption, perverse individualism sap the sense of community and collective purpose which are the life-blood of liberal democracy. So, we all may be literate but sealed off in our own little corners where we look at and read that which we, along with a like-minded cohort, find comforting and convenient. Michelle Obama was correct is saying that most people know more about the food they are eating than they know of what their government is doing. The same might be said of Fantasy Football. Hence, a version of mass literacy marked by studied ignorance, one never imagined by elites, has emerged that serves to sustain their rulership.
Our elites are the product of the same general conditions. More important, they recognize that the public’s disengagement from public life serves their purpose. Foremost, the striving to get elected (re-elected). Then, once in office, to do pretty much what you please – for personal gain, for special interests with whom they have reciprocating relationships, or for ideological reasons – without having to worry too much about close scrutiny of their misdeeds. For potential scrutinizers have neither the inclination, knowledge nor critical skills to do the job. The result is a serious degeneration in the level of public discourse, in accountability and in the caliber of people who rule us. The political elites who occupy high office might be skillful manipulators, but they also are persons of little talent or ability. Just compare our current corps of Senators with the roster from the 1960s-1980s. Years ago, a rather dull Senator from Nebraska, one Roman Hruska, argued on the Senate floor that there was nothing wrong with appointing mediocracies to positions of high office since the vast majority of citizens were themselves mediocre and deserve representation. The cup he imagined has runneth over.3 As one acerbic observer has commented: “Public life these days is swarmed by people better suited to play second fiddle in an Isosceles Quartet.”
Today’s popular culture is unique. It provides not just escapist distraction and diversion. As exemplified by so-called ‘realty’ shows, it contrives a picture of society that substitutes deformed images for fact. Instead of fiction heightening our awareness of who we are by distilling features of lives and persons, it does the opposite. It purveys falsehood as documentary truth. The popular mind, thereby, no longer can tell one from the other. More Americans, at this moment, believe that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD and played a role in 9/11 than know that all but one of the culprits were Saudis.
So, what we are witnessing is a closing of the gap between elites and the masses – by a totally unforeseen route. Literacy gives everybody equal access to knowledge of all kinds. Historically, that compression stemmed from the growing aptitudes of the general population. Nowadays, it is occurring due to the lowering of the aptitudes of those who rule us. An odd sort of progress.
Think of the presidential debates. In the inaugural Nixon-Kennedy debates, linguists judged the level of speech at the 9th or 10th grade. The best estimates of today’s debates place it at the 5th grade level – that includes the grade inflation of Trump’s verbal ejaculations. Mastery of subject matter tells a similar story. Go back and listen to Nixon and Kennedy on You Tube. Even more revealing, there are recordings of speeches made by the candidates in the historic 1912 election: Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and Eugene Debs. Here are the references, below. It is not clear whether these are public recordings or studio recordings of speeches that were read. Literacy, obviously, is a relative concept. (The full and complete set is available at Amazon)
Hence, the great and unique incongruities of our times: enormous differences in wealth and living standards/work conditions co-existing with a formal equality of political rights and a common culture.4 The last condition, rooted in universal literacy, is manifest widely in tastes and preference scales as witness the shared celebrity culture – for example. For the first time in history, the dominant power elites and their subordinate populations speak the same (debased) language – metaphorically and literally. The outcomes, though, are little different.
*A possible further embarrassment was rooted in the Gospel words themselves. The early Latin composition of the New Testament Gospels (i.e. before Jerome’s translation from the Greek in 390) was written in a rude, ungrammatical language which lacked authoritative style. So what, though. Saint Paul himself had proclaimed that the classical “wisdom of the world was foolishness to God.” (I Corinthians 3:19); and alleged that Jesus himself had pronounced “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the intelligence of the intelligent.” (1 CORINTIANS 1:9)** Rudimentary knowledge of the spoken word sufficed to bring one to Christ. As Tertullian put it: “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” (On The Persecution Of Heretics VII) One had Faith, that was enough. And ignorance meant power for the Church. Augustine et al would call that a “win-win” situation – were they to use today’s parlance. The Faithful get a pass into Paradise; the clerics get to run the show here on Earth ‘til Judgement Day doth part them. For more than 1,500 years, Church authorities – in alliance with temporal powers – offered that lure of Eternal life in exchange for obedience and subordination. An avowal of faith, tantamount to a State of Grace, required only one other simple act, of which everybody is capable, in order to reserve a place in Paradise – dying. These days, the puzzle is: what do dominant elites offer for our present-day, more qualified subordination and passivity? A vicarious celebrity existence and fantasies of joining the 1%? (There is no gainsaying that the convenient arrangement between Church and flock did ease the anguish of hundreds of millions over the centuries as they confronted the human predicament – especially among the illiterate, and the downtrodden).
** This remark, if correct, and others in a similar vein (especially those in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), makes sense if we view Jesus’ spiritual orientation as more akin to Buddhist or Daoist teachings than to Hebrew eschatology, the Islamic or, indeed, the Christian as handed down to us by the Church Fathers.
1. By comparison: “Information from the mid- and late nineteenth century suggests that 30 to 45 percent of the men and from 2 to 10 percent of the women in China knew how to read and write. This group included the fully literate members of the elite and, on the opposite pole, those knowing only a few hundred characters.”
2. In the modern era, the strongest far Right Party has been France’s National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen succeeded by his daughter Marine Le Pen. On two occasions, its candidate for the Presidency made it into the run-off round. In 2002, Le Pen Sr. (rightly called a neo-Fascist) gained 18% of the vote; in 2017Marine le Pen won 26% in the first round and 33% in the ballotage against Macron – running on a more moderate platform. In 2022, the numbers are: 23% & 42%. In the last legislative elections (2012, 2017, 2022), the Le Pens’ party has won 14%, 13% and 19%.
3. The same trends are visible elsewhere in the developed West. North of the border, the devolution from Pierre Trudeau to Andrew is dizzying. Britain, too, is an outstanding example – it is about as far down this devolutionary path as America. Its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, emulated Trump down to the smallest gesture – including the primate hair. His cabinet, which would warm the heart of Roman Hruska, featured a Minister whose sole claim to fame was having won the award as the country’s Fireplace Salesman of the Year – twice. We do not know whether he shares the belief of his American counterpart who claims that the Egyptian pyramids were built by Aliens to store grain – nor whether he has injected himself with bleach to ward off the Corona Virus.