- The Mediocrity Complex
For the longest time the watchword on the Left regarding the role of philosophy in the socialist movement was Karl Marx's eleventh thesis on Lugwig [End Page 208] Feuerbach: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it." This was accepted dogma until Slavoj Žižek suggested that we should reject this injunction to change the world without first questioning the ideological coordinates within which our actions are inscribed. His rejoinder was "don't act, think." Alain Deneault would seem to be this type of intellectual, using philosophy to illuminate the reality we thought we were changing. Intellectually situated somewhere between liberal philosophers like Alain de Botton and critical realists of the prewar period like Siegfried Kracauer, Deneault's style is similar to Frankfurt School writers, minus the commitment to Marxism. It is important to say this at the outset because it explains the who, what and why of Deneault's Mediocracy: The Politics of the Extreme Centre. Whereas the title's reference to the "extreme centre" announces a book that is argued along the lines of social critics like Tariq Ali or Chris Hedges, what is presented instead is something similar to William H. Whyte's The Organization Man or Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool, studies that place a particular phenomenon at the centre of a broad-based social critique.
While questions of class inequality and capitalist greed are invoked throughout Mediocracy, Deneault's politics are difficult to specify. What is certain is that he denounces the corruption that is endemic to the existing social order and supports new social movements. The book opens with a short introduction that presents the theme of the book: the fact that the mediocre have taken power. Mediocre people demand that others avoid good ideas, pride in their work, seriousness and passion. Instead, the mediocracy insists that we should be pragmatically willing to follow the existing standards and conform to the state of things. What distinguishes Denault's approach from cultural conservatism and Nietzschean elitism is the essentially sociological nature of his critique. Those who enforce mediocrity are not lazy, stupid or incapable of excellence. They are rather the obedient servants of the social systems that they refuse to question. Indifferent to what they produce, they follow orders and lose sight of their banality. Among the examples provided, a study of the field of education demonstrates that the standard operating procedures of schools make it such that not only are incompetent teachers eliminated from positions of power, so are super-competent teachers whose better student scores causes anxiety to other instructors. This principle of averages extends to all of society, where job security and career advancement is more important than self-confidence and creative innovation. Examples include politicians who work for Wall Street, professors who dismiss student papers that are too theoretical, or economists who insist on endless growth. To take an example that is not presented in the book, the former mayor of New York City and Democratic Party nominee Michael Bloomberg told a journalist from CBS in December 2019 that whereas candidates like Bernie Sanders who raise small donations among the population at large are political careerists, billionaires who make their fortunes by themselves are best able to serve the public good through philanthropy. As Deneault argues, billionaires like Warren Buffet and George Soros who denounce the system that allows their financial speculation to [End Page 209] bring the global economy to ruin nevertheless persevere in their endeavours. Why? Because this kind of behaviour is what characterizes the mediocracy.
Deneault's theme is developed in five chapters that are dedicated to "Knowledge and Expertise," "Trade and Finance," "Culture and Civilization," "Revolution" and "The Politics of the Extreme Centre." Whereas one might expect that the parts of the book are divided along familiar disciplinary categories like education, economics, art and politics, these separate disciplines tend to blend into one another in hazily distinguished chapters. Regardless, Deneault convincingly makes his case against the experts who...