a useful tradition in the service of democracy
Whenever stupidity is talked about in bourgeois society, it’s to attack the individuals in whom someone wants to have found it. It counts as a defect that can be attested to not only in others, but also in oneself. Modern people convinced of their shrewdness give themselves a lot of credit for knowing exactly under which circumstances they reveal their diagnosis of others or themselves. This has something to do with the finality of the diagnosis. Someone who is labeled stupid has been written off: he is unfit, either for his own concerns or the services that others expect from him. Arguing with such a person is not worth it, trying to improve through criticism and help is futile – because of the identified defect. Whether expressed as resigned self-incrimination or as an accusation – the finding of “stupidity” is very radical. It is owed to the view that dimwits lack an ability that the brainy possess. This ability is called intelligence, and the question of its presence or absence is elitist.
Children, like adults, quite often make mistakes when they ponder and talk about something, but that doesn’t mean they lack something possessed by those who point out their mistakes. Rather, criticism is based on the fact that it arises from the same activity as the criticized mental performance. Only if no effort is made to spot the error of the incorrect thoughts, instead of trying to correct them and labeling them as contrary to reason, which they simply are, the mean and empty diagnosis is that the author of those thoughts is not capable of thinking. The failure to grasp a matter is then a result of a characteristic that has effects and gives good reason to appropriately scorn the handicapped person stricken with this characteristic.
This conclusion, which people on all levels of the social hierarchy want to make over and over again, not only testifies that stupidity is a widespread thing. The crazy sorting, which is carried out just as much by servants as by masters, proves the completely untheoretical origin of the finding of stupidity. Obviously, quite a lot of people feel themselves called upon to make a comparison between themselves and others and to organize this in the form of an intelligence test. However, like the inventors of psychological experiments of the same name, it is by no means their concern to get to know what intelligence is – but rather the exciting question of who is granted it. The explorers in matters of “stupidity” seem to be less interested in the nonsense that is represented around them; rather, they look at the prerequisites which others must have in order to be up to their level or to please them. And they very self-confidently confuse the existence of intellect with the prerequisites for it – of a “good” that really everyone has, although rather different uses tend to be made of it.
The yardstick that is so resolutely applied on the market of opinions and ideas in order to classify everyone from the President to a co-worker on a scale of mental capability looks at aptitude. The representatives of both trivial and higher ideas are thereupon examined whether their views are suitable for dealing with their assigned tasks and coping with them. Not the thoughts but their relationship to success is examined, which is by no means simple. Finding out whether and how a thought proves itself “in real life” or “in practice” requires one to have already registered and understood it. Moreover, the reasonable answer to the question about the usefulness of an idea is never the result of a comparison of theory and practice; only different views can be compared anyway, so that strictly speaking the approval or rejection of all types of assertions does not cite “practice,“ but the explanation of the idea that one has laid out.
If it has now become normal to misunderstand this comparison in such a way that stupidity and understanding are distinguished according to how they suit the world and its usual activities, then some people – not a few, by the way – confuse thinking and intelligence with adaptation. If they please others with the request “be reasonable!” this is their way of advising them against the “stupidity” of following a thought that, put into action, causes harm in the bourgeois hustle and bustle. The same procedure proudly calls itself “realism,” and its admirers invoke “reality.”
Unfortunately, not only is there a mistake in such a view of intelligence and “stupidity” which has already found its way into scientific libraries. (A whole legion of behavioral and other scientists insist that thinking is a substitute – and a bad one at that – for instinct and an adaptation performance, despite the Eiffel tower, Mercedes Diesels and moon rockets). This mistake also wants to come into effect as an imperative, and it is undeniable that significant missionary successes have been achieved.
Where understanding is measured by whether it shows the effort of its initiators to stand the test of adapting to “realities,” calculating thought counts as wisdom. Vice versa, stupidity is not conceived as a systematic breach of correct thought, but always ascertained whenever a thought does not express any calculation from beginning to end. “Good ideas” distinguish themselves by the fact that they show their usefulness. Either they were “successful” – then, as in the case of theoretical achievements in areas of the natural sciences, their importance is acknowledged even by people who have no notion of their content. Subsequently, it is pretended that enthusiasm for their application would be the same as the knowledge they represent. Or they are presented as the discovery of brilliant recipes for success – then, as in the case of the humanities, they indeed do not explain the matter they deal with; but instead they praise their object as functional and ascribe great achievements to them which contribute to the solution of “problems“ which would bother humanity if these ideas were absent. In this respect, “the human” is the center of the second department of modern science because it is due to “the human” and “the human’s” good and bad qualities alike that everything from money to history to “society” and its community is the way that it is like it is.
Correct as well as wrong thoughts have equal rights under the point of view of their usefulness. Whether one discovers natural laws and uses his knowledge as a means to make nature useful – or whether one repeats their usefulness to God and “society” and teaches his environment good manners with invented “objective necessities,” in each case the bourgeois understanding reveals the achievements of the mind which it aims for. He is keen on messages that provide him the certainty of having to grapple only with understandable necessities. Once he gets used to demanding that each thought should prove helpful in getting along with the rest of the world, an adult person expects the production of prejudices from thinking. Someone who insists that it should offer a benefit to be knowledgeable about a matter wants to learn about each matter that it is useful, and in what way, to him and his equals.
This procedure, which helps somebody believe that NATO was invented thanks to good relations with one’s favorite shopping centers, is idealism. Its numerous representatives occasionally subscribe to the maxim: “Knowledge is power.” However, whenever they run into a piece of knowledge where – true or not – they did not find something in it that could be useful to them, they quickly become “realists” again. As such, they are enemies of thinking, something they express with a thought from Goethe's “Faust”: “Grey, my friend, is all theory!”
The productive force that produces stupidities is – psychologically considered – a very childish attitude. This obeys the pattern of practical feeling, which is how the will of a child not yet overly provided with knowledge gets on the nerves of his surroundings. The elementary question, which dominates the younger years and comes back in force in the later ones, is simple: “Does that suit me” or “am I feeling well?” It is based on a comparison of sensations, feelings and needs with the circumstances in which one sees oneself – and the answer is: “pleasant/unpleasant.” Between the loopy phases of bourgeois life, this sort of self-searching and self-finding doesn’t play much of a role with halfway useful people, although one must admit that it attains some honors in psychological support meetings. People really have more important things to do than forever determining their moods, which they have anyway. However, bourgeois minds are always busy embellishing their thinking as a continuation of practical feeling by other means.
Calculating thinking is constantly busy coming up with a few words of wisdom which allow the effort to adapt in an inhospitable “society” seem worthwhile. And indeed not only for the minority who because of their advantages at least have a reason to praise capitalism as a reasonable system with all “althoughs and buts.” Especially the less well off do not lack the ability to theoretically prove that they have it good to some extent. They take to heart both the idealistic untruths about all the institutions of the bourgeois circus as well as the realistic lies about “necessities” which can’t be changed. As if they do not want it to let it be said that they do something wrong at their own expense when they participate in it, they boost their minds in order to show themselves as being by turns content and disappointed. This results in rather a lot of stupidities which apparently are necessary in order to draw up the pleasing balance sheet again and again that one first knows the ropes and secondly is in control of the situation. And for this self-satisfaction produced by means of thinking, which is always accompanied by dissatisfaction with others, the intellectual tradition supplies almost inexhaustible help.
In order to contribute something to the course of history that is guaranteed to be deep and heavy, the democratic spirit helps itself to its own tradition. This tradition certainly goes back far. This apparently has to do with the fact that the “value” searched for in each thought is determined apart from the knowledge it contains. Where calculation with thinking neither bothers with truth nor aims at a material benefit, but all the more tallies a moral gain, the oldest musings are at the same time the most trustworthy. With the natural sciences, where it is about knowledge, it can be assessed – solely by recounting the lines which knowledge cites from ancient sources in today’s textbooks – what “the elders” were capable of. The philosophers of the human-all-too-human see that quite differently. For their teachings, a wrong commonplace can’t be old enough to repeat – and to demonstrate oneself as keeper and preacher of the good, the old, the beautiful. Who has ever maintained before or after the saying of “zoon politikon” that humans are an Isolani? At most, the other philosopher with his derivation of the state from “lupus”! And he is no less held in high esteem.
In other words: ideas are all the more successful, the more useful they are deemed by the anti-knowledge worldview priests. Aphorisms that once “justified” the necessity of slavery and Roman war campaigns still do today – although they were coined for something completely different. That they serve just as well today for some educated people as an answer to the question “why must it be like that?” only testifies to the falsehood of the thought as well as the need for good “reasons” suitable for every crap. Plato’s illiterately inspired dialogues and the Holy Scripture are approved bestsellers in the 20th century and by no means only out of philological interest. Skepticism and decency, as well as rule and stupidity, probably can’t be endorsed more beautifully. But not more stupidly either.
On the other hand, modern intellects also know how to downgrade from tradition. They know that Marx has become outdated, although the object of his theory happily continues to exist and Capital bumped off a huge number of people. In such concerns, another crass trait of modern being in the know comes into its own. If state appointed scholars make a distinction between useful and useless because they do not “understand” the truth of criticism, that’s all right. In the end, their power of judgment is confirmed by their salaried usefulness, so that a due portion of faith in science lines up. Who says something says a thousand times more than what he says…
What everybody says when making sense for themselves of democracy, in which everyone has their rights and some don’t get anything from capital, is therefore far from underrated. One may and even should believe in a free long life, equality is a basic value; one may even doubt whether it is already “realized.” If not, that also doesn’t matter. Because what democracy leaves undone is accomplished at the latest by the grim reaper who knocks for everyone, “the king as well as the beggar.” Until then, either the call applies for “solidarity” or the question of realists: “Does anyone live in the world who doesn’t take advantage?” Pointing out that the truth of this view leads to class conflict is futile. Also the praise of experience, particularly a bad one, is a stupidity from whose damage no one ever becomes the wiser. Sacrifice and patience are one thing – it’s another if someone at the bar says that Rome was not built in a day. That “appearances are deceptive” is again no guarantee that interpreters of this song no longer let themselves be deceived. They only pretend and dissociate themselves from prejudices only to confirm them – they would never “lump them all together” and there are also decent Russians. The “inter-generational contract” is also always in danger. The bill “the youth fights that the old man may enjoy” (Goethe) in fact always needs a state which makes sure that the youth also has virtue. On the other hand, socialization theory has proved where the youth get their bad manners from: “He who sins before a child, sins double.” One really knows a lot about other people at the end of the millennium: “Nothing is so hard as man’s ingratitude.” And as a liberal preface for a strong “but” which guarantees the wrong ones are held responsible for one’s own concerns, one must say: “Each to his own taste.” The whole world wants to be deceived, you’re going too far, ill gotten goods prosper enormously, and there’s two sides to everything.
The two sides of folksy stupidity lie in the fact that it can be believed by some without harm, but by most only as a supplemental program to their practical concerns. So the latter want to know about their situation; a situation in which work by no means drives away useless thoughts but necessitates useful lies for hanging in there. People who declaim “life – a struggle” are, by the way, not in struggle with their enemies, but participate in the system by summoning all their might. They are also capable of constantly disproving another stupidity in advance by giving their own example: “Wise after the event.”
The fun with attitudes cast into proverbial worldly wisdoms, which substitute for a consciousness of one’s own situation, is unfortunately no fun at all. All free opinions regarding right and wrong, merit and income, wealth and health, competition and occupational hierarchy, state and family which are reducible to a national treasure chest of dictums from bygone times, prove only one thing: Stupidity is not the alternative to intelligence, but its biased use. It is the theoretical manner of translating oppressive constraints, one’s own lack of success, the sacrifice that one experiences, into a general necessity. The content of the results of this thinking belong in the sphere of morality, its purpose being the means of compliance. This spirit is brought to people much more efficiently today than parents and grandparents were capable of spreading in former times. The tabloids and other thoroughly congenial media ensure that each crime, each tax increase and each state visit will be examined with the appropriate criteria. They throw into circulation the obsession with justice for the victims of law and thereby set the standards for criticism. Judgments about the deeds and concerns of the entrepreneurs, the state and the armed forces, but also of mothers, teachers and athletes, are replaced by the imperative to wish that they would do their jobs well in all the areas of bourgeois conflicts of interest. Objections which announce everyone’s right to have others fulfill their duties are not only permitted, but promoted. The politicians should know how to be strong leaders, the armed forces and their personnel should perform better on their part; of course, the pre-arranged contribution to the national communal project also applies to the lower ranks, and politicians on the campaign trail have long praised themselves for announcing and pushing through the cruelest sacrifices. Certainly, this type of public education can only entangle subjects who insist with “the force of habit” (also a nice idea) that their leaders and beneficiaries provide their social tasks with just as much “responsibility” and zeal as they muster in decency and success.
So it ultimately can’t be overlooked that the rational reproach of stupidity differs somewhat from the elitist declaration of mental incapacity. It is just nothing more than a criticism of the bad habit of interpreting one’s own situation with wrong thoughts in such a way that one remains an obedient pawn of state and capital.
The higher nonsense is a completely different story. The professional, foreign word-peppered stupidity of modern science has come into being out of the spirit of justification. The intellectual part of state power considers it a duty to provide a proof that the real state, money and “the economy,” institutions ranging from the efficient selection process of education to the military which secures the rights of the nation abroad by force, are reasonable because they are necessary – for providing this proof.
And the dogmas of bourgeois science and philosophy pop out accordingly. What has been put into effect only through violence, class struggle and war becomes “justified” from A to Z by human needs, human nature and their species’ own morality. The basic ideas of these teachings are passed down to this very day in the universities. They are based on an image of humanity specifically tailored to each discipline, whereby the requirements of the respective humans are said to have found appropriate answers in the political rule, the general “society,” it’s education system, psychological treatments, history and culture. Even today, this thinking does not need to worry that its relatedness to religion will be raised as an objection against it – some disciplines happily report the relevant parallels of their teleology with the Christian worldview. These sciences have got themselves and their relation to the rest of the nation into trouble through their own progress. Once it becomes free science and is only intent on looking at everything from social security to literary history as ingenious means for an only fictitiously existing public interest, the guild has resorted to a secondary trade. In the certainty that their interpretation of objects in culture and the education tradition will become viewed as obligatory, thinkers are keen on making their theories indisputable. Instead of placing them in opposition to contrary views and leading a debate over the truth of their ideas, today they voluntarily explain that they honor an approach and validate their statements by using methods. They profess skepticism and pluralism, stress that one has to decide on one or the other method – and talk at the academic youth about the pros and cons of the various approaches until it buzzes in their heads. By using their forms of judgment and reasoning, scholars fight truth, and insofar as truth claims objectivity, they label it as dogmatism. What was once an object of theory now forms the occasion for a discussion about the possibilities of forming theories. Techniques of model and hypothesis construction are discussed, and the difficulties with the due comparison with reality follow. So today the unshakeable dogmas of bourgeois prejudiced thinking sink into a jumble of self-created problemitizations whose “freedom” wears itself out therein, in treating the object of former times as a means of science. One does research and teaches about different ways of constructing theoretical necessities which then admittedly do not exist in the world “in such a way.” The indefensible tradition is easily inserted in the ancestors of today’s process technicians.
Despite it all, scientists like to polish up the appearance of being useful. With every opportunity, they step before the public and file for custody over the stuff which they disdain as an object of explanation. Then one says: democracy and literature, school and currency … are in a crisis and must immediately get out of it. A rather complex kind of stupidity, but also a way of considering nothing offered or demanded by the capitalist mode of production as renounceable or expendable: necessity is no longer “understood” logically, but morally.
The third department of stupidity would be easy to get over if it were not long promoted in the form of competitions and quiz pageants. It is just as based on the recognition that only useful knowledge counts; furthermore, that the maintenance of real science (natural science and technology) is in the best of hands and is useful – namely, for state and capital. Finally, it is also checked off that the popular idiocies are well spread among the people.
Obviously, as a reaction to the sorting of humanity according to the “degree of intelligence” that so well suits the selection process in school and the hierarchy of occupations, thus as a reaction to the elitist stupidity formula, some people excluded from education want to prove the opposite. They show others that they too, and themselves above all, are by no means dumb. Without reference – except this psychological one: recognition of an otherwise unimportant, but excellent distinctiveness – to their status in career, state, and family, they learn the facts of a part of the world really unappealing to explain and memorize them exactly. One person learns every Olympic bronze medalist, another the names of kings, yet another the biographical details of Zane Grey or the composers of 400 operettas. In the small and everywhere common “use” of this “knowledge,” which in private takes place as plain bragging, the “motive” becomes just as strikingly clear as the randomness with which one is “well informed.” Here the productive power of the morality that is responsible for stupidity suddenly changes into a psychological fad. In the pub bet over a 30 year old football game, a capital or the composer of a song about the Volga, a form of self-representation plays out and nothing more. In the meantime, this puts people without intellectual pretension but with a special talent on television. That such a thing is transmitted as entertainment shows the neglect of millions of people who otherwise at most complain that they were “denied” admission to the higher nonsense, which they do not understand. Education is seen as a signifier of “superiority” and luxury.
Nobody is lacking intelligence. It is the best distributed “good” in the world. It is only used wrongly, namely, for adaptation. Anyone who has an advantage from this may add to the damage of others with his ridicule. Others should think about their interests – and in order to realize them, understand capitalism. They have the intelligence for this in any case.
[Translated from MSZ 12/85]