Deryck Guyler And His Betters

In his account of his travels through North Wales, Bill Bryson describes how the daily narrow-gauge line to Portmadog left Blaenau Ffestiniog a few minutes before the allegedly corresponding daily bus from Llandudno was scheduled to arrive, and how the operators could by no means be induced to see why it might be a good idea to wait for it. He attributed this to the bubble in which amateur railway operators tended to live, but I have encountered precisely the same thing from Norwegian State Railways. The daily bus that visited all the outlying parts of the district was scheduled to leave Dokka station precisely three minutes before the arrival of the day train from Oslo. It was impossible to see who might have used the bus other than people coming north on the train, who thus arrived at the station just in time to see its rear window in the distance. Leaving three hours before the arrival of its passengers might have been attributed to some sensible reason, but three minutes before, now that was making a statement. I harbour an inner conviction that whosoever understands this statement will at the same time understand something profound and important about our species.

Speaking carelessly, we immediately attribute such situations to something called “stupidity”, without explaining precisely what we mean by this. We cannot take it for granted that the schedulers of the Blaenau Ffestiniog train and the Dokka bus were “stupid” in the sense of being slow of mind. To say that they must be stupid because they have done this thing would be a circular argument; we would need to examine them independently of this stupid decision. It is more probable that they were of normal intelligence, but that some other process was operating upon them, in the same way as people like Eichmann were not personal sadists but rather loving husbands and fathers yoked in some way to atrocious goals.

Such a person only appears “stupid” to us if we make some fatal assumptions, namely that his aims are the same as ours, or the same as everyone’s, or congruent with his job description or the stated purpose of his organisation. Were that the case, then we would have a case of a man who acted in such a way as to negate his own aims and so forth, and we could reasonably shorthand this as “stupid”. But these are truly heroic assumptions. The moment we posit a completely different aim, then we may find that he achieves this aim with a high degree of intelligence.

I read somewhere long ago that you are a fool to think that your boss is stupid, for if he were stupid you would be his boss and not he yours. Your mistake is assuming that his actions are driven by the good of the company, like your own so obviously are. No, you are both out to grind your own axe, and he is clearly doing it better. Even if you are in fact working in the best interests of the company, it will do you no good, as long as his aim is to become your boss. He might, of course, be a perfectly useless boss; his skill-set may consist, not in being your boss, but in becoming your boss. Those are two quite different skills. Your skill-set, on the other hand, may consist in faithfully promoting the interests of the company while failing to understand what he was doing, and in letting him take all the credit for your performance. In what way does this mean that he is stupid, and what does it make you?

Thanks to a decade of reality shows, we probably understand these things better than we used to. Perhaps our babes and sucklings, who are already teaching us to configure our smartphones, can also explain to us how our bus planner’s own economic situation may be improved by having the daily bus leave before the daily train reached it.

And yet, however much we chart self-interest in organisations, we are still missing a piece of the puzzle. Aims may be emotional, too. The transport planner in question might have a personal reason to make this statement about the wickedness of the desire to change from the train to the bus or contrariwise. He might hate the people of Dokka or Llandudno jointly and severally, or he might hate the human race in general; or yet again, he might be motivated not by anything as strong and definite as hatred, but merely obtain all his satisfactions from sabotaging those of others; not only a petty sadist, but a cowardly petty sadist at that, since this type always has some apparently authoritative Rule to hide behind, even if he has only just made it up. The British actor Deryck Guyler used to specialise in playing characters like this, and it has never been done better, because behind those insincere regrets, his spectacles positively glinted with dark joy.

Guyler played characters on the micro level, from petty officials to guardians of the left luggage. The insights we gain from contemplation of his character ought to be apply also to mid-level civil servants, middle management and the professions. What appears to us at first sight to be stupidity or incompetence may be in fact intentional, but driven by motives that simply do not appear in political science and other disciplines outside abnormal psychology. Why are we more prepared to theorise about personality disorder in a man’s private life than in his professional life? Might it be because we are cowed by his academic or institutional authority?

What I am still missing is an analysis of unpleasant emotional satisfactions on the macro level, the movers and shakers. Not even the term “greed” is enough, because it is far too imprecise. “Wealth” is relative, and there are two ways to get it: to acquire money oneself or to deprive other people of it. It follows that the term “greed” can similarly mean a ruthless drive to enrich oneself or a ruthless drive to impoverish others. For the purposes of making oneself feel good, either will serve.

Conventional economics is abandoning its superstition that man is a rational actor, but I doubt that it will ever dare balance the quest for utility with the quest for everyone else’s disutility. In consequence, economic theory will at worst treat the global economic crisis of 2008 as accidental and at best search for positive gains made by what Bentham used to call “Sinister Interests”. My contention, however, is that this is not sufficiently radical, and my suspicion is that the motivation behind the Great Austerity is nothing less than the emotional satisfaction of rich people in beholding the immiseration of their social inferiors. To disguise this unedifying emotion is the mission of conservative magazines and think-tanks.

It should noted that immiseration is actually bad economics. Henry Ford is said to have paid his workers enough to buy the cars they made. The rational businessman wants to have customers who can afford to buy what he is selling. Ah, but what happens when this rational economic desire for markets runs up against the principle that the chiefest delight of the blessed is beholding the torments of the damned? I would suggest that there is a fundamental difference in attitude between the superrich man who makes his pile by selling useful things to ordinary people and the superrich man who makes his pile by ripping everyone off and looting the government. Neither is stupid, they just have different aims.

Posted on December 23, 2013 at 10:02 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

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