26 June 2010

Sense and ‘sensibleness’

Have you ever met any upper-class people? I do not mean buffoons, like the Marquess of Bath. They used to be found in the upper echelons of the top banks and oil companies. Contrary to the popular image of them, as churned out by all cultural channels nowadays, they are not as a rule sadistic and ruthless, at least no more than the average person, nor are they “nice but dim”. What they do tend to exhibit is a particular kind of psychology which is difficult to define but which, around here, we call “impersonal”. This term can be misunderstood, since it is certainly not meant to imply saintliness or even lack of self-interest. An ability to see the bigger picture, enlightened self-interest, cynicism, not insisting too much on superficial rationality of a kind that can easily be proved to others, willingness to back hunches — these are some of the possible features, but it is not a foolproof description. The easiest way to understand it is to see it in action.

Describing its opposite, or absence, pejoratively as ‘individualism’ is however even more misleading, since both things could be called individualistic, the second being a rather superficial and corrupted version.

The correlation with class (and sex) is statistical. In my opinion Margaret Thatcher had it more than the Foreign Office’s Lord Carrington; Major did not exactly have it in spades; Blair had it a bit — but not nearly enough for someone trying to have a big impact on the global stage. Dr Brown? Probably not much (an ideological commitment is not the same thing) but he was a little hard to read. Mr Cameron? Potentially yes, I would say at a guess, but we have still to see how much substance is behind the style.

For someone who often stresses the significance of IQ, you may find it surprising that I believe, in certain key areas, more than a certain amount of intelligence is less important for doing the job than being able to think and act impersonally. In any case, ‘cleverness’ is nowadays conceived in rather stereotypical and mechanistic terms.

What happens when you hate the ethos of impersonality, or the trappings that tend to go with it (‘privilege’, confidence, independence), so much that it is squeezed out? How are things then run? In what superficially seems like a sensible, rational way: plenty of consultation, training, consensus, checklists, expert input. In some areas, like running a bus service, this may work reasonably well. But in any context where you need to consider reality in the broadest sense — risks, the possibility of unforeseen events, unpredictability, limitations of human psychology — it is potentially disastrous.

The collapse and semi-permanent degradation of the global banking system is merely the first serious large-scale symptom of the new landscape. Others will follow, I am fairly certain.* Because a mediocracy cannot — or refuses to — understand impersonality, let alone how to engender it, the response in each case will (ironically) involve calls for more of the alternative. Consultations, checklists, training, rules, supervisory committees, etc. etc.

Incidentally, cutting pay, benefits or bonuses, or introducing penalties, are almost certainly not ways to encourage more impersonal behaviour.

• I am not meaning to suggest that the upper class are admirable in every way. Their habit of soldiering on and never complaining, for example, works well when running an empire, but in the face of destruction — their own and that of an ethos worth preserving — it seems irresponsible. Nowadays, the upper class have largely retired from public life and descended to hedonism. A brief account of their decline and fall can be read here. The fact that in many of their traditional strongholds (e.g. banking, stockbroking, politics) they are no longer to be found raises the question, where are they? Have they perhaps emigrated to Spain?

• On the subject of social class and behavioural patterns, I think there is something to be said for bourgeois manners, although they have become somewhat unfashionable. BP's boss refers rather tactlessly to "little people", while Mr Obama's rabble-rousing rants demonstrate that the highest office in the world can be held in an even more mediocratic style than Dubya's. English football supporters boo the England team, and star player Wayne Rooney responds by snarling at them. No doubt everyone's blokey credentials are satisfyingly confirmed, and all can mooch around like tigers with injured paws. A little more politeness might have produced better relations and, in turn, better morale and hence better performance all round. Do people not realise that etiquette was invented to save us from the Hobbesian state? Perhaps that little piece of history should be added to the curriculum.

• Why has football (“le foot”) become such a big deal? The emotional involvement of almost every self-respecting male verges on hysteria. Surely some of these people could once not have cared less? Sarkozy is as bad as Blair in terms of politicising sports by getting embroiled. Apparently, “l’honneur de la France” is at stake.
I suppose it is all so loaded partly because soccer is now the only significant arena which, tacitly at least, is accepted as men-only. Every other area, including former gentlemen's clubs, has been invaded by women, and it is now obligatory to acknowledge their egalitarian claims, even if in practice men still find subtle ways of subverting them. (I understand there will soon be more women in the nation's workforce than men.) In many cases, one feels, the invasion has been more about asserting theoretical rights, and conforming to an ideology, than about women actually wanting to do (formerly) masculine things.
Football, then, is all that remains for the hapless male to regard as his territory, free from having to compete with women. That this area has been left as a legitimate exclusion zone is probably because it helps to reinforce the notion that only proletarian versions of masculinity are still to be tolerated.

• I shall of course be supporting England on Sunday. Dare one hope that Mr Lampard will demonstrate his mettle once again?

* Not wishing to alarm anyone, but I note from reviewing previous posts that I suggested 2007 would be the year in which “the merde hits the fan”, and that August 07 was when toxic debt first started causing serious disturbances in the markets. Admittedly I had little idea that the specific area in which a crisis (“red faces ... panic in the streets”) would occur was to be the banking system.

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