Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.

David Runciman is a Little Confused About the Power of Confusion

In reviewing Ferdinand Mount‘s The New Few, or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now (‘Confusion is Power‘, London Review of Books, Volume 34, Number 11, 7 June 2012), David Runciman writes:

James Burnham, author of the The Managerial Revolution (1941) envisaged a post-democratic order in which power was concentrated in the hands of an elite managerial class, who controlled the global forces of production. Burnham supposed that the members of this elite would be made up of scientists and engineers, because knowledge was power. ‘Finance-executives’, as he called them would be reduced to the level of servants of this new breed of supermen. But in fact it’s the finance executives who have come to rule the roost, and it’s often the scientists and engineers who are forced to do their bidding. That’s because knowledge is not always power. Sometimes confusion is power as well. The finance executives don’t really know what they are doing, as we have discovered in the last few years. But they have created a world that no one else understands either, which gives them all the freedom they need. [links added]

Runciman is a little confused here. He is right, of course, that scientists and engineers are, today, at the beck and call of the suits. But he is wrong about why. If confusion is power and a more important and significant kind of power than knowledge, then scientists and engineers would still sit at the top of the pile. The confusion they can create via the technical obfuscation that is theirs to summon up and dispense is immense. Beyond the barest details very little is known of the computing devices and the mathematical sciences that so animate, regulate and populate our modern world; there is ample opportunity here for the deployment of confusion. But the technical wizardry of the scientist and the engineer is always trumped by the knowledge of the suit. It is the right kind of knowledge, that of: how power works, how to delude and beguile, how to manipulate, how to accrue power and hold on to it.

If a finance executive does not know what he is doing it is because he is dealing with the products of scientists i.e., the quants–financial engineers perhaps–who have devised the terribly complicated financial instruments that Runciman has in mind. The financial executive has ‘created a world that no one else understands’ via these technical aids. But it is what he does with the power granted him by those aids that shows how he is in possession of an even more significant knowledge.

For contrary to Runciman’s assertion, knowledge still remains power. It is not confusion that trumps power; it is that one kind of knowledge can trump another, that the kind of knowledge needed to rule the world is not just technical or scientific; it is the knowledge of what makes human beings susceptible to the right of kind of inducement. It is the knowledge of human weaknesses and greed, so that the ersatz, tinsel, fragile world of the financier, his artful promises and the visions he peddles of the soft life can come to seem so alluring to those that fall for it.

This is why the suit will trump the scientist and the engineer.