Exceptional candidates please refrain from applying.
by Alain Deneault
Put away your complicated books, since accounting books are now more useful. Don’t be so proud, neither too spiritual, or at ease, since that might put you at risk of seeming arrogant. Mitigate your passions, for they are scary. Above all, please do not present us with a “good idea”, since the paper shredder is full. Widen your pupils, since that piercing look in your eye worries some. Relax your lips and jaw. One must have mushy and weak thought and show it. Talk about yourself while reducing your ego to something meaningless. We should be able to pigeonhole you. Times have changed. There has not been any storming of the Bastille, nothing comparable to the Reichstag fire, and the Russian Cruiser Aurora has not fired a shot against Japan. However, the assault has indeed been successfully launched: the ‘mediocrites’ have risen to power.
The core competency of a mediocre? Knowing how to recognize another mediocre. Together, they organize the back-scratching, curry the favour of a clan that is growing, since birds of feather flock together. The important thing is not so much to avoid the stupidity that counters our image of power. Mediocracy is not a matter of pure incompetence. We do not want unskillful people. One must be able to operate the copy machine, understand a standard form, fill it out without complaining and say Hello at the right time. Médiocrité, in French, is the noun denoting what is average, just as supériorité / superiority and infériorité / inferiority report, that which is upper and lower. There is no such term as moyenneté in French – mediocrity is the middle stage in action, just a bit more than the average. Mediocrity is the middle stage, risen to the rank of authority.
It’s insidious and pathetic, since the mediocre do not sit idle, they believes they are working hard. It takes effort to make a large-scale TV show, complete a research grant from a government agency, design small, attractive yogurt cups with an aerodynamic shape or draft the provisional agenda of a ministerial meeting for the heads of delegations. The average way in which they produce, is not their own. Technical perfection becomes necessary to mask the unbelievable intellectual laziness that is at stake in many conformist faith professions.
We often portray the mediocre as being a minority. For Jean de la Bruyère, the mediocre are, more often than not, a stunned group of individuals that pull out of the game, thanks to their knowledge of gossip and intrigue being shared by those in power. “Celsus is part of the mediocre class, but people in the upper echelons tolerate him; he is not a scholar, but has connections with scholars; he is not so talented, but knows people who are; he is not so skillful, but has the language skills that can help him serve as an informal interpreter. He is also mobile and can move from one place to another”. Now part of the dominant group, the Celsus’ of the world have no one else to imitate but themselves. Their power has been conquered gradually, and more or less unconsciously. Employing the methods of emotional pirates, using favoritism, complacency and collusion, they have gained navigational control of the institutional boats, so to speak.
Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull were the first to show us this structure with the Peter Principle. The relentless sharpness of their thesis: all employees manage to rise to the level of their incompetence. In other words, everyone is promoted until their skills and strengths no longer align with their current position. A shining example: teachers who disregard schedules and know absolutely nothing of the school curriculum, are not given a sign of approval. We would neither tolerate the maverick educator who fundamentally changes the teaching protocol by giving outstanding grades to students in difficulty, and ranking them as the best students of the school.
Max Weber’s conclusion comes to the same conclusion when he discusses the university. Mediocrity is so significant that the institutional choices fall within the realm of random “chance” and “coincidence”. These days, contingency approaches to management and administration play a lead role. “It would be unfair to hold the personal inferiority of faculty members or educational ministries responsible for the fact that so many ‘mediocrites’ undoubtedly play an eminent role at the universities. The predominance of mediocrity is rather due to the laws of human co-operation, especially of the co-operation of several bodies[…]”, as he wrote in Science as a Vocation , published in 1919. To this day, his analysis is still spot-on. The contingency approach to management and administration still controls the institution. The researcher driven by overriding passions, a strong intuition, a sovereign imagination, an understanding of the meaning of work, will only succeed when given grants. Doing so enables him or her to maneuver within the institutional intricacies, where quantitative criteria and patronage issues prevail. These are some of “the external conditions of the academic man’s vocation.”
Mediocracy hence designates the mediocre order, which is held up as a model. The Russian logician, Alexander Zinoviev, describes general aspects in the Soviet regime that seem to share many qualities with liberal democracies. “The highly mediocre ones, end up doing quite well,” and “mediocrity has payoffs,” says Dauber, a character in The Yawning Heights, a satirical novel he secretly wrote in the 1960s. His general premise: “I speak of mediocrity, as a general average. And it is not about success at work, but social success. These are quite different things. […] An institution that begins to function better than the others, inevitably attracts attention. If it is officially confirmed of playing this role, it quickly becomes a trompe l’oeil or an trial test program. It then digresses in turn, into an average experimental trompe-l’oeil. […] Overall, this leads to a downward trend in the level of activity that is below the actual technical possibilities.” What then ensues is an imitation of work that produces an illusion of results. Feigned expertise is a real testimony to this. Mediocracy therefore leads one and all to subordinate all deliberation to arbitrary models as well as fantasized or imagined authorities. The symptoms: this kind of policy has some scratching their heads and playing around with their glasses, as they have seen in the movies; similar as to when a professor vainly asks his doctoral student to “move chapter three to chapter two” so as to justify his or her authority; such as when a film producer insists on how the headlines and captions should be stylized in a film, with which he or she has really nothing to do with, or when an expert is quacking on about economic growth, just to position himself or herself with the rational viewpoint. Some will be sincerely saddened to see these relentless processes, write off some of the best elements of the social, cultural and scientific life. This is done with a hangdog look that seems to say: I myself believe in what you do, unfortunately the comediocrity out there, who think of themselves according to what others might think, do not think like me.
The training of the body is not only using biopower to maintain mediocrity, but also a psychological power in the sense of a training of ideas. Zonoviev: “Faking to work is merely being content with pretending to see results, and more precisely an opportunity to justify the time spent; the verification and judging of the results are made by people involved in this faking, of which they are linked to, and are interested in seeing its perpetuation. ”
Those maintaining and holding onto this power, display the characteristic grin, and are satisfied with generic sayings such as: you have to play the game. In other words, to complacently play by the formal rules and work to communicate the multiple collusions that corrupt the integrity of the process, while masking appearances and deceiving oneself simultaneously. We must pretend to obey to a game that is greater than oneself, when in truth we actively extend the rules at all times, or invent them as needed.
The “expert” is naturally set up as the central figure of the mediocracy. His thinking is never entirely his own, but rather that of reasoning, which is embodied by himself and of course driven by ideological considerations. The expert is working to transform the proposals into objects of knowledge, which are apparently pure – this characterizes his function. That is why we cannot expect him to offer a strong or original proposal. Above all, and this is what Edward Said reproaches him for, in the Reith Lectures produced by the BBC in 1993. This contemporary sophist, paid to think a certain way, is not guided by any form of amateur curiosity – in other words, he is not interested in what he speaks about, but acts in a strictly functionalist framework. “The heaviest threat that weighs in for today’s intellectual, in the West as in the rest of the world, is not the university, neither the development of the suburbs, or the terrible commercialization of journalism and publishing, but rather a whole attitude that I call professionalism.”
These days, the profession, has become so remote to the vocation as understood in the Weberian sense. It is presented socially as a tacit agreement between, on the one hand, the various repositories of knowledge and, secondly, hegemonic powers. Under this contract, the first ones involved, supply without much effort, and without spiritual commitment, the practical or theoretical data need to function and become legitimized. Edward Said consequently recognizes in the expert, the mediocre traits “to accordingly follow, ‘as needed’, the correct rules of conduct – without contention or scandal, all within the permitted limits, while becoming ‘viable’ and above all presentable, apolitical, unexposed and ‘objective'”. The mediocre then becomes an average being whose main purpose is power. His purpose is to transmit and firmly impose his orders.
This fact and situation prompts the public and group thinking to be without a clue. It is important to take a look at how, in the most important areas of power, such as in politics, law, business, public administration, journalism or research, idioms such as the balanced approach, the happy medium, the compromise or the average – once viewed as being pejorative – have now emerged and imposed themselves as a frame of moral reference. Imagining views and positions that bifurcate from the “center”, are shunned upon. The mind (spirit) is neutralized by a series of centrist words, including governance, one of the most insignificant terms used these days. Under the auspices of mediocrity, poets hang themselves, passionate scientists go crazy, and industrial engineers stray away in speculation, while the major political ideas are soliloquized in church basements. This extreme centerist regime is hard and deadly, but the extremism it now showcases, hides itself under the image of the middle way, making us forget that extremism has less to do with the limits of the left-right political spectrum, than with the intolerance towards anything that is not its own. They have no right to comment on the bland, gray, obvious thoughtless norm that is expected to be reproduced. We will dress all these faults with empty words and phrases. Worse, the regime will precisely use the terms that betray what it fears: innovation, participation, merit and commitment. The free-thinkers who do not participate in this deceit and duplicity, are then squeezed out, and this, of course, done in a mediocre manner that promotes denial, betrayal and resentment. This symbolic violence is put to the test. (affliced, suffers?)
The term mediocracy once signified the power of the middle class, but it has lost its original meaning. We cannot designate it as a condition where the mediocre dominate, more than it being the bonds of domination exercised by the mediocre conditions themselves. We can rank it as a form of currency of meaning (exchange of meaning) and sometimes as a key to survival, to the point where those who aspire to better their situation just comply.
Alain Deneault is author of critical essays. His latest book, Tax havens: The Canadian Connection was published by Écosociété in 2014.
Note: This column appeared in Freedom, No. 306 served as a test base The Mediocrity, published by Lux Editor. Translated by Mich Imhoff Arsenault (Skybridge Translation)