An anthropologist announces the fall of the liberal professional class

Summary: Part three concludes anthropologist Maximilian Forte’s series about the death of liberalism. Here he looks at the fall of the liberal professional class. A well-deserved fall, with incalculable consequences.

“I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
— William Buckley on “Meet the Press”, 17 October 1965.


The Dying Days of Liberalism
Part three of three.

By Maximilian C. Forte at Zero Anthropology,
18 January 2017.
Reposted with his generous permission.

How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project.

The Fall of the Professional Class

That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobin, adding:

“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor. For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage. While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?

“If politics is about nothing more than the effective administration of the current system — if it’s about nothing more than putting one’s faith in an able pilot — experience and technical expertise are the primary requirements. Ideological differences are immaterial, conflicting interests obsolete”.

Wilkinson wrote this in dissecting the elitism embedded in a recent, popular cartoon in The New Yorker, which again presents the average, Trump-supporting or Brexit-supporting voter as anti-knowledge, as unqualified to govern.

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us.
Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

"Smug pilots" in The New Yorker By Will McPhail
From The New Yorker, by Will McPhail.

Wilkinson then takes apart the airplane metaphor:

“…it assumes that the existing pilots have been doing a decent job. But what if they kept periodically crashing, and declined to repair the damage before taking off again? What if, due to operator negligence, the people in the cheaper seats were forced to hold on for dear life because some of their windows were shattered? What if, in other words, the pilots didn’t seem to care about the health and safety of those in economy class because they were too busy trying to keep the passengers in first class happy? This rendering is much closer to reality”.

"Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank
Available at Amazon.

In a book that attracted some attention during the US election, Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? is worth reading in particular for its chapter devoted to “The Theory of the Liberal Class,” which makes extensive use of the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The book opens with a quote from David Halberstam’s 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, a quote that speaks of, “a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it”.

Rather than focus on “the One Percent,” Frank asks that we look critically at “the Ten Percent,” which includes “the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status,” from which the Ivy Leaguer Obama came, as did most of his Ivy League cabinet, explaining the self-justifying and self-flattering slew of comments from Obama about those who are “qualified” to govern and “knowing what you’re talking about”.

Professionals value credentialed expertise, and tend to listen mostly just to each other. They monopolize the power to prescribe and diagnose, in consultation with each other: “The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise” (Frank, 2016, p. 23). Professionals emphasize “courtesy” with one another (hence the incessant tone policing), and show high contempt for those of lesser rank, including precarious professionals. Post-industrial technocrats, the ones who hail the “knowledge economy” and “education” as a solution to all social problems, have bred their own ideology: professionalism. Frank notes that as a political ideology, professionalism is “inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public” (p. 24).

Though they usually claim to act in the public interest, Frank observes that they have increasingly abused their monopoly power, started looking after their own interests, and increasingly act as a class (p. 25), an “enlightened managerial class” of quasi-aristocrats (p. 26). Frank’s critique outlines how the Democrats became the party of the professional class, disposing of labour along the way (p. 28). As a result, they care little about inequality, because their own wellbeing is founded on it. Inequality is essential to professionalism (p. 31). Meritocracy is opposed to solidarity (p. 32).

"Crucifixion of labor" by Samuel Dinsmoor
“Crucifixion of labor” by Samuel Dinsmoor.

Collapsing Liberalism

All of the preceding add to the reasons why I am arguing that it is not just Hillary Clinton, nor just the Democrats who were defeated, but something much larger. Too many “large” institutions failed at their basic tasks, too much fell, when so much was put up for grabs, i.e., globalization, US military bases, trade, class, the judicial system, schooling, healthcare, etc. Yes, the Democrats have been reduced to little more than a party of mayors, whose “survival” only really registers at the municipal level, having lost the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, most state governorships, and the majority of state legislatures. The breadth and depth of the defeat, and the entire architecture used for conveying and defending their ideology failed to such an extent that we must conclude that it was the ideology itself, and the social and economic project that it championed, that was also rejected.

In being rejected, against all the apparent odds, and to such a degree, one has to assume that the damage done is irreparable. Will the stalwart defenders of the current global order who speak in terms of “irreversibility” and “inevitability,” apply these same concepts to their own defeat? A collapse this big opens too many previously unseen doors for it to be just a momentary hiccup for the system.

In Canada, where political developments generally trail the US, we see a replay of the collapse of the liberal project which tries to conceal class differences and class exploitation under the signs of diversity and identity politics. From Gay Pride Day to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s itinerary often reflects what has become standard for the transnational liberal elite. No coincidences here: as we learned from the Podesta Emails, Trudeau is a Clinton surrogate — he was identified as follows: “Prime Minister Trudeau has been a longtime progressive ally of CAP’s [Center for American Progress, allied to the Democratic Party]…. an active and engaged partner in our Global Progress program”. Another email bore an attachment showing a photo of John Podesta whispering into Trudeau’s ear. The title of the message calls Trudeau “Mr. Canada”.

While Mr. Canada staunchly declares that he stands for “feminism,” he has nothing to offer a struggling working mother who is being carbon-taxed into poverty and homelessness, in an energy-rich country that could be fully energy self-sufficient for the next two centuries were its energy not drained out into the world market. Mr. Canada proudly declares that he stands for “diversity,” yet he adheres to monolinguality in Quebec in arrogant disregard for an Anglophone Quebecker worried about her healthcare. He praises his new minister of foreign affairs, noting her fluency in Russian, and yet underplays the fact that Mr. Canada’s top diplomat is herself barred from entry into Russia, thanks to Russian countersanctions against Canada which we needlessly provoked. Now Canada pretends to be a torchbearer for the liberal imperialist project of Obama-Clinton, on the track to becoming the last loser to defend globalization, seemingly pretending it can pursue a globalization of one.

Today the professional class, the upholders of a dying liberalism, can be heard in the media crying about an imaginary Russian intervention. Not that they have suddenly joined the ranks of anti-imperialists: they were silent on the more than 80 foreign elections in which the US has interfered, not to mention the dozens of US-backed coups, not to mention that the US has an institutional infrastructure (the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the CIA, the Office of Transition Initiatives) dedicated to foreign intervention, armed with decades of policies, laws, and strategy documents steering the course and depth of political intervention abroad.

How ironic, that the hackers complain so loudly about getting hacked –- for once. Where they have been really hacked, however, is in the domains they refuse to acknowledge: that Putin is ten times the statesman of an Obama; that the Russians excel in diplomacy; and that Russia has important anthropological lessons on international relations …that of course our liberal professionals dismissed — and they lost, good and proper.

The three chapters of this essay.

  1. An anthropologist announces the death of liberalism.
  2. An anthropologist explains the causes of liberalism’s death.
  3. An anthropologist sees the fall of the liberal professional class.


Maximilian Forte

About the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website (many of his articles are posted at the FM website. it is one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading — excerpt…

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about liberalism, about experts, and especially these…

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?
  2. Do we face a future without confidence in experts?
  3. Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?
  4. 2015 might bring an end to the great age of experts’ experiments on us.
  5. Tips to find the experts that help you see the world more clearly.
  6. Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?

Two books by Maximilian Forte

Slouching Towards Sirte
Available at Amazon.
Who is an Indian?: Race, Place, and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Americas
Available at Amazon.

Did Robert Heinlein in 1961 predict the fall of the Soviet Union? Lessons learned from this.

Summary: Our past can help us to better understand our present. The ills of the present didn’t just appear, and often can be seen more clearly in the past — such as our penchant for believing fables. This post has it all: a great story about Robert Heinlein’s astonishing prescience, the Evil Empire, demographic collapse, gross errors by experts, a spectacular save at the end, and insights to help us tomorrow.  It’s another in a series about experts.

Writing about geopolitics = progress by making mistakes

Ask an expert

I find it difficult to guess about the future (track record here). But it’s often difficult to get the past correctly, which makes it almost impossible to accurately see the present.

For example, in 2009 I wrote about the failings of our experts, especially those at the intel agencies, during the Cold War. I cited science fiction writer Robert Heinlein as an example of a non-credentialed expert who got a big question right while they were wrong. I told a commonplace kind of story one sees these days, about how the official sources are wrong when the outsiders are right.

It’s the story so often told by many groups — the climate scientists are frauds people, the down with the Federal Reserve crowd, the anti-vaxers, and the pollutants are everywhere (soda bottles, cell phone towers) tribe — as well as people with whom I largely agree (e.g., the military reformers, the 4GW community, and the peace and justice movements).

It’s an extension of the “crowdsourcing” concept — the anti-establishment belief that wisdom is found on the fringes, in the hands of outsiders. Since 2009 I have found other examples of this. Under examination most proved to be false.

As part of an article about our new cold war (it’s only a slightly chilled dispute, the past repeating as farce) I intended to again cite this example of Heinlein’s wisdom. But my mistakes of the past 5 years (tracked here) taught me to dig deeper before writing. Doing so disproved my 2009 post, giving in exchange some useful insights.

Read more

Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?

Summary:  Yesterday’s introduction by Tom Engelhardt explained how we follow experts with records of almost continuous failures, but are surprised by the logical result. Today Andrew Bacevich takes this logic one step deeper, asking about the role of intellectuals in setting America’s geopolitical strategy — which has been one of increasing belligerence and militarization during the past 2 decades. This is another in our series of posts about experts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Intellectuals In Action

Rationalizing Lunacy:
The Intellectual as Servant of the State

By Andrew J. Bacevich
Posted at TomDispatch, 8 March 2015.
Re-posted here with their generous permission.
Headlines & graphics added.

Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.

Origins of the Intellectually-advised Government

It all began innocently enough.  Back in 1933, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first imported a handful of eager academics to join the ranks of his New Deal.  An unprecedented economic crisis required some fresh thinking, FDR believed. Whether the contributions of this “Brains Trust” made a positive impact or served to retard economic recovery (or ended up being a wash) remains a subject for debate even today.   At the very least, however, the arrival of Adolph Berle, Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and others elevated Washington’s bourbon-and-cigars social scene. As bona fide members of the intelligentsia, they possessed a sort of cachet.

Then came World War II, followed in short order by the onset of the Cold War. These events brought to Washington a second wave of deep thinkers, their agenda now focused on “national security.”  This eminently elastic concept — more properly, “national insecurity” — encompassed just about anything related to preparing for, fighting, or surviving wars, including economics, technology, weapons design, decision-making, the structure of the armed forces, and other matters said to be of vital importance to the nation’s survival.  National insecurity became, and remains today, the policy world’s equivalent of the gift that just keeps on giving.

Read more

How to Create a National Insecurity State.

Summary:  An essential part of leaning as citizens is learning on whom to rely. We don’t do this well, an important part of the FAILure to learn which has imperiled the Republic. Today Tom Engelhard — editor of the invaluable website TomDispatch — shows how since 9/11 a coterie of always-wrong experts have helped build the national security state.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Department of Fear

How to Create a National Insecurity State

By Tom Engelhardt
Posted at TomDispatch, 8 March 2015.
Re-posted here with his generous permission.

In our era in Washington, whole careers have been built on grotesque mistakes.  In fact, when it comes to our various conflicts, God save you if you’re right; no one will ever want to hear from you again.  If you’re wrong, however… well, take the invasion of Iraq.  Given the Islamic State, that creature of the American occupation, can anyone seriously believe that the invasion that blew a hole in the heart of the Middle East doesn’t qualify as one of the genuine disasters of our time, if not of any time? In the mad occupation that followed, Saddam Hussein’s well-trained army and officer corps were ushered into the chaos of post-invasion unemployment and, of course, insurgency.  Meanwhile, at a cost of $25 billion, a whole new military was trained that, years later, summarily collapsed when faced with insurgents led by some of those formerly out-of-work officers.

But the crew who pushed it all on Washington has never stopped yakking (or being listened to).  They’ve been called back at every anniversary of the invasion to offer their wisdom in the New York Times and elsewhere, while those who counseled against such an invasion have been nowhere in sight.  Some of the planners of the invasion and occupation are now advisers to Jeb Bush as he heads into the 2016 election campaign, while the policy wonks who went off to war with the generals (taking regular VIP tours of America’s battle zones) couldn’t be better thought of in Washington today.

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A key to understanding the news: the unexpected rules in our age of wonders.

Summary: We’re in an age of wonders where the news overflows with unexpected events, things not predicted by even our greatest experts. Today we discuss two common responses to this, both ineffective: blindly accepting experts’ explanations that it’s all understood, and throwing away their advice as imperfect. There is a third and better way.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“History doesn’t always repeat itself. Sometimes it just screams, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?’ and lets fly with a big stick.”
— John W. Campbell Jr., Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine (1965).

"Machinery of the Stars" by alexiuss
“Machinery of the Stars” by alexiuss seen at DeviantArt. Posted with the artist’s generous permission.

Learning from the past — the lessons of history — boosts our odds of success in the present. But it’s equally important to see breaks with the past. Instead of flagging these, experts tend to bury them in explanations that conceal their role as valuable markers on the road to a different future. It’s the equivalent of asking about that Detour sign on the road and getting a lecture about the Vienna Convention about Road Signs.

Instead here we attempt to isolate such anomalies, examining them as clues to possible discontinuities in the normal trends of society. It’s an unpopular message. People want explanations, however bogus, to banish fears of uncertainty. It’s one of the primary services experts sell. Unfortunately, our world cannot be understood without understanding its strangeness, especially now — since we have so much of it.

Perhaps the most obvious oddity of our time is in economics. The developed nations appear locked into a slow-growth mode since the 2008 crash (US real GDP growth of ~2.4%), despite massive monetary stimulus on a scale never before seen. Central bank assets in the EU and USA have growth to ~25% of GDP — 64% of GDP in Japan — while interest rates have fallen to zero (below zero in Europe, something considered an absurdity until it happened) and inflation rates declined below central banks’ “floor” targets (despite widespread confident predictions that they would rise).

For a rare admission of uncertainty see “It seems nobody knows what’s going on with the economy,” Andrew McAfee (PhD business, Prof at MIT School of Management), The Financial Times, 26 February 2015. This would be extraordinary if by an economist.

Read more

Embrace the weird news. It signals the transition to a new world.

Summary:  Every day brings new strangeness in the news. It’s easy to become disoriented (I am). The weirdness is a signal telling us that we’ve left the post-WWII era and begun the transition to a new world. Here we discuss three areas of oddness — and how to cope.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Keep calm and trust the experts/


  1. Weirdness is a signal; don’t ignore it.
  2. Economic weirdness.
  3. Our weird wars.
  4. Climate science weirdness
  5. Conclusions
  6. For More Information

(1)  Weirdness is a signal; don’t ignore it.

Much of the best content on the FM website during the past 8 years has been the forecasts, which have proven quite accurate. You have not seen many lately, since events have completely disoriented me. While searching for solid ground I realized that the weirdness of events is the signal — not the noise. As I have said since 2007, the post-WW2 world was ending and a new world emerging. This weirdness is a natural effect of the transition, just as it was from late 1920s through 1940s.

A side effect of this is the increased fallibility of experts. As the saying goes, accurate predictions are difficult — especially about the future. During periods of regime transition the difficult becomes almost impossible. As we see in our daily news. Here are just a few of the many examples of weirdness in the news.

(2)  Economic weirdness

A February 2 report by the San Francisco Federal Reserve stated what’s long been obvious: “Since 2007, Federal Open Market Committee participants have been persistently too optimistic about future U.S. economic growth.” Forecasts by economists in the private sector have been equally or even less accurate.

Since 2009 they have expected the economy to accelerate back to “normal” (i.e., pre-crash) levels. Remember talk of the “V-shaped” recovery? GDP in 2014 was 2.4%, within the range of the previous 4 years (2.5%, 1.6%, 2.3%, 2.2%).

As usual since the crash, 2015 was to be the break-out year. Unfortunately, it’s starting slow and slowing (e.g., retail sales down in Dec & Jan; manufacturers’ new orders down in Oct & Nov & Dec). The negative effects of the oil & natural gas price crashes have barely started (e.g, corporate bankruptcies, massive layoffs). As Christopher Woods of CLSA explained in his Feb 12 report:

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Tips to find the experts that help you see the world more clearly.

Summary: Today’s post continues our discussion about experts. Here are a few tips to help distinguish reliable and useful experts from those that dominate the news media, plus some warnings.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
1 Corinthians 13:12

“Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly — and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations (in universal modes of thought, not just individualized stupidity).”

— Stephen Jay Gould, Full House (1996)

How to pick out the real experts?
How to pick out the real experts?

We can only understand the world — even imperfectly — by seeing it through the eyes of experts. Journalists showcase experts, usually a selected coterie (note how the same few show up repeatedly in a newspapers’ article on each subject). Unfortunately, journalists’ criteria for choosing experts don’t well meet our needs. The catchy sound-bites they favor tend to come from the over-confident and arrogant, especially those that endorse the current narrative. Caveats, uncertainties, and long explanations — these are things seldom found in the news.

How can we find better sources to rely upon? How can we use them most effectively?

Evaluating experts

In my experience, one hallmark of a reliable expert is their recognition of uncertainty. The experts I trust recognize how quickly the world changes, its complexity, the severe limitation on the data we have about it, and the crude state of our theories.  These traits distinguish headline-grabbing experts from economists like Nouriel Roubini, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, physicists like Robert Hersch, climate scientists like Roger Pielke Sr and Judith Curry, and others.

How they grapple with uncertainty makes them more interesting to read, in contrast to the boring black and white certainties that dominate the news.

These experts have another useful characteristic distinguishing them from journalists’ favorites: they admit errors. Half of what we know is wrong, and top experts work to find which of their beliefs lie on each side of that line. From example, Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) runs posts about “smackdowns” of his work, which practice I copied in the Smackdowns page (top menu bar). Krugman often runs columns about his errors.

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