The Non-STEM Smart Guy

Most of the world’s problems are started by this type of guy.  The best social arrangements are the ones that keep him from getting too resentful (unfortunately, this type of guy is almost always resentful of something).  The second-best arrangements co-opt that resentment, and turn it against the regime’s enemies.

First, some definitions:  A non-STEM smart guy is someone with enough on the ball to realize that brainpower makes society go… but without enough on the ball to do it himself in that society.  What “it” is varies in time and place.  In our society, of course, STEM is power — you will never lack for nice, safe, middle-class job opportunities if you can pass Calc II.  In medieval China, it was the ability to memorize huge blocks of texts and write perfect eight-legged essays on them.  In ancient Sumeria, it was reading goat entrails.  Whatever “it” is, those who can do it are society’s bedrock.  They’ll never be revolutionaries.

“The regime” is the guys at the top of the current sociopolitical arrangement, plus their support staff.  In Ancient Sumeria, it was the priestly aristocracy supporting the king.  In medieval China it was the exam-passing palace eunuchs plus the emperor.  Here’s the kicker:  You can tell a regime is broken when the guys at the top of the regime and the support staff don’t see eye to eye, and a regime is broken beyond all hope of repair when the guys at the top don’t even recognize their support staff.

The American Revolution is a good example.  Without too gross an oversimplification, you can sum up the Revolution’s causes in a word: Mercantilism.  You need colonies to make the mercantile system go.  But you can’t treat colonies of Englishmen the way you treat colonies of wogs.*  The Englishmen won’t stand for it.  They recognize their importance to the system — they’re the support staff — and will demand to be treated accordingly.  See also: The English Civil War, in which Charles II had the same problem.  Being an old-school Divine Right monarch, and none too bright, Charles didn’t realize that his support staff was no longer the Lords Temporal and Spiritual; it was grubby merchant wannabes like Oliver Cromwell.  The justifications for rebellion were expressed differently — liberty of conscience vs. the Rights of Man — but they boiled down to the same thing, and for the same reason.  The basis of real (as opposed to legal) power had shifted, from “blue blood” to “a head for figures.”

Neither Charles II or George III could’ve acted other than they did, being the kind of guys they were, but I doubt any king could’ve done much better under the circumstances.  After all, the old system had a pretty good method for co-opting smart Commoners into the regime.  Problem was, that system only worked under the old economic arrangments.  In 1520, say, tonnage and poundage was a measly part of the king’s income, most of which came to His Majesty the old fashioned way, via medieval dues.  By 1620, though, it was a main source of the King’s income, and by 1630 it was a major cause of the Civil War.  You can ennoble every Cardinal Wolsey, because the economic system only produces a few; you can’t ennoble every grasping shareholder in the East India Company.  (Or, to return to the American Revolution, ennobling George Washington would’nt have done any good — much as he would’ve liked it, and as much of an aristocrat as he personally was — because you can’t ennoble every John Hancock, Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton…).

The challenge of the last 300 years has been precisely that — how to integrate smart, ambitious, but off-brand guys into the power structure.  The truly rich can simply buy their way in — the key word in “nouveaux riche” is riche —  but that only works for a Zuckerberg, not his division heads and directors of marketing.  They’re rich, all right, and you absolutely have to have them to keep society running, but nobody asks their opinions on immigration or the proper role of women in the workplace, and that really grinds their gears.

It’s not just economics, in other words — it’s social prestige.  An IT guy probably aspires no higher than his nice middle-class life.  A guy who’s good enough at it to make real money wants more, but sees his access to power blocked by guys like Zuckerberg.  And those are guys who have brains that run in the right direction.  Imagine the plight of poor Kevin Williamson, or Jonah Goldberg, or pick-your-Lefty-pundit — they’re smart enough, but their brains don’t run in the right channel to let them make money in our economy, and that really grinds their gears, to the point where they start devoting most of their not-inconsiderable brainpower to the question of why they themselves aren’t on top.  They’re smart enough to see that if society were different, they’d be the ones with the king’s ear, and rude mechanicals like Zuckerberg would be back toiling in the byte farms where they belong.

You can sum up every modern revolution that way.  Had there been enough commissions in the Guards Horse Regiment, you’d have had no Robespierre; enough professorships, no Lenin or Mao; if the seminary gave you a reasonable shot at a bishopric, no Stalin, etc.  Hell, Martin Luther probably would’ve been content with running his own monastery somewhere, if he could’ve gotten famous doing it.  The point is to give these guys enough power to lord it over their immediate underlings  — thereby giving them the ego-stroke they crave above all else — but not enough to do real damage.  It’s a delicate balancing act.

In our STEM economy, we used to do it with academia.  That’s what the ivory tower was for, back in the days — give the smart-but-unproductive a little kingdom of their own, and pretend to marvel at the barmy moonbeam stuff they came up with, and they’ll never be tempted to advocate the overthrow of society.  Faculty lounge politics are nasty enough to satisfy the cruelty of even the most bloodthirsty — imagine, if you will, Vladimir Lenin as the Dean of your local philosophy department, and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like.

Alas, we’ve screwed that up.  We’ve decided that everyone should go to college, so now people take eggheads seriously.  Worse, eggheads infect other smart non-STEM guys with the virus, so you’ve got a whole generation of people who think overturning society isn’t just a good idea, it’s Social Justice.  It’s bad, and it’s going to get worse.




*According to mercantile theory, Great Britain should’ve been ruined by the loss of her major North American colonies.  Instead, she went on to rule the world in the new century — Industrialism fueled a new and much better mercantile system centered on India and Africa.

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11 thoughts on “The Non-STEM Smart Guy

  1. Stan Erickson

    Thank you for writing this. One must be careful of generalization, however, and careful when using generalizations to make sure the isomorphisms between eras have the proper selections. Are you sure it is the university wonks responsible for the SJW movement?

      1. Toddy Cat

        Depends on what you mean by “responsible”; mosquitoes aren’t “responsible” for malaria, but the little bastards still spread it.

        1. Severian Post author

          SJW ideology is just ivory tower bullshit dumbed down for the hoi polloi, though. The Frankfurt School dumbed down Karl Marx by Freudianizing him; Marcuse dumbed down the Frankfurt School by making it all about sex; Foucault dumbed down Marcuse by making sex all about power; Andrea Dworkin dumbed down Foucault by making sex itself some kind of statement about something; then the New New Left politicians got ahold of it, and here we are.

          1. Stan Erickson

            It is hard to understand how the source of the SJW ideology could be dispersed so widely and still not be divided into large numbers of factions, as ivory tower denizens are wont to do. Perhaps there was some unified source that originated it, and, as Toddy Cat suggests, the ivory tower was responsible for spreading it at least to those passing through it. I doubt even the last, however, and think it is giving these ivory tower SJW types too much credit. You need a smart person or two to come up with an ideology that spreads so well and has such a devastating effect; maybe a small number, but not ‘lots of people’. And the time scale clashes also; this ideology did not come overnight. It is a drastic change and would have taken years, or generations, to become so widely spread and deeply entrenched.

  2. Morgan K Freeberg

    Wasn’t Charles II a couple years off from becoming King by the time Mr. Cromwell shucked his mortal coil? Think you mean his Dad, the one who lost his head…

    1. Severian Post author

      Exactly. And mutinies etc. are led by mid-level noncoms, not NCOICs. Hitler is another good example; much grief would’ve been saved had there been a sergeant’s billet available for him in the Reichswehr. So far as I know, every successful revolutionary leader was a middle-class dude whose social aspirations were blocked due to his talents not fitting the predominant paradigm. Had the British listened to Col. George Washington of the Virginia Militia, they could’ve not only saved themselves much grief in the 7 Years’ War, they probably could’ve prevented the Revolution.

  3. ErisGuy

    “Vladimir Lenin as the Dean of your local philosophy department”

    This is the best sentence I have read all week.

  4. Linda Fox

    This would explain the EXTREME unhappiness of the academic types: their time for prestige and ease of living has passed. The younger ones have to work too hard (as adjuncts), and the pay is truly horrible.
    Perhaps a savvy person in the Trump administration could encourage a Revolt of the Young Adjuncts? The universities could afford to give them a lot more money, once they dumped the old academics.

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