The idea of a “falling rate of intelligence” hits the mark in a number of ways. It is an expression of the Frankfurt School’s attempt to delimit the characteristics of a new type of human being, one damaged by the structures of late capitalist society. It correctly embeds their theory of subjectivity in a Marxist framework, offering up their work as outlining the internal correlate of the falling rate of profit. And most importantly, it is not immune from the process it describes: every language-policing liberal is ready with a knowing smirk when they hear the phrase, already convinced that the essential divide in society is between the intelligent and the idiotic.
Russell Jacoby sees this last point without seeing it:
The law of the falling rate of intelligence is even more elusive than the law of the falling rate of profit. For unlike the falling rate of profit its effect undermines its conceptualization. Not exempt from itself, the law of the falling rate of intelligence is decreasingly comprehensible. It is a tendency that can only be emphatically grasped in advance—when it is not yet fully visible; later it is experienced and witnessed but cannot be understood.
A central maxim of critical theory—to account for one’s position within the theory—is at work here, as Jacoby attempts to theorize the falling rate of intelligence within the context of its reality. But his historicization borders on the theological: we cannot understand the truth because we are too habituated to our own sin.
The veracity of the theory of the falling rate of intelligence is not obscured by the falling rate of intelligence but is rather its product. The deceptive connaissance triggered by the phrase, its easy integration into a contemporary mentality that uses “stupidity” as a ready explanation for whatever does not fit into its dogma, is a function of the actual degradation of thinking. Both the primary problem with and virtue of the theory is thus not that it cannot be understood but that it is too immediately digestible and metabolizable by the subject it attempts to theorize.
In this, it presents a danger—false knowingness—as well as an opportunity: to thematize the perception of the disappearance of rational and mature human beings from our society and to suggest a materialist understanding of both the phenomenon and our perception of it. In the case of the former, Adam Smith long ago laid out the reasons why a commercial society will make an alienated laborer “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” The latter, then, presents a more interesting problem: why do we see the world in terms of intelligence and its absence (other than, of course, the fact that we are unintelligent)?
The answer can only be bound up with Left Hegelianism, that most intimate enemy of Marxism. If we only we understood, says the Left Hegelian, thanks to the right set of MIT PhDs, or the vision of a capitalist luminary, or the Correct Political Program of a true revolutionary, then—THEN—the structural contradictions of capitalist society would be ironed out under the gravity of right thinking. We want to see the world in terms of intelligence and its absence because this fantasy allows us to short-circuit the slow, plodding, sometimes stupid work of actual politics.
Both the falling rate of intelligence, as well as the tendency to perceive social problems as intelligence deficits—itself a function of a deficit of intelligence—are thus effects of structural contradictions that a degraded subjectivity demands to be addressed by intelligence and explained by its absence. One way or the other, capitalism makes morons of us all.
James McDougall is a graduate student in political theory at the University of Chicago, where he studies the reception of Rousseau’s idea of amour-de-soi-même in Borneo between the years 1872 and 1874.