With help from that most versatile degree—African Studies—bountiful in its transferable skills in today’s dynamic job market, I came to understand something about elite overproduction. After the Algerians won their independence from the French in the 1960s the nationalists, the FLN, began to transform the Algerian mind. Decolonisation was the watchword; and much as Western universities are decolonised today, so was the Algerian education system. As with all so-called nationalists in that era, the FLN were quasi-Marxist socialists with a soft spot for the Soviet Union; so the education reforms received generous subsidies from the state.
A generation grew up with the aspiration and incentives to go back to their roots; specifically, their Muslim roots—and so many entered religious schools or graduated with degrees in Islamic law or literature. It was, after all, what the long and bloody war for independence had been fought for: the Algerian mind had to be free—out with French language and literature! Obviously, not every capable Algerian became an Islamic scholar; many still became doctors, lawyers, and engineers in an entirely Western—entirely French—mould. Yet enough smart Algerians—and some not so smart, given the state subsidies for study—took the Islamic route.
In the early 1990s, Algeria hit problems. Soviet-style socialism was over, economic reforms were underway—and the country’s industrial backbone, oil and gas production, was in turmoil. At the same time, a great many young and ambitious Algerian men had entered the job market with entirely estimable and high status—but functionally useless—qualifications in what could be called “Islamic studies”. These men were nevertheless ambitious; and, after all, they had been told that their task was a valuable one—an essential element in the anti-colonial struggle; not to mention the fact that they now saw the world in religious terms, with most people in Algerian society—their parents and leaders included—being atrocious backsliders, if not actual infidels.
A good many were perfectly capable and intelligent, but they were simply not required in the economy—not even in the vast state economy; for although the FLN claimed to hate the French they were all educated in the French way themselves; and they ran their state as the French did. “Fuck you, Dad!” (Proceeds to run his life just as his father does); this was the story of the Algerian revolution. So, of course, the young religious Algerians—ignorant of Racine and differential equations—could find no place in the state. Indeed, state business was often still done in French—the people who ran the state learned to do so in French-run Lycées and in Paris—and not in Arabic, whereas the young religious folk, even if they knew French, were now at home in Arabic. The generations now spoke different languages, literally.
This all played into a vicious civil war that lasted about a decade, with several Islamist factions in play; eventually, the FLN won—although it was a close-run affair, and it was also a burnt-flesh war; brutal and destructive and waged with genuine religious fanaticism. The Algerians had overproduced an elite, and the elite faction—alienated in its values from the people who ran society and also underemployed—made their bid for power. In a sense, the FLN bureaucrats and cadres were to blame; they established a system that cultivated the young religious men—yet at the time it was doubtless seen as a romantic return to the roots, a poke in the eye for the old French system; in the 1960s, before the Iranian Revolution, leaders in the Third World were as secular as in the West—the question was which secular superpower, the USSR or the USA, you would support; for old-style religion to make a recrudescence was unthinkable, even in a country that was still nominally very Muslim, such as Algeria.
This is roughly where the West stands today with “the woke”; and even those who criticise the woke among the elder generation are, in a way, as culpable as the FLN bureaucrats who Islamised their own youth. After all, the educational-industrial complex was sustained and expanded by the Baby Boomers and those who came after—not least, in Britain, by Blair and New Labour. “Just go to university and get a degree, you’ll be fine,” said the Boomers; when they attended university it was so.
On Twitter, Jesse Kelly, a right-wing political commentator, suggested that young people who complain that they have no job should simply turn up at their local car showroom and ask to be given a chance as a salesman—as he correctly pointed out, there are $$$s to be had in that business. This non-advice was no more or less, as we shall see, a status move itself and not sincere and useful advice. It was also quite useless because what motivates man is not money per se—rather, we live for status. Now, money and status are often intertwined; but at a certain point the two detach—and if you have been, as they say, “educated” to any great degree then status and money are already detached.
It would be as if an FLN cadre in 1990 said to the unemployed Islamic students his government had trained up: “Just go to our Saharan oil fields and work as a roustabout, plenty of jobs there!” Yet man does not work that way; train a man to be an Islamic scholar—make his value as a man among his peers depend on it—and you cannot just say: “You want a job? Here’s a job; what’s wrong with you, too good for it?” In a sense, if you paid for and encouraged his education you made him too good for it; and, further, he now genuinely sees the world and his status in it within the value system he has been educated in. It is quite difficult to scratch out that value system in an instant; it effectively means to leave an entire peer group and worldview.
To think this way—or pretend to think this way, as Kelly does—is not to understand what humans actually are. We yearn for status; the humble monk who tends pus-filled wounds in a leper hospital has huge status when he comes to Rome at his career’s end to be blessed by the Holy Father; the British Royal Family enjoys immediate status, even to match Bill Gates or Elon Musk, simply because they are avatars for a nation over a thousand years of history. Status is very real and very powerful. Who do you admire more, the man who was popular with everyone at school—a star athlete—or the man who turned in perfect grades and never caused any trouble? But you go to school to learn so…really, come now.
We developed money relatively late; so there are other, more archaic, ways that man measures status—and these archaic means to measure status are still in play today. We venerate the athlete—the football player—because he is our warrior, our champion; he is our Achilles—and this sentiment and status measure comes before money; we will even let a popular athlete, such as OJ Simpson, get away with murder. Would you prefer to be a friendless and relationless miser with much wealth to hand, or would you prefer to be a village elder with modest finances but who is known and beloved by all and much sought after in the pub? Generally, we choose the latter; we are a social species—we descend from those who worked with the tribe, to scorn the tribe was social death and social death was literal death. To become a rock star or an athlete appeals to a young man more than accountancy or being a businessman because he wants to be a folk hero—and women mate with folk heroes; the monetary aspect is secondary.
Indeed, for those with a techno-mystical sensibility and interest in cryptocurrency there is a sense in which this late invention, money, may have a divine touch about it—for in its own evolution from shells or beads on a necklace into an encrypted form it shows a suggestion that there might be a path to capture value in a way that is secure from man’s fickle and primitive interest in status; and there is something godlike about that possibility, if it all comes together.
However, for the moment, we must work with the status reality. So Kelly should remember—in fact, he knows it well—that no parent ever said, “I’m so proud of our Simon, he’s a car salesman,” though many have proudly announced their children are PhDs, even if the outcome is penury. “But Simon must be the son they are the most proud of; he owns a car dealership worth millions, whereas Paul is just a doctor,” said no one ever; and actually the families that own car dealerships are not the same families that produce doctors.
We all know, for example, that more ethnocentric and collectivist groups—the Jews, Hindoos, and Chinese—are often adamant that their children will become doctors, engineers or lawyers; it is just a given from day one—and even if a child becomes a successful dissident, a successful tech entrepreneur worth millions, the eyebrows are still raised: “He’s not a doctor, of course.” And this is because those professions are copper-bottomed respectability, the point where intelligence and sociability meet—nothing so abstract as a mathematician or physicist, we prefer the concrete doctor who is loved and admired by his community.
Even if you never check Facebook to see how your classmates from school got on, you have some idea as to where people in your peer group and with your values and education stand in the world and “should be” in life—and you probably even know what consumer products they currently buy, and you buy and desire those products too; advertisers certainly know, all that scraped web data means they have a canny idea as to what Oxford graduates want—and what people who graduated from Cardiff never buy; and where people who serve the counter at Sainsbury’s go on holiday.
So when people are locked into a status system—whether that is the Franciscan monk status system, the Silicon Valley status system, or the PhD status system—they cannot jump out easily. Kelly knows that really: he just wanted to signal to his conservative audience that he is a “practical down-to-earth guy”—not fancy or pretentious, just get them a practical job that makes money and that is fine; all the woke nonsense will stop. Look how practical and unpretentious I am, am I not the paradigmatic conservative? “Yeah, he’s right you know; spoilt kids at university—get ‘em down the car dealership. Make money, that’s what life’s about!”
This is all an act, ironically enough an act for status; it is unlikely that Kelly himself would be satisfied if his children became car dealers; he is a journalist, and that is pretty high status—he could have earned way more money elsewhere, in a car dealership for example; but he chose for himself a high-status job that accorded with what his social group considers high status—journalism, a profession that is notoriously overstaffed by people from wealthy families who are financially secure and so seek status through being “a name”, through interviews that link them to other high-status individuals, or, in fact, through being the people who dictate what other people find high status. The ultimate status burn, to make or break what is high status and dump on everyone below you.
Journalists are cash poor but status rich; and Kelly knows that—it is why he does the job, and why he hands out piss-poor non-advice about how young people should get jobs as car salesmen; the purpose is to preen his audience and himself in a narcissistic self-conception as “no-nonsense practical conservatives who only care about the bottom line.” Très cringe! Kelly is a car salesman in a sense, in the sense that he sells a product—no-nonsense bottom-dollar conservatism—that is, like an old banger from Honest Jon’s Motor Emporium, fundamentally broken while being passed off as a going concern under false pretences. The journalist, the car salesman, and the politician all sell dubious goods at fantastic prices; and in each case the customer pays through the nose—either up front, or six months later when the engine falls out.
Kelly’s position is not a genuine answer, it is itself a status gambit—as much as the woke activist is in a status gambit when he blocks the road at an Extinction Rebellion protest. At said protest a Land Rover—the latest model, on credit—rolls to a stop before the protesters and a blonde, an assistant hairdresser with an orange tan and 2.5k followers on Instagram, totters out to remonstrate with the prone protesters. She genuinely lives in the bottom-dollar status system; she thinks she has “made it” because Deano bought her a Land Rover—a luxury car that the celebs she follows on Insta also drive. The damp protester on the road—possibly a man in late middle age—looks scruffy; yet he is a retired college lecturer or GP, and the younger activists with him all just graduated from fairly old and venerable universities; such people would never do anything so vulgar as buy the latest Land Rover, to do so would show they actually worried about whether or not they had money—yet they are on the cutting edge so far as boutique values go, such as concern over global warming; and just like the ditzy blonde with her car, high heels, and Insta they want to flaunt it—through a blockade against the road system, a blockade that happens to hurt lower-status people such as our ditzy blonde.
The situation was aptly described in the sitcom Fawlty Towers. Basil Fawlty, an obsequious snob, is enchanted by a conman who pretends to be an aristocrat. His superficial wife notes that the man has tatty suitcases, so it seems unlikely he is a real aristocrat. Fawlty responds: “Tat? Tat? Of course it’s tat, only the real upper classes have tat like that.” Although he is wrong in this case, there is truth to it; inverted snobbery is real—people with money compete for status in other ways, particularly with boutique beliefs and shabby chic.
So far as the complaint over jobs Kelly pretended to resolve goes, the real problem is elite overproduction: millions of people who should never have gone to university have gone to university; and the experience has granted them all the status demands and the self-conception that goes with that education—and this is not easily removed, anymore than the Extinction Rebellion protesters will suddenly want the latest Land Rover or the blonde will want to grab a placard and blockade BP or Shell.
Worse, many have gone to university to be instructed in courses that tell them to hold the system in which they live in moral contempt, so much so they must dismantle it—and not just intellectually; practical action is required. When such people say, “I want a job,” they mean—and this is not unreasonable, the system trained them to it—a job that conforms with the status a degree historically accords; just as those Algerian students wanted—again, not unreasonably—to discourse on the Koran and deliver sermons on Algeria’s moral state, not work in the state oil company; if they even could.
These people were trained to it and carry with them the status that goes with the education they received—and they judge themselves by their peer group. It is a difficult task to extract a person from a belief-status system; especially when society itself largely still endorses their decisions, and the beliefs they have imbibed tell them that a “heartless capitalists” would say something exactly like “go work as a car salesman”. Of course, as already noted, the advice is non-advice and bullshit; it is a high-status person who says: “Go take a low-status job, certainly lower-status than my job. It’s the best thing for you.” In short, the advice secures status for the person who offers the advice; it is a bid to neutralise rivals—other people who might become journalists.
Admittedly, this has all happened before in the West—it happened in the 1960s when university education first expanded. What followed was the student revolt in ‘68; again, it happened because too many people went to university and what they were taught there was essentially revolutionary Marxism. Since then, we have only expanded the university system across the West and while the students have not been taught revolutionary Marxism they have been taught a new iteration on the same basic leftist idea.
The so-called “Great Awokening” is deeper than elite overproduction, since, if we follow Strauss and Howe’s generational cycle model, it constitutes an expected uptick in revivalist religion—in its broadest sense—that has gone on in the Anglo-Saxon world for generations. Deeper processes aside, the proximate reason for “wokeness” is elite overproduction; there are too many clerics and not enough pulpits—and so opportunities for freelance dissatisfied preachers abound. Worse, the young clerics compete with each other as much as with the older generation for purity; and so, in Algeria, the Islamist movement splintered into some very peculiar and fanatical sects whose views strayed into overt death-worship and other horrors. There is no easy way out from elite overproduction; a few will peel away—perhaps even take jobs that are just about money—but many will not, and they will have been primed not to do so. The Algerian solution was a bid for power by the surplus elite; and the result was war for a decade—effectively, until the surplus had been consumed in the fire.