Richard Dawkins was in the right place at the right time when he wrote 'The Selfish Gene' in the mid 1970s. He was employed as a lecturer at the all-male New College, part of the elite University of Oxford. Thatcherism and Reaganomic principles were developing their own momentum, and would control at least two major economies within five years. An academic from a most credible institution was advancing the theory that not only are humans genetically programmed to be selfish, but that altruism is just selfishness in disguise.
It's a short mental leap from the idea of a selfish gene to the belief that greed "captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit", as articulated by fictional Wall Street corporate raider Gordon Gekko in 1987. We have Dawkins to thank for popularising that key idea, along with the concept of the meme. It's not necessary for people to understand the theory of the selfish gene, just the big idea as communicated to them.
By 1989, having endured a decade of revolutionary capitalism, the education system in the United Kingdom was ready for a 'new' big idea. The credibility of classical Marxism was destroyed by Europeans' thorough rejection of communism that year. A faction within leftist academia switched focus to an obscure French group of writers who had a new big idea, post-structuralism or postmodernism. Suddenly, objective reality was out of fashion, and the concept of 'evidence' suspect.
Given what had just happened across Eastern Europe, it was just as well that many of these writers had taken the precaution of being unintelligible, to ensure they could not easily be contradicted.
Meanwhile, Bank of England interest rates reached almost 15% in October 1989, a figure not seen since the previous recession of 1979 to 1981. Working people were losing their jobs and homes again. The weak economy in the United Kingdom led to a massive expansion of higher education, intended to soak up youth unemployment. By 1992 dozens of new self-accredited universities had been created as degree factories from the former polytechnics, which had previously specialised in externally accredited courses delivering workplace skills.
The vocational education that teenagers had on offer from local community colleges was looking distinctly third-class, now that they could get a degree. Trouble was that most of these new university students lacked the academic ability to take difficult courses in the sciences, mathematics or medicine. I should know, because I was one of those students.
In order for these newly expanded institutions to become viable, it was necessary to expand humanities and 'social science' departments to unprecedented sizes. Mass participation meant that the practice of local authorities providing full maintenance grants to a relatively small number of students from lower-income families gave way to a universal student loan system. Later, tuition fees could be loaded onto these personal debts, fees which had previously been covered in full by students' home-town authorities. The UK university sector, by then flush with cash, became property developers first and academic institutions second.
Despite the scepticism of ordinary working people, postmodernism meant it was now possible for students to spend their time 'deconstructing' Madonna's music videos and be awarded a degree. That kind of degree had little apparent purpose, other than being the first step on the student's path to one day, perhaps, becoming a lecturer in Gender Studies. That the university system had become self-perpetuating didn't seem to matter, as successive British governments declared that most young people would be in higher education in future.
The new big idea wasn't so new, after all. We can go back 200 years to the time of the German Idealists, finding another bunch of academics arguing about the concept of objective reality and the implications for political authority. One of Georg Hegel's claims in his 'Lectures on the Philosophy of History' (1822 to 1830) was translated as:
"The Rational has necessary existence, as being the reality and substance of things, and we are free in recognizing it as law, and following it as the substance of our own being. The objective and the subjective will are then reconciled, and present one identical homogeneous whole."
Hegel's absolute idealism made his late 20th century followers well-situated to benefit from a burgeoning academic cohort allergic to the demands of empiricism. Philosopher of science Karl Popper gave a lecture 'What is Dialectic?' in 1938 which anticipated this, saying:
"whilst the natural sciences can proceed on the basis of the common man's realistic outlook, the social sciences need an idealist background like the one offered by Hegelianism. Such an assumption was often made in Marx's time, owing to the fact that Hegel with his idealist theory of the State appeared strongly to influence, and even to further, the social sciences, while the futility of views which he held within the field of the natural sciences was – at least for natural scientists – only too obvious."
In fact, Hegel's contemporary Arthur Schopenhauer had called the German Idealist out almost a century before, in his 1840 essay 'On The Basis of Morality', writing:
"If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralysing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right."
Those below-par students like me who were taught about postmodernists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida in the 1990s are numerous among today's educators, administrators and cultural gatekeepers. We can trace the lineage of the social construction meme - the key idea that there is no objective reality, only language and power - to a set of books and articles that very few people completed reading.
These key texts were written by dead white European males. Even if Derrida happened to be born in Algeria, the founding fathers of postmodernism were at the top of that problematic hierarchy, and employed by elite institutions too.
The labour cycle and the shrinking middle
Between the wars of recent centuries, the majority of white people who weren't self-sufficient peasants or craftspeople were servants or labourers of one kind or another, and sometimes close to starvation. Accelerating automation replaced agricultural jobs in the 19th century, and manufacturing jobs in the 20th century. Now it is eliminating the white-collar jobs of people who have been in higher education.
It is now far easier to invest in job destruction than it is job creation. If automation is destroying white-collar jobs faster than the economy can create them, we would expect the middle class to shrink significantly as wealth floods, rather than trickles, upwards. For every Jeff Bezos, there are hundreds of thousands of people who used to make a modest living in the book trade. The post-industrial combination of automation and globalisation is not 'a rising tide that lifts all boats', except in the sense that a tsunami which dashes all boats on a rocky shore is a rising tide.
Perhaps the self-serving education system doesn't want to acknowledge that Western societies are reverting to times in which the middle class was much smaller, and few people benefited from access to a university. It would be hard to persuade young people to take on student debt if that was the case. UK university entrance requirements have dropped to the extent that unconditional offers are being made by the lower-ranking institutions. This means that some students can now enrol on a degree course having failed all relevant qualifications. In 2020, they can enter university not having sat their final exams at all.
Young people with degrees are doing unpaid internships and service-sector jobs for minimum wage, showing us that the economic value of their education is tending towards zero. It should be obvious that a growing number of graduates with below-average incomes means a student debt bubble has been created, as TLDR News has pointed out.
The dividend of colonial exploitation, combined with the new colonialism of outsourcing to poorer countries, means that many of us Westerners are not needed for capitalism to function, except as consumers. Arguably, the creation and destruction of surplus labour is cyclical, and the current context might only be a return to the economics of the 1920's and 1930's when large numbers of white people were servants, fetching dinner at the double. Did somebody say 'Just Eat'?
The emergence of the fake woke sociopath
If you're a white person from a comfortable background with a university degree but never had a real job, if you feel you have a right to more than you have despite having no skills which are in demand, if you expect to have at least as good a lifestyle as your parents with a fraction of the work, shrinking middle-class opportunities might mean you need to find another way to get what you want.
Intersectionality, as envisaged by academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, includes the proposition that a wealthy white woman can't speak for a poor black woman, because multiple oppressions intersect. Yet in the fake woke activism of the authoritarian left, we can see that intersectionality has been co-opted by the privileged, the white middle class politicos that intersectional activism sought to challenge.
Ultimately, the fake woke are all about power, but not in the way this movement tells its own story. Perhaps spending all their time talking about power and privilege leads the fake woke sociopath to conclude that manipulating the empathy of others is their best chance of increasing their own power and privilege.
Second and third-generation students of shallow postmodernism have rejected grand narratives to embrace an opportunistic pick-and-mix of positions from neo-Marxism, critical theory and Nietzschean nihilism. This culture is thoroughly appropriated; even the word 'woke' can be a parody of black speech, as pointed out by black author William Melvin Kelley as early as 1962, in an article for the New York Times.
The fake woke reduce competition for middle class careers by harassing and cancelling their competitors, disguising the exercise of their privilege in a performance of faux solidarity. Few actually oppressed and disadvantaged people are in this competition, because they are largely excluded from higher education, the media and elite social networks. The relatively small size and structural disadvantage of oppressed groups helps to guarantee this. It is no threat to your career to appear to champion groups in society who don't really have the means to take your place.
Those with no discernible talent can make a pre-emptive strike against the people who might compete for opportunities by pretending to side with them, while doing them down. For example, most white people working in the UK's media will claim to be 'anti-racist'. Yet most portrayals of the black working class commissioned and delivered by the mass media, other than in sports, remain related to poverty, gangs or violence.
Fake woke might mean espousing intersectional views, but it certainly doesn't meaning stepping aside. Like a pop star that apologises for their whiteness, but keeps black singers firmly at the back of the stage, woke posturing is a means of maintaining privilege not only over the less privileged, but over other members of your own class who are less woke than you. The combination of the Nietzschean will to power, neo-Darwinian selfishness and pure greed means having to step over those 'others' who might take your place.
If there is a solution to embedded privilege and entitlement, one which could lead to a more egalitarian society, it might be to listen to people from genuinely marginalised groups and let them lead when they can, not speak for them, or keep them at the back of the stage. That doesn't mean we should endorse the views of anyone who claims to belong to a marginalised group, for that reason alone, or make them a spokesperson without merit. The rejection of fake woke dogma means revisiting the principle that people's ideas have to pass basic reality checks before we can endorse them.
In the United Kingdom, we need to stop offering degree courses worth less than the debt they create, and relegate the Hegelian school of thought to the history of bad ideas. This might take drastic reform of the education sector. Minimum entrance requirements for university courses should be reintroduced, with fully-funded higher education for the talented but less privileged.
For those young people not suited to or disposed towards rigorous academic courses, accredited vocational education should be invested in and the playing field levelled, so that a vocational qualification is truly equivalent in status to a degree course for the same amount of talent, time and effort.
As for academics, Karl Popper offered this advice:
"for anyone who wants to promote truth and enlightenment it is a necessity and even a duty to train himself in the art of expressing things clearly and unambiguously."