Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Mandarins (the intellectual elite) make lousy leaders

It was nearly a decade ago, during the summer vacation, that I read a book which permanently changed one of my cherished beliefs.

The book was The decline of the German mandarins: the German academic community, 1890-1933, by Fritz K Ringer.

The cherished belief was that it would be best if countries were led by their intellectual elite, i.e. by 'Mandarins' - by the likes of Professors, senior administrators and professionals - by those whose jobs require high level formal educational certification.

In other words, I had assumed, up to that point, that if only things were run by people 'like me', then things would inevitably be run better.


Before reading the book I had not been aware that I believed this, but although unarticulated, a belief in leadership by intellectals had been a basic assumption.

It is, indeed, an assumption of the modern political elite, and has been the assumption of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers) for a couple of hundred years (since the Romantic era) - but it was *not* an assumption of traditional societies before this.

Indeed, as I read in Ernest Gellner at about the same time, in traditional societies the intellectual class (priests and clerks) was subordinated to the leadership - which was essentially military.

Intellectuals were - Gellner said - essentially 'eunuchs' - in the sense that they were not allowed to build dynastic, hereditary power - this was reserved for the military leadership.

So priests and other intellectuals with power were sometimes actual eunuchs, or servants and slaves, or celibate (legally, not sexually, celibate - i.e. they could not have legitimate heirs), or members of a legally circumscribed minority (such as Jewish merchants and money lenders), or - like the Chinese mandarins - they were prohibited from handing on their status to their children (entry to the mandarinate being controlled by competitive examinations).

The 'natural' leaders of human society throughout most of history are the military leaders - the 'generals'. The aristocracy were essentially the military leaders.


But in modern societies, the Mandarins have progressively taken over the leadership.

People 'like me' run things; the military leadership (unless they are themselves mandarins - as increasingly is the case - and servile to political correctness) are officially feared, hated and despised; indeed any aspirant for power who is not 'an intellectual' is officially feared, hated and despised.

Fritz Ringer's books was a revelation because he described a familiar and recent society that had indeed been a mandarinate - and this was Germany in the nineteenth century and leading up to the first and second world wars. Germany was at that time the academic intellectual centre of the West.

And 'yet' the mandarinate had been a disaster - leading to two world wars and National Socialism and also (ironically) to the eclipse of the German mandarins - who were purged virtually overnight in 1933 (only a few obedient Nazi mandarins were allowed to stay - like Martin Heidegger).

The German mandarins were nationalist, that was the focus of their ideology (the distinctive superiority of German culture) and that is one variety - very rare nowadays except in small nations and would-be nations like Scotland or Catalonia.

Of course the most widespread mandarinate was the Soviet Union whose ideology was (mostly) anti-nationalistic/ international communism. And international left-mandarinism is now the dominant form of government in the West. 


Since reading Ringer, when my eyes were opened, my experience has hardened into conviction that - as a generalization - mandarins make very useful servants but very bad leaders. Good professors make bad kings.

The main problem is, I think, that mandarins are expert at ignoring common sense reality and focusing on abstraction.

Mandarins live 'in culture' - they are 'Kultur' experts. Culture is the source of their expertise and prestige - culture comes between mandarins and common sense. 

When, as is normal, mandarin abstractions are substantially incomplete and significantly biased, then there is no limit to how bad mandarin leadership can be; because any feedback provided by 'reality' can be ignored by mandarins in ways which are impossible to normal people.


Mandarins can wreck an organization, a nation, with a completely clear conscience; and will then write history to show that they were correct all along.

Conversely, there is no achievement of their enemies that is so large or  blatantly obvious that mandarins will not ignore, sideline, or subvert it.

(In pursuit of discrediting their enemies, mandarins are utterly unscrupulous, dishonest and coercive - they perceive this as nothing less than their duty, indeed heroic.)

Nothing that could conceivably happen would conceivably affect mandarin ideology - which explains everything in advance.


Mandarins are therefore unique among humans both in their perspective on life - in their evaluations of what is important; and in being immune to learning from experience.

And mandarins really are, on average, the most knowledgeable and cleverest people, and they know it and they value smartness very highly; so they will not listen to any critics who they think of as dumb.

Undeniably smart critics are labelled crazy or evil (they *must* be, obviously), so they are ignored too.

When mandarins have closed the loop between education, media and power; they are hermetically sealed from alternative perspectives - change can only arise from within the loop, and this change will tend to bolster the power of the mandarinate, and be directed against their enemies in the natural military leadership.  


So, once they have taken-over, the mandarinate is uniquely unreformable by argument and experience.

And that is the present situation in the West.


  1. I am at a loss - how could anyone who worked in a university think for long that a mandarinate was a strong contender for running a country? Apart from anything else, observe the quality of the university people who elect to give up scholarship and devote themselves to university management. (Yes, yes, it's scarcely scholarship that many of them give up, but at least it tends to be a simulacrum thereof.)

  2. Well, quite.

    But I regarded all problems with the 'actually existing' rulership of intellectuals as remediable corruptions of what was basically the most desirable state of affairs.

    (Just as leftist intellectuals regard all problems with 'actually existing' socialism in the ex-USSR, Maoist China, North Korea, ex-Cambodia etc. as being remediable corruptions of what is nonethless the ideal system.)

    I saw it in terms of good mandarins versus bad mandarins - the actual leaders of universities were (mostly) bad mandarins, while people more like myself would be good mandarins (given the chance).

    But there was no doubt in my mind that mandarins ought to be in charge.

    No amount of evidence about the actual badness of rule by mandarins could ever dent my presumption that - if only things were properly arranged by people more like myself - then that was how things should be.

  3. Dearieme - could you e-mail me please? I have forgotten your human identity, which I used to know.

    (The hard drive e-mail records were, ahem, inadvertently wiped when my work computer was being compulsorily 'updated' to new and inferior software.)

  4. Isn't the real problem not the intellectual eliteness but the stunted growth, the lack of maturity, the perpetual adolescence?

    Isn't it just the simple act of the nerds getting back at the "in" high school crowd that shunned them?

    The evidence seems overwhelming, especially regarding 'professors' and 'administrators'. They remain in the high school environment, they many times get the girls they never could have gotten, they never had to work very hard and they continue that pattern. The only change is they now have a venue to relieve their anger.

    It is immaturity and ego that destroys the world and rule by the "intellectual elite" places the most immature in charge.

    Other random proof:
    Almost all of man's motivation for anything has to do with "getting the girl".
    The mass appeal of Islam has to do with their treatment of women.
    Most of the world's tyrants have been short men.

  5. Maybe, but I'm not sure abut the short men.

    Most of the men in the world, both tyrants and tyrannized, have been, and still are, distinctly 'short' by modern Western standards - although apparently Hitler was above-average height for his time and place, and of course he won an Iron Cross in the best infantry in the world - so presumably was not a wimp.

    In general, I would guess that most world leaders in the past were physically dominant - not necessarily tall, but strong, tough, imposing, physically courageous... They had to be.

    Also more intelligent than average; but probably seldom intellectuals - perhaps more like a modern senior NCO than an officer.

  6. Well, military men like Franco, Pinochet, "The Colonels" in Greece, actually did a pretty good job running their respective countries, and oddly enough, their regimes, while certainly repressive and marred with violence, were much less bloody than those run by "intellectuals" like Lenin, Castro, Pol Pot, Mao, etc. So you certainly have a point.


  7. I would submit that while gaining their "authority" your typical tyrant may need a certain amount of physical strength but what they have in abundance is ruthlessness, zero regard for rules or fair play, complete lack of any 'natural' moral restraint, to be conscienceless, sadistic, more like an ultimate fighter and your typical James Bond villain rolled into one, possessing the look and mindset that young Mike Tyson had entering the ring, absolutely soulless eyes.

    Intelligent without a doubt but an intelligence wholly of this world.

    And, this last is what makes today's madarin so implacable, so blind, and so desirous of misery in this world.

  8. dearieme: Because smart people significantly over-value the importance of intelligence on complex matters like leading. Sure, leaders are smarter than average, but that isn't what distinguishes a great leader from a mediocre one. A leader, of a company or a country, cannot know 20% of the material they are responsible for making decisions on. It is entirely possible that great leaders could comprehend the vast majority of that material if they tried, but they simply do not have enough time to do so. This is where intelligence may matter.

    But it seems like the primary skill that distinguishes leaders is their interpersonal skills. I am younger, but I do not remember Bill Clinton's intelligence ever really being in question. Yet, it's his interpersonal skills that floor me. A friend from high school does catering for the Clinton library in Little Rock. According to him, Clinton knows the name and general facts about every person who works there, down to the summer interns. These interns do not matter in the grand scheme of things, but Clinton will pass by and ask how they are doing by name and ask about how family members are doing by name (recalling previous conversations). I am quite confident I could rival Clinton's intellectual gifts, but those sorts of interpersonal skills are on another level compared to me or the common person.

    The same issue, the devaluing of skills that one does not have by smart people, happens if you bring up managers or salespeople. Intelligence and creativity are important for an engineer, creator or the like. Smart people will constantly laud these people while demeaning the contributions of the managers and salespeople that allow those masters of creation to do their craft. I'd guess it's the plethora of bad managers that we tend to interact with that blind us to how much a good manager can matter to a business or organization. Like how eating poor cooking for extended periods of time makes me forget the deliciousness of a well crafted dish; I'll retain the knowledge that a good dish is exquisite, but that visceral sense is dampened.

  9. @Tschafer


    The common factor in the incomparably monstrous 20th century totalitarian regimes, the factor which unites the relatively lowbrow National Socialists with the intellectuals of Communism, is atheism.

    But my point here was that West is in the historically unique (or at least very unusual) situation of partly destroying itself and partly passively allowing itself to be destroyed; while wilfully blinded to the peril - until the point where the peril is undeniable, then refusing (for purportedly high minded reasons) to do anything about it.

    As in my example yesterday - this is the first society to *allow* piracy when it has the capacity to stop it; and the reason that piracy is allowed is self-hatred.

    The strangest thing is that the modern intellectual elite is not even coherently self-interested!

    This is why I think of the decline of the West as a kind of moral insanity; and why (assuming, as I do, that humans are naturally 'religious') atheism is a plausible ultimate cause.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. @ Anonymous 15.27 - excellent comment, but please could you post under a pseudonynm in future - even when 'Anonymous' - i.e. like 'Tschafer' does above.

  12. Another wonderful book on the subject of the fate of the German intellectuals is Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany, Zimmerman 2001.
    I haven't read any of the new biographies of Goethe on the period, but the picture of his management of matters in Weimar in the Eckermann's Conversations makes one grateful that German unification didn't take place earlier in history. And yet the experience was probably good for Goethe as an artist, if not for the Weimeraners.
    On your account, Bruce, we in the States should be grateful that our president has been careful to keep what academics would regard as first-rate minds off the Supreme Court, the cabinet, etc. (even though he does so not out of Gellnerian convictions but from motives of vanity and jealousy).

  13. @ Anonymous 16.25 - excellent comment, but please could you post under a pseudonynm in future - even when 'Anonymous' - i.e. like 'Tschafer' does above.

    A system of group preferences for an out-group (soi disant 'affirmative action', whether by race as in the US or by class as in the UK university admissions) is an example of the insanity of the modern intelectual elite since these policies are self-destroying, society-destroying, inefficient and ineffective.

    Of course group preferences, like mass 'low skill' immigration, benefit leftist parties in the short term, by increasing the pool of state dependents hence left-wing voters.

    But even elementary enlightened self-interest from the intellectuals would reveal that this is a fast track to self destruction in the not-very-long-term.

    What makes this possible is the compulsive abstraction characteristic of intellectuals; but in addition some-thing or -things must have driven modern elites crazy with the suicidal despair and self-loathing that shows itself in moral inversion and an embrace of the active annihilation of that culture which is the sole source of intellectuals' own prestige.

  14. "...we in the States should be grateful that our president has been careful to keep what academics would regard as first-rate minds off the Supreme Court, the cabinet, etc."

    So what? The result is the same. Throughout history the result has always been the same. Rule by intelligentsia or militia the nature of man precludes any other outcome.
    Certain men may delay the inevitable but they are outweighed by men who accelerate it (our current president). Men are men and no man of this world will interfere with its destination.

    As the wisest man who ever lived has said, "All is vanity".

  15. There's a yarn about the first cabinet meeting that Wellington convened as PM. "I gave them their orders" said the Duke "and do you know they wanted to stay and discuss them."

  16. Bgc: "When, as is normal, mandarin abstractions are substantially incomplete and significantly biased, then there is no limit to how bad mandarin leadership can be; because any feedback provided by 'reality' can be ignored by mandarins in ways which are impossible to normal people."

    - Yes, but even if they would take feedback eagerly that wouldn't help much. The problems go deeper. The whole idea of constantly increasing control, manipulation, direction and regulation (= power) is wrong. To increase power means to make power more continuous in people's lives and actions; to make it cover more of the interactions, relationships and bonds between people, and between people and environment or organizations; to define greater part of inner life, thinking, emotions and inner rules of people; to define a growing part of the living environment, machines and tools of people; etc.

    Why this goal of continuously increasing power is not only impossible, but harmful? A slightly pointed story:

    Let's imagine a professor of psychology (X) who has wide knowledge in his field, but he doesn't know and can't know everything in his field. He wants and is empowered to rule A and his relationship with B, whatever it requires; this should be the simplest thing. We notice that X lacks the knowledge of all the other scientific fields; so his scientific knowledge is radically incomplete, let alone other information. Human capacity to know is limited when compared to available and unavailable information. Even if X would be superhuman who would know and understand all the scientific knowledge that has been published (still incomplete knowledge), the question in what way to select, in what proportions, how to apply, coordinate, direct, control and regulate this information in different situations would require superscience.

    X starts by analyzing psychologically A and his relationship with B. He notices that psychologically A is silly and goofy; he could be more "efficient" in his relationship with B. But X doesn't know that B likes A precisely because he is silly and goofy and their relationship has formed around that. The first orders of X make A increasingly alien to B. A and B have 35 years history in their relationship; A has held B's first born baby in his hands a couple of ours after he was born; they fought together in a street fight when they were attacked; they have had countless of conversations about different topics of varying levels of intimacy; they meet each other regularly to have a dinner; they participate in the same sport, and know each others hobbies and work; they know each others social web and it's interactions fairly accurately; they know memorable events in each others lives (embarrasing, funny, beautiful, sad etc. events) and countless everyday, less memorable events; they know when to speak and when to stay silent and what to say in different situations; they know each others weaknesses, strenghts, likes and dislikes, trustworthiness etc.; they have been members of the same congregation 30 years; etc. They also know how to use or not to use this information in their interactions. All the interactions of A and B is embedded in this knowledge.

    Continued ...

  17. Part 2.

    Despite profound analysis, X is almost totally oblivious about this information. His orders to A make A act in such a way that B perceives it to be increasingly akward, artificial, rude, manipulative, exploitative, distasteful, etc. B starts to think there is something wrong with A. B starts to dislike A. Because A has to act in unnatural ways to him, he feels tense and akward, and this exacerbates the problems caused by the orders.

    A is obliged to give feedback to X, but he can't or don't want to tell about different nuances; A wishes things would return to normal. A starts to resist X in his mind and secretly in his actions. X suspects this, and increases surveillance and threats of different kinds of punishments. Punishments can stabilize almost any kind of social system, including bad systems. X starts also to rearrange A's living environment, work, incentives, hobbies etc. to better control and regulate his relationship. X understands that different things in A's life are interdependent, so he must extend his control and regulation to everything in A's life. Because B threaths to end his friendship with A, X must expand his power to B's life. Because A's and B's relationship is embedded inseparably in their social webs, X stretches his power to include them. Because their social webs are irremovably connected to their society, X sows his power over the whole society.

    A and all the people in the society become stupid puppets going through simplified, emotionless, inhuman, mechanical and "efficient" movements, dictated by a madman. People can't react to different situations and changes in the environment. People can't adjust and create. People can't improvise. People can't form relationships, they become atomized and they can't form efficient cooperation. People are profoundly dissatisfied and demotivated. The production and functions of society weaken.

    One way or another this society faces it's end; by collapse, gradual weakening and disappearance, revolution, gradual subversion, outside influences or manipulation, outside competition, attack of enemy, immigration and/or something else.


    Thus scientists can produce and give useful information, which can then be applied by others as they see fit or scientist can do things themselves, but there can not be such a thing as scientific rule, unless someone wants to call clumsy, harmful, inefficient and inhuman dictatorship scientific. Elites are unfortunately expanding "scientific" rule.


    Sometimes exasperated anarchists, like Proudhon, say things well (the blog owner Bill Vallicella is a conservative and Christian, but I wouldn't take heed of the latter part of his motto "join nothing"):


  18. "also (ironically) to the eclipse of the German mandarins - who were purged virtually overnight in 1933 (only a few obedient Nazi mandarins were allowed to stay - like Martin Heidegger)."

    That isn't true. Only Jews, Communists, and far-leftists were purged.

    Many academics supported German National Socialism, and academia - especially the hard sciences - flourished under the regime.

    Also, you might not know that one of the groups which most supported the Nazis were physicians. Look it up.

  19. @ A Finn.

    That's a good parable. It illustrates how trying to control one things in society (and failing, inevitably) leads to trying to control everything in society.

    It reminds me of the chilling New Left/ feminist phrase: 'the personal is the political' - which subordinates absolutely everything to political goals.

  20. @ Pseudothyrum - fair enough - 'purged' may not be the best term. I did not mean that they were arrested or killed

    What I meant was that the Professoriate, the mandarins, were almost instantly subordinated, lost all their independence - their autonomy, lost status, were locked into the political heirarchy, became Nazi functionaries (subordinated to unintelligent men who lacked culture and education).

    In essence, the German academic system was at best suspended, but more like destroyed: what recurred after the war was a mere shell of continuity wrt the great German academic tradition, which had lost its best people and its spirit, its culture.

  21. I came across the page because I'm looking for an Ernest Gellner quotation, the source of it I mean. He says somewhere that a military aristocracy is essentially a random method of selecting society's leaders, genetically random that is. He adds that so long as society was relatively uncomplicated, it worked well enough, given that the qualifications for leadership were so meagre: ride a horse, use a sword. WHat I'm wondering is – do you know the source, in Gellner, of that quotation. A long shot, I know, but I'm hoping you can help.


    Jon Paul Henry
    Douglas Collge

  22. @JPH - Sorry, I don't recognize it, I'm afraid. Also it is wrong!