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Revenge of the anti-nerds

  • Published at 12:01 am September 9th, 2016
  • Last updated at 05:32 pm September 9th, 2016
Revenge of the anti-nerds

Throughout the early 80s and 90s, there was a series of college-comedy movies called “Revenge of the Nerds.” The movies showed how a group of brainy college kids ultimately triumphed over their handsome and muscle-bound opponents in winning fame and hot girls.

They were passable comedies, somewhat tepid imitation of the mold set by Animal House. The important thing about those movies was how they marked the period as a time when nerd culture transitioned from fringes of ridicule to mainstream appeal to eventual idolisation.

People who are now in their 40s or older can see a clear pattern of change in the heroes and idols of popular culture overtime. Brains have become increasingly sexier than brawn, or even good looks.

While muscle-bound Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the heroes of the 80s, deeply conflicted and multi-dexterous Jason Bourne was the hero of the noughties. While pretty, youth-filled Friends was the place where young people of the 90s escaped, the youth of today love The Big Bang Theory, filled with distinctly not-handsome but brainy and awkward geeks.    

The 90s really was the decades when the current wave of globalisation really took off. Since then, movement of goods, services, capital, and people across the globe have ballooned without any precedence.

Political economy teaches that whenever a country opens itself to the world, some economic, social, and cultural cleavages begin to entrench and widen among its people.

The current wave of globalisation has also generated many fractures in societies throughout the world, but perhaps the obvious and important cleavage is between the highly educated and the not-so-well-educated.

More than any other time in history, the current era bestows its riches unreservedly upon the highly-educated. And more than any other time in history, the current era is expressively miserly and unkind to people who could not afford higher education.

Until a few decades ago, it was very possible for a hard-working, honest person without higher education to succeed in a career or entrepreneurship and enter the ranks of the middle class. These days, that possibility has shrunk considerably.

Higher education became the de facto passport to the Elysium of globalisation because of several reasons, the most important being the conjunction of the rise of knowledge economy with globalised capitalism.

Long ago, Karl Marx brilliantly identified that the central impulse of capitalism is to standardise and commoditise every input in the competitive pursuit of profit. Capitalism has commoditised material input almost completely by this time, and it has made large strides in standardising and automatising human input in the value chain.

All kinds of labour and services that were once hallmarks of individuality and creativity have now been commoditised. All jobs that do not require advanced knowledge are being relentlessly commoditised and therefore devalued in financial compensation.

Survey after survey has shown that the clearest predictor of someone being a Donald Trump voter in the Republican primaries was that he or she did not possess a college degree. The same phenomenon replicated in Brexit

Globalised capitalism not only devalues these manufacturing and service jobs but also shows little regard for local culture and identity. If people of a certain area show reluctance to do these automatised jobs for lesser pay, capitalism either moves jobs and services to a different place or try to encourage people from another culture who are desperate enough to do work for less compensation.

Meanwhile, the globalised knowledge economy is awardingly increasing premium to high-level knowledge that can be almost impossible to gain without advanced education.

Today, a person who has managed to gain the requisite skills and knowledge can enter the ranks of the global elite in IT, science and engineering, high finance, or high-level management, with ease -- his cultural background matters little.

Social and communication skills, cultural purity, family connections, the attributes elites have been using for hundreds of years as the gatekeepers of prosperity have lost much of their edge. Knowledge-based skills are often things that are solely sufficient.

Current globalisation has, therefore, fractured societies in advanced democracies along an ever-widening cleavage by higher education.

Numerous survey and studies paint a clear picture: The highly-educated are more likely to be socially and economically liberal, less religious, less nationalistic, more cosmopolitan, more tolerant to living with people from other cultures, and believe in humanistic morality.

They also have late-but-stable marriages and lead healthier lifestyles.

The less-educated are likely to be socially conservative, more religious, more nationalistic, more suspicious of people from different cultures, and believe in simple black and white morality. They also have less stable marriages and poor health habits.

The highly-educated and the less-educated not only live in different parts of the country, they also seem to live in totally different cultures.

The fragmented world of TV shows is just one small aspect of this yawning cultural divide. Moreover, the popular cultures of the highly-educated in different countries have remarkable commonality. The highly-educated can find kindred people almost all over the world. Culture of the less-educated, on the other hand, remains bound to unique traditions to a large extent.    

The higher-education divide is not only due to difference in economic opportunities, it is also due to radical ideological makeover. The few years spent in the diverse and intellectually challenging environment of college and universities change social and political outlook dramatically.

Studies have shown that taking one college-level course on economics makes a person significantly more likely to support free trade and globalisation. No wonder that conservatives in the Western world regard universities as dark satanic mills where godless professors brainwash young people on an industrial scale.

The education divide is increasingly becoming the most important driver of politics in the advanced democracies. Survey after survey has shown that the clearest predictor of someone being a Donald Trump voter in the Republican primaries was that he or she did not possess a college degree. The same phenomenon replicated in Brexit, where people with higher education overwhelmingly voted to remain while people without voted for the exit.

The support base of almost all anti-immigration, far-right parties in continental Europe is built on people who do not have a university degree. The less-educated working-class has been exploited as faithful voting blocs by both the centre-right and centre-left mainstream parties for a long time.

Not anymore.

They were dissatisfied with the elites for a long time but now they are angry enough to displace the elites and take over the parties themselves. The anti-nerds are fighting back, and they are now savvy enough to use their democratic strength as main weapon of war.

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.

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