Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Intelligence is not understanding (1980)

From the September 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is a child born with a certain level of intelligence or is it acquired, through upbringing and education? Or perhaps some of both? Arguments over this question are common, and they indicate the extent to which the concept of “intelligence" has been accepted as a reality.

The more deeply we dig, however, the clearer it becomes that “intelligence” is a fairly recent construction, rather than any objective mental characteristic or ability which has been discovered. It becomes clear, also, that this construction or invention of intelligence plays an increasingly large part in the control and running of modern capitalism.

Through the widespread use of intelligence tests and a complex examinations structure young workers are selected, streamed and paced through their education, training and jobs. Moreover, the idea of “intelligence" has become the core of an ideology which contends that every child actually has equality of opportunity; that the “best” will rise to the top; and that these deserve to be paid the highest salaries and given the greatest admiration. It is an ideology that (like the growing cult of sport) encourages intensified competition and the acceptance of a hierarchy throughout the working class in all capitalist countries.
"To Ford a degree signifies proven intellectual capabilities. We train graduates from a wide variety of disciplines to become some of the most professional and achievement orientated managers in British industry, and our management training is recognised as one of the most fertile breeding grounds for top management professionals.
The quality of these managers has helped Ford to emerge and remain as one of the most successful companies in Britain . . .
(Graduate Opportunities 1979)
In this advertisement, the Ford Motor Company was trying to buy trained intelligence like the commodity it is, but at the same time to present the illusion that to dedicate all your enthusiasm, loyalty and hard work to the rat-race of increasing Ford’s profits at the expense of competitors is a fulfilling, satisfying life. These managers are to become the top-paid workers who control and pressurise workers lower down the hierarchy to produce more, better, faster, cheaper.

Here, in these watchwords of capitalist production, is one clue to definition of “intelligence”. In the introduction to Check Your Own I.Q. by Professor H. J. Eysenck, he says (p. 15), “When we analyse performance on intelligence tests in some detail, we find that there is one outstanding characteristic which more than any other determines success or failure. This characteristic is mental speed.” And then he shows where he stands in the “nature/ nurture” argument by finishing the paragraph, “This all-pervasive mental speed, I would say, is the fundamental, inherited basis for intellectual differences between people.” Then he goes on to point out that the effects of mental speed are modified by personality factors such as persistence and care in checking answers. He also draws attention to the fact that practice can make a considerable difference to the scores people achieve; and, because he regards it as an impossibility to keep intelligence tests totally secret, advocates the alternative policy of making them as widely known and used as possible.

Eysenck makes the crucial point about intelligence testing, however, in response to criticisms about the partiality of tests:
To obtain a reasonable measure, therefore, we must have a certain homogeneity of motivation, background training, set, experience and knowledge: no intelligence test is universally valid but applies only to a given sub-set of the population. Know Your Own I. Q., as well as the present book, was intended for literate, English-reading people, between the ages of eighteen and fifty or sixty, with above average IQs and a corresponding minimum degree of schooling.
As he develops his argument it becomes obvious that the way intelligence tests are designed discriminates in favour of those adults and children who come from families which are already relatively successful and ambitious in competitive capitalist society and who have accepted the values set up for them by their rulers. Intelligence tests do not merely test: they also incessantly validate and reinforce those values. They serve as an instrument of social stability and a means of social control.

There was an upsurge of mental testing of all sorts in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Britain, Europe and America, and it is not difficult to see why. In the sixty years between 1851 and 1911 the population of Great Britain doubled to 18 million; agricultural workers declined from 2 million to 1.5 million, while workers in mining and manufacture doubled to 8.5 million, and workers in services, commerce, transport and communications trebled to 8.3 millions. With such a reproduction of labour power, capitalism badly needed techniques and systems for sorting and grading this labour power. With such an increase in the size of the working class, the capitalist class looked anxiously for a means of social control. Intelligence testing, integrated with the school system, provided an answer to both. In America, H. H. Goddard wrote (Human Efficiency and Levels of Intelligence, Princeton University Press, 1920, p. 97), “The disturbing fear is that the masses—the seventy or even eighty-six million—will take matters into their own hands."

In an address delivered to the Fifth Conference on Educational Policies at the New York Teachers College entitled ‘How may we improve the selection, training and life work of leaders?’ (Columbia University Press, 1939, p. 32) Edward L. Thorndike said, “It is the great good fortune of mankind that there is a substantial correlation between intelligence and morality, including goodwill towards one’s fellows. Consequently our superiors in ability are on the average our benefactors, and it is often safer to trust our interests to them than to ourselves.” To psychologists like Goddard and Thorndike, Carnegie and Rockefeller gave a continuous stream of money for research and development of tests and school text books. In this way they were able to supplement, and eventually influence, the policies of national and local government in the USA.

This development of a hierarchy of intelligence in all the industrialised capitalist nations is sometimes misleadingly called a meritocracy. Apart from the fact that equating mental speed with merit is cynical even by capitalist standards, the word implies that the people with this sort of merit rule society, which is simply untrue. Intelligence tests and examination ladders are for workers. Capitalists neither want nor need them; and it is they who rule. They do not even need “intelligence” because they can buy it without difficulty, together with enthusiasm, loyalty and hard work. Indeed, it is ironic that it has been members of the working class, in the middle and higher income brackets, who have been most assiduous in developing and consolidating the intelligence hierarchy in order to enhance their own prestige and fend off competition. Nevertheless, by allowing virtually all the work to be done for them, the capitalist class has given up any pretence at performing a useful function in society. They rule only through their ownership of capital and the fact that the working class continues to operate society according to their laws and in their interests. 

“Intelligent” workers do not understand this any better than “unintelligent” workers. As the slump develops, they will be just as bewildered when they are thrown out of a job as the man on the factory floor. When the next war comes, they will have more sophisticated rationalisations for going to fight their masters’ battles, but they will die just the same.

Intelligence is not understanding; it is not common sense; it is not awareness; and above all it is not class consciousness. These are the mental abilities the working class must develop if they are to do away with slumps, wars and all the other idiocies of capitalism. Intelligence, defined, selected and trained as it is at present, is a hindrance rather than a help.
Ron Cook