If you doubt my contention that the Cult of Smart exists, consider immigration. Immigration discussions are where the Cult of Smart is often most direct and explicit, as supporters typically defend immigration as a way to get more smart and talented people into our country. This pro-immigration rhetoric is well-meaning, and as I am a Marxist I am necessarily an internationalist and believe everyone who wants to come should come. 1 But it’s a bad argument that hurts more than it helps.
Take this piece from August from Alfred Chuang, who himself immigrated to the United States on an H1-B visa. He lays the case out starkly:
Many notable founders and executives in Silicon Valley followed a similar path as me. This includes Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and others who worked in the United States as part of the H1-B visa program. If these restrictions existed at the time, we could have been living in a world where many of these companies either would not exist, would not have been founded in America, or in the case of Zoom and Microsoft, would have lacked the leadership of these great CEOs…. America needs to embrace the role of visas in bringing brilliant people to our country…. We must support the visa programs and strive to keep all of the incredibly talented individuals here.
OK. But what about all the non-brilliant people? The thing about “incredibly talented” people are that they are by definition low in number. What about the average Joe or Jane? Forget for a moment about the smokescreen of people with criminal records, which is typically a talking point to derail the broader argument. Why should the American people welcome only those who have the skills, mindset, and motivation to become tech company CEOs? Unlike many progressive people, I don’t think everyone has that potential. But I do think that all people have human potential, the ability to flourish as kind, deserving, fulfilled people. To think of a person’s potential as being synonymous with their intellectual prowess – and intellectual prowess being defined in the incredibly limited sense as prescribed by neoliberal capitalism – is, well, it’s the Cult of Smart. It’s a blinkered and myopic perspective on human flourishing.
As long as we flog the argument that we’re increasing immigration specifically to get more techies into Silicon Valley, or more smarties generally, we’re hamstringing ourselves when we fight for mass immigration. (And will forever favor the interests of the already-affluent among potential immigrants.) The masses cannot be exceptional, by definition. What they are is human, and our argument should be that this is enough – that it’s enough for someone to want to come and try and flourish here. Let them in.
Incidentally: when tech companies cry out for more visas for highly-skilled workers, they claim it’s because of a dearth of good candidates here. It’s far more likely that they’re simply trying to import more workers to drive down the cost of wages, which they’d prefer not to pay. After all, they already engaged in an illegal conspiracy to do so.