Section: News

On the Record: Matthew Stewart

On the Record: Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart | Courtesy of CSAD

Matthew Stewart is an American philosopher based out of Boston, Mass. 

In May, you began writing about the 9.9 percent, and have continued talking about it throughout the summer. Why now? What prompted this thought and philosophical campaign?

Well this has been building up for me for a long time; part of it comes from my personal experience. As I was raising kids really over the past 17 years, I appreciated more and more that they were coming out very differently than the way that I grew up. The other aspect is that I spent a lot of time studying history, and in the past five years, I’ve been working on a book on the philosophical influences on the struggle over slavery. As I was researching that, I became more and more convinced that the moment we’re living through now has many precedents in the past, and that the inequality we’re seeing now and its effects very much parallel to what happened before those things. So it’s something that’s been building up over time. That article which was published in May, I actually started working on it last fall. And as I said, a lot of the work that went into it actually preceded that one.

Why did you accept the CSAD’s invitation to speak at Kenyon? Is there a message that you believe is important specifically for the Kenyon community to hear?

I was honored to accept the invitation. Kenyon is a terrific college with a great reputation in the arts and philosophy, so there wasn’t much doubt that I was interested. I was particularly delighted that Bob Milnikel had read my first book, which is out of print now, I hope will be coming back in soon. Kenyon is representative of a certain kind of college that I think can play a meaningful role in addressing these issues that we have. On the one hand it’s to some degree a symptom of what’s been happening, it has become like a lot of these small liberal arts colleges that have succeeded, more selective, more precious, in a way more of a place for the elite than it was in the past. On the other hand, I think it’s got a strong tradition of research and thinking and so on that could be put to good use. So to me it’s a good place to come and talk about this myself.

Aristotle argued that democracy is a dysfunctional governmental system, and that the ideal was a mixture between oligarchy and democracy. Are aristocracies essential to democracy, or are they purely corrosive to the fabric of democratic society?

Aristotle always goes for the middle solution; he was, I think they said, extreme in his moderation. But he has an important point, even if it’s perhaps a little buried in that comment. I think that we sometimes misunderstand democracy, we think that it means simply maximizing preferences at any given point in time of the largest number of people in the society. And I think Aristotle was right to see that as not really a good form of government, but as something like mob rule, because people basically don’t know at any given point in time what’s in their interest and how to pursue it. What democracy really requires is a kind of filtering system — this is something that Aristotle understood, something that forces people to be more rational, more reasonable than they are, and the way you get that is through deliberation, through public discourse, and that requires building up a certain amount of expertise, so it does actually require allowing certain kinds of authorities that can be checked to develop. So you do actually need something more than just mob rule to have democracy. The tricky thing for human beings is how you do that without then suddenly empowering an aristocratic elite that then turns around and becomes rapacious and starts to exploit the people. So Aristotle is incredibly instructive on this, I think you just have to perhaps modify and translate his point to make it a little more relevant for modern times.

In January 2017, The New York Times reported that 19.8 percent of Kenyon students came from families in the one percent, while only 12.2 percent came from families in the bottom 60 percent. Is a similar class divide happening here in Gambier? What can Kenyon do to fix this, and what will be the consequences if this continues?

Well there are other universities that are in similar situations that have made some significant strides. I think Amherst has done a lot, and Princeton has actually done a fair amount to try to be more inclusive. So that’s one approach that Kenyon certainly could pursue now, and that I think would matter. And then the other thing to pursue is simply to look at what Kenyon students do after they get out, and to try to encourage them to pursue careers that will make a contribution to society other than simply generating more money for the big machine in the center of it. I think it’s also important to remember that Kenyon is a pretty small place, it’s not going to change the world overnight, so right now what’s most important is for people here to develop an awareness of these issues, and then I’m sure they’ll figure out how to apply it in their lives.

In your recent writing, you have implied that based on history the continuation of this American class problem will not only erode democracy, but end in “catastrophic violence.” Do you believe this will happen in the future? What can the Kenyon community do to help bridge the divides that are causing the problem?

Right, the lesson from history is pretty dire. I don’t think I’m by disposition a gloom-and-doom person, but I think history is telling. What it says is that as inequalities build up, a political system becomes inherently unstable, it becomes profoundly irrational. Partly, it’s a simple fact that the people who are on the losing end of the bargain stand up and rebel, but it’s actually worse than that, because the system of inequality can only sustain itself as far as it can by promoting irrationality. One reason why we have so much denial of basic science, so much denial of reason, logic, journalism and reporting in our society today is precisely because that’s the only way that inequality can sustain itself. And that dynamic happens now, but it’s happened in the past. If you push that further, the path shows very clearly. This leads to events like the Civil War.

Fredrick Douglass has this amazing insight where he says, if there had been a genuine freedom of discussion in the United States in the era before the Civil War, there would’ve been no Civil War. We actually would have found a way to end slavery without going through a war, because people would have understood that in the long term it was not in their interest, and they would have stopped being bamboozled by the slave holders. Right now, we’re in that kind of predicament, where we are sort of universally bamboozled, and if we don’t try come up with a reasonable way to solve it, history shows that it ends up violently. I’m not going to predict what form that violence is going to take, but we’re already seeing signs of it. I mean our constitution is under more stress now than it has been in over 150 years.

What can members of the Kenyon community who are not in the 9.9 percent do to help this problem? Does the responsibility to bridge the gap fall exclusively onto the 9.9 percent?

Oh, it falls on everybody. And I only singled out the 9.9 percent, because I’m targeting a particular myth, the myth that the 9.9 percent can just blend back into the middle class. But that doesn’t mean that everybody is not implicated, in fact we all are. I think that we really need to work on our communications. We need to be a little more honest about the class structure, I think that’s true about people whichever part of the system they come from to be more honest and direct with each other and try to communicate. One thing that I think would help is just to make some of the more advantaged members of our society aware of what’s happening elsewhere. A lot of people in beautiful neighborhoods like where I live or I imagine Gambier as well, we have an abstract idea that things are not so good in other parts of the country, but often we don’t have a very concrete idea and it would certainly help for people to see what’s actually going on, to see that perhaps 100 miles south of here you have areas where life expectancy is dramatically lower, or average education levels are dramatically lower. So we all I think have to work hard to make people aware of what’s actually happening.

Do you have anything to add?

I like to approach these kinds of issues philosophically. Even though I am maybe known as maybe a critic of academic philosophy, I want to encourage everyone to go back to their philosophy books and take them seriously. I think your question about Aristotle is a good case in point of how we can use some of the resources of philosophy to understand the present. Not dogmatically simply accepting some things they say, but looking at it and seeing what our options are on things.




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