Former Bain Capital managing director Edward Conard reminds me of Joseph Stalin

Edward Conard, Former Bain Capital managing director, Mitt Romney partner, and newly published author, has an economic philosophy similar to that of Joseph Stalin’s.

Conard’s widely reported - and derided - attitude towards anyone with the capacity “to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism [of the economy] but who chose[s] instead a less competitive life,” whom Conard scorns as “art-history majors,” should be troubling for anyone mindful of the supposed moral underpinnings of authoritarian political philosophies.

In a May 14 2012 interview to discuss his new book about economics and innovation with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, Conard was given a chance to clarify statements he made about “art-history majors,” which appeared in a New York Times Magazine article by Adam Davidson.

“The book has a moral component to it,” he told Lehrer. “It says that talented people have an obligation to get the training that’s required to produce innovation and that they need to take the risks that are necessary to produce it.”

I’m sure we’ve all been annoyed during our humanities classes by hairsplitting cultural criticism esoterica that only seems to serve to re-categorize the previous generations’ isms, but to write off any academic pursuit that seeks to better understand society, past or present, is tantamount to book-burning.

I’m not a political historian, but statements like Conard’s make me shudder. The idea that U.S. citizens have a “moral obligation” to pursue educations, careers, etc. that only support the growth of the economy harkens back to authoritarian philosophies like fascism and Stalinism.

In 1945, Russian-born British philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin visited Russia as an official of the British Foreign Office and penned a nearly 10,000-word memorandum titled “A Note on Literature and the Arts in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in the Closing Months of 1945.”

“The main engagement of the early and middle 1920s was fought between the free and somewhat anarchist literary experimenters and the Bolshevik zealots…” he wrote.

“There followed, during the period of “pacification” and stabilization organized by Stalin and his practical-minded collaborators, a new orthodoxy, directed principally against the emergence of any ideas likely to disturb and so divert attention from the economic tasks ahead.”

This is an example of what Conard’s philosophy could be as manifested in governance: “Stalin and his practical-minded collaborators” have a severe aversion to “any ideas likely to disturb and so divert attention from the economic tasks ahead.”

In a 1946 discussion with creative leaders in the Soviet Union that covered topics such as the ideological dangers of art and literature, Stalin scoffs at anything short of socialist realism that doesn’t support his cause. His tone is remarkably similar to that of Conard’s:

“Today under the guise of innovation formalism is being induced in Soviet music and abstraction in painting. Once in a while a question can be heard ‘is it necessary for such great people as Bolsheviks and Leninists to be engaged in such petty things and spend time criticizing abstract painting and formalism. Let the psychiatrists deal with it.”

“There is no art for art’s sake. There are no, and cannot be, ‘free’ artists, writers, poets, dramatists, directors, and journalists, standing above the society. Nobody needs them. Such people don’t and can’t exist.”

Similarities between Conard and Stalin also exist in the narrow focus of their opinions about intellectual pursuits in the creative realm. Essentially, the moral component of their argument is the same: If it serves no economically measurable purpose, it has no use for our country.

In his interview with Lehrer, Conard goes on to say that he sees a “surplus” (notice his use of economic terminology) of smart people in the United States that aren’t getting the training needed to create innovation. “We don’t get to be art history majors for the sake of our own satisfaction,” he said, demeaning the choices of those whom Stalin might call the “creative intelligentsia,” who are - in the autocratic leader’s words - “completely dependent on the monetary support of the financial magnates in their creative endeavors.”

This makes me wonder what Conard’s hierarchy of college majors is according to their value towards innovation, or if he’s aware, for instance, that the late innovation of social media (he mentioned Facebook in his interview with Lehrer) is humming on the energy and creativity of the individuals educated through the humanities or other useless college majors. I also wonder what he thinks about Art History majors that study the art market or Economics majors that study history. I wonder if he’s ever read Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto.

There are familiar political battles over arts education in public schools, but the fight typically involves the effects of the arts versus science and math in the intellectual and cognitive development in children. At this point, arts education advocates, who can make strong moral arguments for their cause, don’t typically need to defend the arts in public schools based on their long-term impact on the economy. However, if Conard’s philosophy begins to pervade the halls of our local and national governments, arts advocates will be facing much more politically potent weapons, especially in Tea Party-dominated legislatures.

Image of Conard via his website. Image of Stalin via the web.