01 March 2024

intellectuals, priests and power - I

Having been posting about Marxism, and about ideology, I need to say something about the role of intellectuals. After all, we’re not in the position we’re in because Western populations as a whole have been spontaneously drawn to the perspectives of cultural Marxism. We’re here because Marxism, in its various forms, has always been – and continues to be – highly attractive to a significant proportion of intellectuals. Ideology does not operate autonomously in some metaphysical realm. Behind ideology are individuals who develop and sustain it, and who disseminate and defend it.
   In spite of the many failures of Marxist politics, and in spite of its rejection by many of the populations who lived under it, intellectuals have continued to find the Marxist framework appealing, particularly those living in countries that haven’t experienced communism. Economic and political failure has simply meant that attention has switched to the parts of Marxism that are not overtly about politics or economics.
   The draw of Marxism, and collectivism in general, to intellectuals seems undeniable. The phenomenon is broader than Marxism, and precedes it. It can be seen, for example, in Prussian philosophy professors Georg Hegel and Johann Fichte, in the generation before Marx. We can go all the way back to 4th century BC Athens, and observe what is probably the same effect in the totalitarian philosophy of Plato. However, the breadth and complexity of Marxist ideology was unprecedented in intellectual history, and provided a powerful focal point for collectivist preferences during the twentieth century.
   As to the motives for this attraction to collectivism, one is forced to speculate. Research into the question is unlikely ever to yield reliable answers. Much of human motivation is concealed, or unconscious; concealment, and lack of awareness, are probably adaptive, therefore likely to be hardwired. Trying to elicit people’s deep-seated motives, by way of simple enquiry, is therefore likely to be a hit-and-miss process at best, and completely misleading at worst.

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There is however one obvious reason why we might expect intellectuals to be biased in favour of collectivism. Collectivism is at the opposite end of the spectrum from laissez-faire. Under collectivism, interactions between individuals are comprehensively regulated by a central entity acting in the name of, and ostensibly on behalf of, the population as a whole. Everything is supposedly run in everyone’s best interests. Deciding what those best interests are, however, is far from straightforward, and it is here that the services of intellectuals are called for. Intellectuals advise not only on how best to achieve what is wanted, but also on what people ought to want. This provides enormous scope for discretion.
   The ability to assert, from a position of authority, the world is not the way you think it is, it’s actually some other way, and only we understand it, and the psychological rewards of believing one is in a position of superior knowledge, are further reasons why complex social theories that imply the need for collective intervention are likely to appeal to intellectuals.
   The status of intellectuals under collectivism in practice, particularly the totalitarian kind, has been mixed – some acquire significant status, while others are marginalised, imprisoned, or live in fear. Nevertheless, we can see how the hope of having more influence can lead to a bias, possibly unconscious, in favour of greater government and other institutional control. This explanation for collectivist bias can also shed light on the intellectual class’s current fetishisation of change, and on why the Marxist term ‘reproduction’ (essentially meaning social stability) has become a fashionable boo-word among humanities professors.
   Intellectuals’ attraction to collectivism/paternalism has been around for a long time, but it was not until the state became involved in the humanities that the phenomenon began to gain traction. By World War 2, the state in most Western nations had started to become intimately involved with the dissemination of psychological and sociological perspectives to undergraduates. The organisation of intellectuals into large collectivities, and their increasing dependence on state finance, seems to have progressively heightened the bias towards collectivism.
   It is in the post-war era that the phenomenon of a state-financed class of intellectuals, with enough numerical muscle to play a significant role in shaping political and moral thinking, has really taken off. The massive expansion since the 1960s of the university sector has generated (a) a large population of intellectuals possessing state-backed authority, and (b) a high proportion of the population who, during their student days, were passive recipients of those intellectuals’ political preferences, usually rationalised as social theory.
   The combination of (a) and (b) generates a vocal and influential segment of the population, highly educated and enthusiastic for intervention, that is beginning to approach the 50 percent level in some cases. The effect can be seen most obviously in America. We get an image of a nation in which half the electorate ‘knows’ how to make things better for the other half, and then gets indignant – to the point of organised protests – when that other half refuses to take its medicine and votes for a non-approved candidate.

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Collectivist philosophies such as Marxism also seem to appeal to a significant proportion of those working in the arts. This may be partly because many of them like the idea of their work contributing to human improvement, and because this makes them sympathetic to improvement generally. Yet there is no necessary link between improvement and collectivism. A society organised collectively is not necessarily any more likely to make things better for any given social group than a laissez-faire one – other than perhaps for the organisers.
   Any change achievable via the state can be achieved by civil means, with the advantage that the latter method is far less likely to involve coercion, or human suffering, in the name of improvement.
   It is a reflection of the control which pro-state intellectuals have gained over political narratives that simplistic equations between collectivism and altruism, and between individualism and selfishness, have been successfully sold to audiences.

In the next post I will look at the topic of power.