08 March 2024

intellectuals, priests and power - II


The concept of power is one that has not been adequately explored, and is not well understood. A large Marxism-inspired literature making reference to the word ‘power’ has emerged out of the academic humanities during the last forty years. But this has obfuscated rather than clarified the issue.
   ‘Power’ should be taken to include ideological and moral power; in other words, the ability to influence and control thought, speech or morality. This is irrespective of whether such power leads to financial rewards, or involvement in government.*
   The word ‘power’ tends to conjure up images of dictators, billionaires or other powerful individuals. But most high-level power is exercised by groups or coalitions acting cooperatively, rather than by a single person acting unilaterally.
   Ideological power – the type of power exercised, for example, by an organised religion – depends on a class of intellectuals acting in concert. Such concerted action does not necessarily involve explicit cooperation, but can happen tacitly.
   I am using the word ‘intellectuals’ in the broad sense of: individuals whose primary activity is inventing and disseminating ideas. This covers the functionaries of a religious order, authors of non-fiction books, and academics. It also includes the proponents of a political ideology. It does not include those who only teach material that has been produced by others.
   Outside the intellectual sphere, acting in concert tends to require explicit agreement to prevent defection, since such action is initially costly for each individual, and only pays off if no one free-rides. However, academics are generally required to produce material of some kind at a certain rate, regardless; for them to cooperatively align such material so as to privilege certain perspectives may not be particularly costly. Such ‘collusion’ can therefore happen tacitly.

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I propose the following:

The bias of humanities professors in favour of collectivism, and in favour of intervention generally, is best understood in terms of a desire for power.

Such desire is not necessarily conscious.

‘Desire for power’ should not be interpreted as automatically suspicious. Ideological power, like all power, can be used for good or bad – though the definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may vary from person to person. Seeking power should not necessarily be condemned; however, it is still power that is being sought, whatever it is ultimately used for. The desire for power can be expected to bias intellectuals’ choice of perspectives.
   It seems reasonable to assume that ideological power, like any other form of power, is sought partly for its own sake. Such an assumption helps to explain some of the strategies undertaken by humanities professors, when considered as a class. The class’s current tendency to contribute towards the generation of echo chambers, and its lack of wholehearted support for free speech, are examples of behaviour which are easier to understand if we posit that there are power motives at work.
   An individual philosophy or politics don has little ideological power by him- or herself. Such power can only come from a large number of academics acting in concert. There needs to be sufficient consensus present, in order for laymen to accept (e.g.) the authority of sociologists in claiming that capitalism is damaging, or of social psychologists in claiming that benevolent sexism harms women.

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In talking about academics’ collective desire for power, we are coming close to the concept of conspiracy, so beloved of some, and so loathed and despised by others. If we understand ‘conspiracy’ to mean ‘a group of people meeting up to plan something they know is dodgy’ then it seems unlikely that academics are engaging in such action on a significant scale.
   Let’s see, however, what happens if we relax the criteria a little. Rather than ‘meeting up to plan something’, consider:
- individually acting on principles that they know are agreed to by many others of their kind, dimly aware that their actions are being echoed by those others, and that they are therefore likely to be acting in concert.
In place of ‘planning something they know is dodgy’, consider:
- trying to bring about something they believe to be virtuous and necessary.
Combining these two criteria, we get a hypothetical type of behaviour that not only isn’t particularly farfetched, but is something to which many academics will eagerly confess.

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Next week: the final instalment of this 3-parter.

* Power does not have to involve political control or financial rewards, it can simply mean being able to influence thought or speech. Much of the time the power of intellectuals takes this latter form. Nevertheless, particularly in the case of economists, academics’ power to shape narratives can lead to both political and financial rewards. A good example is the libertarian-paternalism narrative, which allowed some of its proponents to take well-paid government advisory roles.