Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Why Intellectuals Revile Capitalism

The Great Depression is rightfully regarded as the bleakest period of peaceful time in our nation’s history, and yet for the liberal intellectual it was a time of newfound hope and opportunity.    Edmund Wilson, one of the most prominent intellectuals of that era, captured the sentiments of his peers in finding the Great Depression  years “not depressing but stimulating.  One couldn’t help being exhilarated at the sudden, unexpected collapse of the stupid gigantic fraud.  It gave us a new sense of freedom; and it gave us a new sense of power.”  Wilson, along with Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Jon Dos Passos, Lincoln Steffens, Malcolm Cowley, Sidney Hook, Clifton Fadiman and Upton Sinclair each supported the Communist candidate William Z. Foster in the election of 1932(6).  The list was a virtual who’s who of American intellectuals at the time.
The “stupid gigantic fraud” of free market capitalism had produced economic growth that was unprecedented in the history of the world, but in doing so it kept the importance of government in domestic affairs marginal at best, and frustrated the revolutionary and reformist dreams of the liberal intellectual.  Rather than society laying its accolades upon the liberal intellectual, it was the businessmen - the small-minded Babbits risen from the lower middle classes – that were to be credited with the enormous success of the U.S. economy.  A degree from Harvard was no automatic entry into this class, and may in fact have been a barrier.  Free market capitalism, as such, was not hospitable to a caste system that was based upon intellect. 
In that same era, the rise of communism in Eastern Europe presented intellectuals the almost criminally naïve hope of just such a caste system.  To the liberal intellectual, the contrast between the workings of the U.S. economy and that of the Soviet Union could not have been more distressing.  While a group of small-minded men were accruing enormous fortunes in transforming the U.S. economy by focusing upon the mind-numbing details of commerce, in Eastern Europe, it was the economic philosophers, steeped in their grand theories of history and human nature, who were determining the destinies of the millions in their charge.  The liberal intellectual was all too keenly aware of which economic regime was more to his liking.  His preference for the utopian rhetoric of the classless society over the dynamic freedom of free market capitalism made him blind to the atrocities and the abysmal record of communism, and he has still not recovered his sight.
But the shameful record of Western liberal intellectuals in the Cold War is merely the manifestation, albeit the most important manifestation, of their hatred of free markets.  What can explain their hatred for an economic system that led to unprecedented standards of living in their own backyards?  How could such a hatred lead them to lie incessantly about the performance of the Soviet economy, to engage in traitorous behavior within their home countries, to become a propaganda tool of a hostile foreign government in the course of the Vietnam war?
Free markets are reviled by intellectuals for two related reasons: 1) the resulting income distribution violates their sense of justice; and 2) the resulting distribution of power violates their sense of entitlement.[1]  Taking it upon themselves to cure the first ill of free markets, they naturally cure the second.  Government, as the natural monopoly of violence, has both the power and the ability to force its will onto unwilling parties, and therefore represents the only alternative to freely made decisions of individual citizens.  The centralized decisions of government are much more susceptible to the utopian dreams of the liberal intellectual, either directly or indirectly, than are the dispersed decisions of their moral inferiors.  The free market provides the intellectual a subject for criticism that establishes his moral superiority (via his alignment with those who do not fair well under a system dominated by free markets) and provides a pretense for making his own decisions the law of the land.
This is the primary reason that intellectuals are liberals – the view that government should take a larger role in society goes hand in hand with the view that it is better to have extreme inequality in the distribution of power as opposed to income.  And the bet is that the liberal intellectual stands to gain significantly in power and the status that accompanies it.  Even those liberal intellectuals who do not actively seek such power nevertheless want it in the hands of like-minded intellectuals, as this in and of itself provides external validation of the status they feel should be accorded them as a group.


Blogger pbryon said...

Excluding some of your historical background, could you not simply change a few words here and there and write a similar column about "bad guys" like Ken Lay, Dennis Koslowski, John Rigas, etc.?

Part of my problem with the way the discourse has changed over the past several years is that a brush justifiably used to paint a few people is now used to paint huge chunks of the population. Based on the actions of Lay and Koslowski, I wouldn't say that all big business advocates are bad. But now me, a liberal I guess, is being lumped with communist sympathisers.

Not a real knock on Hatcher, but this strikes a nerve. Though I, for the most part, don't agree with them, I find entertainment value in Limbaugh and Hannity. But lately, I'm finding it practically impossible to listen because of this polarization.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Perhaps I should clarify: by "Intellectual", I did not mean the term to apply to any guy with liberal leanings who happened to finish top 10 in his class at Paul VI. I mean mostly those who populate academia, and in particular those in the humanities and social sciences, (with economics being the one glaring exception). True - all lines of profession produce their villains - but some lines of profession are characterized by such villains actually having to pay some price for their actions, as Ken Lay , etc. are now doing. In contrast, I can name probably 10 prominent intellectuals of the 20th century (off the top of my head) whose reputations were probably enhanced within intellectual circles by their cowardly support of Stalin. And unfortunately academic departments are teeming with individuals cut from the same cloth. It's a broad brush, and there are no doubt exceptions, but a conservative academic in the humanities is no doubt an excpetion.

9:59 AM  

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