WRITING THE RESISTANCE (5)
INTELLECTUALS AND SOCIETY
1st September, 2020
By Vito Esposito - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Neither is he conscious of his ignorance. For he does not hold aloof in order that he may gain a reputation; but the truth is, that the outer form of him only is in the city: his mind, disdaining the littlenesses and nothingnesses of human beings, is ‘flying all abroad’ as Pindar says, measuring earth and heaven and the things which are under and on the earth and above the heaven, interrogating the whole nature of each and all in their entirety, but not condescending to anything which is within reach.
Thomas Sowell, American economist and sociologist, turned 90 years old in May. He has devoted his professional life to examining society with an informed, critical and conservative eye. Although it should be the case that a ferociously intelligent black man, able to operate at the highest level of observation, collation, and honest commentary, would be lionised by the regnant black caucus, Sowell has been shunned by black colleagues and the identitarian culture they inhabit. Candace Owens is currently experiencing the same vitriol.
Sowell has written over 30 books, but here I will focus on 2010’s Intellectuals and Society, and in particular – given the precise time we are in – its expanded version with extra chapters on intellectuals and race. As Sowell repeatedly emphasises, the decisions made by intellectuals risk a doubly ruinous range of effects, being both divorced from the real world in their incubation, and disastrously impactful on that same world in their application.
Sowell begins Intellectuals and Society with an epistemological appraisal of intellectuality, working from a simple formula; ‘Intelligence minus judgement equals intellect’. Thus we have the familiar figure of the technocrat, expert in theory but unable to put it to pragmatic use. This seems obvious, but the extent to which it subverts society, aided by the lack of accountability of intellectuals, is a direct result of a fallacy. While intellectuals may indeed have more knowledge than a population per capita, this overlooks the fact that ‘the population at large may have vastly more total knowledge… even if that knowledge is scattered in individually unimpressive fragments among vast numbers of people’. The result is a version of the naturalistic fallacy; because intellectuals know more than the average person, they ought to be left to make decisions affecting everyone.
This is not a new idea. We find it as long ago as Plato’s Theaetetus, in which Socrates pronounces;
‘Neither do I denounce the existence of wisdom or the wise man. But I maintain that wisdom is a practical remedial power of turning evil into good, the bitterness of disease into the sweetness of health, and does not consist in any greater truth or superior knowledge’.
In classical Athens, however, the errant wise man lacked the technologically amplified power of the modern intellectual to destroy lives and livelihoods.
Sowell traces ‘expert culture’ – currently wreaking havoc with coronavirus as its weapon of choice – back to the 18th century, and a particular path trodden by Enlightenment reason. This apparently faultless application of methodology is taken by the elite class as beneficial in and of itself, a priori the correct methodology to address any and every problem, a point also drawn out in John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards. Sowell then goes on to examine this highly specialised misuse of reason in his own area of expertise, economics.
With his usual skilled ability to encapsulate a procedural error in the intellectual class, Sowell discovers a methodological tertium quid which confounds economic description in the modern world;
‘Variations in income can be viewed empirically, on the one hand, or in terms of moral judgments, on the other. Most of the contemporary intelligentsia do both’.
What we have here is a transgression of a version of the logical rule of the excluded middle, whereby statement p can be true or not true but not both simultaneously. The worldview that emerges from this simple error leads to the politics of ressentiment, both economically and in the wider societal sphere. The contemporary Left and their intellectual enablers see disparities in income, and their default position is that these are due to social injustice. Any other explanation is invalid prior to analysis of detail. I have spent fruitless hours searching for the provenance of the following;
‘Alchemy became chemistry. Astrology became astronomy. I wonder what economics will become’.
It has been attributed, curiously, to noted scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis but, whoever minted this masterpiece in miniature, whatever strange moth does emerge from the chrysalis of today’s economic theories will surely carry in its markings the traces of Thomas Sowell. His extended treatment of the deleterious effects of economists in their role as intellectuals treats the non-economist gently, and provides enough historical background to explain how we got to wherever on earth we are today. A perfect example is his potted definition of the term laissez-faire, associated with although not introduced by Adam Smith, but rather coined by the 18th-century physiocratic writers;
‘[T]he conviction that an uncontrolled economy was not one of chaos but of order, emerging from systematic interactions among the people competing with, and accommodating to, one another’.
Concerning the two intellectual economists, Smith and Marx, the first traditionally the godfather of capitalism, the second with a decent claim to being the most ruinous intellectual in history, Sowell notes that Smith (who does not champion profiteering) gave ‘depictions of businessmen [which] were at least as negative as those of Marx’, although it ought to be noted in passing that Marx was paradoxically favourable to free-market economics, as the following excerpt from Marx and Engels’ Speech on the question of free trade delivered to the Democratic Association of Brussels at its public meeting of January 9, 1848 makes surprisingly clear;
‘Generally speaking, the protectionist system today is conservative, whereas the Free Trade system has a destructive effect. It destroys the former nationalities, and renders the contrast between workers and middle class more acute. In a word, the Free Trade system is precipitating the social revolution. And only in this revolutionary sense do I vote for free trade’.
Marx may not have seen The Godfather II, but he knew how to keep his friends close and his enemies closer.
It is in the context of his specialist subject that Sowell writes one of the key lines of the book, exposing a simple linguistic tactic responsible for much of the Left’s dominance in the arena of cultural debate, such as it is;
‘One of the many signs of verbal virtuosity among intellectuals is the repackaging of words to mean things that are not only different from, but sometimes the direct opposite of, their original meanings or the meaning that most other people attach to those words’.
This strategy, which we might label ‘dysnominalism’, is one of the Left’s most effective methods of disarming opposition. We will take two obvious examples. The word ‘racism’ should mean prejudicial behavior or language used against others of a race or ethnicity other than that of the agent. However, the meaning has now been modified to mean the same thing with the exception of all cases in which the ‘other’ is white. The word has thus had its meaning changed from being a universal to being a conditional. As for the change in polarity to a meaning’s opposite, this is most clearly seen in the Leftist mantra that free speech does not include hate speech. Thus, ‘free’ comes to mean ‘unfree’.
Meaning and its manipulation is thematic for Sowell. The very opposition of the political Left and Right is the result of a biased dialectic;
‘Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the left and the right is that only the former has even a rough definition. What is called “the right” are simply the various and disparate opponents of the left’.
It is Sowell’s great insight to show that, instead of the difference in political belief being based on eristic and reasoned argument, it is rather the result of arbitration exercised in the realm of morality.
The Left, Sowell re-iterates, are obsessed not with truth or reasoned debate, quite the opposite. Their guiding ethos is the desire to be seen as ‘on the side of the angels’. For the Left, this obsessive need to be seen to be adhering to a moral rectitude whose terms are largely invented to suit the mood of the age is elevated into doctrine and, with the accrual of power – as we are seeing now with Black Lives Matter and their paramilitary wing, Antifa – this becomes enforceable not just on the streets, but eventually in law. What begins as the fairly harmless-sounding ‘political correctness’ soon hardens into realpolitik, as dissenters from hastily assembled moral codes are ostracised, coerced and intimidated into a forced allegiance.
As everyone is now aware, race is to the latest version of the radical Left what class was to Marxism and Communism. Everything reduces to race, and everything concerning race is reducible to oppression. Class war is replaced by race war, race being of no interest to Communism, intended as it was to be trans-national.
As always, Sowell sees straight to the heart of the problem and unpacks the basic epistemological error at the heart of race-based demands for justice;
‘The kind of collective justice demanded for racial or ethnic groups is often espoused as “social justice”, but could more aptly be called cosmic justice, since it seeks to undo disparities created by circumstances, as well as those created by the injustices of human beings’.
The totem around which the racial village of the new Left is built is of course slavery, a contemporary version of the Biblical fall which leads to a replacement original sin, whiteness. And slavery is a perfect example of the nature of the intellectual transaction, which is to take a historical fact, adapt and mould it to serve an ideological purpose, and then ignore or censor any attempt to restore the original facts of the matter. Slavery was only committed by whites, and only blacks were the victims. This falsification has the imprimatur of the guild of intellectuals, and that is what their foot-soldiers are issued with. In reality, anathema as that is to the Left and its intellectual vanguard;
‘[W]hat was peculiar about Western society was not that it had slaves, like other societies around the world, but that it was the first civilization to turn against slavery’.
This, of course, is non-narrative, kryptonite to the shock troops of the woke generation. We can say of slavery as it is understood and weaponised by the Left what Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil about the French Revolution, that ‘the text disappeared beneath the interpretation’. The radical Left require slavery to be a vast moral behemoth, falsified and forged as it might and indeed must be, in order to control the battlefield of the race war, one which is, as I write, developing from a war fought on the high intellectual plains of ideology to one fought on street, campus and workplace. And it is not just white people – and ‘white’ includes ‘Hispanic’ if the situation requires it – who are taking the bullets. There are other victims of this new toxic belief system, one maintained not by what the media print and broadcast, but rather what they do not;
‘Today, when blacks are often treated by the intelligentsia as mascots du jour, black students beating up Asian students [the difference between the American usage of ‘Asian’ and the British version should here be noted] in New York and Philadelphia for years is simply not an issue that either the media or academia want to discuss, much less to arouse moral outrage’.
In the end, intellectual malfeasance always has the same result; physical harm done to the innocent. More, physical violence perpetrated by the very people who themselves claim to be victims.
The reign of the intellectual shows no sign of abating and yet, paradoxically, totalitarian regimes have traditionally treated intellectuals with scorn. But only the ones saying and writing the ‘wrongthink’ which is the mark of Cain in intellectual circles. And for ‘circle’, read rather ‘bubble’. It is precisely the insularity of the intellectual class which makes it so dangerous, its ‘disconnect’, to use a modern phrase, from real people and the real-world effects they have that makes intellectuals so dangerous. These are a stratum of thinkers who sustain themselves by a sort of cerebral self-congratulation, and then mistake that for genuine advantage bequeathed to the societies they are supposed to serve and improve, where in fact they dictate and destroy;
‘Peer consensus inside the sealed bubble of [intellectual] vision can be enough to prevent the intrusion of facts from outside’.
Intellectuals are a co-axial people, functioning inside a shell which protects them from the outside world but, tragically, does not protect the outside world from them.
As Thomas Sowell enters his tenth decade, we can hope that there are more like him following behind, but we must also pay heed to the real world the intellectual world both shuts out and shuts itself away from, and fear that there are not.