The Rise of the Intellectual Class

To understand the role of intellectuals in society, we must understand what they do—not what they say they do, or even what they may think they are doing, but what in fact are their actions and the social consequences of those actions.—Thomas Sowell

It may take more than one post to comment on Sowell’s richly analytical Intellectuals and Society. What interests me first of all is how to define the modern intelligentsia and explain its origins. According to Sowell, “‘intellectuals’ refers to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like…. At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such—not the personal application of ideas, as engineers apply complex scientific principles to create physical structures and mechanisms.” The book is clearly not treating of all intellectuals (since the author himself fits in that category). Sowell is concerned with the left-of-center ideological ruling class which possesses disproportionate influence in the media, academia and politics.

Civilization has always had intellectuals. Their existence is a hallmark of high culture. Ancient Athens would not have been nearly so impressive without Socrates and Plato, the Middle Ages without Aquinas and Bonaventure, or eighteenth century England without Burke and Johnson. But it is only since the French Revolution that the thinking elite have become a politically prominent class,  exercising power well beyond their limited area of competence. This includes influencing economic decisions and foreign policy. One way to explain intellectuals’ expanded role is that culture itself underwent a shift in expectations, from limited to unlimited social aims. Appeals by the intelligentsia to a theoretically superlative way of living cater to such hopes.

Once this new class gained acceptance it became an expanding and self-perpetuating authority. Sowell observes that “the demand for public intellectuals is largely manufactured by themselves.” We see individuals like John Dewey, Noam Chomsky or Bertrand Russell stepping outside their own realm of specialized expertise to gain heightened public importance. Not satisfied with quietly pursuing genius in legitimate academic fields, they covet the role of unelected “surrogate decision makers” who are not politically or economically accountable to the public at large. After submitting to (highly conformist) peer review, their tenure is both protected and enhanced by the scope of the modern bureaucratic state.

“The general public contributes to the income of intellectuals in a variety of ways involuntarily as taxpayers.” This is either directly or indirectly through government subsidized jobs and programs. Once ensconced in such a prestigious and comfortable role, the left-wing intelligentsia is not likely to submit to outside criticism, from which they are  shielded by their artificial status. “The vision of the anointed,” concludes Sowell, “is not just a vision of society; it is also a very self-flattering vision of the anointed themselves—a vision which they are very unlikely to give up.”

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