Why intellectuals don’t like capitalism

_ Dr. Dr. Rainer Zitelmann. Berlin, 17 august 2022.*

Following the collapse of socialist systems around the world at the end of the 1980s, the superiority of the market economy was clear to many. Nevertheless, latent or overt anti-capitalist animosities have persisted, and, since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008, have even gained considerable support. In particular among intellectuals, anti-capitalism is once again popular – as demonstrated, for example, by the widespread approval of Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. But anti-capitalism among intellectuals has a long tradition.

“Anti-capitalism is the most widespread and widely practiced spiritual commitment among intellectuals,” concluded American historian Alan S. Kahan. The sociologist Thomas Cushman stated: “Anti-capitalism has become, in some ways, the central pillar of the secular religion of intellectuals, the habitus of modern critical intellectuals as a status group.”

Even those who doubt that a majority of intellectuals are outright anti-capitalists can hardly disagree that a critical stance vis-à-vis capitalism is widely shared among their ranks. This attitude is just as prevalent among leftists as it is among conservative or right-wing thinkers. In fact, what often connects both groups is their tendency towards etatism – the belief that economic and social problems can best be solved by state intervention. Alain de Benoist, one of the most prominent and prolific proponents of the French Nouvelle Droite movement, which takes its inspiration from the Conservative Revolution in 1920s Germany, recently admitted: “My principal enemies have always been capitalism in economic terms, liberalism in philosophical terms and the bourgeoisie in sociological terms.”

Anti-capitalism comes in various guises on both sides of the political spectrum, manifesting as a critique of globalization directed against free trade and its allegedly exploitative practices, cultural levelling or capitalism’s supposed complicity in creating poverty in Africa. Alternatively, it may take the form of anti-American resentment that regards the United States as the epitome of the heartless and mercenary worldview embodied by capitalism. Since the 1970s, it has also reared its head in the environmentalist movement, which blames capitalism for climate change and the destruction of the natural environment. Though subject to changing fads and tastes – the Marxist ideology dominant in the 1960s is currently out of fashion – it has been replaced by an anti-globalist rhetoric and ideology. Nevertheless, anti-capitalism has consistently targeted the same enemy and been driven by the same resentments against market forces.

Failure to understand the spontaneous evolution of capitalism

Many intellectuals fail to understand the nature of capitalism as an economic order that emerges and grows spontaneously. Unlike socialism, capitalism isn’t a school of thought imposed on reality: free-market capitalism largely evolves spontaneously, growing from the bottom up rather than decreed from above. Capitalism has grown historically, in much the same way languages have developed over time as the result of spontaneous and uncontrolled processes. Esperanto, invented in 1887 as a planned language, has now been around for over 130 years without gaining anything like the global acceptance its inventors were hoping for. Socialism shares some of the characteristics of a planned language in that it is a system devised by intellectuals.

It’s hardly surprising that Marxism was considered such an attractive proposition by 20th-century intellectuals and continues to fascinate so many, as demonstrated by the Marxist revival that coincided with the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. It was a theory developed by intellectuals, packaged into complicated systems, that then had to be communicated to the “masses” (first and foremost the workers) by way of constant revolutionary agitation and propaganda. Once the elite of those who were able to understand the theory had seized power, it would become their job to implement it in the real world by destroying existing, organically grown orders – including the market economy as well as traditions and social norms – and installing a ‘scientific’ and rational system in their place.

Once we’ve grasped this essential difference between capitalism, as a spontaneously evolving order, and socialism, as a theoretical construct, the reasons why many intellectuals have a greater affinity for socialism – in whatever form – suddenly become obvious. After all, devising mental constructs and using their linguistic skills to shape and communicate them, both in writing and in rousing speeches, is what intellectuals do for a living. Since their own livelihood depends on their ability to think and communicate ideas that are rational and coherent, they feel more in tune with an artificially planned and constructed economic order than to one that allows for unplanned, spontaneous development. The notion that economies work better without active intervention and planning is alien to many intellectuals.

Some anti-capitalist intellectuals prefer to devise utopian visions of an ideal society, which they then hold up as a standard against which existing societies are bound to fail. Their utopias tend to be extremely egalitarian societies, giving a great deal of power to the state and very little room to the free play of market forces.

In order to understand why so many intellectuals hold anti-capitalist views, it is important to realize that they are an elite, or at any rate a community of practice that defines itself as such. Their anti-capitalism is nurtured by their resentment of and opposition to the business elite. In this sense, the rivalry between the two groups is simply that – a competition between different elites vying for status in contemporary society. If a higher level of education doesn’t automatically guarantee higher incomes and more privileged positions, then the markets that allow this imbalance to happen are seen as unfair from the intellectuals’ perspective. Living in a competitive system that consistently awards the top – economic – prizes to others, a system where even the owners of medium-sized businesses achieve higher incomes and wealth than a tenured professor of philosophy, sociology, cultural studies or art history, leads intellectuals to adopt a general skepticism against an economic order based on competition.

In his best-seller “The Rich and the Super-Rich”, the American sociologist Ferdinand Lundberg makes the following telling observations: “As to the general human type of American wealth-builder, new and old, it can be said that he is usually an extrovert, given to little reflection … He is more often unschooled than schooled, and unread, and has for the most part a naive view of the world and his role in it … By his position alone he is alienated.” Thus, a majority of the “capitalists” on the Fortune 500 list could be described as “high school dropouts [and] truants from high culture.”

The disdain expressed in this assertion compellingly demonstrates the extent to which intellectuals tend to set their own value standards as absolutes. People are to be judged by their level of education and cultural capital. Accordingly, how deeply unfair it is that someone with little formal education and no interest in high culture should amass a great fortune, while well-educated and well-read academics have to make do with comparatively little? It is hardly surprising that the world seems upside down to such intellectuals. After all, they derive their own sense of superiority from being better educated, more knowledgeable and better able to express themselves.

The erroneous supremacy of explicit learning

Understandably, intellectuals tend to equate knowledge acquisition with academic education and book learning. Educational psychology uses the term “explicit knowledge” to refer to this type of knowledge, which is acquired by means of “explicit learning.” However, there is a different kind of knowledge, “implicit knowledge,” which is acquired via “implicit learning.” This is far more primordial and often more powerful, although many intellectuals are unaware of its existence. Entrepreneurial research has shown that this is the route to knowledge acquisition taken by the majority of entrepreneurs.

The Hungarian-born, British philosopher Michael Polanyi formulated the concept of “tacit knowledge” when he famously wrote that “we can know more than we can tell” in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966). In other words, learning is not necessarily the result of the conscious and systematic acquisition of knowledge, but often the result of unconscious, implicit learning processes. This is a point that had previously been emphasized by the economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich August von Hayek. Implicit learning differs from explicit learning in that outcomes are difficult or impossible to demonstrate in the form of certificates or academic qualifications. By an intellectual’s standards, an entrepreneur who may not have read a lot of books or shown much promise at college or university has nothing to show for himself that would compare to a doctorate or a list of publications. That’s why – on a platform developed and run by intellectuals – a professor with a meagre list of publications has a better chance of being considered worthy of a Wikipedia entry than an investor who transacts billions of dollars on the property market.

Intellectuals cannot understand why someone with an “inferior intellect,” someone who might not even have an undergraduate degree, should end up making a lot more money and living in a much bigger house. They feel offended in their sense of what is “fair” and thus vindicated in their belief in a malfunction of capitalism or the market, which needs to be “corrected” by means of redistribution on a massive scale. By divesting the rich of some of their “undeserved wealth,” intellectuals console themselves with the fact that, even if they can’t abolish the brutal capitalist system altogether, they can at least “correct” it to some extent.

In a 1998 essay, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick asks the question: “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” His explanation is based on the assumption that intellectuals feel superior to other members of society. Ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle, intellectuals have been telling us that their contribution to society is more valuable than that of any other group. But where does this sense of entitlement come from?

According to Nozick, it starts at school, where the intellectual brilliance of “verbally gifted children” is rewarded by teachers with effusive praise and good grades. This leads them to expect society at large to operate according to the same norms. In particular, in capitalist societies, which promise the greatest success for the brightest and most deserving, such promises of meritocracy fuel their expectations. But, for anyone who has been brilliant at school, the subsequent realization that the market economy doesn’t hold their particular skills in the same regard leads to feelings of frustration and resentment that fuel an intellectual hostility to the capitalist system.

Intellectual anti-capitalism has become as powerful as it has only because the business elite has so far been unable to muster an intellectually adequate response. Pro-capitalist intellectuals – economists such as Ludwig von Mises, Hayek and Milton Friedman as well as writers such as Ayn Rand – have tried to take up the battle that the business elite itself is unwilling or unable to fight, whether out of lack of courage or intellectual wherewithal and verbal agility. However, such supporters of capitalism have always been outsiders among their fellow intellectuals.

Admiration of Stalin and Mao

While no love was lost between leading 20th-century thinkers and the proponents of capitalism, admiration for dictators of Stalin’s and Mao Zedong’s ilk ran high in certain circles. These were not outsiders or misfits, but members of the intellectual elite, whose hatred of capitalism was so strong that it drove them to revere some of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century. The French writers Henri Barbusse and Jean-Paul Sartre are just two examples of many. Barbusse, whose World War I novel “Under Fire” (1916) has been translated into more than 60 languages and won him a Prix Goncourt, went on to write a sycophantic biography of Stalin, of whom he says: “His history is a series of victories over a series of tremendous difficulties. Since 1917, not a single year of his career has passed without his having done something which would have made any other man famous. He is a man of iron. The name by which he is known describes it: the word Stalin means ‘steel’ in Russian.”

Writing in the July 1950 issue of “Les Temps modernes”, Sartre, the play-wright and founder of existentialist philosophy and one of the leading French intellectuals of the 20th century, denied the existence of Soviet gulags. On his return from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1954, he made the absurd assertion that Soviet citizens enjoyed the full freedom to criticize the measures implemented by the regime. This did nothing to diminish the adulation accorded to Sartre himself by fellow intellectuals. The same goes for Noam Chomsky, one of the leading critics of capitalism in the United States, who downplayed the scale of Pol Pot’s mass murders. In a 1971 televised debate with Chomsky, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, one of the most important proponents of post-structuralism and the founder of discourse analysis, vented his own rage against the capitalist elite: “The proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war against the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection could possibly be made to this.”

It is a tragic paradox that intellectuals – who have tended to start out as the designers, creators or at least chief defenders of anti-capitalist systems (in all too many cases, cruel dictatorships) – have always ended up among their victims. In every case, anti-capitalism has not only destroyed economic wealth, it has also destroyed the political and mental freedom on which intellectuals thrive. It is nothing but blind knee-jerk hatred of capitalism that could have made a leading intellectual such as Lion Feuchtwanger – one of the most successful German-language writers of the 20th century – pen these lines in his travelogue about a visit to Moscow, published in 1937: “One breathes again when one comes from this oppressive atmosphere of a counterfeit democracy and hypocritical humanism into the invigorating atmosphere of the Soviet Union. Here there is no hiding behind mystical, meaningless slogans, but a sober ethics prevails, really ‘more geometrico constructa,’ and this ethics alone determines the plan according to which the Union is being built up.”

Leading intellectuals, including Feuchtwanger, Brecht, Barbusse, Sartre and Chomsky, among countless others, engage in a consistent denial of, firstly, the atrocities perpetrated in the name of communism, which in the course of the 20th century claimed an estimated 100 million casualties, as well as, secondly, of the civilizing achievements of capitalism, a system that has done more to eliminate poverty than any other economic order in human history.

* Rainer Zitelmann holds doctorates in History and Sociology. He is the author of 26 books. He has taught at the Free University of Berlin and was a section head of a major newspaper in Germany This article is based on his latest book, The Power of Capitalism.

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