Intellectuals and their utopian visionIn the face of intolerance, people will fight for a vision, but no one will never fight for another person's idea.
by T. Nelson
riedrich Hayek once wrote that modern intellectuals are unique because they owe their status solely to the educational system. Unlike their predecessors, they are not aristocrats; this, he wrote, is essential for understanding their role. He distinguished between “experts” such as doctors and engineers who have special knowledge and understanding, and “intellectuals” such as journalists and commentators who propagate their ideas. “Even though their knowledge may often be superficial and their intelligence limited,” he wrote, anticipating the Internet pundit by over twenty years, “it is their judgement which mainly determines the views on which society will act.”
Hayek wrote at a time when conservatism seemed defeated, but his ideas are even more relevant today. Today's intellectuals deny being socialists, and even feign anger when accused of it, but nevertheless their opinions are clearly socialist, collectivist, and authoritarian. This is especially true at our universities, where intellectuals and experts rub shoulders and, outside of science and engineering departments, have little contact with the real, functioning world.
History shows that socialism and collectivism start out as idealistic visions and inevitably end in tyranny and state-sponsored mass murder. Why would intelligent people voluntarily subscribe to such beliefs? Is it simply the madness of crowds? Or is there something unique to intelligent people that drives them to adopt stupid ideas, as if to compensate?
Hayek's answer was that the intellectuals' criterion for acceptance of an idea is not consistency with the facts, about which they know little, but consistency with their existing opinions. Therefore, the dominant Weltanschauung of the period has a huge influence on which ideas are accepted and which are regarded as reactionary.
Despite some would-be challengers, the dominant worldview today remains Modernism, which holds that there is no order, purpose or morality in the universe—only that which we impose on it. We impose order on the universe to simplify it, to make it easier to understand by learning its general principles. We impose morality on the universe to make ourselves feel better about bad things that happen. We impose purpose on the universe because we want our lives to have a purpose, so we can feel important. But the universe is nothing more than a vast, mindless machine, and we are only cogs in that machine.
This worldview is widely held, and it has considerable support from scientific discoveries and ideas laboriously worked out by true experts. Any countervailing arguments must therefore be framed in the context of this worldview if they are to have any chance of being accepted.
Conservatives rightly call this academic intolerance, but it is also a product of how the brain works. The brain builds a worldview by stringing memories together, and uses it to interpret and make sense of events. To save space, the brain stores its memories not as isolated facts, but as semantic branches from the worldview. A worldview is part of a person's identity. Ideas that conflict with it are automatically rejected as implausible. They are therefore not only harder to remember, they threaten the subject's identity, and so they generate fear and anger.
Many people have drawn parallels between the public worldview and religious dogma, and indeed the same mental processes are at work in both cases. But the modernistic worldview is not a religion. It only appears as one because the same psychodynamic processes are at work. Characterizing modernism as a religion is usually meant as an insult, because modernism rejects religious explanations, but it misses the mark. To overthrow a public materialist worldview, should one desire to do so, one must understand and deal with the psychological mechanisms that keep it in place.
One mechanism is the drive to be popular—to participate in the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. The Zeitgeist, said Hayek, is the selection principle for ideas, which operate in a Darwinian ecosystem (or better, an Edelmanian neural Darwinist system, to honor the late neuroscientist Gerald Edelman). Any competing ideas, Hayek said, if they are to compete, must propose a specific alternative, along with a set of goals that will be realized if the program succeeds.
All people are motivated primarily by the desire for power, and intellectuals use their own tools—ideas—to gain that power. But being intellectuals, they cannot overtly call for extermination of their adversaries. There are limits. Moreover, they cannot even allow themselves to consciously believe that extermination is their goal, and thus, when their ideas lead there, they are unable to see it.
This inability to see where their ideas are leading makes them all the more dangerous. The cure for racism in today's left-wing worldview is more racism; the cure for sexism is more sexism, and the cure for totalitarianism and fascism is strict top-down control, an iron boot that stomps out all dissent. Behind that worldview is the conviction that, left to themselves, people will always turn to violence and book-burning, and therefore they must be divided up into mutually antagonistic camps and their ideas banned. Thus, the cure for fascism is fascism. Unfortunately for the intellectuals, reason would prevent their own ideas from surviving, so opposing ideas must be forcibly suppressed, both in their own minds and in the minds of others.
One way to destroy opposing ideas without using reason is to ridicule them. The typical sequence of events goes like this:
Intellectuals reinforce their worldview by reinterpreting every event in terms of it. For example, the recent UCSB massacre was used to support the feminists' ideas about the patriarchy, gun control advocates' ideas for banning firearms, and the racists' ideas about whites, even though most of the victims were not women, most of his victims were not killed by firearms, and the criminal was not a white person, but half Asian.
Many of the utopian ideas of the past, like eugenics and communism, have been discredited by the unfortunate events that resulted when they were put into practice. Today's multi-culti P.C.-topia is also in the process of being discredited, as its authoritarian nature is gradually being revealed to us. But this does not mean that utopias are to be avoided. We just need to be skeptical.
For intellectuals, says Hayek, the freedom to criticize accepted views and try out new ideas is as necessary as the air we breathe. He writes: “A cause which offers no scope for these traits can have no support from [the intellectual] and is thereby doomed.” It is not necessary for conservatives and libertarians to try to compete with Hollywood.
For conservatives and libertarians, that cause is liberty. Once you experience it, and are threatened with having to live without it, it grabs hold of your imagination and becomes an obsession. It can thus inspire novelists, filmmakers, and maybe even educators and politicians. It is not necessary for conservatives to try to compete with Hollywood. They need to envision a utopia, wrote Hayek, as the socialists did: it was their courage to be Utopian, said Hayek, that gained them the support of the intellectuals and their influence on public opinion. If the vision is compelling, and its proponents are articulate, it will spread throughout society.
The corporate world knows that successful leaders must have vision. Conservatives and libertarians cannot just be the We told you so party any more than a CEO can say “I told you the company was going down the drain!” If they do, they will be perceived, as Hayek put it, as “a timid apologist for things as they are.” To succeed, they must hammer out a concrete, specific path. It need not be immediately realizable. It need not even be something that voters or congressmen would pass tomorrow, or in ten years; but it must be a path—an alternative that goes somewhere. If the vision is inspiring, and true to the human spirit, more and more people will push for it, and it will happen.
Libertarians and conservatives have the imagination, strength, and perseverance to make this happen. Our opponents have only their false vision. No one will never fight for another person's idea, but people will fight for a vision.
At least, that's what is written on this cereal box that I stole all these ideas off of.
h/t Taylor Lewis for linking to the Hayek article.