Blogs > Cliopatria > The Intellectual as a (Tiresome) Social Type

Oct 16, 2011

The Intellectual as a (Tiresome) Social Type

In the November issue of Vanity Fair -- the magazine that was the Huffington Post before the Huffington Post was the Huffington Post -- James Kwak and Simon Johnson ("K+J") build a case against the Tea Party as anti-Hamiltonian, and therefore as an enemy of order and progress. William Hogeland does a nice job with the mess of K+J's narrative, so I won't spend much time discussing the foolishness of their premise and the lazy dishonesty of their technique. What interests me is the why.

Johnson and Kwak make a case for government debt as the foundation of stability, order, and progress; when governments borrow and spend, nations grow. Government borrowing and spending is progressive; opposition to government borrowing and spending is regressive. End of story.

So here's James Kwak at K+J's blog, just two weeks ago: "There was a time when the main purpose of this blog was to explain just how some government policy or other official action was designed to benefit some large bank under the cover of the public interest. In a bit of nostalgia, I wrote this week’s Atlantic column on the Freddie Mac–Bank of America story reported on by Gretchen Morgenson. It’s clear that Bank of America got a sweetheart deal from Freddie. The question is why...It’s amazing that after three full years of our government trying to give Bank of America money at every possible opportunity, it’s still a basket case."

So, 1.) people who oppose the metastasization of debt-funded federal spending are foolish atavists who hate America and oppose progress, and 2.) many federal policies and actions are designed to benefit private corporations "under the cover of the public interest." You cannot believe both of those things without performing extraordinary gymnastics to trick your own mind. James Kwak sees the corporatist oligarchy, knows what it is, and thinks you're unpatriotic and dumb if you want to take away its credit card. Oh, that thing is there to rip you off -- wait, why are you trying to stop it?

In a similar feat of narrative dissonance, Barack Obama tells a story about America in which we must reduce wealth inequality, restore fairness for the middle class, and restrain the rapid expansion of exceptional private wealth. One way to do that, he argues, is to use federal borrowing to fund infrastructure programs that will put people to work. In recent speeches, Obama has revealed his model for this restoration of income equality through redistributive federal spending: the Transcontinental Railroad. if that juxtaposition doesn't make you burst into laughter, read this and try again.

My growing sense is that this failure of perception -- building an idea of government as an agent of order and fairness on a foundation of a reality in which government serves and has always served the creation and maintenance of great private wealth and class privilege -- emerges from the need of a status group to display symbols of it own identity. What's the matter with Kansas? Oh, reader, it's not like us. Backwards red state morons are against progress, and thank goodness we're smarter than that. See also.

The fundamental political premise of liberal intellectuals is that greater federal intervention in the economy will produce greater order and decency; a greater centralization of economic power will produce a broader diffusion of fairness. This is like believing that gasoline will extinguish fire. It is, simply, crazy. And they know it, on some level: James Kwak tells you that the federal government serves private interest under the cover of public interest, and Barack Obama tells you that his model for redistributive infrastructure spending is a nineteenth century boondoggle that poured endless slop into the trough of private wealth. He should give his next "pass this jobs bill" speech at Leland Stanford's mansion.

How do smart people convince themselves to believe deeply and incontrovertibly insane things? I think they do it by a need to define themselves, particularly in the context of institutional decline and personal status anxiety. Academia is imploding; an army of young scholars marches toward a future of corporatized multiversities that measure the effectiveness of their growing pool of adjunct lecturers by comparing their cost to their output. The need to become distinguished, smarter than, grows with the collapse of the model at the center of intellectual life. James Kloppenberg told a roomful of historians than Barack Obama is a towering intellectual figure of great sophistication, and therefore a great deal like us; the room burst into applause.

The emergence of a distinct status group of intellectuals in the twentieth century United States, Christopher Lasch wrote, was "part of a much more general development: the decline of the sense of community, the tendency of the mass society to break down into its component parts, each having its own autonomous culture and maintaining only the most tenuous connections with the general life of the society -- which as a consequence has almost ceased to exist."

The performance of intellectual status -- the setting off, the ostentatious performance of horror at the Tea Party, the laughable Vanity Fair essay about how concern about growing debt and four trillion dollars a year in federal spending is an anti-American assault on the Founding Fathers -- feeds its own origins and causes. Intellectuals are isolated from the larger society, and so more urgently signal their isolation from the larger society, and so are more isolated from the larger society.

Lasch again: "Once you reject the view of historical progress that means so much to people on the left, their sense of themselves as the party of the future, together with their fear of being overwhelmed by America's backward culture, becomes an object of historical curiosity, not the axiomatic premise from which political understanding necessarily proceeds."

There is no intellectual class, and no fundamental conflict between it and a middle American habit of anti-intellectualism. History is not a story of a struggle between the forces of progress and the forces of regression. Intellectuals are not uniquely the forces of progress. People on both sides of that purported divide recognize that our federal government is a deeply corrupt oligarchy. James Kwak sees what the Tea Party sees. And he should let himself realize it.

ADDED LATER: Precisely on time, here comes Robert Reich. You cannot find a more crude and facile argument about historical progress than this one.

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