The New Intellectuals

It might be illusion, or it might just be reality, that the entire Bush presidency and everything for which it stands is in a state of slow collapse. It is slowly dawning on people that the whole rationale for the billions spent, the tens of thousands of dead, and all the hysteria, was a hoax. Of course the same could be said of most or all wars. Why is the truth making a difference this time? Because ideas have been denationalized, and the world populated for the first time in fifty years with independent intellectuals.

Hear me out.

After World War II, academia went through a dramatic change for the worse. It was simultaneously democratized and given the primary mission of serving the state. The GI Bill (a vast expansion of ill-gotten gains pumped into academia) did the democratizing work, not because the political elite thought everyone should get a degree but because they feared mass unemployment and had too little confidence in the market to absorb returning soldiers. The change in the mission of academia was nothing more than a continuation of wartime culture over which the state was completely dominant.

Not only academia changed. The years between 1944 and 1949 — Marshall Plan, GI Bill, the Cold War, fiscal and monetary planning, cultural and economic regimentation — set the stage for the next half century. The state secured many (though not all) of its gains made during wartime and the effects rippled throughout American society. To be professionally ambitious meant to keep a constant eye on the centralized edifice to see what its priorities were. It was clear to all that the state was the prime mover, the first cause of all important events.

We know what it is like in our time to suffer under a state that uses events as a form of political intimidation to shut down critics. Object to the police state in our time and you confront teeming hordes of bureaucrats and state apologists screaming “9-11” at you. Back then it was worse. The terrifying power of the state throughout the war (drafting, taxing, planning, censoring), and then at Nagasaki and Hiroshima (instant torching of mass civilian populations) was the psychological lever by which the state effectively nationalized the culture — far more completely and effectively than now.

Intellectuals were owned. Whether in academia or journalism, everyone who aspired to think and exercise intellectual influence knew the right course of action. The state was where the action was. In journalism, the answer was to attend the right schools where you learned the ropes and went to work for a major network or print outlet, and very few could be described as independent. Political scientists had one charge: make the state run more efficiently. The same was true of economists. To be a success meant to work your way up to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. It was a science of planning, and Keynes was its muse.

In the same way that a socialized economy cannot put new technology into effect, and thus yields no civilizational advance, the world of ideas was frozen into a pattern that was fixed and unchanging. There were official texts, official journals, official schools from which all lower schools took their marching orders, and public schools became extensions of this overarching, top-down system of idea enforcement. Christian churches put US flags in their sanctuaries, baseball fans sang the national anthem, American families had the president’s picture on the wall, as did children’s TV shows, and everyone watched the same news anchors and read the same news feeds. There was a national culture that the neocons say we should recapture — and it was awful.

“If you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority,” writes Paul Fussell, “and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment… what is clear about the culture of war is that it is necessarily an obedience culture…. The obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.” (Costs of War, ed. Denson, pp. 355).

Were there no dissidents? There were a few, but recall that the Old Right intellectual movement had pretty well been killed off by the war and Pearl Harbor. FDR’s unrelenting campaign against his critics, combined with the massive power of the presidency, had an effect. Critics were dead or silent. The Taft forces in the House and Senate had their moments in beating back some legislation, but it wasn’t long until they too met the fate of all opponents of the Establishment in those days: they were smeared and crushed by the onrushing Cold War leviathan.

A few institutes and institutions worked to break through, but it took massive efforts and those who dared poke their head out of the trenches were fired on mercilessly. Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education was hauled before a Congressional hearing to account for his antiwar stance. The John Birch Society was smeared as a hate group. The American right wing was reconstituted as nothing but an intellectual arm of the warfare state, publishing a fortnightly that counseled expanding the US military empire, suppressing civil liberties, working within the system, and retreating on most every other front.

Only by looking back at this tableau of fifty years ago does the striking, remarkable, reality of today come through. If you just take a look at the free-market right in this country, and the sheer number of publications, conferences, academic journals, and scholars, it is a picture of exuberance and productivity unknown in the 20th century. It is very likely today that you will find the same intellectuals writing for academic journals as well as blogging on their favorite website or writing for newspapers — something unheard of in the old days. The new academic class of 30-somethings does not feel itself kept in any sense. They obey the social controls of the new PC university, but otherwise think and say what they wish.

The best journals today are not published by universities or large publishing houses, but by non-profits such as the Mises Institute, the Independent Institute, the Acton Institute, and many, many others. These are journals that seek to make a difference in the world. They aren’t just manuals for state planning, as academic journals used to be. In books, no one takes marching orders from nationally approved lists as people did in generations past. As for news sources, you know the story: the cartel has been entirely smashed. The prominence of libertarian ideas in the debate today is notable, but what is most striking is the presence of debate at all! And the left does great good in exposing the nefarious plans of the Republicans, and drumming up antiwar sentiment.

Something resembling a free market in ideas is present today in a way in which it was not in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The debate, the conversation, is not national but global, and it goes on constantly in forums so numerous that it is impossible to keep up. The spread and speed of ideas makes it impossible for the state to manage opinion with anywhere near the degree of control it once had. Time was when a president on a major network spoke ex cathedra. Now he is subject to relentless criticism and even ridicule.

The Bush administration has never understood the changed political and cultural environment which it inherited when it took office. It operated on the old assumption that controlling the state and its major adjunct industries was enough to carry the day. To supercharge an economy and win a war was simply a matter of will and money. The lies were seen as an incidental, inevitable, and wholly justifiable part of statecraft.

But we live in times that devour anyone who aspires to be the one all-controlling national or international will. Real intellectuals — and they are everywhere today — will never stand for it. What has made the difference? Technology? Sure. Maybe the day of the monolithic nation state, managed from the top down, has just run its course. Or maybe the work of those who dared dissent from approved opinion in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, is finally coming to fruition. Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and all the other courageous people who never bought the line back then, gave a great gift to the world, which we are just now unwrapping.

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