68. Whither the “intellectual elite?”

What’s become of the intellectual elite? Have they gone the way of stenographers, elevator operators and social secretaries? I look back longingly (or is it just nostalgically?) to the 1960’s when intellectuals were concerned with the Civil Rights movement, the nuclear showdown with Russia (climaxing with the Cuban missile crisis), the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the student revolution of 1968. In my bookcases I still keep copies of the Encounter magazines of that era: There were marvelous letters of Evelyn Waugh, quality essays by Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges and George Steiner (who wrote so brilliantly about language). I also have copies of Partisan Review whose editor, Irving Howe, for years was one of America’s most respected dissidents. Under duress, Howe’s commitment to socialism demanded what he admitted was “a capacity of living with doubt, revaluation and crisis.” Those were the days!

The post WWII intellectuals seemed to exude non-conformism, a devotion to a kind of Thomas Paine idealism, and they were possessed by a streak of rebellious embattlement against the conventional politics of their time. Raymond Aaron one of France’s more right wing intellectuals of that era, wrote that the theme of material prosperity “fails to give ‘meaning to life’ and some price has to be paid for it. The individual has the feeling (and it can actually agonize) that in becoming master and owner of nature, man has enslaved himself to an inhuman scheme of things.” Aaron recognized that the left did not ignore “the inhumanity of personal relations, the desiccating effect of specialization in the field of work, the alienation of the producer in and by the things that he produces.”1

Today’s intellectuals have not been able to give up sniffing capitalist cocaine. Indeed, what attracts intellectuals in search of a faith? Science? Certainly not a whiff of radical utopianism. In the United States the anti-intellectual triumphs of order and conformism are evidenced by the decline of argument (marked by the taboo of argument at dinner tables), and the popular mass disdain of intellectual analyses. “Revolutionists” or intellectuals who aspire to a purer or better world have almost disappeared. There are narrow experts who are concerned about the growing economic and social inequalities, the environmental threats, the lack of charismatic leadership, as well as such specific global challenges as the Ukraine and ISIS. This reflects the enormous increase in the specialization of function in all fields.

Specialization has narrowed the vision of most scientists, doctors, economists, teachers, researchers and administrators. This has also affected the possibility of existence for the free-lance writer or journalist and that of the non-academic philosopher, sociologist or historian. I write this even though there now are some 230 million blogs available on the internet. Many of these, like Amor Mundi of the Hannah Arendt group at Bard College, could easily be included in the category of any “intellectual elite.” The Dish>/em>, a highly professional blog, lists some 230 other blogs which could join most intellectual sets. All of these have their own supporters and enthusiasts but these have yet to be linked under a more comprehensive intellectual umbrella on the internet.

The lack of socially committed intellectual elites is accompanied with a distrust of intellectuals by the masses. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the abuse of the socialist ideals by the Bolsheviks and the Russian “communist” dictatorship. The failure of contemporary intellectuals to concern themselves with interpreting society’s conflicted heritage or instructing the youth in history’s mistakes, or in defining the legitimacy and responsibilities of authority, also should be held to account. The very idea of tradition, which still held sway in the sixties, is rapidly diminishing — weakening the forces which formerly held society together. Meanwhile, the gap between the ideals of democracy and the reality of the ever increasing power of capitalism continues to grow.

The global expansion of different forms of communication also opens more questions about our roles in society. The challenge of “who is an artist today?” also affects intellectuals. The popular response has become: Anybody. Who can be a writer? On the internet: Anyone. The internet is now the keeper of memory and many of the abilities which used to be held by the human brain. The historical community of any period or era was defined by the communication of its intellectuals. Now the question arises whether in forthcoming generations this intellectual community will become obsolescent. As it is, the younger generation is no longer used to asking questions: If they want to find out something they will go to Google or Wikipedia. No reason to respect an elder with a good memory — never mind an outstanding one. The solitude and isolation of the rare, spontaneously individual intellectual in a world of conformist philistines has become ever more evident.

From the social perspective, government by an intellectual elite has not developed since the time of the ancient Greeks. No civilization has been able to produce a Platonic Republic. In his Republic Plato warned that “the ills of the human race will never end until those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power.” For the Greek intellectuals, however, social status was the prerequisite of true knowledge and goodness. Almost all their philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans and members of the Academy, came from the aristocracy. The Greek populace, however, treated their philosophical elites with a blend of indifference and humor. Aristotle advised that the philosophic elite, rather than seeking power, should restrict themselves to become advisors to the rulers.2

I have always admired the emergence from the Middle Ages of the intellectual elite which flourished in the Renaissance. These were writers, philosophers and artists who were not of one voice but who believed in intellect and education rather than birth or station. Most were distrustful of unproven concepts and despised the prevailing society of corrupt priesthoods, warring aristocrats, rich merchants and an ignorant peasantry. They admired quality in the arts and aspired to it.

While this intellectual elite did much to alter the old order, its leading figures disdained the new world where those with wealth were replacing the aristocrats as arbiters of the social order. Thomas Jefferson, himself an elitist, believed that government should be run by a trained elite and that young men who possessed exceptional talent should be selected from the poor as well as the rich and should receive the highest levels of education to enable them to serve in responsible positions. “Instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interest of society… (is) essential to a well-ordered republic.”3 This elite should be chosen to run the government, but in no case was confidence be placed to the extent of giving them unlimited power. This was to be a government of the people and not an aristocracy of talented and capable experts. “Our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which our confidence in man may go… but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Jefferson believed that no one was to be trusted with the powers of government independently of oversight by the people, who were his only hope for good government. However, he recognized that there were many functions for which the people, were not competent. That is why they had to choose representatives to whom they could delegate those responsibilities. To this day there is a sense that the will of the people restrains government by intellectual elites who may disregard that will.

It is feared that, driven by the advances in science in the modern world, elite bureaucracies might tend to underestimate the weaknesses of human character. “The Best and the Brightest” were the intellectual elite of the sixties that gave Americans the Vietnam War and much of the current Welfare System. Although the leaders of this elite were confident of their own abilities, many Americans grew distrustful of their lack of common sense (or character) in controlling national policies. The foreign correspondent, David Halberstam, characterized the White House intellectuals as arrogantly insisting on “brilliant policies that defied common sense” in Vietnam.4 I believe that American anti-intellectualism was based not on the fear of intelligence but the fear of narrow “brain trusts” exercising undue powers.

The student uprisings of 1968 had the effect of splitting intellectuals into various groups. The “author intellectuals” made a choice to withdraw from exerting direct influence on governance and withdrew into their specialized environments. Specialized intellectuals from the academic, scientific and economic domains started to directly collaborate with those in political power. Harvard’s Henry Kissinger and Richard Pipes were to be at the forefront of those helping to guide policies from the inside rather than being academic intellectuals attacking government from the outside.

Notwithstanding Jefferson’s efforts, all organized societies are and have been ruled by an elite. A mixture of political, economic and military elites manage our contemporary nations and each of these has its own intellectual experts. The outstanding contemporary theorists on elitism, agree that the intellectuals working within the state do play influential and highly esteemed roles. Robert Michels (1876-1936) posited that all organizations were elitist because they were run by a few individuals. The bureaucratic structure of the modern state demanded a need for leaders with specific psychological attributes as well as specialized staffs. G. William Domhoff in his book, Who Rules America? maintains that an elite class, not an intellectual one, which owns and manages large income-producing properties, such as corporations and banks, dominates the American power structure politically and economically.

While the intellectual elite is both essential and an adornment for a civilized state, any intellectual elite ruling on its own is not held to be desirable. Brilliant academics lacking people skills most often are inept at such forms of social organization as running the military or the government. Writers of exceptional conceptual capacity may not have any skills in economics or personnel management. As advisors, those with great intellectual capacity are most beneficial. Totalitarian governments, like that of Russia or China, that had first hoped to build a new society by purging all its intellectual free-thinking elite, laid the foundation for their own self-destruction.

Intellectuals of the past few centuries have been the ideologists of movements ranging from Marxism to market capitalism. We can only hope that the future stance of the intellectual elite will be of a more civil nature. Moderation has never been one of the manifestations of the intellectual elite.5 Ideological expression (as dubious as that often may be) also can have fruitful consequences. The creative force of such intellectuals as authors, teachers, comedians, journalists and even bloggers in influencing social change can be surprising.

Will the major vocation of the intellectual elite of tomorrow still be in the expression and pursuit of the ideal? Will they be able to form any kind of consensus, for example, in denouncing the swiftly rising inequalities in society? Will we observe any renewal of “amenities” or “the public interest?” Could there be an effective intellectual opposition to the political extremism of groups like the “Tea Party?” Focus may rapidly shift to the internet with enormous effects on its expressive social practices. Forms of consensus of the past century may disappear with globalized digitalization.

I see hope in new intellectual figures like Pankaj Mishra, for example, coming from other backgrounds (in his case, the Indian sub-continent) who scan the state of the world and bring together endless connections in a manner which arouses a greater comprehension of the global state of affairs for the reader without necessarily coming to any resolution or solution of the problems being considered. But more must be done to strengthen the intellectual elite as opposed to the economic elite. Civil society institutes, The McArthur Fellowships, TED, The New Yorker, The Ford Foundation, The New York Review of Books, The Hannah Arendt Center, The Atlantic, n + 1, and Harper’s are just a random sampling of the groups and magazines furthering public intellectuals in an era when the media are obsessed with personalities and entertainment. Of course, academia at colleges and universities all over the world must be at the forefront of the changes which will affect tomorrow’s intellectual elite: Perhaps by 2030 there may even be an elite of “Republican Intellectuals.” Don’t hold your breath!


1Raymond Aaron, “The exaltation of Folly and Reason,” Encounter, August 1969, p. 60.

2Frank L. Vatai, Intellectuals in Politics in the Greek World, (1984).

3Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, (1821).

4David Halberstam, The Brightest and the Best, (1972).

5Peter Vireck, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, (1963).

1 thought on “68. Whither the “intellectual elite?”

  1. Yorick – This sounds like one of those “good old days” arguments. However, the murder of millions of people by Stalin and his ilk was not an “abuse of socialist ideals” but ,rather, evidence that the utopianism which had been advanced by some of the intellectual elite whom you champion can have very dangerous consequences for humanity. We , who have seen such consequences, have turned our backs on utopianism and understand that it is essential for intellectuals to advance ideas based on facts and real consequences, not on fantasies,theories or ideology divorced from reality. While an enormous amount of nonsense emanates from the media (as in the past} and while similar nonsense continues to pour forth from the mouths of many political and religious figures and others, there certainly exists,at present, a large number of intellectuals who deal with the real world and its problems of economic inequality, climate change, religious fanaticism , nuclear proliferation etc. We don’t need the good old days. We have plenty of people now who can point the right way. The real question is whether we will listen to them and do what is needed.
    David M. Gerstein

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