The Crisis of the American Intellectual

Guilds_WIkicommonsWalter Russell Mead in The National Interest (h/t: Boston Review):

[T]he biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level. Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.

I’m overgeneralizing wildly, of course, but there seem to be three big reasons why so many intellectuals today are so backward looking and reactionary.

First, there’s ideology. Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism.

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