Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires
The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.
The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.
Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’
The grand narrative of capitalism
And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.
In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.
We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.
In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.
Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.
Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.
History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.
Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.
In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.
Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid
The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.
There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.
The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.
While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.
A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.
In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.
It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:
I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.
Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?
It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:
The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.
Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.
It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.
For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.
Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.
It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.
As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:
(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.
This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):
When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.
Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.
Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.
Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21. Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.
Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.
Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well – he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.
Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’
Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.
Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.
Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.
The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.
It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.
According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.
Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.
There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk. Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.
If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.
Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.
Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.
Galileo also says in the play:
Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.
But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us. George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.
The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:
The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.
This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.
Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.
Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.