Robert Nozick wrote, a while back, an article with this title. It’s an odd piece, and its essential answer to the titular question is, I think,something like this:
“Intellectuals – those whose job is to move words around a lot, whether academics, media-types, novelists, etc. – are usually people who did relatively well in school and relatively less well in wider society. This makes them resent market-society for frustrating the expectations they had built up; they want to make all of society like a school, where professor Lenin gives out gold stars not to the industrialists and bankers but to the best intellectuals.”
The primary problem with this piece is, of course, that it poses a question and then studiously ignores the most obvious possible answer. The most obvious answer to ‘why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?’ is ‘because capitalism is intellectually bankrupt’.
That’s not necessarily to attribute to intellectuals a superior ability to ‘see the truth’ of matters. It might alternatively be a matter of how that ‘truth’ is expressed. Loads of people, after all, are pissed off with how society works, frustrated, angry, insubordinate.
But that could be expressed in a range of ways: one way would be to direct hostility away from the essential parameters of the system and towards more specific scapegoats, whether that’s some minority blamed for ‘stealing our jobs’ or a hidden conspiracy of US government agents that orchestrated the world trade centre attacks. Or it could involve joining a ‘rebellious’ subculture and swearing a lot. Or just not working very hard. Or trying to find personal safety by cutting out food additives. Or – formulating a political rejection of capitalism itself. It hardly seems odd that intellectuals would pick that last one more often.
Note, the intellectual response need not always be very ‘correct’: arguably many or most intellectual rejections of capitalism have done so on the basis of some more-or-less silly alternative, which combined good and bad elements. Supporting the USSR in the 50s is hardly a less foolish expression of discontent than is the 9/11-truth movement. But it might explain the datum Nozick focuses on – that it’s often among ‘intellectuals’ that one finds the most explicit support from the abolition of private property.
But that’s only the first problem with Nozick’s writing. It also expresses the one-sided ‘free-market’ understanding of capitalism. He writes:
“The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.
It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the “anarchy and chaos” of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway” (note for clarity: the earlier italicised passage was my paraphrase, while this one is a quote)
This is an interesting idea. The classroom – a hierarchical situation, where one person, with hugely greater power, directs the boring and often resented activities of the mass of others, who come in every day at specified times, have their day organised into discrete blocks, and must follow the arbitrary rules of the petty tyrants around them – this, we are told, is what socialism would be like, and is the polar opposite of our capitalism.
Isn’t it fortunate that no-where in capitalist society do huge groups of people resentfully trudge into a single place, where, according to a schedule handed down to them alongside a collection of rules made by someone else, they grind away their lives on activities that don’t interest them, under the supervision of a piddling authority figure? Indeed, we should forget about the intellectuals – we have a much bigger problem! The structure of schooling is raising all of our children in precisely the wrong way – training them to be obedient work-drones, and not self-propelling entrepreneurs!
The idea that anti-capitalism (or at least, socialism) is actually about seeking greater opportunity for creativity, less hierarchy, less compulsion and discipline, does not fit into this analysis at all.
Similarly, Nozick implicitly presents his explanation of intellectual anti-capitalism as one that separates it from rational validity. Which would work – if the post-school environment were one where, rather than the smartest, it was the most cunning, most productive, or most determined who succeeded. But is this really the case?
“Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.
The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority “entitled” them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?”
Nozick studiously avoids mentioning who the greatest rewards do go to in ‘market-society’? But what if – let’s just suppose – they often went to people born into fortunate circumstances? Or to people who demonstrated a ruthlessness or skill for manipulation that let them grow rich, even while actually harming the rest of society? Or to people who could get easily accepted by the foregoing groups, due their ability to parrot the right buzzwords and present the right image?
What if the virtues that Nozick implicitly counterposes to intellectual ones – such as working really hard to provide others with much-needed services, for instance – were very often unrecognised, and rewarded only with low wages and unpaid overtime?
Because then the same phenomenon that Nozick holds up – that, supposedly, intellectuals are pissed off when they leave school and find themselves not at the top of the pecking order – acquires a very different appearance. Now, even if the key motivation is still a certain egotism, a certain superiority complex, that egotism serves merely to ‘unmask’ the fact that the distribution of rewards under capitalism is largely irrational and unfair, by any standard.
That is, perhaps out of three groups, those who do well in capitalism, those who do badly in both capitalism and school, and those (Nozick’s “intellectuals”) who do well in school and badly in capitalism, the third is best-placed to notice the irrationality of capitalism, because the first has a self-seeking motive to accept self-justifying ideology (the poor are lazy, the rich are ‘wealth-creators’, etc.), and the second lacks the confidence to condemn their own exploitation, because their experience in school taught them from an early age that they deserve no better.
So in summary: Nozick poses a question to which a certain answer naturally suggests itself (intellectuals oppose capitalism because capitalism is intellectually bankrupt); he assumes the wrongness of this answer, and then offers an alternative – which, whether explicit or not, has the function of de-legitimising intellectual anti-capitalism, by painting it as a matter of petty jealousy.
But his answer involves assuming some grossly unrealistic things about the workings of actual capitalist society – that is, it treats every part of that society other than the ideological picture of hard-working entrepreneurs and efficient free markets (parts such as the authoritarian schooling structure and the also authoritarian state, or the formation of monopolies) as something alien, rather than as an integral part, the flipside of that entrepreneurial market.
As a result, two things emerge. Firstly, his explanation is quite weak, and deals with only one segment of the data (authoritarian anti-capitalists, who undoubtedly exist). This means that it doesn’t compare favourably with the more obvious explanation (capitalism sucks) except for those who have already rejected that. Secondly, it means that even to the extent that his account is true, this doesn’t undermine the validity of intellectual anti-capitalism, because it just means that the petty jealousy of intellectuals allows them to recognise facts that the petty smugness or petty timidity of others might not.