“Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?”

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?

Another quote:

“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.

23 Responses to ““Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?””

  1. rumblegumption Says:

    ‘… the pleasure and whim of schoolmates’?! If Nozick thinks (as he seems to) that the schoolyard is a good model for the just capitalist society, it makes you wonder when he last stepped into an actual school? These intellectuals I tell you…

  2. rumblegumption Says:

    Have you read Brian Barry’s review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia when it was first published? It’s nasty, sometimes ad hominem, and relatively weak in argument compared to some of the better responses to Nozick that would come by and by (e.g. Jerry C. in ‘Self ownership, etc’) But it’s always good for a laugh at the end of a nasty day.

  3. Pejar Says:

    Brilliant. Even as a wishy-washy social democrat, I’ve got to say that your takedown of this argument is a triumph :-).

    And I’ve also got to say that, having never before come against this argument, I now have a lot less respect for Nozick. Pop psychology, really?

  4. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I like to send this essay of Nozick’s to my friends to amuse them. One friend recently complained when I sent it to him a second time! 🙂

    Incidentally, you might find this review I wrote of Nozick’s ASU interesting (or not, I don’t know): http://thesamovar.net/node/41

  5. Colm O'Connor Says:

    I suspect capitalism is opposed by a large number of intellectuals because the system is geared in most capitalist systems *against* those who innovate and work hard, who should be just recipients of the wealth they produce (i.e. the workers and innovators) and *for* the incumbent owners of wealth and *for* those who exploit the holes in the system.

    Capitalism – the system at its core vs the way it is set up (with intellectual property, land ownership, labour laws) are two separate things. If there were an intellectual separation of the two, and an understanding of the system of markets of varying levels of freedom, micro-monopolies and how they interact on a systemic level, I imagine that intellectual opposition to capitalism would lessen.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Looking at comments here and also at some that this post has got on Reddit, I feel I should add a clarification:

    When I say ‘capitalism’ I mean ‘any sort of society in which capitalists are the dominant class’. That’s not the same as definitions in terms of markets, freedom of trade, etc. – it focuses on what I think is the most important point, who has power. As such, I do believe that our current society, and most historical ones for at least a century, are throroughly capitalist. I define ‘capitalists’ by their private control of the means of production which they manage primarily for the purpose of accumulation of more such control – i.e. they manage it as capital, to seek a return on its investment.

    Also: thank you to those who complimented the post;

    Also: no I’ve not read Brian Barry’s review, but yes I have read Dan’s review, which I liked, especially the stuff about how all-or-nothing the theory has to be to acheive its purposes.

  7. tonyisnt Says:

    You’ve touched on a lot of really good things here.

    First: “But that’s only the first problem with Nozick’s writing. It also expresses the one-sided ‘free-market’ understanding of capitalism.” Personally I’ll never understand anarchists who take this position, whether self-described “anarcho-capitalists” or not. To believe in the free market is to also believe in Social Darwinism, as I see it, and this is a philosophical position I don’t think any anarchist can seriously take. I also believe, as you seem to be getting at here, that capitalism is more than just an economic system, but also a philosophical belief that everything in the world is capital. This transforms forests, land, food, services we provide for one another, from things in themselves and into things that can be turned into money. A capitalist cannot see a forest as a forest; he sees it as a bunch of trees that can be cleared, sold of, and then land that can be built upon.

    So basically, people can praise the “free market” all they want—hell, I actually do like the idea that the best products and the best providers will be the most successful—but in reality capitalism doesn’t reward those who do best; instead, it rewards those who exploit, those who are opportunistic and greedy and conniving and so on.

    But secondly, I think his argument is self-defeating, which you’ve kind of showed, but I’d like to expand upon it. If he’s claiming that the people who did the best in school did so because they are the smartest, this plays against his position as a Social Darwinist. If the best people in society are supposed to rise to the top, why is it that these intellectuals, those who are arguable “the best” at thinking and figuring things out, haven’t succeeded? Obviously Social Darwinism is a garbage position, and obviously, therefore, free market capitalism is a garbage idea.

    So it’s exactly as you said: Intellectuals are opposed to capitalism because capitalism is intellectually bankrupt.

  8. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Actually does anyone have any links to the Barry or other reviews of ASU? I found some excerpts but not the whole thing and I would be interested to read it

  9. rumblegumption Says:

    If you have JStor access, Barry’s review is here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/191118.pdf

    I also like (parts of) Thomas Nagel’s review:
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/795521.pdf

  10. Colm O'Connor Says:

    >When I say ‘capitalism’ I mean ‘any sort of society in which capitalists are the dominant class’.

    That needs a different name, I think. One where every person has a more or less equal opportunity to join the “capitalist class” (that is, be a profit seeking entrepreneur) is entirely different affair to one where a dominant class is a set of profit seeking entrepeneurs and/or rentiers, and the rest of society are pawns and workers.

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Colm: Yes, in theory those two are quite different, but I imagine we disagree on how robust the difference would be in practice. But if they are to have distinct labels, then I would suggest that the really-existing-paradigm of class rule keep the word ‘capitalism’, since that is, I believe, the original meaning.

  12. Top Posts « WordPress.com Says:

    […] “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” Robert Nozick wrote, a while back, an article with this title. It’s an odd piece, and its essential answer to the […] […]

  13. Gabriel Says:

    The overwhelming majority of “intellectuals” receive their salary directly from the state, out of money forcibly expropriated from productive citizens. They therefore have a direct class interest in demonising capitalist modes of production and distribution, whilst extolling the superiority of alternative forms (that is, at the risk of tedium, using the political system to forcibly expropriate the property of others and distribute it to oneself).

    The only problem (for the intellectuals) is that they sometimes go a bit far and start advocating a complete of the capitalist system (a phenonemon known as “the parasite killing the host”). Fortunately, most of them would immediately wet their pants when confronted with something actually resembling a revolutionary situation so there’s little real danger of them creating one. In the meanwhile, they can release the psychological pressure created by their incoherent ideology (designed, as is the usual way of things, to legitimate their mode of parasitic exploitation) by supporting revolutionary movements in the third world, which to not imperil their ability to buy tuscan olive oil on other people’s dime.

    Nozick’s theory is thus a bit over-complex.

    P.S. However, when one notes the national debts accumulated across the western world, it does appear that the various parasites may actually be about to kill the host. Things could go in various directions, but it’s just about possible that we’re about to see the complete unvravelling of the social-democratic state. Among the various up-sides of this scenario is that most of the Reds currently emplyed by British university system will starve to death on the streets like the filthy scum they are. =)

  14. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “out of money forcibly expropriated from productive citizens”
    Whereas private firms which make use of their position and resources to exploit people’s labour are doing so non-forcibly, of course. Because anybody in the UK who feels they’re being screwed over by the economy can defect out of the property system without any fear of violence. It’s not state force that keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, oh no – it’s the fact that legitimate owners have a natural mystical bond with their property that means it will only work for them and no-one else.

  15. Gabriel Says:

    Yes Luke, people who’s livelihood depends on the state’s efforts to protect property rights tend to support the state doing so, people who benefit from the state robbing people tend to support that.

    Or to put matters less vituperatively, there’s no difference between the intellectuals and the NHS *managers*, the equality and diversity officers, the hordes of Quango employees, the safety bureacracy, the workers for Orwellianly misnamed “NGOs” or anyone else in what Sean Gabb has named “the enemy class”. Their social position is similar, their mode of exploitation identical and, consequently, their views are little different. There’s really little need for a separate analysis, let alone some cod-psychology based on their experience at school. Most people who “earn” their keep by having the state rob other people on their behalf are left-wing, go figure eh?

    There is, perhaps, however, room for some vitriol. Whenever one delves into the life of the mind, it becomes quickly apparent that all the interesting debates, outside of pol theory, happen within the Right. Take literary criticism: if you actually care about words and how they have been used by English writers you’ll look at the arguments between, say, T.S. Elliot, Leavis and C.S. Lewis wheras all the academic Left has to offer is yet another turgid study of whether Milton’s poetry is part of the hegemonic structure of patriarchal power systems, or actually implicitly undermines them, or, perhaps, does one and then the other, or exploits modallly, the modalities of the two polarities in a Derridean manner produced by people who palpably have no deep nor serious appreciation of literature or even seem to care about it all that much. The situation is analagous in every sphere ofthe humanities I have some familiarity with. The conquest of academia (and it has been most successful) by the Left over the past 50 or so years has therefore been of immeasurable damage to western civilization.

    However, again, why it has happened is no mystery, but the obvious consequence of the nationalization of intellectual life. Intellectuals are, now, by and large, part of the enemy class so they, by and large, espouse the legitimating ideology of the enemy class. You’re, no doubt, well on the way to the comforts of that class yourself, though, as I noted, you may be arriving a little late to the party.

  16. Gabriel Says:

    Ugh *whose and likewise for the other errors.

    My comprehensive was rather lax on such points, following the wise advice of penetrating intellectuals

  17. Colm O'Connor Says:

    >Yes Luke, people who’s livelihood depends on the state’s efforts to protect property rights tend to support the state doing so, people who benefit from the state robbing people tend to support that.

    In other words, every class is out for their self interest.

    No shit sherlock.

    Some people call protection of property rights highway robbery (Or did the Duke of Westminster fairly earn the right to own Mayfair?) and others call taxation robbery.

  18. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    My comment was just pointing out the silliness of the very common right-wing theme, which you reproduced, that state distribution is ‘forcible’ is a way that state-backed market distribution fundamentally isn’t. That was the only part that seemed really worth commenting on. But if I must:

    “people who’s livelihood depends on the state’s efforts to protect property rights tend to support the state doing so, people who benefit from the state robbing people tend to support that.”
    Supposing this is true in a simple way, it would suggest (conveniently for me) that support for capitalism would be confined to proper capitalists, while the proletariat and most of the middle class would be, like the intellectuals, anti-capitalist. But, Nozick avers, they are generally not to the same extent – intellectuals are relatively anomalous. I don’t know that this is true, but it sounds about right, and if it is then it demands an explanation.

    For you of course that explanation is that all the rest of society’s members, neither rich nor intellectual, are made much better off by capitalism than they would be by anything else. I don’t agree, so that explanation works for you but not for me.

    “There is, perhaps, however, room for some vitriol.”
    Thank heavens for that.

    “all the interesting debates, outside of pol theory, happen within the Right.”
    I know fuck-all about literary theory, but I’m not hugely surprised that the most right-wing person I know finds right-wing academics more valuable than left-wing ones.

  19. Gabriel Says:

    “Supposing this is true in a simple way, it would suggest (conveniently for me) that support for capitalism would be confined to proper capitalists, while the proletariat and most of the middle class would be, like the intellectuals, anti-capitalist. But, Nozick avers, they are generally not to the same extent – intellectuals are relatively anomalous. I don’t know that this is true, but it sounds about right, and if it is then it demands an explanation. ”

    But Nozick is wrong. The degree of anti-capitalism among intellectuals is (was) more or less the same as any other group of state employees. Perhaps they take it a bit further than most, but people who sit around all day thinking have that tendency, like me for example.

    As to the question of why so many of us oppressed drudges support the capitalist system that exploits us … perhaps because we’re all a bunch of dolts, perhaps because our consciousness is false, perhaps because we have been objectively-subjectively-retrospectively (or something) enbourgoised. I’ll leave it to you to work out, but I’m not sure how anything you’ve written so far helps to explain it.

    “most right-wing person I know”

    Bitchin’ No doubt my fearless attempts to provide intellectual cover for the boss class will start paying off in big juicy cheques any day now.

  20. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I’m not sure how anything you’ve written so far helps to explain it.”

    Quoting from original post:
    “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.”

  21. thomas Says:

    I find it interesting that society defines many of these individuals as intellectuals at all. It should be noted, however, that true intellectuals would find it hard to fit into any societies. Their view of the world is a slight shift from that most people operate in. Of all the supposed intellectuals I am aware of, I have yet to see one take into consideration the”nature of the human animal” when developing their theoretical utopias.

  22. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Indeed, ‘intellectual’ is a contested term, but I was just taking Nozick’s usage (which I think he may be drawing from Friedrich von Hayek). But I wonder about “Of all the supposed intellectuals I am aware of, I have yet to see one take into consideration the”nature of the human animal” when developing their theoretical utopias.” Right off the top of my head, Kropotkin was a keen student of ‘the human animal’, and there have been plenty of psychologists, anthropologists, and psychoanalysts involved in radical politics.

  23. Myais Says:

    What if we accept the nuance of reality and stop saying that all intellectuals oppose capitalism? Many intellectuals are in favor of capitalism.
    Maybe it all comes down to who says who is an intellectual and who is not. Maybe the Academic environment is ripe for socialists and communists and capitalism is unfit for their world-perspective; if so both propositions could be true: Intellectuals see capitalism as morally bankrupt, and intellectuals want society to function like a school.


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