Delusions that Drowned a Century in Blood
By Terry Hulsey
Some books are so penetrating in their understanding of past ages that they become the lens through which all future study of those years begins. A list of such books cannot avoid the risk of idiosyncrasy, but might include: For prehistory, Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade (2007); for Roman history, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776); for medieval history, The Great Chain of Being by Arthur Lovejoy (1936); for the pre-Renaissance, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century by Charles Homer Haskins (1939); for the Renaissance, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jakob Burkhardt (1860); for the nineteenth century, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859). For the twentieth century the first entry for a book of this kind and stature must be Twelve Delusions of Our Time by Helmut Schoeck (1922-1993).
Twelve Delusions of Our Time is not concerned with specific historical errors – e.g., the mutual treaties that contributed to starting the First World War, the failures of the Treaty of Versailles in leading to the Second – and twelve certainly does not exhaust the list. Its focus is a dozen key recurring pathologies of the last century, all of which share a common characteristic: The emergence of a determining figure not seen before, the intellectual.
Demographics and the general acceptance of science explain the rise of the public thinker for government policy: Millions of people now existed through the practical application of science – science which simultaneously undermined institutions like church and kingship that in the past had provided legitimacy to state power. And now, when the millions who provided wealth that was fabulous in comparison to foregoing ages vastly outnumbered those who held the levers of power, when the discontented millions could immediately cast them down, legitimacy was the indispensable commodity, to be provided by the intellectual.
Certainly there were those intellectuals eager to serve as "the eyes, ears and voice of a free society" organizing itself on the values of pleasure and friendship. But to have influence, to set policy, to stand next to power, there was another class of intellectuals, which we call here the statist intellectuals, which was willing to put its various expertise – whether in law, the arts, science, sociology, economics – in the service of the state.
This list of twelve delusions is in fact a list of the principal means by which the statist intellectuals sold themselves to the state, providing legitimacy in exchange for access to power.
The first delusion, "Elites don’t matter," seems to be a contradiction of the statist intellectuals’ own moral authority. But whether understood as simple irony or as an indicator of some unresolved Jungian contradiction, this delusion in fact enhances their power. By undermining Jefferson’s "aristocracy of ability" – society’s natural elites – by mocking their moral authority and attenuating their ranks, they establish themselves as the arbiters of who is legitimate. Flood the ranks of the natural elites by giving everyone a college degree, and the need for elites does not vanish – instead they are replaced by those bearing the government-sanctioned credentials. As for those self-made thinkers who in the past could just walk in to a place of employment and show their stuff, forget it. The self-taught like Lysander Spooner, Garet Garrett, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Leonard Read, or H.L. Mencken, or dropouts like Henry Hazlitt are condemned to nattering on some obscure blog.
And yet, as Schoeck emphasizes, no matter how coercive is the state-enforced alternative (here, the state-enforced lowering of university standards after World War Two) in opposition to the long-established natural institution (here, the "aristocracy of ability"), the latter always reasserts itself as an ineradicable need. Schoeck writes:
A frightful suspicion must have occurred to republicans and radical democrats, Marxists and socialists: Does man perhaps have a predilection for hereditary monarchy in his very nature? And are they not prone to it themselves? There is much to support this suspicion. This primitive motive breaks through as plain as day even among Leftists when the sun of Camelot shines upon them in their own country! Indeed, isn’t perhaps their grief about this primitive need, which is almost never satisfied in the West and which is so embarrassing for them, that makes them haters of the West and worshippers of a dynasty that promises to damage the West? [Delusion 1, "Elites don’t matter," Democrats and dynasties]
A similar principle is at work in the third delusion, "It’s art – even without talent." Once again, when everyone including the talentless is proclaimed an artist, it will be those with powerful connections who will receive the most lucrative awards and state endowments, which of necessity can go only to a few. Also, in this delusion another principle is at work, one which seeks to degrade man, to destroy an image of man that is rational, noble, and admirable. Which, after all is more easily led – someone who thinks himself mean and ugly, or someone with his mind furnished with loftier images? And once again, a centuries-old human need – here, for noble self-images – cannot be silenced, even when it must find expression in a perversion, as Schoeck reveals here with a brilliant insight:
What is at the bottom of ["reconciliation with nature"]? The fashionable frenzy with ugliness like the kind that was forced on mankind since the mid-century in every field of art leads some people to the idolization of animals. Animals are beautiful and without sin, and a miserable worm like myself is permitted to behold their beauty without sinning against the spirit of the times. Is the recent outbreak of totalitarian protectionism of animals perhaps an unconscious longing for the beauty to which one has to close one’s eyes in the human realm? [Delusion 3, "It’s art – even without talent," Does the abandonment of the beautiful in art lead to animal worship?]
Schoeck provides countless examples of the self-contradiction of intellectuals and of claims by statists that are more outrageous than King Canute’s apocryphal command that the tides retreat. Those growing up in state-run schools will not blink an eye when the government claims power to order, with a hubris compounded by its casualness, the employment level, the rate of interest, the survival of bankrupt banks, and Third World development. Schoeck details how these egregious claims, unheard-of before the twentieth century, came to be. Possibly the most glaring example is the hybrid of the intellectual and the politico, the prognosticator. He writes:
Our century of the professional prognosticator and the prognosis has failed in most of its predictions. Indeed for every prognosis there has also been an opposing one as a rule, but for evaluating the popular prognoses and for evaluating their percentage of accuracy, only those that command the field and the Zeitgeist are considered. There is no area where prognosticators have not repeatedly been wrong. A reason for this is his faith in the social-political malleability of human nature, of custom, and of man’s fundamental incentives. In light of this, most prognoses and planning schemes are based on the alteration of attitudes, desires, disinclinations, and reservations of man in favor of the prognosis. Basic motives and patterns of behavior that did not suit the concerns of the prognosticator were simply ignored, even in apparently scientific investigations. This includes for example the claims of patriotism, of the love of one’s homeland, of the instinctive love of one’s community, and of the protection of one’s territory, of the power of prejudice (ethnocentrism), and of the exceedingly powerful reluctance of human beings to renounce their traditions, even when retaining them is difficult, as in the case of languages that have become rare within the larger territory of a generally accepted tongue. [...] The prognoses of our enlightened and progressive century are substitutes for fairy tales, merely reversed. Instead of "once upon a time," they now say "it will happen thus." Is that the reason man lives better with prognoses than without them, even when they always turn out wrong? I believe that the prognosis is the placebo, and like the latter it is for many people almost exactly as good as the – in reality unbearable – true glimpse into the future would be – and probably even better. And even the apocalyptic prognoses are a benefit to many people. For example, how could the herd of those who had dropped out of the work force during the 1970s have constructed their outlook on life without the prognoses of the Club of Rome & Co.? The apocalypse is always a pill offering the anodyne of peevishness. [Delusion 7, "Social science will save the world," The prognosticator as bop bag]
The contradictions of the statist intellectuals in the twentieth century have evolved into the Bizarro World of this century, where contradiction is a routine matter of policy. And in a twisted way, it makes sense: For if a policy is determined by common sense, longstanding institutions, and reason, what is the need for a coercive state? That would be redundant, or at least justification for only a minimal state. No, the more outrageous and irrational the contradiction, sedately pronounced as the distillation of wise statecraft, the more obvious the need for force to impose it. The greater the failure, whether in the "War on Terror" or the "War on Drugs," the more obvious the need for greater coercion, not common sense. Thus every state actor, from president to policeman, unconsciously participates in this bizarre moral inversion – not so much because they are evil but because this inversion is the validation and legitimization of their office. Yet this inversion would vanish overnight if the statist intellectuals removed their support. Grover Cleveland would become the model for presidents, and the Sheriff of Mayberry the model for policemen. That the suggestion of these models is met with derision is the measure of the statist intellectuals’ command of the Zeitgeist.
If Schoeck has correctly identified the key Twelve Delusions of Our Time responsible for a century in which governments murdered hundreds of millions of their own people, then he has written a vital book for the twenty-first century: For we have so far been inoculated against none of them.