Fools, Frauds and Firebrands
by Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury, 2015, 304 pages, $35
You should read this book. No one else will tell you this, so I will. There has hardly been a more important book published over the past twelve months. If you sincerely wish to understand the times in which you live, there is no book like it. In describing it I will not be able to do it justice, since it provides a complex outline of the intellectual world that continues to promote the ideas of the Left, as inane and destructive as they are. But if you are to understand where these ideas come from, and why they continue to persist, you must read this book. There is no substitute anywhere that I know of. Read it.
The book has a specific purpose. It is to provide a way of escape to students who are caught up in various versions of a modern humanities course, where they are fed an endless mind-numbing postmodernist gruel. The book goes through the various manifestations of the modern Left to explain their idiocies and unravel the Newspeak in which they are encoded. But the book does more. It opens up to those of us who are only vaguely aware of the ways in which the humanities are now taught, our own entry into the depths of a problem most of us are, at best, only dimly aware of.
To use my own education as an example, I am not unaware of the forms of the postmodernism that surround us in the academic world. I meet it in the occasional seminar and come across it in various papers and presentations. Parts of it are almost common core, such as Thomas Kuhn’s notion that science is nothing other than what scientists do, and that the notion of something called “truth” is an entity impossible to discover. But it goes farther, to argue that truth is relative, that there is more than one way to skin an empirical fact. It goes farther still, and argues that even the facts we think we know are merely the product of the ideological world in which we have been raised. And it takes that one extra step to argue that to transcend our own bourgeois outlook, it is necessary to see the world liberated from our own limited backgrounds and instead, see things through the lens of Marxist thought.
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is about the evolution of Marxist ideas in the academic Left. Coming from the economic world as I do, I have read the Marx who wrote Das Kapital and know more than enough to demonstrate that a Marxist economy, indeed any economy run on socialist principles, will provide only misery to a population that is mired in ineradicable poverty. If you are too young to remember the Soviet Union, then look at North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. But in the academic world the Marx that matters today is not Marx the economist but Marx the social theorist. So even while these writers described by Scruton defend Marx, it is not the economics they defend but an array of ideas whose insanity is matched only by their incoherence. The following is just one of the many summary statements Scruton makes throughout the book that help to bring you closer to the nature of the problem we have in dealing with modern thought:
It is no longer possible to take refuge in the airy speculations that contented Marx. Real thinking is needed if we are to believe that history either tends or ought to tend in a socialist direction. Hence the emergence of socialist historians, who systematically downplay the atrocities committed in the name of socialism, and blame the disasters on the “reactionary” forces that impeded socialism’s advance. Rather than attempting to define the goals of liberation and equality, thinkers of the New Left instead created a mythopoeic narrative of the modern world, in which the wars and genocides were attributed to those who have resisted the righteous “struggle” for social justice. History was rewritten as a conflict between good and evil, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And, however nuanced and embellished by its many brilliant exponents, this Manichean vision remains with us, enshrined in the school curriculum and in the media.
The phrase, “its many brilliant exponents”, highlights the one downside to the book, which is Scruton’s insistence on giving the devil his due. Since the book is addressed to those who are being taught their postmodernism within the academic world, Scruton often discusses how well the various arguments are constructed and how difficult they are to resist unless both sides are presented in as clear and fair-minded a way as possible. Although such asides did occasionally stop me mid-sentence (and in fact I agree with him about how interesting many of these arguments are), there is never any doubt that Scruton sees all of it as forms of idiocy, as this example shows, literally picked at random from a book filled with other statements just as sharp:
In a singularly repulsive essay on “Revolutionary Terror”, Žižek praises the “humanist terror” of Robespierre and St Just (as opposed to the “anti-humanist, or rather inhuman” terror of the Nazis), not because it was in any way kind to its victims, but because it expressed the enthusiasm, the “utopian expositions of political imagination” of its perpetrators. No matter that the terror led to the imprisonment of half a million innocent people, and the deaths of as many more. The statistics are irrelevant, waved away by Lacan’s wand, reduced to the square root of minus one—a purely imaginary number. What is relevant is the way in which, through speeches that Žižek would recognize to be self-vaunting bombast did his critical faculties not desert him in the face of a revolutionary hero, Robespierre “redeemed the virtual content of terror from its actualisation”.
In this way, for Žižek, thought cancels reality, when the thought is “on the left”.
Even if you know Žižek’s name, you are unlikely to know much about what he writes, nor how he fits into the canon of the modern Left, nor why Scruton characterises his writings as “mad incantations”. This is the singularly important service that Scruton provides. He knows these authors, has read them to exhaustion, and can explain them to you in a way you will understand. What he also does is make clear why you too should make the effort to understand them, so that you too can appreciate and assess the damage they have done to modern thought and social cohesion. Scruton explains why everything you know, believe and understand about the world can be instantly dismissed by these people through the revolutionary perspective of Grand Theory. And here we are discussing nearly every one of the major philosophical thinkers of the modern age: Hobsbawm, Thompson, Dworkin, Sartre, Foucault, Habermas, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Gramsci, Said, Badiou, Žižek and many others still who do not make it into chapter titles.
Unless you are a specialist in postmodernist philosophy, you will know next to nothing about most of them. Yet these are not just the major authors who people the reading lists of courses in Cultural Studies, but it is their views that underpin the content of the media and political discourse across the West. These people may be as loopy as it is possible to be, and their works near-unreadable nonsense, but they inform our debates and are the essence of politically correct discourse. You cannot avoid any of it. What Scruton (right) offers in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is an opportunity to find out for yourself what passes for modern thought, provided in a way that you will understand not just their content, not just their dangers, but also their incredible idiocy. This is where one of the most crucially important battles of our time is being fought, and unless you understand what is taking place, you will be unable to do a thing. That is why you should read this book. If nothing else, you will understand the nature of the icebergs that have ripped through the hull of the cultural ship of the West and why it may soon sink into oblivion.
But all is not lost, as the publication of Fools, Frauds and Firebrands itself shows. There is no final necessity that our great civilisation must be sabotaged by the academic swamp fever and empty rhetoric of Grand Theory. We can fight back, and as part of this endeavour, let me discuss a few absolutes of our own which may be applied as needed. In my view, these should become our own fundamental premises as a means to identify the insane and absurd.
Capitalism is the only economic system that works. Nothing is perfect and our societies are constantly trying to improve the material wellbeing of our citizens. But as an absolute no-questions-asked truth, capitalism is the only kind of economic system that allows prosperity to spread and grow, never mind that it is the only economic system consistent with personal freedom. We must accept no other conclusion. If someone is “anti-capitalist”, then not only should they be seen as ignorant to a fantastic degree, but also as an enemy of prosperity, individual fulfilment and personal freedom. The postmodern world is united in its spread of anti-capitalist vitriol. Anyone who therefore travels under the banner of an anti-capitalist banner has nothing to contribute to an understanding of the world. They should not just be ignored, but what they say or write should be seen as contrary to human wellbeing and happiness.
Marxist economic theory is perniciously wrong. Anyone who invokes Karl Marx as an authority on anything of significance must be recognised as a charlatan. Das Kapital’s economic analysis, dependent on the labour theory of value to explain the exploitation of the working class, is as ridiculous a premise in the twenty-first century as it is possible to find. The “immiseration of the working class under capitalism” is a notion so thoroughly discredited, not just in theory but by the amazing growth in personal prosperity since the start of the nineteenth century, that you have to wonder how anyone can any longer mention Marx with honest intent. Worrying that rising incomes are being used to finance useless trifles is a problem no one ever feels they would like to see solved in their own personal lives.
The Marxist theory of ideology is junk science. What remains of Marxism is the notion that our beliefs are entirely conditioned by our interests. We believe only what it is in our interests to believe. And then because it was clear even to Marxists that people believe all kinds of things that have nothing to do with their interests—that are often even contrary to those interests objectively stated—we ended up with the notion of “false consciousness”. So then we might believe what it is not in our interests to believe, but instead believe the kinds of things our “oppressors” prefer us to believe, such as that private property makes us more economically secure not to mention helping to preserve our personal freedoms. Anyone who therefore peddles any version of Marxist ideology, especially if they also argue that they are able to see past our bourgeois perspectives and directly access the truth we cannot see for ourselves, should be seen as self-deluded fools.
Revolution is never the answer to our economic, political or social problems. Preaching “revolution” in the open societies of the West is a certain sign that someone is a crackpot. This is the form in which modern nihilism travels. It is one thing to identify a problem and propose a solution. This is how we in the West have managed in piecemeal fashion to improve our social and material lives in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way since the end of the eighteenth century. There are political solutions for every sort of problem, which involve identification of something as in need of remedy followed by agitation and discussion with ultimate resolution. Our modern revolutionaries instead believe that the societies we have built are beyond redemption and need to be swept away in a form of armed insurrection. They none of them have any idea what ought to replace the world they would destroy, but they could not care less. These people are worm-eaten to the core, despicable and vile, filled with hatreds and misery. They should not just be ignored, but shunned. They have nothing to contribute to modern discourse. The moment someone suggests a revolutionary answer to our social, economic and political problems, they should be identified as a dangerous fool with no useful contribution to make to any aspect of modern debate.
No one in a free society is “oppressed”. Not everyone’s lives work out as they would like and we are each born into different circumstances which give us divergent possibilities in life. Poor people enjoy having children who are then, of necessity, the children of poor parents. Some people have personal characteristics that allow them to succeed in the face of adversity while others do not. We all must contribute to society in our own ways as best we can, and some ways will be less remunerative or bring us less fame and esteem. To argue that some class of individuals is “oppressed” may be useful as a political tactic, but it is representative of no category of individuals in the West. Identity politics now continues to stoke group resentments that create tensions that have little objective reality. Dividing our citizens into the oppressors and the oppressed is a tactic designed to breed resentment, but is utterly empty in the society in which we live. Peddlers of group oppression may make careers for themselves by breeding such discontent, but almost never improve anyone’s lives but their own.
So where are we? Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is a book too content-rich to summarise. It is one of the indispensable books of our time that will, given the nature of things, be read by only a small number of people. But if you are the kind of person who reads this kind of review in this kind of publication, then you are one of the people who should read this book. There are issues the book ignores, and I don’t agree with everything Scruton says, but where we differ is of no moment. This is from the concluding chapter and captures what has gone before:
Why is it after a century of socialist disasters, and an intellectual legacy that has been time and again exploded, the left-wing position remains, as it were, the default position to which thinking people gravitate when called upon for a comprehensive philosophy? Why are “right-wingers” marginalised in the educational system, denounced in the media and regarded by our political class as untouchable, fit only to clean up after the orgies of luxurious nonsense indulged in by their moral superiors?
We live in dangerous times in no small part because of the academic idiocies that pollute our intellectual environment. This book will not tell us what to do, but it will help us understand the problems we face and in this way it makes an important contribution to thinking through what needs to be done.
Steven Kates is Associate Professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University in Melbourne.