Moral one-upmanship lifts the preacher and lowers the congregation, and while secularisation has reduced sin’s potential to incite a pulpiteer’s scolding that has not prevented the emergence of new rebukes. Think here of the many PC “isms” said to signify indelible wickedness
Rarely has so much changed within a lifetime. Yesterday’s outré and outcast recast as inquisitors; great nations in demographic collapse; primal human practices like marriage, veritable specie constants, condemned as iniquitous and beyond rational defence, and most surprisingly, all happening peaceably, with little alteration in surface political forms. No wonder elders scratch their heads, as do those few historically literate young. This essay proposes to settle their confusions by revealing the deepest drivers of these astonishing and revolutionary changes.
Most revolutions have been sudden and explosive—this one is more a continuing burn. One might thus be tempted to mistake its passages for normal cultural evolution—if at an accelerated pace. But they’re not. Their relatively incremental nature does, however, contain the reason why the revolution has been so thoroughgoing, why it has ground so exceeding small. Abjuring the turbulent savagery of its predecessors, it has spared bodies for the sake of a more protracted and promising labour—the remake of souls.
The revolution’s transformations have certainly not just been the cumulative “Hayekian” outcome of individuated choice, social evolution’s signature. Rather, they’ve been substantially managed and top-down; judicial command, legislative rescript, bureaucratic dictate, and, most of all, incessant, intense and self-conscious preachment, indispensable to their unfolding. The revolution has doubtless taken advantage of spontaneous changes, especially those arising from the hedonic culture of mass affluence, but it has channelled their energies, steering rather than drifting on their currents, and by so doing has shifted the weight of social and political power in a unique and decisive way.
Nor is the direction of its changes resulting in a more reality-tested world, as disaggregated, evolutionary choice might be expected to do, but—typical of top-down impositions—one increasingly remote from experiential anchorage; one in which common sense is supplanted by fantasies delusive in most every respect but their correspondence to the interests of the cadres who weave them.
And, yes, like earlier revolutions, this one has its cadres; committed to the creation of a heaven-on-earth while manoeuvring to be the principals and powers within it. As good cadres should, they share broad agreement about their goals, the nature of likely enemies and allies and, at any given time, the political lines that need to be supported. Almost invariably, their members recognise each other.
The unusual character of this revolution is a function of what its cadres do best—what pursuits take greatest advantage of their natural skill sets and deal most effectively with followers and opponents. What these cadres do best is manipulate ideas and language, being, as revolutionaries go, hyper-cerebral and effete. Although dependent on coercive state power, their strategies focus much less on the overt display (or use) of brute force than on fostering weakness in their adversaries, psychically undermining and neutering opponents instead of crushing them. Past revolutions ignited the passions of the long-quiescent to storm barricades—unleashing self-devouring hatreds in the process. This one triumphs through psychological liquefaction, rendering resistance nerveless. So far its champions remain uneaten.
This essay first appeared in the April edition of Quadrant.
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To be sure, in most times and places their strategies would not have availed; outside the sheltered environs of the West the world is simply too raw. But in the extraordinarily cosseted circumstances of postmodernity their moment finally came.
Because of its incremental and non-martial character this revolution’s cadres, also unlike their predecessors, have been able to do without a formal high command. Unity has been sustained instead through invertebrate processes, notably enculturation, and when rapid mobilisation has been required, hive-like excitation. Central to producing both effects has been control over communication networks that have attained unprecedented scope and psychological penetration—dominance of university systems the linchpin of the rest.
As with predecessors, however, hierarchy is the goal—a society in which the wise and virtuous—the cadres themselves—grandly minister to the needs of lesser folk. This will make, indeed already has made, them lords of a historically special kind, an aristocracy of mind, what might be called a “cognoscendancy”, a social formation whose power derives from an extraordinary capacity to shape, and reshape, collective mental content.
Historically, “elites of mind” have been scarce—Tibetan Lamaism, the medieval Papacy and dynastic China, among the few approximate cases. To be sure, intellectuals have always held a place in political hierarchies, the acquisitiveness of armed men needing high-minded justifications. But they’ve almost invariably been junior partners, legitimating hierarchy’s architecture, rather than occupying its highest tiers—a status generally left to those more immediately menacing.
Often, no doubt, intellectuals have been quietly subversive, and segments, as during the Reformation, have sometimes broken into open insurgency—though usually, as in that case, in collaboration with equally dissident representatives of martial might. Nowhere, until recently, have they been strong enough to bid for power largely on their own. Nor have their often febrile imaginings consistently dominated policy in the way they do now—the key to understanding our surreal times.
Revolutionary prologue: a “world-safe-for-making”
The emergence of a cognoscendancy, able not only to speak truth to power but also to recast that “truth” according to its pleasure, is a remarkable event in the annals of mankind. But it is one that could only have happened in the wake of an equally remarkable one, the emergence of a “world-safe-for-making”.
There are many ways of securing a livelihood, but historically they may be said to divide into two grand strategies—“making” and “taking”. “Making” involves the creation of wealth for personal use or exchange, “taking”, its acquisition through force or threat. Exchange among “makers”, the trading of one good for another, benefits all concerned and, when systemic, spurs economic growth. “Takers” extract via a predatory relationship in which good is gained by delivering or threatening ill, deterring creativity and stifling growth.
“Taking” has traditionally been the dominant strategy, literally the royal (and aristocratic) road to riches, status and power. A “world-safe-for-making” (the underlying meaning of bourgeois constitutionalism), reversed this ancient precedence, limiting the scope, and taming the abuse of state power through a variety of normative and institutional practices. Spared the state’s exactions and arbitrary intrusions, commerce, manufacture and banking burgeoned, becoming the life strategies of choice—a great but immensely salutary anomaly in human affairs.
The “world-safe-for-making” was, in part, the result of happy historical accidents like the Dutch Republic’s triumph over Spain, England’s Glorious Revolution and, after that, America’s. But it also reflected more deeply seated features of the European environment, particularly a fragmented geography, which dispersed dynastic power sufficiently to allow, in some places at least, “makers” to successfully fight for the right to pursue their enterprises, keep their profits, and govern themselves. Fostering productivity, as well as bounties like scientific discovery, civic peace, security of property and religious tolerance, a “world-safe-for-making” delivered the good life not only to the masters but to mankind’s hitherto miserable masses—a wondrous alteration in the human condition achieved not by striving for utopia but by sheltering the thoroughly mundane.
Unfortunately, the “world-safe-for-making” has proven an unstable regime, its critical weakness synonymous with its signal strength—freedom. The crux of its difficulties has been the impossibility, both as a practical and philosophic matter, of separating the property freedoms it was originally crafted to protect, from the multifarious freedoms of personhood—a connection whose pedigree goes back to John Locke’s theorising of “real” as an extension of “sweat” equity. Giving full warrant to commercial liberty ultimately required doing much the same to the freedoms of the individual in both their intellectual and civil senses—which, ironically, then threatened liberty tout court.
Why? Two reasons.
Full intellectual liberty opens a Pandora’s Box of utopian ideologies set against which the blemishes of even the most benevolent reality can be made to seem intolerable. Intellectuals, released from constraint, naturally gravitate towards what they have always done most profitably, the hawking of redemptive, seductive and salvationist visions, usually self-serving and sometimes disastrously unrealistic.
Designing and purveying attractive visions, not the pursuit of truth, has historically been the staple of the intellectual trade—as millennia of clerics can testify. Some thinkers may single-mindedly pursue truth, however imperfectly, for its love alone. But given human nature, inhabiting intellectuals as well as duller lights, most do not—absent environments that strongly reward this fraught and difficult endeavour. These exist only under exceptional circumstances, requiring tests that reliably and dispositively sift truth from falsity, and incentives whereby discovering truth, rather than alluring reveries, yields the greater advantage. In those more common settings where truth’s possession is inconvenient or downright dangerous, few pursue it.
Natural science generally satisfies the criteria of testability and reward, other intellectual activities much less. Outside the hard sciences, and most particularly in the complicated and analytically spongy sphere of social speculation, advantage tilts sharply towards ideas—whatever their portion of veracity—that flatter, gratify or justify groups, causes, institutions, interests and regimes.
Redemptive visions were once apt to be otherworldly, perfection not thought possible, even by the most imaginative, in this world. Religious creeds weren’t necessarily politically innocuous, but their transcendent character at least placed them a step removed from the critique of earthly arrangements. More often than not heavenly visions taught loyalty to the powers-of-the-moment—a service these powers very decently compensated. By contrast, mutinous visions were bound and gagged.
The “world-safe-for making” loosed these bonds—while the triumphs of science brought the promise of perfection into the realm of earthly conceivability. Moreover, in constitutionalised settings high politics, hitherto dangerous, became relatively safe, and thus a talker’s paradise. Intellectuals, including the more physically timid, could now safely spread their conjectural wings, soar to the moral heights and, from these, swoop down upon men of might and merchandise alike, picking at their sundry sins and preying on their comparative lack of eloquence. To the extent intellectuals could claim for their speculations the warrant of science, their swoops were all the more devastating.
The “world-safe-for-making’s” material surfeits also allowed intellectuals, real and would-be, to proliferate in abandon—their tertiary and quaternary occupational niches in academe, journalism, entertainment and activism enabling them to capture greatly enriched income streams. So nourished, their voices swelled from the Sunday sermon’s generally tame piping to a perpetual, omnipresent chorus, heavily weighted towards ingenious complaint.
Equally inevitably, the “world-safe-for-making’s” civil liberties led to mass electorates. Freedom to assemble, petition and march—especially in crowded, potentially volatile urban settings—by itself conferred power, power enough, especially when coupled with the mass literacy industrialism favours, to spill into rampage unless placated. Mass suffrage became the standard placation, and with it redistributive politics and mounting depredations against property.
Needless to say, it took a lengthy succession of movements, protests, elections, uprisings, even civil wars, to fully establish the equation of property and person, giving all persons the political rights earlier won by property-holders, and then to work out the political implications. Yet, once this happened the “world-safe-for-making’s” heartland was laid open to predatory assault, intellectuals leading and the masses in tow.
The revolution’s markers and the end of “the great anomaly”
Revolutions transform. What transformations has this one rendered?
First, it has produced an enormous inflation of state power, especially with respect to the regulation and distribution of private wealth. For over a century, with only brief interruptions, the sway of Western governments over the marketplace—the seat of “maker” power—has grown more or less steadily, its start about coincident with the cognoscendancy’s embryonic stirrings at the nineteenth century’s end.
A somewhat banal observation? Perhaps. But much less so when set against the “great anomaly”—the aforementioned reversal of life strategy dominance, “taking” to “making”, that separates the last two centuries from most of what came before. Viewed in its light the cognoscendancy’s revolution is calling quits to an extraordinary interlude; one that powerfully redirected human energies in a constructive direction and ended social stasis. Whether the revolution—counter-revolution perhaps better serves—fully undoes what has been so anomalously accomplished, awaits final disposition. But since “taking” has been the historical norm, and regression towards the mean is nature’s usual way of disposing of the anomalous, concern is certainly appropriate.
The revolution’s second marker involves a corresponding transformation of government’s innards, shifting its operational balance away from representatives of civil society and towards increasingly insulated echelons of “taker” insiders. Since the end of the Second World War, in almost every democratic country, elected officials have been progressively surrendering influence to the unelected; as have legislators to executives; and local and regional centres to distant national and supranational authorities. If limited, proximate, representative government is what free institutions are basically about, the post-war period has encompassed a steady process of disenfranchisement, the cognoscendancy and its politico collaborators having less and less need or desire for popular accountability.
In some measure this is merely the flipside of government’s enormous late-twentieth-century bloat. The greater the stretch of policy and the greater body of the laws, the more the capacity to understand, administer and manipulate them secretes itself into the hands of bureaucratic specialists, allied outside experts, and the interest groups most immediately concerned with what these do. Legislators, inevitably generalists by comparison—to say nothing of the ordinary public—lose the ability to monitor the dense webs of privileged interaction that result.
But there is more to the trend than only this. The last half-century has seen a surprising refurbishment of authoritarian ideals, the celebration of hierarchy more and more a core project of Western intellectuals. All the ideological templates of the age, Marxism, progressivism, feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, even sexual liberation in its more transgressive forms, rely on hierarchic imposition when it is necessary, as it frequently is, to overcome the resistance of the unenlightened. The cognoscendancy’s democracy is one increasingly defined and justified by goodness of intention rather than responsiveness of process, by ends instead of means.
Claims to benevolent despotism are, of course, as old as the hills. Kings and emperors were fathers to their people, noblesse oblige an aristocrat’s second nature. But the contemporary forms have Leninist origins designed to give them a patina of populism. For early Marxists the matured proletariat was expected to display clear-sighted revolutionary consciousness. Faced by “economism”—the strong inclination of workers to care more about satisfying their material needs than launching his apocalypse—Lenin chucked this doctrine, vouchsafing revolutionary leadership to an ideological vanguard more far-seeing than the masses and authorised to lead them in theoretically correct directions.
The cognoscendancy has since given Lenin’s manoeuvre several new twists. No longer a rationale for capturing leadership on the streets or factory floor, it serves today as justification for ukase to further cement the power of those already in charge. In this new rendering hoi polloi ignorance is not the result of, say, the passing prevarications of a plutocratic press—the media having long fallen into the cognoscendancy’s hands—but of entrenched, benighted traditions (racism, sexism, heterosexism and the like) that lead plebs into imagining invidious wrongs to be naturally right. Nor does it justify violence; instead it is the wellspring of the cognoscendancy’s great educative mission; its irenic, persistent and now highly institutionalised labour—lifting the veils of inherited prejudice, equated with most of received cultural wisdom.
Sexual restraint and accompanying ideas of social normality are among the prime targets for debunking, exposed as bigoted shams, crimes against self-realisation and human completion. Gurus in education and entertainment mobilise to subvert them, the final strokes often delivered by the courts. So disappear hoary cultural landmarks, institutions and practices by which, hardly a moment ago, nearly everyone set their behavioural sights. Marriage as male-female union, courtship, the concept of natal legitimacy, prescribed heterosexuality, erotic inhibition, modesty and decorousness in dress, revered Christianity, a gendered division of labour, virile patriotism, macho armed forces, have all, in less than a half-century, been culturally disenthroned and morally stigmatised—the revolution’s third marker.
Rapid alterations in political arrangements, or for that matter in religious ones, have precedent. Yet for so much at the foundations of social life to be so quickly and non-violently dumped is quite without parallel. Enormous affluence has been a precondition for the necessary complacency—amidst such comforts what could possibly go wrong?—but so too has the emancipation of beguiling talk, the multiplication of beguiling talkers, and the tremendous amplification of their broadcast powers.
One might think that the trading of sexual licence, “freedom below the waist”, for the more substantial rights and responsibilities that go with “freedom above it” is simply a bread-and-circuses strategy. But its appeal for the cognoscendancy goes well beyond that. What it also expresses is a rulership claim; a declaration of cognitive superiority able to redo all that mankind has formerly and wrongly wrought. Indeed, there is a competitive one-upmanship among individuals and subgroups within the cognoscendancy that steadily pushes back the boundaries of the acceptable, a contest to see who can move the goal posts of cultural subversion furthest down the field and hence most strongly assert their leadership priority.
Ruling groups need to believe in themselves before they can comfortably command belief from others, and however an absurdist rivalry these competitions may seem to some—however ridiculous they may eventually appear to all—they embody a process of psychological and political bootstrapping which demands that the delusion propounded be first self-embraced. Through it the cognoscendancy glories in going where none have gone before—indeed, often to places that don’t exist, and can’t.
Consumerism—economism’s obese heir—is also targeted for “special treatment”. Although for many the very definition of the good life, and for most a major part of it, consumerism’s alleged side-effects, especially its environmental impacts, and the inequalities it reflects, provide another occasion for demoting the demos. In power’s logic that which is most common invites regulations correspondingly broad, a quality always attractive to aspirant world-controllers. But, as ever, theoretical justifications are needed, and this has called forth a triumph of thought that, properly considered, represents an inspired resurrection of the principle of divine right.
The beauty of divine right as a legitimating doctrine lies in its assertion of vicarage, a clairvoyance sufficient to manifest the will of a supreme yet—crucially—occult power. The vicar doesn’t speak but channels, or so his hearers believe—a distinction greatly important to them if not always to him, since as medium he knows he can ultimately control the message.
Secularisation replaced vicarage with deputation, Olympus with the grass roots. Elites, even the most arrogantly vanguard, were now compelled to profess service to the people instead of God. The problem is that the people have voice, and though a vanguard may assert it knows their interests better than they, they can always contradict. The vox populi may be smothered, of course, but only by means unavailable in historically constitutional states. If elites in those settings were again to play oracle, there was a need to discover another occluded entity whose existence was scientifically verifiable, could be said to have interests but, while awesome, was helpfully dumb. Enter Gaia.
With the coming of earth stewardship, vicarage acquired many new opportunities. While not a real persona, the planet is easily personalised, mother to ourselves and all the living beings we know. It is quintessentially natural and thus readily portrayed as victimised by technological and capitalistic spoliation. And it can now literally be imaged: a blue-green marble floating in inky space. No goddess was ever more beautiful or vulnerable.
Arguably, and the argument is now everywhere, human desires are trumped by the needs of the planet, especially when beyond the essential. And so, in a consumerist culture, where greedy grasping can be portrayed as a universal evil, the merely popular loses its sovereign hold.
Principles of revolutionary legitimation are one thing, practical strategies quite another. The former justify, the latter implement transformational programs. Legitimation invokes theory, and strategy needs to be generally consistent with it, but it also must be practically useful, that is to say suited to practitioner capabilities and aims, and the circumstances within which practitioners operate.
Given that the power of the cognoscendancy is largely built on pacific means—enculturation, obfuscation, co-optation—its dominance requires a political and social setting in which these relatively quiet arts can be practised unobstructed, in which those sectors of the public whose minds it wishes to change, and whose interests are being challenged, are rendered usefully passive, ignorant and pliant, and where any protest that may arise doesn’t exceed the verbal. (Exceptions to this are made for select client groups whose raucous outbursts can be milked for homiletic value.) Above all it wants an insider’s politics, undisturbed by the procedural restraints, foreign tumults or the transparency that could excite and mobilise mass opposition.
The following list of cognoscendancy strategies isn’t meant to be exhaustive but to describe those that are among the most important and distinctive.
Mobilising grievance. The cognoscendancy arose by championing grievance, which the world-safe-for-making for the first time freely permitted. Some of these grievances were real, if often exaggerated, others invented, or at least of a kind only those smothered in surfeit could be much concerned about. Exploiting them has generally required the psychological fragmentation of populations into plaintiff sub-groups increasingly detached from common frameworks like nationality, or universal ideals like meritocracy, which might resist division or take the edge off disappointment. In almost every case—sexual emancipation offering the main exceptions—the proffered solution was an extension of the tutelary state, the cognoscendancy being the tutors.
Community isn’t the sum of all grievances, but summing grievances has been the cognoscendancy’s route to communal power. For holding power, however, the technique is problematic. Maximising division ensures that many will be crosscut or conflicting, weakening the entire social edifice. And when grievance is endlessly reiterated there is less and less room for prideful feelings. New orders need new patriotisms. Unfortunately for the cognoscendancy it handles solvents much better than epoxy.
Fostering dependency. The rationale here is pretty straightforward as the cognoscendancy, like most elites, prefers subjects to citizens, a goal furthered to the extent the state becomes the arbiter of life’s needs. By fostering dependency the cognoscendancy weakens the resistance that could spell trouble for an effete elite. And by encouraging the immigration of people likely to be lured into dependency, it augments its clientele.
Equally important, members of the cognoscendancy profit from dependency and the programs required to maintain it. An administered society is necessarily a coerced one and coercions must be justified. This requires theories, discussion and teaching, all of which provide the cognoscendancy with jobs, status, power and monetary rewards. It also requires experts in “the policy sciences” to work out the details, another big professional opportunity.
Fostering dissipation. Affluence tends to loosen sexual restraints, as, of course, does the availability of advanced birth control and abortion. But the cognoscendancy has its own self-interested reasons for encouraging sexual laxity. First, licence is something that can be conferred in a manner that’s not zero-sum and thus serves as a political free good. If one is already opposed to tradition, why not take advantage of this?
In addition, as Freud understood, sublimated sexuality fuels other energies. Male sexual success, when it was difficult to come by, usually demanded the self-strengthening and self-assertion necessary for competitive victory. Delicate itself, the cognoscendancy finds toughened characters a source of apprehension—better to preside over softened wards whose sexual successes come on the cheap.
Fostering shame. Moral one-upmanship works in two directions, lifting the preacher, lowering the congregation. Collective shaming is a venerable game for intellectuals, clergy having long descanted on humanity’s indelible wickedness. Secularisation reduced original sin’s shaming potency, but didn’t prevent the emergence of new forms, most significantly the idea of the evil and ubiquitous “ism”.
Take racism. The value to the cognoscendancy of this incessant invocation lies in more than the lowering of the majority’s confidence and potential for self-assertion. It also inheres in the deliberate confining of its target to “whites” and “whiteness”. Historically, the “world-safe-for-making’s” chief institutions were fashioned by Europeans and their overseas relations. Portraying racism as an almost peculiarly “white” shame is to put under suspicion most other things “white”, including the ideals of constitutionalism, individual rights, individualism per se, and limited government—once-revered American founders are reduced in cognoscendancy narratives to a gang of white slave owners.
The parallel charges of ubiquitous sexism, homophobia, and the rest, add to this pile-on. Like whites, males and conventionally moral Christians have been disproportionate among constitutionalism’s architects. If a culture’s inhabitants are taught to regard their heritage and its authors as iniquitous on count after count, attachment to received institutional fabrics and revered traditions weakens across the board—an outcome the cognoscendancy little regrets. The denigration of nationalism, especially where freedom is at the core of national tradition, is also an important abettor of dissolution.
It is sometimes said that a liberal (that is, one of the cognoscendancy) is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument, that he himself shares the shame he inflicts on others, that he self-hates. This misunderstands the situation entirely. However benighted may be the society over which they preside, the cognoscendancy believe themselves far superior to it—something like a colonial administrator or missionary seeking to uplift the natives. Yet the cognoscendancy’s condescension towards its society, so helpful when running roughshod over it, does have a harmful side effect; it makes it difficult for the cognoscendancy to confront that society’s external foes, especially when they represent “the other”, whose romanticisation is the flipside of denigrating most things domestic. To censure “the other”, to say nothing of actively opposing it, implies an assertion of homegrown superiority, against which all the instincts of the cognoscendancy rebel. It is therefore in their interest to downplay, ignore or appease foreign threats. While this head-in-the-sand posture makes less and less sense as the cognoscendancy assumes ownership of more and more of West, engrained habits die hard.
Fostering amnesia. A “world-safe-for-making” is an oddity, not the default arrangement in human affairs, the worth of the institutions that maintain freedom hardly being self-evident. Most people naturally want freedom for themselves; freedom for others is, however, a quite different proposition. It took long to think through the arguments for free institutions, and longer still to put them imperfectly into practice. Their characteristics, their history and attachment to them have to be carefully taught. In the absence of concerted teaching, popular conceptions are likely to revert to the default mode for all human institutions, paternalistic hierarchy—just the relationship to society in which the cognoscendancy imagines itself.
In the cognoscendancy’s schools (now virtually all of them) little of the knowledge and sentiment necessary for freedom is any longer communicated. When its teachers aren’t covering national traditions with obloquy, they’re burying them in obscurity. American history, for instance, has become increasingly multicultural, “world” replacing “Western”, and social replacing political, economic and intellectual. These emphases not only naturally lend themselves to a stress on injustice but, teaching time being limited, facilitate the neglect of traditional liberal institutions and culture. But why not? To solidify its ascendant position the cognoscendancy prefers a blank slate.
Fostering hysteria. Citizenship is a discipline as much as an activity; it requires political impulse control and a willingness to temper one’s desire for ends by an often inconvenient respect for means. The wisdom of this also needs to be taught.
Cognoscendancy politics, by contrast, personifies urgency, alarms, imminent evils, vigilance campaigns and visions of deliverance. Its preoccupation is with action and outcomes, not process—except where obsession with process can be employed to undermine some pillar of the old order, as with criminal justice. It looks to a world in which the good and virtuous have a remit to do whatever needs to be done, allowing classical liberalism’s cautions about power to be safely put aside. The cognoscendancy wants judges who bend rulings, journalists cavalier about the facts, and presidents who circumvent law with phones and pens, provided it’s all in the good cause.
America’s campuses, the places most influenced by cognoscendancy sensibilities, are increasingly prone to waves of hysteria about assaults real or imagined, ongoing or about to be “triggered”, against a lengthening roll call of sacralised groups. As much as anything that happens in the classroom these scares are meant to teach, and what they teach is hysteria. The most politically attuned students, likely to be the future leaders of the progressive Left, are also most likely to imbibe this fevered spirit, making today’s campuses templates for tomorrow’s nation.
An inevitable fate?
Could the rise of the cognoscendancy have been averted? Probably not! Mass education is indispensable to modern societies and that, together with an equally indispensable mass media, gives the intellectual classes their ample perch.
Mass electorates are also probably inevitable once constitutionalism loosens authoritarian controls and the commonality becomes both urban and literate. All European countries, even the most autocratic, were headed towards universal manhood suffrage, if they had not quite arrived, by the outbreak of the First World War.
Could something have been done to prevent the cognoscendancy from turning so strongly against the “world-safe-for-making”? Only to the extent that intellectual controls can persist without subverting economic and other liberties, an unlikely outcome and undesirable even if attainable. Curbing the excesses of intellectual adversarialism through a strongly conformist cultural tradition rather than political repression might, on the other hand, prove feasible in certain places; the democracies of the Far East for example.
But there may be a way to square this circle even in the individualist West. Allow full intellectual freedom, but anchor it in the marketplace rather than within the virtually impregnable strongholds intellectuals build for themselves via state power. Let them teach and write about history and literature, do economics, sociology, psychology or any other form of social analysis, so long as someone else is willing, voluntarily, to pay for it. Let them, in a word, operate as “makers”, whose intellectual products are judged competitively, rather than “takers” whose ideas enjoy political privilege.
Could such a social revolution actually be brought off? Not easily. The cognoscendancy is today’s establishment, which, in a myriad of ways, shapes how people feel about the world and the cognoscendancy itself, using these powers to thwart reform. But if the cognoscendancy’s leadership is delusively unsound; if fiscally it kills the golden goose, and diplomatically and militarily allows the wolf through the door, its narratives will eventually crash and burn—likely, alas, with much else besides. Then the opportunity may come for a sadder but wiser civic leadership to dethrone it.
But that will only be accomplished if tomorrow’s friends of freedom, many of them intellectuals themselves, forgo the illusions that the cognoscendancy has worked so hard to foster—about its inherent virtue, wisdom and singular dedication to truth. When events speak much louder than words, when they positively screech, that moment of clarity may finally arrive.
Stephen H. Balch is the Director of the Texas Tech Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Lubbock, Texas