Alberto Mingardi  

Himmelfarb on why intellectuals hate capitalism

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It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books. ~Ludwig von Mises


There are many gems in Gertrude Himmelfarb's Past and Present. The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists.

One is a 1952 essay on "American Democracy and Its European Critics". In that essay, in comparing Tocqueville's reading of America with Harold Laski's (in The American Democracy), Himmelfarb notes perceptively that critics of American culture tend to see that "the incubus of Big Business lies heavily upon the whole country, stifling individual expression and corrupting individual tastes".

But we know well that successful enterprises, cultural enterprises included, basically provide people with something that they want. Himmelfarb knows this, too.

When Coca-Cola, comic books, and Raymond Chandler murder mysteries invaded Europe, penetrating even into the British stronghold, radicals set up a great cry against American capitalism. What they chose not to see is that the real offender is not capitalism so much as the European masses, who have given an enthusiastic reception to these supposedly degenerate products of American capitalism. Europe's real complaint against America is not that America is exporting capitalist culture, but that it is exporting popular culture.

In 1956, reflecting on the intellectuals' dislike of capitalism, Ludwig von Mises commented:
Many critics take pleasure in blaming capitalism for what they call the decay of literature ... Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.

I think there is a point in all this. Intellectuals have uncommon tastes and with them comes an inclination to put down the ordinary person, who has ordinary tastes. But instead of feeling happy at being different, intellectuals feel unduly isolated, neglected, and unrecognised in their endeavours and their passions. They thus equate a better society with a society in which common people are somehow forced to acquire such "superior" tastes, too. But such a society is difficult to build, if decision making is not centralised. A decentralised system--in which consumers decide what books and movies they want to consume, and producers decide what books and movies they want to publish and broadcast--may allow small niches for the intellectuals' superior tastes, but would tend to spend many resources to give people action movies and comic books. So, it becomes almost inevitable to blame the system--which is more comforting than blaming the people.

Simplistic as an explanation of why capitalism is so unpopular among intellectuals? Perhaps. But I feel there's more than a grain of truth.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
gabe writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

gabe writes:

Intellectuals have uncommon tastes and with them comes an inclination to put down the ordinary person, who has ordinary tastes.

1) Perhaps this explains why Trump is abhorred by the intellectual class as his tastes and vernacular are not up to par with their superior "tastes"

2)Also a nice review at Library of aLw and Liberty below:

3) sorry for 1st post as I used what for me is term of endearment to describe Trump - no offense intended.

James Pass writes:

I don't know if it's generally true that capitalism is unpopular among intellectuals. For me, the first problem in making any such statement is the fact that there are many flavors of capitalism and intellectuals.

There are other problems. For example, if we're going to talk about "degenerate products" or "the decay of literature," I'd point out that there are plenty of non-intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, that complain about these things, as well as the general decline of morality and society.

Likewise with capitalism. I know plenty of non-intellectuals who complain about various problems they perceive about unrestrained capitalism. The current rise in populism is partly a result of non-intellectual concerns about capitalism.

Moreover, it isn't obvious to me that intellectuals in general have "uncommon tastes" and have a habit of "putting down ordinary people." If one looks for intellectuals that fit this description, they certainly wouldn't be hard to find, but I wouldn't draw any general conclusions without having some robust data.

For whatever it's worth, I'll offer my own simplistic generalization based on my personal experience, that perhaps has a grain of truth: In the US, capitalism seems to be most unpopular among the non-intellectuals in the lower classes. And I've heard lots of folks in the middle- and lower-classes put down rich folks and intellectuals.

Billy Kaubashine writes:

Plenty of intellectuals hold Capitalism in high esteem. For those who don't, Thomas Sowell's book, "A Conflict of Visions" offers the best explanation I have encountered.

Hazel Meade writes:

@James Pass:
Great comment. I was thinking something along similar lines. I'm not sure that the "uncommon" tastes of certain intellectuals are really superior either, or if the unusual tastes aren't driven by pretensions of superiority or by a desire to be admired by others. Someone can have unusual taste without being an intellectual, or can pretend to admire unusual things in order to appear to be one.

OH Anarcho-Capitalist writes:

See Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society for some depth on this subject....

gabe writes:


You hit it on the head. So much of what passes (or what the elites would like to believe) as superior tastes, much like their alleged moral and intellectual superiority is nothing but a "pretense" in an ever accelerating effort to be perceived as a member of the proper class with the proper tastes, of course.

Fred_PA_2000 writes:

"Intellectuals have uncommon tastes . . . ."
Well, yes. But I wonder if it wouldn't be closer to say refined tastes -- typically in some small area of expertise.
I have a long-standing interest in music, and have done both C&W and Jazz radio shows for some years. And I find that listeners who are new to either genre typically don't find them attractive. I think the problem is that -- literally -- they can't sing along with the music; it's new to them.
I have been frustrated with struggling symphony orchestras who want to play sophis- ticated John Cage "noise" but vow they will gag if, one more time, they have to play the 1812 Overture or William Tell. Yet the mass audience -- whom they need to buy mass tickets -- are familiar with the later and put off by the former.
Refined is typically rarified. Mass is cruder but has a much larger -- and therefore more lucrative -- audience. It is understandably frustrating to work so hard to develop some intellectual expertise and then discover that cruder pays better.
(A side note: This isn't really about the use of capital/tools in the production process, nor about the private vs. the communal ownership of such capital. It's about the frustration in discovering that your pay isn't determined by how hard you work, but rather by supply & demand; does what you do have a large customer base and a small supply. Think on the outrageous pay of star athletes; and the frustration in being a star athlete in an obscure sport -- say, the hammer-throw.)

Tony writes:

I agree, this is simplistic as an explanation of why capitalism is unpopular among some intellectuals, but "intellectuals" is a pretty broad brush to begin with. Any argument sufficiently simplistic and reductive is bound to contain some grain of truth.

Now that you've done the easy work of observing and hypothesizing, I would appreciate you doing the hard and tedious work of interrogating the assumptions you're making and examining the grains of truth you believe you've found in the cold light of reason.

That all said, it is useful for us to remember that, in Shakespeare's own time, his plays were regarded as cheap entertainment, and when they performed for the Queen, they performed in the royal cockpit, because while Westminster palace did have a purpose built arena for cock fighting, it did not have a purpose built theatre.


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