The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power
The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class
When Shelley wrote that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he was not speaking in metaphor. He meant that they really do discover, shape, and announce the moral law. But Shelley was not making a political claim. He did not mean that the power of poetry should be publicly recognized or that poets should occupy the offices of state. In its most general form, however, that latter claim is common enough: that the state should be ruled by its most visionary or at least by its most intelligent citizens, and that they should rule, not by accident or luck, but because of their vision and intelligence.
Mostly, until now, other criteria have prevailed, and it’s been the well-born, the powerful, and the well-to-do who rule the rest of us. Poets and intellectuals have been politically successful in their own right only when they appeared as religious leaders or rode the crest of revolutionary movements. In secular dress and in ordinary times, without magical powers or doctrinal authority, they have been pushed to the sidelines. Sometimes, of course, the well-born and the wealthy are themselves poets and intellectuals, on the side, but they don’t rule because of their writing or thinking; they make other claims on our attention. Or they simply surround themselves with poets and intellectuals, having learned to enjoy the more cultivated forms of flattery. The poet-as-courtier is a common figure in the ancien régime; the intellectual-as-adviser is even more common in modern regimes. Servants of power, sometimes lackeys: it is a position that breeds contempt on the one hand, resentment on the other.
But today, other feelings are apparent: admiration on the one hand, pretension on the other. We live in societies that produce extraordinarily large numbers of educated men and women and that increasingly need their authority and decision-making skills. We even produce more poets (I think) than any previous society ever did. It’s not the poets, however, who are leading “the march to class power,” though they are—so these two books suggest—among the marchers, and already taste the state grants that will be theirs when the goal is reached. The leaders are the more specialized seers of a secular age: masters of ideology and technical experts. Ideologists and experts don’t claim to rule because of their birth or blood or land or wealth, but solely because of their insight. They penetrate the complexity of modern economies and technologies; they have a grip on the historical process; they make predictions about the future. Theirs is a new legitimacy, one not easy to challenge.
Insofar as the modern state is committed to planning, welfare, and redistribution, it plainly requires a vast civil service of educated people; intellectuals are its natural rulers. And so, a certain sort of common sense suggests, intellectuals have set about to create such a state, whose offices only they can fill. By and large, they have succeeded, or they are in the process of succeeding. Here …
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The New Masters May 15, 1980