Minogue on intellectuals and politics
By Alberto Mingardi
On Liberty and Its Enemies is a posthumous collection of essays by the late Ken Minogue. When Ken died, right after the 2013 Mont Pelerin meeting in the Galapagos Islands (the paper he gave there is included in the book), he was working on a book on the concept of liberty. This collection, edited by Tim Fuller, is the best surrogate to a book we’ll never read. Readers will appreciate how Ken’s reflections on the conditions that make liberty possible was nurtured and grew over the years–by constantly revisiting and reworking his arguments.
The book includes an essay on “The Intellectual Left’s Treason of the Heart”. Minogue defines intellectuals as “people who have read a lot of books and take up positions on public affairs” and considered “the occurrence of folly and illusion among the intelligent, where one might expect it least” as “an under-explored aspect of the political life of our time”. Minogue thinks that on a variety of issues (for example, their judgment on the market system) these bookish types tend to be wrong, whereas ordinary electors tend to be right. This view is perhaps very British-specific.
Why is it so? Minogue seems to think that, on the one hand, an intellectual gets extra points for being critical of the status quo (regardless of which status quo) and, on the other, she is quite a more gregarious character than she would admit.
Sometimes illusion leading to superficiality results from a rhetorical game in which intellectuals must exhibit their identity as above all ‘critical’ thinkers, and this is done by indulging in a merciless view of what has been set up as ‘conventional wisdom’.
Intellectuals are “often trumps in the propaganda contest” and “bring their wisdom to bear upon current affairs by signing up to collective positions”.
Minogue was not concerned exclusively with why intellectuals oppose capitalism. The piece is largely a review of David Pryce-Jones’ Treason of the Heart, which I haven’t read. The book considers intellectuals who took sides, as ideologues, against their own countries. Minogue was interested in the phenomenon, insofar as it made intellectuals end up as PR officers for dodgy regimes: “Foreign despotisms only have to declare their passion to improve the condition of the poor, and many an academic is lying with his back on the floor waving his paws in the air”.
Minogue points out that some of these positions were driven by the illusion that good rulers (or even better, good revolutionary rulers) could just fix all of a country’s problems by fiat. But he also underlines how little this ostensibly humanitarian posture is concerned with the good of some _individual_ people, while on the other hand it tends to consider “collective entities thought to be in the process of being born”. This was the case with the enthusiasm for some of the “national liberation” movements all over the world.
I guess the main point of Ken’s essay is that “critical” thinkers sometimes are far less “critical” than they think. This little essay is a splendid read and quite thought-provoking, as the whole book is.