Himmelfarb on why intellectuals hate capitalism
By Alberto Mingardi
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.