How power corrupts intellectuals


I just visited one of my favourite web sites committed to improving US-Iranian relations, and was pleasantly surprised to come across a crucially important topic that is sadly ignored at our collective peril: Intellectuals are largely corrupted by power. Here is a quote from the aforementioned web site:

As Hillary notes in her opening remarks, we are especially grateful to Prof. Chomsky, and not just for appearing with us—though we do thank him for that. More importantly, “We thank him for prodding us…In his famous essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals,’ published in the New York Review of Books forty six years ago, Prof. Chomsky pointed out that ‘when we consider the responsibility of intellectuals, our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology.’ For more than half a century, Prof. Chomsky has been both fearless and, it would seem, tireless in rigorously scrutinizing the claims of intellectuals who, in the service of power, ascribe universal validity to what are, in fact, very particular interests. Above all, he has been unrelenting in his critique of what he sees as the ‘fundamental political axiom’ of American foreign policy—‘namely that the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible.’”

So why is it that ‘intellectuals’ can be so stupid? I fear the answer is quite simple.

In the first instance, these intellectuals are driven by instinct and self-preservation, just as much as everyone else. For most of us, egos, prestige and financial gain constitute core drivers that can overwhelm or weaken the drive for scientific objectivity and learning.

Secondly, power shapes institutions and their governing rules and procedures. Without a direct challenge, the grasp of power over who gets recognised and rises in academic institutions will increase over time. As corporations get stronger in any economy over time, intellectual objectivity and independence of academic institutions from the interests of the powerful will lessen and weaken. This is particularly true of states where a greater share of the national wealth is diverted toward private corporations and interests as opposed to the public sector, which by definition is more accountable in a democratic or semi-democratic setting.

Thirdly, civilisations go through natural cycles of emergence, convergence and decline. Western civilisation is at the stage of decadence and decline today. Whatever it was that the west contributed to the intellectual history of the world over the past couple of centuries or so, is basically over.

In this context, not much can be expected of Western intellectuals, and US intellectuals in particular. A lot of what passes as intellectual or analytical work is mere propaganda of a particularly vacuous type led by showmen and entertainers within corporate-owned media.

Here and there one comes across US academics and analysts with a genuine moral and intellectual fibre, people like Chomsky, Finkelstein and the Leveretts. Invariably though, such substantive people are marginalised, ignored, or absued within governance systems controlled by private corporations – systems that are best described as ‘corporate fascist states’, like the one in USA.