On the Wisdom of Left-Wing Intellectuals

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intellectuals
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/happy-birthday-noam-chomsky

The basic driving force behind all progressive, left-wing ideologies, is an intense unhappiness with the current state of economic and political affairs in western society. This dislike is expressed publicly by highly intelligent, erudite, and articulate left-wing intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, George Soros, Chris Hedges, and Slavoj Zizeck; in a stream of frequently astute and often valid social criticism of capitalism and capitalist society. Society would be far better off socially, economically, and politically, they argue, if only the humane and altruistically-inspired socialist policies that the left advocates were adopted, in place of democratic capitalism and the base capitalist profit-motive.

Much of this social criticism is valid and fully warranted. It needs to be heard and the problems identified addressed. Strong as it is in its criticism of democratic capitalism, it is unfortunately short on detail regarding the exact economic and political forms that an alternative socialist society would take. Nevertheless, there is little reason to doubt that their criticism is motivated by anything other than genuine and exceptional human compassion. There are clearly many ways in which western, democratic capitalist societies operate that could significantly be improved upon. There is no doubt about this. What there is serious doubt about, however, is the actual validity of the basic assumption that the left intellectuals are making – that western society would unquestioningly be better off if democratic capitalism were replaced by one or other form of socialism.

As perceptive as much of the intellectual’s criticism frequently is, it is made from a highly idealistic and passionately ideological position. While this strong degree of feeling is appropriate at times for personal beliefs and opinions, its emotional nature makes it inappropriate in respect of complex considerations requiring strictly objective and rational thought. What form society should best take, is certainly such a consideration.

Their moral outrage, and the utter conviction with which the intellectuals believe that socialism would unquestioningly result in a far better society than democratic capitalism, despite the poor productive record of centralized economies, together with the extraordinarily intense moral fervor with which they hold their ideological beliefs, suggest a quasi-religious passion driving them. Socialism and religion, in fact, share a common perception of human life: just as the western religions have criticized human life here on earth as imperfect and unsatisfactory, and offered an alternative, ideal existence in an imagined afterlife, so now the prophetic socialist intellectuals condemn capitalism and offer humankind a secular version of the utopian dream, to be realized this time in the form of an ideal socialist society here on earth.

Many of what are held to be defects in democratic capitalism are in all probability attributable to defects in human nature rather than to defects in the economic system itself. The much-discussed current, unequal distribution of national wealth, for example, is quite possibly due more to self-serving and politically-facilitated intervention in the market than to defects in the economic system of capitalism. It is very likely that the ideal system of socialism advocated by the intellectuals would itself also manifest a host of defects arising from imperfect human nature; as did the failed Soviet Union, and as do the few truly socialist societies that exist today, such as North Korea, Cuba, China, and Mozambique.

A further important consideration that anyone advocating the western adoption of socialism in place of democratic capitalism needs to address is whether the socialism will be democratic socialism, with the ‘democratic’ element being democratic in the sense practiced in the west, or whether it will be ‘democratic’ in the collectivist, authoritarian sense practiced in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, China, and Mozambique.

There is much wrong with democratic capitalism, certainly, but the idea of abandoning it for an ideological system that offers an unproductive, centralised economy, together with an authoritarian political order that forbids any genuine political opposition to the socialist government can surely be entertained only by someone significantly out of touch with reality, no matter how compassionate and intellectually gifted they might be.

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