The Collective Imbecile

An essay from The Collective Imbecile
by Olavo de Carvalho

The success of Richard Rorty in Brazil might seem strange, as local intellectuality is mainly of Marxist extraction and would have every reason to reject pragmatism as a capitalistic ideology. But the stage was already set for the arrival of Rorty in Brazil by three decades of Gramscian hegemony. Gramsci, the most influential Marxist theorist in Brazil, was not a pure-breed Marxist, but a mixture of Marxist and pragmatist, of the lineage of his master Antonio Labriola. Labriola not only agrees with pragmatism in general terms, but in particular, in a significant coincidence, his Philosophy of History is identical to Richard Rorty’s in a point where both are in evident disagreement with Karl Marx: they both deny that History has a “meaning”. This denial is obviously inconsistent with the ideology of “progress” which is intrinsic to Marxism.

The sudden interest shown by progressive intellectuals in philosophies that deny the meaning of History clearly stems from the depressive feeling that followed the failure of international communism. Not capable of restraining themselves to the optimistic vision of communism, they sought refuge in an ideology close at hand, one capable of explaining the apparently absurd course of History without forcing them to a rupture with the atheistic and materialistic basis of Marxism. With this aim, some strove to ransack and recover old materialistic theories that Marxism itself believed to have absorbed and overcome. Others sought to reconcile themselves with “bourgeois” materialistic currents, like the analytical philosophy of Russel and Wittgenstein (who were widely read in Brazil during the 1980’s), and, naturally, with pragmatism. First there was the fashion of Charles Sanders Peirce, a fifth-class philosopher, who was venerated as an icon in some Brazilian university circles. But the best actually came with Rorty, whose similarities with Gramsci make him irresistible to the eyes of local intellectuals.

The most significant of these similarities is the denial of objective knowledge and the consequent reduction of intellectual activity to propaganda and conscience manipulation. Both Gramsci and Rorty deny that human knowledge may describe the real, and both declare that the only objective of our cultural and scientific efforts is to express collective desires. Also, for both of them, there are no universal concepts, nor universally valid judgements. But we can “create” universals through propaganda, making all people share in the same beliefs or, better said, in the same illusions. The function of intellectuality is therefore to create those illusions and, as Rorty says, “gradually inculcate them” in the mind of the people. They disagree only on the identity of the intellectual: for Rorty, he is the academic community, while for Gramsci it is the Party or the “collective intellectual”.

These two ghostly entities, whose task is to direct the consciences of beings without a conscience, are formed by individuals who, by themselves, do not have any conscience at all. They also share the utmost disregard for arguments and proofs and display an exaggerated taste for the psychological action that shapes the feelings of the mass without allowing for any discussion and without being accountable to the requirements of “truth”. In both of them, the shrewdness in manipulating the real substitutes the intelligence of knowing it. Manipulating the real? No. Manipulating its image in the mind of the public.

As much as the academic community of Peirce and Rorty, the “collective intellectual” of Gramsci lacks the real unity of an organism, possessing only the functional and more or less conventional unity of a club or an army. For this very reason, it cannot be intelligent, nor can it have intuitive perceptions. What it is to understand? It is to capture, in an instant, the objective unity of a set of data, arranging them in a framework that is immediately made available to all psychic faculties: to will, to feeling, to imagination, etc. It is this simultaneous availability of information that enables the individual to react as a whole to distinct situations, without the mediation of a long and complex decisional process. It is the “presence of mind”, the alert conscience that enables a full and efficient adaptation to changes, without the loss of biographic continuity or of the meaning of life. How could a collective entity rise to this level of conscience? In order to understand and to decide at the speed that an individual does, the collective entity must place an individual above all others and follow his decisions without discussion. But in order to preserve internal democracy, it must submit the decisions to the approval of all members and wait for the outcome of the discussions, during which time thousands of deviating factors will interfere, such as the mingling of other issues, the competition among vanities in the assemblies, etc. Ultimately, the final decision will be a mechanic arrangement of pressures and concessions and not the immediate answer of a conscience to a perception of reality. The “collective intellectual” must choose between the unity of a tyranny and the multiplication of languages; between explicit or implicit submission to any individual conscience and the dissolution in a collective unconsciousness that, at last, will end up being discretely manipulated by some smart individual. In short, it must choose between declared and dissimulated tyranny.

During the time when the principle of the “collective intellectual” was in force only within the Communist Party, its cult of unconsciousness affected only those directly engaged in leftist movements, preventing them from seeing the most obvious and blatant facts, like the Trials of Moscow, the economic failure of the USSR, the Gulag, etc.

But with the fall of communist hierarchy, the spirit of the “collective intellectual” leaked from the moribund body of communism to intellectuals in general. Nowadays, particularly in Brazil, intellectual life as a whole imitates, by the uniformity of its issues and values, the internal discussions of the old Communist Party, the collective processing of ideas by a mass of militants to obtain, through the sum of votes, the infallible definition of the “Party line”. This way, individual intelligence loses all capacity to operate alone, not being able, by itself, to understand anything anymore. Thus confirming what the widespread buzzing boasts about the inanity of autonomous conscience, individual intelligence only shows itself capable of acting in an atmosphere of unanimous agreement, of “participation” in the collective feeling. As everyone is immersed in this collective feeling, nobody can look at it from the outside, as fish do not see water. Intellectual life is thereby reduced to the mutual inter-confirmation of beliefs, prejudices, feelings and habits of the members of the literate group. It becomes a tribalism.

One would err by excessive optimism to perceive this involution as a passing phenomenon that only scratches the surface of History. It has an anthropological dimension, it affects the fate of the human species in the cosmos. It only takes a generation of “collective intellectuals” dominating the world for us to lose the individualization of conscience, the prize of a millenarian evolutionary effort.

The idea of the “collective intellectual” has one of the most compromising origins. It was born in the clubs, assemblies and literary salons where the French Revolution was generated, in the “Republic of Letters”. It was there that for the first time modern intellectuality felt the strength of its union and was sacred queen under the title of “public opinion”. As a matter of fact, this term did not designate the opinion of the masses, but the common feeling of the literate elite . What was characteristic of those clubs and differentiated them from scientific societies as we know them today, and also from the centers of debate in Medieval university, was the total absence of rational criteria for the validation of arguments. It was the empire of “opinion”, in the sense of the Greek doxa, or mere belief. In those clubs, the theoretical questions of Gnoseology, Metaphysics, Economics, or even those of the natural sciences were decided by force, according to the preferences of the majority group. The true doctrine was not one which coincided with reality, but rather one which better expressed the collective aspirations in a language flattering to the passions of the moment. Once the winds of Revolution abated, the scientific and academic institutions of the winning bourgeoisie endeavored to organize themselves obviously not according to the example of revolutionary societies, but according to the consecrated canons of Medieval university and of the scientific circles of Renaissance. The “Republic of Letters”, as everybody knew, served only to agitate the masses, but could not generate knowledge. It does not seem strange, therefore, that the model of society of the revolutionary debates would next be seized by those excluded by the new order: the socialist intellectuals.

But it would not remain confined to them for ever. If during the XX century an atmosphere of Jacobinic club slowly and surreptitiously takes over the totality of cultural life, this is due, to a great extent, to the proletarianization of universities which – once centers for the generation of a scientific and governing elite – converted themselves in centers for the professional education of the masses (while transferring the task of forming the elite to more discreet, if not secret institutions).

The democratization of education opened to millions of people the access to intellectual and scientific professions. What was an elite, a bunch of geniuses who exchanged ideas through private mail and through half a dozen academic publications, became an innumerable multitude. This quantitative expansion, accompanied by a lowering of requirements, resulted in a formidable downgrading. The intellectual proletariat, scattered in thousands of institutions and busy with its daily professional tasks, does not even strive to keep up with the march of ideas in the world. Each professional has resigned himself to not being able to follow the succession of discoveries in his own area of expertise. Each one follows his own tunnel, without knowing where the others lead. To make up for the unbalance caused by specialization, a prosthesis called “general culture” is then applied to the expert, and soon universities have to flood the market with a regiment of “experts in general culture”. Mainly comprised of those who were not able to specialize in anything else, this new profession endeavors alternately to trim the cake of professional knowledge with a cherry of culture, leisurely disconnected from all reference to practical life, and to sketch a synthesis between culture and praxis through ideological indoctrination.

Thereby, the very nature of university professions came to be perverted: the university professional does not have to be able to form a personal reasonable opinion anymore. He is a worker, an employee who follows the collective fashion, as formerly did middle class employees and manual workers. Thus, as the amount of scientific information increases, the capacity, the necessity, and the simple willingness to absorb it diminishes.

Then, with the advent of the services economy, whose dominant industry is that of “cultural goods”, the intellectual proletariat expanded to encompass the majority of the population of rich countries and almost the whole middle class of poor countries. As a result, superior cultural production had to meet a massive demand for cheap thrills, now honored by “intellectual” prestige. The gossip of old show-business magazines, for example, invaded historical research, acquiring the status of a respectable academic activity. Moved by the necessity of flattering the most vulgar passions, superior culture ends up modeling itself by sheer marketing criteria, with which the collective imbecile confirms, circularly, that there is no truth above the taste of the majority.

In this atmosphere, rational discussion becomes impossible. Consensus is formed by waves of feelings that confusedly agitate themselves in the air, producing brief epidermic shivers. Beliefs are molded and dissolved in an impressionistic atmosphere, as moving ink-spots in a wet paper. It is the time of Rhetoric, of psychological persuasion, of a vague and disguised blackmailing which replaces argumentation. And finally, the actual state of things claims to be elevated to the status of rule and law: the Böhms, Feyerabends, Kuhns, Rortys, come to the scene, advocating the legitimacy of the rhetorical argument, of the emotive appeal, and even of the subliminal influence as a means of scientific proof. The notion of “truthfulness” – which the first generation of proletarian intellectuals had already reduced to a conventional formalism, voiding it of its ontological substance – goes up in smoke and is at last ostensibly denied. Ideas win followers by affective contagion, and once they become dominant they do not even need to display a pretension for truthfulness. They possess a better argument: the force of numbers that spreads the fear of isolation (vaguely identified with misery and madness) in the souls of the recalcitrant ones. Underneath the festive adherence to the new intellectual fashions, the persuasive machinery of psychological terror gloomily creaks on.

These are, in summary, the dominant tendencies in the scientific and philosophical debate of today’s world. In older countries, which preserve the values inherited from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these tendencies may at times be compensated by some critical and organizing reaction. But the new countries, which entered into History after the French Revolution and absorbed little from the legacy of the preceding centuries, do not have the least defense against the spirit of the “collective intellectual”, which in these countries tends to be identified, by an unconscious dogmatism, with the only possible incarnation of the idea of superior culture. There, to become an “intellectual” is not to acquire a certain knowledge and to demonstrate capacity in a certain class of investigation or creation. It is rather to be accepted in some circles, to speak in a specific tone, to adopt some ways of behavior in which the identity of the caste may be recognized. For this reason, a great philosopher who lives a secluded life ends up being excluded from the cultural history of the country, as occurred with Mário Ferreira dos Santos, while the worldly man, popular in certain groups, will become a renowned intellectual even if he doesn’t leave a work worth reading and even if he discovers nothing worth knowing.

Brazil is the promised land of the “collective intellectual”.

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