150 Years of Contempt for Free Markets

Alan S. Kahan has cast new light on an ongoing conflict with origins in classical antiquity if not earlier. Kahan’s Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism is a learned and engaging account of the tension between the amorality of the marketplace and the moralism of would-be priestly authorities. Until the Enlightenment, merchants were forced to bow before the courtly classes of the aristocracy, which staffed the military, and the clergy, which surveilled the public morality of the peasantry. But the Enlightenment, in challenging the authority of the aristocracy and the priesthood, opened up space for unbowed commerce, and hence the merchant middle class, to thrive. There are those, once largely on the right, today largely on the left, who have never forgiven the Enlightenment for this sin against the would-be guardians of morality.
The book’s central themes were laid out in 1834 by the German poet Heinrich Heine. Heine, who had nothing but contempt for American money-making, spoke of the United States as “that big pig-pen of freedom/Inhabited by boors living in equality.” Heine’s romantic ambitions yearned to transcend mere material freedom. He saw the intellectuals as the basis for the new aristocracy of virtue. “It is no longer a matter of destroying the old church,” he explained, “but rather building a new one, and far from wanting to annihilate the clergy, today we want to make ourselves priests.” But while Heine hoped a clerisy would remake the world he also saw an abyss ahead. “A drama will be performed in Germany,” he prophesied, “in contrast with which the French Revolution will seem a mere peaceful idyll.”

Kahan, who has read widely and well, picks up each of these strands. He quotes a prominent bohemian intellectual as endorsing “a philosophy of life which endeavors to reject the democratic mass ideas and give this earth to the best people – that is , the highest humanity -(which) must logically obey the same aristocratic principle within this people and make sure that the leadership and the highest influence in this people fall to the best minds.” This could be anyone from George Bernard Shaw to Thurman Arnold, but it’s Adolf Hitler.
Kahan sees a significant shift among intellectuals with the rise of the members of the Frankfurt school, who, though taken by surprise first by Hitler and then Stalin, were able to pass on a sense of their of spiritual superiority in prescribing unabridged hostility to modernity. The Frankfurt School argued that people become “a degree more powerless with each prescribed increased in their standard of living.” This was first time that leftists had consistently set themselves up in opposition to the Enlightenment. Their heirs are the ecological catastrophists who expect the earth to be destroyed by the wrath of an angry nature.
Kahan draws heavily on Tocqueville, who seems to have anticipated something like post-modernism. “Should members of the lettered class,” wrote the Frenchman, “fall into the habit of frequenting only themselves and writing only for one another, they may lose sight of the rest of the world entirely and thereby lapse into affectation and falsity…gradually alienating themselves from common sense….”
The book’s strength is that it shows how the animating instinct of leftism in its various and often contradictory formulations is anti-capitalism. As long as there is money-making, argues Kahan, there will be partly priestly, partly aristocratic claims on behalf of those who want to moralize the economy. But he proposes a detente to the endless conflict. He argues unconvincingly that intellectuals can enhance their authority by surrendering some of their claim to moral superiority through confining themselves to constructive criticism of capitalism which, he rightly insists, needs it critics. It’s a soft conclusion to an otherwise sobering and insightful book.


  • Fred Siegel

    Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

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