Mind vs. Money: The War between Intellectuals and Capitalism

By Gordon, David | Independent Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Mind vs. Money: The War between Intellectuals and Capitalism


Gordon, David, Independent Review


Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism

By Alan S. Kahan

New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2010.

Pp. ix, 302. $39.95 cloth.

Are intellectuals, as Alan Kahan suggests in this excellent book Mind vs. Money, at war with capitalism? Certainly he is right that for "the past 150 years, numerous Western intellectuals have trumpeted their contempt for capitalism and capitalists" (p. 3). Why have they done so? In answering, Kahan appeals principally to values and psychology: intellectuals hold different values from those that prevail under capitalism, and their method of thought is largely exclusive to themselves.

Intellectuals, he tells us, try to provide reasons for their views and values. "Intellectuals, whether they speak English, French, or German, use a special kind of language: careful critical discourse (CCD). In CCD, if you say something, you must be prepared to prove it by giving reasons, not by appeals to higher authority .... If you don't talk right, intellectuals will look down on you because you are not using CCD to justify your actions or beliefs" (pp. 7-8).

But why should thinking critically lead to hostility to capitalism? Kahan responds that thinkers naturally value their own activity more than the occupations of their less cerebral brethren. In particular, from the time of the ancient Greeks, thinkers have looked down on money making. Kahan distinguishes three ways of holding money in disdain, "the Three Don'ts," with a fourth supplementary one thrown in for good measure.

The first Don't recognizes that sufficient money is needed to live a good life bur nonetheless disdains commerce: "Don't Make Money (Just Have It)" (p. 31). If this mandate brings to mind Plato and Aristotle, the next has an altogether different origin. "Don't Have Money (Give It to the Poor)" (p. 42) inevitably recalls the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Though few have been able to adhere in full to the rigors of this precept, its influence has been vast. Kahan's final Don't has a more modern ring. "Don't Have or Make More Money Than Others Do (It's Not Fair)" (p. 54) encapsulates a view that anyone interested in contemporary political philosophy will recognize. Even if no one had ever been poor, we would not have escaped this mandate's requirements.

Kahan also calls attention to another view, less influential than his three Don'ts, that also led intellectuals to oppose capitalism. "Don't Make Money, Take It and Spend It" (p. 53). He calls this Don't the "Duke's Don't" because it often guided the behavior of aristocrats. But if it did so, one might ask, why is this precept relevant to explaining the intellectuals' attitude? Kahan stands ready with a response. Intellectuals, owing to their high regard for their own pursuits, often consider themselves an aristocracy and ape nobles' manners.

Even if Kahan is right that intellectuals have often been shaped by these Don'ts, must this influence lead to hostility to capitalism? Can one not hold that, however problematic getting and spending money may be, we nevertheless need a free market? Does not society function better with capitalism, whatever its moral failings, than with any alternative system?

That is indeed a possible response to the Don'ts, and in the early years of capitalism it was more than a bare possibility. It was precisely the line that Adam Smith, David Hume, Baron Montesquieu, and Benjamin Constant, among others, adopted. "Along with freedom, another political benefit [that] intellectuals [in the period 1730-1830] expected from capitalism was peace. Capitalism led to peace because peace was more profitable than war, and trade had taught men to control their other passions in the name of gain" (p. 73).

However strong the classical liberals' arguments may have been, they eventually lost favor among the intellectual elite. One of the strongest features of Kahan's book is his detailed account of the views of a number of capitalism's opponents who unfortunately supplanted their more capitalistically inclined predecessors.

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