Winning the War of Ideas

Christian Parenti

If the triumph of the New Right could be blamed on one person, that villain might be Austrian economist F.A. Hayek (1899-1992). Hayek’s career included a Nobel Prize, many books, and long stints at the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago.

Hayek’s ideas were most famously laid out in his best-selling The Road to Serfdom, which espoused a defense of unbridled market economics. State planning, unless it was “planning for competition,” was totalitarianism. The slippery slope started with welfare and ended in “fascist communism.”

But Hayek was no mere academic scribbler or economist—he also was an activist who inspired and organized the modern political right’s “war of ideas.” Hayek pointed the way for the conservative think-tank movement of today and incited the mainstream policy shift from Keynesian demand management to free-market supply-side economics.

The old professor’s political notes also raise interesting questions about the role of intellectuals and ideas in social change—questions the American left might do well to consider.

For Hayek, liberals—by which he meant followers of classical free-market economics—had to avoid anti-intellectualism, pragmatism and short-term struggles. Calling for utopian thinking, radical positions and a long-term strategy, Hayek urged liberals to imitate socialists. And that advice, in many ways, launched the modern Anglo-American New Right.
The dark days of collectivism

The late-’30s were an awful time for free marketeers. Their beloved capitalist system had led to the worst depression in world history, and radical labor movements and interventionist state planning held the field in much of Europe and the United States; moderate thinkers like John Dewey suddenly called for the “destruction of capitalism.” Increased economic regulation, state planning, nationalization, expanded social welfare and public works appeared to the far right as harbingers of total disaster.

Against this backdrop a group of leading conservative intellectuals from the United States and Western Europe met in 1938 to discuss the “crisis of liberalism.” Conference participants, including Hayek, sought to re-legitimize market economics. Nothing substantial emerged from the conference and World War II soon stalled the group’s attempts to assemble again. But the event planted ideological seeds and brought together many of the men (they were almost exclusively male) who would become the leading theorists of the right.

Hayek revived the project after the war. With the economic support of Swiss businessman Albert Hunold, Hayek called another conference, this time at the Hotel du Parc on the slopes of Mont Pelerin in the Swiss Alps. From this exclusive but by no means secret gathering emerged the Mont Pelerin Society. The American delegation included Milton Friedman and several of his University of Chicago colleagues. Henry Hazlitt, who spent most of his career at the New York Times, represented American journalism. From the London School of Economics came several big guns, including Karl Popper. Other intellectual luminaries studded the list of attendees.

According to the Mont Pelerin Society’s founding statement, “a view of history which denies all absolute moral standards and … the rule of law” threatened Western Civilization. That danger was exacerbated by “a decline of belief in private property and the competitive market; for without the diffused power and initiative associated with these institutions it is difficult to imagine a society in which freedom may be effectively preserved.”

In a paper titled “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” Hayek wrote that the task of the Mont Pelerin Society would be to win “the war of ideas” and roll back progressive state planning, nationalization, and welfare. He argued that ideas, particularly big ideas, are highly political. In effect, victory for the right would require creating what Antonio Gramsci separately called a counter hegemonic bloc, that is, ideologically and institutionally anchored control over the assumptions and beliefs that frame political discourse.

Remaking common sense

Crucial in this battle, argued Hayek, was the long-term impact of thinking and explaining. In marked contrast with much of today’s political wisdom—in which both left and right seem most concerned with spin, PR and immediate questions—Hayek disparaged the efficacy of day-to-day journalistic and political fights. “What to the contemporary observer appears as the battle of conflicting interests has indeed often been decided long before in a clash of ideas confined to narrow circles,” Hayek wrote. Rather than control specific issues, Hayek sought to remake common sense, to control the intellectual context in which policy debates took place. The linchpin in this strategy was intellectual work.

“In the United States even more than elsewhere,” explained Hayek, “a strong belief prevails that the influence of the intellectuals on politics is negligible. This is no doubt true of the power of intellectuals to make their peculiar opinions of the moment influence decisions, of the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses. Yet over somewhat longer periods they have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today. … This power they wield by shaping public opinion.”

For Hayek, controlling the thoughts of the intelligentsia meant eventual control of society; as he saw it they were the key promulgators and shapers of received wisdom and “the politics of tomorrow.”

But who were these people? Hayek’s definition was rather broad—he made a distinction between scholars or experts and intellectuals. The latter were not original thinkers but “dealers in second-hand ideas,” and included filmmakers, teachers, artists, clergy, novelists, broadcasters, some scientists and, most of all, journalists. Because of the intellectuals’ “habitual intercourse with the printed word,” and the general respect commanded as professionals, they were “carriers of new ideas outside their own fields” and, therefore, shaped the politics of the future.

Here Hayek’s thoughts contrast sharply with the socialist idea that intellectual work should both engage with and emerge from popular social movements; the Austrian don’s ideas were more elitist. “The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists,” he explained, “is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is [now] daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote.”

Hayek concluded his article with a critique of pragmatism. “Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas, which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.”

Institutions for thought

Indeed, the battle was far from lost. In response to Hayek’s call for intellectual warfare, several wealthy industrialists joined Hunold in sponsoring right-wing education and publishing. Among them were Alan Fisher in the United Kingdom and Harold Luhnow, Pierre Goodrich and Richard Earhart in the United States. What they created, inspired by Hayek, wasn’t so much a plan as a milieu. Through steady repetition of arguments and constant production of articles, pamphlets, books, reports and conferences, these Mont Pelerin Society activists created intellectual momentum and legitimacy for their once-discredited ideology.

By the ’60s and early ’70s, Mont Pelerin Society fellow travelers had established a number of increasingly prominent think-tanks—such as the Institute for Economic Affairs in England and the Heritage Foundation in the United States—from which they waged an unrelenting assault on the idea of government intervention in the economy.

Hayek’s comrades also began cultivating rising conservative politicians, including Margaret Thatcher. By the late ’70s, Hayek’s spawn had successfully brought the Tories and the GOP to new, extreme-right positions. Likewise, many members of the Mont Pelerin Society had prominent positions in universities and the media, from which they disseminated their neo-liberal gospel. Among the list of think-tank and university players who received part of their education with the society are Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute), Thomas Sowell (Hoover Institution) and Deepak Lal (Cato Institute).

What’s in it for progressives?

Ultimately, progressives cannot and should not imitate all of Hayek’s and the Mont Pelerin Society’s methods. That worldview and tactical repertoire is intensely elitist, in that it relied more on institutional hierarchy than popular education and mobilization.

Nonetheless, elements of the strategy might offer a useful corrective to the increasing anti-intellectualism, moralism and hyper-pragmatism of American progressives—a pragmatism that at times avoids the most important political questions, shows little political self-confidence and thinks hardly at all about the next 20 years.

Consider the state of affairs among most nonprofit, single-issue campaigns and progressive trade unions. While there are valiant and laudable exceptions (the Brecht Forum in New York jumps to mind, as does the educational program of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union), most of these types of organizations focus on the imperatives of the short-term: the next grant, the next bill, the next contract, and so forth. Frequently missing is any sense of a long-term project of political education around a social and political-economic program. Under such conditions staff, particularly young staff, often burn out because they lack the benefit of a deep, historically informed education that would place their work in a broader context. What they get instead is emergency-themed moralizing about the need to sacrifice. Or consider all those who cycle through the left; many people join our ranks only to quickly check out, inoculated as it were, having done some time and found the whole enterprise ridiculous and shrill. Fueling this process is the fact that new activists or organizational personnel often are not encouraged to study, think and rethink. They are not treated as potential converts (for lack of a better word) to the lifelong struggle for justice. Nor are their minds treated as important parts of the struggle. When left and progressive organizations do work on education their efforts are frequently apolitical, anti-intellectual and have the self-help feel of vocational training for the movement: “Capacity building,” “media literacy” and “community empowerment” are the buzzwords of this genre.

Without dissecting the particulars of this or that group, one must simply ask: Does the left take ideas seriously? Does the left have popular theories of how intellectual work—the politics of political explanation and storytelling—affects politics? Does it have a forward-looking intellectual strategy? The answer, largely, is no.

While the movement gets on with the business of activism, ideas degenerate into decadent and perverted playthings for academics, who do not help matters with their careerism, impenetrable language and cloistered disdain for reaching broad audiences. But that’s another story, or should I say “narrative.”

Hayek invites us to reconsider the role of ideas and the long-term timeframe of their impact. He reminds us that having a clear intellectual program and thinking—which in our case should be done by everybody, not only specialists—is not a luxury but a necessity. He reminds us that today’s political struggles, while essential, usually offer only a narrow range of outcomes. Short-term struggles are massively important, but we will lose most of these fights, and thus must ask ourselves what lasting, ideological or intellectual impact such lost fights can and should deliver. Hayek invites us to be bold and imaginative and, if not utopian, at least radical in our vision and plan. Finally, he points out that in the long-term the big questions are always up for grabs.

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Christian Parenti is an American investigative journalist and author. His books include: Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (2000), a survey of the rise of the prison industrial complex from the Nixon through Reagan eras and into the present; The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror (2003), a study of surveillance and control in modern society; and The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (2004), an account of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Parenti has also reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and Bolivia.
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