On Knowledge and Power

On Knowledge and Power


During the last few years I have often thought that American intellectuals are now rather deeply involved in what Freud once called “the miscarriage of American civilization.” I do not know exactly what he meant by the phrase, although I suppose he intended to contrast the eighteenth-century ideals with which this nation was so hopefully proclaimed with their sorry condition in twentieth-century America.

Among these values none has been held higher than the grand role of reason in civilization and in the lives of its civilized members. And none has been more sullied and distorted by men of power in the mindless years we have been enduring. Given the caliber of the American elite, and the immorality of accomplishment in terms of which they are selected, perhaps we should have expected this. But political intellectuals too have been giving up the old ideal of the public relevance of knowledge. Among them a conservative mood—a mood that is quite appropriate for men living in a political vacuum— has come to prevail.

Perhaps nothing is of more immediate importance, both as cause and as effect of this mood, than the rhetorical ascendancy and the intellectual collapse of liberalism: As a proclamation of ideals, classic liberalism, like classic socialism, remains part of the secular tradition of the West. As a theory of society, liberalism has become irrelevant, and, in its optative way, misleading, for no revision of liberalism as a theory of the mechanics of modern social change has overcome the trade mark of the nineteenth century that is stamped upon its basic assumptions. As a political rhetoric, liberalism’s key terms have become the common denominators of the political vocabulary, and hence have been stretched beyond any usefulness as a way of defining issues and stating positions.{1}

As the administrative liberalism of the Thirties has been swallowed up by economic boom and military fright, the noisier political initiative has been seized by a small group of petty conservatives, which on the middle levels of power, has managed to set the tone of public life. Exploiting the American fright of the new international situation for their own purposes, these political primitives have attacked not only the ideas of the New and Fair Deals; they have attacked the history of those administrations, and the biographies of those who took part in them. And they have done so in a manner that reveals clearly the basis upon which their attractive power rests: they have attacked the symbols of status and the figures of established prestige. By their attack upon men and institutions of established status, the noisy right has appealed not at all to the economically discontented, but to the status frustrated.{2} Their push has come from the nouveau riche, of small city as well as larger region, and, above all, from the fact of the rankling status resentment fel...