Loïc Wacquant on the Causes of American Anti-intellectualism: Mammon-worship, Disunity, Puppetry, Fragmentation and Escapism

French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, traces four causes of present-day American anti-intellectualism.  Not surprisingly, topping the list is America’s worship of the dollar.  Elaborating on this point, Wacquant explains,

[t]he first is the unquestioned supremacy of economic over cultural capital in the American field of power, a supremacy that is arguably more pronounced today than at any time in the past half-century. Few modern societies abide by rules of social competition and access to positions of authority that so strongly favor money over knowledge, the wallet (porte-monnaie) over the pen (porte-plume), and give such abrupt precedence to big business over big ideas. The hegemony of the haves is virtually complete when the paradigm of the market imposes itself upon the totality of human activities and needs, from the arts to the media, publishing, health, and education (the fact that these are referred to as “industries” testifies to this), and is elevated to the dignity of a collective ideal at the highest reaches of a state exhorted by its head to transform itself into a mere service provider for taxpayers.[1]

(Forgive my jumping-to-related-current-readings tendencies, but that’s how things go in blog posts). Although I have not finished it yet, Philip Goodchild’s conclusions in his excellent book, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, likewise attest to the all-pervasiveness of the market paradigm on our human being-in-the (post)modern world. As he engages Nietzsche’s critique of reason and his discussion of the “murder of God,” Goodchild unearths the new horizon, the new sun to which we have chained ourselves, namely, money.

The meaning of the murder of God, that is, the emergence of a secular worldview with a corresponding affirmation of atheism, is that God is no longer required to play a foundational role in organizing humanity’s activity in relation to reality. The murder of God therefore reflects a shift in pieties. God has stopped paying us our ordered existence; or rather, there is another god who pays us, who responds more immediately, directly and tangibly to our prayers: Mammon.[2]

One could make several comments on this fruitful passage (and I recommend highly Goodchild’s book); however, let’s return to Wacquant’s four causes. In addition to our new god, Mammon, what else has brought us to disparage the life of the mind and contemplative pursuits? The second cause for enthusiastic American misologism is that progressive intellectuals are, on the one hand, “severely handicapped by the debilitation of the organizational vehicles liable to enable them” to effect social change and to engage in (reasoned, if such is possible these days) public debate, and on the other hand, the lack of unity and bickering among various activist groups themselves. In other words, in addition to the absence of a strong left-wing party, those advocating for equal rights etc. for their group or cause end up following “their particular(istic) strategy, and [aim] at distinct goals without sufficient concern for the synergy of agendas and the overall coherence of their lines of action.”[3]

Third, there is the reality of large numbers of intellectual puppets, that is, so-called intellectuals—members of various think tanks on the “Hill”—who produce so-called scientific, scholarly, “reports” for the purpose of reinforcing “the accepted wisdom of the moment” and presenting “a veneer of rationality” to their own public policies.

The new advisers to the Prince salaried by the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation possess all the trappings—the hexis, the language, and the credentials—of the academic, but they lack the one attribute that makes (or made) the latter troublesome: the capacity to formulate his or her own questions and to seek answers with total freedom, no matter where this leads her. Henceforth, the think tanks and the schools of public policy that serve as their transmission belt within the academic institution are there to stand guard and protect the American dominant class from the impertinent questioning of critical reason.[4]

The fourth cause of America’s anti-intellectual atmosphere is found in the self-absorbed, inwardly turned university community itself, occupied with its own inconsequential “intestinal controversies” and filled with university “professionals,” that is, “expert[s] possessed of a neutral body of knowledge reduced to its technical dimension.”[5] Given this splintered, fragmented milieu, where cross-disciplinary pollination is anathema, serious collegial dialogue within disciplines is rare, and narrow “professionals” abound, it is no wonder that

the mass of academics feel justified to cast aside any and all civic or moral engagement beyond their narrow domain of expertise by invoking the professional imperative of neutrality, for which the precepts of positivist epistemology serve as a convenient philosophical G-string.[6]

Wacquant does have a way with words, doesn’t he? And I thought my dissertation was provocative!


[1] Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” Academe 82 (1996), 19.

[2] Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion, 27.

[3] Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” 20.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.