The Intellectual Proletariat

Back when I was at university, I did a semester of sociology in my first year. The tutor we had was a jovial, laid back guy. So laid back, in fact, that he pretty much allowed us to write whatever we liked for our class essays foregoing all the usual scholarly conventions like citing references or even having references. You could bloviate what amounted to nothing more than a personal opinion for 2,000 words and that was perfectly fine as far as he was concerned.

It turned out that scholarly standards were not the only rules our tutor liked to break. During a class outlining the basics of Marxist theory, he told us that when he wasn’t working as a university tutor he had a part-time job in the distribution centre for a large Australian supermarket chain and that he availed himself of every opportunity to steal from said corporation. Why would a man with two jobs need to steal from a supermarket chain? It wasn’t to feed himself or others. It was to “bring down the capitalist system from within”.

I suppose that stealing from a faceless corporation is a minor crime in both a legal and moral sense. Still, it seemed rather strange for a university tutor to be bragging about it to his students. Perhaps he was hoping that some of us would follow his lead and we could all bring down the system together.

I’ve been thinking about my old sociology tutor and his criminal activities in recent weeks as I stumbled across a couple of news stories that featured other academics breaking the law. This week there was one out of the US where a university professor had pulled a machete on a news reporter. Meanwhile, here in Australia, a professor at ANU was caught on video spitting in someone’s face at an event for the upcoming referendum.

Is this all a passing fad? Has crime become fashionable among university professors all of a sudden? Is it a cry for help from pampered elites? Perhaps. But it fits the pattern that Arnold Toynbee described with his concept of the intellectual proletariat. The question is: how did the intellectual proletariat end up in universities? Doesn’t that make them part of the establishment? The answer is: yes. We are now at the phase of the civilisational cycle where the State and the proletariat have been conjoined.

Arnold Toynbee

To understand this development, we first need to be clear about the meaning of the word proletariat. Most people know it from the writings of Marx and therefore believe it denotes a purely economic distinction. But Toynbee used it in a much broader sense. For him, proletarianism was an attitude and a feeling. It’s the feeling of being disinherited from society; of having lost one’s connection with the ancestors.

We are so far into the process of proletarianisation in the modern West that the whole idea of having a connection to the ancestors is foreign to us. We may have vague emotions or theoretical understandings of the past. What we don’t have is tangible, everyday ties to the past; the kind of ties we see in Romeo and Juliet where to belong to the house of Capulet or Montague entails obligations that significantly determine your life path.

To be proletarian is a state of mind and this state of mind can occur to people from all walks of life including those born into the top of the social hierarchy. Toynbee’s concept of the intellectual proletariat specifically refers to the members of the intelligentsia who feel themselves disconnected from the ancestors. These are educated and often intelligent people who become outcasts from the mainstream.

St Paul tries to win over some Greek intellectuals

For this reason, the intellectual proletariat almost always comes up with new ideologies that break with past traditions. Initially, they carry out the battle for those ideas in the intellectual sphere. St Paul is perhaps the most famous member of the intellectual proletariat from the Classical civilisation. He travelled around widely trying to convert other intellectuals to the Christian cause.

St Paul and other early Christian leaders like St Peter got themselves on the wrong side of the establishment and lost their lives as a result. Within the Christian tradition that we have subsequently inherited, they are martyrs. But to the Roman authorities, they were criminals.

This brings us back to my sociology tutor and his penchant for theft. The proletariat is, by definition, a rebellious movement against the state. For that reason, it’s not hard to understand why it gets itself in trouble with the law. The key point which Toynbee’s concept makes clear is that this rebellion is not primarily about economics. That’s even more true among the intellectual proletariat who are usually more financially secure than others.

Tutoring at an Australian university is a well-paying, high status job. My sociology tutor was not stealing out of economic necessity. He was stealing to bring down the system. Similarly, the Christians of the Classical civilisation became criminals not by committing overt crimes but by failing to show allegiance to society e.g. by refusing to uphold the cult of Caesar. In both cases, what is primarily at stake is ideology and belief.

Proletarianisation is about the striving after meaning. The intellectual proletariat have a crucial role to play in that process. They are the ones who create new frameworks of meaning. They win followers to the extent that the mainstream society no longer provides meaning for people and they go looking for it elsewhere.

This process of meaning creation is what I have been calling the esoteric. In psychoanalysis, it is called the libido. Freud would have analysed the proletarian break with the ancestors as an Oedipal rebellion against the father. Jung expanded the concept of libido to encompass the more general striving for meaning and growth. It’s this general striving for meaning that I call the esoteric. The pursuit of esoteric meaning occurs at both the individual level and the collective level in large social movements. That’s why the intellectual proletariat have traditionally been tied in with religion.

Civilisations become the victims of their own success. They create conditions of material stability, peace and prosperity for their citizens. But this always seem to come at a cost. Citizens must agree to give up the search for individual meaning by sacrificing themselves to the greater good. That sacrifice must be made at all times. But, later on it is tied in with the centralisation and homogenisation process that takes place in the second half of the civilisational cycle. The pursuit of the esoteric moves from the local and individual level to the mass societal level. It moves away from smaller dispersed communities and into the mega-cities of late civilisation.

When we analyse the Roman Empire, we tend to focus on the political move from oligarchy to monarchy that occurred with the reign of Octavian. However, there was a corresponding  religious movement at that time known as the cult of Caesar. The Caesars became the “fathers” of the civilisation. This abstract “fatherhood” entailed the deprecation of individual fathers as heads of families and carriers of local ancestral tradition. The esoteric became centralised around Rome and the Caesars.

Julius Caesar was pronounced a god after his death

Nietzsche and Gibbon were wrong to blame the Christian church for the breakdown of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Christian church was made possible because of the cult of Caesar which had preceded it. Both developments were part of the proletarianisation process i.e. the loss of esoteric meaning and the break with tradition.

The loss of the esoteric also had a more mundane manifestation in antiquity. The Roman Empire was so stable and prosperous that it was dead boring. Many of the Caesars famously sought stimulation in debauchery and absurd luxury. The plebs got bread and circuses. Everybody was bored out of their mind. The esoteric part of life had disappeared.

Another way to view the proletarian impulse is that it consists of people who refuse to give up the quest for meaning and growth. Since the mainstream society of late civilisation no longer offers pathways for such people, they turn elsewhere. Specifically, they turn to the intellectual proletariat.

While the intellectual proletariat are confined to the coffee houses, they represent no threat to the established order. It’s when they arrive in the beer halls that the trouble begins because that means the intellectual proletariat has found the broader proletariat and their ideas will get put into action. At that point, the proletariat comes into open conflict with the State.

The intellectual proletariat pay a heavy price for their beliefs

The strength of the intellectual proletariat lies in the fact that the pen is mightier than the sword. Putting them to death, as in the case of St Paul and St Peter, does not work to eradicate the problem. In fact, it only draws more attention to their ideas. But that doesn’t stop the State from trying.

What history shows is a long period of conflict where the State tries and fails to put an end to the various social movements initiated by the intellectual proletariat. Eventually, the State tries to solve the problem by incorporating the proletariat into itself. That’s what happened in the Classical civilisation as the Christian church became the state church of the Roman Empire.

By my reckoning, Roosevelt is the modern equivalent of Diocletian

In Faustian civilisation, we saw the exact same development in the post-war years of the 20th century. The huge expansion of the bureaucracy and the public service during this time maps back to the reforms of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who was trying to re-stabilise Roman society following the crises of the third century. Those crises were very similar to our Great Depression/World Wars.

What confuses the matter in the modern West is that we are also running a complex technological civilisation that requires educated people to keep the machines going. We train our technicians in the same institutions (universities) as the intellectual proletariat. From the point of view of the general public, they are the same class of people; the “experts”.

But there is a world of difference between a doctor, an engineer or a physicist and a sociology professor, and that’s before we get into professors of journalism, ecogastronomy or critical discourse theory. I haven’t done any research into the matter, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that the number of physics or chemistry professors committing theft, assault or pulling machetes on people is a tiny fraction of their counterparts in the “humanities”. The humanities departments are where the intellectual proletariat have been housed in the post-war years to keep them off the streets (literally).

The reason it becomes necessary for the state to incorporate the intellectual proletariat is because of the significant power that the latter wields. Consider that Stalin was a trainee priest who wrote poetry. Hitler was famously a failed artist who also considered the priesthood. Mussolini was a journalist. Lenin graduated top of his class. Mao was born into a peasant family, renounced Buddhism and became a scholar. In short, they were all members of the intellectual proletariat of their respective societies.

This is what the intellectual proletariat looks like

In the modern West, the intellectual proletariat has become part of the State to a degree that is unprecedented in history. This was only ever possible due to the discovery of fossil fuels. We might say that fossil fuels were both the cause and the solution to the problem. Industrial capitalism caused mass unemployment but it also generated enough wealth to allow the welfare state to grow large enough to balance out the scales and to give the intellectual proletariat jobs in the bureaucracy.

Just as it’s hard to tell the difference between the technicians needed to actually run modern society and the intellectual proletariat pursuing an ideological agenda, the corruption of the bureaucracy is also harder to ascertain in the modern West. The corruption of the Roman bureaucracy was done the old-fashioned way through bribery and nepotism. Modern bureaucratic corruption is far more sophisticated. It occurs through what we might call ideological shakedowns.

Ever notice how the ideas cooked up in academia and “think tanks” somehow always end up being implemented in government departments and even private corporations, even when those ideas make zero sense? This is a feature, not a bug. The more absurd the ideology, the better it serves to mark out who is going to toe the line and who is not.

The fact that the ideology is becoming more absurd in recent years is an indication that there is an internal battle going on within the broader bureaucracy. The corona debacle was a great example of that. Plenty of well-meaning technicians got thrown to the wolves for speaking out against the ideologues. The same thing is happening in other domains. In Australia last year, the CEO of an energy company “resigned” after telling the government its demands to use hydrogen to generate electricity could not be done. A technician told the ideologues the truth and lost his job as a result.

All of this can be done in the name of “science” only because the general public doesn’t know how to differentiate between technicians who know how to keep systems running and ideologues pursuing other agendas. It’s quite possible that the politicians themselves also do not know the difference since they are at the mercy of the bureaucracy too.

The existential crisis we are heading towards is this: if the intellectual proletariat continues to dominate government, things are going to fall apart at a rapid pace since a complex technological society cannot be governed by ideology.

However, even assuming the government has the power to restore sanity by handing power back to the technicians, and even assuming there are enough technicians left who know how to make things work, there will still be the huge problem of what to do with the disgruntled intellectual proletariat. They will take to the streets. We saw a precursor to that with the BLM riots in 2020. That was part ideological shakedown and part burn-your-city-down shakedown.

We’re in what Gregory Bateson called a double bind which means that the answer, whatever it is, will have to come from outside the status quo.

11 thoughts on “The Intellectual Proletariat”

  1. surely one of the difficulties with reading today’s world [notably the “Western world”] is that technocrats are very often also “ideologues”, and there are vast numbers of them ? the result is that the “man-in-the-street” finds it virtually impossible to discern who is speaking to/at him . It would be hard to argue that putatively competent “technicians” clashed over COVID with clearly manipulative “ideologues “,since they were largely the same ? In short, the technocrats hold all the cards, especially since, as you pointed out in the last blog, most people do not validate themselves.
    Some generations of discrediting “common sense” have , I think, led to the promotion of bogus “expertise” in many spheres of life, so that we have TV programmes on how to boil an egg,etc. “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases- use your handkerchief” pre-dates the masking days, and washing hands is a simple idea which, surely, parents have tried to impress on children since Adam ?
    {as a footnote, I think you would beinterested in a Substack article by L.P. Koch on The German Soul, can forward if you wish}

  2. The intellectual proletariat voluntarily relinquishing power to the technical proletariat in the near future? Good luck with that, especially in the U.S. where we have an entrechted dominant minority. It is said that this dominant minority only understands the dichotomy between being rich and being richer.

  3. David – yes, I think the situation is made worse because things became so complex that objectivity reached its limit. Once you allow a little bit of subjectivity to intervene, there is no longer any clear difference between a scientist and an ideologue and you get a race to the bottom. I think you’re exactly right to say that a return to common sense would actually solve a large part of the problem, at least in a political sense. The trouble is that nonsensical ideology also tends to win political battles because it rouses strong emotions while common sense politely raises its hand from the back of the room and is drowned out in the miasma.

    I found that Koch article. Looks right up my alley. Thanks for the reference.

    Jim – I have never tried to verify the figure, but I’ve seen in written that 3/4 of the Chinese public service are taken from engineering disciplines. To a large extent, the US outsourced the technical proletariat to China, which I think is also what allowed the intellectual proletariat to come to dominate. When Trump said he was going to “bring the jobs back to the US”, what he was really saying was that he was going to bring the technical proletariat back.

    The intellectual proletariat won’t voluntarily relinquish power. But, at this point, I don’t see how they can stay in power either since the system will collapse. Hence the double-bind.

  4. This dichotomy between technical specialists and intellectuals is an interesting one in a variety of historical contexts, because there is always a metaphysic behind the technique. The whole question of why? is lurking in the background, as in why did we go down the path of industrial society in the first place? The easy, causality focused late civilisation answer is material well-being, but any glance at history will show this is an additional benefit that is preceded by something deeper and more esoteric.

    To me Chinese history (and perhaps Egyptian) is the most informative regarding modern western civilisation because it has far more in common with the west than the classical did. Like the west, China had a very pressing need for technical specialists, due to the constantly ticking time bombs that are the Yangtze and especially the Yellow rivers. Without meticulous management, disaster would quickly ensure. It’s population was also orders of magnitude higher than the classical, as were its armies and civil services. The complexity of the state bureaucracy has only really been matched by the Faustian.

    Judging from their history it seems to match up pretty well with what you’re discussing Simon. Periods of stability and prosperity would lead to a class of ideologues (often eunuchs, which is of interest) entrenching themselves and often letting the maintenance of the dykes and other important infrastructure lapse. When disaster inevitably struck in the form of a flood, anyone who at least could show some technical competency at dealing with the situation would take their place, and the ideologues often met a grizzly end. This process would often also involve a fracturing of the empire into various states, so it will be interesting to see if something similar plays out in the west.

  5. So, Simon – this seems to me to give a broad cyclical context to why it is that a lot of the hype about AI – coming from the intellectual proletariat – seems to be about how AI will replace – oops, no, that sounds too incendiary – augment the skills of all the technicians who’ll no longer be needed – oops, will no longer need – to do the dirty work of keeping the systems running. All, of course, in the name of the greater good – or so I’m told by some meaning-starved if well-connected boomers who regularly read, e.g., the Guardian. 🙂

    Your thesis is also interesting in relation to the Voice referendum.

  6. Skip – I wonder if Freud or Jung wrote anything about eunuchs. Seems to me a symbol of the “eternal Orphan” who has completely renounced personal libido to the interests of the State.

    The China connection here is poignant because it was from Chinese history that the Enlightenment thinkers learned about the bureaucracy so it could well be argued that our bureaucracy is predicated on China’s. I recall something in Spengler about how the engineering mindset was archetypally Faustian and we would know the Faustian has died when there’s no more engineers. The engineers who created the industrial revolution were certainly not bureaucrats. So, I’d say this really is an existential crisis in more ways than one.

    Shane – my guess is that machine learning is most likely to replace the intellectual proletariat since one of the few things it can do well is churn out articles “in the style of the Guardian”. It could altogether replace those jobs whereas in the technical domains the best I think it can do is help with rote tasks.

    Well, yes, the Voice is the Labor Party’s baby and Labor has become the party of the intellectual proletariat who barely pretend to represent the actual proletariat anymore.

  7. Hi Simon,

    Do you reckon the intellectual proletariat could undo many of the safeguards, checking of power mechanisms, and limits in society, merely because it seems like a good idea to do so in a quest for some ideological goal? I’ve always been rather wary of folks seeking some utopian dream, which I’d have to suggest mostly flounder upon the rocky shores of plain old common sense.

    A defining moment for me in this matter was as a very early tourist to Cambodia. We visited the Killing fields (as you do when don’t think what it means to do so, and what impact it may have upon you), and it was then that I comprehended how dangerous unchecked ideology could be.

    Fortunately, I don’t believe at this stage that the intellectual proletariat have transitioned from the coffee houses to the beer halls. Instead I have this hunch that as the failures pile up, populism will instead gain a foothold. What do you reckon about that? And the resistance to populism, will only make it more likely to occur.



  8. Chris – the capitalists have already done a perfectly good job of removing safeguards to line their pockets (and also constructing safeguards which are barriers to entry to prevent real competition). At the moment, we have an unholy alliance between capitalists and intellectual proletariat. The latter’s job is make a lot of noise to hide the crimes of the former. It’s a very sophisticated racket.

    I don’t see how populism can work at this point because it requires a simplicity which doesn’t exist. We’ll see what happens with Trump. On current trajectory, I’d say he fought the swamp and the swamp won.

  9. Hi Simon,

    I’d also say that he lost to the swamp. The facts suggest as much.

    Just to throw a possibility out there, the swamp may end more with a whimper if history is any guide to how these things go. I presume Toynbee wrote about this aspect of the story? After all, the citizens of Rome did in fact let Alaric I into the gates of the city. That alone suggests that thngs must have been very dire indeed.



  10. Chris – the swamp is modern society. It’s an ecosystem. That’s its strength. So, you can’t just get rid of it. Having said that, a strong leader reigning in its worst excesses would clearly be a good thing. At this point, it might be a necessity since things really do seem to be spinning out of control and we’ll need a strong hand at some point.

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