A Criticism of the Omniscients, or Why Do We Need an Intellectual Counter-Elite?

Tornike Metreveli

Who are intellectuals?

According to the definition of American political sociologist Seymour Lipset, intellectuals are those who create, distribute and apply culture – the symbolic world of man – including art, science and religion (amongst other things). Furthermore, intellectuals can be classified into two categories: those who create this culture and those who distribute what others create. In the context of this article, I will share the classifications of Seymour Lipset and Thomas Sowell, an American economist and political philosopher, and will refer intellectuals as those who are affiliated with ideas and ideologies, and establish social and cultural discourse – such as writers, scholars, and public intellectuals.

When speaking about intellectuals we cannot disregard French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. For him, an intellectual is one who fights against power, and not a person who merely preaches morals to society without personally assuming responsibility. Immanuel Kant's notion of humanity haunts the vision of French philosopher Julien Benda regarding the role the intellectual must perform in society: they are in a sense carriers of the Socratesian and Christian missions, which are expressed in loyalty to moral and ethical principles, and putting oneself in the service of kindness and justice. However, this does not mean that intellectuals, as a social class, should totally distance themselves from practical issues existing in society. Quite the contrary, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu believed that their involvement in this process is a direct obligation. In Benda's view, intellectuals must distance themselves from trading with ideas and aspiring for a commercial advantage, however, this does not rule out either their political involvement or their enjoying intellectual pleasure from metaphysical ideas.

French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was cynical towards any categorization. For him, intellectuals were the masters of abstract theoretical generalizations who were detached from practical politics. Tocqueville developed a prototype for the sociology of intellectuals, according to which they are viewed more as conduits for the interests of a specific group than they are as advocates for the universal values of mankind.

Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek somewhat echoed the Tocquevillian prototype. He referred to intellectuals as "professional secondhand dealers in ideas." He does not use the concept of secondhand dealing to diminish intellectualism. For him, an intellectual is a secondhand source for conveying knowledge to the masses, a sort of intermediary agent for the spreading of ideas. Hayek spoke about the importance of intellectuals for society: "... outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men, dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it their job to keep abreast of opinion.

It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented." Depending on whether this or that idea is consistent with the value system of intellectuals, regardless of whether the facts coincide with reality, they will either accept or deny them as given. Thus, it is an intellectual's "mental scheme" that determines how an ordinary citizen views this or that event, to what extent this or that theory affects him/her, even in the conditions of being ignorant of that particular theory.

Who are the experts?

Friedrich Hayek offered an essential difference between intellectuals and experts. Under experts, he considers academics, great scholars, researchers and thinkers of various philosophical schools; who may also be public intellectuals, provided that they address the large masses, and not only a narrow circle of professionals. In such cases, an intellectual adopts the role of an expert too. Thomas Sowell refers to experts as a secular equivalent of the religious classes, in the sense that they, like scholars of natural sciences, represent a special interest group with a political agenda who camouflage themselves with the mantra of scientific objectivity.

American economist Milton Friedman recalls the cynicism of great researchers and scholars towards "experts" – the latter derisively regarded as people who know nothing concrete. In contrast to Friedman, Hayek believed that ignoring experts is not a solution because they might become influential public intellectuals when they are not defeated on the turf of reasoning. Therefore, the key questions become: who should defeat them and how?

The Unknowledgeable Omniscients

In the Georgian context "experts" are people who dominate and portray themselves as hegemonic actors on the market of ideas. I will call this social group of opinion-shapers the Omniscients. The Omniscients represent various professions, but regardless of their professional competence, they will offer their assessment on any important subject. It does not matter whether the issue concerns a topic falling within their competence, this group of "all-knowing" people act as mediums for society, easing people's perception of the complex political world. In reality, however, they often do little more than mislead less informed segments of society with their brazen demagogy.

To avoid abstract theoretical reasoning, I will draw upon some of the abundant possible examples. During the events of 17 May 2013 (when an aggressive mob assaulted a peaceful group of LGBT rights defenders), the Omniscients speculated on the issue of the rights of the religious majority. Their logic was that if sexual minorities have the right to free expression, why should the majority not have the right to defend their own freedom of expression?

Although the majority certainly do have this right, it must not be expressed through physical assault, driving different opinions from the public space, and preaching homophobia, hate speech and xenophobia! In that episode, the Omniscients represented a narrow group of partisan interests. They intentionally misled society by depicting a wrong view of the coexistence of a minority with the majority.

Similar logic – "should the rights of a minority infringe upon the rights of the majority?" – was seen in the discussions about dismantling/reinstalling a minaret. To support their own opinions the Omniscients offer abstract arguments such as citing the "examples of other democratic countries." They ask: "if it is permitted there, why is it not allowed here?" or "would something like that be forgiven there?"

Of course it would be forgiven "there", and much more than that! In Britain, for example, the government not only finances the construction of minarets and Islamic schools from the state budget, but does not even restrict the preaching of radical Islam that conflicts with British values.

Another example can be seen with the new ID cards. With amazing irresponsibility, the Omniscients instill a culture of fear in public discourse and offer a (comic) pseudo-intellectual explanation of the farce about the link between electronic chips and devil now underway within a segment of society. However, this farce soon becomes a tragedy as elements of society hold those explanations to be valuable. This is because the Omniscients are given a public forum to convey primitive messages to the masses. These messages are then supported by a segment of the religious class, thereby legitimizing the arguments of the Omniscients.

Yet another example is the discussions of the Omniscients concerning the law on self-governance. According to a segment of Omniscients, de-centralization threatens Georgia with fragmentation. The logic behind this is: if Ambrolauri elects its mayor, we will lose Racha!

We cannot, of course, blame such demagogy on the incompetence of the Omniscients alone, but their indulgence in conspiracy theories will certainly not provide a balanced picture. Their knowledge about decentralization seems to have not gone beyond the obsolete Soviet-vintage theories of ethno-federalism and completely ignores the successful practice of representative or fiscal decentralization existing in the countries of the European Union.

The role the mass media plays in this orgy of intellectuals is especially interesting. By providing the Omniscients with an amount of public space that is totally out of proportion with their competences, the media helps create them and enables them to establish themselves as important actors on the market of ideas.

How to defeat the Omniscients?

I think that the process of transition Georgia is now undergoing requires the formation of an active counter-elite to engage in social processes. This will introduce a new critical discourse to society and, under the conditions of free competition on the market of ideas, the counter-elite will gain the advantage. However, a number of questions arise: who should make up the counter-elite? How should they deconstruct the hegemonic positions the Omniscients currently hold on the market of ideas? How should the counter-elite go about defeating them in the space of reasoning?

The types of intellectual the counter-elite might be composed of are those successful scholars, critics, publicists and researchers who work in Georgia or who have obtained a Western education and/or who currently work abroad. Clearly, in contrast to the Omniscients, this group of intellectuals would not have any problems in terms of competence. Nor would they experience a shortage of critical reasoning. In some cases there would exist a certain ideological particularism and problems concerning the selectivity of information, but these are problems characteristic of intellectualism in general.

What is the current audience of this group of intellectuals? The representatives of society who receive their messages today are those who hold specific civil or political values and have a certain level of education. In contrast to the Omniscients, they do not write or talk to everyone (or about everything). Ordinary citizens may get the impression that this group of intellectuals is only interested in complex topics, academic jargon and the opinions of one another.

This group of intellectuals does not fight to secure its place in society because they are self-realized in their own circles. Consequently, there is no battle to hold the dominant position on the market of ideas, thereby leaving a large amount of public space to be monopolized by the Omniscients. A segment of society thus remains ill-informed about various issues and is left to the mercy of a world seen through the prism of the Omniscients.

In issues concerning social transformation, the counter-elite has a sort of missionary function that serves the aim of establishing the value of critical thinking among society rather than lobbying for or justifying specific partisan interests or opinions. A historical example of such a counter-elite is the Kemalist discourse used against the Ottoman sultan and European occupation. It is active, result-oriented critical analysis of social and political processes that forms the vector of the counter-elite, not marginal, isolated or partisan intellectualism. Another question thus arises: whom should the new counter-elite write and construct discourse for?

They must not write for marginal intellectuals, for any one social class, or merely for themselves. They must speak to everyone using the type of language understandable by all. Their aim is the establishment of critical reasoning, and the means to this end is discourse. They must not become masters of generalizing abstract theories; they must not lose their perception of reality and risk no longer feeling the heartbeat of society when attempting to apply irrelevant theories. If intellect and critical reasoning are crucial values for the counter-elite, they must fight to become important players in public discourse and expose the Omniscients for what they are: propagators of such farces involving electronic chips and the devil.


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