Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey

An assessment of the attitude of literary modernists of the early twentieth century to ordinary people.

As befits the subject, every turn of phrase is loaded with meaning; ‘ordinary people’ would be see very mush as a derogatory term to most of the ‘intellectuals’ included in this book. The term settled upon by Carey’s subjects to refer to the majority of the world’s population is ‘masses’, and is used in a way to refer to people as a single, homogeneous whole, to in fact de-humanize them.

Carey is critical of intellectuals’ use of the term, as he is critical of them in general. While recognizing their literary achievements, on soci-political matters Carey shows them to be elitist – not is a good way, racist, sexist, xenophobic, ill-informed and hypocritical.

Carey shows intellectuals concluding that the masses are not capable of high intellectual operation, that intellectuals should control the world, democracy is wrong and akin to dereliction of duty to deal with the world’s problems.

The masses are seen by intellectuals as being incapable of being educated, and a special ire is reserved for those, especially the middle-classes, who aspire to greater intellectual achievements and recognition.

Intellectuals also had a disdain for the media, first of all the press, and later film, for feeding the masses baser appetites.

These intellectuals were not extremists or outside the mainstream, their names are a roll-call of the modernist literary cannon: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Gissing, Lewis and even Wells and Orwell. All well known names spanning the political spectrum.

These people did not hold political power, but they did wield influence and reflected a prevailing attitude among the ruling classes, indeed, many intellectuals considered their role as an intellectual as akin to being an aristocrat. I think we can add arrogance to their list if vices.

So, intellectuals espoused the rule of the few over the many, despised democracy and advocated only enough education for the masses for them to be useful.

Thoughts

Carey was writing about attitudes in the first half of the twentieth century, and his book was published in 1992, just before the World Wide Web exploded onto the scene.

Access to knowledge, and indeed, how to access knowledge, had always been controlled with numbers limited by cost and a restriction to those privileged by class. Knowledge has traditionally been held by the chosen few to be distributed to the chosen few.

With the steady growth of communications throughout the twentieth century education of the masses has steadily grown, but it was always in the gift of the academies.

What the World Wide Web has given us a world of unrestricted communication and an alternative network of knowledge creation. It is now beholden of us to use this gift properly and responsibly. We have an opportunity to create a true counter-culture.

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