The dialectic of enlightenment, as first set forth by Horkheimer and Adorno, provides a negative critique of this process. Their analysis of the failures of enlightenment revolves around two central themes. The first is the loss or elimination of the emancipatory dimension of modern science and its transformation into an instrument of domination. The second is the social regression of enlightened society toward primitive forms of authoritarian power and archaic forms of thought: that is, toward a state of tyranny that incites, stimulates, and promotes the regression of humanity toward a state of primitivism and idiocy. The Enlightenment, which once promised the progressive liberation of mankind from darkness, has instead wound up subjecting humanity to a new servitude imposed by systems of mass manipulation, electronic vigilance, compulsive consumerism, and the terror of global war.
For the ancient Greeks, idiocy was a punishment. It was a ban. Idiots were free men who had been banished from the political life of the republic because, out of preference for their own private interests, they had failed to participate actively in the public life of the polis. This banishment from public life was equivalent to the loss of liberty and, consequently, to the reduction of life to the pursuit of a private, domestic, and ultimately trivial happiness. “The principal characteristic of the tyrant,” writes Hannah Arendt, “was that he deprived the citizens of access to a public realm; he confined them to the privacy of their households, and demanded to be the only one in charge of public affairs.”
Alexis De Tocqueville saw the relationship between tyranny and idiocy otherwise. For him, it was rather idiocy that incited tyranny. But the idiocy he has in mind differs from that of the ancient Greeks in at least one basic characteristic: it wasn’t the idiocy of individuals but the idiocy of the masses, the idiocy of prosperity, the idiocy of progress. In his prescient treatise on democracy in America, de Tocqueville portrayed this idiocy as a kind of enslavement to prosperity: the stimulation of happiness at the expense of political liberties. Democracy was destined to generate masses who only seek from government that it provide them with enough security to attain a happiness that is stupid. Since 9/11, the largest bureaucratic megamachine in the history of the United States has imposed this security by means of the Department of Homeland Security and its global policing apparatus.
But why do we tolerate these increasingly totalitarian forms of tyranny? Could de Tocqueville have been right when he suggested that idiots willingly give up their own freedoms because they have become slaves to prosperity? Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this argument, in one form or another, has dominated theoretical attempts at explaining mass idiocy. From Marx’s notion of alienation to Veblen’s assessment of the leisure class to Galbraith’s affluent society or Marcuse’s one-dimensional life, modern theories of mass idiocy underscore the selfish stupidity and corruptibility of the masses; they assume that the masses have been duped into accepting the bribe of tyranny that de Tocqueville had identified in his study of modern democracy.
We have a problem here: By assuming the stupidity of the masses, these theories of idiocy also assume that the intellectuals who put them forth have transcended the prevailing idiocy of our times and that they therefore stand above and beyond it. From the distant heights of this transcendence, intellectuals fail to perceive that they are implicated in the very same idiocy that they presume to criticize from afar. This is why exemplary critics, like Julien Benda, C. Wright Mills, and Russel Jacoby, have revealed how public and academic intellectuals have not only betrayed society because they have abandoned the critique of tyranny in exchange for security and privacy, but also because they have actively associated themselves with it. Intellectuals are idiots who invite tyrants to exercise tyranny in support of idiocy.
By failing to attend to public affairs and neglecting to exert power over the tyrannical forces of our time, we run the risk of having our lives condemned to a state of political insignificance. The fate of the more than fifty million refugees in the world today, the fate of people who have been made stateless by the on-going civil wars and the different forms of state-sponsored and non-state sponsored terrorism of our time, the fate of people who for one reason or another cannot be integrated into the global economic and political system, may well prove to be the fate that awaits us all. In order to avoid it, we must seek to disentangle ourselves from the intellectual, moral, and political morass of our time and trust that in the process we shall shed some much needed light on how the rampant idiocy of our day can be transformed into tomorrow’s enlightenment. This involves breaking the epistemological and institutional chains that tie the dialectic of enlightenment to imperialism and reformulating enlightenment such that it neither sets us up as the imagined technological masters of nature nor as the would-be liberators of nations. An enlightenment, in other words, that enables us to develop, in harmony with nature and in cooperation with the rest of humanity, an existence that is free from idiocy and tyranny.