An Eerie Warning from Hans Morgenthau

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Hans J. Morgenthau was one of the leading scholars of international relationships during the mid-20th century. He served as a consultant to governments and an advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, before resigning due to disagreements over LBJ’s Vietnam policy.

Among his many books was Politics Among Nations (1948), at one time the “bible” of international relations scholars. In 1970, a volume collecting some of his articles and essays written in the 1960s was published under the title Truth and Power. Essays of a Decade 1960-1970. Included in that volume are essays that have particular relevance to U.S. politics in the early 2020s.

Politics in America today includes a dangerous collusion between scientists, big-tech/social media oligarchs, and the federal government that promote their version of the “truth” and try to stifle and in some cases punish dissenting voices. This dangerous conglomeration of social and political power is cheered on and abetted by the mainstream media. Whether the issue is climate change, pandemic mandates, the validity of the 2020 election, or combating “systemic racism,” only one “truth” is acceptable, and those who dissent from the “truth” can be canceled, socially ostracized, publicly condemned, denied employment, or worse.

Morgenthau wrote the essays in Truth and Power during the turbulent 1960s, but some of his observations have an eerie relevance to today’s politics. For example, in 1964, in an essay entitled “Modern Science and Political Power,” Morgenthau warned that our democracy was endangered by the scientific-technological-governmental trinity. “Power,” Morgenthau wrote, “has shifted from the people to the government. Within the government, power has shifted from democratically responsible officials to certain technological elites, military and scientific, which are not democratically responsible.” This development, he wrote, had “drastically decreased” voters’ control over the affairs of government. And this situation, he warned, “makes totalitarianism possible.”

Modern scientific and technological innovations, Morgenthau explained, “have given modern governments the tools with which to penetrate and overwhelm the sphere that tradition has reserved for the individual and his freedom — to condition his thoughts and control his actions without limitation.” “Our age,” he continued, “has given modern governments the ability to make themselves total masters of the individual.”

Morgenthau foresaw the emergence of a governing system involving rule by a “scientific elite.” “The ascendancy of such elites,” he explained, “is the inevitable result of the central positions science and technology occupy in the affairs of modern government.” Science and technology are increasingly serving the interests of those who wield political power. “This utilitarian orientation of science and technology toward the interests of the state,” Morgenthau wrote, “constitutes a radical break with tradition.”

And it has transformed scientific and technological elites into political actors. Such elites, Morgenthau wrote, “become political and depend for their success as much upon… political skills and outside political support of their proponents as upon their scientific soundness.” This changes their nature: “[T]hey become themselves protagonists of political… policies that are in accord with their scientific judgment.” These elites, Morgenthau wrote, “no longer merely advise on the basis of expert knowledge; they are also champions of policies promoted with unrivaled authority and frequently determined by virtue of it.”

Morgenthau knew that scientific and technological elites have their own political worldviews. Their selection of facts, the emphasis given to certain facts, and their theoretical judgment, Morgenthau understood, were “part and parcel of [their] total political world view.” In the politics of today, scientists and big tech/social media oligarchs have personal and political preferences that influence their advocacy of political policies.

Four years later, Morgenthau wrote “The Right to Dissent,” which also appears in Truth and Power. There, he warned that when a political elite believes it possesses a monopoly of truth, it will try to suppress dissent, labeling it as heresy or treason. The elites believe they have discovered the “truth” and “have a right and duty… to make it prevail.” The majority that wields political power (and military and police power) may attempt to repress the minority — the dissenters — “and democracy might well die,” he wrote. The social and political compact between a majority and minority in a democracy is fragile. And history shows, Morgenthau wrote, that it is those who hold predominant social and political power who “induce the majority and its government to overstep the bounds of the compact.” In truth, it is the “dissenting minority,” Morgenthau explained, that “performs a vital function for the political and moral welfare of the Republic.”

Morgenthau in the lead essay of the book, “Truth and Power,” summed up the great danger that we in the 2020s face:


It is much… more common, for the powers-that-be, if they are confronted with unpalatable truth, first to try to corrupt it and, if they do not succeed, to try to discredit it and, if they do not succeed in that, to silence it. The government’s ability to corrupt derives from its power to reward those who are willing to be corrupted. Its ability to discredit stems from the authority of power with which it speaks and from the influence it is able to exert upon the mass media of communications. Its ability to silence results from its ability to corrupt — silence being a kind of passive corruption — and ultimately from the ability to make totalitarian use of the police and the criminal laws.

Those today among the scientific, technological, social media, and governmental elites who claim to have discovered the “truth” and who attempt, often successfully, to socially banish those who dissent from the “truth,” are treading on very dangerous ground. “America,” Morgenthau urged his readers to remember, “was founded not upon power blindly and unrestrainedly pursued, but upon power informed and restrained by truth.” We ignore his warning at our peril.

Image: Rodri.wikifan

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