By Thorsten Polleit
Property and Freedom Society
Bodrum, 15–20 September 2022
Who is Helmut Schelsky?
Helmut Schelsky was born in Chemnitz, Germany, on 14 October, 1912. He studied philosophy, sociology, history and German philology and received his academic training from the Leipzig School of Sociology. He embarked on his academic career in 1948.
From 1953 to 1960, Schelsky held a professorship at the University of Hamburg. From 1960 to 1970, he taught at the University of Münster and oversaw the largest West German centre for social research in Dortmund. From 1970 to 1973, Schelsky taught at the University of Bielefeld, after which he returned to Münster as a professor of sociology of law.
Schelsky published many widely influential works on family sociology, the sociology of sexuality, loneliness and freedom, democratization and the separation of powers. Schelsky died in 1984.
In 1975, Schelsky published his book “Die Arbeit tun die anderen. Klassenkampf und Priesterherrschaft der Intellektuellen“ – in English: “Let the actual work be done by others. Class Struggle and the Priestly Dominion of the Intellectuals.”
The book was, and actually still is, a bombshell: It lays out a rather eye-opening, demystifying, hard-hitting theory.
According to Schelsky, intellectuals are, in some way, indispensable for society; at the same time, they can also become an oppressive and exploitative – and I may add: destructive – class in modern society.
I will apply Schelsky’s theory to one sub-group of intellectuals – namely today’s profession of empirical economists.
I will point out that they play a crucial role in leading societies away from a free economic and societal order, towards collectivism-socialism, and that means: tyranny.
At the end of my talk, I will present ideas that I believe can defuse, even solve, the problem facing the civilized world Schelsky feared – a concern that is, as I will point out in my talk, well supported by sound economic theory.
Let us jump right in – and start with the central issue of human action, and that is the issue of ideas!
John Maynard Keynes recognized the role of ideas in social development. He wrote that:
“… The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.”
Ludwig von Mises provided a logically rigorous explanation of why ideas – or theories, for that matter – are at the heart of human action. He wrote:
“Ideas engender social institutions, political changes, technological methods of production, and all that is called economic conditions. And in searching for their origin, we inevitably come to a point at which all that can be asserted is that a man had an idea.”
In other words: Ideas are the “ultimate given” of human action. And they originate from individual thought and drive individuals to act.
What is more, Mises argued that there is no way to establish a causal link between ideas and the external factors that could explain them; that it is impossible to detect a functional relationship between the two. If that were possible, if we could discover definite relations between ideas and physical or chemical events (inside or outside our bodies), human action would become predictable.
However, this is impossible from the viewpoint of the logic of human action. Mises concluded that there are no behavioural constants in the realm of human action. Human action cannot be predicted.
Hans Hermann Hoppe made Mises’s argument watertight. By referring to the capacity to learn, Hoppe provides an a priori explanation for Mises’ insight: For logical reasons, we cannot possibly know today everything we will know in the future. And so, today, we cannot know someone’s future actions caused by their future knowledge.
We are left with the insight that ideas form the ultimate given of human action; that ideas, the concrete value judgments and specific human actions they evoke are not accessible to further analysis.
Against this backdrop, it does not take much to realize that those who develop, disseminate and/or popularize ideas (or theories, for that matter) can potentially wield great power over those around them.
This is particularly true in modern societies where the state (as we know it today) is big and powerful.
Let me define what the term state means. The state is the coercive territorial monopolist with the ultimate decision-making power and the right to tax.
You may be wondering: How can a state (defined as such) originate and be sustained?
One possibility is by brute force: The rulers oppress the ruled; people are beaten into submission. But how can the few, who typically represent the state, dominate the many for long in this way? In fact, this explanation is not really convincing.
Another explanation is that the many feel called upon to voluntarily support the state (as we know it today). How could that be achieved?
One possibility is that the state corrupts the population through bribery: The state lets the many share in the revenues coerced from natural owners of things.
The other way is to convince people that the state is good, just, and indispensable, that a world without the state would be chaotic, nightmarish, and brutal.
But who could proclaim and convince the people of such a message? Murray Rothbard provides the answer:
“[S]ince the early origins of the State, its rulers have always turned, as a necessary bolster to their rule, to an alliance with society’s class of intellectuals. The masses do not create their own abstract ideas, or indeed think through these ideas independently; they follow passively the ideas adopted and promulgated by the body of intellectuals, who become the effective “opinion moulders” in society. And since it is precisely a moulding of opinion on behalf of the rulers that the State almost desperately needs, this forms a firm basis for the age-old alliance of the intellectuals and the ruling classes of the State. The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the State and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the State incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security. Furthermore, intellectuals are needed to staff the bureaucracy and to “plan” the economy and society.”
With this quote from Rothbard, I have actually introduced the main protagonists of my talk: The so-called “intellectuals”, “opinion leaders”, “second-hand dealers in ideas”, “the reflexive elite”, or “the priestly caste of intellectuals”.
Who are the intellectuals? Thomas Sowell describes them as “people whose work begins and ends with ideas”. Teachers, professors, scientists, lawyers, writers, journalists, actors, radio hosts, artists, and many others come to mind.
George Sorel wrote: “The Intellectuals are not, as is so often said, men who think: they are people who have adapted the profession of thinking, and who take an aristocratic salary on account of the nobility of this profession.”
What do we know about these characters?
In Chapter XIII of his Capitalism, Democracy and Socialism, published in 1942, Joseph A. Schumpeter devotes a section to “The Sociology of the Intellectual”. For Schumpeter, the modern-day intellectual is first and foremost a creature of capitalism.
The free society that comes with capitalism offers free speech, and economic progress provides more and better means – including newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and in our time, I should add: social media – to disseminate opinions, ideas, critiques, truths and packs of lies.
Schumpeter believes that sooner or later, the intellectuals will turn against capitalism and embrace the idea of socialism, which will eventually destroy capitalism. Why is this so?
Schumpeter argues that “one of the most important features of the later stages of capitalist civilization is the vigorous expansion of the facilities for higher education.”
State-sponsored higher education increases the number of intellectuals well beyond “the point determined by cost-return consideration. Many of these intellectuals end up unemployed in their field of specialization. They develop a “discontented frame of mind”. “Discontent breeds resentment”, and the intellectuals’ hostility towards capitalism grows “with every achievement of capitalist evolution”.
“The social atmosphere … explains why public policy grows more and more hostile to capitalist interests, eventually so much so as to refuse on principle to take account of the requirements of the capitalist engine and to become a serious impediment to its functioning.”
How do intellectuals exert their influence on the “social atmosphere”?
For Schumpeter, the intellectuals “staff political bureaus, write party pamphlets and speeches, act as secretaries and advisers, make the individual politician’s newspaper reputation which, though it is not everything, few man can afford to neglect. In doing these things they to some extent impress their mentality on almost everything that is being done.”
In this way, intellectuals influence individual and party opinion “in much the same sense as is the moral code of an epoch that exalts the cause of some interests and puts the cause of others tacitly out of court.”
Schumpeter says that capitalism will eventually be replaced by socialism. The intellectuals’ role in this process is, according to him, to create the “social atmosphere” that is hostile to capitalism, that finally helps destroying it and establishing socialism.
In 1949, Friedrich August von Hayek published his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism”.
The intellectual, according to Hayek, is not necessarily an original thinker or an expert; the intellectual is often a “second-hand dealer in ideas”, as he once put it. The intellectual does not even have to be intelligent. What he does possess is i) the ability to speak and write about a subject and to be heard; and ii) a way of familiarizing himself with new ideas earlier than his audience, thereby acting as a gatekeeper of ideas.
Hayek informs us that it is “the power of intellectuals to make their opinions of the moment influence decisions, of the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses.”
Another important point Hayek makes is that most intellectuals have a socialist bias. He argues that “Socialism has never and nowhere been at first a working-class movement”. … “It is a construction of theorists, deriving from certain tendencies of abstract thought with which for a long time only the intellectuals were familiar.”
Why would intellectuals lean toward socialism? On the one hand, most intellectuals are deeply impressed and influenced by the undoubtedly great achievements of the natural sciences, Hayek notes. They believe that human society and its development would equally follow laws and that the state can plan, steer, and manage human affairs according to political will.
On the other hand, the ideas of socialism are very popular with the intellectuals (much more, by the way, than classical-liberal-libertarian ideas). They allow them to come up with fantastic visions and sweeping promises that challenge the status quo and appeal to peoples’ imagination.
In his 1956 book, The Anticapitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises addressed the “Resentments of the intellectuals”. In a capitalist system, intellectuals feel frustrated, Mises noted:
“They loathe capitalism because it has assigned to this other man the position they themselves would like to have.”
The intellectuals stir resentment and envy, and they sublimate their bad feelings into an anti-capitalist mentality: The intellectual “indicts society’s economic organization, the nefarious system of capitalism. But for this unfair regime his abilities and talents, his zeal and his achievements would have brought him the rich reward he deserves.”
Like Schumpeter and Hayek, Mises suggests that intellectuals, with their anti-capitalist mentality, are the harbingers of socialism, destroy individual liberty and freedom.
Now I come to Helmut Schelsky. In his 1975 book “Let the actual work be done by others. Class Struggle and the Priestly Dominion of the Intellectuals”, Schelsky puts forward the following thesis:
In modern societies, a class struggle of its own kind develops. The front line runs between the intellectuals and the working people.
It is a struggle for dominance, which is not fought with physical but with psychological coercion, with “exercising power through giving meaning”. Let me explain this in some more detail.
Based on Max Weber’s (1864–1920) sociology of religion, Schelsky assumes that people seek meaning in their worldly existence, for a promise of salvation. This is particularly true in the highly developed, secularized societies in which there is a demand for something he calls a social religion:
“The ever-increasing complexity, interconnectedness, and abstraction of social relationships in large modern societies with their information overload, their unlimited freedom of criticism and the encroachment of subjectivity without attribution of responsibility for the real consequences prepare the ground for social religiosity.”
The demand for a social religion forms the basis for the professional group of the “mediators of meaning”, the “reflection elite”, in short: the intellectuals (in the broadest sense). Its members are active in the growing functional areas of information, science and “orientation” knowledge transfer.
According to Schelsky, they develop into a “caste of priests”, similar to the clergy in previous centuries. Their selfish goal is to create (in the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher [1768–1834]) an “awareness of absolute dependency” among the general population, which, in turn, creates “the demand for protection and guardianship” of those who “believe in social salvation” and are receptive to the promises of a better world, of a life of harmony and order and justice, of a “heavenly socialism” on earth.
The proclaimers of salvation assert their rule in a sense “that the present, everyday life, is perceived as ‘misery’, as an emergency situation, as unbearable. The perceived misery of the people is what the intellectuals, the “elite of reflection”, need to further their own course.
To become a priestly caste the intellectuals have to maintain a sense of need and misery among the people, regardless of real conditions and circumstances. They do not only proclaim salvation but also promote a consciousness of misery; they are propagandists of misery.
The intellectuals, who also position themselves as “social saviours”, stand opposite the productive population, living off the people “who do the practical tasks in a society” in the truest sense: namely working hard for their money.
Now, Schelsky emphasizes something very important: The intellectuals can be content with a serving position dedicated to the needs of the productive people in society. But they may also pursue objectives that just further their own cause at the expense of their follow people.
The crucial question Schelsky raises is: What happens if the intellectuals in the field of social sciences pursue their own self-interest even if it conflicts with the interest of the wider population?
Let us try to find an answer to this question by looking at the economists’ profession – which can be seen as a subgroup of today’s (fairly sizable number of) intellectuals.
Suppose the economist conceives and pursues economics as a science of the logic of human action – as was rigorously argued by Ludwig von Mises. In that case, he will have to pay the price.
For this type of economist career and income opportunities wouldn’t be great. His activities would be largely limited to teaching in the classroom and correcting tests. There would hardly be any exposure to the world of business and banking and politics.
Because an economist who practices economics as a science of the logic of human action is of little use to the entrepreneur. The economist would have to admit that he cannot accurately predict business cycles, nor can he foresee the future demand for goods and services.
If, however, the economist pursues economics as an empirical science – if he is an empirical economist – and succeeds in convincing the general public that his endeavour makes sense, rather different career and income opportunities open up for him.
He can engage in empirical testing and develop models to predict the business cycle, stock market turning points, interest rate changes etc. – and all those who believe economics can be practised as an empirical science will most likely be deeply impressed by the economist’s output. Even the entrepreneur will consider him at least potentially valuable for his own decision-making, and he might even be prepared to fund him to some degree.
The state will be even more interested in working with economists who consider economics an empirical science. Because the empirically minded economist can be used to legitimate even the craziest policies. This is because, in the realm of empirical science, the assumption is that there are no immovable economic laws, according to the motto: “Anything goes.”
So if the economist’s theories sound good enough, politicians will make sure that these theories will be tried in practice. If a theory fails in practice, the empirical economist will not even have to admit that his theory was wrong. He can simply argue that some element had not been factored in, but if the element is factored in, the theory will work just fine next time it is tried.
And so it is not surprising that the state has become a generous benefactor of empirical economics. The empirical economist is awarded income, prestige and status by the state – all of which he could not earn by pursuing economics as a science of the logic of human action or by offering his output in the open market.
Needless to say, the empirical economist will advocate interventionism: He will find all sorts of reasons why free markets fail and the state must interfere on practically every front: education (kindergarten, school, university), transport, pensions, health care, law and order, money and credit, environment, and even climate.
He will advocate, for example, government deficit spending, a state-controlled central bank issuing fiat money, market interest rate manipulation, the issuance of digital central bank money, international coordination of monetary policy, and the creation of a single global fiat currency.
In light of Schelsky’s theory, the empirical economist might even develop a yearning for power over others – by obtaining employment as a bureaucrat, serving in state-sponsored organizations such as think tanks, research institutes, advisory groups, central bank councils, regulatory bodies, etc.
By doing so, he infiltrates the state and its institutions, cultivating his influence and power over the development of his own profession and the state itself.
Schelsky’s theory actually suggests that empirical economists might strive to advance themselves, rising to the level of the intelligentsia proclaiming salvation. This, in turn, they can achieve in two interconnected ways.
First: The economist presents the problems of the prevailing economic and social status quo, rightly or wrongly, in any case acting as a “propagandist of misery”. For instance, he argues that workers’ incomes are too low, that the gap between the rich and the poor is too great, that the industry pollutes the environment too much, and that too many people populate the planet.
Second: The economist – knowingly or unknowingly – misinterprets the true causes of the misery he claims to see. For instance, he blames capitalism for financial and economic crises, greedy businessmen for inflation, widening income gaps on the unsocial forces allegedly inherent in the system of free markets, etc.
Then the empirical economist offers the solution to all the problems he has “identified”. He argues that the state is needed to end the problems and that only the state and not the free market can lead to betterment, to general salvation.
And here we have it: The empirical economist would not only take orders from the state from which he receives his income, pension, and prestige – all paid for by the class of net tax producers, the working class.
He may also seize the opportunity to rise in the hierarchy of the intelligentsia that proclaims salvation – lifting him up to a powerful position indeed; he may not confine himself to bootlicking,
As the empirical economist becomes part of the reflective elite, he certainly does not have a self-image of “service above self” but rather a “self-serving” one. He seeks to influence or even participate (directly or indirectly) in the rule of state power.
And so the empirical economists spread among the masses the notion that the state is well-intentioned, at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternative; …
… they inform the general public that the economy must be controlled by the state; that without state intervention in the financial and economic system, there would be crises, chaos, injustice, and even civil war; …
… they make people believe that a “third way” is possible, a system that oscillates between capitalism and socialism, namely interventionism, which, as we know, will result in outright socialism.
All of this contributes to making the state (as we know it today) ever more powerful, at the expense of individual freedoms and liberties of the working class. If anything, the influence of the empirical economists as proclaimers of salvation, as a self-serving intellectual priesthood, helps push even a minimal state into a maximal state.
Helmut Schelsky understood the underlying dilemma that comes with intellectuals and their ambitions.
On the one hand, intellectuals might develop important ideas and theories that help people better achieve their life goals.
On the other hand, intellectuals can become truly dangerous to society – if and when they assert their own interest against the general population’s interest with the support of state power.
Can this dilemma be solved? Can the class warfare of the priestly dominion of the (in our case: empirical economist) intellectuals against the productive population be won? Schelsky was not optimistic.
He suggested that the functioning of the modern society would subjugate the great majority of people to the priestly dominion of the intellectuals – which, as we have heard from Schumpeter, Hayek, and Mises – would pave the way towards socialism.
What made Schelsky pessimistic was his concern that science could all too easily be hijacked and misused to establish the priestly dominion of the intellectuals, thereby exploiting and misdirecting the masses, even ruining them.
Zooming from the middle of the 1970s to 2022, we might get an idea of what Schelsky had in mind:
The state-sponsored education system in many countries is greater than ever, and higher education has become a multi-billion dollar business. The proportion of intellectuals in the population has reached an all-time high.
The propaganda of misery is in full swing. Most People have been put in a state of terror as virus threats, climate change, and overpopulation of the planet are concerned – all allegedly backed by scientific evidence.
Many people expect salvation from the intellectuals: from natural and political scientists, some of which are held in the highest esteem and greatly influence political decision-making.
Schelsky hoped to make a contribution to solving the problem by drawing public attention to the ongoing class warfare as he saw it, and which he felt was not publicly known at the time he was writing.
I think he was right. However, I would add that Schelsky completely overlooked the highly problematic role that the state plays in the problem at hand.
The rise of the priestly dominion of the intellectuals has become possible only because of the existence and relentless expansion of the state (as we know it today).
For it is the state that allows the priestly dominion of the intellectuals to grow basically unchecked, which goes hand in hand with an expansion of state power.
This comes at the expense of liberty and freedom of the productive people who are coerced and exploited to finance it all, who lose their economic and civil liberties, who are basically enslaved.
So what can and must be done?
One could consider trying to convince the empirical economist profession to change course. But that would be lost hope, I think. Because it is fair to assume that most empirical economists have little or no incentive to stop what they are doing.
Be that as it may, I would argue that a good chance remains to successfully challenge and defeat the priestly dominion of the intellectuals as far as the field of economics is concerned.
Modern means of communication, especially social media, make it possible that the target group of the priestly intellectuals – the general public – can be addressed and won over …
… that people’s attention can be diverted from the proclamations and promises of the empirical economists and brought into contact with the insights provided by the logic of human action.
This is the important step, because the logic of human action makes it unmistakably clear that there “prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adapt his actions if he wishes to succeed.”
The logic of human action exposes empirical economics as false. It refutes the idea that economics can be practised meaningfully on the basis of the method of natural sciences. And with that, the breeding ground for false and socially harmful economic theories and policies will be destroyed.
The logic of human action not only appeals to people’s rational minds but also has a good chance of reaching people’s spiritual minds – something that is often overlooked and underappreciated.
By understanding what the logic of human action means (that we as human beings have objectives, which we try to attain by using means, that means are scarce, or that determinism, as applied to man, is a self-contradictory thesis, that man has a free will, etc.), it allows people to align their way of thinking and conduct harmoniously and peacefully with the facts of reality.
The logic of human action helps people understand and appreciate the benefits of economic and social cooperation.
It helps them to find their mental balance – clearing the mind of burdensome and negative thoughts and emotions, replacing them with wisdom, compassion, a positive sense of purpose.
Once all this has been understood, everything else will fall into place:
Most importantly, the state (as we know it today) would be seen for what it really is: a coercive and violet monopoly, an economically and ethically utterly unacceptable institution.
One of its most powerful cheerleaders, namely the profession of the empirical economists, is exposed as a fake priesthood class, stripped of its power. The state (as we know it today) becomes “the emperor that has no clothes” and withers away.
We have to give great credit to Schelsky’s theory. It shows us where we have to direct our efforts if we want to repulse the assault on civilization, to fend off a socialist takeover: and that is to demolish the narrative of the priestly dominion of the intellectuals – of which the empirical economists are an influential subgroup.
This is an important task to be accomplished. For the priestly dominion of the intellectuals appears to be a crucial part of the attempt to subjugate the world’s population, implied by ideas such as the “Great Reset”, the “Great Transformation”, and “Transhumanism”.
If we do not succeed, the chances are rather high that modern societies will develop into the most sinister socialist tyranny the world has ever seen.
Thank you very much for your attention!
Hayek, F. A. v. (1949), The Intellectuals and Socialism, reprinted from The University of Chicago Law Review (Spring 1949), pp. 417–420, 421–423, 425–433.
Hoppe, H.-H. (1995), Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, US Alabama.
Hoppe, H.-H. (1983), Kritik der kausalwissenschaftlichen Sozialforschung. Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung von Soziologie und Ökonomie, Studien zur Sozialwissenschaft, Band 55, Westdeutscher Verlag GmbH, Opladen.
Keynes, J. M. (1936), Keynes (1936), The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Mises, L. v. (1998), Human Action. A Treatise On Economics, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, US Alabama.
Mises, L. v. (1957), Theory and History. An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, US Alabama.
Mises, L. v. (1956), The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, US Alabama.
Polleit, T. (2020), Unverzichtbar für das Denken: Kritik der ökonomischen Erkenntnis, in: Der Antikapitalist. Ein Weltverbesserer, der keiner ist, Finanzbuch Verlag, München, p. 15–26.
Rothbard, M. N. (1973), The Manifesto of Liberty, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, US Alabama.
Schelsky, H. (1975), Die Arbeit tun die anderen. Klassenkampf und Priesterherrschaft der Intellektuellen, Westdeutscher Verlag GmbH, Opladen.
Schumpeter, J. A. (1942), Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London.
Sowell, T. (2011), Intellectuals and Society, revised and enlarged edition, Basic Books, New York.
Sorel, G. (1915), Reflections On Violence, (transl. by T. E. Hulme), George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.
 Keynes (1936), The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, p. 383.
 Mises (1957), Theory and History, p. 187–188.
 See Hoppe (1983), Kritik der kausalwissenschaftlichen Sozialforschung
 Rothbard (1973), The Manifesto of Liberty, p. 67.
 Sowell (2011), Intellectuals and Society, p. 521.
 Sorel, G. (1915), Reflections On Violence, p. 183.
 Schumpeter (1944), Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p. 152
 Ibid, p. 153.
 Ibid, p. 153.
 Ibid, p. 153.
 Ibid, p. 153.
 Ibid, p. 154.
 Ibid, p. 154.
 Ibid, p. 154.
 Hayek (1949), The intellectuals and socialism, p. 371.
 Ibid, p. 371.
 Mises (1956), The Anticapitalist Mentality, p. 16.
 Ibid, p. 17.
 The author thanks Mr Andy Duncan for the translation of Schelsky’s book title into English.
 See Schelsky (1975), Die Arbeit tun die anderen, p. 49 ff.
 Schelsky (1975), Die Arbeit tun die anderen, p. 69 ff.
 Ibid, p. 131 ff.
 Ibid, p. 193 ff.
 Ibid, p. 56 and p. 107 ff.
 Ibid, p. 225 ff. and p. 241 ff.
 Ibid, p. 72–75.
 Ibid, p. 491–504.
 See Hoppe (1995), Economic Science and the Austrian Method; also Polleit (2020), Unverzichtbar für das Denken.
 “Vor allem im Westen äußern sich diese Bestrebungen im Protest der Jugend und den sich damit verbündeten Herrschaftsansprüchen der Intellektuellen gegen die vorhandene Ordnung der Gesellschaft und deren Praxis des sozialen Wandels.“ Schelsky (1975), Die Arbeit tun die anderen, p. 13.
 Mises (1998), Human Action, p. 2.
 See Schelsky (1975), Die Arbeit tun die anderen, p. 80–84.