Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Public Intellectual

Chris Dillow reckons that Britain is suffering an intellectual decline, specifically the loss of public intellectuals. What distinguishes this from the usual tales of "dumbing down" is that he correctly identifies the role of political culture (among a number of other factors) in creating this impression: "On both front benches today there are pitifully few people one could call intellectuals (as distinct from intelligent): Jesse Norman and Barry Gardiner are the only ones I can think of immediately. The 60s and 70s, however, gave us Crosland, Foot, Jenkins and Crossman among others. And although Thatcher was considered no great intellectual in her time, she peppered her speeches with references to Hayek, Friedman or Popper". Where I diverge from Chris is that I don't believe the intellectual stuntedness of the contemporary political class is a reflection of a society-wide decline. Rather I would suggest that society is no less intellectual than its has ever been but that political culture has killed off the public intellectual as a role. Before I explain my reasoning, a few words on the trope of declinism, which has traditionally been deployed in respect of economic and geopolitical status.

The narrative of British decline divides into two broad tendencies: those who see it as cultural in origin and those who see it as a product of economic change. In practice, these are often hard to tell apart. For example, the Marxist critique of Perry Andersen and Tom Nairn that the bias towards finance after 1870 was the product of an incomplete bourgeois revolution is not that different to Martin Weiner's famous claim that the persistence of aristocratic values, and their adoption by the new upper-middle class, led to a hostility towards entrepreneurialism. The one sees the problem in the interrupted transmission from the material base to the superstructure, the other in the resilience of the superstructure (i.e. cultural norms) to changes in the base. One way that these two tendencies have been synthesised is in a focus on institutions, such as the City and Whitehall, though this has the obvious flaw that it flips the transmission between base and superstructure to the point where establishment conspiracies start to appear on the horizon.

I have long been sceptical of declinism, seeing it largely as a construct that usefully allows politicians to reconcile the nostalgia of restoration with the great leap forward of reform. Since the late-1970s, this has allowed the Conservative Party to push neoliberal shock treatment while claiming to represent tradition, and it has allowed the Labour Party to make a fetish of the NHS while insisting that the role of reform is to create a dynamic economy (viewed through the prism of declinism, the difference between Blair and Corbyn is slight). The most successful political exponent of declinism was Margaret Thatcher, both in her claims that the UK had been brought low by the postwar consensus (which ignored the relative decline over the preceding century) and that this degradation had been reversed during her time in office. The contradictions inherent in this were obvious in her policy towards Europe: active integration at the economic level and an insistence on exceptionalism at the political. The unreasonable expectations this gave rise to led directly to Brexit.

Chris Dillow's survey of intellectual torpor employs some of the features of British declinism in that it isolates a variety of structural and cultural causes, from changes in academic life to the trivialisation prompted by media outlets chasing consumers. Like many declinist narratives, it also tends to ignore the wider world, assuming there is something peculiarly British about the phenomenon, not least in the centrality given to the BBC (e.g. his contrast of the recent Civilisations series with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation). The disappearance of public intellectuals is just as pronounced in the USA or France, and just as much a topic for anxious debate. My own view is that their disappearance is largely the result of changes in political practice, common to all developed nations in the neoliberal era, with structural factors elsewhere in society playing a marginal role at best. Despite "reforms" and relentless newspaper hostility, the BBC and higher education are both strong enough and capacious enough to accommodate profound thinkers, though there are grounds to believe that they are more wary of supporting unorthodox ones nowadays (i.e. genuinely unorthodox, not the idiot contrarians advocated by self-styled free speech champions).

Simple logic tells us that there is no lump of intelligence in society, but it also tells us that the number of individual intellectual titans must be greater now than in the 70s because of population growth. While cultural change may have encouraged more to swerve an academic career for the riches of the private sector, as Chris suggests (echoing Weiner in reverse), this shouldn't preclude them from becoming public intellectuals. After all, many of the intellectuals of yore were artists or even journalists, like Albert Camus and George Orwell, while today we are not short of tech billionaires whose opinion is sought on everything from public health to the future of democracy. Camus and Orwell also remind us that the role of the public intellectual wasn't merely to challenge the public with unorthodox ideas but to act as a tribune on behalf of the public in challenging politicians (that today's Orwell fanboys are happiest attacking politicians who diverge from the orthodoxy is certainly a symptom of decline). But that was only possible when there was a degree of intellectual equality between the public intellectuals and the politicians and a willingness on the part of the latter to engage in serious debates that they might well lose.

The lack of genuine intellectuals in the House of Commons today isn't so much a mirror of society as the consequence of the professionalisation of political practice since the 1990s, which has reduced the room for variety in political theory just as it has made it harder for a politician to maintain the cultural "hinterland" that Denis Healey made much of. Politics increasingly selects not for intellectual heft or social empathy (the don or the miner) but for ideological flexibility and managerial compliance (consider Tristram Hunt, a don whose political career was marked by the utter absence of original thought). This narrowing of perspective, allied to the relentless "management" of  the news-grid, has been willingly reflected in the editorial choices of programmes such as Today and Question Time, giving the impression that both politicians and public are thick. When a Newsnight presenter announces that they can't get a minister to appear, the "theatrical moment" isn't about political cowardice, or the lack of consequentiality for non-cooperation, but the programme's ongoing struggle to imagine politics outside the Westminster frame.

To return to the trope of declinism, the public intellectual was a historically-specific feature of political practice, and thus part of the analogous base, rather than an expression of cultural values and thus a phenomenon of the analogous superstructure. Her disappearance does not indicate a general decline in society's intellect but her redundancy within the political field. Where once politicians looked to culture for inspiration and a bracing scepticism, they now see photo opportunities and a "world-leading industry" (another exemplar of decline supposedly reversed). The years between Britpop and the 2012 Olympics were when the public intellectual became extinct. Rather than intellectuals arguing on behalf of the public, politicians prefer "thought-leaders" or "solutioneers" who can diagnose the failings of society and suggest technocratic remedies. The fundamental problem is that politics has become too powerful in determining the public intellectual climate. Insofar as we are witnessing dumbing-down, it is in the sense that political discourse has been reduced to managerialist pabulum and too much of the media are supportively echoing its degraded vocabulary.


  1. Ben Philliskirk9 May 2018 at 09:26

    I think a major factor has been the evolution of the 'quality' media in essentially contradictory directions. While they have sought to reinforce an agenda of managerial competence and technocratic efficiency on the one hand, they have also been deliberately trolling many of their viewers/readers by broadcasting controversial figures for the sake of 'entertainment'.

    As a result, they have created an environment that appears irrational, as an almost perfect form of society coming under threat from malign ideas and forces. Because more sober yet radical voices are more or less excluded from the mainstream, our current political and socio-economic problems have been free from genuine analysis and debate and seem inexplicable. Thus, in the end, the media has given up an 'educational' or investigational role and slipped into a kind of moral paternalism, one it obviously thinks suits it best.

    1. I think that's true. "Entertaining" columnists used to offer an off-beat view of the world but now increasingly rely on simple, if amusing, invective. There's an obvious generational divide between, say, Ian Jack and Marina Hyde.

      The decline of the public intellectual has also meant that political commentary has increasingly resorted to the dismissive, hence parliamentary sketch writers have become comedians (the legacy of Simon Hoggart).

      There is also a vogue for contrarian trolling, as you note, that inevitably drifts towards conspiracism and bigotry (hard to remember, but Melanie Phillips used to write dull but worthy pieces on social policy).