Noam Chomsky, one of the 20th century’s greatest public intellectuals and a man who is offered a bodyguard when he speaks on US campuses, once poured scorn on the belief that it is the task of the public intellectual to ‘speak truth to power’. For one thing, Chomsky pointed out, power knows the truth anyway. Let’s not be so excessively charitable as to imagine that our rulers stumble around in a fog of mystification, honestly believing that, say, the war in Iraq is humanely motivated, or that British Intelligence really doesn’t engage in systematic torture.
On the contrary, the powers that determine our destiny know very well what they are up to most of the time, and continue to get up to it even though they are aware that it is morally shabby or outrageously indefensible. If it isn’t the job of the left to put them straight, it’s partly because we have better things to do, and partly because they don’t need it in any case. Besides, you don’t bring about major political change simply by changing people’s minds. It’s their interests that need to be assailed, not their opinions.
For another thing, Chomsky argued, it isn’t the rulers who need the truth, so much as those they lord it over. The role of the intellectual left is to service the dominated, not the dominators. The point, Marx commented, is not to understand the world but to change it; but nobody has ever changed a world they didn’t understand, and this is where intellectuals have a role to play. Or, if you like, the universities.
At the moment, however, there are remarkably few intellectuals hanging around universities. There are people called academics, but that’s different. Academics spend their lives researching such momentous questions as the vaginal system of the flea (the title of a Cambridge PhD thesis I once spotted); intellectuals have the rather more arduous job of bringing ideas to bear on society as a whole. And universities, once upon a time, were where they were to be found in considerable numbers.
The absence of intellectuals
If they are to be found there much less these days, it is partly because the number of public intellectuals on the left has notably declined. A group of them, including Jürgen Habermas, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, have either defected to the political right in the wake of 9/11 or become besotted with the ‘Free World’. No militant younger generation has replaced the likes of E P Thompson and Raymond Williams, Edward Said and Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Hannah Arendt.
Yet the problem is not just that the intellectual left is out of favour, compared to the years in the late 1960s and 1970s when there was a thriving socialist and feminist intellectual culture in these islands. This didn’t mean that all students back then were card-carrying Marxists or feminists; it just meant that these ideas made a kind of everyday cultural sense, enjoyed a kind of general currency, as Darwinism did in Victorian times. The real problem today is that universities have largely ceased to play their classical role as sources of critique.
There simply isn’t sufficient daylight between them and society as a whole for them to do so. Universities can’t get critical leverage in a situation of which they have become an integrated part, any more than a Picasso hanging in the lobby of the Chemical Bank can make an implicit comment on finance capitalism. By and large, academic institutions have shifted from being the accusers of corporate capitalism to being its accomplices. They are intellectual Tescos, churning out a commodity known as graduates rather than greengroceries.
Managerialising the mind
The free play of the mind has been managerialised. Holding our way of life to account has yielded to accountancy. The logic of the commodity has now penetrated into the sphere of human needs and nurture, breeding pathological symptoms there. In universities, as in transnational corporations, a largely disaffected labour force confronts a finance-obsessed managerial elite.
Utility is now the touchstone of reality, in which case one might as well give up reading Macbeth: the witches’ cursing simply can’t be quantified. One can foresee the future of this situation easily enough. Before too long, academics will be offering students a menu: £80 for their most world-shaking insights; £45 for some bright but not brilliant stuff; £15 for a standard range of ideas. As far as marking essays goes, a fiver for each comment doesn’t seem too excessive. Eagerly anticipating these developments, I already have a slot on my office door into which students must insert a pound coin simply to gain admission. Since they can’t afford to buy books, I have launched a rather profitable little lending scheme.
Whereas critique assesses actuality in the light of possibility, measuring the indicative by the yardstick of the subjunctive, the ambition of advanced capitalism is not simply to combat radical ideas, or even to discredit them. It is to abolish the very notion that there could be a serious alternative to the present.
Its task, in brief, is to annihilate that perilous power known as the imagination. The past is a narrative of unbroken progress from the mollusc to monopoly capitalism, destined in the fullness of time to give birth to that avatar of the World-Spirit known as Gordon Brown. The future is simply the present plus more options. The apogee of history is the free market. It was for this that the ancient Greeks wrangled and the Levellers revolted.
When universities become incorporated, the role of the critical intellectual tends to shift outside the college walls to the writers and artists. It is they who are landed with the unenviable role of acting as the custodian of humane values in a social order that tips its hat to such values in theory while flouting them in practice. Here, too, however, there is a serious problem. Writers and artists can be relied on to be militant and robust in defence of individual freedom and civil liberties. That, after all, is the very air they breathe as professionals. Yet such a politics has its limits – it cannot really push beyond a very middle-class English liberalism.
Novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan may be vociferous in their opposition to Islamism, but it is hard to imagine any of them speaking out in defence of, say, council workers’ wages or the right of Iraqis to defend themselves against a brutal invasion. Given their conditions of labour, writers and artists are unlikely to have much sense of collectivity.
There is something self-interested as well as valuable about their pleas for free speech. As self-appointed champions of civilisation against barbarism, they fail to see that a certain barbarism is the flipside of civilisation itself, inseparable from its smooth operation. For every cathedral, a pit of bones; for every artistic masterpiece, human wretchedness and back-breaking toil. Writing novels, like any other form of cultural activity, is made possible only by the labour of others. This isn’t a fact of which Amis and his ilk seem particularly aware.
Universities can’t be changed in isolation. To prise them loose from the grip of late capitalism, we need a society that can afford free education for its young people and academic independence from private interests.
This means transforming the economic system that currently syphons off billions of pounds for shareholder profits, fat-cat salaries, weapons, offshore tax scams, useless commodities and a good deal more.
To achieve such political goals, we need, among other things, a new generation of public intellectuals prepared to do the hard analysis demanded, and to engage in the task of spreading the word abroad. Otherwise, we shall continue with a situation in which, when Martin Amis made his odious comments about harassing and discriminating against innocent Muslims, his close friend Christopher Hitchens wrote that his remarks were simply ‘mind-experiments’, while his other close friend Salman Rushdie claimed that Amis had not spoken of discrimination at all, even though the novelist had spoken of favouring ‘discriminatory stuff’.
It is remarkable how the liberal intelligentsia reveals such a disinterested passion for truth and justice, except when it comes to its mates.
Terry Eagleton was forced to retire from his post as John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at Manchester University in July 2008
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform