Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
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
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe