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Death of the intellectual

The ambition of advanced capitalism is not simply to combat radical ideas - it is to abolish the very notion that there could be a serious alternative to the present. Terry Eagleton laments the passing of a critical age

October 13, 2008
8 min read

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.

Cultural custodians

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

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