Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones