September 30, 2009
Or that should be – what is (or should be) the role of the left intellectual as (left) intellectual?
This isn’t exhaustive – for instance, I’m not talking about literary or generally artistic production, which can be thoroughly political, or politically informed. And I’m not talking about, say, government figures whose intellectual work informs the policy decisions they make, or activists whose intellectual work informs their activism – I’m only really talking about intellectual product as intellectual product. I’m also not talking about polemicising or propaganda work, even though that’s clearly one of the more significant ways in which intellectuals (aim to) ‘intervene’ politically, as intellectuals – and even though there’s not a very clean break between propagandistic and non-propagandistic intellectual production, often. I also don’t have much interest or investment in the category or class ‘intellectuals’, if such a class exists. I’m meaning to talk about intellectual work – basically written theoretical or analytical work – and to the extent that people are producing such work, they are intellectuals in the relevant sense, irrespective of whether they belong to a particular milieu of textual producers, say. I’ll add some further caveats at the end. I should also say that this probably applies to any intellectual work that’s oriented in some way towards the transformation of society, but I’ll stick with ‘left’ because that’s what I’m interested in. (My sense of ‘left’ probably maps fairly closely onto ‘communist’, but it needn’t for what I’m saying.) I’m writing this mainly to clarify what I want to be doing and aim to do in my own intellectual output.
It seems to me that there are various roles that intellectual or theoretical work can play, if it’s oriented in some sense towards political, social and economic transformation.
1) The analysis of society as it currently exists and functions.
2) The proposal of alternative social, political or institutional forms.
3) Proposals regarding how best to get from A (society as it currently exists) to B (proposed alternative(s)).
For the sake of brevity I’ll call (3) analysis related to organisational (and/or policy) questions, even though that’s a bit loose and narrow (and the two things aren’t at all the same).
W/r/t (3) again, there’s clearly a (varying) degree of overlap with (2), because the forms that we decide or argue can best effect social transformation are themselves part of society, and in different kinds of political organising (for instance) we are already effecting some degree of social change. And there’s often a large sense in which the organisational or institutional structures we decide on in order to try to effect change are chosen to a large extent based on the degree to which they resemble, or already are, a desired political goal. There’s a big overlap between (2) and (3), often, even if they’re rarely identical.
Also (3) can often in practice carry over into or become (2). Choices that were made initially for organisational reasons tend to impact (2), even if that impact wasn’t necessarily an originally desired one.
And (3) will influence (2) to an extent, also, because our sense of what changes are ultimately achievable, politically, will often influence what political proposals we focus on developing and articulating.
There’s much less overlap between (1) and (2), but (1) can influence (2) (and (3)) in a big way. Our understanding of what needs to change, in society – what a better society would be – is going to be massively influenced by our understanding of how our present society functions.
So although I don’t think there’s any real hierachy here, I also think that (3) – questions of political organisation (or policy-making) are always obviously going to be influenced by (2), and that (2) is always going to be influenced to a large extent by (1).
Now I might as well mention some other roles intellectuals play.
4) The critique of other intellectual product. (This is almost always going to involve some proposed or implicit alternative, but it can also be fairly free-floating – the proposed alternative [whether it relates to (1) or (2) or (3) or (other)] somewhat implicit or ill-defined.)
5) Persuasion. (For instance, articulating already-existing ideas clearly or resonantly.) (Or indeed persuading in other ways, through deception say – but I’m not so interested in that for now.)
6) Finding out and disseminating information. (This is probably subsumed within roles already mentioned.)
Then I guess maybe finally:
7) ‘Rallying the troops’ (let’s call it). I.e. strengthening or validating a community that’s taken to have political worth.
I’m saying this mainly because I want to get a bit clearer on what my goals in my own intellectual output are. I believe them to be basically (1) and (2). (That doesn’t mean that (1) and (2) are what I’ve focussed on up till now, or that they’re all I’m interested in – I’m saying I want my intellectual output to be principally oriented towards these things.) That also means that I want to articulate (in this post) what I believe to be true: that it’s largely tenable to focus principally on (1) and (2) (albeit always with some overlap with other things I’ve mentioned), as an intellectual project; and I also want to briefly articulate what I take (1) and (2) to involve.
(1), the analysis of society as it currently exists and functions, is, in my opinion, in the first place a scientific endeavour – a social-scientific endeavour. I think it’s both tenable and accurate to draw a strong distinction between positive and normative economics (and social theory/analysis).
I think this issue gets confused sometimes, partly because a lot of the people who aim to draw a strong distinction between positive and normative economics (/social theory) [in economics Milton Friedman is perhaps the most celebrated example] simply draw the distinction badly, often for ideological reasons, sometimes simply through confusion, and this makes it look like economics or social theory are intrinsically ideological endeavours, in one sense or another. I think that’s true of a lot of the empirically-existing disciplinary spaces, but I don’t think it’s true of economics/social theory as scientific projects, in principle. Basically, one’s analysis can simply be right or wrong, no matter one’s political commitments.
I also think it’s possible to a large extent to separate out analytic and normative judgements based on social/economic analysis. Perhaps I should have included an additional category in the original list:
1) The descriptive analysis of society as it currently exists and functions. (How does society actually work?)
1B) The normative analysis of society as it currently exists and functions. (What’s good and bad, what do we like and dislike about present society?)
1C) What do we think should be gotten rid of or changed in current society?
Which in turn can lead to:
2) The proposal of alternative social, political or institutional forms. (What should we change current society into?)
(1) would be the scientific bit of the analysis, (1B) and (1C) are thoroughly political (as analysis); but neither on their own lead to (2), which is I think really important. As in – (2) is really important, and it’s also important to note that none of the (1) intellectual activities themselves lead to (2). I don’t think a diagnosis of the problems with actually-existing society is in principle or in general enough to orient politics towards anything other than angry & inchoate dissent. (And I think it can often though not always help politics to be not simply reactive – not simply driven by condemnation of something, or anger or fear at it, but also oriented towards a reasonably coherently articulated alternative or set of alternatives – even if there’s lots of dispute about what alternatives are preferable.)
W/r/t (2), then – the proposal of alternative social, political or institutional forms – this strikes me as an extremely important thing that left intellectuals can do, as intellectuals.
I’m unclear just how closely related (2) and (3) are – this probably has more to do with the generality/vagueness of my category (3) than anything. A lot of actual political proposals are going to sort of implictly or explicitly carry with them certain organisational imperatives, if they’re going to be achieved. Even so, I’m pretty convinced that it makes sense to attend to (2) without necessarily attending to (3), a fair bit of the time.
Another reason that I’m prepared to downplay (3), with regard to the work of intellectuals as intellectuals, is that I’m not convinced that (3) (unlike, in my opinion (1) and (2)) is always best addressed by intellectuals as intellectuals. Clearly there’s a whole lot of important intellectual work to be done in relation to (3) – and I may be muddying my original insistence that I’m not talking about intellectuals a a class dedicated to intellectual production here (I don’t think I am that much, but I see the problem). But my thought is that discussion of organisational questions is far more closely tied to political practice than are simple analysis of current society or proposal of alternatives. I’m conscious of the extent to which adequate analysis and ideas of alternatives are in fact often prompted by concrete political engagement – but I think there’s probably something here.
I suppose I feel that two of the main functions that intellectuals as intellectuals can play in terms of aiding political organisation, are 1) producing useful analysis, that resonates with and makes sense of people’s experience, in a way that can potentially be politically helpful; and 2) providing well-thought out alternatives or political goals than can help with political mobilisation. Actual intellectual discussion of organisational questions, if it isn’t prompted by actual organisational problems, often seems sort of redundant, to me. Though clearly it’s still often important.
The context of all this, in terms of why I’m writing it, is a few things I’ve been reading and thinking about recently.
First of all, a few pieces by and about a prominent leftist intellectual, who I won’t bother naming just because I just don’t want to get into a fight about the worth of that intellectual’s work, and it’s anyway sort of irrelevant to my point whether I’m right in my assessment of this work. It struck me, anyway, that this intellectual product does neither (1) nor (2) nor (3). It does a fair bit of (4) and – in my opinion- a whole lot of (7). But it’s my opinion that, although these things can be valuable, they’re really secondary or less important in terms of the role of the left intellectual than (1) or (2) (or indeed (3)).
Another thing, in terms of me writing the post, was thinking about the political outcomes so far of the economic crisis. It seems to me that the crisis has been an absolute disaster for the left – and that quite a lot of people on the left haven’t really adequately recognised what a disaster it’s been. I think I’ll quote from a recent post by Doug Henwood here:
I’m no fan of economic crises as offering opportunities for political transformation—they could as easily, maybe more easily, break to the right as to the left, and they cause lots of suffering—but I had hoped that the near-meltdown of the financial system might lead to new ways of seeing, thinking, talking. Not yet.
When I started blogging (and even though one of my earliest posts quoted that Keynes line about practical men being under the influence of intellectual scribblers of a few years back) I think I was a lot more sceptical about the potential political influence of intellectual work than I am now. It seemed to me then, I think, that intellectual movements were to a large extent expressive of social movements – that, although it may appear that intellectual work influenced political outcomes, the influence was really, generally the other way around.
I now think that that was sort of a category error. Intellectual work is no less part of a society’s social relations than anything else. We’re swept along by the currents of history – but we’re no more or less swept as intellectuals than we are as social actors in other roles. The social actors who engage in ‘real’, as opposed to ‘merely intellectual’, activities are no more free of social determinants than those social actors playing the role of intellectual producers. Social change is a product of the sum of our social actions – and I don’t see any reason why intellectuals, as intellectuals, should be less able to participate in that change than anbody else, in other roles.
But what that participation consists in depends what the function of the role is.
This concluision is a bit peremptory. But what’s struck me, in responses to the economic crisis, is the extent to which things have carried on as normal. I’m sure this will change eventually – but I think the left has already blown its chance to be the decisive influence on that change. When we think of early structural transformations of capitalism, there were ready-made intellectual frameworks ready to assume the role of guiding economic activity – however disastrously. In the late seventies and early eighties neoliberalism was primed and ready to go. The left (which was largely statist and technocratic) had no ready political response to the micro turn. After the second world war Keynesianism was already set up and ticking along nicely. The Russian revolution simply wouldn’t have happened as it did were there not a whole lot of intellectual work somewhere in the background. Etc.
I’m not trying to say anything terribly dramatic with this. I’m, I guess, trying to say two things.
Firstly: if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals for social, political and economic alternatives. And I think there’s a paucity of these – especially (2) – in a lot of contemporary left intellectual work.
Secondly: whether or not I’m right about the above, (1) and (2) are what I want and aim to do.
UPDATE: More thoughts, and a modification, in the comment thread below.
[Edited slightly for clarity – thanks for the feedback.]