What is the role of the left intellectual?

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?)

Which implies:

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.]

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18 Responses to “What is the role of the left intellectual?”

  1. duncan Says:

    NB: I’m unhappy with my discussion of (3) in the above (organisational questions). One of the things I’m aiming to say here is that intellectuals, as intellectuals, can and should focus on questions of political and social modes of organisation (possible institutions or possible alternative forms of social activity) that are not in any way immediately achievable, and that therefore do not have any direct bearing on immediate political questions or actions. I think that this is one of the things that intellectuals are good for, as it were. I think it’s a good idea, for a number of reasons (it can contribute to the orientation of actual political action; it can provide resources if and when ability to implement substantial social change is achieved), for intellectuals to get quite ‘concrete’ in these necessarily hypothetical and non-immediately-practicable discussions. I don’t think there’s nearly enough ‘concrete’ discussion of alternative institutions, etc., of this kind.

    That said, I don’t think I do a great job, in the post above, of discussing the relation between this kind of intellectual work, and intellectual and/or practical work related to more immediate political possibilities, goals, etc. This may be because I don’t adequately distinguish the two – i.e. I don’t adequately distinguish intellectual work oriented toward the discussion and achievement of reasonably immediate goals and projects, versus intellectual work that is more distant from anything that’s even in principle immediately achievable – even if achieving this stuff is the ultimate aim (and even if there’s debate, as there always is, over what the ultimate aim(s) of immediate political endeavour ought to be).

    Not adequately distinguishing those two things, however, also means that I don’t adequately discuss the extent to which they’re not very easy to distinguish. They’re quite closely connected, in some ways – they feed and bleed into each other. I don’t want, I don’t think, to suggest that discussion of alternative social forms can take place ‘in a void’, dissociated from immediate political questions of what kind of activist, trade unionist, (reformist, vanguard-building, etc.) political practices should be engaged in. That’s got to be wrong.

    That said, I want (this is one of the things I’m trying to do in the post) to make quite a strong case for intellectual discussion and proposals that are fairly dissociated from immediate practical questions. Again – this is one of the things that intellectuals, as intellectuals, are good for.

  2. Nate Says:

    hi Duncan,

    This is really interesting, and something I wonder about a lot. I’m going to think more on this and get back to you when I can. Also want to say, this part of your clarification is really helpful – “I don’t want, I don’t think, to suggest that discussion of alternative social forms can take place ‘in a void’, dissociated from immediate political questions of what kind of activist, trade unionist, (reformist, vanguard-building, etc.) political practices should be engaged in.”

    take care,
    Nate

  3. Carl Says:

    Hey Duncan, this is very interesting stuff, and I think you’ve nailed some of the key distinctions. For a different, ethnographic breakdown of roles in protest movements I wonder if you’ve seen Anthro Goggles.

    Not surprisingly, these questions were big during the 60’s and their aftermath, as left intellectuals first leapt to theorize the spontaneous revolution in progress, then took stock and looked for more intentional revolutionary praxis once it fizzled. The field might loosely be called ‘intelligentsia studies’ and includes things like the Telos crowd, the mass rediscovery of Gramsci (esp. the stuff on the intellectuals and the ‘modern Prince’ in the prison notebooks), Venturi’s massive study of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia, and Gouldner’s stuff on intellectuals and the ‘new class’. Eventually of course that energy drained into the swamps of poststructuralism, cultural studies and identity politics.

    Although pragmatically I share your sense of possible and valuable intellectual praxis, I’m not actually convinced that your examples of classical liberalism, keynesianism and neoliberalism are well described. I’d say that in each case the theoretical apparati available to be sucked into the gaping voids of transitional situations were unrealistic and ill-fitting, and ended up being vulgarized and bricolaged pretty severely on the fly as rough-and-ready kludges. In retrospect of course this all got cleaned up to look seamless and inevitable, but my point is that when situations create needs for new covering theories it’s not that there’s a perfect one all set to go that matters. How ‘that’ theory ends up getting selected is really lots of what Marx is on about, and it has something to do with both exhaustion of the old and ripeness of the new (for Marx theory mostly follows behind, of course, the owl of Minerva and all that).

    I see no reason to think that capitalism is exhausted. In the scheme of things the current crisis is pretty ordinary and not that bad, as we’re finding out. The bourgeoisie muddled along in the bosom of feudalism for hundreds of years before their moments came, and not for want of an oppositional spirit or house intellectuals.

    Just dashing this off, so careful not to pull too hard on the loose ends or the whole thing will unravel. And speaking of Marx, I beg forgiveness that I’ve been a very bad man about keeping up with the Group of 25, but I excuse myself that I’ve been an even worse man about getting on top of the paper I’m supposed to do for Rethinking Marxism….

  4. roger Says:

    Duncan, myself, I find it useful, first, to ask where intellectuals are playing the role of intellectual. And I’d say that there is a dualism between, on the one hand, the institution, and on the other hand, the adventure. Often these domains overlap: Walter Benjamin, on the one hand, played his role larger in the gaps between institutions – university, journalism – and thus within the domain of adventure, but he waa forever dependent on these institutions as well.

    With that in mind, certain intellectual trajectories seem very much driven by adventure – like Malcolm X, who received the classic nineteenth century education – in prison – in the twentieth century, and could not stick with the institutions he adopted. In so many cases – Sartre, for instance, Victor Serge, etc. – the adventurer’s discomfort in those norms that adhere in institutions seem as much a cause of their dissents as ‘theoretical’ disputes. Whereas someone like Rosa Luxemberg, or – much differently – Martin Luther King were not at all attracted to the domain of adventure.

  5. roger Says:

    ps – oops, I am sort of responding, above, to your comment:

    “One of the things I’m aiming to say here is that intellectuals, as intellectuals, can and should focus on questions of political and social modes of organisation (possible institutions or possible alternative forms of social activity) that are not in any way immediately achievable, and that therefore do not have any direct bearing on immediate political questions or actions.”

  6. Nate Says:

    hi Duncan,
    On the go as usual, but I had a thought I wanted to toss up here before I forget it. w/r/t the 2 points under your “firstly” thing at the end, I think it’s important to note that the efficacy of these intellectual products are contextual and the most momentous are often pretty late after their publication (I don’t know much about the history of the publication and reception of Marx’s work and the 1st and 2nd international and all that – one of many things I keep meaning to learn about – but with the little I do know I think it’s safe to say that Marx didn’t really become Marx [in the sense that he later was, you know, like, MARX!!!, not sure how to put that better] until pretty late in his life if at all during his life [sort of how, I’m told, Van Gogh mainly became VAN GOGH posthumuously]); and also I think it’s important to note that the criteria for evaluation of both 1 and 2 are not primarily dictated by intellectuals but come from elsewhere. (I’m also still not sure what to make of that term as you’re using it, more on that when I get more time.)

    cheers,
    Nate


  7. […] Some recent blog posts on the subject that you good people (both of you) might want to read. First, Duncan’s typology of the role of left intellectuals. Second, these three posts about, in a sense, the degree to which […]

  8. duncan Says:

    Thanks guys. [huge comment, just to warn you.] [Oh! And this only addresses Carl and Nate’s first comment. Sorry, Roger & Nate #2 – just saw yours and will reply later.]

    Nate – yeah, clearly I’m thinking this stuff through, and I think I’m vacillating to a degree. There are basically two kinds of left intellectual practice I want to be critical of here – even though I think they can both be valuable. (i.e. it’s largely a criticism of the prominence of these kinds of intellectual work versus the relative absence of the kind of stuff I’d prefer to see, than it is a global criticism). On the one hand I’m frustrated by the kind of ‘High Theory’ stuff that uses big political rhetoric without actually talking much if at all about concrete goals/projects. On the other hand – and probably more contentiously (this is where the vacillation comes from) – I’m also frustrated by theoretical or intellectual moves that direct intellectual discussion towards organisational questions, at the expense of discussion of, say, alternative institutional forms. Organisational questions are really important. What frustrates me is the weighting.

    [I’ve cut some rambling and easily-inferred stuff from my reply here…] I think there’s something a bit symptomatic, in some this latter, w/r/t a lack of lucidly articulated goals, for large swathes of the left? Again, I don’t want to be too global or simplistic. But, like – if a better society is possible, we should be able to give a reasonably detailed account of some of the forms a better society might take, no? I mean – I know there are people doing this, but I wish more people were doing it – and I want to be doing it myself (which I’m not, at present, to be clear.) [To use the categories of the original post – I’ve been working reasonably hard at (1), but haven’t done any serious work on (2).]

    Take an extreme example: let’s say there’s a communist revolution. In the UK, or in the US, or wherever, it doesn’t matter (except in the ways it does matter, which are substantial but obvious…) Or let’s say a communist government is democratically elected. [I don’t think either of these things are on the cards in the foreseeable future, to be clear. But even so.] What then? Surely there are actual concrete political and institutional changes we want to make, to build a better society. Right? What are they? [This isn’t a challenge, I’m just thinking aloud.] There’s a fair amount of (radical) left intellectual work going on at the moment (or at least work that presents itself as radical left) – and very little of it seems to be oriented to answering this sort of fairly basic question. And I don’t think the articulation of such goals only has relevance if we assume the gaining-power of a communist (or radical left) government – this stuff can influence broader social debates, and have positive effects in that respect. (Which can in turn likely make larger transformations more feasible, imo. I don’t buy the idea that reformist and revolutionary politics are opposed, the former bleeding strength from the latter.) [My opinion is that the question of revolutionary versus reformist politics is basically a practical one – what’s likely to work, what’s necessary or appropriate, in a given situation, our situation? Further: the smaller the distance that has to be travelled, the more likely a transition is to succeed – which is an argument for the value of reformism, but not therefore an argument against revolution.]

    All this isn’t very clear and there’s more I should say that would probably modify the above. But maybe that’s enough to give a sense.

    [To take a more concrete example, which I (too) need to study properly: imo the Russian revolution was basically a catastrophe, in the end. Why? Heaps of reasons. But one important reason is that the Bolsheviks really didn’t have an adequate set of policies to implement, didn’t have a well-enough-thought-out set of actual economic and political changes they wanted to make. I’m really sick of this happening. (And yeah, there were plenty of other forces at play. But this was one of them.)]

    [Or to take a more abstract example – let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we want something like syndicalism. One can implement this locally – but any given set of producing-organisations can operate in a very egalitarian and democratic way at this local level, and still be subject to larger economic forces that will tend to re-orient them towards capitalist modes of production (imo). Given the way the market and credit systems function, this is probably gonna happen – given the hard power of capitalist states, also. Same for nation states with would-be-egalitarian policies. The way the World Bank or IMF operate has a high change of fucking up any local (in whatever sense) attempt at non-capitalist politics. (As does, again, the hard power of capitalist governments – coups, invasions, sanctions, all the familiar rest.) This isn’t a quasi-metaphysical problem of real subsumption or something – it’s just about institutional structures. Is there a way to avoid this, at a local level? If not, what larger changes need to be made, for the more local changes to persist and succeed? Let’s say we (i.e. people with similar political goals to ours) have a chance to transform – or to destroy and replace – aspects of the current system of international credit, via control of the IMF or the World Bank, for instance. (Someone’s going to be influencing these institutions, so it’s not completely crazy to think that those people might at some point be people sympathetic to our political goals. It’s a stretch, given current conditions, but it’s something that should be thought about, imo.) What would this transformation actually look like? What alternative system(s) would be better? What else would have to be changed to make changes at this node of the network (so to speak) feasible, capable of having the desired effects? I wish more people were asking (and answering) these questions in a reasonably concrete way.]

    [NB: Saying this kind of thing can elicit from people critical of anti-capitalist politics various sorts of TINA responses. (Like: you’re not in practice going to be able to get a better system – which strikes me as truly implausible. Or: you’re not in practice going to be able to get that kind of power – which strikes me as much more plausible, but hardly a conversation-stopper. Lots of really dramatic changes, some of them for the better, have happened in history.)]

    None of this is me being critical of more direct political engagement, activism, movement-building – obviously, obviously. And any kind of political proposal, however distant it may be from anything that can be implemented now on the ground, is going to be informed by what’s happening on the ground. But, at the same time, there are large questions that can’t be answered in any obvious way by inferring or developing their answers from direct political experience, imo. [I mean, not in a straightforward way. In the sense that we’re all children of our time, absolutely – political proposals are going to be entirely derived from personal experience. But we know this.] Point is: I wish intellectuals – who, after all, often deal in abstractions, in stuff that isn’t concrete or pressing right this moment – would pay more attention to these kind of things. Because this is one of the things that intellectuals are actually good for. (I wish I could articulate this better.)

    That said, I also think that political practice (and everyday life) as a way of inculcating and informing sensibilities is a big thing. So either I’m vacillating, or my position is nuanced – I’m not completely sure which.

    Okay…

    Carl – thank you. I’d agree that my examples aren’t necessarily well chosen (same goes for the above, no doubt) – they’re pretty hasty. And I agree with this entirely:

    I’d say that in each case the theoretical apparati available to be sucked into the gaping voids of transitional situations were unrealistic and ill-fitting, and ended up being vulgarized and bricolaged pretty severely on the fly as rough-and-ready kludges. In retrospect of course this all got cleaned up to look seamless and inevitable, but my point is that when situations create needs for new covering theories it’s not that there’s a perfect one all set to go that matters.

    This is absolutely right, I think – but it doesn’t diminish the importance of the theoretical & intellectual resources that are sucked into the ‘voids’. ‘Keynesian’ politics doesn’t bear a huge resemblance to Keynes’s own policy preferences; the quasi-libertarian theorists who were sucked up into neoliberalism didn’t get the kind of society they wanted either; etc. etc. But each had an influence, and had an influence in something like the direction they were pushing. When I talk about intellectuals producing suggestions for alternative institutional structures, I’m not (I don’t think) talking about the masterplan blue-print, all laid out and waiting to go. What intellectuals do, or can do, is produce resources that are available to political actors (sometimes those political actors will be the very same intellectuals: Keynes; Lenin; Hilferding; whoever. But mostly not.) Politics is politics – it’ll always be messy, often violent, and it’s filled with contradictory demands. But it’s always going to be helpful to have actual concrete proposals on the table. If a political movement is serious about actually wanting to change society (rather than simply furious at the way society currently is – which is of course more than legitimate – it’s the source of almost all emancipatory politics) it, or some of its members, should be prepared to talk about this stuff. (Or the intellectual position could simply be posturing. But that’s bad.)

    [I’ve cut a long rant about Obama and Larry Summers here. Hugely irrelevant. I’m just mentioning it to explain the leap in subject-matter.]

    There’s just no credible mainstream left economics. None. This needn’t be so. In the thirties you had heaps of Marxists in actual government positions. That’s not because economics as a discipline has Whiggishly moved on to a higher plane. It’s because the left lost the intellectual terrain – lost the intellectual fight, not w/r/t the content of the intellectual fight, but w/r/t the actual fight. This needs to and can be changed. (Doesn’t have to be self-identified Marxists who end up with influence – I couldn’t care less about the label. I just mean people with humane and effective would-be large-scale transformative politics.) Arguments need to be made, proposals need to be laid out. I’m really frustrated by the way so many left intellectuals effectively self-ghettoise, by failing to do intellectual work in the areas where intellectual work has most impact. [Again, large social forces, transformations of the academy (greater disciplinarisation), assaults on left political economy by the people holding the purse strings, etc. But seriously – we could do better, no?]]

    How ‘that’ theory ends up getting selected is really lots of what Marx is on about, and it has something to do with both exhaustion of the old and ripeness of the new

    Yes, absolutely. But history’s full of contingencies. And if the Owl of Minerva is too fast asleep, ain’t no dusk that’s gonna make any difference.

    I see no reason to think that capitalism is exhausted.

    No, I don’t either – capitalism’s doing just fine. But I don’t think capitalism needs to implode of its own volition before an alternative society can be constructed. I don’t think Marx thought that either (the Marx of Capital I mean). Capital‘s theory of crisis is basically cyclical, rather than apocalyptic. But there are still opportunities for positive transformation all over the place. We (the left) happen to have missed a really big one, these last couple years, is all.

    [I had a huge discussion of the common roots of identity politics and neoliberalism here, which basically aimed to draw out the connections while defending various forms of identity politics – but it really didn’t belong in this comment thread.]

    Anyhow, thank you for the comments. I’ll reply to later ones when I’ve got a bit more time.

    Best…

  9. duncan Says:

    Roger – I like your comment but I’m not confident I get where you’re coming from. You’re talking about intellectuals who are oriented to transformation but not to institutional transformation – as in, not principally oriented to proposing concrete changes, because there’s something more nebulous or powerful (or adventurous) than can find expression in institutional proposals? And you’re connecting this to the the social location of the intellectuals in question – a dissatisfaction with the limits of institution-building politics also being bound up with the intellectuals’ refusal to play specific institutional roles? This may not be your point at all – just trying to parse into my more banal formulations.

    In any case, I’m aiming to cast my net less wide in the schema above than the schematisation perhaps makes it seem. I don’t really imagine that the above captures all or maybe even most left intellectual practice. But I’m trying to hone in on some things that I feel are important and that are currently (though not historically) under-represented in left intellectual work. Or at least stuff I want to be doing more of.

    But I may have the wrong end of the stick here. If you wanted to say more I’d be interested?

    Nate – I agree with your comment. Can’t think of much more to say right now… I will (say) if I do (think)…

  10. Carl Says:

    Picking up one thread, in a delirium of sleeplessness so who knows:

    “But I don’t think capitalism needs to implode of its own volition before an alternative society can be constructed. I don’t think Marx thought that either (the Marx of Capital I mean). Capital’s theory of crisis is basically cyclical, rather than apocalyptic. But there are still opportunities for positive transformation all over the place. We (the left) happen to have missed a really big one, these last couple years, is all.”

    Well, what if this crisis model of opportunity is exactly wrong? It’s basically a metaphor of ‘leverage’ – what you want is a crisis to create push. But crisis is when the defenses are up, it’s when the shit’s high and no one wants to make waves. What if the right metaphor is instead ‘space’ – what we want is situations in which there’s room for maneuver; the opportunities are not for either/or conflicts but both/and experiments in regimes of relative abundance where the defenses are down and the stakes are low and will is good and the crisis addicts aren’t in charge.

    Along these lines, re: the defeat-and-despond of the left meme I offer Dave Livingstone’s rejoinder that the left WON the culture wars, WON the social welfare wars, WON the democratic access wars and so on, not to mention the various splashy revolutionary victories. From this perspective the despond is not that we lost but that we won, without the skies opening up and manna falling and y’know, everything being hunky dory. Well, shit. We can carp about how it’s still capitalism and it’s empty and consumerist and unequal and so on, but compared to the 19th century the project is well along and we’re still just as cranky as we ever were. Now this to me seems like a real dilemma for the left; how to come to grips with the terrible disappointment of our success.

    So… sleepy…

  11. roger Says:

    Duncan, I suppose I am saying that one role of the leftist intellectual is to keep the pores of society from closing by refusing the idea that the role is defined by the institiution – my favorite essay about this is Ralph Ellison’s The Little Man at Chehaw Station. This is the sort of existential, anti-instrumentalist role of the intellectual, which I think, by its nature, veers to what you are calling the left.

    However, on the more technical level, I rather disagree with what you say about economics. I think that finally the notion that the massive inequality resulting from the last thirty years of the political economy in the developed states is gaining traction. And further, I’d point to, among others, James Galbraith as an economist on the left who has seen and has been trying to influence the populist moment, which has mostly been abandoned to the right.

    I myself can easily envision a sort of resurgence of an old and not so lefty project – the curbing of the speculative economy. This is a project that, in America, goes back to Theodore Roosevelt. Because the peer to peer shadow financial system has been left intact (which has been the great generator of wealth inequality and the massive shift in resources away from the workers) it doesn’t seem to me to be a bad bet that it will crash hard again, as it is inherently boobytrapped. The idea that this whole sphere needs to be sternly placed in a visible, public forum (which would be a great liberal-left triumph) will, in my opinion, become hard to resist. Similarly, the great burning of the 401 k network in the U.S. – the attempt to extrude into the private sphere the accumulation of wealth necessary to retire on – is still only in its first phase. If the designed tie in between the mass of the population and the speculative sphere deteriorates further, there’s no room on the right for change – only on the left. We are in the odd situation, right now, that certain far right demands – for instance, auditing the Fed – are also lefty demands. Again, I’m speaking of the American situation. But you can see that the right in Europe, which is triumphing politically, is simply working on the margins of a Social Democratic system – Sarkozy, for instance, is no longer sounding off about returning the work week to 40 hours. And in fact, underneath the rhetoric, this has paid off – according to the OECD, over the past 30 years, France is one of the only significant developed economies to have become more equal and have a slightly better index of upward social mobility.

  12. N. Pepperell Says:

    Hey Carl – I don’t want to preempt what Duncan might say, but on this, I’m fairly certain there’s just a simple misunderstanding happening:

    Well, what if this crisis model of opportunity is exactly wrong?

    I took Duncan’s point to be that Marx precisely doesn’t see crisis as a political opportunity one way or another – this was the point of Duncan’s saying that crisis is presented as an essentially “cyclical” phenomenon in Capital – or, to put in back into the more Hegelian terminology Marx uses: crisis is a form of reproduction of capitalism. This hits on the issue that, when Marx talks about “contradiction”, he has a more Hegelian concept in mind – the specific image Marx uses when introducing the concept of crisis for the first time in Capital is taken from Hegel: the image of an ellipse. Spoofing Hegel, Marx says (paraphrasing here because I’m too lazy to grab my text…) that it sounds contradictory to say that an object is simultaneously both drawn to another object and repulsed by it. Yet such a contradictory object is a commonplace in astronomy – and the elliptical orbit is how this contradiction expresses itself in practice. So Marx is quite comfortable with the notion that a “contradictory” object can trundle happily (or unhappily) along, reproducing itself and its constitutive contradictions, without this immanent contradiction pointing in any necessary way toward some sort of resolution.

    I realise there are forms of Marxism that understand all the talk of crisis to be about political opportunity, but I don’t think this is where Marx is coming from (or, more to the point, where Duncan’s assuming he’s coming from). The existence of crises has a certain denaturalising significance for Marx, in that crises reveal particularly clearly that there are “anthropological” – contingent cultural – requirements that must be met in order for material reproduction to take place in capitalist societies. They do this because, at the initial stages of a crisis at least, there is no diminished “material” capacity for producing and distributing goods – and yet production and distribution nevertheless breaks down.

    By pointing to this, Marx can begin reflexively to “ground” his claim that capitalism is a contingent social phenomenon, rather than the historical realisation of the immanent essence of material production per se – he can point to something that everyone has experienced, and claim this experience reveals the arbitrariness and social origins of capitalism.

    There is no direct line from this sort of point, though, to the claim that crisis presents a political opportunity at the specific moment it is unfolding. Whether it presents such an opportunity would depend on any number of other factors that aren’t determined by the existence of the crisis per se.

    I realise this is basically just a tangent to the discussion – apologies for bumping in with Marxology… My point was that I don’t think either Marx or Duncan would have any particular problems with the notion that what you’re looking for is “space”, rather than some sort of historical push or drive – I often use the terminology of “incubation”: what sorts of conditions might make certain kinds of changes more thinkable, more achievable. I don’t think Marx was particularly good in relation to the possibility of incubation (some of his attacks on what he regarded as “utopian” forms of socialism may well have been attacks on some decent incubating spaces, even if there were various theoretical levels where Marx was convinced those spaces misconceived how capitalism was put together). But I don’t think he was oriented to crisis as the lever of historical change – I think his theorisation of crisis plays a very different role in his work than it’s normally seen to play…

    /tangent 🙂

  13. duncan Says:

    Thanks guys

    Carl – on crises yeah, what NP said is what I meant, though my version would’ve been less eloquent. I take something along these lines also to be Doug Henwood’s point in the bit I quoted – I agree with that. On the left’s ‘victory’ – well, you know my views. [Basically: 1) Yeah there have been huge huge achievements. 2) I don’t much like the rhetorical move whereby past left victories are used to attack current left projects. 3) Culture wars, social welfare wars, democratic access wars ain’t in fact won, in all kinds of of ways. (I know I harp on about it, but just look at the US healthcare trainwreck. The situation is not that a left project has been achieved & consolidated, and we’re just grumpy about the non-utopianness of it all. Jeez.) 4) Society’s gonna keep changing whether we like it or not – plus maintaining the status quo is itself an active political project (and can be a really difficult one). Given that political action’s going to take place, it’s important that people push for /better/ action. And various other things I’m sure you already know.]

    Also, I don’t know who Dave Livingstone is, I’m afraid…

    Roger – thanks, that’s clearer to me. I haven’t read the Ellison, maybe I should. Haven’t hardly read Galbraith’s work either – I read his Friedman lecture and his fight with Krugman, but nothing else I think. ( * sigh * – so much to read.)

    it doesn’t seem to me to be a bad bet that it will crash hard again, as it is inherently boobytrapped.

    That sounds right to me, though I haven’t done the research. & you could be right about the speculative economy. I don’t really follow w/r/t 401Ks because I just don’t know enough – apologies. When you say there might be no room on the right for change, you mean something specific, yeah? Because in general I tend to think there’s always more room on the right.

    You’ll have a better sense for this, being both on the ground in the US and properly informed. But from my limited and outsider’s perspective, I’m getting really quite frightened by the grassroots rightist movements that seem to be building there. The popular libertarian streak will probably sap a lot of the political potency out of these movements – I’d be surprised if they turn right-revolutionary, for instance. But it seems to outsider me that there’s potential for some serious violent internal conflict there. The popular politics that the Republicans have so effectively tapped and transmuted into elite-favouring policy over the last 30 years seems to be pulling itself away from the (neoliberal) elite project – and gaining strength. I’m genuinely alarmed by what kind of politics is going to come out the other side of that change: there’s always space for new and exciting forms of fascism, for instance.

    Anyway, you’re right that I’m being hyperbolic when I say there’s no credible mainstream left economics. But truly – the mainstream discipline seems to me to be in a bad way – you’ve written about this as eloquently as anyone. And I’m extremely depressed by the mildness of the swing back towards sanity prompted by the crisis. Somewhere in my drafts folder is a 10,000-word unfinished and unreadable piece on that long Krugman NYT article, and the blogospheric controversies surrounding it. Won’t try to summarise a probably confused & superficial argument – but while the crisis has sapped some credibility from economic analysis that’s on its face insane, it doesn’t seem to have done much more, to me. Bear in mind that I’m quite ignorant. But as an open question – does anyone know of any economist (right or left) (and other than Marx [arguably]) who has adequately incorporated the real functioning of the credit system (including the production of value via lending and devaluation via deleveraging etc.) into the larger macroeconomic picture? Keynesianism, for all its virtues, basically has to fiat its crises, as far as I can tell. Where’s the systemic analysis? [Real question, let me repeat.]

    W/r/t Europe. Yeah – I mean there’s inertia, social democratic policies are in fact popular, the right has to maintain its power by acknowledging that. I’m much more sanguine or much less frightened w/r/t the European situation. On the other hand, marginal change can still do damage, and in the longer term can become not so marginal. Here in the UK we just had the party conferences. New Labour is dead on its feet (as of course you know – and justly). But so Osbourne, our chancellor-to-be stands up and says (in this economic situation exemplarily suited to Keynesian policies) that we all need to tighten our belts, that we’re all in it together, that there’ll be public sector wage freezes, reductions in benefit payments, etc. etc. The crisis, as Henwood suggests, is in various ways breaking to the right – it’s starting to be used, effectively, in a right wing narrative, and this is just ludicrous.

    Also – this may sound like a challenge or something, not meant to be, just curious – how does the cautious optimism I read you as voicing in your comment above tally with the stuff you’ve been saying on your Zona blog – the Aral Sea, etc.?

    Finally – my schematic divisions of left intellectual roles probably sounds like it’s intended to be more encompassing than it is. There’s no way in which I’m hostile to the kind of anti-instrumentalist intellectual passion you talk about. Funny that you mention Benjamin – I actually got into political economy via Benjamin. I loved his work, but felt that some of his political-economic analysis was flawed. Absurdly, I felt that this was something I could reasonably quickly sort out for myself, before re-devoting myself to an intellectual/aesthetic endeavour much closer to the kind of thing you talk about. Instead, of course, the political-economic stuff swallowed me whole, and became a sort of life-project. If I downplay other ‘left’ intellectual possibilities, it’s not because I’m critical of them – it’s because there’s a level of focus and/or suppression involved, in keeping a certain specific set of goals in view.

    Best…

  14. roger Says:

    Duncan, so much to cover! I was more interested in the broad lines of your inquiry, I must admit. But a few points.

    1. First, I think I’m becoming a Pepperellist. Her comment about Marx was on par with everything else at Rough Theory about Marx – above almost everything else I’ve read of contemporary Marxists. So, this is my faction!
    2. You are definitely right that there is a split between the cautious optimism of my reply and what I do on News from the Zona. However, the extreme pessimism I indulge in at the latter goes out, I hope, so that I receive some cautionary optimistic response. Alas, I’ve found that the more pessimistic I become, the less that is challenged. But I suspect that isn’t good for me. I’m not going to be Pollyanna to your Jonah, but I think it is good for companeros – and that is what I feel we are – to challenge each other’s extremer tendencies. One of my disappointments with blogdem is that this doesn’t usually happen – instead of that negative but loving feedback, there is either harsh, insulting feedback (which is dumb) or the encouragement to keep going with one’s weaker, more extreme arguments. Those might actually be your best tendencies, but it is important to suspend one’s own – how to put it? – intellectual glee. This is actually one of the roles of leftist intellectuals, I think!
    3. I was looking at a post of mine at Limited Inc fromm 2002 – days of the tech bust (which I think I’m going to put up at NFZ) and in it I pointed out that the Efficient Markets Hypothesis had been stabbed in the heart. I was wrong – but now, after the second downturn in a decade, I’m seeing the general retreat by everybody from this – which I take to be a good sign!
    4. I guess what we have seen, in the 90s and 00s, is the massive decay of institutional leftism, signalled by the surrender of the left parties to the gobbledy gook Thatcherism of the third way. What this means is that we are in an era when the adventurous left intellectual dominates, and that is not wholly good – viz the pontificating on any and all subjects by Zizek. This is why I gravitate more towards environmentalism, as a potential institutionalizable center for chhanging the entire global economy. This is, of course, a pipe dream, in one way, and an inevitablity, in another – we already know that the defaults for the environmental disasters of the future have been set. The weakness of that movement is that it is still stuck in the consumer mode, when of course it needs to seriously leap to the producer mode.
    5. Hey, also I think this has been an excellent comments thread, and I’ve learned something here. But I do wish you’d publish more often! (although I know how hard it is to find the time).

  15. chabert Says:

    “But as an open question – does anyone know of any economist (right or left) (and other than Marx [arguably]) who has adequately incorporated the real functioning of the credit system (including the production of value via lending and devaluation via deleveraging etc.) into the larger macroeconomic picture? Keynesianism, for all its virtues, basically has to fiat its crises, as far as I can tell. Where’s the systemic analysis? [Real question, let me repeat.]”

    What about Peter Gowan (who recently died), Michael Rafferty, Michael Hudson, Robin Blackburn…?

  16. duncan Says:

    It’s unforgivable for me to have left this hanging – apologies.

    Chabert – thanks for the names, I’ll check them out as and when.

    Roger – thank you for your lovely comment. I want to reply for real, but I just don’t have the head space now. Soon, I hope.

    Best…

  17. duncan Says:

    Roger – huge apologies again for the delay. In sort of random order:

    Yes, I agree about the death throes of the EMH. And yeah, this is a very positive thing. Of course the EMH is so insane that the discipline’s move back to a more plausible apologetics is sort of… how to say… it’s a little depressing that this is the gain we’re seeing, depressing that there’s so much ground been lost, depressing that events that really should destroy the credibility of far more plausible theories are instead destroying a theory that no one with eyes in their head and live cells behind the eyes should have accepted for a second. It’s almost like the EMH is the sacrificial beast, which the discipline (and the policy-advisors) can murder, killing something with no real value, as a substitute for themselves. That said – no question the loss of credibility is a good thing.

    (The EMH is, of course, as you well know, a bubble-economics – an economic theory produced by and for a bubble economy – to justify or render invisible a bubble economy. [Not just undertakers of memory, but of perception. (Perception is blind without memory, I guess. Like the ‘historical’ data for the Long-Term Capital Management models, or whatever, that went back all of ten years.)] The dates work out quite well: the US leaves the gold standard in 1971. But that’s a response to stuff that’s already been going on, of course – the beginning of the loss of US economic hegemony that’s finally playing itself out in a more manifest or undeniable way now. Fama’s thesis is published 1965 (and takes a while to do the rounds). What’s needed, of course, is an excuse, and a self-deception – the US will spend the period from 1971 till present day (and beyond) relying on (among other things) the status of the dollar as world reserve currency to maintain an economic power that’s seeping away w/r/t fundamentals. [If the US had real and undeniable (or truly enforceable) economic hegemony, it wouldn’t have to rely on its own currency to maintain it, I think.] [NB: not that I think that ‘fundamentals’ and finance or fictitious capital say are dissociable categories, the one ontologically dependent on the other. But to an extent I do.] Fama’s work, and its elaboration, does the job. Now that the gaff’s largely blown it’s not so necessary I guess – though like you say, we’re still in a tenuous position, still bubbling.)

    [W/r/t that – what are your views on the tenability of the dollar as reserve currency, guys? I made a complete tit of myself on my previous blog last year, by saying that I thought the crisis would prompt a flight from the dollar (quite the reverse). I just don’t have the knowledge or understanding to make these kinds of claims. Obviously we’re going to get a dramatic shift away from the dollar at some point, but what are your views w/r/t the time-frame? Chabert (if you’re reading) – you know about currency stuff, yeah? How do you see things playing out (if you feel it’s possible to make a judgement)? What time-frame are you seeing – and do you anticipate ‘gradual re-adjustment’ or something more dramatic (and economically disastrous)? Would be really interested to know what you guys think and why, if you have the time.]

    Moving on…

    W/r/t environmentalism and adventurism… Yeah. I wrote a fair bit of rude stuff about Zizek here which I’m cutting (partly because I don’t want the thread to devolve into discussion of Zizek, but mostly because it (and Zizek) just aren’t relevant.) [Some of it seems to have reappeared below – guess I can’t help myself.] I’ll say this though (again, this isn’t meant to challenge what you’re saying roger, which I agree with.) I think there are different senses of ‘adventure’ in operation here? Basically [and very crudely, sorry] you have:

    1) Adventurism as hard leftism – whereby armed revolution and only armed revolution will do. I take part of your point (not just here but elsewhere) to be that the great collapse of left politics that accompanied the ‘Great Moderation’ left radical left politics in this sense stranded, there no longer existing the continuum that was present in, say, the 60s, and which linked revolutionary Marxism, via a series of progressively more moderate political positions, to more mainstream reformist endeavours. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on the political spectrum in the UK, now, for instance, between the old leftist elements of Nu-Labour (who are themselves of course stranded within their hellish party), and the SWP. (Not that there’s nothing, obviously – just that there’s a great lacuna where serious social democratic politics should be, and this is not a good thing.) I don’t think it matters much where on the left spectrum one places oneself, in this respect – one can still thing that this change in the political landscape is a bad thing. Obviously there’s a tendency in radical spaces to attack more moderate leftist positions – my own inclination is to believe that hard left positions (and of course that’s basically where I place myself) are more likely to wield influence and gain support in a political environment that contains a broad spectrum of more moderate views… and that, conversely, more moderate leftist projects are more likely to gain political traction if they’re backed up by the knowledge or threat of mass civil disobedience and revolutionary violence. (Pro-social-democracy figures critical of revolutionary politics tend to forget, imo, that most social democratic gains would not have happened were it not for such threats and fear (among the ruling class).) (Again, what I’m calling moderate, lots of people would regard as radical, of course – but that’s because they’re crackers.)

    For these reasons, I’m not a fan of the opposition between revolutionary and reformist politics, today. I feel that the early 20th century debates that are often cited in today’s political discussions made sense in a time when both radical left reformism and revolutionary seizure of power were very live possibilities (and realities!). Today, when even Left Keynesianism seems almost too much to hope for w/r/t reformism, and when no revolution is in sight in any of the societies we (in this thread) live in, imo, such debates are often, I think, out of place. (I mean – it’s an issue w/r/t where to put one’s on-the-ground political energies – though even here I think it’s much less of an issue than is often suggested; I just mean that I’m not at all sure it’s something worth arguing about more abstractly.)

    2) Adventurism as negative critique. This is where something like 90% of the ‘radical’ Theory left is at today, imo. This bears a certain resemblance to the position you articulated w/r/t adventurism – but it is a superficial or false resemblance. So someone like Zizek, say – who is, I completely agree, a disgraceful hack (one of the reasons I’m so sorry to see Chabert’s blogs go is that I can’t link to her great assaults on / demolitions of Zizek) talks talk that sounds a little like your ‘existentialist’ adventurism: an existential gap in the social – the Lacanian hole in social Being or whatever – but there’s no real disruption here, no adequate feel for social or personal reality, and of course the hole isn’t really a hole – it’s the channelling of a specific set of social inclinations, demands, desires. A contribution to Carl’s ‘intelligensia studies’, maybe: this institutionalisation of (or institutional production of) the (voiced) desire to break through the constraints of all institutions, to find the liberatory nothingness, that which is unrestrained by an oversaturated social system, by real subsumption, all the rest – and the incredible anxiety one feels everywhere in the left Theory space, about being trapped by capitalism, trapped by commodification, trapped by the Social or the Symbolic – this anxiety is a projection, a suppression – because the ‘Big Other’, to the extent that it exists, is in fact the demand (one of the demands) – the institutional demand, enforced by demotions and promotions and paycheques and status and personal/professional needs – to be able to theorise escape from these things. This self-consuming space. It constantly theorises its own double bind – but is never or rarely able really to theorise, or, rather, just talk about, the source of the double bind – the real social and personal and emotional demands that are producing this perceived & felt need. Isn’t able to think about the real longing. Etc.

    I have no time for this.

    3) Then there’s adventure in your original sense – something more felt, more powerful, and harder to thematise. And which you can talk about better than I could. I am in favour of it.

    * sigh *. Ok. More quickly, because otherwise this comment will never get finished or posted.

    On environmentalism: yes. I’ve not posted hardly nothing on environmental stuff; I should. It’s obviously incredibly important, because a) it just is; b) any project oriented to the institution-changing production of a better society is going to have to put this front and centre, or you’re not going to get a better society out the other end; c) (and this is more anecdotal) – I’ve been impressed by environmental activist spaces, in my limited experience of them. There’s an energy, there, I feel – an outward-directedness? – a sense of momentum or of forces building – that is all too often missing from (again, in my limited experience) more classically radical left activist spaces. In one way or another the politics of the environment is our future – for good or ill.

    I like what you say about blogdem, and a conversational feedback loop that is not necessarily a positive feedback loop. This seems to me to be wise. One of the things blogdem is very good for is producing self-selecting community groups, with far lower barriers to entry than those imposed by geography. This allows the inculcation of community ideals and projects that would be more likely to be quashed in other intellectual environments. While bloggy community spaces are self-reinforcing in that sense, there’s also the fact that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can, in principle, join the conversation. So there’s a possibility of openness there too, which I feel is valuable.

    But sorry to get meta – I agree with what you say (which I take to be internal to a more specific space) about non-reinforcing feedback or conversation as one of the more valuable things we can do for each other. We learn like this. (I’m ambivalent, though, in this case, because I of course like very much your blogs’ intense and eloquent rage, and though I know what you mean, I’d be sorry to see that diminished. But this is by the by.)

    Finally – “I think I’m becoming a Pepperellist… this is my faction!” Oh – yes – mine too.

    Sorry again about the delay. It is kind of you to say that I should post more. To be honest, I think that what I need to do most pressingly is read more. I seem to have recently set myself – or my limited reading so far has recently & more clearly revealed – a whole vast set of stuff I need to educate myself in, fairly soon if possible. My current suspicion is that, in a few months, when I (hopefully) have the time, I may try to do some actual proper historical reading – and my mind balks at the vastness of the terrain. Back to Teh Books.

    Best…


  18. […] Filed under: chaos — Carl @ 4:30 pm As I’ve said recently I quite agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of […]


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