Seeing Like a State Bis: The Failure of the Intellectual Left


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I’ve written about this issue here before, but some things deserve a second comment.

At the moment we have the combination (in Ireland as in several other northern countries) of an economic austerity package, an unpopular government tied to neoliberal economic policies more broadly, an ineffectual mainstream left pledged to the same basic line (whether in or out of government), outbursts of popular anger but nothing much really changing in political terms. So much, so far business as usual.

Or at least, business as usual within the terms that we have now come to accept as normal for these specific countries in the last decade or two. These are not, after all, universal features of life; they are the result of substantial political defeats. There are many reasons for those defeats, and it would be overestimating the power of Ideas of the official, hold-a-conference-to-talk-about-it kind to ascribe them mostly to the intellectual left. But insofar as left intellectuals hold that our activity is significant, try to convince others of its significance and believe that what we are doing matters, it isn’t unreasonable to ask on occasion “is it so?” And, “if it matters, does it matter in a positive way?”

One of the most obvious results of the takeover of left organisations by the intellectual – or at least university-oriented – left in recent decades has been a drift to the right, to insertion within the establishment (usually justified with the claim to being critical in some obscure way) and to a shift in class power within those organisations. This is – in part – the story of the once-great Italian Communist Party, the once-significant Workers’ Party in Ireland, and more than a few other organisations which will probably spring to readers’ minds.

I put “university-oriented” rather than “university-educated” there, because IMHO the latter is rather less significant. What matters seems to be (a) the desire for intellectual respectability – to be credentialed by “real” intellectuals rather than by fellow activists – and (b) the orientation towards a “public conversation”, in other words one carried out on the terrain of universities, the “serious” media, and so on. How conscious this is is another question, but these are the visible effects.

In the past, there was an aspect of this that made sense in the context of parties that aimed towards what could reasonably be thought of as a takeover of power, whether of a revolutionary kind or as the result of the kind of popular movements and electoral landslides that might mark a dramatic shift in power. Such parties aimed to have their own intellectuals, preparing the terrain (and other party members) for the responsibilities associated with this, developing the strategies that might enable a transformative government to actually do some transforming, and so on.

Little of this applies today, but the implied state focus remains. We are treated to endless discussions on the structure of the economy, polemics against the hired journalists and academics who justify the status quo, occasional bursts of enthusiasm for clever ideas proposed or implemented elsewhere. What is lacking, though, is any discussion of the purpose of any of this.

We have just seen twenty years of ecological campaigning put the issue of global warming on the international scientific and political agenda – without bringing about any real change, or even translating to a serious awareness that indefinite growth in production is impossible on a finite planet. More recently, fifteen years of anti-capitalist campaigning has put neo-liberalism squarely in the intellectual firing line – yet it continues unabated, and remains (in a country like Ireland) seen as the only alternative.

Put another way, endless critical argument and analysis has got us nowhere. Even in a crisis, with massive popular anger, nobody is finding those arguments actually motivate them to join movements that might take matters in a different direction. The vast majority of those who have lapped up critical sociology in college will go on to vote at best for parties like the Labour Party, which is already committed to economic austerity.

It may be time to ask whether that kind of intellectual activity serves any real purpose at all.  It certainly has not given us any adequate indication as to what to do on the left in this crisis – if anything, it has served to distract attention from that question and leave unions, community groups and movements open to the first initiative or proposal that comes along, with very little critical discussion. It has not generated a serious alternative public sphere. Even on its own terms – the supposedly critical analysis of the kind of economy, culture, polity or society we now live in – it has been ineffectual at suggesting what the way out might be (while simultaneously being rather good at encouraging structural pessimism and dismissing proposals for action as naive).

The strange thing is that many of its proponents are not just personally sincere and decent individuals, they are also politically engaged – but not politically reflective. A habitual kind of intellectual “business-as-usual” sits very uneasily with a gossipy and anecdotal approach to political practice, which then appears almost as an afterthought within a professional left intellectualism whose parameters are largely taken for granted.

Assuming for the moment that what we are going to see is the eventual collapse of the government and its replacement by one in which Labour plays a substantial role but within an essentially unchanged framework of imposed austerity (perhaps with clientelistic sweetheart deals for particular sections of the union or community movements), this kind of unreflective practice turns out to mean in essence intellectual passivity. On the one hand, the more critical analyses will remain unheard (because they have never seriously posed themselves the question of how they can engage directly with other people’s concerns or help to mobilise people around the issues they focus on) and presumably take refuge in ever-more-critical accounts of the universe which have ever-decreasing space for popular agency. On the other hand, those who are allowed to expound their positions in the organisational milieu around Labour (unions, partnership-oriented community groups etc.) will find themselves more and more captured by the institutions: Ireland’s new Polly Toynbees.

Is there an alternative? If there is, it is surely one of intellectual good faith: of thinking through the political implications of one’s own analysis and asking what it means in terms of agency, rather than separating a day job in critical analysis from evening activism. Or perhaps remaking the critical analysis in light of what one is learning through practice. Gramsci insists on the need to have not just a conception of the world but a line of conduct which is consistent with that. For our left intellectuals, who are often or usually better activists than they are intellectuals (or whose practical intellectual activity is often at odds with their official intellectual activity) the problem may be more to find a vision of the world, and an official intellectual activity, which is consistent with what they and their fellow activists are doing in practice.


6 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    November 22, 2010 11:06 am

    You’ve put your finger very clearly on a key problem here. The likely development of a quasi-oppositional inteligencia around the crumbs available from post-election Labour patronage, seems particularly important to point out, after the spring election. For the most part the tactics of the further left seem as bankrupt as the state and this phase of capitalism in general.

    My intuition is that, strategically, rather than a classic hopeless ‘defend against the cuts’ knee-jerk tactics which come so comfortably to certain union and Labour based constituency and the essentially disingenuous ‘transitional demand’ the intellectual left needs to put forward concrete utopian projects (like the universal actuality of decent housing).

    A ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ anti-eviction campaign to encourage people to squat their own houses with the support of their neighbours would seem to be a good start.

  2. CMK

    November 22, 2010 11:52 am

    I’d by sympathetic with the broad thrust of the above analysis. There are a few points, however, which I think are important. Few spheres in Irish life are hospitable to a declared ‘Left’ orientation and often such a declaration might have possibly uncomfortable consequences for an individual.

    There are three where being openly left-wing is relatively unproblematic: the universities, the broadly defined NGO sector and the unions. Journalism might constitute a fourth, but it would be hard nowadays to make a good case for such an argument. It’s only reasonable, then, that Irish left-wing intellectual thinking will take place in a space bounded by these three areas.

    For instance, it’s hard to imagine a Keynesian economist working for an Irish financial institution, and it’s inconceivable that an overtly Marxist economist would ever be hired by similar institutions. So, in terms of making a living and being openly left it’s understandable that most left intellectuals would perfer to operate in the three areas noted earlier. And, again it’s perfectly understandable, pursuing your intellectual positions through to their practical conclusions can bring very uncomfortable consequences: job loss, arrest, police harrassment, prison, ostracisation, forced emigration; therefore it’s not surprise that so few do so.

    Translating left wing intellectual positions into practical action necessarily involves conflict with the neo-liberal state and invites retaliation. What is needed is making the jump from activism to resistance; but they are two entirely different things. Activism and criticism can be easily accomodated by the liberal capitalist state which, particularly here, has robust mechanisms for co-opting, financially marginalising, and plain ignoring activists and critics.

    Resistance based on a rejection of the capitalist state is far more demanding, and less rewarding, on individuals than activism and critique. The above are just personal observations and musings and are not meant as a criticism of any organisation or individual.

  3. henry silke

    November 22, 2010 4:25 pm

    The academic climate

    I think the academic climate will change somewhat as there will be less money for scholarships etc. In this climate ironically we may see more critical (in a marxist sense) work as those kind of scholars may stick it out to the bitter end. If there are no careers there may be less careerists! As for academic life vs practical, I see no contradiction. One can be active politicaly while studying, I believe the empirical idea of objectivity (aka McCarthy and co.) has proven to be anything but objective and therefore activist scholars have nothing to apologice for.

  4. Garibaldy

    November 23, 2010 12:27 am

    Surely part of the problem here is the general cultural collapse of reading serious political works among working class people, especially young people. This can be seen in the decline of things like the left book club and the everyman’s library, never mind the tabloid newspaper culture, tweeting etc. The old labour idea of self-improvement has largely gone. Hard to know how to reverse this trend. But its consequences are that fewer young people are educating themselves politically, and so are less likely to come to seek out political parties and join them. Leaving students to play a bigger role in many formations.

  5. Pope Epopt

    November 23, 2010 9:25 am


    The fact is that people (and the ‘youth of today’, especially) now do much of their reading on the Web, and are informed by videos, podcasts and social media on t’Internet. We have to adapt to that form, while book reading may well have declined. This is the site of the new ‘organic intellectual’, for better or worse.

    The traditional political party is also being replaced by looser, temporary affiliations.

    The fundamental problem, however, lies in neither of these adaptations but in the lack of a coherent vision of the future (which includes owning up to the down-sides) and a believable strategy to attain it.