Hommes De Lettres and Inorganic Intellectuals

by Henry on August 6, 2009

I’ve been reading George’s essays for years, but it is only when one reads a large number of them together that one really sees the interconnections. His interests are diverse. Borges, in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ notes that the critics of Tlön

often invent authors: they select two dissimilar works – the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say – attribute them to the same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres…

George, when he dedicates the book to Chomsky, Rorty and Lasch, may seem to be doing something similar as an exercise in self-definition – what philosophy on earth might possibly unite these three? The careful reader will at least be able to discern the outlines of an answer to this question when she finishes reading this book. While this answer is not as much an abstract philosophy, as a carefully elaborated set of political and critical judgments, which are both attractive and useful. George’s lens upon the world reveals relationships that would otherwise remain occulted.

One of the themes running through these essays is the proper role of the the public intellectual. George would like public intellectuals to have two features – a grounding in literary culture and a real connection to political debate. As he notes, however, these two requirements are difficult to reconcile with each other in the modern world. This dilemma is described most clearly in one of the earlier essays in the book, “The Sealed Envelope”

The very ideal of cosmopolitanism, of the intellectual as ‘anti-specialist,’ uniting political and aesthetic interests and able to speak with some authority about both, may be obsolescent. Though almost always decried, this is an ambiguous prospect. The culture of professionalism and expertise, the bureaucratization of opinion and taste, are not merely mechanisms of social control or a failure of nerve. They are also in part a response to genuine intellectual progress. There’s more to know now than in the 1930s, and more people have joined the conversation. Perhaps the disappearance of the public intellectual and the eclipse of the classical ideals of wisdom as catholicity of understanding and of citizenship as the capacity to discuss all public affairs are evidence of cultural maturity. Intellectual wholeness is an almost irresistibly attractive ideal; but nowadays too determined a pursuit of it must end in fragmentation and superficiality.

and, a little later,

It might seem obvious, for example, that Reaganomics was bad for ordinary Americans – this, if nothing else, a contemporary leftwing intellectual ought to be able to affirm with confidence. Unfortunately, some undeniably honest and intelligent people affirm the contrary. One who is determined to see ‘all sides of every question’ must then learn how to distinguish among ways of measuring family income, job creation and job loss, unemployment and several other economic indicators, along with the basics of monetary theory. For a literary intellectual, this is quite a chore.

George then abandons this line of inquiry rather abruptly, and begins to speak instead to the declining effectiveness of eloquent prose. The reader (at least, this reader) is left with the perception that he believes the gap between the values of the traditional public intellectual and the skills needed to engage in technically detailed economic and political debate is, if not, perhaps insuperable, at least too large to be traversed without very great effort and risk. This (if I am right in my reading) is the point at which I start to disagree with George – these observations are a starting point rather than a place of closure.

If the defining dilemma of the public intellectual is how to reconcile a proper grasp of culture with a modicum of political efficacy, then we need to think quite clearly about what culture is, and how it relates to politics. There are many reasons why public intellectuals have either declined in importance, or been co-opted (see e.g. Russell Jacoby’s discussion of the changing material conditions of intellectual life here and in his book), but one important explanatory factor is surely surely the retreat of high culture. This is an old theme of debate (one of my favorite versions is Randall Jarrell’s essay, ‘A Sad Heart in the Supermarket’) but an important one. The role of the literary intellectual depends not on literary high culture being general (which it has never been) but enjoying sufficient currency that it is deferred to by elites when it is not embraced. As public intellectuals lament, high culture no longer does this – leftwing intellectuals disagree with their conservative counterparts as to the cause of the decline, but both perceive it as real and problematic. The apex of contemporary elite culture is not occupied by writers, poets and artists, but by a chimerical combination of Jack Welch, Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, and the anonymous scribes of the Economist magazine. Large circulation publications either fail even to pretend to pay attention to high culture (Time and Newsweek) or commoditize it (Vanity Fair, which is less a magazine than a locus of exchange between celebrities who wish they were intellectuals, and intellectuals who wish they were celebrities).

This presents some significant problems for traditional leftwing public intellectuals. How can they influence political and social debate (let alone politics and society more generally – and their broader iimpact is limited under the best of circumstances) if people don’t care about the kinds of knowledge that they have to bring to bear? And there is a lot of influencing that needs to be done. Many of the shared assumptions of American politics (the primacy of the market; the positive effects of American military hegemony; the generally benign influence of business on American life) are sorely in need of challenge. This, under George’s account is the task that leftwing public intellectuals should be engaged in – while the consequences of success would be modest (at best, perceived verities would be called into question a little), it is probably the most useful thing that public intellectuals can do in our current era.

One possible strategy towards achieving these aims might be characterized as the Dissent approach – that is, carrying on as if nothing very consequential had changed. Dissent was founded by Irving Howe in the 1950s to speak to leftwing intellectuals, but also to speak to wider public debates. Over time, although its politics have mellowed considerably, it still carries out the first of these roles quite well. Whether one likes its politics (some on the left clearly do not), it frequently publishes intelligent and perceptive articles on American and international politics and culture. What it mostly fails to do is to influence public debate. If you publish an article in Dissent, you are sure to reach a significant group of intelligent readers sharing a certain set of political sympathies. But your intellectual influence is highly unlikely to travel beyond that group. Dissent has become disconnected from wider public debates through no fault of its own – the high culture that it implicitly appeals to simply isn’t shared any more by elites, let alone the profanum vulgum.

A second possible response is what you might call the Z magazine approach. Here, the strategy is not to speak to a high culture that isn’t what it used to be, but to create a more congenial public culture de novo. This may be as much the product of expedience as advance planning – perhaps, if you are Noam Chomsky, and you find that the New York Review of Books doesn’t want to publish you any more, you have sufficient incentive to set up your own counter-hegemonical institutions in cooperation with those who sympathize with you. In any event, if you genuinely believe that the institutions of public debate are fundamentally and irredeemably corrupt, then you are almost required to create your own.

The problem is that this is, at best, a very chancy strategy of change. Success (defined as significantly changing the tenor of public debate) is unlikely. And indeed, while Chomsky’s efforts have been quite successful in one way (they have created a self-reproducing group that at the least has some presence on most university campuses), I don’t believe that they have created a sufficient critical mass to really reshape debate in the ways that Chomsky would like them to. Nor do I think they are likely to in future. I don’t know how many people read and are substantially influenced by Noam Chomsky – let’s call it n. I suspect that even if Chomsky had 10n supporters, he would not be able to dent the existing elite consensus – consider, if you disagree, the effective invisibility of 2003 anti-Iraq war protests involving hundreds of thousands of people in the main venues of American public discourse. Finally, trying to attract a significant counter-public has arguably hurt the quality of Chomsky’s argument – even George, who admires Chomsky greatly, acknowledges that his earlier polemics are better and more subtly argued than his later.

All this leads me to prefer a third option (or, more honestly, I would probably prefer the third option anyway, since it is the one that I am personally most comfortable with – the defence against alternatives comes after the preference). I suspect that learning how to read and understand the technical literature of economic indicators and the like is not only not as much of a ‘chore’ as George thinks it is, but is nearly essential to public intellectuals who want to make a modest dent in the current consensus. Reversing Gramsci, we need more ‘inorganic intellectuals,’ that is, intellectuals who understand the technical underpinnings of the existing consensus well enough to operate with them, without, at the same time, subscribing to the accompanying political assumptions. In other words, if American public intellectuals really want to push back against the dominant culture, they need to understand it, and more particularly, they should have at least a nodding acquaintance with the technical vocabularies that underpin it. This is all the more so when one notes that fields of expertise which underly the current consensus, such as economics and international relations, are at best an indifferent fit to the ideological purposes that they have been turned to.

Consider the relationship between economics as a discipline, and its degraded public form, Econ 101. The gap between the two is considerably wider than most non-economists appreciate. There is a far wider range of variation in ‘respectable’ intellectual positions among actual economists than there is among the journalists, wonks and pundits who purport to interpret their findings. Most economists are broadly in favor of free markets and free trade, but beyond that, they differ substantially on issues such as the proper role of government regulation, the consequences of minimum wage laws and so on.

Moreover, economic theory doesn’t actually lend unambiguous support for the expansion of free markets and limitation of the role of government (here I simplify arguments from Jack Knight and Jim Johnson). General equilibrium results provide some theoretical support for the idea that markets are as efficient in satisfying people’s wants (under certain notions of efficiency) as we can possibly get. This (if anything) underpins the ideological case, beloved of right wingers, for the superiority of markets and the happy consequences of market-promoting reforms for all sections of society.

The problem is that these results, while mathematically sophisticated, are hopelessly unrealistic. Real life markets are plagued with information problems and asymmetries, many of which may be systematically skewed in favor of some actors (the powerful) and against others (the less powerful). The current received wisdom’s relentless emphasis on pro-market reforms not only hurts some people, but it may systematically hurt particular groups while benefitting others. Partial equilibrium analyses (i.e. analyses that don’t try to model an entire economy) allow economists (and indeed left wing social scientists like Knight and Johnson) to construct more accurate models of actually existing markets, which takes some account of these effects. But we have no warrant to believe that these models have the normatively attractive features of general equilibrium models.

All this carries a number of implications. Most importantly for current purposes, it suggests that there is room for quite radical leftwing accounts of the economy that start from the same theoretical basis as more ‘conventional’ accounts (self-interested individuals and all of the rest of it) but that reach dramatically different conclusions. See, for an example of how this might work, Sam Bowles’ leftwing economics text, which is theoretically reasonably ‘orthodox,’ but politically quite radical. Moreover, one can mount a quite devastating internal critique of the more ideologically loaded forms of economic thinking – this is my interpretation of much of Jack Knight’s work. Right of center institutional economists and sometime popularizers such as Oliver Williamson argue that firms will, if left to their own devices, create efficient institutions of self-governance (a position with obvious political implications for regulation and anti-trust). But will self-interested firms really have incentives to do create efficient institutions, when they are not faced with perfect competition? Economic theory, if read with any care whatsoever, provides strong reasons for skepticism – the more plausible prediction is that they will push to create institutions that maximize their own selfish distributional gains.

The point here is that there are important gaps between economic theory itself, and the ideological purposes it is put to in public debate. These gaps can be exploited, especially when (as is often the case), right wing ideologues simply don’t understand the theory that they are purporting to bring to the masses. If you can show that right-wing arguments often fail on their own terms, and get this to stick a little in public debate, then you (as a leftwing public intellectual) will have performed a useful task. You may also find that some of your own arguments and preconceptions change in the process, but this is by no means necessarily a bad thing (leftwing accounts of politics often presume too much on the benignity of their fellow human beings – a dollop of economic reasoning can be a healthy astringent). But you will be able to engage with the actually existing elite culture in a useful way – showing how its basic assumptions are sometimes fundamentally flawed, based on basic misunderstandings, incomprehension of underlying results etc, and other times at the least eminently challengeable. There are potential pitfalls. Most obviously, you can easily get co-opted yourself. But (given the particular circumstances we face in the US), this still seems to me to be the most promising strategy for left-leaning public intellectuals.

All of this is boilerplate – I hardly imagine that I am the first person to make these arguments. But there are far fewer inorganic intellectuals on the left than there should be, and most of the ones that there are are marginalized. Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis are, by any reasonable estimation, among the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition today – but I’ll wager that most Marxists and left radicals haven’t read their work (and perhaps haven’t even heard of them). Doug Henwood, who is perhaps the left-leaning public intellectual most familiar with how finance capital actually works doesn’t get much pick-up outside a specific set of discussions centered on economic commentary (he certainly doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves). Possibly the best left-leaning general-readership book of the last few years is Tom Slee’s No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (Powells, Amazon It is substantively important – an introduction to game theoretic reasoning, and how game theoretic reasoning (if followed through properly) provides strong justification for leftwing policy measures. It is furthermore excellently written, with clear and forceful prose, easily comprehensible to anyone who is prepared to think through its simple examples. But it has gotten very little attention, in large part, I suspect, because it falls between ideological stools. Leftwingers (who tend to be humanists) are likely to be suspicious of its emphasis on game theory, while rightwingers won’t like its political conclusions. This is, I think, a problem.

I don’t think that George would necessarily disagree with the broad brush-stroke version of this argument (as the quotes above suggest, he explicitly recognizes the value and importance of technical knowledge). But he doesn’t have much to say about how the gap between the kind of public intellectualizing that he admires and enjoys, and the kind of public intellectualizing that he recognizes as most likely being necessary can be closed.

I myself don’t see any reason why they can’t be. The technical skills required to acquire a tolerable understanding of economics (let alone international relations theory, or business organization), enough to grasp the basic gist of an argument and the evidence being supplied to support it, are not hugely onerous. All that is required is a little mathematics and a capacity for logical deduction. Nor do I think that the gap between literature and these disciplines is as wide as it might seem at first. Many of the current era’s most significant novelists (Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Richard Powers) are on the cusp between the two – they deploy technical knowledge so as better to understand and depict social relations.

My best guess is that the sense that acquiring this knowledge is a ‘chore’ for the literary intellectual is less the result of innate difficulties or intellectual incompatibilities, than of the way that the role of the literary intellectual has been sociologically constructed. In other words, there isn’t much stopping literary intellectuals as a general matter from engaging with these kinds of knowledge, except for the generalized sense that literary intellectuals don’t engage with these kinds of knowledge (NB that this is not intended as a reproof to any individual intellectual – that this is not an individual problem is precisely the point). In my ideal world, public intellectuals would straddle this divide – not all of them, and not each of them to the same extent – but our current bifurcated culture on the left, and, even more, the belief that this bifurcation is ineradicable, would be gone.



Aaron Swartz 08.06.09 at 11:45 am

Excuse my ignorance, but is there any evidence that this influential “high culture” once existed? From what I can tell, American policy used to be a great deal more vulgar and disastrous than it is now, which makes me wonder how, at the same time, policymakers could have respected leftist criticism. By contrast, the 10n strategy seems, on its face, to have been vastly more effective — it took many years and deaths before a prominent politician turned against the Vietnam war, whereas Howard Dean came very close to winning the nomination in 2004.

As for the strategy of inorganic intellectuals, again I have trouble seeing the empirical case. They seem neither to be taken seriously by the people they critique (Waltzer engaged with Scialabba more seriously than I’ve ever seen any orthodox economist debate Henwood) nor do they capture the large following of the counterhegemons (where do I sign up for the Samuel Bowles fan club?). And this is exactly what you’d expect if intellectuals were truly servants to power — Gregory Mankiw does not seem to be trying seriously to get it right but merely to promote his ideology. If you point out a place where he’s gone wrong, he’ll just stop talking about that particular piece until you’ve gone away, when he’ll quietly take it back up again.

I, for one, would be happy to fund Tom Slee to write books in perpetuity (on the condition that future books have titles that don’t make them sound like conservative think tank output [hi, tom s.! can we start up a collection?]) and would delight to see literary intellectuals engage more on the theory and the facts, but the idea that this is a politically-effective strategy seems to me quite far-fetched. Henry, I’m curious if you have any reason to think different.


Joe S. 08.06.09 at 12:31 pm

The Econ 101 conundrum–that real economics is far more flexible than its elementary offspring but far less known–can’t bear stressing enough.
It’s kind of funny–there is no such problem with Physics 101. Nobody really thinks that the world is Newtonian, even those who know almost no physics. People know that Physics 101 exists only for pedagogical reasons, but at the same time believe that Econ 101 is revealed truth.
Like Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”


bianca steele 08.06.09 at 2:03 pm

One who is determined to see ‘all sides of every question’ must then learn how to distinguish among ways of measuring family income, job creation and job loss, unemployment and several other economic indicators, along with the basics of monetary theory.

I have spent a lot of time over the years on Lasch, and unfortunately, I finally regret that time, unlike the time I have spent on Rorty. (I’ve read nothing by Chomsky except Syntactic Structures, though I’ve heard so much about him I feel like I know all about him.)

Looking for something I didn’t find, I picked up The True and Only Heaven. What I did find was Lasch inhabiting the mind of a member of the Federalist Society, in describing why the Boston busing ruling was judge made law, as if there were no argument among legal scholars, usw, about how to think about similar cases. Surely he could have found an equally cogent opposing argument if he had looked; he would not have had to go grubbing around in cases and statistics and then build his own case from scratch.

I can imagine a possible train of thought (or a couple) that might have led Lasch, and a few other isolated thinkers, to conclude as he did: this involves a wish to think everything through for oneself, to be clear about one’s ideas before moving forward, to refuse unexamined assumptions. But if there is a broader trend–something I’m not sure about–this doesn’t seem sufficient. A liberal failure of nerve doesn’t seem quite it either, but maybe closer.

(OT, but I am always stunned by Riesman’s treatment of his mythical liberal lady from Peoria: she is quite right, and I agree with her entirely from my safe perch here in Cambridge, but there is nothing she can do and it is harmful for her to profess ideas like my own, therefore I let her know in no uncertain terms that her local McCarthyites really basically have the right idea.)


Ian J. Seda-Irizarry 08.06.09 at 3:51 pm

I just wanted to point out that Sam and Herb left their Marxist leanings many years ago (some say as early as 1985) and are now. Especially Herb has emphatically renounced any sort of association to Marxism, to the point that legend says that he put all his books related to Marxism outside his office door at UMass/Amherst so that people could take them. Sam does explicitly respect Marxism, but is now engaged with positivism/analytical philosophy in his work, which focuses on dismantling the assumptions of the neoclassical model regarding human nature while at the same time providing alternative institutional arrangements that might hopefully bring out what he sees to be the best in humankind. A summary of his present views can be captured in these series of lectures: http://ml.santafe.edu/mediaLibrary/2008-Ulam-Lectures.xqy



lemuel pitkin 08.06.09 at 4:19 pm

Like Aaron Swartz, I find the case against Chomskyan counter-hegemony under-argued. The 10n standard isn’t applied consistently; if it were, Doug Henwood (for whom I share your admiration) would fall much farther short than Chomsky.

Also, it would be nice to make the argument more historically concrete. Let’s take some actual instances of historic progress, like the end of the patriarchal family and women’s entry as full participants in public life. Or the social and (increasingly) legal recognition of gay relationships. Or, going back a bit, the rise of industrial unionism. What were the roles in each of these cases of counter-hegemonic, more or less organic intellectuals like Chomsky, versus inorganic intellectuals operating within elite discourses? It seems awfully hard to argue that the contribution of the former wasn’t greater than the latter.

Finally, the limits of the elite-discourse approach aren’t really engaged with. I took a couple classes with Sam Bowles at the University of Massachusetts; he’s clearly a very smart and decent guy. But isn’t it possible that the reasons the political face of economics is the degraded 101 form run a bit deeper than that no one has made sufficiently clever arguments against it?


geo (aka George Scialabba) 08.06.09 at 4:31 pm

I can imagine a possible train of thought (or a couple) … that might have led Lasch to conclude as he did

I dunno, Bianca. I don’t think it was constitutional originalism or a liberal failure of nerve. I think the key sentence in Lasch’s discussion of busing (which extends over pp. 496-504 of True and Only Heaven) is this one: “The wrongs suffered by black people in America were so glaring and their demand for reparation seemingly so compelling that advocates of busing found it impossible to admit that white workers had important grievances of their own, especially when those grievances were couched in the idiom of racial abuse and championed by leaders who exercised no control over their own followers.” It’s true, as Lasch admits straightforwardly here, that opponents of busing were mostly racists and generally used racist arguments and language. But if you listened patiently to them, as Jonathan Rieder, Jim Sleeper, Anthony Lukas, and others did, you had to recognize that they were also, at least in their own minds, defending honorable ideals: local autonomy, rootedness, historical continuity, community loyalty, equality of sacrifice. The people who advocated and implemented busing (see, in Lasch’s footnote on p. 499, the list of members of the Coordinating Council appointed by Judge Garrity — all bankers, executives, and university presidents) had no knowledge of or stake in the lives and neighborhoods they were intervening in. They were, or identified with, elite managerial types, used to ordering working people around. This is what galled the orderees.

Busing, for Lasch, was a lost opportunity, a chance for elites to demonstrate good faith by sharing the sacrifices they freely imposed on ordinary people, and by demonstrating some sympathy with, or at least understanding of, the values of large groups of fellow citizens. The fact that such a thought never occurred to them is as deplorable as the racism their policies churned up.


Tim Wilkinson 08.06.09 at 4:51 pm

Joe S @2: _The Econ 101 conundrum—that real economics is far more flexible than its elementary offspring but far less known—can’t bear stressing enough. It’s kind of funny—there is no such problem with Physics 101. Nobody really thinks that the world is Newtonian, even those who know almost no physics. People know that Physics 101 exists only for pedagogical reasons, but at the same time believe that Econ 101 is revealed truth._

I see the problem as being that Econ 101, as befits its role as official reference for the true nature of economics, is actually more accurate/consistent than economics as widely practiced and especially, preached.

All the crazily unrealistic assumptions underlying perfect competition, general equilibrium, revealed preference, pareto efficiency, bracketing of welfare economics as a separate specialism etc are mentioned and unobstrusively described for what they are. It’s after that that those devastating caveats are locked away out of sight, so as to get on with the much more rewarding tasks of putting all those mathematical models to use

lemuel pitkin @4 _What were the roles in each of these cases of counter-hegemonic, more or less organic intellectuals like Chomsky, versus inorganic intellectuals operating within elite discourses? It seems awfully hard to argue that the contribution of the former wasn’t greater than the latter._

Just as long as you are accounting for the influence of the former _on the latter_. I mean, Chomsky didn’t come up with his stuff in a vacuum (not that he is necessarily the best example). The ivory-tower theorist’s influence on the wider political culture is mediated by the work of the populariser.


John Emerson 08.06.09 at 6:49 pm

Unfortunately, Econ 101 students and Econ-101-level op-eds are the most significant products of the economics profession, and the main ways that economics ideas reach non-professionals. Until Econ 101 is changed, non-professionals will continue to misunderstand economics, and most of them (the former Econ 101 students) will fervently advocate their misunderstood economics, since it is customized to the prejudices of ambitious, prosperous Americans who believe in the law of the jungle.

My readings of Coyle’s “The Soulful Science” and Rosser, Colander’s, and Holt’s “The Changing Face of Economics” gave me no reason to hope that Econ 101 will ever change. My conclusion was that the most influential economists (the compact majority of the profession, unnamed in either book) like things pretty much the way they are, and that getting the students to “think like an economist” (rather than thinking like a citizen, etc.) is more important to the leadership than rescuing the students from Econ 101 fallacies.


bianca steele 08.06.09 at 7:38 pm

George, I haven’t read Common Ground but I watched the film, which I guess doesn’t count.

Garrity appointed his council in 1975. TTOH was published in 1991. If the lack of “indigenous leadership” among the white city dwellers Lasch seems to feel so strongly for is still an issue after thirty-five years–to such an extent that there’s no need to take note of anything that might have changed in the interim–it’s worth thinking hard about why that might be the case.


lemuel pitkin 08.06.09 at 8:40 pm

Tim @7-

I don’t think we disagree. But you’ve reminded me of the question I had for Henry when he made some of these same arguments in a comments thread here a while back: Why is there a conflict between options 2 and 3? Aren’t the counter-hegemony and inorganic intellectuals much more complements than substitutes?


chrismealy 08.06.09 at 10:45 pm

Gintis is still enough of a Marxist to use terms like “labor aristocracy.”

Aaron, if you’re serious about that fan club I’m in. I’ll never make it through Bowles’s “Microeconomics” on my own.

Ian, thanks for the link. I’m gonna check that out.


Henry 08.07.09 at 10:46 am

Aaron – where we disagree, I think, is about how effective public intellectuals can be in politics. I’m skeptical that there is much we can do – if the intellectuals on the covers of George’s book are saying ‘We Fool You,’ the most useful role for counter-intellectuals, in times like these, is to do their damnedest to show them up for it. NB that my post, flawed though it surely is (I am still thinking all of this through) is _not_ a suggestion for a general political strategy – it is a more particular discussion of the role that intellectuals can play _qua_ intellectuals in politics. I don’t think that Howard Dean, or the people around him, were intellectuals in the traditional sense of the word (maybe that sense needs to change – that might be an interesting discussion). More generally, as some of my language suggests (the word ‘modicum’ etc), I am skeptical that intellectuals can achieve all that much in the absence of a larger movement that they can converse with. Like Scott and George, I’m not seeing that movement. I fully agree that intellectuals who work with a movement like that, and engage it in conversation ( _not_ try to lead it) can get a lot more done than meliorist intellectuals, but only when such a movement exists, and it can’t (I don’t think) be whistled out of thin air. Would love to be convinced that I am wrong though. Also note that even on my own terms, I am not nearly as good a lefty intellectual as I would like to be – there is only so much Megan McArdle etc that I can read and try to deflate before I feel like I want to give up and throw my hands up in despair.

Ian – dunno about Gintis, but I can assure you that as of May this year, Sam Bowles not only was still a self-professed Marxist leftist, but took some temporary umbrage when he misunderstood me to be suggesting the contrary.


Aaron Swartz 08.07.09 at 2:29 pm

Chris (and anyone else interested): Want to start a Bowles reading group? Drop me a line: me@aaronsw.com

Henry: I took you to be making two claims, which I questioned: 1) there used to be a “high culture” that left intellectuals could appeal to in reforming policy, 2) writing for the masses is less politically effective than writing for other intellectuals. I wasn’t making any broad points about the impact of intellectuals on politics. I certainly wasn’t trying to argue that Dean was an intellectual! (My point was simply that the population turned against this war a lot more quickly than the last one — certainly more quickly than the mainstream intelligentsia did — and I think this is in part due to the increased readership of leftish intellectuals (e.g. on blogs).)

I think it’s possible for intellectuals to create, if not a movement, then something of a community. You see something of it here on Crooked Timber: a half-articulated value system, a set of heroes (e.g. George) and villains (e.g. Megan), a sense that there are at least a couple other people who understand us (the few, the proud, the lefty interdisciplinary social-science-and-philosophy wonks with a thing for old comic books) in a heartless world. I think the netroots did something similar around roughly Lakoff’s model of the mixed voter (Lakoff was rarely mentioned, of course; what I mean is that it was widely argued that Democrats could win votes by moving left), culminating in Howard Dean blurbing Lakoff’s book, adopting his ideas, and winning netroots support.

But let’s try getting down to cases for a moment. As a blogger, I imagine you could write a piece pointing out that Megan McArdle got something badly wrong. Megan would probably respond and mock you to her readers and perhaps admit a minor technical point but not really back down. As a result, you would probably persuade just the handful of open-minded people who happened to read both posts, which seems like a fraction of either of your readership.

Instead, you could write a piece about how some neglected aspect of policy was badly bungled and how it could be fixed, in the hopes that your piece could help turn the tide. You could tell an engaging story that exemplified some larger social democratic point. You could write about how democratic institutions work and how people can influence them.

Probably none of these will have much effect; but occasionally they will. I’m told Michael Harrington and Dwight MacDonald helped turn the tide on poverty policy; the engaging story my group’s been running has gotten in dozens of papers and on Rachel Maddow and persuaded people to contribute $100,000 and forced a Senator to make a statement; and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say the netroots writing about democratic institutions almost won the Democratic nomination. You can poke holes in all of these stories, no doubt. But you can’t even make a similar claim for a Megan McArdle rebuttal.

In short, I see a theory of change for writing to the public: I see a way, however tenuous or unlikely, that my words could make an impact. I have trouble seeing what your theory is when writing to other intellectuals.


Henry 08.07.09 at 3:29 pm

Aaron – quick version of this (I am supposed to be minding my kids as I write) is that simply forcing these people to argue rather than to treat their ideology as a seamless and accurate picture of the world helps open things up (a little bit) for change. Especially so since the community that you talk about isn’t the only one going at the moment. There is a second community, the wonkosphere (for which term, my apologies), which has also played, and is playing a pretty interesting role, and which I think does sometimes influence policy debate (I want to write a piece on this whenever I get the time). And one of the most interesting and important features of it is that key participants in it, while not necessarily very far to the left, lack the instinctive aversion to lefty thought that previous generations of liberal pundits had. Which means that stuff that I write (NB not that I am enormously radical either – but I do read and am sometimes influenced by people more radical than myself) makes it, often enough, to people like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, and occasionally to people like Paul Krugman. I don’t think that they are a substitute for a popular movement, or for the netroots (but while I think that the netroots is great in many ways, I don’t think it is a popular movement). But they do have influence and the fact that I, and Kathy G., and others have pointed out that, say, Megan McArdle doesn’t actually understand economics very well does percolate out, and help build a case against some of the crazier claims that she makes about the economics of health innovation or whatever. I’m not publishing in the Washington Post, but Ezra Klein is, and I do think he is playing a quite significant role in the healthcare debate in particular.


Aaron Swartz 08.09.09 at 9:43 pm

I’d love to hear more about the wonkosphere when you’re not on vacation. I totally believe that the blogosphere has opened pundits up to more left-wing ideas, but it’s not clear to me the relative roles played by wonks and activists in that. I think Paul Krugman’s transformation in particular would make for a really interesting case study; my sense is that he was persuaded in no small part by the blogosphere, perhaps in particular Brad DeLong’s compilations. But I’m not sure where to get good evidence on these sort of things; it’s all kind of vague.

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