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.