New Structures and Public Intellectuals

by Henry Farrell on August 29, 2012

I was on holiday in Ireland over the last couple of weeks without regular Internet access; one of the things I missed was the Niall Ferguson debate. I liked how “these”: “posts”: from Dan Drezner and Justin Fox identified Ferguson’s behavior as symptomatic of a broader structural change.


bq. Credentialed thinkers like Zakaria and Ferguson, once they’ve reached the top, become brands that can multiply their earning potential far more than was the case fifty years ago. The ways in which the Internet concentrates attention on a Few Big Things means that if you are good and lucky enough to become one of those Big Things, money will rain down on your door. … I’ve heard from a few sources that Ferguson resigned his professorship at Harvard Business School (but not Harvard University) because he calculated that if he gave four or five extra talks a year, he could earn his HBS salary without all the tedious teaching obligations.


bq. The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income. The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that.

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Debt: The First Five Hundred Pages

by Henry Farrell on August 29, 2012

Given past history, I’m probably not the best person to write disinterestedly about David Graeber’s _Debt_. Still, I think that both critics and fans of his work ought to read this “comprehensive critique”: by Mike Beggs in the new issue of _Jacobin._ Begg admires the energy and ambition of the book, but is also blunt.

bq. _Debt,_ then, does not need any more kind words from me. It’s enough to say that there is a lot of fantastic material in there. The breadth of Graeber’s reading is impressive, and he draws from it a wealth of insightful fragments of history. The prospect of a grand social history of debt from a thinker of the radical left is exciting. The appeal is no mystery. I wanted to love it.

bq. Unfortunately, I found the main arguments wholly unconvincing.

bq. The very unconvincingness poses the question: What do we need from our grand social theory? The success of the book shows there is an appetite for work that promises to set our present moment against the sweep of history so as to explain our predicament and help us find footholds for changing it. What is wrong with Graeber’s approach, and how could we do better?