Thursday, 3 September 2009

For "Pablo" - The Power of Speaking Truth

Public intellectualising: Cafe society in 1950s New York. It was harder in New Zealand. As James K. Baxter wrote: "The man who talks to the masters of Pig Island/About the love they dread/Plaits ropes of sand".

After reading "Pablo" at Kiwipolitico on the subject of public intellectuals, I was inspired to do two things. The first was to offer him this quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay "Self Reliance": "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines … Speak what you think in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today." The second was to locate and re-print the following review of Laurence Simmon’s Speaking Truth to Power – first published in The Independent of 21 March 2007.

"PUBLIC Intellectual" is not a title many New Zealanders would claim voluntarily. Principally because, in this country, being labelled an intellectual (of any sort) almost always results in a loss of credibility. Anyone openly embracing the term, therefore, tends to be dismissed as mad, bad – or both.

Associate Professor Laurence Simmons tests this proposition in Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, and admits to being disconcerted at just how resistant Kiwis are to the whole idea of thinking critically in public. As he observes in his introduction:

"… very few at first, even some university professors, felt happy with, or wanted to accept, the label ‘intellectual’. So it appears that the idea of somehow acknowledging or saluting our intellectuals sits uncomfortably with the New Zealand sensibility. It disturbs our myths of self-reliance and headstrong individualism, our taciturn pragmatism and ability to get on with things with our heads down."

Undeterred by this apparently ingrained anti-intellectualism, Simmons eventually persuaded thirteen prominent New Zealand intellectuals to participate in his project. The result is a provocative collection of essays, interviews and roundtable discussion.

In part, the book is a response to what Simmons – who lectures in film, television and media studies at the University of Auckland – describes as the "growing concern" about the "threat to the democratic public sphere" posed by "a resurgent individualistic, neoconservative agenda, manifested in the closely interlocking interests of the New Right in politics, the media and think tanks". It is also intended to fill "the absence of any strongly articulated left-liberal alternative to these interests."

In many ways, however, the book is also a celebration of the intellectual life itself. In the interviews with such active thinkers and writers as Jane Kelsey, Lloyd Geering, Ian Wedde, Nicky Hager, James Belich and Marilyn Waring, one cannot help but be impressed – even moved – by the unwavering faith in the power of ideas which keeps these isolated (and often vilified and despised) individuals kicking against the pricks.

A recurring theme in Speaking Truth to Power is – to employ an archaic, but delicious, expression: la trahison des clercs. Or, to put it, more prosaically: the general failure of the university and its community of scholars to fulfil their statutory obligation to be the "critic and conscience" of society.

As retired Professor of Political Studies, Andrew Sharp, puts it in his essay on the late Bruce Jesson – one of New Zealand’s most perceptive public intellectuals:

"Before the Second World War, in his famous Treason of the Clerks, Julien Benda accused the intellectuals of his day of selling themselves to the state and mundane concerns … [and of betraying] their inheritance of speaking to the great matters of religion, morals and human character. Jesson’s charge against New Zealand’s intellectuals was even more serious. They gave their compatriots nothing at all: no idea of what the vibrant political life of a republic of equals could be; no respect for intellectual systems of any kind; above all no understanding of the economic relationships that made a life of republican equality so difficult and the triumph of free market dogma so easy. When the neo-liberal revolution arrived they were silent."

The investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, goes further – insisting that the values and aspirations of the neo-liberal revolution have not only become structurally embedded in our society, but that they have done so at the expense of all ideological competitors:

"I think, in terms of the legacy of those years, apart from the privatised assets or people in poverty, one of the most serious things that I think comes out is that you’ve got now a virtually twenty year period where certain sorts of people have been favoured, have been promoted into positions, have been role models of what’s right and how other people should act if they want to try to advance themselves and be treated as important persons in society; and you’ve got a whole other set of people doing what they believed in, saying what they believed in, who got squashed and pushed aside."

The most pernicious effect of this structural victory, says Hager, is in the realm of politics:

"Helen Clark is a classic example of this. She is an enlightened sort of person on the issues that I work on. I regard her as the person in Parliament whose thinking is most similar to mine on defence and foreign affairs, and yet a lot of the time she’s doing things which I despise and think stupid. I’m sure the reason she’s doing these things is because she’s making calculations about what she thinks is politically viable for her; and it’s not public opinion that causes this, it’s the ability to be dumped on by newspapers, the worst of our media and the undermining of our public service, which is very strong. So we have a government that could do good things but it’s cautious and visionless and nervous and going nowhere."

Another of Simmons’ public intellectuals, the economist Brian Easton, is similarly convinced that the across-the-board debasement of New Zealand intellectual life over the past twenty years should be laid at the door of the "rogernomes":

"Fundamentally, the rogernomes were anti-intellectual, evidenced by their treatment of the arts, of science research, of tertiary education (which they could not distinguish from training), of the National Library, the National Archives, and the National Museum and Art Gallery, of history, and of dissent."

Speaking Truth to Power thus paints a rather bleak picture of intellectual life in New Zealand. But is neo-liberalism really to blame? Hasn’t the Right always evinced a deep suspicion of the "republic of equals" which free intellectual inquiry inevitably encourages?

From the Palais-Royal, where Eighteenth Century Parisian intellectuals gathered to dream the French Republic into existence; to the night-clubs of Weimar Berlin, where Marxists like Brecht and Eisner put song into the revolution’s heart; to the coffee-bars of Greenwich Village, where Ginsberg’s poetry and Dylan’s lyrics made the youth of America howl; to the staff bar at Avalon Studios, where for the first (and last?) time New Zealand television learned to speak for itself; it has never been safe to let large numbers of intelligent and creative people get ideologically intoxicated in the same place. That totalitarian movements as diverse as the Jacobins and the Nazis moved swiftly to shut down such intellectual watering-holes, merely confirms that free-thinkers have always threatened those who like to keep all their mental ducks in a row – no matter what colour their uniforms.

Jesson attributed New Zealand’s fierce anti-intellectualism to its colonial status: "Like many frontier societies, New Zealand has not provided a friendly environment to culture or to thought." But this is only partly true. Prior to the fall of the Liberals in 1912, New Zealand enjoyed an international reputation as a highly literate and intellectually vigorous – almost experimental – culture. The "closing of the New Zealand mind" began with the crushing of organised labour by the Massey Government in 1912-1913, and the subsequent consolidation of rural-conservative power during the First World War and the 1920s – the period historian James Belich refers to as "The Great Tightening".

Massey’s "tightening" was repeated by the Holland Government following the defeat of the Labour Government in 1949. The Waterfront Lockout of 1951, enforced by the infamous "Emergency Regulations" ushered in a regime of censorship and political intimidation which remained in place until the early 1970s. (It should never be forgotten that Bill Pearson’s celebrated essay "Fretful Sleepers" was penned in the aftermath of the ’51 upheavals – a factor which undoubtedly accounts for most of his gloomier observations about New Zealanders’ hostility to intellectual pursuits.) The election of Rob Muldoon in 1975, in response to the political "loosening" of New Zealand life, provoked yet another round of tightening.

Viewed from this historical perspective, the actions of the neo-liberals in the late 1980s and 90s don’t look so "neo" at all. Rising union militancy, the Springbok Tour protests, second-wave feminism, and the burgeoning Maori "renaissance" had terrified the Right into once again reaching for the screws. Massey’s "Cossacks" and the "rogernomes" bore a strong family resemblance.

Anti-intellectualism – far from being an attitude deeply "ingrained" in New Zealanders – is actually a prejudice requiring constant maintenance and reinforcement. It’s because they encourage people to think critically that the Right goes to these extraordinary lengths to ensure that public intellectuals are feared and vilified. At all costs, the "critics and consciences" of society must be prevented from reminding New Zealanders that the "republic of equals" their forebears came so far to build remains unfinished, and that the happiness and fulfilment they seek can only be found in the physical and mental effort of its construction. 


Pablo said...

Nice Emerson quote Chris. But he is wrong: surely Black today cannot be White tomorrow, nor Right today turned into Left tomorrow (New Labour excepted), Yes, hard words are needed and flexibility of thought is preferable to doctrinaire incantation, but certainly there is something to be said for intellectual consistency.

Shoot, and here I thought you would be pleased to be on the (admittedly short) list!

I did like the review, though. Thanks for re-posting it, as it is a superior effort.

Anonymous said...

"...the period historian James Belich refers to as "The Great Tightening..."

Perhaps we haven't yet fully reckoned the depth of our loss in the Great War, and maybe should carve "Public Intellectual" on our War Memorials along with all the other names.

Tim Selwyn said...

Chris, I've enjoyed reading this post because I've disagree with much of what you have said.

What you have told us is that "public intellectuals" = left wing academics. That's the group of people you are describing as intellectuals - a group that excludes right wing academics.

You dismiss the public thinking exercises throughout the period from the right wing people in order to advance an idea that left wing people think and right wing people are opposed to thinking. You may have a point if the Education Act of 1989 which enshrined the "critic and conscience" role of universities was opposed by the public intellectuals of the right - but I don't think they were despite what you quote from Easton.

When you mention that anti-intellectualism is "a prejudice requiring constant maintenance and reinforcement" that could also be said of what you are doing here - repeating a left wing mantra and the order of the apostles. (Where was WB Sutch? - that'll be ten Hail Mary's!) Just look at the line up in that book. That's a very select playlist on a very high rotate which is being held up as an example.

It is your type of assertion that excludes the other side from the same class that probably has more to do with the widespread hostility towards people who would describe themselves as "public intellectuals" than any reason you have come up with. If the qualification for the "public intellectuals" club is adherence to the prevailing orthodox left wing doctrine is it any wonder that the public interprets the words "public intellectual" with such skepticism? It is a term for an ideological and politicised clique of academics the way you put it.

Influential neo-liberals like Simon Upton and Michael Bassett and so on are public intellectuals. Are they allowed on the list?

I would have thought the neo-liberal project's major flaw was that it was too intellectual and that too much thinking and theorising had gone into it. Act was barely anything more than a middle class think tank for most of its early part. The Business Rountable wheeled out all manner of local academics during this time and still do. Are these people not engaging in public intellectualism?

Finally, your incantation of Pakeha Mythology is beautiful, your channeling of Jesson masterful, but the notion that every British settler off to fulfill their destiny in NZ swore a republican oath of egalitarianism is exquisite.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm sorry, Tim, but that simply won't wash.

Public intellectuals are defined not according to whether they use their minds, rather than their hands, to earn a living, but according to whether or not they are willing to critique the prevailing social order. Historically, that is incontestable.

Of course, when Kings and Emperors (and even the occassional totalitarian dictator) were still powerful enough to crush their subjects underfoot, it was entirely reasonable to include the classical liberals among the ranks of the public intellectuals.

In states offering formal political equality and a functioning democracy, however, that changed. The critique, then, was not of absolute monarchy (or the Stalinist party, or the fascist dictatorship) but of the inequalities imposed on humanity by capitalism.

That is why there were no Uptons, Bassetts or Kerrs in Simmons's book. Those who defend inequality don't belong in the "public intellectual" category. They belong in the "capitalist apologist" category.

Don't believe me? Well ask yourself this question: "When Pinochet overthrew Allende in 1973, did he immediately round up all the "public intellectuals?" (The answer, BTW, is "Yes, he did.") And when democracy was finally restored to Chile, did the new government immediately round up all the "capitalist apologists"? (The answer, of course, is "No, it didn't.")

This is because the democratic state is able tolerate BOTH public intellectuals AND capitalist apologists. The authoritarian/totalitarian state, in stark contrast, tolerates only those who support it.

Without a critique of the prevailing economic and social order one simply cannot aspire to the title of public intellectual - not unless one is willing to invest the term with a meaning utterly at odds with its historical definition.

Many of the commentators on Fox News are undoubtedly intelligent - they are certainly creative - but they are not "public intellectuals". And, I suspect, were you to describe them as such, they would invite you to step outside.

John Moore said...

Chris Trotter takes the rather narrow view that to be a public intellectual one must be a critic of ‘the prevailing social order’. I believe this is both a pedantic and dangerous position to take!

The right has had more than its fair share of intellectuals who have engaged in public discourse. The neoclassical revolutionists had their Milton Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs, the neoconservatives their Irving Kristol and Christopher Hitchens. Clearly, right wing public intellectualism has been triumphant. Up to recently, anyway. The real question that should be asked is, what has happened to left intellectualism?

So rather than dismissing the right as being bereft of intelligence, shouldn't we be asking ourselves why the left that has become so dumbed down? Whereas the neoclassical and neoconservative right have loudly shouted their intellectual credentials in the public arena, the left has retreated and declared the world an intellectual wasteland. This retreat partly comes from the confusion and disorder amongst left intellectuals that resulted from the collapse of both social democracy and the implosion of the perverse 'living' examples of socialism in the form of Stalinism and Maoism. Easier to avoid difficult areas of discussion, to hysterically decry the right, while being unable to answer the question, 'What is left anymore?'

Chris Trotter said...

"The neoclassical revolutionists had their Milton Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs, the neoconservatives their Irving Kristol and Christopher Hitchens. Clearly, right wing public intellectualism has been triumphant."

John, John, John - this is just so full of fundamental misunderstandings, I hardly know where to begin.

The people you cite here are not "revolutionists" but reactionaries (although I'm not quite sure what Chris Hitchens is doing in there).

And while no one would question their talent for defending the indefensible, they are, nevertheless "capitalist apologists" par excellence.

What laid the Left low was the sudden and extraordinarily disorienting influence of identity politics, and the full-scale assault launched by the post-modernist "philosophers" on all the great metanarratives - especially Marxism. (Post-modernism being in Frederick Jameson's words "the cultural logic of late capitalism").

We on the Left are still recovering our ideological confidence - a process which, sadly, I don't see being completed any time soon.

John Moore said...

Friedman, Sachs, Kristol, et al. where/are not merely ‘apologists’ for capitalism, but radical defenders of this mode of production. They passionately believed that unrestrained capitalism was the best and only model able to generate wealth, freedom and democracy. All of the above savagely critiqued ‘really existing capitalism’ in the 1970s, with its ‘bloated’ state bureaucracies, interventionist governments and pragmatic foreign policies. So, I was speaking with tongue in cheek when I called these reactionaries ‘revolutionaries’. However, I believe to write these intellectuals off as mere apologists for capitalism, disarms us in the face of a sophisticated and radical capitalist intellectualism.

The left as a whole failed to counter the sophistication and ‘revolutionary’ zeal of the New Right in the 1970s and 80s. The New Right had a radical agenda to implement a paradigm shift within global capitalism. At the time of the neoliberal ‘revolution’, Bruce Jesson and others were at pains to point out the failure of the left to meet the right intellectually head-on. It's semantics to argue if Milton et al were ‘public intellectuals, but the fact is that they were able to win their arguments in the arena of public discourse. Survey after survey has shown that a majority of populations in countries including Britain and New Zealand never embraced neoliberalism. However, where the New Right intellectuals were successful was in imprinting on the popular mindset that, ‘There is no alternative?’ In response, the majority of the left just regurgitated out old models of Keynesianism, an economic model that had clearly failed to deal with the crisis of global capitalism in the 1970s and 80s.

Chris, you are wrong to say that the central cause of the decline of the left was ‘the sudden and extraordinarily disorienting influence of identity politics, and the full-scale assault launched by the post-modernist "philosophers" on all the great metanarratives - especially Marxism.’

Yes, the ideological models of identity politics and post-modernism did both disarm and disorientate the left. But, dare I say it, these models represented the superstructure of ideas that became prominent because of a crisis crippling the economic base structure. In the 1970s global capitalism was undergoing a severe crisis. The long boom was over, inflation and unemployment levels were rampant, investment levels were in rapid decline and business interests saw state deficit levels and costs as a drain on the economy. The Keynesian model, of an interventionist state that was a major stakeholder in the economy, had been seen to fail.

A few quiet voices on the Marxist left saw this crisis in terms of Marx’s explanation of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. For the majority of the left, the triumphalism of the New Right was not seen as a result of any capitalist crisis. The ascendancy of neoliberalism was wrongly explained as merely the triumph of a bad set of ideas over a better set of ideas. What a majority of the left still fails to understand is that these ‘bad ideas’ were good for capitalism. Deregulation, state disinvestment and massive cutbacks in social services weren’t a cure all, but they clearly gave capitalism a new zing of live.

Yes, the left does need to engage in a battle of ideas. And this means the need to challenge and disarm ideologies including neoliberalism, post-modernism and identity politics. But, as long as the left fails to understand the economic base conditions that gave rise to the New Right, the left will fail to regain its ideological confidence. The old social democratic model which advocates an ‘interventionist hands on state, managing capitalism in the interests of all’ is dead. The left needs to reengage with metanarratves that critique and reject capitalism as a totality. Piecemeal approaches to attacking bits of capitalism here and there will resonate with few. Lets not be the advocates for fixing a decaying beast!

Olwyn said...

Neo-conservativism is no more Fukuyama's "end of history" than Stalinism was the Marxist equivalent. It is able to pretend it is only by suppressing or side-lining dissenting voices, and manufacturing channels of dissent that do not get in the way of business as usual - look at the interminable coverage of the smacking debate for God's sake - it's still going on. However, it is not a loved world view (one could hardly call it a philosophy) and rests on a consent that is conditional on enough people believing that they have something to gain by its existence, or something to lose if they were to challenge it. Anything that has such a tenuous grip on the public imagination is hardly going to welcome opposing views.