Seeing like a state bis: the failure of the intellectual left

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.

Change Through the Generations

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For the Life History & Social Change project, I interviewed Irish people in their 70s, 50s and 30s about their lives. One of the things I noticed was that many of the women in the older cohorts regretted returning to Ireland after a period working abroad in England or the US. Many of them were nurses or worked in factories and returned to a very poor country with few employment prospects for married women (remember the marriage bar, which excluded married women from working in the public sector was not removed until 1973). I remember in particular one women talked about how terrible conditions were in maternity hospitals in Ireland compared to what she had experienced in the UK. When talking about their daughters, there was a sense that they wanted their daughters to make different choices to the ones they had made.

1St Anniv. Of The June '53 Uprising In Berlin

This made me interested in the idea of social change occurring across the generations. This idea came to mind again when visiting Berlin over Easter. I came across exhibitions about the Berlin Uprising in 1953 (the picture left was taken at its first anniversary) and the Green and Peace movement in East Berlin of the 1980s. Looking at the pictures of the marchers in 1953, I wondered how many of them had children who were part of the movements of the 1980s.

I don’t know the answer to this, but there is an interesting article in the most recent issue of British Journal of Sociology by Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning on decline in the Christian church in the UK. They argue that “the explanation of decline may often be located at least a generation earlier than the period in which that decline become apparent because it owes as much or more to a failure to recruit children than to adult defection” (2010: 108) . Their argument is that religious decline is first seen as a decline in attendance, and then later as a decline in church membership. If their theory is right, the decline we see now in Ireland in church attendance will be followed by in the next twenty years by a fall in church membership*.

The second interesting point the article makes is about the role of the Second World War in this process. In terms of the UK, the decline in the Christian churches becomes obvious in the 1960s, but if their theory is right, had it’s roots in the 1940s. The Second World War they argue disrupted the way religious belief is passed from one generation to the next. They are tentative in their discussions of what happened, but do note that by 1943 about 90 % of women aged 18-40 were employed in the forces or in industry, and this changing role of women within a war society is perhaps partially responsible for the changes seen a generation later.

Of course in Ireland we did not have a huge influx of war generated employment, but there was female emigration to employment abroad. I do wonder if, as the interviews suggest, some similar inter-generational processes of change have occurred here.


[*1973/74 91% of Catholics in the Republic of Ireland went to Mass at least once a week, by 2009 this had dropped to 42 per cent, yet in the 2002 census 90% of people still identified themselves as Catholics. The article by Tom Inglis linked to above has an interesting discussion on how what it means to be a Catholic changes across countries and over time].