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Intellectuals—Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them, Part II

Are intellectuals really the enemies of democracy?

You know that there is something “the matter with the people of Kansas” and far beyond. You see false consciousness everywhere. Getting the people to understand their “true interest” is the major challenge of the times, you believe. This might be because you are an intellectual.

You threaten democracy.

They hate you. They suspect that you despise them, as “they cling to their guns and bibles.” They know that you think you are better than they are. When they resent you and act upon their resentment, they too threaten democracy.

We recognize that the anti-intellectualism of the less educated is a significant threat, especially now in the age of Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, Le Pen, et al. These are strange times, when the basic principles of modern biology are denounced, the prevailing consensus about climate change is dismissed, and news reports, no matter how well documented, that contradict political commitment are effortlessly rejected as fake.

But we may be overlooking the problems we intellectuals pose to others. As we struggle for alternatives, I think, we must recognize how dangerous intellectuals can be. Last week, I explored how intellectuals contribute to democratic life by facilitating public consideration of pressing problems of the day. This week I offer some thoughts on the threat posed by intellectuals, as they substitute what they know for what the public should consider.

Knowing the truth of the situation we are in, we may fail to pay sufficient attention to the very people we claim to be defending, forgetting that they are the principal democratic actors. Consider this an update of my reflections on Hannah Arendt’s classic essay, “Truth and Politics,” and on her work as a whole. Consider this also to be my attempt to confront the challenges of the new authoritarianism.

Totalitarian ideologies are the extreme manifestation of this reactionary moment. Lenin, and the Leninists of old, knew that the working class was so embroiled in the immediate problems it faced that it didn’t understand its own world-historic role. Because of this, the party vanguard should, and did, reveal “the truth” of the proletariat’s position. Trotksy could only know the truth of history through the Party, and Merleau-Ponty would even justify Stalin’s show trials on these grounds. That this argument continues, most outlandishly in the work of Slavoj Zizek, bewilders me. It does seem like a farce, but some pretty smart people seem to take it seriously, for example: participants in a conference on “Communism, a New Beginning.”

Vanguardism is mirrored on the alt right with a vengeance, and with much more ominous consequences, I fear. A huge demonstration recently in Poland that drew an estimated 60,000 people reveals a revival of fascism in that country, and in Europe more generally. This is something that I never thought possible in my long years of engagement studying political and cultural alternatives in that part of the world. And as we have explored here in our analysis of the events in Charlottesville and beyond, true believing neo-Nazis and white supremacists make up a powerful social movement with significant support from intellectuals close to power. Ideologies are on the rise once again, with deadly consequences and potential.

But I must admit, this is not what I fear the most. Rather, I am apprehensive about the weakening of alternatives as we mistake our informed judgment for the truth. This is why I am passionate about the problematic usage of the term neo-liberalism. It is not only that I am confused by what the referent is when people use the term. There are good and bad conceptions, I admit, and consistent and inconsistent ones. The pressing danger appears when “neo-liberalism” is understood as the true cause of innumerable problems that ordinary folks fail to perceive. Thus, for example, the charge that these ordinary folks, including me, failed to understand, because of the workings of neo-liberalism, that there was little difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and a huge difference between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The truth of the intellectual obscures political judgment, or perhaps renders it irrelevant.

And then intellectuals get carried away with their debates about fine points of theoretical interest, ideas that they see as crucial, but that may be obscure to the general public. How should feminism and the critique of capitalism be related? And does this relation serve the cause of gender equality and a just society? Who is of the radical left and what should its relationship be to the Democratic Party? Are liberal anti-racists even more of a challenge to a just society than explicit white supremacists? Is fear or racism the primary cause of police brutality?

These are interesting questions debated in Public Seminar. I have not only joined the debate; I’ve encouraged it. But I worry about what we make of these debates, and that we fail to see that most citizens aren’t participating in them.

When such questions are understood as a search for the correct and true answers to political problems, I fear we intellectuals are part of the problem and not part of the solution. When they open discussion and when we understand the need to extend the opening beyond academic circles, I am more hopeful.

Thus, I was particularly moved by the exchange between Louis Colombo and Jennifer M. Page. Colombo cogently demonstrates that it is deeply problematic to justify police use of deadly violence on the grounds of their fear for their own lives. He reasonably answers in the negative the key question he poses: “[S]hould the primary thought of police officers, officers trusted with ‘serving and protecting’ the public, be with their own safety?” Though they should be permitted to defend themselves, their vocation requires that this should not be their primary concern, as might be expected of an ordinary citizen, and this should be so independent of considerations of race, class and gender. Page responds that Colombo, therefore, has sanitized his account, that race has been the grounds for police brutality, so vividly revealed in many cases of the recent past, and overlooking this does not get to racism as the underlying cause of police brutality. Colombo, in a reply to Page’s post, concedes the centrality of racism, but argues that his piece actually demonstrates the weakness of the argument of a race-free account of brutality, showing that the emptiness of the notion that “blue lives matter.” In this dialogue, insight can inform public discussion. A primary task then is to take this insight to a broader public, which we the editors try to do.

If we know that the only way to a progressive future is by the leftist occupation of the Democratic Party, if we know that the only way to achieve gender justice is by linking the feminist struggle with the critique of capitalism, if we know that the problem of police brutality is white supremacy, clear and simple, if such interpretations are confused with the truth, we are enemies of democracy. But if we understand that each of these insights should inform political discussion, then we aid, indeed constitute, democracy.

I close by noting how this week we, at Public Seminar, informed discussion with an appreciation of the story of the history of working to make the political aspirations of women visible, and by showing that the struggle to provide adequate healthcare for the needy in New York City requires “More equitably distributing healthcare burdens and resources” to the private and public hospital systems.

We also subverted the easy distinction between realism and utopianism when it comes to the American promise, role and responsibility in post-war politics, by highlighting the realism of the Christian utopian A.J. Muste, a publicly engaged intellectual I carefully read as I contemplated how I would respond to the draft so many years ago. And once again, we published a piece that uses reflections on the past to make sense of the problems of Trump and Trumpism. It does not reveal the truth of the new authoritarianism, but provides further insight into its special qualities, offering ways that people with fundamentally opposing democratic positions, of the left, right and center, can find common ground to act together against the present authoritarian threats.

I am bewildered by the news of the day, day after day. Things have taken turns for the worse wherever I look. I know that I don’t know. It was a good start for Socrates’ quest. I think we should be informed both by his life and death, and forget about what’s the matter with the people in Kansas and think a bit more about what’s the matter with us, a first step in responding to the crisis of our times.

Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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