Demo Lition 10.11.10
(UK Tuition Riots via andymoss461 on flickr)

My sister (whose blog is pretty awesome) shared this on Google Reader:

Walter Russell Mead in The National Interest (h/t: Boston Review):

[T]he biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level. Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.

I’m overgeneralizing wildly, of course, but there seem to be three big reasons why so many intellectuals today are so backward looking and reactionary.

First, there’s ideology. Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism.

I profoundly disagree. It’s true that there are a lot of smart people who are overinvested in the past. There’s also a fascinating class of new intellectuals who are completely dedicated to the future–multicultural, open, transparent, data-driven, economically balanced and just, innovative & multidisciplinary, sustainable, networked. It’s just that they’re often not credentialled in the old-school way, or if they are, they’ve repudiated that type of thinking (which is how they got to be such interesting thinkers), so maybe they’re not visible to this guy’s outdated definitions of “intellectual” or “best-educated.”

The blind spot in his argument is that the now woefully outdated program of the “advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state” begins with universities. “Credentialed experts” come from credentialed universities. Universities are the ur-”institution of twentieth century progressivism.”

It doesn’t mean I want to bomb the welfare state, destroy the institutions of 2oth c progressivism before anything stable has arisen to take their place. People suffer when you do that and they get pretty upset too (see the tuition riots in the UK).

It’s just that if we can agree that this is a tired way of thinking we should be able to agree that we need new kinds of tools, practices, resources and conversations to support new kinds of thinking. I avoid saying “new institutions” because I think what arises to replace the current institutions, like the university, may be unrecognizable as such.

6 Responses to “Where My Forward-Looking Intellectuals At?”

  1. Bryce says:

    Part of the problem, from the liberal side, is that it’s hard to have a discussion about new approaches when it seems that the old approaches are under assault by the right wing. They have fundamentally different views on how society should operate.

    Take basic education reform. You put a bunch of liberals together to come up with a plan, and the ideas flow freely. But mix in a few conservatives, people who don’t see education as an inalienable right but as a privilege that a child’s parents should pay for (or not, as they see fit), and suddenly the ideas go dry. Suddenly, public education as presently practiced must be protected, because any opportunity for reform becomes an opportunity to dismantle the guarantees written into the current social contract.

    The point isn’t that Lefties are good or Righties are bad. The point is that, when you don’t trust that everyone at the table is dealing in good faith or working toward the same goals, then reform becomes an opportunity for your enemies to subvert your goals by backhanded means. Suddenly, the status quo starts looking pretty good.

  2. Anya Kamenetz says:

    Hi Bryce! I think you’re very astute to say this. But I don’t want to be part of a Left whose agenda item #1 is “defend a failed status quo.” That sounds more reactionary than progressive.

    Maybe the solution is to take up a more aggressive reform agenda of our own. Move the conversation and assail the institution that the right holds most dear: the corporation.

  3. I would like to point out that what you outline above has triumphed! The bureaucratic system worked! Since the 19th century these kinds of bureaucracies have evolved and triumphed. However, they have succeeded beyond their ability to adapt to the next iteration of culture. And the people who are defending them are not doing so out of some dumb reticence to change, but because they still live in those bureaucratic institutions. Governments, like universities have not adapted to the new intersected culture. They treat the internet, and mobile in the same way that they see television and radio, one way communication. That is because that is what they know, it is what they are comfortable with. These leaders also know that the triumph of the polyvalent culture we now inhabit, by its nature, undermines the aggregation of power in their voices. They don’t understand that they could use the power of the past to move forward in the future. To use this aggregation as a dissemination point, a platform. But that would by nature include aggregating opposing views, assimilating them, considering them, and allowing dissent, and taking the risk (everytime) that power might flow outwardly, away from their platform. That however is the nature of a polyvalent culture in a market economy. I think Foucault had it right, power is traded like cash; the trick is to know you are participating.

    My biased view is that corporations can help institutions streamline. My first day of graduate school, the professor told us, “The first order of business for any institution is to maintain it’s own existence.” I have never forgotten that. Every single institution or person has its own welfare and maintenance at the core of its mission.

    The idea that a market economy could create an effective replacement for the university is also limited. Market economies are fickle. While the peer/tenure system in its current embodiment actually creates less learning and openness, the reasons for the creation of the tenure system are still very important in today’s society, and have helped shaped the idea of Western democracy. Writing papers and defending ideas, creating art and research free from political-religious indoctrination or undue influence, sharing wealth of information- these concepts have permeated culture. However, we need to find or create a dynamic that sustains the models of learning and discovery, without confining them to geography. And we need a system that supports the intent of tenure, without ossifying the system itself.

    University models are breaking down in favor of corporations and distribution channels. But there still has to be a supply. There is a general lack of trust for supply without the institutional rigor of traditional universities and the peer system (for-profit colleges). Traditional universities must remain the pillars of discovery, and the source of teaching. But the classroom doesn’t have to be the only channel.

    Evolution is not substitution.

  4. Bryce says:

    Reforming corporations will be a hard fight, made even harder by the fact that the target of reform controls so many of the avenues of communication. But if you’re looking for an area where reform could make a huge difference, you’ve found it.

    I figure the key is worker ownership of the corporation. Right now we have a nonsensical system where the person who works the assembly line for twenty years gets no ownership stake and no say in business decisions, but the guy who happened to buy some stock from somebody who bought some stock from somebody who initially fronted a bit of seed money does. Naturally, that owner’s interest lies in paying the assembly line worker as little as he’s willing to take.

    Worse, money paid to the stock owner is deemed the natural result of the primary function of the corporation, whereas money paid to the workers (who actually have more skin in the game) is seen as a regrettable expense.

    When workers own a corporation, that conflict of interest disappears. Money paid to workers effectively moves to the other side of the balance sheet.

    The question is, how do we clearly communicate the need for corporate reform? I’m pessimistic about the prospect (pessimistic about a lot of things, really). We’ve just seen possibly the greatest corporate heist in the history of the planet. And where did all the outrage go? It was channeled into scorn for the health care reform that will cover tens of millions of people. It was channeled into fear of “redistributionist” policies that benefit hundreds of millions of honest, hard-working Americans. It was channeled into a spirited, grassroots defense of tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. And it was channeled into defeating Democratic politicians whose policies are better for the poor, the middle class, and the economy in general.

    That’s the power of controlling the message. That’s the power the proponents of corporate reform are up against.

    Book Recommendation: The Divine Right of Capital.

    There are opportunities for creating alternatives to corporations for some forms of production. The world is full of good ideas, from 3D printing to open source software and content development to crowdsourcing. In the broadest sense, a corporation is just one possible mechanism for organizing capital (things) and labor (people) in such a way that desirable things are created.

    I don’t believe the status quo has failed. Certain parts — including much of the social safety net that the Right would do away with — have succeeded admirably in their goal of reducing misery. Those parts include “redistributionist” programs like Medicare and Social Security. I see small opportunities for those programs to be improved by technology, but I don’t see a major Web-2.0 reboot for them, the way I do for universities and corporations. The reason is, they’re too simple. All they do is hand out money to people who need to be able to afford certain goods and services. There isn’t much overhead to be cut.

    Anyhow, such programs need to be protected even as we figure out how to more broadly and effectively deliver things like health care and education.

    Sorry to ramble. I do that from time to time.

  5. This post cracks me up. To sum up: “Why aren’t the people who have succeeded within a conservative framework doing more to disrupt the framework?” Those who claim the title ‘intellectual’ are usually beneficiaries of a system that rewards those who follow the rules of the classroom, hail from a more privileged socioeconomic status, live in major metropolitan areas, etc. And, even in educational circles which is a haven for smart women, the designated leaders are often white and male.

  6. Bryce says:

    Margaret: You’re right that the life experiences of academics is not fully representative of the population at large. But I’m not sure academia can be justly described as a conservative framework.

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