Why your intellectuals are not my intellectuals

I’m rarely in favour of clinical pathologisation, but insistent nostalgia and an unusual attachment to the fantasy of British Values might well be considered an illness, particularly prevalent amongst the privately educated group of people who become politicians. One can palpably trace the line of affective, deeply melancholic loss suffered in adulthood to the division and pressure of education severed completely from any socially nurturing principle, itself rooted in the model of a deeply patriarchal schism in the familial household. It is clear that the symptom becomes the fetish that sustains the fantasy of what was ‘lost’: one must perform the loss in order to enjoy what is missing in it, subtract any kind of potential for human advancement from the social domain, isolate and privatise it, or else the faceless rabble will prevent you from enjoying the tender, lonely ache of your own ‘social’ calling. Such seems to be the formation of a British conservative subject position.

If it stopped there, however, it would be easy to point to in the form of particular or individual subjectivities. Rather, it pervades society as ideology. It soaks into all social layers. Nostalgia particularly afflicts the poor, where it finds populist right-wing support (not least from mass media) in the form of patriotism, xenophobia, racism and all forms of bigotry. It distorts and warps what influence the left has had, leading to mangling of theoretical categories in the production of inconsistent and wholly meaningless monsters such as ‘the white working class’ as brandished by salivating ‘kippers. Again, this is fairly easy to identify; but what about the way the nostalgia of political conservatism affects the more widely educated?

Here, the late Ellen Meiksins Wood’s concept of ‘the abuse of civil society’ has a poignant aptness to contemporary Britain, as presented by Jacobin magazines’ The Retreat of the Intellectuals. In this piece, Wood outlined the way in which civil society as a concept once amenable to the left came to fog relations of exploitation and class. Today we see the fallout in the way that humanitarianism, and not socialism, is the dominant signifier of social good. Through this shift it is possible to argue that, for instance, celebrity-driven media ‘campaigns’ are more progressive than political demonstrations on the street — a position it is only possible to take if class antagonism has been completely obscured. It is also obviates the need for organic intellectualism, requiring only that a celebrity have a media-savvy agent capable of projecting a differently nuanced branding. It does not proceed in anything like a bottom-up fashion but instead commands and directs support. A celebrity that appears in a staged and produced sound-bite advocating social justice may reach more people and penetrate many social layers, but it does not do so from within the social composition itself. The principle of democratic self-government which is supposed to underpin civil society is not supposed to mean waiting for inspiring celebrity videos to rouse a flurry of petitions on a disconnected issue-by-issue basis with no articulation of class; the mobilising force cannot be other than the self-determination of class itself. Otherwise, as Wood puts it, we are left with a ‘mockery’ of civil society and the idea of democracy. Indeed, what we are left with is the neoliberal appropriation of the military concept of the ‘campaign’ — as a means to create, identify and expand markets. It is not with each other that these markets are at war, they merely ‘compete’ — a wholly unanimous affair; the undisclosed military element behind any media or ad campaign is ultimately at war with human desire, and its possibilities for social self-determination in other, non-capitalistic, forms of social co-operation.

It’s rather unfortunate that we prefer celebrities to intellectuals. Even our ‘public intellectuals’ are far more akin to (if not actually) celebrities than sites of expression for organic, social intelligence. That is to say, it isn’t unfortunate in a haphazard way, as if it were an unlucky accident. Indeed it’s entirely the kind of product that neoliberalism intends. It’s unfortunate that this is what our current social situation produces under the name of intellectual. It’s very difficult to look at Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry, for example, and see something like an organic, social intellect coming to expression through them. It doesn’t. What comes to light is merely the self-assurance of an expert, a repository of sanctioned lore, at best perhaps a technician or curator. That’s what neoliberalism requires and produces, not intellectuals.

I don’t know if this is a particularly British problem, but it is reflected even within the university, and particularly in the still-lingering emphasis on Fregean, Popperian and Carnapian argumentation prominent in philosophy departments, and the almost universal shunning of continental philosophy. It is likely that sentimentality, traditionalism and nostalgia drives this emphasis in a largely unexplored and unacknowledged way. In particular, the British Humanist Society and the general institutionalism of the Royal Society enjoy a strong influence that goes by without criticism. These and other historical biases pervade the notion of the intellect that the public of the UK inherit today, so that, for example, the ‘clever’ commenter in a string of replies on a discussion of ideology is still regarded as the one that points out the role of conflicting religious views in the history of war — and not the one that points out the social stratifications on which these conflicts are parasitic. Indeed the regard for intelligence seems to begin and end (all too abruptly, and without further historical elaboration) with the enlightenment critique of religion. In popular articulations, an intelligent critique of capitalism is wholly lacking. This is ridiculous, because much of the critical acumen and precision of thought that is exercised in the former could be applied — and in a sense is even more applicable, relevant, and appropriate — in the latter. It’s always bothered me that humanistic ‘public intellectuals’ — who appear never to have advanced further than the enlightenment critique of religion in their philosophical education — who would vomit at the idea of surrendering human self-determination to a deity in the sky will nonetheless roll over in the most supine acquiescence before a neoliberal agenda, that is, to the utter subordination of human education — surely the acme of all endeavour — to the rule of financialised markets. It’s bothering because these people are supposed to be intelligent, yet can’t see the contradictions in the way they have made their own position one of irrelevance, of always fighting a past already overcome. The truth is that they are not fighting at all. The appearance of shadow-boxing is in fact the alibi used when British Humanists are doing what they have done, symptomatically, even since the later 18th century: they are doing nothing other than re-enacting their triumphalist ‘victory’ — the imperialist victory of the scientific mind over the superstitious, stupid, dark interiors it claimed to have finally colonised. It’s pretty much what the younger generation would call a ‘circle jerk’. It’s pretty pathological — just look at the repetitiousness, the compulsion to repeat.

So today, as a government which basically tells seven million students ‘fuck off, you’re too poor to deserve state-funded education‘ handwaves their protest, financiers rub their hands in glee at another social group they can capture and thus socially direct, and the BBC signally fails to care, we should read our situation as one that is so pathologically mired in British nostalgia for the good old days that it cannot recall that intellectualism means thinking socially forward, not regurgitating defensive self-congratulatory fantasies of mission civilisatrice and conquest.