The Changing of the Progressive Public Intellectual

Leftist Eric Alterman reviews Daniel Drezner’s book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas:

Once upon a time, we relied on intellectuals to “speak truth to power,” as the saying goes. Of course, real life was never so simple. But the adversary culture that arose in the bohemia of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century and among the (mostly) Jewish intellectuals who founded the independent Partisan Review in the 1930s offered at least a basis from which both to critique capitalism and to imagine alternative systems that might one day replace it.

Today, our most famous purveyors of ideas sell themselves to the wealthy much like the courtiers of the Middle Ages. Drezner notes that these ideas are therefore shaped by the “aversion” that plutocrats share toward addressing the problems we face. Inequality? Global warming? Populist nihilism? An explosion of global refugees? From a Silicon Valley perspective, Drezner notes, such things are not a failure of our system but rather “a piece of faulty code that need[s] to be hacked.” Examining data from a survey of Silicon Valley corporate founders, Drezner notes their shared belief that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).”

“Intellectuals who wish to cater to this crowd will find it difficult to contradict the narrative of meritocratic achievement,” Drezner explains. His discussion of the function of the TED phenomenon is especially cogent: “TED talks are designed for thought leaders to appeal to plutocrats. At less than twenty minutes, they are mercifully short—a perfect format for potential patrons. The working rich are busy people operating on a compressed schedule. Time is their scarcest resource, and they have limited attention spans…. The format itself also rewards more utopian thinking. There are no discussants for TED talks, no critical feedback.” It’s important to remember that we are not talking about the Koch brothers’ spending or the corruption of traditional think tanks by corporate money or the purchase by foreign governments of this or that policy shop. This is what’s happening on the progressive side.

This entry was posted in Left. Bookmark the permalink.