Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Public intellectuals and the crisis

Slí Eile: ‘We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.’ (Einstein)

In an excellent piece in last Saturday’s Irish Times, UCD Sociologist Andreas Hess, discusses the role of intellectuals in the current economic and social crisis (Time to Consider our Position as Citizens and not Consumers).

He argues that as we face a crisis of ideas in which little has, so far, emerged to fill the vacuum.
‘While the majority of economists and the right – the current political caste hardly knows the distinction – still lecture us and are trying to squeeze the last goodwill and surplus out of us, the left is still looking for the revolutionary subject that they hope will emerge from the crisis.’

Hess cites the work of Michael Sandel the US political philosopher who has recently published (in the US) What’s the Right Thing to Do?

As Governments around the world wrestle with hard choices, uncertain outcomes and extremely fragile financial markets and ‘real’ economy there is a huge question confronting them – What is the right thing to do?

Sandel argues that society is not just a loose collection of individuals in which ‘everything is mediated through or determined by market forces’ (Hess). This takes us to the heart of ‘civic republicanism’ – the notion that we are bound together in a chain of mutual obligation and solidarity and that citizenship is much, much more than some legal status or passport entitlement. And it goes beyond our market roles as consumers or workers. It is about our belonging to a community in which we care for one other and receive obligations and norms.

The Royal Irish Academy will hold a half-day conference on 27 November (Public intellectuals in times of crisis: what do they have to offer?)

Academics, researchers, political thinkers and activists and many civil society organisations lay heavy criticism (and rightly so) on the failure of Governments, banks, big business and some of the intellectual elites that nursed the neo-liberal nightmare whose fruits are all too evident to see now.

But, what would you do tomorrow if you had the reigns of power? What advice would you give to a listening ear of someone to decide the shape of banking, budgetary policy and institutional reform? Not an easy one to deal with in the real world, here and now, tomorrow, next month with consequences now, next year, 10 years time.

The role of ‘intellectuals’ in this crisis begs a number of questions:
* Where are they to be found? – More importantly where can we access ideas of most relevance to the current state of human evolution?
* If some of the old models of thinking and believing are broken what new models are worth considering or tinkering with?
* How can public debate be fostered about where we are, where we envision the future and how we get there?

As a people we are renowned for talk, pragmatism and ‘pulling together’ when the chips are seriously down (example cited of 1987).
However, there seems to be, currently, a huge deficit of ideas, fresh thinking and imagination.
In particular, there seems to be a large disconnect between thinking and action.

You know what is wrong with the world – the people who act don’t think and the people who think don’t act’ (attributed to Peter Maurin of the Catholic Workers’ Movement in the film: Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story)


tgmac said...

The reason, imo, why we are not having a discussion about the polity of the state is because we've never laid down a native foundation of polity nor even tried to create a basis for national or cultural dialogue. All too often we adopt other's ideas or merely reflect ourselves against and opposed to another nation's interal dialogue, or what we perceive that dialogue to be. There is also the problem of where the "intelligentsia" perceive their place in society to be. From reading the article, I once again get the sense that the intelligentsia are engaged in a lecture series, and hence the throw away remarks about leftist or republicanism. Has the left engaged with leftists or republican's? I don't think so or he would know that fundamental thinking is taking place in these spheres.

Is there a paradox at work in modern society as opposed the old ways in which new ideas were circulated through books and pamplets? We have much quicker and extensive ability to disseminate ideas yet one gets the feeling that the information is delivered in such as manner (from on up high, if you like) that the messages loose their connection with the ordinary people. If dialogue, and heaven forfend change, is to occur the ideas and the message must be directly connected to the average citizen's concerns. Of course, this is no panacea as the US tea-baggers have shown us, but we have to start somewhere and another forum or lecture series doesn't cut the mustard.

I came across a quote the other day (not verbatim): we must cultivate expert citizens because amateur citizens no longer do. The first step is to engage the citizenery in dialogue - at eye to eye level.

Martin O'Dea said...

I think that perhaps there should be a publication, call it 'Choice' say, for original thought. Clearly, it should foster disagreement, and it should be put out into the mainstream. This could run online but I think should also follow the Metro/Herald AM model. Put this on trains etc. for free and nationwide. I am a believer that people, on average, are much more intelligent than the intelligentsia allow. They are normally very busy, though, and find it hard to tune into websites such as this and hear the arguments we can't understand why they don't agree with. This publication should probably have some sort of financial support and should use advertising as it vehicle for the remainder. Personally I would like a team of Fintan O'Tooles and Gene Kerrgians but there should also be room for original thought from elsewhere in the spectrum.
This could have articles of a fairly profound nature, but not with an exlusive feel, or requiring much prior knowledge of topics involved. As I say the fact that it is free will mean that people will read, and the fact that such a model works, as shown with metro etc, for others should encourage. The reality is that stupidity has taken a firm hold of many media (it is an easier sell), and intelligence can't just complain about the lack of willingness for people to make the effort to seek it out.

Tomboktu said...

I also think there is a problem with too few of our thinkers bothering to communicate outside the academy, and in particular in the mainstream media.

Anonymous said...

The TED talks for example can provide interesting fuel for thinking. A similar system could be used to invite people to explore a theme from different disciplines. It could start off as town hall and video it. From small seeds...Thinking can be made popular again as recession demands it.