Frank Furedi (Continuum, London)
This book by Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, is subtitled Confronting 21st Century Philitism.

According to Furedi, in place of people like Bertrand Russell and Raymond Williams - people with a genuine depth of knowledge, vision and the conviction to stand up against the prevailing values of society, we are left with a motley collection of TV pundits, think-tank apologists and spin doctors. The paradox is that in this age of the 'knowledge economy' we are living in the most dumbed down of cultures.

So what's happened? Furedi points out that in a traditional sense, an intellectual is someone that 'lives for rather than off ideas'. So Karl Marx was an intellectual. As was Friedreich Nietzche. An intellectual is not someone who simply works with their brains - which rules out lawyers, bank managers and so on. These people work for money - not ideas.

Of course the idea of working for an idea, as Furedi says, will sound hopelessly naive to most - but it is what has driven humankind to work for a better world. For example, the ideas of Karl Marx, who endured poverty for most of his adult life, have had a profound impact on the modern world.

Furedi notes that such people kept a certain distance from the conventions and pressures of everyday life;this gave them the freedom to explore ideas that were frequently unpopular to the establishment.

However the decline of the traditional intellectual has come at a time when the intellectual has effectively been absorbed into the prevailing status quo via the professionalisation of intellectual life.

The role of the intellectual has effectively become to add value to the market economy. The days when the intellectual offered critiques of the status quo, offering alternatives to the prevailing political and social values, has been replaced by a deadening conformism. Could a Karl Marx or a Bertrand Russell survive in such a climate? Probably not. Writes Furedi: 'The complacent defence of the status quo is virtually unprecedented in the intellectual history of modernity.'

Combined with this complacency has developed the purely instrumentalist view that the pursuit instrumentalist view that the pursuit of knowledge is only useful insofar that it benefits the capitalist economy. Scholars who want to pursue their interests are often described as 'elitist' and 'selfish'. Universities, rather than being places of learning, have turned into degree factories supplying docile workers for the capitalist economy.

What is being discussed here is not something that simply affects the halls of academia; it has had a profound impact on society generally. The devaluing of the traditional intellectual has, for example, meant that political debate has degenerated to a disturbingly low level. The intellectual has been marginalised to be replaced by the professional expert.

Writes Furedi: 'Spoon-feeding the public with sound bites has become a highly prized skill. Professional speech-writers pursue their task as if the audience was composed of easily distracted children and, not surprisingly, political discussions tend to be shallow, short-termist and bereft of ideas.'

Here in New Zealand, politicians no longer talk about the big issues, about a vision of the future. It's all about 'management' and 'good business practice' and 'value for money'.

The Labour Government long abandoned traditional social democratic values for managerialism and technocracy. Former managers at Clear Communications get voted into cabinet.
He's conservative, he won't rock the boat, he's got no vision for the future except more of the same - yes, Clayton Cosgrove is truly a 'Labour man'.

Of course the level of antipathy towards politicians and politics in general is now widespread. It's clear evidence of disillusionment and distrust with the political system. The politicians are aware of this but, as Furedi notes, 'instead of addressing the underlying malaise and disillusionment through developing challenging political ideas that could inspire the electorate to vote, its response has been to acquiesce in its dumbing down'.

But because politics has been emptied of any meaningful content what we have now is politics without substance.

At the beginning of the 20th century century politics was vibrant with political alternatives. Compelling political philosophies - discussed by a wide range of intellectuals - offered contrasting visions of the good society. The socialist left advanced revolutionary change and they clashed with the supporters of capitalism.

And what of today? Furedi notes that politics in western societies has not become more 'moderate' - it's simply gone into 'early retirement.

Political debate, without any real alternatives on offer, has become largely empty posturing about trivial matters. Writes Furedi: 'As public life has become emptied of its content, private and personal preoccupations have become projected into the personal sphere. Consequently, passions that were once stirred by ideological differences are far more likely to be engaged by individual behaviour, private troubles and personality conflicts'.

In this age of banality, Furedi argues it's time for the intellectual to present alternative world views to the public and 'in an era of the infantalisation of culture' to treat people as grown-ups.


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