Why the debate on “public intellectuals” is faulty (pt. 2 of 2)
Hello, OrgTheory readers—Tom Medvetz here, returning after a brief blogging-sabbatical* with my fifth and penultimate guest post. As the title indicates, this post is a continuation of my last one, which focused on the status of so-called “public intellectuals” in the U.S. However, one of my main points in that discussion was that the debate itself—having grown zombie-like (by which I mean lurching aimlessly for a quarter-century, well past its natural lifespan)—deserved critique.†
The Talking Dead: some leading figures in the debate on “public intellectuals”
If you didn’t get a chance to read part 1 of this post, here are the main take-home points:
(1) First, I made the far-from-novel observation that any attempt to make meaningful statements about “intellectuals,” public or otherwise, is fraught with all kinds of analytic, theoretical, and conceptual difficulties—the main ones being linked to the concept intellectual itself (and its closest kin: e.g. experts, pseudo-intellectuals, etc.). As Zygmunt Bauman put it, “Any attempt to define intellectuals is an attempt at self-definition.”‡ In fact, you could plausibly argue that making a definitive statement about who “truly” counts as an intellectual is in a sense the ultimate intellectual act inasmuch as it presupposes a kind of meta-level knowledge about what “real” knowledge is, who really has it, etc.
(2) So I dealt with these issues by invoking an analytic framework snatched directly from the work of Gil Eyal—and the purpose of the framework was to give us a coherent way to talk about the relationships among social actors and groups who make claims to expertise. (Really, you should go back and look at the first post.)
(3) The key point of that framework was that it’s useful to think about experts in terms of a field-like space of relations, which Eyal calls the field of expertise. For my purposes, the key opposition in that discussion was between two stances intellectuals can take vis-à-vis their audiences: “openness” and “closure.” In this usage, openness is a willingness to produce knowledge that’s freely accessible to a non-expert “laity,” whereas closure is an expert group’s attempt to exercise proprietary control over its knowledge, especially through credentialization, but also by giving its knowledge a degree of esotericism or “mystery.”
In my own work, this opposition became relevant when I asked where the think tank category came from. Limits of space prevent me from explaining fully why this is a puzzle in the first place, so for the most part you’ll have to trust me. But very briefly: part of the issue is that many of the organizations that we now call “think tanks” (e.g. Brookings, CEIP, CFR, NBER) emerged in the 1910s and ‘20s, decades before anyone classified them as members of the same organizational “species.” Other complexities aside, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the think tank classification developed in anything resembling its present day form, with postwar military planning groups like the RAND Corporation becoming the early prototypes—and the older, Progressive Era-groups getting lumped in afterwards.
In the book, I argue that the think tank classification formed as the result of a merging together of two sets of organizations with competing claims to expertise on matters related to public policy. On the one side were some of the aforementioned organizations, which had by the 1950s claimed for themselves important roles in economic, social, and foreign policy-making affairs. In the absence of a formal technocratic arm of the state, groups like Brookings, CFR, and RAND were centrally involved in devising the social programs of the welfare state, supplying technical assistance to the defense industry, staffing the economic administration, helping to broker deals between management and labor, and so on.
However, the 1960s saw the growth of a major challenge to the authority of technocrats, one led by an emerging set of figures I call activist-experts. Doubtless the most provocative part of this claim is that it counts certain sub-factions of the Left and the Right as two sides of the same coin. This isn’t to say that they were engaged in a secret conspiracy, only that if we momentarily bracket the ideological differences between them, there are certain nontrivial commonalities that help to illuminate the question at hand. The general point is that both the left- and right-wing movements of the 1960s were animated largely by suspicion toward professionalized rationality and its carriers: i.e. “technocrats.”
Of course, the right- and left-wing critiques of technocracy took on very different forms and had different targets. For the New Left, it was the image of the Cold War military planner that became the key symbol of technocracy run amok. (Read the Port Huron Statement for its denunciation of professionalized rationality—or watch the movie Dr. Strangelove for its caricaturized representation of a crazed military adviser.) For conservatives, the main technocratic villain was the New Deal welfare state planner. (Read the Sharon Statement for its denunciation of “government interfere[nce] with the work of the market economy”—or watch the movie Brazil for its dystopian vision of a suffocating state bureaucracy.)§ In both cases, the argument was that technocratic experts had become too powerful, too unaccountable to the public, and too consumed by their own professional self-interests.
Villainy we can agree on: Deranged nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (left), a character often said to have been based on Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn, and a faceless bureaucrat from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (right).
For me, the idea of the field of expertise became useful as a tool for understanding what happened next. First, it’s important to recognize that both sets of activists faced the same paradox inherent in any attempt to challenge “expertise”: Put simply, to try to undermine the authority of an expert is already to claim for yourself a kind of expertise. It should come as no surprise, then, that with virtually no credentials or academic titles to speak of and no recognized body of authoritative knowledge at their disposal, activists on both sides established hundreds of new nonprofit research centers that served a kind of self-credentialing function. In my formulation, the activists became “activist-experts.” In the language of field analysis, they pursued a strategy of closure by attempting to “certify” their knowledge and constitute themselves as experts of a new breed.
Among the best examples are the Institute for Policy Studies and the Worldwatch Institute (on the left) and the Heritage Foundation (1971) and the Manhattan Institute (1978) (on the right). The growth of these organizations had major effects for their technocratic predecessors, which increasingly found themselves under scrutiny for their public unaccountability, their secrecy, and their supposed self-interestedness. In the theoretical language I’ve used, they faced a problem of too much closure. Accordingly, they began moving “vertically’” toward the center of the field of expertise by “opening up” their knowledge. Organizations like Brookings, CFR, and RAND, having once tried to operate entirely “behind the scenes,” increasingly sought media attention, produced shorter and more accessible writing for the general public, and expanded their memberships.
The result was a kind of structural convergence. Notice that this framework allows us to avoid any essentializing labels for either set of organizations. In fact, the main point is that to the degree that the activist-oriented groups succeeded in getting their policy recommendations taken seriously by politicians (i.e. in becoming political “insiders”), they became more “technocratic” themselves. And vice versa: to the degree that the more technocratic groups engaged in public outreach, they became more like the activist-experts. The overarching result of the convergence, I argue, was that the organizations became increasingly interconnected, more oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and more focused on common goals. By the 1980s, the distinction between them had become muddier—and the political folk category think tank was born to describe all of them.
What does all this have to do with the debate about “public intellectuals”? First, it suggests a wholesale reframing of that debate. The term public intellectual itself is best understood, not as referring to a flesh-and-blood individual, but to a theoretical position in a space of relations. Second, it suggests that the period since the 1960s has been marked neither by the “demise of the public intellectual” in any simple sense, nor by the opposite process (i.e. the flowering of public intellectuals), as others have argued. Instead, it has been marked by the appearance of a new intellectual figure known as a “policy expert.” Commentators who celebrate policy experts as “public intellectuals” invariably overlook the severe economic and political constraints they face in conducting policy research.
On the other hand, commentators who lament the “death” of public intellectualism typically romanticize the late 1950s and early ‘60s as its golden age. This was the era of John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, and Richard Hofstadter. However, if the germ of a public intellectual project was incubating then, it represented the lesser of the two developing challenges to technocracy. Furthermore, the project’s failure cannot be explained in terms of a simple retreat by scholars into the “ivory tower.” Unlike the structural convergence between technocrats and activist-experts that gave rise to the “policy expert,” the relations among academic scholars since the 1960s have been marked by divergence. Whereas some took the path of “hyper-professionalization” (to quote Steve Shapin), others opted to imitate the style of the “policy expert.” Yet others still have persisted in a civic-intellectual mission—only to face a double-marginalization: first, from American public debate, and second, from the mainstreams of their own disciplines. Meanwhile, the main cause of this divergence, and the primary obstacle to the development of a viable civic-intellectual tradition in the US—viz. the institutionalization of “policy expertise” through the blending of activist and technocratic styles of intellectual production—has gone largely unnoticed.
* Much like blog posts themselves, blogging-sabbaticals are inevitably quite short.
† In retrospect, I should have incorporated a zombie angle into the book—zombies currently being a surefire path to the bestseller list.
‡ Zygmunt Bauman. 1992. “Love in Adversity: On the State and the Intellectuals, and the State of the Intellectuals,” Thesis Eleven 31: 81-104. Quoted in Jerome Karabel. 1996. “Towards a Theory of Intellectuals and Politics.” Theory and Society 25: 205-233.
§ Incidentally, one of the original working titles for Brazil was (I’m not making this up) The Ministry of Torture, Or How I Learned to Live with the System—a clear reference to Dr. Strangelove’s full title. Also, I should state outright that I’m not suggesting Brazil is an inherently “conservative” movie (although I would point out that the website Libertarian.com seems to think it is)—and even the somewhat less ideological Cyberpunkreview.com summarizes the film’s point in terms of a critique of the welfare state: “In the end, Brazil shows how the depths of humanity can be crushed in a dystopic future where individuality and human rights become completely subservient to societal ‘welfare.’”