Where did the real intellectuals go?
Real intellectuals on mainstream media suffered the same luck as real social democracy: they simply disappeared. The end of the real intellectual class has been clucking for about 40 years and no real intellectual seems to be willing to stand up and show his or her head.
In spite of everything, the term survives, but devoid of the aura that used to accompany it.
Mainstream media do with the name intellectual what they do with almost everything else: prostitute it.
For example, they use the word ‘expert’ before someone’s name in an attempt to provide credibility to their pronouncements on current issues.
“A group of intellectuals” says this or that and the manifesto signs a whole string of people belonging to these professions mentioned.
But the popularity of some of them – think of the recent cases of Richard Gere or Javier Bardem with the Open Arms refugee crisis – does not simply make them “intellectuals”. They are popular people who make public their laudable political commitment.
The classic intellectual, the “true” one, was the one whose opinion gained special importance because it was backed by the extraordinary prestige that had been gained in the field in which he excelled, generally in thought, science or literature. That intellectual would be someone like Jordan Peterson today.
Their opinions deserved more attention because they were supposed to be founded on better arguments. Ironically, some of the best debates on current issues are now held on social media, where a minority of wise people raise serious arguments and people have the opportunity to discuss them. Unfortunately, social media walls and timelines are infested with pseudointellectuals, whose best companion is ignorance, the ignorance of the educated, which is the most dangerous.
Incredibly, not only are educated people likely to have more influence, but they are the last people to suspect that they don’t know what they are talking about when they leave their narrow fields of knowledge in an era increasingly controlled by ‘experts’, not intellectuals.
Their ability to be read or listened to with attention has always been greater than that of any other mortal. But, beware! Their expertise in a certain field of knowledge did not give them a safe conduct to obtain greater influence.
Cases of these abound, such as when Foucault enthusiastically ruled in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini, or when, closer to time, the Chomsky or Zizek began to rave.
Good political judgment, as Hannah Arendt said, is not necessarily associated with intellectual ability or academic success.
In any case, and this is also part of the profile of the intellectual, in his interventions there was always some provocation, they were not limited to the healthy exercise of criticism without further ado. They revealed new and original perspectives on reality and confronted us with our own contradictions.
Perhaps that is why many of them officiated as “impeccable priests”, always on the side of the ethics of conviction and oblivious to the inevitable dilemmatic nature of most political decisions.
The real intellectual’s role was not to facilitate the decision to the ruler, but to shake the consciences, even if that meant losing his partisanship.
Some liked overreaction, exaggeration or, to destroy the evidence and universality of the collective, show in the inertia and restrictions of the weak points, openings, and lines of force.
To those intellectuals, the fundamental point was to detect important issues, present fertile theses and broaden the spectrum of relevant issues in order to improve the deplorable level of public debates.
Perhaps in this game between reasonableness and provocation was the key that made their public action more or less heard and followed, more or less respected.
Gradually, however, their reign in public space was replaced by that of ‘experts’. The new complexity of an increasingly technocratic policy meant that our understanding of what was happening required the continued use of ‘specialists’ of different fur.
The great speeches of the philosophical-moral guardianship of the classical intellectual gave way to ‘expert analysis’. This complemented the day-to-day news more effectively than the possible reflections of the wise.
The academic world, in addition, soon stopped offering generalists and led only to specialization.
On the other hand, there were less and less of the historical intellectuals, who were also being supplied by what the Anglo-Saxons call public intellectuals, who think from their specialty and prestige, such as former congressmen, former military, former politicians, former bankers; al of whom are paid contributors to parrot the ideas of their owners.
Many of them – not necessarily those mentioned here are part of the The Industry of Ideas, a privileged class with access to the “market of ideas”, which is not exempt from mediation and where great economic interests also play their part in when promoting their reflections.
That of the classic intellectual of “telling the truth to power” would thus become the opposite: it is the factual powers that try to define what the truth is by looking for the right spokespersons, whether they are thinkers or think tanks.
The fact is that, when entering this phase of post-truth politics, there is no way to impose “truths” that are worthwhile. Come from intellectuals, experts or public intellectuals.
Not surprisingly, they all belong to an elite and that already puts them a priori under suspicion. Unless, of course, they defend the positions that matter to us.
The current vituperation of the elites has also extended to those who had the function of orienting us.
We have to wait for the expansion of social networks for the real rebellion of the masses, although now they have taken the form of virtual swarms.
Behind this is, of course, the process of disintermediation, which has broken with the monopoly of traditional media to exercise its protection over public opinion. Or the potential possibility of direct access to knowledge that until now was only accessible to a group of initiates. Or the predominance of affections over cognition, such as the fact that people only find convincing what fits my feelings, politics or religious beliefs.
How about the enormous political polarization that draws on a tribalized consumption of information and discussion, the famous echo chambers, or the disappearance of the deliberation behind the merely expressive.
The result of all this is a generalized loss of credibility by institutions, groups or people that until then fulfilled that guiding function that we talked about before. And among them are, of course, intellectuals.
Because there are them, only that their influence is less and less in this society that is projected on an increasingly fragmented scenario and is dominated by a cold economy of attention.
That economy serves those who make more noise, not those who provide better arguments; or the ugliest and provocative, who are always interviewed with fruition; or to those who use novel strategies in defense of a particular cause.
It is not surprising that teenage ecologist Greta Thunberg has managed to capture so much attention.
We cannot forget, however, that democracy has always had a peculiar relationship with the truth. Democracy is the government of opinion, not that of Platonic philosophers or that of scientists.
Although philosophers will always be able to enlighten us, in the end the majority opinion, which does not have to be the most reasoned, decides. That is why democracy theorists have advocated the need to submit different opinions to the test of public deliberation.
This is where intellectuals are welcome, those who alert us to dimensions of reality that sometimes escape us. The problem is that most of them have been carried away by polarization and have ascribed to some of the parts of this new policy of irreconcilable factions.
With this they go from being intellectuals to becoming ideologues, rationalizers of one or the other opinions. Autonomous thinking fades or loses its resonance behind network noise.
Others insist on digestible pedantic disquisitions only for those who are well anchored in the increasing minority of humanistic subculture.
However, I have for myself that those who have tipped the intellectuals have been, curiously, the Tertullians, if we can generalize between such a large and varied group. That’s where we find talk radio and talk shows on TV.
Due to the dynamics of the invention, the fleeting and almost improvised analysis – the “quick thinking” – and the promotion of the contrast of opinions, the message that is transmitted is that everything is possible. There is no right or wrong.
Without making great efforts, even on those issues that would require recourse to expert knowledge, who, then, are these intellectuals – or experts – who dare to impose a single vision of reality when we already have that of ours?
No wonder, then, that the once “impeccable priests” are being abandoned to uncritically follow relentless ideological leaders.
The argumentative reason is gradually replaced by the cacophony of unsupported opinions or the emotional reinforcement of the new slogans.
The end of intellectuals has all the signs of being a self-fulfilling prophecy.