[Paleopsych] TLS: Edmund Fawcett: Left languishing

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Edmund Fawcett: Left languishing
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.10.1

    WHERE HAVE ALL THE INTELLECTUALS GONE? Frank Furedi. 167pp. Continuum.
    Pounds 12.99 (US $19.95). 0 8264 6769 5.

    Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, is
    calling for "a culture war against the philistines". Britain's schools
    and universities are in calamitous decline, he writes, commitment to
    high culture is vanishing and the dumbing down of public debate is
    eroding democracy. These are serious, if scarcely original, claims.
    Here they stand out for two reasons. One is that sky-is falling talk
    about intellectual standards is commoner on the political Right,
    whereas Furedi comes from the radical Left. (His title, though not his
    biblical tone, is a nod to Pete Seeger's gentle anti-war roundel from
    the early 1960s, "Where have all the flowers gone?".) The second
    reason is that Professor Furedi blames his own side for the decline,
    and particularly its culturally minded intellectuals.

    Furedi spends little time defending his tale of decay or testing it
    against contrary evidence. He decries foolish new teaching practices
    in schools, derides "outreach" campaigns by public libraries and
    museums, and laments declines in voter turnout. As proof of widespread
    debility, this is thin. How typical his examples are, how today
    compares with, say, 1950 and how far he is talking about the spread
    rather than the depth of culture, Furedi does not really say. But this
    is not that kind of study. He more or less takes it for granted that
    his glum picture will be recognized by anyone who is actually reading
    a work of non-fiction.

    Furedi's culprits are teachers of cultural studies. This is the
    subject, the joke goes, invented to give sociologists something to
    look down on. Many people think cultural studies a spent force or, cue
    Slavoj Zizek, a form of entertainment. Not Furedi. To him its
    influence is baleful and lasting, especially for the Left. For he sees
    the culture studies staples - critical theory and postmodernism - as a
    betrayal of the "Enlightenment values" that the Left used to stand
    for: equality, civil rights and social improvement through public
    policy. Here Furedi, in effect, changes topic. What seemed to be an
    essay on culture and democracy (in the tradition of Arnold, Eliot and
    Dwight Macdonald) transposes into reflections on the responsibilities
    of left-wing intellectuals (a line of thought familiar from Antonio
    Gramsci and Paul Nizan). Furedi could have made things easier by
    deciding which model he was following. As it is, he treats the
    (radical) Left's rejection of old gods as a kind of despair based on
    three connected mistakes: an exaggerated sense that society is too
    complex to think of in broad terms, the denial of universal moral
    values, and a politicized form of extreme anti-realism - the
    incoherent idea that the authority of fact is just another form of
    tyranny, to be replaced by the free play of perspectives and opinion.

    Why intellectual heirs of European socialism and American
    progressivism took refuge in the postmodern swamp is a good question
    to which a selfless cultural historian may yet find answers. Several
    factors suggest themselves. The radical Left had abandoned economics,
    in 1968 it had made a hash of politics and "contesting" culture looked
    a good third best (Perry Anderson, the former Editor of New Left
    Review, inclines to this view in The Origins of Postmodernity, where
    he writes, elegiacally, that "the long suit" of Western Marxism "was
    always aesthetic"). Universities surrendered humanities to the new
    irrationalism so long as law, medicine and business schools were safe.
    Race, gender and "otherness" had bubbled up as issues for their own
    good reasons.

    Furedi's explanation is ingenious: the Right once spoke for "local"
    values - custom, nation, authority, the Left for "universal" ones -
    rights, peace, equality. By the 1980s, positions were reversed.
    Neo-liberalism championed global values (free trade, open societies,
    individual rights). The radical Left accordingly fell back on local
    idols of identity politics. The embrace by left-wing educators of
    "relevance" and "personal knowledge" followed inevitably.

    This story is dazzling but too abstract to be convincing.

    Quite who Furedi is writing for is a puzzle. At times he sounds like a
    weekend-papers critic of modern follies. Previous books of his have
    mocked undue fear of risk, and over-resort to therapists and tort
    lawyers. At other times he seems engaged in a micro-debate about the
    post-Marxist Left. Even here his focus is narrow. Not all ex-1968ers
    became literature dons. Many joined established parties of the Left.

    Several became ministers. Others, alternatively their children,
    swelled the ranks of the anti- globalization movement or became
    radical Greens - no despair there about not being able to see society
    in the round or of having to treat climate change as a matter of

    Even on Furedi's bleak view of "liberal culture", singling out culture
    studies villains looks questionable. Arguably they are part of a
    larger trend towards personalization in Western culture under debate
    for over half a century.

    For all that, Frank Furedi points his finger at important issues. It
    would be wrong to fault him for not writing a different book. A more
    economic (and more Marxist?) approach to the state of British culture
    would nevertheless look harder at press and television ownership, at
    public broadcasting, and at the structure of higher education. It
    would pay less attention to critical theory and more to the influence
    of business schools and right-wing think-tanks.

    It would also look into the decline of book editing. In Where Have All
    the Intellectuals Gone? Diane Ravitch's name in the bibliography is
    misspelled, the title of Bertrand de Jouvenel's essay, "The Treatment
    of Capitalism by Continental Intellectuals", is incomplete, and the
    lead book critic of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, is
    mistakenly thought to be a man. But perhaps this was a coded joke
    against identity politics.

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