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an infantile disorder???

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  • left_s_right
    hi everyone, Just thought some of you might find it interesting to scan through the following article... and may be discuss it...Its a bit old, but not at all
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2005
      hi everyone,
      Just thought some of you might find it interesting to scan through
      the following article... and may be discuss it...Its a bit old, but
      not at all dated..

      Left Intellectuals and Desperate Search for Respectability
      James Petras

      When George Soros, one of the biggest and most rapacious speculators
      in the world, published a book calling into question some of the most
      destructive aspects of speculative capital, left intellectuals raced
      reproduce his quotes as evidence that indeed `global capital' was a
      threat to humanity. The curious part of this scenario is that Soros
      got free publicity, increasing his royalties, a raise in political
      and intellectual stature, while continuing to profit from his
      management of speculative investment funds. This is not an isolated
      case: more often than not, leftist intellectuals seek
      out `respectable' sources to bolster their arguments, citing them
      as `impeccable' or as `without a hint of leftist sympathies' as if
      leftist research and scholarship is less reliable or less likely to
      convince. The leftist search for bourgeois respectability has
      profound implications in discussing the problem of bourgeois hegemony
      over popular classes and the growth of an alternative political-
      intellectual culture.

      One of the striking aspects of contemporary politics is the gap
      between the declining objective conditions of the working class and
      rural labour and the subjective responses, which are diffuse,
      fragmented and frequently under the tutelage of neo-liberal parties.
      This contrast is most glaring in the third world, but is also present
      in the advanced capitalist countries.

      While inequalities between classes, races, gender and regions have
      increased and social services for the working class have been slashed
      to provide lower taxes and higher subsidies for the rich, the
      subjective response is muted: strikes and protests tend to be
      defensive reactions; agrarian movements lack urban allies and most
      intellectuals are dissociated from the popular struggles or have
      accepted the basic premises of neo-liberal ideology, namely
      that `globalisation' is inevitable and irreversible. In a
      word, `bourgeois hegemony' plays a vital role in ensuring the
      stability of a highly unequal and exploitative social system.

      Bourgeois hegemony is a product of numerous factors, including the
      mass media and the cultural institutions of the state. However,
      bourgeois hegemony is also the result of the behaviour and methods of
      work of the left intellectuals, who seek out legitimacy for their
      intellectual production in the bourgeois world.

      Today many left intellectuals borrow from and have assimilated the
      key concepts and language of bourgeois theorists and publicists in
      analysing the contemporary world. The language and concepts borrowed
      from the bourgeoisie include `globalisation', `stateless
      capital', `information revolution', `structural adjustment', `labour
      flexibility', etc. These concepts are integral to the imperial system
      and neo-liberal ideology – they are understandable in the context of
      a system of power which seeks to disguise and legitimate its
      domination. Yet, the left intellectuals eschew using more precise
      concepts which are far more useful in identifying contemporary power
      configurations, such as imperialism instead of globalisation;
      imperial state instead of stateless corporations; ascendancy of
      financial power instead of the `information revolution';
      intensive/extensive exploitation instead of labour flexibility;
      economic reversion instead of economic reform; reconcentration and
      monopolisation of wealth instead of structural adjustment. The issue
      of intellectual mimicry in which amorphous and deceptive intellectual
      language and concepts are adopted by contemporary left intellectuals
      instead of the more precise and rigorous language raises an important
      question: why the left `falls victim' or, better still, follows in
      the footsteps of the bourgeoisie in working from the globalisation

      The argument of this paper is that the left intellectuals tail-ending
      of the bourgeoisie with regard to the `globalisation' paradigm is
      part of a larger problem embedded in a deeper subordination to
      bourgeois culture; namely, of looking up to the dominant culture for
      sources of truth, objectivity, prestige and recognition. The left
      intellectuals' subordination to bourgeois culture co-exists with the
      development of a parallel but partial critique of bourgeois
      institutions and culture. Left intellectuals who work from the
      bourgeois paradigm of globalisation are in search of respectability
      and recognition which would not be attainable if they operated from
      the imperialist paradigm.

      The left intellectuals search for bourgeois prestige, recognition,
      institutional affiliations and certification imply a de facto embrace
      of the values associated with them. The overt embrace of these values
      and practices play an important role in perpetuating bourgeois
      hegemony, despite the left intellectuals' protestations and counter-
      hegemonic rhetoric. The fact of the matter is students, workers and
      in general the popular classes follow what the left intellectuals do
      and not what they say, and the institutional identification and the
      symbolic awards they pursue in their careers and everyday life speak
      eloquently for what they really value.

      An important aspect of career advancement and recognition, as well as
      securing a position in prestigious bourgeois institutions involves
      playing by their rules of the game in pursuing intellectual work. By
      following these `rules of the game', the left intellectuals give
      legitimacy to bourgeois claims of legitimacy and strengthens their
      hegemonic position.

      Legitimising Bourgeois Hegemony

      One of the principle rules practised by left intellectuals in
      conducting research is to cite bourgeois sources, even when left
      sources are available and provide a critical perspective. The pseudo-
      argument put forth by the left intellectuals is that by citing
      bourgeois sources over left sources, they will be more convincing to
      the `general audience' or academic world. In a very direct sense, the
      left intellectuals accomplish several things by proceeding in this
      way. In the first instance, they strengthen the authority of the
      bourgeois writers, as the source of objective truth. Secondly, they
      reinforce and perpetuate the invisibility of left researchers and
      their work failing to acknowledge their contribution. Thirdly, they
      acquire respectability and acceptability by sharing with their
      bourgeois colleagues a common literature and common understanding of
      what and who is `important to read'. Fourthly, the left intellectuals
      by citing particular criticisms of capitalism by particularly
      notorious pro-capitalist personalities, refurbish their images and
      thus provide them with a future platform from which to denounce the

      The response of the left intellectuals to George Soros' book, is a
      case in point. Soros has a well earned reputation as a speculator who
      has made billions pillaging economies and ruining countries, before,
      during and after the publication of his book. He played and continues
      to play a major role in bankrolling cultural institutions and
      coopting intellectuals particularly in the ex-Communist countries,
      who subsequently implemented `free market' economic policies that
      have devastated these countries. Despite this background, the left
      intellectuals fell all over themselves quoting his criticisms of
      speculative activities and capitalist excesses as if he was a special
      authority on the pitfalls of capitalism. Left intellectuals in their
      desperate search for vindication, quoted Soros to back their
      criticism of neo-liberalism, overlooking the fact that even as the
      book came out he was making billions bilking the Asian economies. The
      isolation of the left intellectuals from mass movements and their
      humble prostration before bourgeois power which leads them to seek
      right-wing personalities to justify their appeals to basically
      bourgeois audiences.

      The relation of left intellectuals with the World Bank is another
      illustration of this search for respectability. The World Bank
      annually publishes a statistical appendix which includes data on
      poverty in the world. More often than not, left intellectuals cite
      the World Bank's figures to make their arguments, without critically
      examining the way in which poverty is measured and the manner in
      which poverty is under-estimated. The left intellectuals cite the
      World Bank as an unimpeachable authority on poverty, precisely
      because of its right-wing, neo-liberal credentials. The fact of the
      matter is the World Bank's figures are unreliable and their measures
      of poverty totally inadequate. Their `poverty line' is one dollar a
      day, which is not liveable anywhere in the world. If an adequate
      poverty index was constructed by the left researchers they would
      double or triple the number of poor in the world.

      Yet by citing the World Bank figures, the left intellectuals appeal
      to their `conservative' colleagues, demonstrating that they share
      common sources. By citing the authority of the World Bank, they
      strengthen its image as at least "a useful source of data". The World
      Bank's measures of poverty in the third world reach such absurd
      heights that the percentages of the population living in poverty in
      south-east Asia are almost at the same level as the US and Canada.
      Instead of recognising that the World Bank's neo-liberal ideology
      shapes the indicators and measures of poverty, the clever left
      intellectuals think they can separate one from the other and save
      themselves the arduous task of constructing their own measures of
      poverty and conducting field research or even worse, citing the facts
      and figures on poverty found by leftist researchers and among
      activist militants.

      The Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) is another source of
      data and point of reference for the left intellectuals. Left
      intellectuals once again present ECLA as an impeccable source without
      any leftist taint – as if being a leftist would contaminate the data.
      For example, left intellectuals frequently look to ECLA for data on
      the privatisation of public enterprises (which is a key part of
      ECLA's political agenda). But a closer look at ECLA's documents
      reveals that they hardly ever discuss the corruption and give-aways
      involved in privatisations. ECLA always describes it as a pure
      economic process, and they claim that they are not involved in the
      political aspects and how the politicians organise the privatisations
      and even less the negative consequences both in the long and short
      term. In general terms, ECLA states that state transactions should be
      transparent. But ECLA doesn't face up to the fact that privatisations
      are not `transparent'. The question is why ECLA continues to promote
      the privatisation recipes, when they know first hand that the process
      of privatisation is corrupt and involves the give away of valuable
      resources at bargain prices. Knowing ECLA's bias, why do the left
      intellectuals cite its data on privatisations when prominent leftist
      writers and journalists have published more complete and critical
      discussions? By playing to Soros, the World Bank and ECLA, the left
      intellectuals prolong bourgeois hegemony by using their data, giving
      authority to their sources and borrowing their language.

      Bourgeois Personalities

      The left intellectuals, in their constant search for respectability,
      not only look toward bourgeois institutions to buttress their
      arguments, but they search for prominent bourgeois personalities with
      name recognition and prestige in bourgeois circles to promote popular
      causes. Frequently, in organising a public event, the left
      intellectuals will ignore the most consequential writers, the
      militant activists or leaders in favour of a so-called `progressive'
      actor, lawyer, judge, or writer who has neither knowledge of or
      practice in the struggle at hand, but will offer some glittering
      platitudes that educate no one and fail to resonate with the people
      in action.

      The left intellectuals, by promoting individuals with `celebrity
      status' in the mass media as a method of attracting media publicity
      and a curious public, sacrifice the content of the meeting. The
      political cost can be significant: the political meeting becomes
      a `spectacle', entertainment that de-politicises more than educates
      people into the cause and consequences of struggle. Moreover, the
      left intellectuals frequently have to explain away the `lapses' of
      the prestigious bourgeois – celebrity who frequently equates popular
      violence in defence of their lives, land and livelihood with the
      violence of the predatory imperial powers.

      "Of course", the left intellectuals would reply in an apologetic
      manner, "he (or she) is not one of ours, but look how many people
      showed up, look how many centimeters of print we got in the bourgeois
      press, how many seconds on television". In the name of the "broadest
      unity," the left creates a platform for bourgeois celebrity's speech
      which that not infrequently deflects criticism from the system to a
      policy, from a policy, to a personality thus obfuscating the purpose
      of the mass meeting. Even worse, the prestigious bourgeois
      celebrities touted by the left intellectuals as progressives at a
      public event can turn around the next day and celebrate festivities
      with high dignitaries of a regressive regime...which discredits the
      left and sows confusion among the populace about the nature of left
      politics and who are their appropriate leaders and spokes people.

      Because left intellectuals are obsessed with the approval by the mass
      media and bourgeois respectability, they prefer to search for
      bourgeois notables who will lend an ear when it suits their
      interests, instead of building support through grass roots

      Left intellectuals crave recognition from their bourgeois colleagues
      and will eschew public action, denounce activist colleagues and will
      adopt servile postures to please their conservative superiors and
      judges in hopes of securing a symbol of bourgeois prestige.
      Prestigious bourgeois awards are a ticket to promotion and legitimacy
      in the eyes of the upwardly mobile leftist intellectual.
      Consequential intellectuals with commitments to practical popular
      struggles do not receive any prestigious awards. For the left
      intellectuals, winning a Nobel Prize, a Guggenheim or Ford Foundation
      fellowship is seen as the culmination of a successful career. It
      provides certification from the academic power elite that the left
      intellectual can be honoured for abstaining from any anti-
      imperialist, or anti-capitalist struggle. It was that understanding
      that caused Jean Paul Sartre to reject the Nobel Prize. The pursuit
      of prestigious bourgeois prizes and awards precludes certain active
      commitments, and that is understood both by the Euro-American
      Foundations and the intellectuals who petition them.

      For the left intellectuals, however, in sponsoring political events,
      it is these very titles and awards which are cited in introducing
      a `prestigious' speaker. The left fawns upon the bourgeois awards as
      evidence of its own integrity and knowledge. By giving prominence to
      the titles and awards, they have to convince the audience that the
      left has somehow achieved intellectual status. In fact, what the left
      does is to legitimate bourgeois standards and selection procedures
      and the underlying conditions which determine the granting of awards.
      In a word, by fawning over bourgeois prizes, the left strengthens
      bourgeois hegemony.

      The left's craving for bourgeois respectability is also found in the
      prominence it gives to institutional identities: left intellectuals
      boast of being graduates of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford,
      Cambridge, the Sorbonne as if these were not centres to indoctrinate
      students with neo-liberal and pro-imperialist doctrines, where one
      learns to say something significant and critical about the Empire,
      despite the professors and seminars. Yet institutional identity is
      flaunted by left intellectuals when introducing a speaker or writer.

      The same is true of former government officials who are given
      prominence by left intellectuals. While no one can object to ex-
      government officials having a change of thinking and becoming
      critical of the sate, the point of convergence with the left should
      be the fact that they are ex-officials and not the former holders
      of `prestigious' positions in a bourgeois regime.

      Bourgeois hegemony is constantly renewed by recruiting talented
      individuals from the popular classes as Karl Marx pointed out long
      ago. Frequently this is done by offering scholarships to poor but
      bright students to attend `prestigious' universities which `re-
      educate' and train them to serve the dominant classes. The left
      should listen and read what intellectuals write despite their
      prestigious institutional credentials not because of them.

      In addition to prestigious awards and institutional identities, the
      left intellectuals are perpetually looking for prominent bourgeois
      sponsors for events: personalities, institutions, official agencies.
      The idea is that the more bourgeois a sponsor, the greater the
      respectability, the greater the legitimacy and the wider the public.
      In fact, this leads to greater visibility and legitimacy for the
      bourgeois institutions of power, while radical institutions are
      marginalised and made invisible.

      Career Strategies

      Being an active, critical leftist has political costs, not least is
      pursuing an academic career. Yet many intellectuals have followed a
      variety of paths to a successful career in bourgeois institutions and
      retained a smattering of leftist credentials.

      We can identify at least four career strategies for the respectable
      and upwardly mobile left intellectuals. The first strategy could be
      described as the `cold storage' approach, whereby left intellectuals
      maintain a low profile for many years, more or less doing
      conventional research until they secure a position in a prestigious
      university and consolidate their career and then `turn' radical. The
      problem is, of course, that most `crypto' leftists in the course of
      adapting to the career exigencies of success eventually believe what
      they are doing and never `turn': they become what they do. For the
      minority that `convert', they have their cake and eat it too: they
      have their prestigious identity in the bourgeois world and the
      applause of the left, particularly since they bring to their radical
      rhetoric the added merit, in the eyes of the left intellectuals, a
      prestigious title.

      The second strategy for securing a successful career in a prestigious
      university is to combine conventional research and teaching during
      work time and work-place with after-hours radical chit-chat. Leftism
      as an `avocation' is particularly attractive to the bourgeois
      guardians of academia, because it does not inform scientific
      research, nor does it question the educational system's role in
      reproducing elite leaders or conformist skilled workers. This can be
      described as the "cocktail left" – where in discreet private
      settings, the leftist from prestigious institutions can vent their
      inconsequential radical views while in working time they climb the
      academic ladder.

      The third strategy for leftist success in academia is found in the
      disproportionate time and effort devoted to conventional academic
      work in comparison with the meagre intellectual efforts devoted to
      popular movements. In this strategy, the left intellectual devotes
      months and years to preparing lectures and publications for academic
      consumption, while they improvise a lecture with anecdotal material
      for radical/popular audiences, frequently recycling or repeating the
      same talk given the previous year. In some cases, leftist
      intellectuals, drawing a substantial stipend, will simply reminisce
      on a distant radical past; nostalgia becomes a substitute for serious
      analysis. These reminiscences do not require any analysis which might
      compare past and present struggles, it is simply improvisation and
      anecdotes of the most superficial and impressionistic sort.

      Finally, there are the left academics who conduct research and
      scholarship as `disinterested' scholars, divorced from struggles,
      movements and political commitments. They write about the working
      class without any political perspective. They may provide useful
      information if someone else can elaborate an intellectual-political
      framework to link it to contemporary political events. This strategy
      for academic success has some merit and utility if some other
      intellectuals or activists have been doing the risky (careerwise)
      political work of building a movement; otherwise, it merely serves to
      extend one's curriculum vitae. This particular type of leftist
      academic is particularly prominent in the US where there are annual
      conferences mimicking the conventional professional meetings, where
      the academics talk to each other – in other words, divorced from the
      popular movements. The divorce between academic leftism and popular
      struggles has led to some leftists securing highly remunerated
      distinguished chairs in prestigious universities.

      The consequences of these practices by left intellectuals are to
      reinforce the prestige and legitimacy of bourgeois institutions,
      ideas and personalities while left activists' analyses and public
      positions are made invisible, perpetuating a kind of leftist
      inferiority complex and marginality.

      Secondly, because left academics serve as role models for the younger
      generation of would-be scholars, their behaviour promotes careerism
      and arrivismo. The practice of left academic arrivismo perpetuates
      the myth, particularly in the third world, that `true knowledge' is
      abroad in the prestigious schools with name recognition and that
      local `national' left intellectuals are inferior and certainly not
      role models.

      Thirdly, the left intellectuals from prestigious institutions, for
      reason of their own appointments and status, overlook or understate
      the ideological distortions, mystifications and inappropriate
      theoretical and conceptual frameworks which are taught at the
      prestigious centres of higher learning. The heavy ideological bias
      that is packaged into education in prestigious institutions is
      obfuscated by the presence of the left intellectuals who rarely
      challenge their colleagues' work, even less the curriculum, knowing
      full well they would be penalised. In any case, if leftists at the
      prestigious institutions do occasionally verbalise dissent, it is
      their presence in the institutions and the process of accession that
      fuels the ambitions of the new generations of writers.

      What is striking about the left intellectuals in prestigious
      universities and those seeking entry is their suspension of criticism
      of the bourgeois sponsors, foundations and personalities who fund the
      big research agendas for perpetuating and extending imperial power.
      The left intel-lectuals, by suspending criticism, improve their
      chances of entry into the prestigious journals, the international
      conferences and the lucrative positions of academic prominence. To
      secure academic recognition and promotion to honorific posts requires
      good working relations with the bourgeois academic watchdogs. The
      left intellectuals are very collegial, even with those colleagues who
      support imperialist wars and design neo-liberal programmes that
      devastate the third world.

      Contemporary Intellectuals

      There are a variety of `life styles' in `being' a left intellectual
      today, in the face of the power and wealth of the Euro-American

      There is a kind of intellectual today who wanders across the
      political spectrum offering to service a variety of patrons. One well
      known French intellectual denounced the public employees' strikes in
      the winter of 1995, attended an international Zapatista meeting in
      the summer of 1996, and then flew to meet with and praise the right
      wing president of Uruguay. These are the intellectuals for all places
      and prices. Their public posture is motivated more by the need for
      recognition and publicity from whatever side as it is by firm
      intellectual principles. They do not "sell out" to the right, they
      are rented, and are even available to the left in certain

      House intellectuals are those whose universe is other intellectuals
      or even their own `internal reflection'. These incestuous exchanges
      are particularly prominent among the post-modernists who discuss how
      many identities can stand at the end of the pin. They have their own
      exotic language, only understandable to the initiated and their work
      is largely confined to deciphering texts and language divorced from
      the objective world.

      There are intellectuals who are in perpetual anguish, who fret over
      social-economic problems (`neo-liberalism' and `globalisation') and
      never go beyond the common refrain, `We must find an alternative'.
      They ignore the everyday struggles trying to create alternatives.
      They fear the problem (imperialism) and fear the solution (a social

      The Pessimists

      Another familiar intellectual posture is the leftist who bathes in
      historic defeats and finds in them a pretext for what they dub a new
      realist or pragmatic accommodation with the status quo. While
      overdramatising political losses, as profound and irreversible
      historical defeats, they fail to recognise the new revolutionary
      struggles emerging in the third world and in the west the new social
      movements opposing the WTO, the militant farmer and transport
      workers' movements, the massive producer and consumer rejection of
      corporate sponsors of genetically altered food and seeds, etc.
      Pessimistic pathos becomes either an alibi for inaction and
      disengagement or a one-way ticket to liberal politics since, it is
      perceived as the only show in town.

      Irreverent Intellectuals

      In sharp contrast to the above-mentioned intellectual postures, there
      is the irreverent intellectual, irreverent toward academic protocols
      and unimpressed by the prestigious titles and prizes. On the other
      hand they are respectful of the militants on the front lines of anti-
      capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. They are steady and
      productive in their intellectual work which is in large part
      motivated by the big questions facing movement struggles. They are
      self-ironic, anti-heroes whose work is respected by the people who
      are actively working for a basic social transformation. They are
      objectively partisan and partisanly objective. The irreverent
      intellectuals discuss and listen to the pessimists and other
      intellectuals, despite their titles and pretence, to see if they have
      anything worthwhile to say.

      For the irreverent and committed intellectual, prestige and
      recognition comes from the activists and movements and intellectuals
      who are involved in popular struggles. They work with those
      intellectuals and activists. They conduct research looking for
      original sources of data. They create their own indicators and
      concepts, for example, to identify the real depths of poverty,
      exploitation and exclusion. They recognise that the prestigious
      awards and prizes are part of the system sustaining bourgeois
      hegemony. They recognise that there are a few intellectuals in
      prestigious institutions and award recipients who are clearly
      committed to popular struggles and they acknowledge that these
      exceptions should be noted, while recognising the many, in climbing
      the ladder who succumb to the blandishments of bourgeois
      certification. The irreverent intellectuals admire a Jean Paul Sartre
      who rejected a Nobel Prize in the midst of the Vietnam War. Most of
      all, the irreverent intellectuals fight against bourgeois hegemony
      within the left by integrating their writing and teaching with
      practice, avoiding divided loyalties. In a word, the irreverent
      intellectuals are working toward the creation of a counter-hegemonic

      While a good deal of research and writing has been done on the issue
      of bourgeois hegemony through an examination of institutions, the
      mass media, educational centres, state propaganda, etc, little
      attention has been paid to how, within the left, the signs and
      symbols of bourgeois hegemony are transmitted by putatively left
      intellectuals. Intellectuals are an important group, particularly in
      forming the subjectivity of students, and in some contexts, popular
      classes. Insofar as they are visible and have access to the media,
      they represent another channel through which subjectivity or
      political consciousness is formed. Their values, career and
      educational choices, their striving and ambitions play a role in
      shaping `role models' and transmitting messages that have a major
      impact on specific strategic groups who can or will become opinion
      leaders. To the extent to which intellectuals have absorbed bourgeois
      goals and internalised its reward and prestige system, they become in
      turn a specific mechanism prolonging and deepening bourgeois
      hegemony, particularly on the left.

      The problem of subjectivity is a key issue today. Increasingly
      popular disaffection spreads throughout the third world and even in
      the imperial countries. The key challenge is linking these
      discontents with social transformative movements. This requires
      revolutionary theory, critical concepts and engaged intellectuals,
      which, in turn involves a two front struggle, one with the bourgeois
      powers and the second with the double discourse of left intellectuals.

      EPW Perspectives February 17, 2001
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