Arendt, Wurgaft suggests, may remain important today less for her writing on totalitarianism than for her warnings about the rise of the “technocrats” – a new breed of “intellectuals” who pictured political life as involving the accomplishment of pre-established tasks, rather than as an ongoing argument involving perennial questions about what we value, and why.
The technocrats, undoubtedly, are still with us. At one point in his article, Wurgaft cites a widely praised review of Daniel Drezner’s recent book, The Ideas Industry, by the intellectual historian David Sessions. Drezner’s book, says Sessions, shows how today’s would-be public intellectuals are being drowned out by the rise of “thought leaders.” Thought leaders are glorified technicians and TED Talk evangelists, like Sheryl Sandberg, Thomas Friedman, and Parag Khanna, who nevertheless are treated by large audiences as emissaries from the world of ideas. Such figures would seem to fulfill Arendt’s prophecy about the danger of a culture coming to revere elite technocratic authority.
Sessions’s article, though, is not just about the superficiality and corruption of thought leaders – a seductively soft target for his New Republic readership. Sessions also hazards a positive description of what makes someone a real or authentic intellectual, and it is in these passages that his article is truly, if unwittingly, revealing. Whereas the thought leaders are guilty of flattering the whims of the superrich, Sessions claims, a group he approvingly calls the “new intellectuals on the left” have demonstrated their independence by being “willing to expose the prattle of thought leaders, to attack the rhetorical smoke screens of the liberal center, and to defend working-class voters.” Later, crediting a cluster of leftist-associated magazines (including this one) with the revival of American intellectual life, Sessions leaves little doubt as to what he considers qualifies someone to be a genuine public intellectual. To be a genuine public intellectual is to agitate for the working class, and against the “liberal center” or the superrich (also, apparently, to reflexively conflate those two terms). To be a genuine public intellectual is to have the “courage,” as he calls it, to speak truth to power.
What does it mean, then, to be an “intellectual on the left”? Although I confess the phrase strikes me as somewhat mysterious, it is not impossible to imagine a definition: an intellectual on the left, having arrived at certainty about the correct direction for society, helps formulate and disseminate arguments for moving society in that direction. But if we accept this definition as meaningful, we are compelled to agree with Strauss and Arendt that the figure of the public intellectual represents a debasement of thinking, rather than a model for it. There are plenty of reasons to commit as citizens to political parties or movements – and there may even be reasons to consider that commitment as partly the product of philosophical reasoning. But someone who speaks as a representative of a fixed ideology or group has subjugated the philosopher within themselves to the partisan.
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