The New Intellectuals?

Panel Presentation for Public Intellectuals Seminar, Friday 26 September. An earlier panel was Public Policy and Thinktanks

To continue the approach of focussing on the public intellectual discourse, in which case the issue of the New Intellectuals is under what conditions might they occur. At issue, then, is whether those conditions have changed sufficiently to be able to say ‘new’. Here I look at, as befits my profession, resources and institutions.

The central change feature is the way that economic, political and social commentary has moved off campus (although in the creative areas – say of writing and performing arts – the shift has been in the opposite direction)..Yet the off-campus situation is far from satisfactory. Sometimes academics come to me as a scholar operating outside the academy. They usually start by grumbling about the conditions in their university, explain they are thinking about retiring from the institution, and ask about the life of an independent scholar.

I tell them about its loneliness, the limited collegial networks, the professional jealousies from those within the academy, the lack of status, the difficulties of obtaining grant funding, the lack of public understanding of the intellectual and the resulting lack of support, the precariousness of the position, the poor financial rewards including, the difficulties of long term provision for retirement, the lack of technical support which an academic takes for granted, the risk if anything goes wrong – say with your health, and so on and so on. At which point the academic decides the current job does not look so bad.

How then do public intellectuals survive in such appalling conditions?

In my case economic consultants are paid reasonably well compared to most other disciplines which might provide intellectuals, so one works one’s butt off on contractual work and hopes there is enough time and independence left to do the valuable unpaid public intellectual work. (An additional stress to to cover the outlays that public intellectual activity generate.)

Others survive equally tenuously:

Some have really supportive spouses – Bruce Jesson and the wonderful Joce.

Some have private income – Charles Brasch..

Some are active after retirement. An example is Alan Ward who died this week, whose post-retirement activities impacted on everyone at this conference, immediately by his defence of the Alexander Turnbull Library and National Archives, but more generally by the shift in the government mindset that resulted.

And there are those who live on the smell of an oily rag, or whose intellectual activities are a part-time activity while they support themselves in a job, often a precarious job.

It is a bit like the fate of a creative writer a couple of decades ago, when there were few prizes and fellowships, but the royalties are even worse.

What about supportive employers? Compared to a couple of decades ago few have the discretionary income to support intellectuals. That is part of the reason why the activity has moved off campus, despite the statutory requirement of universities to be critics and consciences of society. We may be grateful that there are a number of academics who have taken this responsibility seriously, but it is difficult to think of a case where one was appointed knowing they would act as a public intellectual. And they tell me they get almost as little support as those outside the academy. Traditionally some newspapers had a journalist – perhaps an editorial writer – who was a public intellectual but they seem to have bene squeezed out. The same squeeze applies to those who tried to make their way in the public service. As I said on an earlier panel, the same applies to public interest thinktanks,.

Even so I am not a Platonist, who sees only a past golden age. The public intellectuals of earlier eras had a pretty rough time too. And there may be some new niches.

Will Maori support their public intellectuals from the resources they are accumulating – although I imagine it may be a different sort of public intellectual. Feminists, sadly, dont seem to have the resources. It is good to see a new journal – Red and Green – although the loss of Broadsheet, The New Zealand Monthly Review, and The Republican, plus the withdrawing of Landfall from Brasch’s vision of a wide remit, have left major gaps.

They may be filled by the web, which is a cheap form of publication and communications with significant opportunities, not all of which have been exploited or even explored. For example, my Marsden Grant includes an element for establishing a virtual New Zealand Centre for Globalisation Studies which while it is a scholarly enterprise may suggests possibilities. The interface between the public intellectual on the web and the wider public via the media has yet to be realised.

But where are the financial resources to come from? As government money is reduced for genuinely independent thinking will the private sector cover the deficit, or will it do so only with conditions that undermine the independence?

Yet despite the reduction in traditional niches, public intellectual activity is still there. It is there because there those committed to participating in it, despite the personal cost. For that is what the academics who came to me with romantic ideas of being independent scholars did not understand. Being a public intellectual is not a job. It is a profession.