U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Richard Cloward, Public Intellectual

The following is a guest post by Robin Marie Averbeck, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a PhD in American history. Her dissertation, “Want in the Midst of Plenty: Social Science, Poverty, and the Limits of Liberalism,” explores post-war social science and the development of the discourse of a culture of poverty. She enjoys writing, talking, arguing, and writing descriptions of herself in the third person.

clowardFew questions are brought up more frequently at this blog than the question of the public intellectual. Who is a public intellectual? What does a public intellectual do? Conversely, who isn’t a public intellectual? Often, these discussions revolve around problems of definition – if we are going to debate what we mean by a “public intellectual,” we must surely define what we mean by “public” and “intellectual” in the first place. Moreover, as L.D. Burnett has recently pointed out, we would do well to decide which portion of the term – the “public” or the “intellectual” – is the most important to our conception of the title. By way of one of the primary figures of my dissertation, sociologist and social activist Richard Cloward, I am going to hazard offering my own answers to each of these questions.

Before addressing what makes an intellectual “public,” it of course seems necessary to grapple with the whole idea of what comprises an “intellectual” in the first place. As many discussions here have attested to, this is a task fraught with epistemological and ideological problems – the collected baggage of race, class and gender are inevitably incorporated into our conceptions of the intellectual, and therefore to some it seems of little value to try and salvage the idea at all. Yet my response to this problem – however admittedly related to my inability to divorce myself from my own middle-class romanticism – is not to abandon the term, but to attempt to reinvent it by dressing it down. A democratic notion of the intellectual, in other words, would be one with remarkably minimal standards for admission – as I once argued in a review of the delightful documentary The Examined Life, all one need possess in order to qualify as an intellectual is a genuine, passionate interest in ideas and their consequences for the lived experience of being human. This does not require any set standard or amount of knowledge – although when the interest is sincere, a certain amount of education is usually acquired one way or another – nor of course a college degree or publicly scrutinized body of work. For even the quest of the classic privileged white male intellectual is, ultimately, a deeply human one, and it is in this broadly shared humanity which can be found the lustful yearning with which we recognize each other as intellectuals.

Yet if this standard seems excessively broad and undiscriminating, fear not – I’m about to get much more stringent. If it does not take much to be considered an intellectual, it takes quite a lot, in my view, to be considered a public one. For in order to be endowed with the title of a public intellectual, one must produce thinking which is publically relevant – one must take a position on The Way We Live Now. And ultimately, if pursued honestly and fully, this means one has to become political – in the deepest sense of the term. A public intellectual, in other words, is an intellectual who takes a position on contemporary power arrangements.

The life of Richard Cloward provides a useful illustration of the distinction – for in the course of a few years, Cloward underwent a transformation from a mere sociologist to a politically committed public intellectual. Trained at Columbia, Cloward’s early research focused on the social and psychological dynamics of prisoners, and he was particularly interested in Robert K. Merton’s theory of anomie, which drew from Durkheim’s concept of the same name. At the turn of the 1960s, Cloward applied these interests to research on juvenile delinquency, a field that was enjoying heightened attention amidst widespread public concern about escalating rates of youthful rebellion and criminality.

This research resulted in a 1960 book, co-authored with sociologist Lloyd Ohlin, entitled Delinquency and Opportunity. In their book, Cloward and Ohlin identified poverty as the culprit behind delinquency. Delinquency, they argued, resulted from poor people aspiring to success just like the rest of Americans – but upon finding the avenues to achievement blocked, they resorted to illegitimate means to achieve such material success or recoiled into retreatist despair. The key to reducing delinquency, then, lay in expanding opportunity. At the time their book was published, Cloward and Ohlin were working with a coalition of settlement houses in New York to secure funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to launch a program which would test their theory. This program, called Mobilization for Youth, was one of several such anti-poverty and delinquency programs developed – largely by philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation – at the turn of the 1960s.

Federal policy makers also became interested in the new social scientific work on poverty. During his administration, John F. Kennedy, responding to the public concern about juvenile delinquency, established the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency (PCJD). The man put in charge of heading the committee, David Hackett, quickly narrowed in on new theories of delinquency emerging from social science as the most promising avenue to new policy, and he was particularly impressed with the work by Cloward and Ohlin. Other sociologists, such as Leonard S. Cottrell – who as the research director of the philanthropic Russell Sage Foundation possessed great influence over the allocation of grants – also played central roles in the deliberations and recommendations of the committee. Thus heavily influenced by sociologists, the PCJD quickly narrowed in on poverty as the primary cause of juvenile delinquency. Consequently, the PCJD became a primary site for collaboration between social scientists, policy foundations, and federal policy makers investigating the causes and consequences of poverty.

In one sense, then, Cloward already qualified as a very public intellectual. For if all that is required to make one a public intellectual is playing a role in providing public institutions, such as the federal government, with knowledge that assists them in their goals, then Cloward, Ohlin, and indeed an entire army of federally and privately employed social scientists and social policy specialists can be granted the title. Indeed, Cloward and Ohlin’s thesis – and the program designed to test it, Mobilization for Youth – provided theoretical inspiration and justification for the creation of the Community Action programs under Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Yet despite the centrality of the work of Cloward and other sociologists in informing the anti-poverty programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the influence of their social science should not be mistaken for social power. The appeal of Cloward’s work lay not so much in his prestige as a social scientist or an intellectual, but rather in the compatibility of his research with the goals and existing power structures of the liberal state. For despite their emphasis on improving what they called “the opportunity structure,” Cloward and Ohlin said remarkably little about how that opportunity structure ended up looking so shabby in the first place. They did briefly point to some developments, such as mismanaged urban renewal projects and the death of urban political machines, which they argued aggravated the conditions of lower-income neighborhoods. However, Cloward’s work did not expand its analysis past the purely local to ask larger questions about political economy or the role racism played in patterns of poverty in urban areas. Instead, Cloward –like liberal social scientists in general – partook in a discourse of silence: questions about the justice of the post-war social-economic order could not be explicitly answered, because post-war social scientists rarely explicitly asked them. Thus, although Cloward and other social scientists sought to improve the conditions of poor people in the United States, their reticence on fundamental questions of politics ensured that their work would be appealing to a liberal state looking to mitigate, but not fundamentally address, the social problems of poverty and racism. Thus when it launched its program, Mobilization for Youth enjoyed the explicit endorsement of President Kennedy and a reputation as the most promising of the new anti-poverty programs. Cloward played a direct role in Mobilization, and as research director he was one of the most important administrative figures in the early years of the program.

However, in this new role as on-the-ground social worker, Cloward quickly encountered the limitations of his theory that Mobilization itself had been designed to test. As Mobilization staffers went about encouraging and creating community organizations intended to expand opportunity in the Lower East Side of New York city, they quickly discovered what residents were up against as local institutions responded to poor people’s organizations with negligence, resistance, and sometimes overt hostility. In response to these obstacles, Mobilization staffers turned to more radical approaches – such as rent strikes and welfare office sit-ins – to ensure that the institutions of the city of New York responded to the concerns of its least fortunate people. In many community action programs across the country, a similar dynamic played out – and the response from local elites to this mobilization was unified and unambiguous. As the director of the Housing Authority in Syracuse put it, “[w]e are experiencing a class struggle in the traditional Karl Marx style in Syracuse, and I do not like it.” [1] Decades later, Cloward would sum up the response from city mayors by explaining that, “as Mobilization and then the anti-poverty projects around the country began engaging in conflict…the mayors across the United States went absolutely ape shit, to put it bluntly.” [2]

Thus Cloward had a front row seat to these escalating conflicts and contests of power – and the experience changed his perspective dramatically. As Cloward would later explain, “I think once the project was on the ground and in the field, and we began dealing with the Welfare Department, and the Public Housing Authority, and the police, and things like that, and seeing these agencies through the eyes of the people themselves – I think it was radicalizing, to put it mildly.” [3] At a debate with a representative from the Office of Economic Opportunity (the federal agency tasked with carrying out the War on Poverty) in 1966, Cloward elaborated on his new position. Any detailed analysis of poverty, he argued, revealed that the structures and institutions which perpetuated poverty would have to be fundamentally challenged in order to substantially reduce poverty.  As he explained it, “[a]t a time when government is expanding its structures, its services and thus, I might add, its control over people, we need independent action more than ever before: not, as conservatives would argue, to permit each man to pursue personal and private interests unfettered by any government restraint, but, rather, to exert a counter-force against oppression by government, and to secure a more equitable distribution of resources and power.” [4] Moreover, Cloward argued that contrary to empowering poor people, the anti-poverty programs of the federal government actually contributed to their disempowerment. Because city institutions did not rely on the poor for tax dollars and support, Cloward argued, the only way to really force them to respond to the poor would be to disrupt and prevent their normal functioning. On the other hand, attempting to organize the poor into traditional political lobbies – as the federal programs aimed to do – would guarantee failure yet maintain the illusion of political inclusion. Indeed, Cloward argued, this is exactly why such programs appealed to liberals.  Thus Cloward fully repudiated whatever role he previously played in supplying the knowledge needed to buttress the ideological rationale for the poverty programs of liberal administrations – or, as he aptly put it, “In a manner of speaking, I came to burn my poverty card.” [5]

Therefore Cloward, by critiquing rather than assisting liberal elites, surpassed his role as a mere sociologist, or even a mere intellectual, and became a truly public intellectual – for what Cloward now offered was an explicit commentary of who had power in the United States, why they had that power, and whether or not they should continue to possess it. And any act of thinking or argument that we can truly call public, it seems to me, must ultimately grapple with these questions of power. In this formulation the term public, then, refers not so much to a certain level of exposure or renown – which may be necessary to becoming a public intellectual but is hardly sufficient – but rather to the type of thinking an intellectual does. This does not mean, however, that an intellectual must be only or primarily engaged with producing political theory or commentary on current partisan battles – for since questions of power are involved in nearly all intellectual endeavors, from the work of a dissertation to the design of a public park, intellectuals can tackle these questions in multiple ways through multiple disciplines and mediums. However, some attempt to address them explicitly must be made. If an intellectual does not do so, he or she may still quietly reinforce the status-quo, or educate and entertain a given sub-set of the population with knowledge presented as apolitical – but unless they make themselves explicitly politically relevant to some portion of the public, they have not taken on the significance of being publicly relevant, either.

It is important to note that this definition is by no means intended to exclude conservative thinkers. The question is not one of choosing a particular side, but simply explicitly choosing some side, and then advancing an intellectually honest argument in defense of your choice. There are clearly scores of public conservative intellectuals who have either defended contemporary arrangements or, as Corey Robin has recently written about, imagined brave new hierarchies of power which, they hope, will replace unjust or decrepit ones. As with those on the left, then, it is also possible to be a conservative intellectual without really being a public intellectual – for if one merely assists those maintaining current power arrangements with carrying out their functions, they act as mere advisers or specialists: but if they speak directly to arrangements of power, rather than passively reinforcing them, then they produce knowledge that is truly public in the full, political sense of the term.

Another example where we can see this distinction in play is in the academy – and the field of history, I think, illustrates it particularly well. Occasionally, even lowly historians obtain a certain amount of fame and success in broader markets – the privileged few who make it out of the academic press and into the Barnes & Noble. However, merely being a well-known historian does not necessarily make one a public intellectual; even if, in his or her more private and personal affairs, a scholar should clearly be considered an intellectual, these qualities are not necessarily incorporated into their work. Indeed, it is quite possible to be a famous historian without being a public intellectual – many scholars know how to tell a story, tell it well, and keep things in context, but they have certain notions about keeping away from presentism or speculating beyond the sources that they never really do much more than that — they never really tell us why any of this matters, or what it could mean to us in the future. But such questions are the bread and butter of the public intellectual, and when a broader public gravitates to them for these reasons, and not merely to learn about a particular era or interesting person, then they are serving the public as a public intellectual.

There is a sense, however, in which the distinction between a well-known scholar and a public intellectual speaks to even deeper differences in one’s intellectual life. Those who are more engaged in “thinking publicly,” so to speak, usually share a trait that distinguishes them from those who refrain from such politically loaded content – they love to take a position. And although I started out this essay by crafting an incredibly broad conception of the intellectual, it does seem to me that there are differences in the types of thinking different kinds of intellectuals do, which might help determine whether or not any given academic might gravitate towards public thinking. In my own mind, I formulate the difference like this: Scholars love to ask questions. Intellectuals love to answer them. Now certainly, this is a polemical and simplistic thing to say. But for me, it gets at something fundamental – and I have a suspicion that the distinction between an intellectual and a public intellectual is, in part, an elaboration of this difference. But where that difference comes from – and what its content is composed of – is not yet entirely clear to me.

So in an essay where I have been ambitious and foolish enough to offer an answer to the question of the public intellectual, I suppose I ought to stop there and end with the modesty of the question of whence it comes. For it may be said that my definition offered here is too narrow, or too unimaginatively confined to a person of my own personal and political predilections, and these are fair criticisms. However I can only fall back on the impulse which shapes the argument, which is simply that I find the answering of questions as productive as the asking of them – for as the historiography of scholars responding to such brave answer-givers as Frederick Jackson Turner and Richard Hofstadter have taught us, even wrong answers stimulate incredibly good thinking. The public intellectual, then, is an intellectual who recognizes this – and finds in the answering of the questions of politics and power a joyous and creative hope for the future.


[1] Quote from Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1984), 248. Narratives of these various community actions programs can be found in Matusow, The Unraveling of America, 254-265, and Cazenave, Impossible Democracy, particularly Chapters 6 and 7, 105-170. Also see Cazenave, 156-157, for the activities of the Syracuse Community Action program.

[2] May 28, 1992, Oral History Interview with Richard Cloward. Conducted by Noel A. Cazenave, 38. Oral History Research Archives, Columbia (New York).

[3] May 28, 1992, Oral History Interview with Richard Cloward. Conducted by Noel A. Cazenave, 36-37. Oral History Research Archives, Columbia (New York).

[4] Poverty and Power: Two Points of View, Fifth Annual Alumni Symposium, April 16, 1966, School of Applied Social Sciences Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, 19, at Lehman Social Sciences Library, Columbia (New York).

[5] Poverty and Power: Two Points of View, Fifth Annual Alumni Symposium, April 16, 1966, School of Applied Social Sciences Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, 11, at Lehman Social Sciences Library, Columbia (New York).

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wow, this was an excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it. I think your definition of the public intellectual is a good one–someone who isn’t afraid to answer the question.

    I also think you have an intriguing exemplar of your definition of the public intellectual. Here’s someone who began very much in the corridors of power but was forced by events to become a critic of that power. I know he’s not the only public intellectual forced to go down that road.

  2. Excellent post Robin! I wonder if in your definition people move in and out of the ‘public intellectual’ position, that is to say they speak truth to power and then find themselves apart of that power? Once Cloward began to challenge the policies that he had implemented was he then in essence removed from that power and speaking as an outsider? Does one’s relationship to power affect one’s status as public intellectual? I’ve heard it speculated that had MLK survived his status might have changed vis a vis his relation to power because of the gains of the civil rights movement; would this have affected his public intellectual position? I like your definition but how would you answer the charge that the definition reifies a more fluid concept? Sorry for the stream of consciousness quality of comment and the various iterations of probably the same question, your post is very provocative.

  3. This post and Paul’s comment remind me of a few past discussions at USIH on being an intellectual/public intellectual and the time spent in either category—meaning that individuals can fade in and out of our categories of concern.

    I was most intrigued by Averbeck’s point that public intellectuals (whether asking or answering questions) “must ultimately grapple with these questions of power.”

    I dealt with public intellectual (M.J. Adler) who liked talking about political arrangements and structure (as well as citizenship), but seems to have not wanted to discuss ‘power’ in particular. It’s a fine distinction, I know, but some choose their terms of engagement carefully. And discussions of power might color a conversation away from agency, right? Also, it seems that power has been a preoccupation of certain historical theory since the 1970s. So that might also shade our perceptions of who qualifies as an intellectual/public intellectual. Hmm…

    Anyway, thanks for this thoughtful post! – TL

  4. Robin Marie–
    Nice and thoughtful post. I don’t have a lot at stake in this game, but I do think there is something missing from your definition, at least in the way the intellectual has been defined since the late nineteenth century when the type came into being–the idea of independence or opposition. That is, someone who takes an explicit stance legitimating existing power from the position of an allegiance with the powerful would qualify as a public intellectual in your definition, as I understand it. But the idea that an intellectual is someone who is not beholden to power, but committed to ideas, truth, knowledge, the integrity of a set of values or some other independent source that allows for an independent or oppositional stance is a familiar component of the idea of the public intellectual. It’s not sufficient to take an explicit stand on power, in this definition–it must be an independent stand. And your definition also leaves out the role of art, literature, and criticism that has been such a prominent part of the role of the intellectual in the 20th century. Susan Sontag, for instance, certainly addressed issues of power and public life, but her role as a public intellectual was not limited to politics and power–she thought issues of art and experience were matters of public concern. So, perhaps your definition is too constrained in one sense, and not constrained enough in another?

  5. I like this post very much, and need to spend more time with it.

    It’s interesting to note that Cloward and Francis Fox Piven re-entered the national discourse via Glenn Beck’s resurrection of the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” of the mid-1960s as part of his grand conspiracy theory. Jacobin magazine then picked up the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” as an ironic gesture vis-a-vis Beck–suggesting that Occupy-era protests could achieve socialist gains merely by getting everyone eligible for every government services to ask for them.

    As I understand it from friends who are close with Piven, Beck’s fear-mongering re: the old Cloward and Piven Strategy led to considerable harassment and real death threats against the still-active Piven. I can find out more about this if there is interest. But part of the history of the Right in the age of Obama will have been these attempts to make certain Left intellectuals (Piven, Derrick Bell, Judith Butler, Alinsky) seem like puppet-masters, and then to attack them with zero context. It’s a very dangerous game…

  6. Thanks everyone for these great comments!

    @Paul: Certainly I would think being a public intellectual is something one can move in and out of; I can’t see what would make it a static state more than anything else. That being said, it does seem like there is kind of a sliding scale where one might dabble in being a public intellectual, whereas others dive fully in the deep end and never come out. For example, I certainly think Roger Ebert was a public intellectual, but if he qualifies as one then someone like Noam Chomsky is off the charts, right? As for MLK, I’m surprised people say that about him only because he was actually growing more radical and more critical of power arrangements at the time of his death but, many other people have followed a course from being outside as a critic to becoming an insider who is absorbed.

    @Lacy: I think you are on to something here, although there are quite a lot of ways to talk about power without necessarily using that term and all the ideological & academic baggage it implies. You are right, however, to note the turn away from agency; my experience from graduate school is that fewer and fewer young scholars are impressed with the concept, and more are critical of it, but perhaps this is just some sub-culture here amongst my closest cohorts at Davis. I don’t think, though, that you necessarily have to adopt a particular academic vocabulary, theory, or trend to still, in essence, be commenting on or speaking to arrangements of power.

    @Wickberg: I loved your comment, so thanks for it. One part of me really wants to drift in your direction; who doesn’t love this idea of the public intellectual, after all? But I can’t help but feel like to require an oppositional stance is to make some misplaced assumptions about how we come to our conclusions – ie, if someone is really independent, or honest, or clear-thinking, they will realize the inherent truth or value of standing against current power relations and outside of them. But that ignores the fact that we are always participating in making normative claims in these arguments or, really, putting forward value claims, right? And it seems to me that for those intellectually honest enough to be considered conservative public intellectuals – which right now are few in supply and not well known but do exist, I think – they might be embracing values which I dislike or even abhor, and certainly I will argue against them, but, they are putting forward ideas honestly arrived at and couching them in terms of their public relevance to how we should organize our particular society of human beings. So I can’t see how they are not, then, acting as public intellectuals.

    Also, there is the problem that some conservative intellectuals *do* conceive of themselves as outside the power structure. Now, however flatly wrong this might usually be – in the completely distorted political discourse of the right after all Obama is a socialist and Christians are persecuted, so – sometimes certain conservatives do in fact imagine a society organized very differently than it is now. Which is just to say that “oppositional” does not always equal “leftist.” So it seems to me that limiting being a public intellectual to having, basically, an egalitarian vision of power relations, limits it too much – it just basically equates it with a leftist, but I think the impulse and vocation, so to speak, is broader and spread over a more diverse set of people than that.

    As for your comment on art, I certainly didn’t mean to imply artists and people who work in other mediums cannot be public intellectuals; they certainly can be. But not all necessarily are – I don’t agree with someone who might argue, an artist creates art for public consideration to compel people to thinking, and therefore, all artists are public intellectuals. There needs to be something more explicit than that, some kind of political statement that isn’t flexible enough for say, an Occupy activist and a Tea Party activist to both plausibly claim it as their own.

    @Newman: In another, very different and much shorter version of this post, I start out with the story about Glenn Beck and the Cloward & Piven strategy; very weird and telling little loop-back of history. And yes, Piven received a lot of harassment, including death threats and all the like; she has a lot of support from people around her fortunately, but it’s of course awful and indicative of the political climate we live in. And you are right – these kind of attack campaigns have this surreal quality of assuming that people like Piven, Cloward, and left intellectuals in general have or ever had this huge amount of social power; as I argued, even someone like Cloward before he was radicalized really only had “power” insofar as he was useful to the Kennedy & Johnson administrations, and as Piven herself has pointed out several times, the programs that were actually built looked less like what the social scientists said they should and more like what administrators and politicians (federal and local) thought they should look like for their own reasons.

    • “And it seems to me that for those intellectually honest enough to be considered conservative public intellectuals – which right now are few in supply and not well known but do exist, I think”

      I have heard that they do.


      let’s just compile a list from whom liberal critics might choose the next time they assert conservative inferiority (add those mentioned by Jacoby at first, including McClay, who is at University of Tennessee–Chattanooga).

      Stephen Bainbridge, Law, UCLA

      Peter Berkowitz, Political Science, Hoover Institution (Stanford)

      James Ceaser, Political Science, University of Virginia

      Jean Elshtain, Philosophy, University of Chicago Divinity School

      Anthony Esolen, English, Providence College

      The late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, History and Women’s Studies, Emory University

      Robert George, Political Science and Law, Princeton University

      Dana Gioia, English and Public Policy, USC

      Timothy Groseclose, Political Science, UCLA

      Harvey Klehr, Political Science, Emory University

      Thomas Sowell, Economics, Hoover Institution (Stanford)

      Shelby Steele, English and History, Hoover Institution (Stanford)

      David Steiner, Education, Hunter College

      James Stoner, History, LSU

      Walter Williams, Economics, George Mason University

      One could add dozens intellectuals who produce academic work even though they reside off-campus, including:

      Arthur Brooks, Social Science, American Enterprise Institute

      George Nash, Biography and History, the Russell Kirk Center

      Rusty Reno, Editor, First Things

      George Weigel, History and Religion, Ethics and Public Policy Center

      The list could go on, but the point is clear. It demonstrates most of all the parochialism of liberal academics–an understandable condition given the dearth of conservative thought in the training of graduate students. In fact, I don’t believe that liberal critics consciously omit conservative thinkers and academics from their evaluations. They don’t even know they exist.

  7. I also found Richard Prouty’s questioning the premise of “public” helpful.


    Pace the estimable Roger Ebert, being a creature of academia seems to be de rigueur. But if the discussion takes place purely in the academic milieu–say, gentlepersons of the left writing largely for each other in academic journals–how can it said to be public?

    It’s interesting that Bauerlein chooses to discuss D’Souza, a Hoover Institute fellow and known irritant to liberals, rather than a working conservative university professor quietly lecturing on de Tocqueville and Burke. Surely Bauerlein knows one. He takes Lewis Lapham–admittedly not the most balanced liberal commentator in the public sphere–to task for denouncing conservatives for setting up an alternative academy in think tanks and journals. Bauerlein’s choice is interesting because Michael Bérubé, who Bauerlein cites as an example of a liberal with weak polemical skills, made his reputation as an advocate for a return of the public intellectual, that largely extinct figure who engaged in debate within the public sphere rather than the academy. Part of the defensiveness of liberal college professors is that conservatives dominate the public sphere. To a far more successful degree than liberal academics conservatives have reinvented the public intellectual. I could name a dozen professors wearily grading final exams right now who would trade their tenure for Dinesh D’Souza’s book contract. Yes, more conservatives in the academy would balance out the political spectrum, but the academy shouldn’t be the only forum for ideas.

    And indeed it isn’t. But does the academy know this?

  8. Robin Marie–Thanks for your response. I am not suggesting that all intellectuals need to be leftists, or oppositional in the sense of providing a critique of the status quo from a progressive stance, nor am I saying, as some do, that liberalism is “reality based,” and conservatism is committed to “ideology”–clearly this has not been the case throughout the history of the left and the right. But what I am saying is that even when intellectuals seek to legitimate the status quo and current power relations, in order for them to do it as intellectuals–classically defined–they need to be independent, and not simply the spokesperson for some interested party they are serving–we tend to speak of people who are simply expressing and legitimizing the claims of those who pay the bills (whether labor unions, universities, political parties, or corporate interest groups) as “hacks” rather than intellectuals. Let me give you an example from the recent annals of the political right. Libertarian thinkers at the right wing think tank, the Cato Institute, recently asserted their independence by rebelling against attempts by the Koch brothers to control the board of the Institute and thereby assert control over the arguments and thought of its fellows; they argued for their independent and autonomy as thinkers rather than agreeing that they were simply the servants of those who paid the bills. They were appealing to the notion of the intellectual as an independent figure.

    On the issues of intellectuals and the arts, I think you misunderstood what I was saying. I wasn’t referring to artists as intellectuals, but to the role of the intellectual as a public critic of literature and the arts. That is, public intellectuals in the twentieth century staked out a role for themselves as arbiters of the cultural life of society–they thought they could speak not only to questions of power, but to the values and aesthetic forms of expression embedded in art. Figures like Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, and Susan Sontag were in many ways the classic representatives of this idea of the intellectual.

    Just to be clear: I don’t think there is some intrinsic or essential notion of “the intellectual”–I am just saying the way that the term was used designated a kind of public thinker with certain elements and characteristics through the course of the 20th century.

    • “Libertarian thinkers at the right wing think tank, the Cato Institute, recently asserted their independence by rebelling against attempts by the Koch brothers to control the board of the Institute and thereby assert control over the arguments and thought of its fellows; they argued for their independent and autonomy as thinkers rather than agreeing that they were simply the servants of those who paid the bills. They were appealing to the notion of the intellectual as an independent figure.”

      FTR, as co-founders, the Koch Bros already “owned” half of Cato and sued to buy more shares upon the death of a 25% owner, per the partnership agreement.


      There is no evidence that they wished to control Cato as much as pull it from Ed Crane’s influence, under which it began to push social libertarian causes such as gay marriage. As it turns out, at least one of the Koches is agreement on such issues–the bone of contention was the drift in Cato’s focus away from economic liberty issues.

      No different than what a George Soros would do, I think, although according to O’Sullivan’s First Law, that door swings almost exclusively one way

      O’Sullivan’s First Law: All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing. I cite as supporting evidence the ACLU, the Ford Foundation, and the Episcopal Church. The reason is, of course, that people who staff such bodies tend to be the sort who don’t like private profit, business, making money, the current organization of society, and, by extension, the Western world. At which point Michels’s Iron Law of Oligarchy takes over — and the rest follows.

      Just thought I’d tell the Koches’ side of it, since I can’t find it anywhere in the copious mainstream news coverage, which casts the narrative as plain ol’ Kochtupus tyranny. There’s no direct evidence they sought to control the content of Cato’s writers, but they were clearly unhappy with its direction under Ed Crane. Under O’Sullivan’s Law at least, a continuing drift away from Cato’s explicit purpose of promoting economic libertarianism was a near certainty unless challenged.

      But what I am saying is that even when intellectuals seek to legitimate the status quo and current power relations, in order for them to do it as intellectuals–classically defined–they need to be independent, and not simply the spokesperson for some interested party they are serving–we tend to speak of people who are simply expressing and legitimizing the claims of those who pay the bills (whether labor unions, universities, political parties, or corporate interest groups) as “hacks” rather than intellectuals.

      I liked this very much, Dan, although we must also allow for the possibility that the hacks are occasionally telling the truth, even accidentally. Everybody gets a paycheck from somewhere, and if you’re a libertarian, your avenues are quite limited. As it turns out, Koches or no, before or after the Ed Crane controversy, the integrity of Catoites is impeached regularly, just on general principles.

    • Ah, thanks for the above clarifications. On the point about being critics of art & culture, I definitely think these activities can be a part of being a public intellectual; because as with producing art, I’m not sure one can critique art in a thorough, honest way without ultimately participating in political critique — if I am reading you correctly, I’m guessing you wouldn’t disagree, and that’s what I meant in the original post by pointing out that you do not need to necessarily be only engaged in explicit political theory or commentary to be acting in a political (and thus public) way. Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace also come to mind as literary artists and critics who definitely have politics but explore their implications mostly through literature that does not primarily announce itself as political.

      As for your point about being oppositional, and your clarification on what you mean by that, we are in agreement. This is indeed why we make a distinction between intellectuals and “hacks” — the difference, I think, between maybe Paul Krugman and Rachel Maddow. (That might be too charitable to Krugman but not too harsh on Maddow, I think, who it seems to me spends far too much time gloating at the embarrassments & failures of her opponents and far too little explaining her positive vision for the country and engaging people in thoughtful discussion about what our divisions actually are.)

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