Almost finished with an excellent collection of essays by George Scialabba, entitled, What are Intellectuals Good For? It’s a close look primarily at the disappearance in our culture of what once was termed a “public intellectual.” A person so well versed in so many things, we look to them for insight on a host of subjects, from history to literature, from art to politics, from movies to music and back again.
Scialabba writes about such thinkers as Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, Christopher Lasch, and Stanley Fish, among others.
The essays are all different, but point to some common themes. The two essays on Christopher Lasch perhaps struck me the most, and provoked much thought. A man of the left, Lasch was unusual in his critique of modernity itself, seeing problems not just with inequality, but with our response to it:
Lasch’s most intimate and intense disagreements were with cultural radicals: critics of education, sports, religion, sexuality, the family, and the work ethic, and proponents of the new, “liberated” ideal of expressiveness and self-realization. What these radicals ignore, Lasch charged, is that Christianity, competitive individualism, and the patriarchal family are already obsolescent, at least in the social strata where modernization is most advanced. Those values and institutions have been undermined not by leftist opposition but by capitalists themselves, for their own purposes: to promote mass consumption and to regiment the work process. By espousing an ideal of personal liberation largely confined to leisure time and heavily dependent on the consumption of goods and services, cultural radicals have conceded defeat. Instead of adapting to industrialization and mass culture, Lasch contended, the left should oppose them. Only a change to human scale — to local, decentralized control in workplaces, communities, and families — can halt the spread of commodity relations and the bureaucratization of the self.
In other words, capitalists and corporations don’t much care about that kind of rebellion. They get paid regardless, and it distracts people from the real facts of their domination and control — remote control, essentially. If critics relegate their critique to personal expression and realization, and do so in their leisure hours, corporations remain in charge, generally from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Nothing essential has been changed. To make that change happen, Lasch would argue that we need to go local, and we need to go back to the time when we practiced our craft and that craft was our work. He also believes that capitalism and our corporate structure make it difficult to build healthy families, especially healthy children. There is no longer that traditional exchange between father and son — I would add mother and daughter, and all of the other possible generational dynamics. That life-affirming exchange helped prepare healthy children because they could see first hand what their parents did, end the myth-making, reduce their fears and their outsized expectations, and escape a sort of narcissism as a result. In short, mature.
Mass culture and mass consumption. The Walmartization of the world. That robs us of so many things, but especially vibrant, dynamic, local cultures. Food, folkways, story-telling, music, art. Currently, I think many on the right see only the government at fault and the only source of domination and control. To me, they’re not paying any attention to the impact of corporate control, the managerial revolution, the breakdown into specialization of specialties, even the specialization of management. They don’t see globalization, capitalism and the “free market” itself as sources for the breakdown of the family and local communities.
Perhaps all parts of the spectrum could come together to develop the most effective strategies to reinvigorate local and regional cultures, without a heavy hand, and without letting local and regional bigotries take us back to an uglier time.
To me, the best government would be the one that guarantees basic human rights, without question, while respecting individual, local and regional differences. It would fight to prevent corporate control from afar, and help people who want to go a different route, away from the business world, away from someone else’s idea of how things work, make their mark. It would be the ref on the field to keep the powerful from dominating, be they from organized religion, the financial elite, corporations or other institutions. It would promote local arts and crafts, treasure local traditions, stories, music and folkways. We need to stop the bulldozers of the present from crushing our past, so we can build future cultures with ten thousand different flavors and variations. To get there from here, we need to reduce the distance between our labor and its fruits, and between ourselves and our autonomy.
Maureen Corrigan reviews What are Intellectuals Good for?