American Intellectuals' Widespread Failure to Stand Up to Billionaires and Authoritarian Power
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This article is an excerpt from Robert Jensen's new book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, available in print and on Kindle.
Given the considerable resources in the United States spent to subsidize intellectual work, why are so many intellectuals—journalists, academics, writers—not critiquing the many hierarchical institutions and not highlighting the disastrous consequences of these systems? Why are so many intellectuals instead providing support for the institutions and systems? Why is the majority of intellectual work in the United States not challenging but instead helping to prop up the unjust distribution of wealth and power, and the unsustainable extractive/industrial system?
Both intellectuals and the people who provide the resources that allow intellectuals to work should ponder this crucial question.
I am not suggesting that to be a responsible intellectual one must agree with me on all these issues, that anyone who does not agree with my approach to these issues is a soulless sell-out. My argument is that if we take seriously the basic moral principles at the core of modern philosophical and theological systems we claim to believe in, in light of the data on social injustice and the serious threats to ecological sustainability, these questions should be central in the work of intellectuals. Based on my experience as a journalist, professor, and political activist—a life in which I have always worked in intellectual professions and interacted with many other intellectuals in various settings—I have learned that the story is complicated but that a sharp critique of intellectuals as a social formation is warranted.
First, let’s recognize that intellectual work generally comes with considerable privilege. That does not mean that intellectuals don’t work hard, make sacrifices, or feel stress. But in general, intellectuals are compensated well for work that is not physically hazardous and can be rewarding on many levels. There are many intellectuals-in-training (graduate students) and underemployed intellectuals (adjunct faculty) who face overwhelming workloads and few perks, and so we should be cautious about generalizing too much about the category of “intellectual.” This analysis focuses on those doing intellectual work with the most privilege and the most autonomy.
Ideally, we pay intellectuals to help us deepen our understanding of how the world works, toward the goal of shaping a world more consistent with our moral and political principles, and our collective self-interest. What are the forces that keep people, especially relatively privileged people, mute in the face of such a clear need for critical intellectual work? The first, and easiest, answer is individual self-interest—the status and economic rewards that come to intellectuals who serve power. Upton Sinclair put it most succinctly: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
No doubt some intellectuals make calculations about how to use their abilities to enrich themselves, but in my experience such crass greed is relatively rare. I suspect that a desire to be accepted by peers is at least as powerful a motivation for intellectuals to accept the status quo. Humans are social animals who generally seek a safe and secure place in a social group, and there’s no reason intellectuals would be different. Even when concentrated wealth and power do not threaten people with serious punishments, the desire to be a well-regarded member of an intellectual community is a powerful conformity-inducer. When one’s professional cohort works within the worldview that the wealthy and powerful construct, the boundaries of that world seem appropriate. Curiosity about what lies beyond those boundaries tends to atrophy.