What is a public intellectual? And does Zimbabwe have any? If it does, what is their role in current debates?

What is a public intellectual? And does Zimbabwe have any? If it does, what is their role in current debates? by Itayi Garande 

As follow up to the interesting discussion started by Abraham Seda on public intellectuals in Zimbabwe, this piece uses Gramsci’s typology of the traditional and organic intellectual to attempt a definition of the term ‘public intellectual’ and explores the role of academics and public intellectuals in contemporary society. It also discusses the rise of so-called ‘thought leaders’ and argues that they are downgrading or disparaging the role of the public intellectual, by taking a lead in the battle of ideas, providing content to major news organisations and internet platforms.

Trying to define a public intellectual has very little probative value without understanding culture and society in which they function, and what their role in that society is. This is according to Maria Pires, a retired Professor at Portuguese Catholic University in her piece “Public intellectuals – past, present and future”. This essay thus takes, as its starting point, Gramsci’s ideas on society and culture – mainly his notions of ‘hegemony’ and the ‘manufacture of consent’. These ideas are published in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci saw the state as a superstructure consisting of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). Seda’s piece generated very interesting discussions, as did the one by Glen Ncube after it; this piece will pick up and expand on Seda’s discussion. This idea of civil society is not the same as the ‘associational’ one used today, which views civil society as a ‘sector’ of voluntary organisations and NGOs. Gramsci saw civil society as a public sphere consisting of cultural institutions like political parties, churches, the army and police and educational institutions. It is a sphere in which ideas and beliefs are shaped and ‘hegemony’ is reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions in order to ‘manufacture consent’ and legitimacy.

An important question arises from this: Who owns the organs of public opinion and what is the role of public intellectuals? This question will be answered later in this piece. It is important to first understand what the role of public intellectuals is, as a way of finding a definition for the term ‘public intellectual’.

Gramsci argues that everyone is an intellectual, but not everyone has in society the function of intellectuals. This means that everyone has an intellect that they use, but not all are intellectuals by social function. One major social function for intellectuals, according to Gramsci is to raise worker consciousness through the production and distribution of knowledge. Gramsci divided the intellectual into “traditional” intellectuals, who had no special obligation to defend the existing social order (although many did so) and “organic” intellectuals who were anxious to serve the class from which they arose. Change comes when the power of ideas – not material world – brings about the downfall of an existing system.

So could an intellectual be someone who is consulted because of their recognised command of a specific subject? (e.g. Lovemore Madhuku on constitutional law issues, George Shire on society and culture or Aeneas Chigwedere on Zimbabwean history?). Is an intellectual someone who talks from a position of specific expertise on a general topic related to that expertise? (e.g. Arthur Mutambara talking about all things robotics?). Is it someone who talks from a position of specific expertise on a general topic (e.g. Professor Noam Chomsky and the late Christopher Hitchens speaking on anything they like)? Lastly, is an intellectual someone who talks about anything in society and politics whether they have any recognised specific expertise or not (for example MDC-T leader Nelson Chamisa or #thisflag leader Evan Mawarire)? Do all these people have a social function, are they ‘public’ intellectuals and are they really concerned about the power of ideas today?

Definition of the public sphere

Can we define the ‘public’ sphere? Can we delimit it, identify it, or should we consider a range of different publics? Is it about having direct communication with the public, for example at Africa Unity Square in Harare or via Facebook and Twitter? If this is the case, how do we define the parameters of whom the people comprising the ‘public’ are, as they move from one person in their house to hundreds in a University, thousands at a political rally or millions on Facebook or Twitter? If I am engaging someone in a conversation down the pub in Borrowdale Village about Zimbabwean politics, am I engaging in public intellectualism? How about academics? Are they public intellectuals? Depending on scale here, it is possible to argue that either the vast majority of academics could be or are public intellectuals or the majority, in fact, are not?

Academics and public intellectuals

Academics can be considered private, not public intellectuals. In the epistemology of academia, no knowledge truly is knowledge if it is not vetted and approved through esoteric channels, made up of peers who review your work. Academics in this case are not public intellectuals, but they can become that. It seems to me that to be a public intellectual is in some sense something that you are, and not so much something that you do as in the case of academics. I’ve not heard anyone say, “I am an intellectual.” In some sense, then, it is a title that has to be earned by the opinion of others.

They can transform to public intellectuals depending on whether they want to exercise their right and privilege to express and develop ideas without first seeking peer permission to publish those ideas. Institutions of higher learning punish those who aim their work to broader audiences and reward intellectuals who speak in the language of a discipline. But today the terrain has shifted, with intellectualism seemingly overtaken by the world of social media, online conferences and others, where there are no strictures of academia.

The rise of the Thought Leader

Daniel Drezner in his 2017 book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, argues that there has been a shift in the ‘ideas industry’ with the rise of a new plutocracy – an elite or ruling class whose power derives from their wealth – determining what intellectual work is. This, according to Drezner, has downgraded the role of the public intellectual and led to the rise of Thought Leaders who provide content to news organisations and internet platforms. These thought leaders in today’s society are extolled, while public intellectuals are disparaged.

Thought Leaders get lavish fees; like the ones you sometimes seen on Ted Talks. These offer so-called “simple solutions” to the world’s problems, most of them un-nuanced and a-historical. Ted.com says its presentations are “usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less)” and “covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues” They direct people from academic or intellectual work . For example, Peter Thiel’s fellowships offer $100,000 for “skipping out” of university, directing the public intellectual away from oppositional thinking to thought leadership.

Public intellectuals have thus become what Friedrich Hayek calls “second hand dealers in ideas”. Thought leaders occupy the civil society in the Gramscian sense, exercising (together with their funders) hegemonic control over the public. The public consents to the cultural domination in the hope that these thought leaders serve their interests. This is what Gramsci called the “corruption of civil society”.

Civil society is “corrupted” with money. Thought leaders’ funders care less about history and more about the topics they are paid to promote. These topics occupy huge swaths of the political and social space and public intellectuals don’t have the financial resources to compete in that space. So public intellectuals and academics are less and less influential or are themselves becoming thought leaders, paid to promote particular narratives for huge fees.

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, make a distinction between the “detachment of public intellectuals” and the “confidence of thought leaders”. The confidence of the later is cognitively satisfying to audiences. I would argue that MDC-T leader, Nelson Chamisa, for example is cognitively satisfying to audiences than say academic Miles Tendi, although the later may have a more nuanced approach to Zimbabwean politics. Chamisa offers his audiences a seductive and confident sales pitch, not a laborious scientific inquiry process of Tendi.

Norman K Denzin, Michael D Giardina in their book Qualitative Inquiry—Past, Present, and Future: A Critical Reader say public intellectuals are “shut out of mainstream media or characterised as marginal, unintelligible … figures” by the ruling classes. Most of them work in “… horrendous working conditions that either don’t allow for them to write in a theoretically rigorous and accessible manner for the public because they do not have time – given the often intensive teaching demands”. They argue that public intellectuals and academics, live in “hermetic bubbles cut off from both the larger public and the important issues that impact society”.

Niall Ferguson, the British historian based at Stanford University, says that he used to be a public intellectual, but no more. He realised there was more money in thought leadership, as he candidly admits to Drezner in The Ideas Industry. Ferguson, is an intellectual, a public one for that matter, but is he an intellectual, using Gramscian reasoning, by social function? Ferguson admits that he now caters to a different market, one supported by those who ‘fund and those who buy’ his work. What peers or the public think of his work seems to matter far less than whether his message appeals to those paying him US$75,000 an hour. It’s all about brand-building: giving lucrative speeches and writing for hundreds of publications. Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story on President Obama in 2012 turned out to have many errors and misleading claims. Interviewed by Drezner for The Ideas Industry, he talked frankly about his transformation from an Oxford historian to a thought leader: “I did it all for the money.”

Unconfirmed allegations against Professor Arthur Mutambara that he defrauded Global Fund can be read in this context. Mutambara has produced intellectual work in the field of robotics and could be considered an academic or a public intellectual because of his repository. Yet he was accused of submitting plagiarised reports to the Fund, after he was awarded two consultancy contracts in 2014. Can Mutambara be considered a public intellectual if he is accused of failing to produce and circulate credible intellectual work or if Global Fund is determining the type of work that he should produce? Is he now just a thought leader who gets lavish fees for his ‘quick work’ just like Niall Ferguson at his alma mater?

The paradox of change

For me, there is a paradox here. In an age of fast change, the need for intellectuals to give historical and nuanced perspectives on public questions is greater than ever. In Zimbabwe, there is rapid change with individual commentators, politicians, lawyers, academics, religious leaders, all making comments about the state of the country and its future. They are competing in a “marketplace of ideas”. But are they public intellectuals? I argue that Zimbabwean public intellectual life has become unintelligible as there is no way to separate intellectual work from populist ones perpetuated by thought leaders and their funders. Many public intellectuals have transformed into populist social and political activists and are failing to produce and circulate credible intellectual work.

Thus it is no coincidence that the idea of the public intellectual has become the subject of a heated debate in the country, and a growing conviction among a part of scholars that the public intellectual, or at least an important type of the public intellectual, has been declining. Therefore one can ask: “Does Zimbabwe have any public intellectuals?” I argue that it does, but they are not the type Gramsci called “traditional” intellectuals, who had no special obligation to defend the existing social order, and who were involved in the production and circulation of knowledge for social transformation.

The independent thinking public intellectuals are hamstrung by constraints and incentives offered by those who fund their work, and by competition from thought leaders. The fertile period of independent philosophers, historians and politicians who offered their vision of a post independence world to the new hordes of African women and men hungering for mental stimulation against oppression, may have just passed. We are left with an ongoing war between public intellectuals and thought leaders, and the latter seem to be winning. At least for now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Itayi Garande is a lawyer based in Dubai and the United Kingdom. He can be contacted via itayig@hotmail.com

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