Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Entr'acte: Thinkers down and out in Paris and London
Alan Riding

PARIS: Among the striking cultural differences between France and Britain is the way their intellectuals operate in the public arena. While the French expect their thinkers to speak out on matters of conscience and state, Britons view the very idea of an "intellectual" with suspicion, preferring their "scholars" to work more quietly in elitist circles. Both, though, have added weight to the political debate. And now both, it seems, are becoming endangered species.

The waning of the power and status of the intelligentsia is hardly exclusive to France and Britain. Yet it is an alarming trend for countries that once boasted imperial and military might and now rely on the "soft power" of their culture and brains. And this is where the long-divergent paths of France and Britain meet: In both countries, governments, media and public opinion are learning to live without the input of the critical intellectual.

The change is most apparent in France, because probably nowhere in Europe has the "intellectuel engagé" been more accepted as a political actor. Specifically, Émile Zola's "J'Accuse" in 1898 - his denunciation of institutionalized anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair - set an example that encouraged Catholic, fascist, Communist, Trotskyite, anti-Communist and liberal intellectuals to hold forth and claim the moral high ground.

But since the end of the cold war, the ideological combat that once spawned major figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron has become largely irrelevant. The French government seems less interested in courting intellectuals, newspapers that serve as their vehicles are losing circulation, and even college students have switched their attention from politics to job-hunting. Once an end unto itself, knowledge is becoming a means.

A handful of intellectuals - most theatrically Bernard-Henri Lévy - have become media and literary celebrities. But cries of lamentation are heard more often. In February, 40,000 members of the educated elite signed a petition accusing the right-of-center government of waging "war on intelligence" by cutting scientific and other research budgets. One minister retorted: "Being an intellectual should not be considered a protected species."

France's top thinkers are gloomy. The headline of a recent article in Le Figaro's literary supplement asked: "Why don't intellectuals of left and right occupy a more prominent place in the public arena?" The article's author, Jacques de Saint-Victor, added a rhetorical question: "The end of intellectuals?" Perhaps many earned this fate by defending indefensible communism. Yet, he concluded, there is still a need for critical thinkers to raise the tone of political debate.

Britain's recent experience also suggests that a "thinking deficit" has become a fact of political life.

Notwithstanding the Cambridge Communists and Oswald Mosley's Brown Shirts in the 1930s, political extremism has never flourished in Britain. But the Fabian Society demonstrated that intellectuals could affect politics. Founded in the 1880s to advance democratic socialism, it shaped the trade union movement and the Labour Party. A few individuals also stood out: In the 1950s and 1960s, Bertrand Russell was as influential in Britain as Sartre was in France.

But in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher broke the power of the unions; and in the mid-1990s, Tony Blair's New Labour abandoned the old left. In Britain too, then, with socialism seemingly defeated, ideological debate evaporated. If British cabinets of the 1960s and 1970s included intellectuals like Richard Crossman, Michael Joseph and Roy Jenkins, their place was now taken by pragmatists more obsessed with opinion polls than ideas.

So, outside the chattering classes, does any of this matter?

Yes, in the view of Frank Furedi, a British sociologist who addresses the issue in a new book, "Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism." His focus is on Britain, where, he argues, people with genuine learning, breadth of vision and a concern for public issues have been replaced by facile pundits, think-tank apologists and spin doctors. His diagnosis might also apply to other Western democracies.

As societies have dumbed down, with television crowded with reality shows and newspapers with gossip, so has the public debate. Politics - without policies - is even marketed by the media as soap opera: Will France's president, Jacques Chirac, be outmaneuvered by his ambitious economy minister, Nicolas Sarkozy? Can Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, outmaneuver Blair to succeed him in 10 Downing Street?

Still, if politicians are unwilling to examine their societies in depth, can intellectuals do any better? In France, intellectuals - everyone from writers and movie directors to philosophers and scientists - do raise their voices, but mainly to defend their own interests. In Britain, by seeking out a new audience through the media, they have gained notoriety but lost clout. One interesting spinoff is that political theater in Britain is now tackling issues that newspapers skim over.

In his book, Furedi, who teaches at the University of Kent, argues that "massification" of higher education has conspired with political correctness to lower standards of learning, to reward mediocrity and to discourage excellence in academia. He sees a culture of "low expectations" fueled by the credo of social inclusion as infantilizing the way both government and media address public issues. And one result is a new generation of intellectuals who fear being thought elitist.

"The heroic image of the classical intellectual has given way to a more down-to-earth pragmatic person, whose job is not a particularly important one," Furedi writes. He adds: "In such circumstances, knowledge and art are not likely to be valued for themselves, but because of their usefulness to society."

Certainly in Britain, the government increasingly promotes education as a job tool and culture as an entertainment industry. "There is a new breed of university managers, museum and gallery directors and 'knowledge' entrepreneurs who regard the content of culture and ideas with indifference," Furedi notes, recalling that Britain's education minister recently expressed contempt for the notion of "scholars seeking truth."

Clearly these are difficult times for public intellectuals. Governments feel safe in ignoring them; politicians and the media, in Furedi's words, "spoon-feed the public with sound bites"; and the public at large shows little interest in political debate. Still more alarming, Furedi believes, the world of art and education is going along with this "philistine social engineering agenda" in the guise of promoting equality.

But society as a whole may pay a price if intellectual elitism is written off as antidemocratic. Critical intellectuals once represented an independent voice outside the ruling establishment and, as such, enhanced democratic pluralism. Today, with political debate increasingly orchestrated by government and media, the silence of the intellectuals risks undermining one of democracy's crucial checks and balances.

First published in the International Herald Tribune, 14 October 2004