The intellectual debility of contemporary conservatism is indicated by its silence on all important matters’ ~ Christopher Lasch

In times of populism, soundbites, and policy-by-Twitter such as we live in today, the first victims to suffer the slings and arrows of the demagogues are intellectuals. These people have been demonised for prioritising the very thing that defines them: the intellect, or finely reasoned and sound argument. However, unfortunately, intellectuals are today losing their public authority and their moral legitimacy of speaking truth to power, while becoming incapable of carrying on their independent and critical functions as thinkers and animators of ideas.

The role of intellectuals in society however is a complicated subject. However, one cannot dispute what a meaningful and crucial impact intellectual can make, particularly in today’s rapidly changing times. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the present world, at least, comparatively they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. Isn’t it time, for public intellectuals to be the uncompromising fighters on behalf of human dignity?

The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo not just in the West, but also beyond in India and Sri Lanka. The elections in the US, UK, India and Sri Lanka brought into power, governments which exploited populist sentiments of perceived marginalization. In this cauldron of discontent, politicians are flourishing and even gaining power by portraying rights as protecting only the minorities at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and cultural preferences of the presumed majority. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns. They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, Tribalism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise. Some are uneasy with societies that have become more ethnically, religiously and racially diverse. This dangerous trend threatens to reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement.

Human rights exist to protect people from government abuse and neglect. Rights limit what a state can do and impose obligations for how a state must act. Yet today a new generation of populists is turning this protection on its head. Claiming to speak for “the people,” they treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will, a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils. Instead of accepting rights as protecting everyone, they privilege the declared interests of the majority, encouraging people to adopt the dangerous belief that they will never themselves need to assert rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.

Thus, today, a growing number of people have become victims of this wave of populism, coming to see rights not as protecting them from the state but as undermining governmental efforts to defend them. Encouraged by populists, an expanding segment of the public sees rights as protecting only these “other” people, not themselves, and thus as dispensable. We forget at our peril the demagogues of yesteryear—the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. When populists treat rights as an obstacle to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda. The risk only heightens when populists attack the independence of the judiciary for upholding the rule of law—that is, for enforcing the limits on governmental conduct that rights impose. Such claims of unfettered majoritarianism, and the attacks on the checks and balances that constrain governmental power, are perhaps the greatest danger today to the future of democracy. Rather than confronting this populist surge, the intellectual community seem to have fallen a victim having lost confidence in human rights values, offering only tepid support.

Even, these are unsettled times for democratic politics. The sovereignty of the people, a notion at the heart of the democratic ideal, has been declared obsolete. Democracy (popular sovereignty and majority rule) is now turned hegemonic, whereas liberal democracy – which adds key features such as minority rights, rule of law and separation of powers – is not. The working class and the already disadvantaged minorities are particularly affected, but also a significant part of the middle classes, who have become poorer and more insecure. Demonisation of minorities have become normalised while majority supremacy is justified in the name of democracy.

The rising tide of populism in the name of a perceived majority has also paralleled a new infatuation with strongman rule that was apparent particularly prominently during the US and Sri Lankan Presidential election campaigns. If all that matters are the declared interests of the majority, the thinking seems to go, why not embrace the autocrat who shows no qualms about asserting his “majoritarian” vision—self-serving as it may be—and subjugating those who disagree? But the populist-fuelled passions of the moment tend to obscure the longer-term dangers to a society of strongman rule. Those leaders pre-empt it, introducing draconian restrictions on assembly and expression, setting out new, unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and crippling civil society groups. They control the judiciary, deploy the intelligence services to arbitrarily detain and prosecute opposition politicians and ordinary critics, undermine the ability of the opposition majority in the Legislature to legislate, and use his party MPs to pass draconian laws and promote authoritarian rule. Rajapaksas have already started these tantrums, the way Trumps, Putins, Xis, Modis did in their countries!, in addition to perpetuating their family rule!

Separation between intellectuals and the public space

When George Bernard Shaw published Common Sense About the War, which was critical of both German and British jingoism at the outset of the Great War, he ran too much against the grain of the hyper-patriotic press and government propaganda, thereby becoming a pariah to many. But his star gradually returned into the ascendant as the body count mounted and a war-weary population came to share his point of view. Noam Chomsky, an American philosopher in an article in 1967 quotes Dwight Macdonald who in 1947 published a series of articles in Politics on the responsibility of peoples and, specifically, the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald was concerned with the question of war guilt. He asked the question: To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turned the question back to the people: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. The responsibilities of intellectuals, in this regard, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals today enjoy in terms of access to information and freedom of expression.

Thus, the issues that Macdonald raised are as pertinent today for intellectuals amongst us as they were seven decades ago. The intellectuals can hardly avoid asking themselves to what extent the they bear responsibility for allowing many genocides to happen, to allow Palestine to still remain under Zionist bondage, to allow draconian rulers to exploit populism to gain or remain in power, and to allow baser instincts of racism and xenophobia to take root in society. As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as these catastrophes slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions. It is thus the responsibility of intellectuals not only to insist upon the truth and to expose lies, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that “truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge”; it is only this kind of “truth” that one has a responsibility to speak.

Let us finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in our countries particularly against the vulnerable among them- the voiceless such as the minorities- as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defence of freedom.

The 21st century represents in general a separation between intellectuals and the public space. Seldom have intellectuals and the political world diverged so much. As such, intellectuals are no more described as “superheroes of the mind”, but simply as critical idealists who look beyond the scope of our everyday life. Today, critical intellectuals are an endangered species. Today’s intellectuals have a fear of the political and it seems as if the political has also a terrible indifference to what could be called “intellectual”. Either Intellectuals fall in line with the unequal policies of the establishment or fall silent for their own survival.

Many see this process as a decline of the intellectual. This decline is usually described as a process of distancing from the public sphere toward an increasingly professionalized, corporate and managerial world. Salaried, tenured and pensioned, many intellectuals find themselves chained to the wheel of a respectable career and profession which grounds their capacity of critical mindedness in a non-adversarial context. More precisely, narrow professional self-interests have destroyed the so-called public interests of the intellectuals. Quickly and unrepentantly forgetting their moral and political responsibilities, many intellectuals in today’s world have degraded and abandoned the idea of public sphere evolving into uncritical supporters of mass culture. In other words, intellectuals are losing their public authority and their moral legitimacy of speaking truth to power, while becoming incapable of carrying on their independent and critical functions as thinkers and animators of ideas. It is by virtue of this uncritical public stance that so-called political and cultural experts and media pundits have replaced intellectuals as the sociological actors of our contemporary world. “Epidemic of conformism” appeared to have completely paralyzed and rendered impotent, the critical questioning of the intellectuals.

Intellectuals as Catalysts and Agents of Change!

Ultimately, responsibility lies with the public. The demagogues traffic in casuistry, building popular support by spinning false explanations and cheap solutions to genuine ills. The best antidote is for the public to demand a politics based on truth and the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built. Populists thrive in a vacuum of opposition. A strong popular reaction, using every means available—civic groups, political parties, traditional and social media—is the best defence of the values that so many still cherish despite the problems they face. It is in this mission that the vital role of intellectuals to lead, come to play in a society!

The intellectuals therefore need to transform the public discourse and move the society toward new social imaginaries and new modes of thinking as well as promoting social justice and inclusiveness. It is time, once again, for public intellectuals to be the uncompromising fighters on behalf of human dignity. Many of the intellectuals who can shape public discourse and impact most directly on our politics have shirked their responsibility in the rise of the far right. History has warned us. It need to be realised that we have reached a point where sitting on the fence can no longer be defended as impartiality and only be seen as complacency if not complicity. Unfortunately, in these times of populism surging unchecked, even the long tradition of power and influence exercised by the leftist intellectuals have been waning in recent years. There is the need to reclaim this intellectual ground. Left-wing thinkers were moral leaders who defended the poor and the weak. The left needs to find its voice and its power again. With the paralysis of intellectual intervention in the face of emergence of right-wing populists across countries, what on earth are we headed towards?

By: Lukman Harees | Courtesy: Colombo Telegraph