Public intellectuals as guides to the political flux, Or, “who can tell us what the fuck is going on?”

In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading The Candidate by Alex Nunns. It’s a detailed and insightful account of Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour party and the conditions which made this possible. After the election, it can also be read as as an analysis of broader conditions which might facilitate Corbyn’s ascendency to government. What both events share is their unsettling of political assumptions, as nascent transformations in political life made themselves felt for the first time in outcomes which professional observers of politics dismissed as impossibilities.

There’s an insightful discussion in The Candidate of this infamous dismissal of Labour members as ‘morons’ by Blairite apparatchik John McTernan. It took place in the run up to the leadership election when the first authoritative poll gave Corbyn a huge advantage over his rivals:

What fascinates Nunns about this is how the bewilderment of the presenters led them to so openly reveal their biases. The underlying assumptions which bind together establishment worlds of politics and the media stand repudiated by these events and the presenters “struggle to keep their journalistic footing for five minutes of balanced analysis, even as the political terrain falls away beneath them” (loc 4070). As he goes on to observe on loc 4086:

In such moments of political flux, when a sudden development cannot be made to fit into the standard patterns of reporting used to depict the world, underlying biases are revealed. The genuine shock evinced in the Newsnight studio was reflected across the media; the shared assumptions and sympathies echoed in the vast bulk of the reporting and commentary that followed.

We have seen a lot of political flux in recent years. It would be absurdly inaccurate to see this uncertainty as something unique to the 21st century. There have been many other periods of world history characterised by a similar degree of uncertainty, as well as the the obvious point that ‘our’ certainty has often been ‘their’ uncertainty e.g. military adventurism during a relatively stable period of British politics. So by ‘political flux’, I mean events which can’t be incorporated into the intellectual frameworks dominant within the media and politics, usually taking place within national politics but sometimes aggregating together like an outflowing of nested bubbles across the globe.

But I believe media saturation represents a turning point because it leaves events unfolding more quickly, due to the affordances of digital communications, as well as folding back bewildered commentary into those events themselves. The political terrain can fall apart much more quickly and we can many more conversations in the period of time in which it is falling apart. There has been a qualitative and quantitative change in how such moments of uncertainty are constituted, as well as how they can generate new events.

Under these circumstances, I’m increasingly convinced there are new openings for public intellectuals. Probably not for hedgehogs but rather for foxes: discursive power falters in these moments of uncertainty and there’s new opportunities for influence available to those who can quickly and plausibly offer sophisticated explanations of events & maps of ways forward while the existing arbiters of political reality are quite openly wondering what the fuck is going on. There is a place opening up for a new kind of intellectual here. Can the established conditions of critical social thought give rise to it?

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