Public Intellectuals and the Shock Doctrine

In the last year, I’ve been preoccupied by the relationship between periods of political flux and public intellectualism. These aren’t longer term processes, in which the coordinates of an established consensus begin to disintegrate, but rather short term periods of intense public confusion e.g. the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote or the shock Labour result in the last election. What happens when the established commentators don’t know what’s going on? What happens when large swathes of the population peer beyond the veneer of governance and realise no one is really in charge of the system?

It is inevitably the case that order is soon resumed and an account of these events is established. However those interstitial moments where a dominant frame has broken down, without any successfully coming to take its place, represent a failure of interpretation with potential influence to be accrued by public intellectuals who can step into the picture and provide a clear and plausible explanation of what is happening i.e. why is this situation so rather than otherwise? This contrasts with the descriptions which the emerging model of intellectualism-as-punditry offers, as political scientists compete to see who can offer the most compelling hot take on the issue foremost on the media agenda.

It occurs to me when reading Naomi Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough, what I’ve been calling ‘political flux’ relates to what she characterises as ‘shock’. These failures of interpretation can be brought about deliberately, creating moments in which resistance is untenable because things are moving too fast. But political flux can also emerge as unintended consequences from deliberate shocks, with the shock-architects themselves being taken aback by the consequences of their actions. On pg 6 she describes some of the shocks we are likely to see in the near future, as the Trump administration pursues it agenda:

it’s also a vision that can be counted on to generate wave after wave of crises and shocks. Economic shocks, as market bubbles—inflated thanks to deregulation—burst; security shocks, as blowback from anti-Islamic policies and foreign aggression comes home; weather shocks, as our climate is further destabilized; and industrial shocks, as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, which they tend to do when the safety and environmental regulations that prevent chaos are slashed. All this is dangerous. Even more so is the way the Trump administration can be relied upon to exploit these shocks to push through the more radical planks of its agenda. A large-scale crisis—whether a terrorist attack or a financial crash—would likely provide the pretext to declare some sort of state of exception or emergency, where the usual rules no longer apply.

What role do public intellectuals have here? In alleviating the disorientation shock gives rise to by interpreting the political flux, it’s possible to stake out a new role for public intellectuals which takes advantages of the affordances of social media*. But this also requires linking these moments of flux together, drawing out the connections between the different shocks and articulating a story about how this all fits together. From pg 8:

we have to tell a different story from the one the shock doctors are peddling, a vision of the world compelling enough to compete head-to-head with theirs. This values-based vision must offer a different path, away from serial shocks—one based on coming together across racial, ethnic, religious, and gender divides, rather than being wrenched further apart, and one based on healing the planet rather than unleashing further destabilizing wars and pollution. Most of all, that vision needs to offer those who are hurting—for lack of jobs, lack of health care, lack of peace, lack of hope—a tangibly better life.

*Yes, I realise it’s not as simple as simply getting ideas ‘out there’, but that’s a topic for another post.

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