Where Are The Public Intellectuals in International Relations?

March 22, 2016

Here is a slightly edited version of my initial talk at the ISA roundtable “Where Are The Public Intellectuals In International Relations?” that took place on Thursday 17 March 2016 in Atlanta, US. Professor James H. Mittelman (a strong defender of academic and intellectual freedom) from the American University had convened the panel. Other participants included professors Ahmed I. Samatar (a writer and candidate in Somalia’s 2012 presidential elections) from the Macalester College and Cynthia Weber (a film maker and queer theorist) from the University of Sussex. It is a shame that our discussions were not taped, as the dynamics of the roundtable worked exceptionally well.

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What is an intellectual? In his characteristically witty book, The Intellectual, Steve Fuller asks “what distinguishes them from philosophers, scientists, politicians or entrepreneurs?”. Fuller’s book is full of insightful remarks and amusing comments, but I think his question may be misleading.

There is no one given type or mode for being a philosopher, scientist, politician or entrepreneur. Any one of these could also be an intellectual – even the entrepreneur, though that may be exceptional. Fuller does not deny this.

The positive starting point of Fuller’s analysis is more promising. The university has been the breeding ground for intellectuals. An intellectual pursues his or her lines of inquiry autonomously, challenging the received wisdom in one or more fields. The intellectual’s closest kin is the philosopher.

And yet, I find a simple and straightforward Wikipedia-definition even better: “An intellectual is a person who engages in critical study, thought, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of that society.” What must be added to this is that the true intellectual is a seer, a visionary, and thereby also passionate about what he or she does.

An intellectual becomes a public intellectual when he or she gets involved in the public sphere and gains at least some authority within the public opinion. In spite of their public recognition, and in some cases precisely because of it, the intellectual lives often in a self-imposed “exile”. This exile may also become quite literal, depending on the historical and political circumstances.

The question of our roundtable is: “Where Are The Public Intellectuals in International Relations (IR)?”. This question presupposes that IR-based public intellectuals are disappearing – or that they may not have existed at all. I concur that IR-originated public intellectuals are becoming increasingly rare.

The question is, why? There are two sides to the problematic. First, the university system has become less capable of breeding intellectuals. Second, fewer of the intellectuals seem to engage with the public sphere – or even have access to it, except through the social media, which tends to be anti-intellectualist in many of its current manifestations.

I start with the university system. After the Second World War, the university system based on the idea of academic freedom expanded rapidly until the 1970s or in some cases, well into the 1980s. At least in some parts of the world universities were also democratized during this era. For many young students and to-be intellectuals, expansion and democratisation provided space for autonomous thinking. Newcomers could question the established wisdom and develop new and radical ideas, advocating them passionately in the academia and sometimes also in the public sphere.

In 2014, Patrick Jackson put together a special issue of the International Studies Quarterly Online about “The ‘Third Debate’ 25 Years Later”. This is significant because nothing much has happened in IR theory since Lapid’s miscounted “third debate”, with only a few partial exceptions. Even Alexander Wendt’s constructivism was more or less fully articulated already in his 1992 “Anarchy is what States Make of it” paper in International Organization.

It was no coincidence that also the last “great debate” in IR took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. There are real causes for this situation. The expansion of universities came to an end by or in the 1980s (in places like China the expansion continues, but it has come to a halt in most of the OECD world). Positions and funding have become increasingly competitive.

The New Public Management reforms started in the English-speaking universities in the 1980s, establishing new hierarchies and eroding collegial principles. Funding came to be tied to the short-term performance of individuals and units; extensive peer-reviewing and recurring quality-assessments became pervasive parts of the system. These individualising and atomising practices have spread rapidly through global networks of governance.

University jobs and research funding have been increasingly conditioned on the opinion of several – and in some cases on the opinion of a very large number of – peer reviewers. A single negative statement can kill an application or publication. The peer-reviewing and quality-assessment system is closely connected to the hierarchical ranking of the universities, journals and publishers, which in turn is connected to commercialisation of higher education.

Young scholars have no alternative but to do what is expected by those hierarchically above them. We have to distinguish between two kinds of situations. There are disciplines in which a single paradigm dominates strongly, from physics to economics. In such fields young scholars either adjust themselves to the dominant consensus or must exit the academia.

In the more pluralistic disciplines such as IR – and it is worth noting that IR has not always been as pluralistic as it is now – what happens is the translocal clustering of locally dominant fragments or subdisciplines. Within each cluster, the insiders commend and cite each other, extending these friendly gestures to newcomers who are ready and willing to play the game according to their rules. Over time, debates with the outsiders become less genuine, routinized or even forgotten. What emerges is a system of separate camps, where each camp exhibits symptoms of clientalism and group-thinking, to varying degrees.

In this way, the theories and approaches that had risen by the early 1990s have been frozen into competing paradigmatic subdisciplines that tend to tolerate only little dissidence or innovativeness within them. In the biggest location and market, the US, positivist methods, the neo-neo debate and related quantitative works dominate. Constructivism is the recognized third pillar, although not always liked by the more positivist and economistic mainstream.

In Europe, approaches such as the British approach to political economy, British institutionalism and post-structuralist political sociology, together with interpretativist and “qualitative” methods, are much stronger and in many locations totally dominant. Local situations vary, however, also from country to country. For instance, Norway is closely linked to the USAmerican mainstream, with few exceptions, some of them in exile. In Finland constructivism dominates most departments, with the partial exception of Helsinki, where critical realism and political economy are strong.

Some young researchers may think that they are going to follow the directions of their mentors and superiors only as long as necessary, becoming more autonomous after having gone through the initiation rites. Unfortunately, the process takes a long time. Most young scholars go through a cycle of precarious, short-term grants and jobs. To get tenured, one needs to perform to the satisfaction of a large number of peer-reviewers, funders and publishers.

Having adapted one’s skills and habitus to others’ expectations for such a long time, his or her truly original ideas are likely to be suppressed forever. Moreover, even as a tenured professor, one continues to need others’ approval in terms of publications, citations and research grants. Everyone knows that friends and colleagues in your own subfield are likely to support you, whereas the outsiders are much less likely to do so. You must of course be ready to return the favour. As a result, everyone is supporting copies of themselves, while spending the bulk of their working time evaluating and reviewing others’ works, applications and careers – instead of doing substantive scientific work.

Hence, the system works against the emergence of original and autonomous intellectuals, seers and visionaries. At least partly for the same reason, we have no new great debates in IR either. Whether one is an econometrician, a positivist game-theorist, a Neo-Realist, a scholar in European studies, a feminist IR theorist, a neo-Gramscian political economist, or a post-structuralist political sociologist does not make that much difference. For a given newcomer in a given location, it is necessary to find an advisor and mentor who guides you successfully through the competitive and hierarchical system.

This kind of pluralism is of course better than the dominance of a single paradigm. And yet the disciplinary mechanisms within each subdiscipline and fragment run counter to the emergence of truly original new ideas. The disciplinary mechanisms work against those who engage in critical study, thought, and reflection because they are deeply concerned about various ills in society, not because they are keen to further their own careers.

The mechanisms of surveillance, control and discipline work especially against those who are ready to challenge the established approach, whatever that may be, because they can see more promising and fruitful possibilities.

Some contexts may remain somewhat more encouraging and empowering than others, and the human spirit is of course indomitable. Thus some intellectuals may nonetheless be emerging, against all the odds. Then the question becomes: will these new intellectuals become public intellectuals? Do they have a chance of becoming public intellectuals in the world dominated by corporate interests and neoliberal ideas and – increasingly – by populist hate-speak?

Many political processes are self-reinforcing through various mechanisms. Consider a generalised world view, or culture, which is reproduced through systems of media and education. Even a minor change in relations of power implies more power to change the rules of the game within which political contestations take place. For instance, more room may be opened up for the influence of private money in the media or for lobbying in politics.

In turn either of these will transform power relations further. Soon the institutionalisation of modified practices reinforces further the process and its direction. New vested interests become entrenched, locking in currently prevailing policies and public discussions about them.

Our young public intellectual is of course deeply concerned about these developments, trying to speak out in public about their illegitimate character and likely negative consequences. But the mass media has become dominated by the prevailing worldview and related vested corporate and other interests. The local and social media may provide alternative outlets, but to his or her bewilderment, at this world-historical moment the most common anti-establishment reaction is not based on rational arguments and emancipatory visions but, rather, on populist demagogy and anti-intellectualist hate-speak.

What will our public intellectual do under these circumstances? The more he or she spends time and energy in – what often turn out to be hopeless – public activities, the less likely is success in the academic world in terms of peer reviews, quality assessments, jobs and funding. Indeed, for a true intellectual, it seems very difficult to combine a successful academic career and public activities.

How will the story end? A catastrophe is looming in the air due to societal unlearning. The task for our intellectual, however, is to find original, even radical solutions to this increasingly acute puzzle, remembering that all eras are temporary.

A part of the solution is an attempt at reimagining and redefining the purpose of the university on a global scale. The agenda of emancipation must not only be proactive but also global.

Thank you!