Have our intellectuals gone to the blogs?
Pablo and a number of the commenters at Kiwipolitico seem to believe that young left-wing intellectuals are a little thin on the ground in New Zealand, but I'm not sure if this is quite the case. I don't think there is any shortage of clever young people with left-wing opinions in New Zealand: the problem, as far as I can tell, is that it is hard for these young people to relate their scholarly research and their theorising to the world of quotidian politics.
New Zealand has never been a centre of world revolution, but in our benighted era the lack of a strong labour movement, the absence of a coherent left-wing presence in parliament, and the near-total lack of interesting thinking on the right all help make Kiwi politics a particularly dour and philistine affair.
Students and young autodidacts may do all sorts of interesting research, and develop all sorts of interesting concepts, but the possibilities for applying their work in the real world are few. If they get jobs as analysts in the trade unions or for parties like Labour or the Greens they inevitably have to trim their sails and become glorified publicists, producing extended press releases rather than original thinking. They may gravitate towards the groupuscules of the far left, but these outfits are continually struggling simply to put out skinny newspapers and hold regular branch meetings, and so cannot possibly give much time to serious intellectual work. The journals dedicated to the refinement of Marxist theory and the impassioned arguments about the ideas of heavy-duty philosophers like Althusser and Gramsci which characterised the Kiwi far left in the '70s, when groups like the Socialist Action League had many hundreds of members, seem almost unimaginable today.
It does seem as though a lot of Kiwi left-wing intellectuals have to choose, to quote WB Yeats, between 'the life and the work'. Either they beaver away at their research, producing texts which are admired by their peers but are nonetheless too sophisticated and too 'unrealistic' to have much political impact, or else they sacrifice the intellectual stuff and go into propaganda.
Back when I was hanging around the Sociology Department at the University of Auckland I used to associate the bald choice that left-wing intellectuals face in New Zealand with two senior members of staff.
Ian Carter, who was given the unfortunate task of supervising my PhD, and later prolonged his sufferings by helping me to turn it into a book, had moved amongst the British left-wing intelligentsia during the glory days of the 1970s, rubbing shoulders with giants like EP Thompson and Raphael Samuel, and - perhaps less gloriously, in retrospect - working on a text called The Red Paper on Scotland with the young Gordon Brown. Ian had come to New Zealand as, in his own words, a "refugee from Thatcherism", and had eventually withdrawn from most political activity. Instead of marching down the street or selling papers outside factory gates, he had produced a series of wonderful books which analyse the history of various features of Western culture - the novel, radio broadcasting, and even model railways - in relation to the development of capitalism. Ian's books are a pleasure to read, and have a lot to teach us, but they are not the sort of works which are going to get crowds onto the barricades.
Dave Bedggood was a long-term member of the Sociology Department who had made a very different choice to that of Ian. He had produced one acclaimed and influential scholarly study of New Zealand society in the late '70s, but had not really delivered anything approaching a sequel. After the early '80s, when he became heavily involved involved in New Zealand's Trotskyist movement, Dave had prioritised the difficult and time-consuming business of political agitation and party-building over scholarly work. Dave can look back with pride on his involvement in many great political struggles, from the 1981 Springbok Tour to the anti-war movement of the early noughties, and he can justly claim to have influenced a generation of activists on the far left. I can't help wondering, though, what fine books, what masterpieces of scholarship and theory, Dave might he have written, if he had forsaken political activism in favour of intellectual work. (In fairness, I should note that Dave has in recent years published a magisterial essay on the history of Auckland and its relation to the history of New Zealand, and an important, courageous study of youth suicide. These two texts are amongst the very best things he has ever produced, and show that he still has a lot to say.)
I don't think either Ian or Dave can be faulted for the choices they made. I have the greatest respect for both men. What is sad is that it is so hard for left-wing intellectuals in New Zealand to avoiding choosing between activism and scholarship, between 'the life' and 'the work'.
Perhaps I'm being romantic, but I think that thoughtful yet accessible blogs like Kiwipolitico can play a role in reconnecting the left, and perhaps even the wider public, with scholarship and intellectual debate, by swimming against the tide of philistinism and cynicism which characterises contemporary Kiwi politics, and contemporary Kiwi society in general. With their minimal overheads, potentially wide dissemination, and provision for democratic interaction and debate, blogs may be able to fill some of the gap left by the disappearance of the well-resourced, wide-circulation left-wing papers and journals of the past.
It is interesting to note that some of the most influential young intellectuals on the British left are known primarily as bloggers. Richard Seymour, who runs the avowedly Marxist and very popular blog Lenin's Tomb, Laurie Penny, a leader of the recent massive student protests who blogs for the New Statesman, and Owen Hatherley, who politicises subjects like modernist architecture and the music of Pulp on his wonderfully-titled site Nasty Brutalist and Short, all seem to be acting as intermediaries between the world of theory and the world of left-wing and trade union activism. These bloggers popularise and extend previously-obscure ideas and provoke debates. Their articles for 'offline' journals and their books often start life as blog posts, and therefore benefit from the input of blog readers. I see a possible local parallel to the likes of Seymour and Hatherley in the work of bloggers like Matthew Dentith, the University of Auckland PhD student in philosophy who has become a high-profile, indefatigable debunker of conspiracy theories and other forms of irrationalism; Mike Beggs, the Aussie-based Kiwi who popularises Marxist crisis theory, explaining why it is relevant to our day and age; Tim Bowron and Daphne Lawless, two Marxists who are, bless their souls, as interested in literature as in political economy; Giovanni Tiso, who brings a special knowledge of Mediterranean intellectual history to his meditations on New Zealand society; Bryce Edwards, who somehow manages to combine a full-time academic job with a prolific blog; and the group of very young but very clever Canterbury University students who have set up the site Kea and Cattle.
Is it possible that the new breed of blogging intellectuals might help to restore communications between the realm of scholarship and the realm of action, and thereby improve the quality of both the intellectual and the political life of this country?
Footnote: one of the commenters at Kiwipolitico has complained that 'almost all' of the young left-wing intellectuals and bloggers being discussed there 'fit into the middle class professional (and particularly academic) category'. I think there is a tendency, amongst both the general public and New Zealand's mainstream left and right, to assume that the terms 'intellectual' and 'academic' always overlap. They do not. An intellectual is someone with a passion for ideas and research and an interest in connecting his or her own ideas and research to society and social problems.
As Richard Taylor has often noted at this blog, in the 1960s and '70s many of New Zealand's most influential left-wing intellectuals were the product of the 'working class university' of this country's railway workshops and its union movement. The tradition of working class autodidacticism which Richard celebrates was badly damaged by the deindustrialisation of New Zealand in the '80s and '90s, but there is no reason why it cannot revive in a different form in the future, especially with the new tools for research and communication provided by the internet.
The increasing commercialisation of the university in the twenty-first century, and the need of academics to publish more and more specialised research at a faster and faster rate in a proliferating number of little-read journals, means that there are arguably fewer active intellectuals than ever inside the so-called 'Ivory Tower'.
Some of the left-wing bloggers and writers I mentioned, like Richard Seymour, have PhDs, and some of them publish work through academic presses, but few of them actually have full-time academic jobs. At least some of them seem to see such jobs, with their huge workloads and restricted foci, as inimical to genuine intellectual work. This attitude reminds me of EP Thompson's decision to quit, after a few short years, the prestigious job that had been created especially for him at a British university. Thompson explained his decision with the words 'I can't get any research done here'...