Coming of age during the Vietnam War, I cut my cultural teeth on an exalted idea of intellectuals. They were the people who challenged the official pieties, especially the easy equation of power and virtue, the American civil religion that justified imperial misadventure. Sometimes, even at my conservative southern university, they were my professors—especially the historians Paul Gaston and Bill Harbaugh. By exposing the mendacity of American policy, they fostered a critical spirit in their students. By challenging the equation of anticolonial nationalism with Soviet communism and exploring the futility of foreign attempts to crush a popular insurgency, they gave us an alternative way of seeing the U.S. role in the world.
Of course, there were prominent counter-examples of intellectuals at work. Washington was full of mandarins who defended deranged policies in the name of “pragmatism” or its cousin “realism,” who cavorted in counterinsurgency fantasies, defended doctrines of surveillance and secrecy, and constructed rationales for the nuclear arms race. These were the likes of Walt Rostow, Herman Kahn, McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, and their legions of imitators. These were the devotees of the “crackpot realism” identified by C. Wright Mills. As a naval officer and a participant in the anti-war movement, I encountered the calm insanity of the crackpots at close range—the denatured language deployed to justify mass slaughter, the “pragmatic” preoccupation with technique rather than purpose. For years I read and re-read Randolph Bourne’s critique of John Dewey’s justification for American entry into World War I, convinced that the misuse of pragmatism was one of the original sins of American intellectual life.
Still, for a while it seemed that there were vital alternatives to the technocratic discourse of national security policy. Criticism of imperial excess even penetrated the halls of Congress, energizing the Church Committee and other inquiries into executive crimes. But serious re-examination of American empire proved impossible to sustain for long; crackpot realism was too thoroughly institutionalized, too pervasively intertwined with entrenched ideological needs and economic interests.
As hopes for a New Left faded, my contemporaries and I became preoccupied with the failure of countercultural protest, the ease with which it became trivialized and reabsorbed into the mainstream of consumer culture. How did dominant groups defang dissent? How—apart from guns and money—did the ruling class rule? Graduate school was a good place to raise these questions during the 1970s. The air was full of rueful re-examinations, but also fresh possibilities. Christopher Lasch was penning spirited (if sometimes unfair) polemics against “the fake radicalism of the counterculture”;
E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams were reviving Marxism with a cultural emphasis, groping their way toward what Thompson would call a “greenish libertarian socialism”; Eugene Genovese and my own mentor, David Brion Davis, were exploring the writings of Antonio Gramsci, unraveling the concept of cultural hegemony.
What they discovered was that cultural hegemony was not to be confused with social control; it was about legitimation, not manipulation. The problem was not that ordinary people were brainwashed into accepting policies against their interests, but that certain ideas and values were simply not admissible into the charmed circle of “responsible opinion.” The ruling class ruled by keeping some ideas out of circulation, as gatekeepers in the mass media and other cultural institutions declared them “tasteless,” “irresponsible,” or simply “unrealistic.” Of course it was not simply a conspiracy: journalists and other gatekeepers were acting in accordance with their own professional standards and practices, as well as their own beliefs; policy makers serving elite interests persuaded themselves that they were acting in the service of society and indeed humanity at large. But the consequence was that challenges to established hierarchies were either trivialized beyond recognition—as countercultural protest was transformed by journalistic convention into a riot of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—or else screened out entirely from public discourse—as single-payer health care has been eliminated from contemporary debate.
THE CONCEPT OF cultural hegemony helps illuminate the disappointing intellectual history of the last thirty years—disappointing, at least, for anyone who believes that intellectuals have a responsibility to be critics rather than servants of power. Since the 1970s, the Right has deployed the lessons of Gramsci with devastating success. This was a conscious strategy, articulated in 1971 by Lewis Powell (who would soon be appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon) in a memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell was alarmed by what seemed to him to be the dominance of left-wing views in universities and the mass media. He urged the friends of capitalism to retake the field by establishing right-wing think tanks, endowed professorships, and media outlets. All of this happened, of course, with a vengeance.
The resurgent Right was quickly crowned with electoral success in 1980: the ascendance of Reagan ratified and reinforced their ideological counteroffensive. The change in the atmosphere was palpable and unmistakable, as reporters from the Washington Times began appearing on television talk shows alongside “fellows” from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Within little more than a decade, the fulcrum of debate shifted sharply to the right: “economic reform” was redefined as deregulation of business; “special interests” as welfare recipients. Views that had once been considered the province of a revanchist fringe—free market fundamentalism, bullying militarism—acquired a fresh patina of respectability. By the end of the century the Right had reframed public discourse in the United States. Amid the fearful chauvinism of the post 9/11 era, George Will began to look like a moderate, and the Washington Post began to look like the Washington Times, with an op-ed page that resembled a public relations document from the Pentagon. People who called themselves intellectuals, in this brave new era, were often little more than craven apologists for wealth and power.
And where was the Left during this ideological putsch? On talk shows, the “liberal” position was usually represented by a gray figure from the Brookings Institution or some other centrist think tank, who spoke in the soporific idioms of managerial efficiency. In mainstream politics, liberalism lost its moral fervor as it dissolved into technocratic and therapeutic jargon: the Clinton-Gore administration caught the new tone perfectly. Intellectuals, in this world, were trivialized into “policy wonks.”
What was left of the left intelligentsia retreated into the academy, where the tragedy of 1960s cultural politics was replayed as farce. Partly this involved the dominance of identity politics. Its sources were compelling and wholly understandable—the desires of women and minorities to vindicate and explore a separate sense of self, independent of the hegemonic standard established by white males. But one unintended consequence of the quest for alternative identities was that it created a new kind of fragmented, interest-group politics, unmoored from any larger vision of the good society. Cut off from engagement with actual policy debates (the province of “wonks”), the left intelligentsia retreated into academic politics—micromanaging curricular reform with ferocious intensity, debating the finer points of “cultural theory” with scholastic precision.
The regnant modes of theory shifted as well. Cultural Marxism fell into disuse. There were many new theorists on the block, but the most influential across disciplines was Michel Foucault, a subtle and challenging thinker whose work was in many ways tailor-made for understanding the new forms of coercion unleashed by the “war on drugs” and the emerging surveillance state. But another side of Foucault proved more broadly influential: for many left academics, he became less a theorist of the surveillance state than an advocate of Nietzschean individualism, whose vision of “heterotopia” celebrated myriad sites of resistance to repressive authority rather than any larger notion of commonweal. All of this comported well with the emerging cultural politics of the academy, which in many ways constituted a mirror image of free-market individualism. From the mid-1980s on, it was possible to discern a kind of left-wing Reaganism among academics in the humanities and social sciences, most visible in the postmodern tendency to celebrate consumer culture as an arena of choice, liberation, and self-creation. Fearful of seeming to be puritanical killjoys, left intellectuals backed away from environmentalist critiques of heedless consumption. No wonder the Right had such an easy time establishing its cultural hegemony.
Now, we have been told, the reign of the Right is over—though it is a little too soon to celebrate. To be sure, the election of Barack Obama signified a great triumph of insurgent democracy, and a deliverance from the unfolding coup d’état conducted by the Bush administration. The dominant political culture created by the Right has been challenged but not fundamentally changed. Obama’s early policy decisions reveal the inertial pull of powerful institutions—investment banks too big to fail, national security bureaucracies too sensitive to reveal their secrets, Pentagon contractors too hungry to forswear their appetite for overseas bases. And Obama’s cautious pursuit of bipartisanship may be another misuse of pragmatism.
Still, this is a moment of possibility. The Right has disgraced itself by its inability to govern and, even more, by its disregard of international law and fundamental constitutional traditions. Not since the Great Depression has there been such an opportunity for the Left: a chance to make politics more than a matter of managerial technique—to take the moral high ground, to reassert the claims of commonweal. That is where the intellectuals come in, to articulate that larger vision. Or so we can hope.
Jackson Lears is editor of Raritan and author, most recently, of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920.