Technocrats or Intellectuals?

Geoff Andrews

The intellectual network NEXUS set up with Tony Blair's approval and made up of 'on-side' academics, has been deteriorating lately and by all accounts is close to extinction. Its demise has escaped the more familiar platitudes from commentators, as confirmation, say, of the vacuum in left wing thinking, or the inability of the left to apply its ideas to concrete realities. Rather its quiet passing reflects the current mood that pragmatism and policy-reform at the micro-level, rather than unconnected theorising at the macro level, is what counts in third way agendas. Or perhaps NEXUS, in attempting to initiate a 'marriage' between intellectuals and government through its 'ideas-for-policy' approach, has achieved its goals and has been a victim of its own success. Whatever the real reason, it is indicative of a wider shift in the status and role of intellectuals that amounts to the view that unless they get their hands dirty, they are not up to much.

One of the most significant critiques of the ineptness of intellectuals in recent times was from Geoff Mulgan in his dispute with Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall and co in the special issue of Marxism Today. 'Few intellectuals', Mulgan argued, 'are now actively involved in society, as councillors, activists, or school governors. Instead the world is viewed at second-hand, through books, and through books about books. As in parts of the media, an individualised culture has taken shape in which it is easier to be cynical, detached and opposed, rather than to run the risks, the emotional exposure, of being committed and engaged'. (Geoff Mulgan, 'Whinge and a Prayer' Marxism Today November/December 1998 pp 15-16)

This argument carries a lot of conviction and embodies many valid critiques of the failures of left intellectual culture; in particular of the 'academicisation' of the left and of the cynical, as distinct from sceptical, postures taken by many intellectuals. In his critique of intellectuals - particularly of those working in academia - he is right to point out the 'remarkable de-politicisation of intellectual life', (see Geoff Mulgan, 'Whinge and a Prayer' Marxism Today November/December 1998 pp 15-16) when one considers that most recognised academic work is either carried out by 'research hermits' aiming to 'up' the ratings in the Research Assessment Exercise, or 'career bureaucrats', looking to make it through administrative functions. Left wing academics, who might have been expected to resist some of these pressures by taking a more active public role or by helping to 're-imagine' academe, must take their share of the blame for the mediocrity and dull conformism that makes up a large part of contemporary university life.

Problems emerge however with the other side of the Mulgan equation; that New Labour has created new spaces where 'radical intellectual engagement is alive and well'. While there has been an expansion in the influence of 'centre-left' think tanks - DEMOS, IPPR, New Policy Institute - these seem to operate within increasingly limited intellectual boundaries, usually providing the spade work for pre-conceived policy-ideas. Now fronted exclusively by Blairites, their role seems less that of critical intellectual engagement and more to do with providing a gloss for policy changes. While the one-off issue of Marxism Today for some was a case of 'intellectuals behaving badly', going beyond their brief in questioning the bigger picture and interrogating the whole basis of third way modernisation, for others it marked a welcome return of the more iconoclastic, promiscuous and heretical left intellectual tradition. This tradition, identified mainly with the New Left, has been sadly lacking in political culture recently, where even traditionally radical journals - such as New Statesman and New Times ('on-side, but not always on message'), - now seem to occupy the role of 'service providers', whereby the key policy-makers are helped on their way with a gentle push here or there. It is a 'safety-first' culture reproduced in a whole range of public sector institutions from the BBC to higher education, where corporate control continually denies creativity, complexity and heresy. Even Des Lynam, the epitome of Middle England meritocracy, was heard muttering about 'suits' and 'accountants' as he made his departure from the BBC in July.

The point about the impact of managerialism, is not merely to note the rise of mangers as one of the fastest growing social groups (according to Social Trends), or that, according to an Audience Selection poll published in The Guardian in April, 60% of the population define themselves as managers in one way or another; or that New Labour, created by spin-doctors, is the natural party of the managers. It is that the ethos of the new managers, reared by Thatcher and socialised into maturity by Blair, has become the new common sense of politics itself. New managerialism has become the new organising philosophy of governance and has served to justify the restructuring and modernising of a range of institutions. Anthony Barnett has described this development as 'corporate populism', the form of governance which has succeeded 'consensus politics' and 'conviction politics' and which is distinguished by the way in which Downing Street 'manages the party and the civil service as if they were parts of a single giant company', while treating voters as 'happy customers who want to return Labour to office'. This combination of 'can-do pragmatism', and 'customer satisfaction', according to Barnett, leads to a trivialising of democracy and a distrust of real participation and devolution of power. Corporate populism contrasts with constitutional democracy in its attempts to 'manage' social and political change, rather than devolve real political power. It is this corporate populism moreover which gives both the 'refreshing effectiveness' of New Labour as well as its 'suffocation of independent opinion'. (Anthony Barnett: 'Corporate Control', Prospect, February 1999 pp24-29)

Wendy Wheeler, in her book A New Modernity?, also questions the managerialism-as- politics approach of New Labour. She argues that in its preference for means rather than ends, its denial of a 'shared moral language' in favour of pragmatic utilitarianism , and its reduction of human beings to mechanical functionaries it has resulted in a 'narrowed and reductive', 'commodified' culture'; ...'managerial choice is dictated by what is efficacious, by what enables one to live an effective or effecting or efficient life - normally in terms of material profit or ease...' As a result the ethical values of 'mutuality', 'reciprocity', 'responsibility' and 'obligation' that might provide the basis for the renewal of a truly modern polity, become anathema or too compromised by 'market realities'. (Wendy Wheeler A New Modernity? Lawrence and Wishart 1999 pp 103-131)

It could be argued that the new managerialism does articulate a kind of humanism; a flawed neo-liberal humanism, which in its language of 'empowerment', 'inclusion' and 'performance incentives' resonates closely with the underlying themes of Labour's socio-economic agenda, notably those - like 'lifelong learning' - that are based on the development of human and social capital. The flaws in this approach are of course the limitations of neo-liberal agendas, that at the end of the day, 'getting more for less', and 'controlling' outcomes carry all before it. This not only limits democracy in the way that Barnett described, or devalues human activity in the way that Wheeler suggests, but also, when articulated at the level of governance, threatens to replace politics itself. It is a realisation both of the technocratic objectives of 'neutrality' and 'efficiency' and of the meritocratic ideal that all advancement is through individual effort and motivation. This means that 'conflict' and 'struggle' over imbalances of power and structural inequalities and those between competing ideologies - the essence of politics - are eschewed, in the belief that everything can be reduced to 'what works best'.

The consequences for politics are inevitably short-term and populist. There is a sharp difference between political pluralism and technocracy. A genuine pluralist culture opens up but cannot seek to control outcomes, a dilemma that is unresolved in many of New Labour's current problems, from Livingstone's candidacy for London Mayor, to the imposition of Alan Michael over Rhodri Morgan. The rise of the technocrat, a phenomenon which describes equally well the modern politician as well as the modern manager, has been at the expense of the intellectual. Managers seek the populist centre, while intellectuals, often going against the grain, need a more critical and independent engagement, at times (though not always), remaining on the margins. Manager's are do'ers, driven by results; intellectuals try to make sure the right questions are being asked.

It is not the case that intellectuals have lost it though it is a view which, in the current climate, has much currency. There have been many cases of committed intellectual work that is engaged and in touch with policy that are beyond the boundaries of New Labour technocracy. At a time of the expansion of mass education, they could do worse than learn from those New Left intellectuals whose involvement in adult education provided the real basis for lifelong learning, rather than the grey-suited technocrats who (in many cases) outnumber academics and who are demeaning the purpose and value of learning. The Greater London Council, under Ken Livingstone, was a formative example of how organic intellectuals could be brought into practical policy making and construct a radical but popular agenda. Teachers in the inner city schools might be thought to be useful intellectuals making massive commitments to the cultural life of the community, but carry little weight when set against 'neutral' performance indicators and the populism of 'parent power'.

It has been a common feature of the New Labour approach to look for easy targets in the need to push through its own version of modernisation; left wing intellectuals are one of the softest targets of all as - it is claimed - mediators of outdated ideology, stalwarts of professional privilege, and troublesome whingers. Yet even in the epoch of technological transformation, globalisation and ideological fluidity, their role will be important albeit in more flexible forms than in the past. As the 'costs' of structural change take effect, the failures of short-term populism unfold and the trends towards depoliticisation increase, intellectuals, defined by their public, independent and critical roles will assume an importance once more in helping to look for the bigger picture, to confront unconventional truths and - in the Gramscian concept- to renew political engagement.

Geoff Andrews lectures in politics at Hertfordshire University and recently co-edited New Left, New Right and Beyond (MacMillan 1999) and Ruskin College: Contesting Knowledge, Dissenting Politics (Lawrence and Wishart 1999)


Balancing Acts

The Hard Centre by Jeremy Gilbert

Technocrats or Intellectuals? By Geoff Andrews

The Spin Cycle: Truth and Appearance in Politics By Tim Bewes

The Art of Life By Jonathan Rutherford

The Long Revolution by Wendy Wheeler

From Signs of the Times to Signing the Times By Mark Perryman