Where are they now?

Once our credulity was based on ignorance-now it is based on overload. More than ever before, we need independent intellectuals to sort the wheat from the chaff. But they have disappeared
August 19, 1997

He wrote his people's dictionaries and their national epics; he composed their protests against injustice and their demands for freedom. A Grub-street hack, a threadbare pamphleteer, a street corner agitator, he was notorious for biting the hand of everyone who tried to feed him. The professors scorned him as a dilettante; the priests loathed him as a free-thinker; the politicians feared him as a troublemaker. He sided with lost causes and rarely lived to see them win. His statue is still in the park, but few remember his name.

When Sartre died in April 1980, a chapter which had begun in Paris in 1733, when Voltaire published his Letters concerning the English Nation, came to an end. There had been thinkers before-clerics and scholars; but it was Voltaire who invented the public intellectual: the scourge of the Church, the thorn in the side of princes, the acerbic habitu? of beautiful women's salons.

Independence-financial and moral-was what gave Voltaire's irony its scornful courage. Where are the independent intellectuals now? Worthy professors, cultural bureaucrats, carnival barkers and entertainers. The death of the intellectual has left a void in public life. In place of thought we have opinion; in place of argument we have journalism; in place of polemic we have personality profiles.

The British pretend that they don't like intellectuals, but some of the most influential ones in the 20th century have been British. From Beveridge to Orwell, from Tawney to Keynes, from Russell to Isaiah Berlin, the public intellectual created the ideas which made liberal social democracy possible; and when social democracy became stultified, it was intellectuals-from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman-who provided the dynamite to blow it up. Most had academic jobs, but the audience they sought was not the monastic few but the educated many. Their impact was made possible by social democracy's triumph-above all, by the creation of a public broadcasting service which gave them a podium. It was the Reithian BBC, especially its Third Programme, which enabled JB Priestley, Stuart Hampshire, Freddie Ayer, VS Pritchett, TS Eliot, Nikolaus Pevsner, EH Gombrich, Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen to become figures whose ideas guided the conversation of the country.

Certainly, the prestige of such people depended on habits of cultural deference which have rightly had their day. But however deferential it might have been, it was a public culture. These individuals elicited a huge correspondence from ordinary people wanting to try out their ideas. In place of this public dialogue, we have celebrity chat shows. In place of a public forum for debate, we have academic conferences.

For the Enlightenment intellectual the academy was mental death. Johnson's Dictionary and Diderot's Encyclop?die were great acts of intellectual translation, in which knowledge which had slumbered inside colleges and church libraries was made accessible to a new bourgeois public. The Enlightenment philosopher wrote for the new, often female readers created by the capitalist market-and learning how to persuade them created the first secularised public discourse of civil society. The intellectual's revolt against scholastic monopolies of knowledge produced a great democratisation of the intellect. Today, we need to keep faith with this ideal. The information revolution has made the intellectual's translation function more important than ever. We need to rescue knowledge from the closed language games of specialists. In the middle ages, our credulity was based on factual scarcity; today it is rooted in factual overload. We know too much, understand too little, and when we turn to the humanities and social sciences for help, what do we get? The tenured radicals who went into academe after 1968 were supposed to free the university from the conformist functionalism of American social science. Instead, they set to work erecting new stockades of conformism: neo-Marxist scholasticism; deconstruction; critical theory-the games people play when they have given up on public debate.

There is a great irony here. In 18th and 19th century Europe, the public intellectual enjoyed the prestige that went with possession of a near-monopoly of information. In a society such as Russia, where most of the population were illiterate, the intelligentsia was looked up to as a moral force. Today, we have the society which intellectuals dreamed of: near universal access to secondary and higher education. Intellectuals have lost their monopoly of knowledge-which is a good thing; but they also have lost their independence, which is damaging to their moral authority; and they have abandoned plain speech in the public realm, which has destroyed their influence. Never has society been better educated; never have intellectuals enjoyed less prestige.

Intellectual deference has been replaced by a sullen populism which holds most forms of genuine intellectual authority in contempt. The democratisation of culture was supposed to widen culture's audience; instead it has bred a populist loathing of high culture itself. In the 19th century, culture was a synonym for civilisation. In the late 20th, it means any symbolic form held to be a significant marker of identity by any social group. The public wants to know: is this any good? Will this last? Should we care? Historically, intellectuals have made the issue of cultural standards their domain. Now they are silent, ashamed of their "elitism," unwilling to stake their reputation on defending the good and ridiculing the second rate.

Intellectuals were once the guardians of political language. Orwell made the link between plain public language and liberty itself. The condition of democratic freedom was popular understanding: both are menaced by the pervasive jargon of academics, politicians and marketing men. (As a Labour government makes plans for the millennium celebration at Greenwich, for example, it conceives the project as an exercise in "branding" GB plc.)

From Zola's J'Accuse to Havel's Letter to Hus?k, intellectuals used the power of the word to fight intimidation and prejudice. Now Havel's voice is fading and, with it, the myth he embodied risks being forgotten. It was Russia which created the myth of the intellectual as moral authority. From Vissarion Belinsky in the 1840s to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, the intellectual forced the Russian conscience to face the "accursed questions" of its existence. In 1994, the last of the great Russian intellectuals returned home from exile only to discover that a market society had no patience for the moral sage. As with Havel, Solzhenitsyn's return tells us that a chapter in the intellectual history of Europe may be closing.

Some would say that this is inevitable: intellectuals only flourish when there is a tyranny to oppose. Havel never had more authority than when he had least power. Solzhenitsyn was never more magnificent than when he took it upon himself to become the avenging angel of all those who had been crushed by the Red Wheel.

It may be a matter of intellectual rejoicing that the Red Wheel has now stopped in its tracks, but it is also a source of perplexity. For communism was a source of grand narrative: it told the world where History was headed. Intellectuals are the makers of grand narratives and without them they are lost. For most of the 20th century, intellectuals enlisted on behalf of the great narrative battle between communism and capitalism. The battle gave meaning to their lives. Now the only grand narrative available is about the conflict between globalism and particularism-between the forces of technology, capital and science which are sweeping us towards global sameness, and the traditions of language, culture, religion and identity which maintain our differences intact. Some intellectuals are globalists, but most former left-wing intellectuals are particularists, lending their opposition to a world dominated by McDonalds and Microsoft. In the process, many intellectuals are sacrificing the intellectuals' historical function of defending the universal against the violence and closure associated with the tribal, national and ethnic.

In any case, the grand narrative-global destiny versus embattled communities-presents a false antithesis. Globalisation works at the surface of identity, while particularism defines what lies several layers beneath and is several degrees more essential: the traditions of our language and history. Global change is scouring the face of the planet, but we have lived with it long enough to know that it is not going to scrub away the meanings encoded within the 5,000 languages on the globe. The particular is just as tenacious and resourceful as the global. We seem to be re-tribalising: the more globalism makes our consumption patterns converge, the more we defend the particularities which remain.

Another grand narrative to which intellectuals might be expected to contribute has been the unification of Europe. The continent was unified in the mind long before it was unified by bureaucrats: in the community of Roman law, then in the shared faith of Christendom, and then, from the 1750s onwards, in the republic of letters which bound together philosophers from Edinburgh to St Petersburg. Since 1945, European intellectuals have been arguing that European integration should not be left to the politicians: it is a unity to be constructed in the mind and heart, in the works of culture. And what is the result? We now have a European debate dominated entirely by bankers, economists and politicians.

The intellectuals' silence about Europe is part of a more general crisis in the authority of the humanist intellectual tradition we inherit from Voltaire. For what is it exactly that an intellectual knows? He is, by definition, a generalist rather than a specialist, a moralist rather than a technician. In the days when knowledge was in the hands of the few, the intellectual could plausibly say he knew something which most of his society did not. From this mon-opoly he derived his power and his moral authority. But today?

The only intellectuals who have escaped this crisis of authority have been the scientists. Thanks to the brilliant popularisers of physics, genetics and chemistry, the scientist enjoys greater intellectual prestige than any humanist intellectual. The reason is simple: they appear to know something. But any honest scientist realises that what he actually knows is a tiny piece of some larger puzzle about the universe. It is not this knowledge itself which confers public authority, but his command of scientific method itself.

But the applicability of scientific method to questions of ethics and public policy is anything but clear. Who is there to demystify science? Scientists themselves believe that they are best qualified to be gate-keepers of their profession. But that leaves the public out in the cold. Who speaks for the public? The independent intellectual, the journalist, writer, teacher or television producer, has never been more essential-to winnow the wheat from the chaff-and never have they been in shorter supply.