Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Rise of the Thought Leader

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David Sessions writes in The New Republic:

Writing in one of Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci jotted down the fragments that would become his theory of intellectuals. New classes, like the European bourgeoisie after the Industrial Revolution, he proposed, brought with them their own set of thinkers, which he called “organic intellectuals”—theorists, technicians, and administrators, who became their “functionaries” in a new society. Unlike “traditional intellectuals” who held positions in the old class structure, organic intellectuals helped the bourgeoisie establish its ideas as the invisible, unquestioned conventional wisdom circulating in social institutions.

Today, Gramsci’s theory has been largely overlooked in the ongoing debate over the supposed decline of the “public intellectual” in America. Great minds, we are told, no longer captivate the public as they once did, because the university is too insular and academic thinking is too narrow. Such laments frequently cite Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987), which complained about the post-1960s professionalization of academia and waxed nostalgic for the bohemian, “independent” intellectuals of the earlier twentieth century. Writers like the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attribute this sorry state of affairs to the culture of Ph.D. programs, which, Kristof claims, have glorified “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” If academics cannot bring their ideas to a wider readership, these familiar critiques imply, it is because of the academic mindset itself.

In his book The Ideas Industry, the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel W. Drezner broadens the focus to include the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded, and expressed. Describing the public sphere in the language of markets, he argues that three major factors have altered the fortunes of today’s intellectuals: the evaporation of public trust in institutions, the polarization of American society, and growing economic inequality. He correctly identifies the last of these as the most important: the extraordinary rise of the American superrich, a class interested in supporting a particular genre of “ideas.”

The rich have, Drezner writes, empowered a new kind of thinker—the “thought leader”—at the expense of the much-fretted-over “public intellectual.” Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world.” Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the “big ideas” of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.”

Drezner does his best to take an objective view of the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who fulfills a function different from that of the public intellectual, though an equally legitimate one. “It is surely noteworthy,” he writes, optimistically, “that a strong demand has emerged for new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking about the world.” But he seems to portray this thirst for new ideas as a positive development even while conceding that the ideas currently thirsted for are at best shallow and banal, at worst deeply anti-democratic, and at times outright fraudulent.


The case against thought leaders, The Ideas Industry shows, is damning. As Drezner notes, some of the marquee names in thought leadership are distinguished by their facile thinking and transparent servility to the wealthy. The biggest idea in Thomas Friedman’s best-known book, The World Is Flat, is, Drezner summarizes, that “to thrive in the global economy, one needs to be ‘special,’ a unique brand like Michael Jordan.” It is more of a marketing principle than a philosophical insight. But “businessmen adore Friedman’s writings on how technology and globalization transform the global economy,” Drezner explains, because his message reinforces their worldview.

Like Friedman, thought leaders Parag and Ayesha Khanna proclaim the world-historical power of technological innovation, preaching that technology with a capital “T” is replacing economics and geopolitics as the engine of global change. As Evgeny Morozov has observed, Parag Khanna believes that “democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism,” arguing that we should thus embrace authoritarian, Chinese-style capitalism. In his own review of Khanna’s Connectography, Drezner characterized his thinking as “globaloney” and likened his prose style to “a TED talk on a recursive loop.”

Drezner traces how the pursuit of money in the new corporate ideas industry—through television shows, high-dollar speeches, and lavish book advances—pushes thought leaders to bloat their expertise and hustle in so many markets that they end up selling fakes. The most notorious example is Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host and columnist who has been caught lifting passages from other writers to feed his multiplatform output. Similarly, the historian Niall Ferguson leapt headlong into brand-building: crafting books intended as scripts for TV series, giving lucrative speeches, and writing for a dizzying array of publications. Like other overstretched thought leaders, Ferguson landed in trouble when his Newsweek cover story on President Obama in 2012 turned out to be riddled with errors and misleading claims. Interviewed for The Ideas Industry, Ferguson is frank about his transformation from Oxford don to thought leader: “I did it all for the money.”

Despite Drezner’s impatience with the delusions of thought leaders, he shrinks from the darker implications of his evidence. When it comes time to render a verdict on whether the Ideas Industry is “working,” he conjures an economic metaphor: “For good and ill, the modern marketplace of ideas strongly resembles modern financial markets. Usually, the system works. On occasion, however, there can be asset bubbles.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 July 2017 at 7:24 pm

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