Practicing Enlightenment: Public Intellectualism and a New Vision for Transforming the Public Sphere

posnerIn his 2002 book titled Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner laments many of the shortcomings he sees in our current generation of public intellectuals. For one, Posner criticizes the biased, careless and largely uninformed ways in which public intellectuals engage with the masses, arguing that today’s typical public intellectual simply responds to what the media reward, which often “has little to do with quality intellectual work and a great deal to do with fame and celebrity” (Farmer 204). As one scholar points out, this type of “celebrity status” is troublesome because it “has often come hand in hand with a loss of critical position and an eroding radical edge in public interventions” (Oslender 118). Other scholars such as Frank Farmer and Ellen Cushman have called into question and ultimately rejected Posner’s narrow definition of what it means to be a public intellectual in the 21st century. Farmer criticizes Posner’s “apparent inability to imagine public intellectuals as something other than academics with an identity crisis” (Farmer 203), and calls for a conceptual redefinition of public intellectualism that would encapsulate “the kind of public intellectual some of us would like to see” (204). For her part, Ellen Cushman finds the limited definitions of the public intellectual proposed by men such as Posner deeply problematic in their narrow understanding of the word “public,” and hence argues against the current tendency to “focus on a ‘public’ consisting of middle and upper class policy makers, administrators, and professionals,” one that effectively omits “an important site for uniting knowledge-making and political action: the local community” (Cushman 328). She later proposes a more broad definition of the term to include any intellectual who combines research, teaching, and community service efforts “in order to address social issues important to community members in under-served neighborhoods” (Cushman 329).


Today’s typical public intellectual simply responds to what the media reward, which often “has little to do with quality intellectual work and a great deal to do with fame and celebrity.”

In an article titled “How to be a Public Intellectual,” the late Christopher Hitchens appears to agree with Farmer and Cushman’s concerns over the “uses and abuses” of the term “public intellectual,” suggesting, “we probably do need a term that expresses a difference between true intellectuals and the rival callings of ‘opinion maker’ or ‘pundit,’ especially as the last two are intimately bound up with the world of television” (Hitchens 2008). Hitchens loosely defines a public intellectual as “someone who makes his or her living through the battle of ideas,” and then he somewhat sardonically points out that perhaps Posner’s point in subtitling his book “A Study in Decline” is proved by the very fact that Posner’s choice for number one in a list of 100 top intellectuals for the years 1995-2000 is “none other than Henry Kissinger” (Hitchens 2008, Grimes 2002). Hitchens’ observations hint at what Peter Dahlgren describes as a shift in the tradition of public intellectualism in which the more “romantic” or humanistic public scholar has been supplanted by the technical expertise and specialization of the “think tank” public intellectual (Dahlgren 97).

Scholars have pointed to a recent shift in the tradition of public intellectualism in which the more “romantic” or humanistic public scholar has been supplanted by the technical expertise and specialization of the “think tank” public intellectual.

Scholars have pointed to a recent shift in the tradition of public intellectualism in which the more “romantic” or humanistic public scholar has been supplanted by the technical expertise and specialization of the “think tank” public intellectual.


Yet in the face of such alarming trends otherwise signaling the “decline” of the public intellectual, Dahlgren and other scholars have proposed a new vision for today’s public intellectual. This new vision ultimately asserts the possibility for public intellectuals to transform their communities and the university into the best of what Jürgen Habermas had in mind for the public sphere. After all, as Dahlgren observes, “[t]here are different ways of being intellectual and different ways of being public” (Dahlgren 99). What follows is a critical investigation of this new vision, a vision that is not only determined to justify the necessity of public intellectuals in a democratic society, but suggests how public intellectuals might use innovative pedagogy and new media to reach, expand, and help organize their audiences in a collective effort that has the potential to bring about yet another structural transformation of the public sphere.

An early image of the public sphere.

An early image of the public sphere.

In his seminal text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Jürgen Habermas explains how Kant envisioned the public sphere as both “the principle of the legal order and as the method of enlightenment” (Habermas 104). In expanding upon Kant, Habermas adds that not only is enlightenment uniquely mediated in the public sphere, but the “practice” of public enlightenment, that is to say, the public use of reason, should be “at first as a matter for scholars” (Habermas 104). Thus, the ideal public sphere is one in which scholars and the public engage with one another in the task of “practicing” enlightenment. In so doing, “common sense” solutions can be achieved, solutions that reflect “the genuine needs and correct tendencies of common life” (Habermas 120). Yet, as Habermas goes on to describe in the latter half of the book, late capitalism has brought about an era of refeudalization by co-opting the public sphere and turning it into a vehicle for the “psychological manipulation of advertising” (Habermas 190), the “engineering of consent” (192), and, most alarmingly, an agent for oppression. In his final chapter, “On the Concept of Public Opinion,” the consequences of this transformation of the public sphere are laid bare with Habermas’ observation that “all those behaviors of population groups would be designated as public opinion that are apt to modify or preserve the structures, practices, and goals of the system of domination” (Habermas 243).

Scholars such as Peter Dahlgren and Ulrich Oslender have connected Habermas’ ideas on the public sphere, the refeudalization of society, and the “colonization of the life world” to the debate over why public intellectuals are a crucial part of any just, humane, and democratic civilization. Writing at the height of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ulrich Oslender views the current world climate as being shaped by a “re-emerging binary thinking and the construction of old dualisms in new disguise” such as the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and the mindset of “us versus them” (Oslender 99). Calling for new public voices to emerge and speak out against what Habermas described as the “colonization of the life world” (Oslender 100), Oslender argues that public intellectuals are distinctively capable of countering “discursive reductionist constructs and denounc[ing] their underlying logics of war and domination” (99). He asserts there is a “collective desperation in the air,” one that “makes us thirst for intelligence as opposed to numbing down, for critically engaged arguments rather than brainwashed repetitions that insult our very notion of reasoned thinking” (Oslender 100).

Likewise drawing on Habermas’ idea of the colonization of the of the life world, Dahlgren argues that the trend toward placing a higher value on scientific and technical thought within public discourse “becomes problematic when it gains hegemony in domains that ultimately have to do not with the physical realities of the world, but with values, i.e. issues that are to be socially negotiated” (Dahlgren 106). In other words, issues that had previously resided in the realm of politics and reasoned interpretation, questions such as “how should we live?” or “how should we confront various dilemmas?” have increasingly become “more the terrain of technical expertise” (Dahlgren 106). This, Dahlgren asserts, is why it is not uncommon to see so-called scientific experts repeatedly appearing in the media to offer advice on topics such as love relationships, economics, and child rearing, advice which often perilously omits any sort of enlightened “reflection on values and politics” (Dahlgren 106).

Scholars have begun to envision a new role for intellectuals, one that requires them to venture outside the "safety zones" of academia.

Scholars have begun to envision a new role for intellectuals, one that requires them to venture outside the “safety zones” of academia.

As a way of resisting and possibly reversing this unfortunate trend, in an article in The Nation magazine on the public role of writers and intellectuals, Edward Said affirms that the public intellectual’s responsibility should extend far beyond merely offering scientific and technical advice; in fact, he writes, the intellectual’s role is “to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power” (Said 2001). More specifically, Said challenges public intellectuals to offer a “dispassionate account” of how we have constructed a system of “counterfeit universals” in the form of tacitly approved phrases such as the free market, privatization, and less government, phrases which are often deployed “not as they sometimes seem to be—as instigations for debate—but quite the opposite, to stifle, preempt and crush dissent” (Said 2001). In this climate, argues Said, what the public intellectual can offer is a counter testimony to how entities such as “identity, tradition and the nation” are ultimately constructed ones, and most often and more disturbingly, these entities are constructed in “the insidious form of binary oppositions that are inevitably expressed as hostile attitudes to the Other” (Said 2001). By rethinking Habermas’ ideas on the public sphere and the colonization of the life world, Oslender, Dahlgren, and Said have begun the work of envisioning a new role for intellectuals, one which, in the words of Ellen Cushman, reflects “a growing pressure for intellectuals to make knowledge that speaks directly to political issues outside of academe’s safety zones” (Cushman 329).

Cushman, along with other scholars, has proposed a new vision for the role of public intellectuals, one that requires them to venture outside the “safety zones” of academia. By integrating service learning and activist research, Cushman argues, public intellectuals can transform and reposition the university as a new and important site for the public sphere. Both Cushman and Frank Farmer give concrete examples of how college professors, particularly composition faculty, can incorporate service learning into their curriculum. In reviewing several book-length studies on service learning and composition studies focused on the public sphere, Farmer proposes an additional term—community intellectuals—to remind us “that there are other publics and other intellectuals” whose “often unheralded” work makes “an authentic difference in the lives of our neighbors” (Farmer 204). Yet, as Stanley Aronowitz points out in a 2010 op-ed piece that reiterates many of the problems he describes at length in The Knowledge Factory, the type of institutional change proposed by scholars like Cushman and Farmer is difficult to achieve for several reasons.

Perhaps most significantly, Aronowitz criticizes how the vast majority of “educational liberals” have “accepted the dominant framework: education or, more accurately, schooling should serve the economy; first and foremost students should be prepared to take their respective places in the world of work” (Aronowitz 2010). Within this framework, despite the liberal “rhetoric of the centrality of critical thinking,” most schools have been relegated to technical and vocational “training grounds” (Aronowitz 2010). Not surprisingly, Aronowitz’s more recent suggestion for transforming the corporate university is the same as it was over a decade ago:

What the educational radicals should offer the handwringing liberals is what radicals do best: go to the root of things. Education should be a preparation for life, especially helping kids become active in determining the conditions that most affect them (Aronowitz 2010).

Service learning gives students the opportunity to become involved in their communities and helps "enact citizenship in a larger sense."

Service learning gives students the opportunity to become involved in their communities and helps “enact citizenship in a larger sense.”

To this end, Cushman offers examples of how service learning and activist research can be incorporated into (and by definition beyond) the university writing classroom. In seeking to help students become involved in their communities and “[t]o enact citizenship in a larger sense,” Cushman recommends that the public intellectual “can begin by developing service learning or outreach courses” in which students are asked “to test the merit of what they learn in the university classroom against their experiences” by volunteering in their communities at sites such as homeless shelters, primary and secondary schools, and old-age homes (Cushman 330). Cushman goes on to describe how, by engaging in activist research (which she defines as the combination of “postmodern ethnographic techniques with notions of reciprocity and dialogue to insure reciprocal and mutually beneficial relations among scholars and those with whom the knowledge is made”) (332), public intellectuals can “find and generate overlaps between aesthetics and politics,” or, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt, “forge a more secure link between the love of art and human decency” (334).

Henry Giroux, perhaps one of the most outspoken scholars addressing the role public intellectuals might play in re-shaping the public sphere, affirms that within rhetoric and composition studies there “has been a long legacy of attempting to combine theoretical rigor with social relevance” (Giroux 9). This legacy explains why theorists in the field have consistently “approached language and writing as a form of cultural production” by linking “academic discourse to the material relations of power shaping everyday life” (Giroux 9). Particularly in a post-Littleton era, Giroux insists that educators must strive to unite “the politics of schooling with political struggles,” and suggests this can be accomplished in part by challenging the corporate culture industry’s “exclusive emphasis on the private good” and thus reconnecting critical pedagogy “to a notion of the public good” (Giroux 31). Borrowing Cornel West’s term “crisis of vision” to characterize “all levels of schooling and culture in the United States,” Giroux calls upon rhetoric and composition educators, as well as other academics, teachers, students, and parents, to organize and confront today’s “growing ascendancy of corporate power” marked by the “shrinking of non-commodified public spaces” and “the spread of market values that has undermined those elements of care, respect, and compassion for others that must be central to any decent democratic society” (Giroux 35).

In a recent article declaring that public education’s democratic mission is “under assault by a conservative right-wing reform culture,” Giroux likewise makes a bold claim that public schools are currently under the attack of market-driven forces “not because they are failing (though some are) but because they are one of the few public spheres left where people can learn the knowledge and skills necessary to allow them to think critically and hold power and authority accountable” (Giroux 2012). Giroux implores today’s educators to refuse to succumb to the pressures of bringing up student test scores by narrowing their pedagogy and, in consequence, stifling critical thinking. Instead, they should view themselves “through the lens of civic responsibility” and re-envision the classroom as a “democratic public sphere” (Giroux 2012). As public intellectuals, Giroux believes today’s educators have the obligation to “focus their work on important social issues that connect what is learned in the classroom to the larger society and lives of their students” (Giroux 2012). Naming issues such as climate change, globalization, the growth of the prison-industrial complex, and student debt, Giroux envisions a pedagogy that “can be addressed as a moral and political discourse,” one that empowers students to “speak with conviction” and “enter the public sphere in order to address important social problems and demonstrate alternative models” (Giroux 2012).

Other scholars, such as Daniel A. Gilbert, agree with Giroux’s assessment that educators are the “essential guardians” of the public sphere (Gilbert 2). Like Aronowitz, Gilbert points to the corporatization of the university and the casualization of intellectual labor, and argues these forces necessitate “a reconsideration of the question of the public intellectual” (Gilbert 1), for “there is no such thing as a guaranteed public sphere” and academic workers must organize “before we ourselves, along with our ideas and our academy, are swept under the rug” (10). It should be noted that one key distinction between theorists like Gilbert, Farmer, Cushman, Said, Giroux, etc. and the neoliberal views on public intellectualism expressed by Richard Posner is how the former have consistently offered a radical new vision for the role of public intellectuals in creating a more just and democratic society. Posner simply relies on pseudo-scientific data and capitalist terminology to catalogue a decline in the “market” for public intellectuals, yet offers no real solutions for the way forward (Boynton 2002). In light of this, it may very well be time for a new term to signify “the kind of public intellectual some of us would like to see” (Farmer 204).

While Farmer and others have proposed the term “community intellectual,” Edward Said has suggested sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the “collective intellectual” may be more helpful to describe the intellectual’s intervention in the public sphere. Bourdieu maintains that the work of re-shaping the public sphere, particularly the obligation to offer a critique of abuses of power and authority:

…cannot be done, as some thought in the past, by a single great intellectual, a master-thinker endowed only with the resources of his singular thought, or by the authorized spokesperson for a group, or an institution presumed to speak in the name of those without voice, union, party, and so on. This is where the collective intellectual can play its irreplaceable role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias (quoted in Said 2001).

It has been suggested that the sole “intellectual superstar” such as Bernard-Henri Lévy is primarily useful only to the “news-as-snippets mass media, for whom it is important to present a (preferably good-looking) figurehead as commentator on public issues."

It has been suggested that the sole “intellectual superstar” such as Bernard-Henri Lévy is primarily useful only to the “news-as-snippets mass media, for whom it is important to present a (preferably good-looking) figurehead as commentator on public issues.”

According to Said, Bourdieu’s idea of the collective intellectual is devoid of “any utopian teleology toward which human history can be described as moving,” leaving intellectuals with the collective task of inventing or hypothesizing “a better situation from the known historical and social facts” (Said 2001). Accordingly, though one obviously “can’t do or know everything, it must always be possible to discern the elements of a struggle … that can be elucidated dialectically, and also to sense that other people have a similar stake and work in a common project” (Said 2001). This is arguably the very sort of dialectical enlightenment Habermas described as being possible within a true public sphere, which might help explain why the singular term “public intellectual” has indeed become inadequate. After all, as Ulrich Oslender observes, the sole “intellectual superstar” such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Bernard-Henri Lévy is primarily useful only to the “news-as-snippets aesthetizising mass media, for whom it is important to present a (preferably good-looking) figurehead as commentator on public issues” (Oslender 109). In this sense, Posner is correct to condemn the “slapdash, interested, and typically uninformed manner” in which today’s public intellectual performs his or her duties (Farmer 203). But the conversation needn’t stop there.

The advent of the information age and consequent “digital transformation of the public sphere” has arguably created new and exciting possibilities for today’s public intellectual.

The advent of the information age and consequent “digital transformation of the public sphere” has arguably created new and exciting possibilities for today’s public intellectual.

In writing about the duty of educators to provide “a language of resistance” against neoliberalism, Giroux describes hope as “a referent for civic courage” that empowers intellectuals to connect teaching and learning with the public sphere, a sphere that is always evolving with the “force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic and social transformation” (Giroux 2012). By way of conclusion, the 21st century has provided a unique opportunity for this “unending project” of public/community/collective intellectualism. Though there is much more to be said on this topic, the advent of the information age and consequent “digital transformation of the public sphere” has arguably created new and exciting possibilities for today’s public intellectual (Dahlgren 101). Noting how the Internet’s decentralized, participatory logic has provided an “alternative to the top-down structure of the older mass media,” Dahlgren asks, “Who would have thought from the beginning that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would become important institutions of the public sphere?” (Dahlgren 100). While there are reasons to be cautious about this shift, the digital transformation of the public sphere has certainly given rise to a “wave of optimism in regard to its democratic potential” (Dahlgren 100). What exactly we do with this potential remains to be seen, but there are many reasons to be hopeful that the information age has, among other things, opened up new and collective ways of practicing enlightenment.

 Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley. “Education Reconsidered: Beyond the Death of Critical Education.” Truthout. 16 Sept. 2010. 24 Nov. 2012. <;

Boynton, Robert S. “‘Sounding Off,’ a review of Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals,” The Washington Post Book World, (20 Jan. 2002). Web. 23 Nov. 2012.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” College English, 61:3 (Jan. 1999): 328-336.

Dahlgren, Peter. “Public Intellectuals, Online Media, and Public Spheres: Current Realignments.” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society, 25.4 (20 Sept. 2012): 95-110.

Farmer, Frank. “Review: Community Intellectuals.” College English, 65:2 (Nov 2002): 202-210.

Gilbert, Daniel A. “The Corporate University and the Public Intellectual.” Working Group on Globalization and Culture, Breaking Down the Ivory Tower: the University in the Creation of Another World, 2005.1: 1-10.

Giroux, Henry A. “Can Democratic Education Survive in a Neoliberal Society?” Truthout. 16 Oct. 2012. 23 Nov. 2012. <;

—. “Public Pedagogy and the Responsibility of Intellectuals: Youth, Littleton, and the Loss of Innocence.” Jac: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, 20.1 (2000): 9-42.

Grimes, William. “Another Top 100 List: This Time, Intellectuals.” The New York Times. 19 Jan. 2002.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991. Print.

Hitchens, Christopher. “How to be a public intellectual.” Prospect Magazine. 24 May 2008. 23 Nov. 2012. <;

Oslender, Ulrich. “The Resurfacing of the Public Intellectual: Towards the Proliferation of Public Spaces of Critical Intervention.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6.1 (2007), 98-123. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Said, Edward W. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” The Nation, 273.8 (17 Sept. 2001): 27. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

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From Training Corporate Cogs to Teaching the Real Thing: Stanley Aronowitz’s Vision for Transforming Higher Education

In The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning, Stanley Aronowitz begins by boldly asserting “there is little that would qualify as higher learning in the United States” (Aronowitz xvii). Loosely defining ‘higher learning’ as the process by which “students are broadly and critically exposed to the legacy of Western intellectual culture and to those of the Southern Hemisphere and the East,” Aronowitz proceeds to analyze contemporary colleges and universities as Knowledge Factories, places in which increased vocationalization, ‘training,’ and discipline specialization has come at the expense of true higher learning (xvii-xviii).

Never one to mince words, Aronowitz classifies today’s recent college graduate as a “techno-idiot” (172) and notes how, as part of the university-corporate complex, schools now merely exist to “train kids to become cogs in the corporate capitalist machine” (3). Aronowitz traces the origins of this shift to a variety of factors, including the fact that decreased government funding for education has prompted universities to solicit support from the private sector, usually in the form of corporate partnerships. Not surprisingly, as a result of such partnerships, administrators and faculty “wear the badge of corporate servants proudly” (81) and often “rush to tailor their intellectual and cultural capital to the needs of these corporations” (36).

Equally problematic, he notes, is the reluctance on the part of professors at public research universities to join in unionization efforts to address some of these ills, including the increasing casualization of their profession in the form of T.A. and adjunct labor. Aronowitz blames in part the relative material successes and consequent “self-image” of such professors who view themselves more as “independent entrepreneurs or scholars … exempt from the imperative of collective action” (92). Regrettably, he observes, “most of these faculty members remain indifferent, if not antagonistic to unionism” (93).

Returning to the question of what constitutes ‘true’ higher learning, in the latter half of the book Aronowitz again asserts the need to base education on a “critical appropriation of the main currents of human knowledge” (126). Such a “critical appropriation” entails that students learn to “swim against the current” by challenging and possibly reversing the “technical divisions that fragment society” (126).

Scorning current conceptualizations of so-called “liberal education” as nothing more than “a Chinese menu of more or less disconnected courses masquerading as ‘breadth’” (128), Aronowitz devotes the last chapter of his book to proposing a somewhat radical curriculum and pedagogy “whose aim is to foster learning, even wisdom” (155). Proposing an impressive and perhaps almost impossibly ambitious two-year curriculum that systematically investigates different historical periods by exploring the interactions between history, literature, science, and philosophy, Aronowitz consistently emphasizes a relentless contextualization of canonical texts and, most importantly, the cultivation of a “habit of reflexivity” (189).

Given the unfortunate state of affairs plaguing our current university-corporate complex, it’s understandable that one might be skeptical of the practicality of Aronowitz’s alternate model. Yet I couldn’t help feeling intrigued and excited by its possibility. If possessing a B.A. currently means nothing more than the fact that one can sufficiently “tolerate boredom and knows how to follow rules” (10), Aronowitz’s vision is refreshingly appealing in its simple emphasis on “learning the real thing” (192).

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Thoughts on David Harvey’s “Rebel Cities”

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”     –Warren Buffett

In Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, David Harvey reminds us that cities have long been the central sites of revolutionary politics. Yet, as cities are also the centers of capital accumulation, a manifest tension arises over who gets to benefit from and maintain control of urban resources. In his opening chapter on “The Right to the City,” Harvey resoundingly declares that the people—not the developers or financiers—need to re-claim their right to the city, to assert “their right to change the world, to change life, and to reinvent the city more after their hearts’ desire” (Harvey 25).

New York City’s High Line park. According to Harvey, “the creation of this kind of public space radically diminishes rather than enhances the potentiality of commoning for all but the very rich.”

In his chapter on “The Creation of the Urban Commons,” Harvey describes a bit of a Catch-22 when the practice of “commoning,” one facet of reclaiming the right to the city, is played out within our current capitalist framework. Citing New York City’s sleek new High Line park as an example, Harvey observes that such development has had a “tremendous impact on nearby residential property values, thus denying access to affordable housing in the area for most of the citizens of New York City by virtue of rapidly rising rents” (75). Thus, he paradoxically asserts, “the creation of this kind of public space radically diminishes rather than enhances the potentiality of commoning for all but the very rich” (75). Though to some extent this has always been the story of gentrification, it is a narrative Harvey unwaveringly reads as tragic.

Indeed, the “true tragedy of the urban commons for our times,” writes Harvey, is the way in which the creation of an “interesting and stimulating everyday neighborhood life” has been co-opted by “the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and upper class consumers bereft of any social imagination” (78). Yet while he offers a refreshingly bold critique of the current “hegemonic radical theories” of the commons, I found myself wanting more from Harvey in the way of possible alternatives (88). It is difficult to imagine a viable alternative, a true or ‘non-commodified’ commons somehow exempt from the incessant demands of capitalist urbanization. For his part, Harvey seems to believe we are up for that challenge, and I suppose I can’t help but hope he’s right.

In “The Art of Rent,” Harvey switches gears a bit and lays bare two of the fundamental contradictions associated with the idea of monopoly rent. The first is that as cultural products become commodified, marketed, and mass-produced, the “less unique and special they appear” (92). Pointing to the “Disneyfication” of Europe as one example, Harvey asserts that the “bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages” (92). The second important contradiction mirrors the first, for within the very necessity for sacrosanct capitalist “competition” resides the inevitable tendency toward monopoly or oligopoly. This contradiction is inevitable, Harvey argues, because “the survival of the fittest in the war of all against all eliminates the weaker firms” (93).

This “war,” however, is more of a race to the bottom than anything else, and, here again, Harvey’s suggestions for constructive resistance are frustratingly ambiguous. Admitting how “no alternative to the contemporary form of globalization will be delivered to us from on high,” Harvey nonetheless anticipates the advent of a “broader movement” arising “from within multiple local spaces” (112). He hints that popular culture may be “one of the key spaces of hope” in the creation of “an alternative kind of globalization and a vibrant anti-commodification politics,” but if and only if it too can somehow be completely restructured in a way so that its “progressive forces of cultural production and transformation” will begin to “appropriate and undermine the forces of capital rather than the other way around” (112).

In “Reclaiming the City for Anti-Capitalist Struggle,” Harvey offers more in the way of concrete alternatives to the “central dialectical tension” within anti-capitalist movements, specifically the question of:

“How can the left fuse the need to actively engage with, but also create an alternative to, the capitalist laws of value determination on the world market, while facilitating the associated laborers’ ability democratically and collectively to manage and decide on what they will produce and how?”

Harvey asserts that “the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked.”

By way of wrestling with this dilemma, Harvey suggests any anti-capitalist movement must a) incorporate an “anti-wealth” politics within anti-poverty organizations; b) come to terms with and reverse the “clear and immanent dangers of out-of-control environmental degradations”; and c) challenge and abolish the “socially constructed” law of endless capital accumulation, reproduction, and growth (127-128). He then cites several resistance movements, perhaps most notably the recent Occupy Wall Street uprising, all of which hope to prove that the “collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (161-162). That is, “it is bodies on the streets and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter” (162).

In conclusion, what Rebel Cities lacks by way of solutions it more than makes up for with its incisive and persistent challenges to our broken and repressive capitalist machinery. Perhaps any frustration I felt while reading the text had more to do with my own impatience and the undeniable shortcomings—failures, really—of the Occupy Wall Street movement to bring about the type of change Harvey so gracefully envisions. That said, in Harvey’s words, there is indeed “one thing we do know for certain: we can only get to the right answers by asking the right questions” (157). Let’s just hope that our future journeys do not lead us back in the direction of proven dead-end, unimaginative, and morally bankrupt solutions like “building more homes and filling them with things” (50, 130).

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An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management

Check out the slide show Frankie Medina and I put together to help facilitate our 11/6 class discussion on Randy Martin’s book, An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management.

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Information Capitalism’s Solution to Structural Unemployment: A (Prison) Laboring Neo-Lumpenproletariat

In Structural Unemployment and the Qualitative Transformation of Capitalism, Thomas A. Hirschl asks an important rhetorical question: “If electronics technology replaces labor, where will the jobs be in ‘information capitalism’?” (Hirschl 160). The short answer is, in Hirschl’s own words, that “there are no ‘safe’ jobs” (165). Yet in exploring his question at face value, it can be argued that prison labor represents at least one (admittedly cynical) answer to the dilemma of where jobs will be in the future. In fact, Stephen Colbert recently satirized inmate labor as an answer to structural unemployment in an episode of The Colbert Report

Noting how America has lost most of its good manufacturing jobs to offshore labor, Colbert asks, “How is the U.S. supposed to compete with countries where workers toil for pennies an hour?” He then proceeds to share the “success story” of UNICOR, a company that does 900 million dollars of business annually “right here in America” manufacturing everything from bedding and table linens to circuit boards and prescription eyewear. “How do they do it?” Colbert asks. “Volume. Also, prison labor.” Up until recently, Colbert notes, UNICOR was legally allowed to supply only to other government agencies, but those restrictions have since lifted. Colbert then plays an excerpt from a UNICOR advertisement touting the company as “the best kept secret in outsourcing.” Then, with his classic straight-faced delivery, Colbert wraps up the segment with the following consolation: “For all those who are worried about unemployed Americans who will now have to compete against cheap prison labor, don’t worry, you can apply for one of these great new UNICOR jobs by going to your local liquor store and submitting your application via shotgun. Folks, before you know it, you will have the right to remain employed for the next 10-20 years.”

In The Digital Advantage, albeit with far less comic relief, Jim Davis and Michael Stack arrive at a conclusion implicit in Colbert’s spoof, that is, we are no doubt witnessing the “end of the old social contract, and the beginning of what can only be described as a policy of genocide against the former working class … the end of welfare, prisons (or their digital surrogates of electronic ankle bracelets and other high-tech controls), and the death penalty implement it” (Davis and Stack 137). To be sure, as a ‘qualitatively new’ means of production, information capitalism has fostered the creation of a new and increasingly criminalized ‘underclass.’ In The Birth of a Modern Proletariat, Nelson Peery traces the origins of the term ‘underclass’ to the Marxian categorization of the ‘lumpenproletariat’ as those “beneath the working class” (Peery 299). For the most part, Hirschl politely refers to this new class as the ‘structurally unemployed,’ but elsewhere in Cutting Edge, members of the neo-lumpenproletariat are characterized as the “was-working class” (133), “economic dead weight” (168), even a “surplus population” (291).

Prison labor: the “best kept secret” in outsourcing.

Capital’s solution to this new underclass? The penal system, preferably a for-profit privatized one in which prisoners work for as little as 93 cents a day (Fraser and Freeman 2012). Contending that the United States “is witnessing a historic reversal in state policy,” Hirschl notes how “programs that preserve labor’s commodity status are being phased out in favor of programs that enforce social control” (Hirschl 168). In this way, the so-called ‘end of jobs’ has necessitated “sharp increases in public expenditures for the penal system, the police, and electronic surveillance systems” (Hirschl 168). Elsewhere in Cutting Edge, this shift in policy is referred to as the “cannibalization of the welfare state” (Witheford 212).

An inmate-operated call center.

Indeed, though it constitutes just 5% of the world’s population, the United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million people, or 25% of the world’s prisoners (Khalek 2011). Prison labor can, among other things, be viewed as an addition to the permanent ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed identified by Marx as a “central weapon of capitalist command over the working class” (Witheford 202). While Colbert specifically calls attention to UNICOR, it is in fact just one of many companies (including Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM) to which prisons sell or ‘lease’ inmate labor (Fraser and Freeman 2012). Aside from the obvious ethical dilemmas posed by subminimum-waged prison labor, this sort of exploitation has the effect of placing a downward pressure on wages, which has negative consequences for all workers.

“Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop labor,” writes one independent journalist, “the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens” (Khalek 2011). Thus, she argues, “The American labor movement must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work environment” (Khalek 2011). Surely, the plight of prison laborers ought to be included in the “proliferation and interconnection” of the “cycles and circuits of struggle” outlined by Witheford in Cutting Edge, for in isolation, he argues, any one movement “provides only a minor problem to corporate power” (Witheford 233).

The full future of jobs, including prison jobs, in information capitalism remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: just as medieval court jesters had a knack for speaking truth to power, modern-day comedians like Stephen Colbert seem to be more adept than mainstream or “real” journalists at critiquing institutions like the prison-industrial complex. Yet comedy, I would argue, can only go so far. It is only with the critical perspectives and rich history of struggles outlined in texts like Cutting Edge that one can truly understand the implications of information capitalism and ways in which its hegemony might be challenged.

Works Cited

Davis, Jim, Thomas A. Hirschl, and Michael Stack. Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

Fraser, Steve, and Joshua B. Freeman. “Locking Down an American Workforce Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American “Free-Market” Capitalism.” TomDispatch. 19 April 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <;.

Khalek, Rania. “21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor.” AlterNet. 21 July 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <;.

“The Word – Supply Chained.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central: 01 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Oct 2012. <—supply-chained&gt;.

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A ‘you didn’t build that’ look at digital capitalism

In The Political Economy of International Communications: Foundations for the Emerging Global Debate about Media Ownership and Regulation, Robert W. McChesney and Dan Schiller expand upon and reiterate many of the ideas introduced earlier by Schiller in Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System. Oddly enough, as I was reading both texts, the election-season sound bite that kept finding its way into my head was President Obama’s oft-intentionally-taken-out-of-context phrase “you didn’t build that.”

Perhaps this is because one point Schiller and McChesney make quite clear is that transnational communications conglomerates have built their astronomical profits with none other than the help of the government, whether through its investment in educating the workforce, its development of telecommunications infrastructure, or its neoliberal policies of increased deregulation. As a counterpoint to the “we built it” mentality of most corporations, Schiller and McChesney make an impressive case for just the opposite, arguing that “the state has always been a crucial and necessary player” in establishing systems of communication, beginning with the Postal Service and continuing with our modern networked society:

Not only did the United States Postal Service constitute the young nation’s original—and highly dynamic and expansive—telecommunication infrastructure, but postal subsidies, which predate the revolution and are important to this day, likewise stimulated the rise of the newspaper and magazine industries. Other federal funding flows underwrote development of stage-coach, railroad, steamship and air transport industries in succession (John 1995). Government printing contracts subsidized the partisan press until the middle of the nineteenth century (Smith 1977). Libraries and public schools purchased books and created a readership for them (Gilmore 1989). Copyright, allowing authors limited right to monopolistic control over their output in exchange for their contributions to the public domain, was considered such an important policy that it was written into the Constitution. Without the government-sanctioned and enforced monopolies provided by copyright, the modern commercial communication system as we know it would be unthinkable (Vaidhyanathan 2001) (Schiller and McChesney 2).

In his book, Schiller adds to this idea by tracing the otherwise “unthinkable” origins of the internet to the Cold War military-industrial complex, concluding that the internet’s emergence “had nothing to do with free-market forces” (Schiller 8). A dramatic shift occurred, however, as a new and aggressive telecommunications corporate policy agenda “demanded nothing less than an autonomous sphere of corporate network applications that was essentially free of regulatory oversight and was parasitic on the existing telecommunications network” (Schiller 5).

Thus, by granting internet service providers a “cross-subsidy … borne by ordinary voice users of the local telecommunications network,” the government created an environment in which the internet “effectively cannibalized ‘past and present investments in the local phone infrastructure’” (Schiller 31). This “you didn’t build that” ethos is further expanded in The Political Economy of International Communications, in which Schiller and McChesney repeatedly drive home the point “that there is nothing ‘natural’ about neoliberal globalization” (Schiller and McChesney 24). Quite the opposite, it

requires extensive changes in government policies and an increased role for the state to encourage and protect certain types of activities. The massive and complex negotiations surrounding NAFTA and the WTO provide some idea of how unnatural and constructed the global neoliberal economy is. Or consider copyright, and what has come to be considered intellectual property. There is nothing natural about this. It is a government-granted and enforced monopoly that prevents competition. It leads to higher prices and a shrinking of the marketplace of ideas, but it serves powerful commercial interests tremendously (Schiller and McChesney 24).

The astronomical growth of digital capitalism (including its corresponding astronomical profits) is undeniably indebted to a solid history of neoliberal policies, most notably deregulation and “upward” redistribution of wealth. The result? A “relentless downward pressure” on the social wage, draconian cuts to government and social programs, and “direct political attacks on trade unions” (Schiller 207). In short, digital capitalism has “strengthened, rather than banished, the age-old scourges of the market system: inequality and domination” (209). And yes, sadly, we helped build that.

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Structural Unemployment: A Formula for Revolution?

It’s hard not to notice the relentless “jobs” rhetoric tossed about by both parties in the current presidential race. From what I’ve gathered (for my own sanity I try to remain a casual observer), when it comes to sound bites regarding unemployment, some of the major differences between the two candidates seem to be as follows: on one hand we have Mitt Romney promising to “create” jobs by lowering corporate taxes and cutting government spending, while on the other hand President Obama promises to accomplish more or less the same objective by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire and investing in things like infrastructure, education, and social services.

I will refrain from further comment on which one of these approaches makes more sense to me personally because I think the most interesting thing about the current campaign rhetoric when it comes to this issue is what isn’t being talked about. One phrase in particular—structural unemployment—is something I have yet to hear uttered or otherwise alluded to by either candidate. Surely both of the Harvard-educated men competing for our country’s highest office are familiar with the concept. Yet after reading Thomas A. Hirschl’s essay Structural Unemployment and the Qualitative Transformation of Capitalism, structural unemployment seems more and more like the proverbial elephant in the room. (Or at least any room in which the problem of American job loss is discussed).

Perhaps there is a very good reason for this silence. After all, in his essay, Hirschl seeks to take widespread unemployment to its next logical (and unfashionably radical) conclusion, namely, social revolution. He frames his argument as “an attempt to consider whether the ‘electronic revolution’ identified by Toffler (1990) and others … qualifies as a starting point for social revolution of the type Marx specified” (Davis, Hirschl & Stack 158). Since the electronic revolution will eventually replace human labor with technology, he argues, widespread structural unemployment will inevitably result. The interesting part about Hirschl’s logic, however, is how he differs from other theorists who almost too eagerly tout the rise of the so-called post-industrial “knowledge worker.” He boldly maintains structural unemployment will “afflict not simply laid-off manufacturing workers and secretarial assistants, but computer programmers and other knowledge workers as well” (160). In this way, post-industrial society “will be transformed into a ‘post-service’ society” (167).

Yet Hirschl has a curiously optimistic view of our jobless future. Granted, his outlook is perhaps a bit naïve and precisely the type of teleological or “grand narrative” brand of Marxism rejected by any postmodernist worth his or her salt, but I still couldn’t help being drawn in by his elegant vision for how labor would “at some stage … realize that its physical and cultural survival depends upon reforming the economic system to distribute on the basis of human need rather than for profit” (165). The caveat here, of course, resides in the phrase at some stage. Judging from the absence of any current campaign rhetoric (that I know of) even hinting at the need for a “qualitative transformation of capitalism,” I’d say we’re not quite there yet.

Instead, structural unemployment persists as an “instrument of class domination” (161), as part of a larger corporate strategy of “higher profits with fewer workers” (164), and, perhaps most disturbingly, as a factor necessitating “sharp increases in public expenditures for the penal system, the police, and electronic surveillance systems” (168). Is this the direction we want to be headed? Is this a “necessary evil” on the road toward an economy that “distributes on the basis of need” (163)? If so, how long is the road? As a nation, we certainly don’t seem to be as uncomfortable as we should be with, say, the fact that the United States is “the wealthiest in terms of per capita income, yet has the highest rate of child poverty” (170).

Clearly, capital has yet to become the “intolerable” power described by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology. The question remains—how close are we to realizing the type of social revolution envisioned by Hirschl? Is such a revolution even possible? A year ago I might have predicted the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement had the potential to bring us closer to that end, just as twenty years ago I might have seen some promise in the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Today, while Hirschl’s ideas are no less fascinating, I find myself less and less sure that structural unemployment—coupled with social polarization and technological progress—will be the “formula for revolution” he imagines it to be (172).

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