From “who governs” to “how to survive”

From the archive - 11 March 1988 - John Berger on intellectuals.

As I write, epidemics follow the floods in the shanty towns of Rio de Janeiro. The US Congress refused to give Ronald Reagan more funds for the Contras in Nicaragua; nevertheless the Contra mercenaries, operating against an elected government, will continue to be financed from the United States by private money. For several years now, millions of working families in the north of my own country have been written off in their misery of unending unemployment.

It is necessary to recall such facts before a discussion concerning "the intellectual", which inevitably has to consider the tenuous relationship between theory and practice. Then I want to admit a personal conflict. The artist within me - the storyteller, the poet - tolerates badly what he understands by "intellectuals". For him their use of words is (usually) so facile that it resembles lying. At the same time the intellectual within me - the polemicist, the art theoretician, the social analyst - considers that all artists run the risk of pathological egocentricity.

The word intellectual - referring to a person - was first used during the 19th century. The term referred essentially to a new type of publicist, not to be confused with the earlier categories of scholar, historian, philosopher, humanist, teacher, scientist. What exactly was his function? Can any generalisation cover the full railge of examples available? From Ruskin to George Orwell, from d’Annunzio to Ego Kisch? It may help to ask: why did the nineteenth century offer or demand a new kind of life’s work.

A new intellectual space had been created in Europe — and the phenomenon was essentially European — .by literacy and therefore by the growing presence of newspapers, pamphlets and popular books; and, equally, by the newly-won principle of democracy, whereby government and government decisions were meant to be subject to public opinion, publicly (as distinct from secretly) mobilised either en masse, or in pressure groups.

The intellectual and the journalist were born at about the same time, to work in the same field. The intellectual offered opinions; the journalist offered events. These opinions were all charged by an unresolved question which hung over the European century of 1840-1940.

This persistent question was: Who is governing whom and by what right? It led to a myriad other questions because, so long as it remained unanswered, nothing could be taken for granted concerning the justices of the status quo in any domain. It is interesting to note here the proverbial enmity between lawyers and intellectuals. Both pleaded: the first before judges, the second before readers; the first according to a legal code, the second before open horizons.

The same café

This new, urgent, unanswered question constituted a kind of no-man’ s-land between rulers and ruled. And it was on this terrain that intellectuals spoke, each one with her or his individual voice. Both rulers and ruled, the voted and the voters, needed these voices. The rulers needed them (or some of them) so that they, the rulers, might be legitimised. Rule in itself no longer carried its own justification. The ruler needed the voices (or some of them) so that their own aspirations might be articulated and claimed within a framework of modern thought and action.

My use of the word voices is perhaps misleading. I do not want to suggest that intellectuals served simply as a chorus. They reasoned, they thought, they looked backwards and forwards in history, they sometimes displayed great independence. They were listened to because their voices, filling the no-man's-land of an unanswered fundamental political question, were doubly needed. However sombre or affirmative their arguments, the intellectuals of this European century spoke in a tone of supreme confidence, which came, not usually from their conclusions, but from their awareness of being doubly needed. Some belonged to the left and represented the new aspirations, others belonged to the right and offered legitimacy. Yet, however opposed their positions, most intellectuals in their heyday formed a single cultural group, and in their texts continually referred to one another.

Their century is now finished. The unanswered question has not been answered, but superseded by Consumerism, with its dreams of acquisition and, even more powerful, its fears of deprivation. Most social and political issues are now treated with public relations and marketing techniques, including media publicity, instant public opinion polls and a new art of political address adapted for television. The essential aim of such an art is to simulate "sincerity", whereby the ruler appears to speak to the ruled as if there were no distance or disputed ground between them. To some degree the professional interviewer who provokes this "intimacy" has replaced both the intellectual and the journalist.

Thus neither rulers nor ruled have much need of intellectuals in the old sense. Those who rule are today legitimised by manufactured popularity, while the aspirations of the ruled are smothered by manipulated consumerist fears and promises. It is here that advertising achieves its political, as distinct from economic, purpose: politics have become management.

When it is noted that no new intellectual "stars" have replaced those of the last generation, there is no reason to deduce a generational insufficiency. They would be there if the space for them were open. It has been closed - along with the question which animated their first appearance, replaced by a more fundamental and organic one: How to survive? The question may seem minimalist, but ultimately the future of the world depends upon it. The question cannot be reduced to a purely ecological one. It is not only the survival of nature which is threatened, but also the survival of politics and culture - which is to say the survival of human self-respect. For self-respect to survive, the long historical experience of the ruled must be at last articulated in such a way that it offers an explanation of the world which can challenge corporate power. A sense of history has become a condition for our survival.

The most urgent task today for those who might once have been traditional intellectuals is to invoke the historical experience of the ruled, to underwrite their self-respect, and to proffer — not to display — intellectual confidence.