My Intellectual Heroes

As I’ve got older, I’ve come to read an increasing proportion of non-fiction. And within that, I’ve veered away from biographies and history towards the heavier stuff as time has gone by. Not that I ever shied away from a good thick doorstopper as a teenager. It sometimes tickles me to remember reading Peter Hennessy’s magisterial Whitehall, on the history, incumbents, current (1988) structure and performance of the British civil service, or The Development of the British Economy, 1914-90 while I was fifteen, for example. I always was an insanely ambitious reader (you can interpret that as “massive geek”, if you prefer).

Nowadays I have found my bearings intellectually with those I regard as my main influences. Oddly enough this process only began when I was at university: prior to that I was mostly literary, my favourite writers perhaps being James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs. But once I started reading the political and economic thinkers, that’s when I found my bearings. So here is a history of my heroes.

Karl Marx

I’m not going to apologise for this, either for its tabloid shock value, nor for its student trendiness. Marx remains a staggeringly powerful thinker and one well worth reading. (I was going to say “worth studying”, but as with any thinker, you should be able to engage with them for fun). Encountering Marx was something of a revelation – throughout my adolescent years I’d formed strong opinions on what I didn’t like (Christianity, “family values” types) but never found anything broader on which I could base it all. Upon hearing the main tenets of Marxism – that capitalism is inherently monopolistic, that the middle-class will be swallowed up, that economic development is the engine of history, and so on – I suddenly thought, “Holy shit! That’s just what I think!”

I was never, let me stress, a Rik from the Young Ones student revolutionary, nor was I ever into the Socialist Worker Party, the Trots or even the Scottish Socialist Party. My engagement with politics has always been intellectual rather than active. You might think I’m a lazy-do nothing arse if you’re a busy activist, but hey, that’s just the way I am. The political aspect of Marxism I never bought, insofar as talking about a vanguard party, dictatorship of the proletariat or the future withering of the state; it seemed (and still seems) absurd, and anyway is often more of a Leninist development according to his political opportunities. But the materialist conception of history, and the dialectic, and the view of history as a series of class struggles, were electrifying, illuminating, ideas. I feel a great deal of fondness for the eccentric old boy, and forever grateful to him for clarifying and sharpening many of my muddled thoughts. If you’re really not familiar with Marx either as a thinker or as a real person, try his biography by Francis Wheen, which is a highly readable delight.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is another endlessly-misunderstood thinker and writer. Bastardized and misquoted by his anti-Semitic brother-in-law, unable to defend himself once he became helplessly insane in 1889 aged just 44 (the suspicion being it was caused by syphilis), Nietzsche did however tempt fate with his the overblown furious prose of his late works. His contempt for Christianity, his belief in an “Superman” and his disdain for the “slave mentality” – well, you can see where people would get the wrong end of the stick. Read the right way, though, without assuming that Nietzsche was arguing against types of people and seeing that it was against modes of thought, and Nietzsche is an invigorating, positive, indeed affirmative (one of his favourite words) thinker. (In some ways, he’s quite close to Buddhism). But rather than having a sustained, totalizing philosophy, I always feel that Nietzsche is best read as a coiner of provocative epigrams and thoughtlets. Have a browse through Twilight of the Idols, rather than the preposterous Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example.

Jean Baudrillard

Though Marx is of course hugely powerful and enlightening, I always felt – as many people feel – him better as a critic of capitalism than suggesting a positive program. And even then, his critique of capitalism is naturally suited to the classical Victorian capitalism of his era. Marx did, of course, foresee the development to the knowledge economy, but you really need to be within that context of that era to see the developments and implications of what is going on. I knew that, but where to go with that, how Marx could be updated to the (post)modern era, I couldn’t figure out.

Then one day I took Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers by John Lechte (a stunningly good book) out the library, and when I got to Baudrillard – BAM! POWEE! SHAZAAM! Fireworks went off, synaptic connections snap, crackled and popped, and I felt that immense intellectual excitement that you either know or you don’t. Baudrillard essentially works through Marxism into a semiotic perspective, and there you have it – Marxism synthesized into postmodernism. Baudrillard’s trajectory did take him to an almost Derrida-esque (Derridean?) obscurity, which is irritating. But his early works, on the object and the consumer society, and his more groundbreaking works, on simulations and networks for example, are staggeringly prescient and utterly fascinating. Read and never think the same way again. For me his The Consumer Society remains his best work.

JK Galbraith

I discovered Galbraith via Baudrillard, as The Consumer Society is in large part a critique of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. In comparison to the above, Galbraith may seem rather conventional. (You thought I’d be extolling Noam Chomsky or Edward de Bono, I bet). Certainly he was a paid up member of the “Establishment”, a lifelong academic at Harvard, ambassador to India under Kennedy, highly garlanded. Nonetheless, his analysis of modern (i.e. post WWII) capitalism, the behaviour of business, the imperatives of capital, his explication of the role of the state in advanced economies, the necessity of planning and the implications of this, the reality of competition, the desire for vertical integration, all advanced or built on what I understood of the economy as it actually operates. One of the oddities of American capitalism is that it provides little theoretical understanding of itself as it actually words (I’m sure the real smart people have this understanding, but the political narrative of our era operates against it). The founding-myth of the individual farmer/landowner struggling alone and making his own fortune is still so strong that it sets the terms of debate within the US: self-reliance, standing on your own feet, “freedom” etc etc. No matter that the (sub)urban experience (as lived by 82% of Americans) is entirely different from that, or that the modern economy, where large corporations and government control the majority of economic output. The degree of interconnection, institutionalisation and wage-labour, rather than independent small capitalists, makes it an entirely different world. Still, the founding-myth carries on, so that American politics (on the right) has a strong libertarian bent, denying any communality. This might be alright for the farmer in New Mexico, but for the urban population in Cleveland or Bakersfield or Jacksonville, it surely runs counter to their experience.

Galbraith is in fact the great analyst of the corporation, its needs, drives and behaviours, and how it interacts with the state. He is a Keynesian, aware of failures in the market (his book The Great Crash 1929 is still a best-seller) and dismissive of simple remedies (he invented the phrase “conventional wisdom”) like tax cuts and cutting regulation to increase economic activity. (This is not to say that I don’t believe that these actions can have any positive effect on the economy, but they are not a panacea). He writes with elegance, wit and irony; he is clear, persuasive, and in masterful control of complex concepts and material.

I first found Galbraith through his book The New Industrial State in 2003 or so, and it blew me away; in its clarity, depth of understanding and analytical rigour it trumped anything I’d ever read before. Here was an ideas-led, sophisticated analysis of the world and the economy, not as it could be or ought to be, but as it is. He is my current, and most long-standing, intellectual hero. I just think he’s the tops, man.

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