While waiting for my order (thanks to all the great suggestions in comments on this post), I’ve started Taking it Big: C Wright Mills and the Making of Political intellectuals by Stanley Aronowitz. The only book I know by C Wright Mills, its subject, is The Power Elite, which I read off the shelves of my friend and colleague Professor Alan Harding, now setting up a new public policy research center at Liverpool University.
One of the themes of this new study of Mills’ work is his carving out a role for public intellectuals. Aronowitz writes:
“The intellectual in the United States has always occupied an ambiguous position. … they have enjoyed a good measure of freedom of expression – especially the freedom to pay for their independence by remaining relatively poor. However, except for those who work for the state – those who espouse official doctrines or perform policy analysis for those in power – most intellectuals are marginalized or routinely ignored. Intellectuals have never been economically secure, and U.S. society has consistently denied them significant cultural space.”
I’m sceptical about all of this claim. US academics have good salaries, tenure and few external pressures to conform to any particular ideas, although there is obviously internal pressure for disciplinary group think – it happens in any institution. Money certainly speaks in the think tanks and media, but not to the extent of preventing the expression of ideas. But the final point in this comment, about the lack of cultural space for truly independent thinkers, does seem valid. Tony Judt is one of only a few recent examples I can think of to have had an influential voice that cuts through with a wider audience. I’ve not yet read his posthumously published Thinking the Twentieth Century. Come to think of it, I must add it to my reading pile.