I haven’t seen much discussion of Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas—which is weird, because it’s the kind of book that is written more to be reviewed and argued about, as opposed to actually purchased.
Drezner’s book is the latest investigation into the state of America’s public intellectuals and the “debate” they conduct with their patrons and their public, and, especially, among themselves. He joins a distinguished procession of thinkers who have tackled the subject, including Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, Lewis Mumford, Edward Shills, Irving Howe, Russell Jacoby, Edward Said, and, most recently, Richard Posner. (See my “Judging the Wise Guys,” The Nation, January 10, 2002.) Drezner is a reliable and intelligent guide to the current state of play. But while focusing on the trees, he doesn’t always pay proper attention to the forest, which in this case is the power of money to corrupt and control literally everything with which it comes into contact—most particularly intellectual culture.
Drezner by no means ignores the issue. Early on, he makes a crucial distinction between old-fashioned “public intellectuals” and the now-trendy “thought leaders.” The latter model is one that sells itself less to an identifiable “public”—something that has become increasingly difficult to define in a society continually segmenting itself according to ever-more-narrow criteria—than to plutocratic patrons. Once upon a time, we relied on intellectuals to “speak truth to power,” as the saying goes. Of course, real life was never so simple. But the adversary culture that arose in the bohemia of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century and among the (mostly) Jewish intellectuals who founded the independent Partisan Review in the 1930s offered at least a basis from which both to critique capitalism and to imagine alternative systems that might one day replace it.
Today, our most famous purveyors of ideas sell themselves to the wealthy much like the courtiers of the Middle Ages. Drezner notes that these ideas are therefore shaped by the “aversion” that plutocrats share toward addressing the problems we face. Inequality? Global warming? Populist nihilism? An explosion of global refugees? From a Silicon Valley perspective, Drezner notes, such things are not a failure of our system but rather “a piece of faulty code that need[s] to be hacked.” Examining data from a survey of Silicon Valley corporate founders, Drezner notes their shared belief that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).”