The Responsibility of Déclassé Intellectuals

By Marlana Eck and James K. Anderson

every day that goes by it all seems the same

people work and people slave and piss their lives away

people taking and never getting it’s all the same old shit

while everything around us is crumbling bit by bit

Defiance, “No Future No Hope”

 

What fosters revolution is not misery, but the gap between what people expect from their lives and what is offered. This is especially acute among the educated and the talented. They feel, with much justification, that they have been denied what they deserve. They set out to rectify this injustice. And the longer the injustice festers, the more radical they become.

 

Chris Hedges, “Colonized by Corporations”

 

In his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Noam Chomsky, writing amid the US assault on Vietnam, noted intellectuals in the West were part of a “privileged minority,” with relative power and special access to information.[i] With their leisure, facility and training, Chomsky explained, intellectuals were well positioned “to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”[ii] Their “unique privileges”[iii] conferred greater responsibility.

 

Chomsky averred the responsibility of intellectuals is to insist on the truth but also “to see events in their historical perspective,”[iv] and we would be remiss not to underscore that events unfold today under much different material conditions than in 1967.

 

Chomsky correctly condemned the “cult of the experts,” as “self-serving, for those who propound it, and fraudulent.”[v] We agree. Referring primarily to analysis of American policy in Vietnam, he argued “the claim that there are certain considerations and principles too deep for the outsider to comprehend is simply an absurdity, unworthy of comment.”[vi] The criticism still applies today regarding the fields of finance and economics. While the anti-authoritarian ethic that surfaced in sectors of the population in the 1960s and 1970s has in large part been converted into disdain for the Welfare State and enthusiasm for market relations increasingly outside most people’s control, and there might be a (sometimes healthy) trenchant critique of intellectualism pervading popular culture, we have all so thoroughly internalized the commodity form that capital’s reified reproduction remains more than just beyond reproach. Admittedly, many people loathe big banks and wild speculation. Right-wing libertarians target the Federal Reserve with (arguably appropriate) venom, but are blithely unbothered by Goldman Sachs’ manipulation of food prices,[vii] the sub-living wages at Wal-Mart where products come from factories abroad where people routinely burn to death[viii] or the fact the 21st century robber barons of Silicon Valley have bought out the charity-industrial complex and now effectively determine for society who gets to live and who dies.[ix] Yet, there is implicit acknowledgement of entrenched bureaucracy and tacit capitulation to the “variety of state-finance and state-corporate nexuses”[x] as such. Those who do not undertake “a research project on the subject,” to borrow the lines Chomsky used with respect to American aggression in Vietnam, “can hardly hope to confront”[xi] claims about the immutable complexities of the present-day economy. This not only keeps it out of popular control, but renders economic democracy an unthinkable thought, a silly philosophical notion or an extremist vision. Nonsensical ideas long since divorced from reality reign supreme in the din of what passes for political debate in the US, yet fealty to socioeconomics as usual never falters. Political elite and the punditocracy can abstract from the given reality in a perverse appropriation of dialectical thought otherwise absent in the fragmented schemas we collectively call postmodern. Assuming some distance from present-day facts, however, to assay their genesis followed by imaginative projection beyond to other possible worlds with our essence realized through ways of living otherwise is no more conceivable than is any logical debate with the dogmatists of declining empire.  The condition prevails even as prominent bourgeois economists write books about the need to check capitalism’s excesses in order to save it,[xii] and even though the Occupy Wall Street movement managed to reintroduce questions of class and inequality back into popular parlance with some success several years prior.

 

Posing those questions seemed less important, at least to the class of folks formerly known as the “middle,” around the time the New York Review of Books published Chomsky’s essay. Diane Kunz observed how just as “students of the 1960s began to question the premises of the affluent society, its economic basis began to erode.”[xiii] Ensuing austerity in the form of tuition-based education and wages not keeping up with productivity has produced very different people in a very different socioeconomic situation. Chomsky pointed out circa 1967 how what passes for intellectual activity and the figures passing for intellectuals should be scrutinized for the self-serving presuppositions propounded as truth, and he correctly suggested the basic concern for intellectuals “must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology.”[xiv]

What he could have underscored more emphatically in his essay, however, is the correlation between the conceptions of individuals and their position within the capital-driven system of social reproduction. People’s ideas in part reflect their material conditions, invariably, and the experience of the established social arrangements are as varied as those dominant social relations are exploitative and unequal. To be sure, all people “are intellectuals,” as Gramsci put it, but not everyone has “in society the function of intellectuals.”[xv] Chomsky echoed this assertion in his essay, as noted before, by acknowledging their privileged socioeconomic position, institutional prestige and cultural power. What we wish to suggest is that while capitalism today excludes many of those it once welcomed into the outer corridors of power, withholding from them the formal function of intellectuals consonant with the class of privileged persons assayed in Chomsky’s piece, the present-day system nevertheless engenders an array of déclassé individuals equipped for various reasons with well-honed faculties capable of new forms of intellectual activity.

 

True, the dispossessed are thrust aside by an intransigent system. That is, “those who might be designated as déclassés,”[xvi] are denied privileges previously associated with their status. Despite suffering severely under the seeming insuperable world economy, we argue the déclassé intellectuals are nevertheless in a more privileged position to see and “seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest,” as Chomsky put it, “through which the events of current history are presented to us.”[xvii]

 

Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party explained it this way: “As the ruling circle continue to build their technocracy, more and more of the proletariat will become unemployable, become lumpen, until they have become the popular class, the revolutionary class.” The difference between the lumpenproletariat of Newton’s era and ours is their education; as of 2014, 40% of Americans have a college education. However, their job prospects are slim and dwindling, and 7 out of 10 owe almost 30 grand in student loans[xviii]; thus the “lumpen” (translated: rag or miscreant). The déclassé intellectual is the group of educated working class positioned to be revolutionaries.

 

Unless déclassé intellectuals find ways to mediate capitalist ends, the working class will continue to suffer.

 

At present, these are the people who find precarity in large numbers, for instance, our comrades working as adjuncts, tech workers paid on a per-project basis, freelance writers authoring articles for a pittance commission, any number of independent contractors and the “temporary help” fulfilling the “flexible staffing” needs of major firms less inclined to undersell their competitors and more intent on mastering the art of lowering production costs at exploited labor’s expense. These are people positioned to articulate the failings of capitalism.

 

Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin were both déclassé.[xix] The former was reduced to poverty while raising children with his partner Jenny von Westphalen, herself descending (literally and figuratively) from privileged Prussian aristocracy. From his work as a journalist publishing the Neue Rhenische Zeitung, to his time holed up in the British Museum reading room where he laid the groundwork for Das Kapital, Marx relied heavily on his anti-capitalist collaborator Friedrich Engels, ironically the son of a wealthy German capitalist, for monetary support. Bakunin, the inveterate anarchist insurrectionist, was born to Russian nobility. Eschewing that modest-but-comfortable lifestyle, he traversed Europe during the continental revolutions of 1848, supporting pan-Slavdom, documenting his stay in Paris shortly after the February Revolution commenced in France and fighting alongside composer Richard Wagner during the May 1849 uprising in Dresden. All the while, he borrowed money like crazy. He ostensibly continued to do so right up through his spat with Marx in the First International.

 

The role of the déclassé intellectual should match the times we live in and is not only limited to writers and traditional public intellectuals. The déclassé today can take many forms: performance troupe (Pussy Riot), Twitter provocateur (Deray McKesson, Bree Newsome), hacker (Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz), hip-hop artist (Manny Phesto) and filmmaker or artist (Marisa Holmes, Kim Nicolini, Molly Crabapple), protesters who defy hegemonic ideology (Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Tarnac 9). The direct actions associated with all those forms thwart biopolitical power by creating a disturbance in the “everyday” making them also déclassé revolutionaries.

 

We refer here to a class of people who, maybe in a faraway time would have been middle management or tenured faculty, but are now in a dark place between getting turned down for jobs at Chick-fil-A and Zoup! for being overqualified, and working semester to semester as contingent faculty. This growing sector of the population includes all the downwardly mobile among us. It features the children of the one-time relatively affluent middle class who (unlike their parents) have had to debt-finance their college education and now find themselves saddled with thousands of dollars in student loans they will never pay off working at Starbucks or for the local non-profit. The working class, who 40 years ago could find decent paying and unionized manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, have also birthed a generation of déclassé detritus — young intellectuals, denied the opportunities afforded their parents and presently the main product produced in the now deindustrialized rust belt.
What we’ve set out to do is explicate how déclassé intellectuals can champion the working class — a precondition for classlessness — by demanding justice, even when it is not readily gained, sometimes by creating it themselves. In so doing, they (we) do not simply appeal to the existing power structure, imploring it to act nicer. Rather, we create a kind of counter-power capable of displacing the established relations of domination and exploitation the déclassé in the US is now more violently subjected to, like much of the global population has been for some time.

 

Comprising a crucial part of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the déclassé can no longer pretend to satisfy the political impulse by buying because the disposable income available to the older generation has been redistributed upward. Social media platforms offer these individuals a faux recovery of agency through production of user-generated content and “sharing” of intimate personal details online. This, however, is an insidious process. The very acts of uploading and posting to social media that superficially empower individuals are actually alienating to the extreme insofar as user data gets routinely commodified and sold to advertisers or turned over to police officers and intelligence agencies for creating dossiers on the more dissident, web-crawling déclassés.[xx]

 

The déclassé intellectual is steeped in the tradition of economic prisoner, seemingly left with little recourse to overcome her situation, save competing for jobs incommensurate with her hard-earned educational status, taking much effort to apply for jobs for which there is a large applicant pool (sometimes hundreds of people per one position) with barely any results, borrowing from family, living with family, living with a large group (communalism is not always all it is cracked up to be), filing repeatedly for unemployment, filing for bankruptcy, or becoming homeless (see the blog: “The Homeless Adjunct”[xxi]).

 

While this life situation may create despair, it is the responsibility of the déclassé intellectual to elucidate injustices and fight. At this point, the situation may seem similar to one where a highly offensive person uses a racial slur and then when you get angry they expect you to “educate them.” In turn the temptation to proclaim “it’s not my job to educate you” may be strong, but that’s part of the battle. The déclassé intellectual must stay and find strategic ways to say “you know, I don’t feel like educating people about the problems we face under capitalism, but damnit, I care about our future.”

 

Since many déclassé intellectuals have educated themselves into positions of privilege, even as they are simultaneously and systematically stripped of even the modest privileges enjoyed by erstwhile generations, they can use that acquired knowledge to vindicate their ancestors and liberate their predecessors.

 

It is a punk, DIY ethos which must pervade in order to unite ends and means, mediating between the existing crisis-riddled world of precarity and the world characterized by the classless commons not (yet) existing. In “Pedagogy of the Pissed: Punk Pedagogy in the First-Year Writing Classroom” Seth Kahn-Egan concisely lays out the punk ethic as “a critical discourse that is more proactive than deconstructive”[xxii] and we can use these principles as straight-forward pedagogy and beyond.

 

  1. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic, which demands that we do our own work because anybody who would do our work for us is only trying to jerk us around;
  2. A sense of anger and passion that finally drives a writer to say what’s really on his or her mind;
  3. A sense of destructiveness that calls for attacking institutions when those institutions are oppressive, or even dislikable;
  4. A willingness to endure or even pursue pain to make oneself heard or noticed;
  5. A pursuit of the “pleasure principle,” a reveling in some kind of Nietzchean chasm[xxiii]

 

Specifically, our experiences have led us to use of media as a revolutionary tool and process breaking into the discursive formation. As modes of pedagogy, media are not only the realm in and through which ideas incompatible with the given reality can be communicated. Media communication is inherently pedagogical insofar as exercising some control over a vehicle for communication implies a re-education regarding the recovery and assertion of agency.

 

When even mainstream political science recognizes that the majority of the American population is effectively disenfranchised by formal electoral politics[xxiv] — our political desires do not matter and we have little-to-no effect on major policy — efforts to reclaim agency and recuperate politics outside the established political sphere assume added importance. Using digital “dead labor”[xxv] and the electronic money form to choose between the purchase of a variety of new models of old products on the market is introjected as a meaningful intervention in the world. As consumerism has been cast as civic engagement, we have also approached an inflection point. Most people cannot continue to constantly make purchases, even if they want (and, given the limited alternatives for acquiring necessities, often need) to. While some 70 percent of the US population could be considered politically disenfranchised, as noted before, it is not a coincidence, then, that, according to the Credit Suisse 2015 Global Wealth Report, 70 percent of Americans also own just 6.9 percent of their country’s wealth.[xxvi] The associated lack of purchasing power for the majority population means even the desublimated exercise of agency disappears as an option.

 

In this climate, authentically pedagogical media re-emerge as the terrain for renewed political activity. This is not entirely new territory for the déclassé intellectual. At critical historical junctures, whenever there has been an excess of educated persons, rendered superfluous and radicalized by either their downward mobility or the increasing disposability of the population, this stratum has assumed added significance. We are reminded of the rebellious, impoverished students in Vienna under autocratic Austrian rule who occupied the university’s Aula hall in March 1848, circulating petitions and pamphlets while finding common cause with the working classes to rise up against the imperial power during the first “world revolution.”[xxvii]

 

Flash-forward 168 years. What the present authors have experienced, specifically, is the impetus to interrupt the media with messages of dissent. The responsibility of déclassé intellectuals is thus to communicate new modes of struggle through whatever media channels can be made available for these purposes. We have not only a contingent and peculiar privilege, but also a pedagogical responsibility implying the necessity of realizing the latent educational possibilities of media.

 

Part of the importance of this takeover lies in media’s historical ties to capitalist empire. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson frames the invention of media dissemination as an essential reinforcement of national myth (especially in the chapters “Cultural Roots” and “The Origins of National Consciousness”).[xxviii] Anderson points out that manuscript publishing, while usurping power from those who wielded the monopoly on recorded cultural knowledge, was one of the first major capitalist ventures.[xxix] Capitalists were made wealthy by folks who wanted to access the same cultural knowledge as elites, and it’s not much different today. For those who come from a working class background, seeking higher education holds a premium they can rarely afford without government loans at the price of their own lifetime of servitude. The monopoly on knowledge stands, still, even with the advent of the Internet. We’ve seen government officials try like hell to take that away, too (recall the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, SOPA, PIPA).

 

Not everyone wants to become an autodidact, and many working class comrades feel bitterness that there should be such a divide in higher education between those atop the Ivory Tower hierarchy enjoying plush salaries with secure benefits and those who persevere in higher education despite lack of social or cultural capital. The lower classes’ pursuit of education tends to culminate with a life sentence of carrot-chasing precarity and debt burden, while those with capital are assured they’ll have opportunities.

 

Perhaps the most obvious, if not obviously the most difficult, way to challenge the perversity of social reproduction in our ongoing era of stagnation and decay is by becoming the media. But this is no easy task. Many strategies are needed to reach the breadth of the population. Every reader is different, and for the working class, many feel reading is a luxury of time that they do not have, especially because they are selling their time. Or trying to, sometimes with little success. Times are tough.

 

There are also already a bevy of online outlets committed to publishing transformative ideas and posting new muckraking stories. Most operate on a limited budget. Some wax self-congratulatory because the few paid staff are now unionized and earn a decent wage, but the accolades obscure the fact many of these same organizations rely upon the unpaid or underpaid labor of (sometimes) commissioned (sometimes not) writers and bloggers. Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington turned her site into an online news and commentary sensation relying heavily on Huff Post’s swaths of unpaid bloggers. Following AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post for $315 million in 2011,[xxx] the latter continued to publish, without paying for, the work of bloggers desperate for exposure in a profession where name recognition matters. Paraphrasing lyrics from a Bob Dylan song featured on an album released about two years before Chomsky’s aforecited essay, sports writer Dave Zirin commented:

 

Ms. Huffington is creating a new editorial business model built on the desperation of the 21st century journalist. It’s a business model that enriches itself by selling the snake-oil that, for a writer, ‘building your brand’ is an end unto itself. I think it’s dangerous for the future of our craft and I ain’t gonna work on Arianna’s farm no more. The virtual picket line should be respected for this reason alone (emphasis ours).[xxxi]

 

Select journalists and writers, like Zirin and former New York Times foreign correspondent-cum-rogue-literary-journalist Chris Hedges, championed the e-picketing of Huff Post, while others like economist Robert Reich chose to cyber-scab and crossed the picket line to post articles at the site. While there is no handbook for making the right decisions regarding direct actions and withholding digital labor, insofar as major alternative media outlets remain prominent enough to attract both writers and readers, these are issues that demand further consideration, if not anticipation and strategy – to say nothing about the imperative of solidarity.

 

In addition to the above struggles, there is also the incessantly regenerated pool of either unpaid or underpaid interns. Likewise, there are scores of low-wage fellows who do yeoman’s work to make most media operations actually run. Arguably the archetypal work for the déclassé, internships and fellowships can offer much-needed experience at the same time as they degrade those directly involved and threaten to undercut the wages of other employees actually expecting decent compensation. Many a déclassé is coerced into working these gigs for little in hopes of gaining the experience necessary for full-time and adequately compensated work or face the real prospect of not working at all, receiving no wages, possibly for a long time. The portent of the latter feeds the growing industrial reserve army of the pitifully employed, to borrow the old Marxian notion[xxxii] and recast it in light of the extant situation. Intern self-organization is unexplored territory that electronic communications could either help chart or make it easier to thwart.

 

Further, for those would-be media workers and writers today who want to do original reporting, the lack of institutional backing — not to mention the dearth of concern from the aforementioned counter-institutions focused more on their own survival than on material support for aspiring writers — makes the serious investigative work, the associated travel expenses and the extended (oft-unacknowledged) labor time involved in putting a substantive news story together a veritable pipe dream for all but the independently wealthy. It is that version of indie media déclassé intellectuals are tasked with displacing, just as they must begin to displace the social relations reproducing contemporary forms of domination.

 

Autonomous Indymedia that operated without the sorts of hierarchies and intra-organizational power asymmetries assailed above still faced similar hurdles. The Independent Media Center, which arose as an offshoot of the Global Justice Movement (also: the alter-globalization movement) during the protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, became a transnational, participatory information network. Drawing inspiration and concrete ideas from the use of network technologies in solidarity with the Zapatistas in the mid-1990s, and after many involved attended workshops and seminars with Participatory Economics advocate and ZNet founder Michael Albert, the tech-savvy Generation X and early Millennials put an implicit anarchist-socialist ethic in practice to create Indymedia as a counter-institution designed to enable those marginalized by corporate news to share their own stories.[xxxiii] Most Indymedia across the globe featured a physical space corresponding to the online space connected to the rest of the IMC network. The physical spaces were usually run through consensus-based decision-making. Then innovative (at the time) open-platform publishing on the IMC sites empowered users to post, for example, text-based accounts of direct actions, audio of Noam Chomsky lectures in their hometown, and sometimes even alternative news via videocast. IMCs thus advanced a prefigurative politics and sensibility of autonomous horizontality. That is, the social relations constituting Indymedia reflected the sort of non-hierarchical (read: horizontal) relations many involved in the Indy movement wanted to see displace the dominant human relations of exploitation and domination; they wanted to pre-figure another possible world. The IMCs also rejected affiliation with political parties, aiming to maintain autonomy from the hierarchically organized set of social relations constituting the modern-day nation-state.

 

In so doing, the IMC network mediated between [1] the decline of the vestiges of the Old Left following the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as the dead-end facets of the so-called “new” social movements [NSMs] rapt with either a “Not In My Backyard” [NIMBY] oppositional approach or enamored with identity minus concern for the way structural changes in the world economy were affecting identity formation, producing new (shared, déclassé) subjectivities; and [2] the future struggles explicitly against neoliberal hegemony[xxxiv] — be it the explosion in recuperated workplaces run collectively in Argentina following the state’s 2000-2002 economic crisis, the Spanish indignados’ popular assemblies at Puerta del Sol in response to crippling austerity implemented in the country, or the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City circa 2011 sparking a nationwide (actually global) Occupy movement encompassing direct democratic decision-making and a fierce rejection of Wall Street rule.

 

But the online component uniting the old IMC network became outmoded. The collaborative, participatory qualities showcased by Indymedia were reconfigured for commercial purposes by Google with YouTube and by popular social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) through which the web experience is increasingly filtered for many users. While Indymedia might have mediated and anticipated some of the ruptures and collective self-organization among people that ensued over the next 15 years, no movement since has constituted quite the same counter-power in terms of media connectivity or pedagogical impact.

 

Some of the problems encountered by the IMC movement of course persisted, perhaps offering some explanation as to why nothing comparable has developed since. Existing within the web of capitalist relations even as it pushed beyond them, IMCs always had to fight for funds for both the tech support and journalism projects. As Danielle Chynoweth, a co-founder of the Urbana-Champaign IMC, one of the longest and most active (if also controversial)[xxxv] Indymedia sites around, explained, the “tech infrastructure is almost all gone,” adding: “Those techies got burned out after so many years of free labor.”[xxxvi]

 

Yet, the imperative of reclaiming the anti-systemic counter-power at least partly embodied in the old Indymedia remains. It’s difficult, however, for the modern déclassé intellectual to start and run a press because it too remains a capitalist industry by nature. Therefore running it as if in a vacuum does nothing to eliminate the labor relations which go into the production and the scrutiny towards those who own the means of production, to go full Marxist.

 

Benedict Anderson shows us how print culture, with everyone reading the same thing at once, created soft ground for developing national myth. The choice of language used and distributed shaped culture. This same tool placed in the hands of the admittedly mutilated proletariat for their own goals shatters capitalist narratives, or at least creates cracks in the ideological carapace of social reproduction. Endowed with intellectual capacities systematically repressed among the poor in other contexts, the peculiar responsibilities among the young, maimed generation of potentially catalytic cultural producers cannot be shirked so easily either.

 

While it can be thankless work, there is a feeling of empowerment for communities who have a source of radical agency. The Lehigh Valley Vanguard (LVV), a regional publication dedicated to local, radical, subversive perspectives, was created by one of us with this in mind, to provide an outlet for marginalized voices. The modus operandi of this online indie press is to intervene in the ideological terrain while dissolving the boundaries between speciously approved legitimate content and the intellectual thought relegated to the margins, filtered out simply because it originates outside implicitly accepted parameters of expressibility. Escaping from that insidious cycle, otherwise unheard voices circumvent both the din of conglomerated media banter and bypass the awful alternative of silent dejection at and through LVV.[xxxvii]  Many people in the surrounding local community have taken ownership, in an ideological sense, of the publication since its inception.

 

Different strategies including connecting with the community through art and cultural criticism rather than traditional reporter-style journalism is one of the hallmarks of LVV. There have been many other publications which have taken this approach, historically and contemporarily. The free zines movement since the 1980s and associated Infoshop counter-institutions have advanced similar commitments for several decades.[xxxviii] By persisting despite adversity and the distinct possibility of being tortured or disappeared, community radio activists and citizen journalists during one critical juncture eventually helped bring down the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the military general initially brought to power with the help of a US-backed coup and a media misinformation campaign carried out by the newspaper El Mercurio, funded by the CIA.[xxxix] The Committee for Labor Access in Chicago, to cite another example, started producing Labor Beat in the 1980s. The bi-weekly public affairs program was launched to empower rank-and-file workers and provide the labor movement more broadly a public access forum; the independent CLA receives and edits footage from working people and unions in the Windy City and around the world for cablecast, and the Labor Beat radio shows are now available online at laborbeat.org.[xl] A plethora of participatory journalism experiments have also exploded since the introduction of interactive web interfaces as well, although not all, in fact probably fewer, prioritize local news and voices. The number stressing local news about and local voices of resistance is fewer still.

 

As mentioned above, these alternative media projects are not without peril in a neoliberal society, but the affective labor, often not recognized as “real” work, is still important and perhaps, to use the phrase that will make STEM people delight, quantifiable.[xli]

 

This type of media opens spaces for a very alive subculture in the U.S. In We, Robots, Curtis White explores the phenomenon of déclassé intellectuals (without specifically naming them as such). He explains that the subculture created by the déclassé is like “their idea of church” for those who “feel mostly hopeless before the money system.”[xlii] He goes on:

 

So they work in local bookstores, organic groceries, or in bars and restaurants. They temp in local colleges or work for social welfare non-profits. They stay in grad school for as long as possible. Or they take it on the chin as a ‘useful smart person’ who checks the investment banker’s grammar and does other things that useful smart people do while feeling guilty and defeated by Necessity.[xliii]

 

If the déclassé intellectual does not put up a fight, the very real culture wars will completely defeat the working class. We are seeing a desperate group of people whose jobs are being taken by computers or just eliminated altogether. We cannot fake our happiness at this reality.

 

Suffering should speak. Some say doing so is the precondition for truth. Without waxing idealist, we would concur that reclaiming and communicating a narrative about what our reality actually is and the shared suffering it reflects must be atop the list of duties awaiting any would-be déclassé revolutionist. When we witness those clinging hopelessly to antiquarian doctrines about revolutionary social change our response need not be outright dismissal, but careful consideration of why their theories garnered such great (and retain some) appeal. While déclassés could surely be said to occupy a space in, but not of, established society, we should refrain from suggesting the class can fully represent the universal human interest, and from suggesting it “can only redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity.”[xliv] Recovering our humanity, however, remains a collective task (read: responsibility). This enjoins the déclassé to mediate desires, whether this is between the aim of wholly non-commodified human relations versus objectives of democratically-controlled cooperative arrangements, or between asserting individual autonomy against a problematic collectivity versus accepting the realization of individuality as possible only through an albeit compromised collective, or between determining just what it means for media to be “independent” while simultaneously ensuring indie principles support rather than thwart an ethic capable of transcending capital instead of just finding a more comfortable niche under its auspices for expressing detached angst or misdirected (if legitimate) anger.

 

No real revolutionary process could possibly be proscribed in precise detail, certainly not by us. We can insist, though, that for those tasked with the déclassé revolution, there’s no use trying to live life “normally.” As a friend would say, our generation has no time for chill.

[i] Noam Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, New York Review of Books, 23 February 1967, para. 2, online: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1967/02/23/a-special-supplement-the-responsibility-of-intelle/#fn-19.

[ii] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 2.

[iii] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 2.

[iv] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 67.

[v] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 44.

[vi] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 44.

[vii] Frederick Kaufman, ‘How Goldman Sachs Created the Food Crisis’, Foreign Policy, 27 April 2011, online: http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/04/27/how-goldman-sachs-created-the-food-crisis/. The argument that Goldman directly plunged millions of people into starvation has been disputed; see: Lucas Van Praag, ‘Don’t Blame Goldman Sachs for the Food Crisis’, Foreign Policy, 3 May 2011, online: http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/05/03/dont-blame-goldman-sachs-for-the-food-crisis. However, it appears incontrovertible that the global investment bank profited by betting on food prices while simultaneously the prices for food commodities skyrocketed and millions starved; see: Tom Bawden, ‘Goldman bankers get rich betting on food prices as millions starve’, The Independent, 20 January 2013, online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/goldman-bankers-get-rich-betting-on-food-prices-as-millions-starve-8459207.html.

[viii] Goods for Walmart were notoriously made in the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh where 112 workers died in a fire in 2012; see: Steven Greenhouse, ‘Documents Reveal New Details About Walmart’s Connection to Tazreen Factory Fire’, New York Times, 10 December, 2012, online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/world/asia/tazreen-factory-used-by-2nd-walmart-supplier-at-time-of-fire.html. See also: Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labour Rights Forum, ‘Three years after Tazreen factory fire Walmart still refuses to pay’, ILRF, 18 November 2015, online: http://ilrf.org/releases/three-years-after-tazreen-factory-fire-walmart-still-refuses-pay.

[ix] For example, the Gates Foundation, founded by former Microsoft CEO and billionaire Bill Gates, is case in point. Through his “charity,” Gates has pushed market-based solutions in education and global health, as his prima facie charitable contributions shift control over social provisions further away from any semblance of democratic decision-making and toward the exercise of authority by unaccountable institutions directed by unelected elite; see: Linsey McGoey, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, New York 2015. Further, Facebook, a corporation that derives profits in large part from the wholly uncompensated labor time of “prosumers” who generate content that is then commodified by the social networking site and sold to advertisers, who can then turn around and market those same users with targeted ads on the platform, has similarly enabled the company’s co-founder to accumulate billions of dollars. In addition to throwing money at charter schools, institutions notorious for teacher layoffs and opposition to teacher unions, Zuckerberg also garnered accolades for his ostensibly altruistic largesse after media reported on his $45 billion donation to charity. In reality, he moved that money into a limited liability corporation, an investment apparatus that can make political donations, lobby for policy and otherwise remain even less accountable than the prototypical billionaire-funded nonprofit charitable foundation. See: Christian Fuchs, ‘The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook’, Television & New Media 13, no. 2, 2012, online: http://fuchs.uti.at/wp-content/uploads/polec_FB.pdf; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, ‘Why we’re committing $120 billion to Bay Area schools’, San Jose Mercury News, 29 May 2014, online: http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_25859659/mark-zuckerberg-120-million-bay-area-schools; Jesse Eisinger, ‘How Mark Zuckerberg’s Altruism Helps Himself’, ProPublica, 3 December 2015, online: https://www.propublica.org/article/how-mark-zuckerbergs-altruism-helps-himself.

[x] We’re indebted to David Harvey for this wry turn of phrase. See: David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, New York 2010, p. 204.

[xi] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 4.

[xii] See, for example: Robert B. Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, New York 2015; Raghuram G. Rajan and Luigi Zingales, Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity, New York 2003. The highest profile exemplar of this genre is Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus on inequality, published and vigorously promoted 5 years after the financial crisis, in which the author argues that the historical tendency of capital is to generate inequality (no news there) because the rate of return on capital investment always exceeds the growth of income. He concludes that a global wealth tax is in order to restore some semblance of equity. Piketty riffs on the title of Marx’s seminal work without borrowing much from Marx in the way of critiquing capital as a self-valorizing, self-reproducing process premised on exploitation-derived compound growth. See: Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2014. For the seminal critique of political economy, obviously, see also: Karl Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), Ben Fowkes, trans., New York 1867[1977].

[xiii] Diane B. Kunz, ‘The American Economic Consequences of 1968’, in Carole Fink, Philipp Gassert and Detlef Junker, eds., 1968: The World Transformed 1998, p. 93.

[xiv] Chomsky, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, para. 45.

[xv] Antonio Gramsci, ‘The Intellectuals’, in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey N. Smith, eds. and trans, 1917[1971], p. 9

[xvi] Max Nomad, Aspects of Revolt: A Study in Revolutionary Theories and Techniques 1959, ‘THE DÉCLASSÉS’, para. 1, online: http://www.ditext.com/nomad/revolt/8.html.

[xvii] Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” para. 2.

[xviii] The Project on Student Debt, ‘Student Debt and the Class of 2014’, The Institute for College Access & Success 2015, online: http://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/classof2014.pdf.

[xix] We are not the first authors to draw this conclusion. See: Donald Clark Hodges, ‘Bakunin’s Controversy With Marx: An Analysis of the Tensions Within Modern Socialism’, American Journal of Economics & Sociology 19, no. 3, p. 264.

[xx] For further analysis of the new forms of e-exploitation related to commodification of user data on social media, see footnote #10. For more on the surveillance state’s monitoring of dissidents’ social media activities, see: Michael Hastings, ‘Exclusive: Homeland Security Kept Tabs on Occupy Wall Street’, Rolling Stone, 28 February 2012, online: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/exclusive-homeland-security-kept-tabs-on-occupy-wall-street-20120228; John Knefel, ‘Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters’, Rolling Stone, 24 October 2013, online: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/meet-the-private-companies-helping-cops-spy-on-protesters-20131024.

[xxi] https://junctrebellion.wordpress.com/the-homeless-adjunct/.

[xxii] Seth Kahn-Egan, ‘Pedagogy of the Pissed: Punk Pedagogy in the First-Year Writing Classroom’, College Composition and Communication 49, no. 1, February 1998, p. 100.

[xxiii] Kahn-Egan, ‘Pedagogy of the Pissed’, p. 100.

[xxiv] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, ‘Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens’, Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 03, 2014, pp. 564-581.

[xxv] Marx, Capital, p. 548. Also, to be more British about it, “dead labour.”

[xxvi] Credit Suisse, ‘Global Wealth Databook 2015’, Credit Suisse Research Institute, October 2015, online: http://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=C26E3824-E868-56E0-CCA04D4BB9B9ADD5.

[xxvii] For more on the catalytic role of university students in the Vienesse revolution during 1848, see: Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, New York 2008, pp. 61-62. For analysis of 1848 as the first “world revolution,” see Immanuel Wallerstein, ‘Anti-Systemic Movements, Yesterday and Today’, Journal of World Systems Research 20, no. 2, p. 159.

[xxviii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London 1983[2006].

[xxix] Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 54. Notably, two other incipient uses of the early printing press were tied up in the exercise of power, authority and control: [1] dissemination of the Bible by proselytizing Christians; and [2] alerting people to the purported threat of “witches,” along with publicizing details of major witch trials coupled with the publication of the horrible (of course concocted) deeds of the accused witch-women. See: Chip Berlet, ‘Who’s Mediating the Storm? Right-Wing Alternative Information Networks’, in Linda Kintz and Julia Lesage, eds., Culture, Media, and the Religious Right, Minneapolis, MN 1998, pp. 249-273; Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Brooklyn 2004, p. 168.

[xxx] Jeremy W. Peters and Verne G. Kopytoff, ‘Betting on News, AOL is Buying the Huffington Post’, New York Times, 7 February 2011, online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/business/media/07aol.html.

[xxxi] Cited in Mike Elk, ‘Labor-Funded Progressive Leaders Cross Huffington Post Picket Line’, In These Times, 13 June 2011, online: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/11520/labor_funded_progressive_leaders_cross_picket_line_write_unpaid_for_hu.

[xxxii] Marx, Capital, p. 568.

[xxxiii] John Downing, ‘The Independent Media Center Movement and the Anarchist Socialist Tradition’, in Nick Couldry and James Curran, eds., Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World, Lanham, MD 2003, 243-257; Todd Wolfson, Digital Rebellion: Birth of the Cyber Left, Urbana, IL 2014.

[xxxiv] The Zapatistas in Chiapas and their transnational support network, together reflecting the anti-systemic praxis of Zapatismo, were really the first major movement to encourage global mobilization against capital’s neoliberal onslaught; see: Harry M. Cleaver Jr., ‘The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric’, Journal of International Affairs 51, no. 2, 1998, pp. 621-640; Kara Zugman Dellacioppa, ‘This Bridge Called Zapatismo: Transcultual and Transnational Activist Networks in Los Angeles and Beyond’, Latin American Perspectives, 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 120-137.

[xxxv] The Urbana Champaign IMC became embroiled in controversy when it was poised to accept a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation; Latin American IMCs, especially Argentina’s IMC, emphatically argued nobody in the Indymedia movement should accept the grant given the Ford Foundation’s complicity in death squads and other human rights abuses. See: Todd Wolfson, ‘Democracy or Autonomy? Indymedia and the contradictions of global social movement networks’, Global Networks 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 416-421. Wolfson suggests the tension between decentralization coupled with local autonomy and emphasis on participatory democracy amounted to another serious issue for the IMC movement.

[xxxvi] The quote comes from an interview one of us did with the attributed source. See also: James Anderson, ‘Past and Future Struggles for Indymedia: Lessons from Urbana Champaign’s IMC’, Toward Freedom, 30 April 2015, ‘Evolution of Indymedia’, para. 14, online: http://towardfreedom.com/36-archives/media/3885-past-and-future-struggles-for-indymedia-lessons-from-urbana-champaign-s-imc.

[xxxvii] Marlana Eck, ‘Decolonizing Critical Participation and Writing: A Year of Open Access Publishing on the Margins’, Hybrid Pedagogy, 2015, online: http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/decolonizing-critical-participation-and-writing-a-year-of-open-access-publishing-on-the-margins/.

[xxxviii] One of us was involved in recuperating the old Big Muddy Independent Media Center space in Carbondale, Ill., as part of a predominantly social anarchist effort to convert the place into the Fly-Over Infoshop, a horizontally-run, collectively-kept community center featuring a reading library, free zines, a communalist kitchen and a place were working groups (e.g. the Prisoner Solidarity Working Group involved in letter writing, decarceration campaigns, demonstrations of support for those on the inside and other prison abolition aims) can meet to organize. The shop also is affiliated with two radio shows, The Counterpower Radio Hour and Counterpower After Hours, which air on the local community radio station located directly adjacent to the space. For more, see: flyoverinfoshop.org.

[xxxix] Leah A. Lievrouw, Alternative and Activist New Media, Malden, MA 2011, pp. 119-148; Clemencia Rodríguez, Fissures in the Mediascape: An International Study of Citizens’ Media, Cresskill, NJ 2001, pp. 31-36; Maria Armoudian, Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, Amherst, NY 2011, pp. 169-198; Andre Gunder Frank, ‘Part II. An Open Letter about Chile to Arnold Harbeger and Milton Friedman’, Review of Radical Political Economics 7, 1975, pp. 61-76.

[xl] Laura Stein, ‘Access Television and Grassroots Political Communication in the United States’, in John Downing, Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements, Thousand Oaks, CA 2001, pp. 304-307.

[xli] For critique of digital and affective labor under capitalism, see: Michael Betancourt, ‘Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism’, CTheory, 2010; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, London 2004, pp. 108-110.

[xlii] Curtis White, We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, Brooklyn 2015, p. 272.

[xliii] White, We, Robots, p. 272.

[xliv] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Joseph O’Malley, ed., Annette Jolin and J. O’Malley, trans., Cambridge 1842[1978], p. 142.

 

 

 

 

James K. Anderson is a freelance writer, journalist, social theorist and doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He was born, lived, learned and worked in the US Midwest the first 29 years of his life. He currently resides in Oceanside, California. He taught media studies classes at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and commentaries have been featured in outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet, Re.framing Activism and The Partially Examined Life.

 

 

Marlana Eck is an independent scholar, community organizer, and writer-activist from Easton, PA. She is the founder of a regional publication dedicated to subverting capitalism and marginality, Lehigh Valley Vanguard, and co-founder of the feminist writing space Rag Queen Periodical. Her work has appeared in the aforementioned publications as well as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cultured Vultures, Hybrid Pedagogy, Raging Chicken Press, and San Diego Free Press. Her formal education includes Masters degrees from Lehigh University and Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

5 thoughts on “The Responsibility of Déclassé Intellectuals

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to Certain Facebook Users about Incarceration, Unexamined Assumptions and Abolition Democracy – Flyover Infoshop

  2. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street Is Now 10 Years Old – And It Is the Closest Our Generation Ever Came to a Revolution by James Taichi Collins -

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