#2–1998 EDINN : Re-spinning Intellectuals into the Social Order

1. What is an intel­lec­tual any­way?

Intel­lec­tu­als as a sub-species rate some­what lower than gar­den spi­ders in the pub­lic esti­ma­tion (they are not use­ful, they can sting if you pick them up, and they are eco­nom­i­cally val­ue­less). Maybe it is nec­es­sary to sort this con­fu­sion out before we go on to find­ing them a place in the social fab­ric.

The com­mon atti­tude was neatly encap­su­lated in a piece Paul John­son wrote for the Wall Street Jour­nal in 1987 (reprinted on 24th May 1987 in The Aus­tralian). This claimed to put intel­lec­tu­als in their place. “Most intel­lec­tu­als”, wrote Mr. John­son, ” pro­fess to love human­ity and to be work­ing for its improve­ment and hap­pi­ness, … but it is the idea of human­ity that they love, rather than the actual indi­vid­u­als which com­pose it. The con­se­quences can be less than thought­ful.” It seemed to me that Mr. John­son was being less than thought­ful, or rather mak­ing  quid out of a prej­u­dice uni­ver­sally exploited by pop­ulist politi­cians for mil­len­nia. I wrote a short riposte to the news­pa­per:

I belong to an oppressed minor­ity, and one of your newspaper’s cor­re­spon­dents has just put his foot on my face. Paul John­son (Week­end
Aus­tralian, 24\5\87) has lumped me in with a gallery of vil­lains like Shel­ley, Marx, Freud and Stalin. We are all, he says, run­ning-dogs, covert elit­ists, bour­geois slan­der­ers and per­se­cu­tors of the pro­le­tariat.

Well, he didn’t actu­ally name me (alas, nobody ever does) but along with the above lumi­nar­ies I claim to be an intel­lec­tual. That’s a bit like claim­ing to have lep­rosy. Admit­tedly, even as an intel­lec­tual leper, I was a bit sur­prised to be accused of broth­er­hood with Stalin.

The trou­ble with Mr. John­son is that he doesn’t seem to talk to real live intel­lec­tu­als. He lim­its him­self to read­ing let­ters about dead mythic types like the above. He com­plains that Shel­ley was hor­rid to his wife and that Marx never invited cap­i­tal­ists to his din­ner par­ties. Heav­ens, I know lots of peo­ple like that, and most of them never dis­cuss any­thing more con­tro­ver­sial than the weather.

Mr. John­son has a binary mind (that’s even worse than intel­lec­tual lep­rosy). He says, “I believe the reflec­tive por­tion of mankind is divided into those who are inter­ested in peo­ple and care about them, and those who are inter­ested in ideas.” Well pal, I’m inter­ested in ideas and peo­ple. Yes, of course there are extrem­ists at both ends of the spec­trum … and at the ends of any other spec­trum you care to dream up. Extremes are great for flam­boy­ant pro­pa­ganda (Mr. Johnson’s arti­cle) and polit­i­cal poses, but there’s noth­ing about being an intel­lec­tual that rules out good karma.

What is an intel­lec­tual any­way ? I think it has some­thing to do with look­ing past the end of your nose. It is fig­ur­ing your own way to put the small things of life into the big con­text of past, present and future by ask­ing WHY. Now the world is full of clever, nar­row peo­ple with lousy judg­ment. They are not intel­lec­tu­als. An intel­lec­tual is not nec­es­sar­ily a per­son of great intel­li­gence, but one who has devel­oped the habit of han­dling ideas in an explicit way of explor­ing and ques­tion­ing the ter­ri­tory of the mind.

Any­one who asks the mean­ing of life, the uni­verse and every­thing might come up with a silly answer. That’s OK; it’s part of learn­ing. Intel­lec­tu­als have the courage and curios­ity to try. We only get into real trou­ble when dem­a­gogues turn ideas into slo­gans, and all you intel­lec­tual sloths out there fol­low like lem­mings into the abyss.”

Per­haps what my let­ter was really try­ing to say was that intel­lec­tu­als stand the dog watch on our great engi­nes of civ­i­liza­tion. They put them­selves in harm’s way while Mrs. Jones and the kids bliss out and sleep the sleep of the inno­cent. It is true that the odd intel­lec­tual goes ga-ga, but that’s a sta­tis­tic nor­mal to all humans, not a prop­erty of the sub-species. If some of us are prop­erly awake, and intel­lec­tu­als are there to keep us awake, then the pyro­ma­ni­acs can be han­dled.

2. Are uni­ver­si­ties hold­ing pens intel­lec­tual twits?

One of Australia’s wise elders, Nugget Coombs, once observed (ABC radio Merid­ian pro­gram, 9/4/95) that intel­lec­tu­als have become lack­eys of the state, sold out the pur­suit of truth for the pur­suit of prefer­ment. His work­ing assump­tion was that intel­lec­tu­als dwelt in uni­ver­si­ties. I’m not at all sure that most aca­d­e­mics have ever been intel­lec­tu­als, and even less con­vinced that intel­lec­tu­als are mostly found in acad­e­mia. It has always seemed to me that aca­d­e­mic rewards hugely favoured the expos­i­tor of Pla­tonic forms over the gad­fly of Aris­totelian enquiry or Socratic dis­cus­sion. Nev­er­the­less, there is no doubt that an aca­d­e­mic in the 1990s is likely to be work­ing a 70 hour week pro­cess­ing a pro­duc­tion line of pim­ply youths and fab­ri­cat­ing lies for admin­is­tra­tive com­pli­ance forms, rather than actu­ally read­ing crit­i­cally or think­ing about any­thing more pro­found than a term essay list.

3. Who keeps a pet intel­lec­tual?

Now to this awk­ward busi­ness of find­ing a niche for the would-be intel­lec­tual. The dilemma for intel­lec­tu­als has always been that their indul­gence depended upon an eco­nomic sur­plus. His­tor­i­cally it has been a trickle down process. After poten­tates and their min­ions have exhausted their health on wine, women and reli­gion, it has been fash­ion­able to throw a quid to a hand­ful of eggheads in the name of civ­i­liza­tion. The poten­tates nowa­days tend to be sup­planted by tobacco com­pa­nies, or paper empire builders in pub­lic min­istries. The net result is the same: a tyranny of ortho­dox­ies. It is sheer good luck that the ortho­doxy most favoured in Anglo-Euro­pean soci­eties for 100 years, log­i­cal pos­i­tivism, has also been highly pro­duc­tive in mate­rial out­comes.

With the arrival of the age of desk­top pub­lish­ing, decen­tral­ized access to knowl­edge and very large lit­er­ate pop­u­la­tions, it may be time to search for another kind of eco­nomic sur­plus to sup­port the intel­lec­tual, and for that mat­ter, to sup­port other kinds of cre­ative indi­vid­u­als. Here is a propo­si­tion. Sup­pose that there were intranets of activ­ity nodes, with each node sup­ported inde­pen­dently by a micro-eco­nomic unit. Each micro-eco­nomic unit might have a finan­cial base and mis­sion which was entirely inde­pen­dent of the activ­ity it sup­ported, but with an over­rid­ing raison d’être defined in terms of  the activ­ity node. Some medieval monas­ter­ies could have met this def­i­n­i­tion, although the con­cept here is looser and less ide­o­log­i­cal.

Let us make the pro­posal more con­crete. Imag­ine an Inter­net group of philoso­phers. These per­sons might not, on the whole, be fac­ulty mem­bers of insti­tu­tional uni­ver­si­ties. Rather they could be scat­tered in every kind of com­mu­nity through­out the world. One might be sup­ported by the eco­nomic sur­plus of a take-away restau­rant, another by a clean­ing busi­ness and a third by a pub­lish­ing house. Other Inter­net groups, sup­ported from equally eclec­tic eco­nomic sources, might con­sist of track & field ath­letes, por­trait artists or dancers.

4. EDINN (eco­nom­i­cally diverse inter­est node net­work)

The acronym EDINN (eco­nom­i­cally diverse inter­est node net­work)  more or less defines this pro­posal for a new kind of socioe­co­nomic struc­ture. The ben­e­fits of EDINN for indi­vid­u­als in the sup­ported node are easy enough to see. They are much less clear for the sup­port­ing eco­nomic unit, and the whole EDINN con­cept would ulti­mately depend upon rec­on­cil­ing this anom­alous rela­tion­ship, and avoid­ing power con­tests.

Social struc­tures can be made viable in a num­ber of ways of  course. The most sta­ble kind under­pins some sort of eco­nomic reward (since money is a uni­ver­sal medium of exchange, and most pas­sions can be bought). Social struc­tures have also been sup­ported by ide­olo­gies (includ­ing reli­gions) for long peri­ods in his­tory, although this usu­ally leads to seri­ous dis­tor­tions and con­flict. Spe­cial­ist social struc­tures can even be sup­ported by a par­tic­u­lar intel­lec­tual incli­na­tion or fash­ion, as any num­ber of clubs & soci­eties tes­tify.

The con­tem­po­rary eco­nomic unit most com­monly finds its ulti­mate ratio­nale in a so-called profit motive. By def­i­n­i­tion this is sup­posed to mean that investors are inter­ested in cash div­i­dends above all other con­sid­er­a­tions. In prac­tice an inter­ven­ing man­age­rial class tends to be more inter­ested in cor­po­rate growth, since this gen­er­ates a per­sonal voca­tional advan­tage for them. 

In recent his­tory, mass labour has ben­e­fited from a con­tract with cap­i­tal which needed human brawn to gen­er­ate a profit. A num­ber of things are under­min­ing this Marx­ian par­a­digm. Firstly, the open-ended incen­tive to eco­nomic growth is strip­ping the planet of resources, does not look to be sus­tain­able in the long term, and has been ambigu­ous in its con­tri­bu­tion to human hap­pi­ness. Sec­ondly, the his­tor­i­cal con­tract between labour and cap­i­tal is rapidly becom­ing redun­dant. This shift seems likely to induce mass unem­ploy­ment, vicious social divi­sions, and pop­u­lar social revolt. Enter the EDINN

The EDINN would share many prop­er­ties with exist­ing eco­nomic mod­els, but include cer­tain regen­er­a­tive and ide­o­log­i­cal fea­tures which should make for a sounder social fab­ric. Each EDINN unit must be eco­nom­i­cally self-sus­tain­ing, mean­ing that it funds its own labour require­ments, and gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient cap­i­tal to sup­port rein­vest­ment at a higher rate than depre­ci­a­tion. In addi­tion it must gen­er­ate enough sur­plus to meet three kinds of extra­ne­ous cash require­ment:  a) suf­fi­cient div­i­dends to encour­age invest­ment; b) pub­lic sec­tor tax­a­tion; c) a pri­vate sec­tor bounty to spon­sor the “inter­est node” contributor(s).

In what man­ner should the inter­est node con­trib­u­tor be account­able to the EDINN unit, and to what extent would s/he sub­scribe to an inde­pen­dent ethic of cre­ation, crit­i­cism or analy­sis? The INC (inter­est node con­trib­u­tor) who eco­nom­i­cally owns an EDINN unit could of course set his own pri­or­i­ties. The INC who was spon­sored by and depen­dent upon an EDINN unit could have major con­flicts of inter­est, and could be drawn to pop­ulism in order to sur­vive. The INC  who was assigned to an EDINN unit by gov­ern­ment fiat would be regarded as a par­a­site by the com­mu­nity. An organic and self-sus­tain­ing moti­va­tion for this rela­tion­ship must there­fore be found. Let us sum­ma­rize this dilemma:

5. Par­a­digm A: Divided time

The intellectual/ artist/ writer/ sports­man etc. gen­er­ates a small sur­plus by work­ing part-time in another field. Bonus time is used for cre­ative activ­ity

a) advan­tages: keeps the artist etc. in touch with the “real world” and less sus­cep­ti­ble to hubris; eco­nomic inde­pen­dence makes for unbi­ased expres­sion.

d) dis­ad­van­tages: tal­ents are hugely under­uti­lized because of time & energy con­straints; dif­fi­cult to under­take sus­tained cre­ative activ­ity.

6. Par­a­digm B: Rich patron

A patron or spon­sor finances an intellectual/artist / writer / sports­man etc.

a) advan­tages: the artist etc. has guar­an­teed time to pur­sue his craft. The right kind of patron can do much to cre­ate a mar­ket for or accep­tance of avant garde work.

b) dis­ad­van­tages:

i) the kind of patron­age or spon­sor­ship is heav­ily influ­enced by cul­tural con­di­tions.
ii) Patron­age can be fickle, and cer­tainly depends upon the prej­u­dices of the patron.
iii) ground break­ing work is unlikely to attract spon­sor­ship.
iv) The cre­ative per­son has a fatally infe­rior sta­tus to spon­sors who are often, in prac­tice, much less wor­thy per­sons.

7. Par­a­digm C: State spon­sor­ship

Eco­nomic sur­plus is col­lected through tax­a­tion and a pro­por­tion is redis­trib­uted to less com­mer­cial sec­tors includ­ing intel­lec­tu­als / artists / writ­ers / sports­men etc.

a) advan­tages: Since the spon­sor­ship is in the­ory deper­son­al­ized cre­ative indi­vid­u­als should feel less inhib­ited in pur­su­ing new ideas.

b) dis­ad­van­tages:

i) Fund­ing tends to become highly bureau­cra­tized with the largest pro­por­tion of funds being absorbed by admin­is­tra­tors.
ii) By nature admin­is­tra­tors are cau­tious and unimag­i­na­tive. They will favour those whom they think are win­ners.
iii) The larger pub­lic, with opin­ions reflected by their par­lia­ment, will resent spon­sor­ing activ­i­ties which they do no under­stand or dis­trust. Hence spon­sor­ship will often be erratic, grudg­ing and cen­so­ri­ous. Those who thrive under this sys­tem, such as the bulk of uni­ver­sity staff, will be Pla­tonic rather then Socratic or Aris­totelian in out­look.

8. Par­a­digm D: the EDINN Unit

A self-con­tained eco­nomic unit of sev­eral indi­vid­u­als gen­er­ates a sur­plus, part of which is set aside to fund a nom­i­nally non-eco­nom­i­cally pro­duc­tive per­son such as an intel­lec­tual / artist / writer / sports­man etc.

a) advan­tages:

i) this par­a­digm is often found already within the bound­aries of a sin­gle genetic fam­ily.
ii) the unit is small enough for loy­alties to be strong and oblig­a­tions per­sonal;
iii) dif­fi­cult peri­ods need not lead to the dis­so­lu­tion of the rela­tion­ship since indi­vid­ual prob­lems are known to all mem­bers who can assist per­son­ally. This is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from state or cor­po­rate worlds. 

b) dis­ad­van­tages:

i) where the activ­i­ties of the nom­i­nally non-eco­nomic per­son are not eas­ily under­stood by the eco­nomic sup­port­ers, fric­tion and resent­ment an be expected. Truly inde­pen­dent think­ing by some gifted indi­vid­u­als might be sti­fled by the social pres­sures of a small, uncom­pre­hend­ing social group.
ii) large num­bers of small EDINNs pre­sup­pose widely dis­trib­uted man­age­ment skills, which may not in fact exist. A per­son with artis­tic abil­ity may not nec­es­sar­ily have the man­age­ment or social skills to main­tain an EDINN.
iii) The real­ity check that elec­torates are sup­posed to impose on politi­cians in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy is both a rough anal­ogy and a warn­ing of how the con­cept could go adrift. EDINN as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple would have to evolve its own answers to all of  the time­less flaws in human char­ac­ter: cupid­ity, snob­bery, sloth, oppor­tunism, exploita­tion, and the rest.

c) solu­tions:

i) EDINNs are likely to be most suc­cess­ful where they can cater for the intel­lec­tual & emo­tional needs not only of the flag-bear­ing intel­lec­tual etc., but for the less glam­orous non-voca­tional needs of eco­nomic con­trib­u­tors.
ii) With the right kind of cul­tural & polit­i­cal encour­age­ment, the EDINN as a kind of non-genetic extended fam­ily with mem­bers of diverse intel­li­gence and inter­ests could do much to anchor the anomie of post indus­trial cul­tures, and to provide the moti­va­tions, help, sanc­tions and sup­port which will make weaker mem­bers of the soci­ety pro­duc­tive again.
iii) The intel­lec­tual (or artist or sport­ing genius) who is gen­uinely grounded in the fos­ter fam­ily of an EDINN should be less likely to be prone to abstract, arro­gant ide­al­ism or elit­ism of the kind that Paul John­son exploits as a stereo­type. He or she is more apt to be civ­i­lized into help­ing all mem­bers of EDINN to develop their per­sonal poten­tials. Such a nur­tur­ing role could be a sound foun­da­tion for con­tri­bu­tions to larger social, polit­i­cal and eco­nomic struc­tures in the global com­mu­nity.
iv) No attempt has been made to define how EDINNs might come into exis­tence, be inte­grated with the present order, or to dis­solve when they became dys­func­tional (as some would be sure to do). These are mat­ters too intri­cate to explore here. A cou­ple of things are clear. EDINNs are not about hav­ing some Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion to destroy the exist­ing State. They are no more rad­i­cal than, say, orga­niz­ing a co-oper­a­tive store, and could hap­pily co-exist with many other designs for liv­ing. How­ever, as with all the arti­facts of a civ­i­liza­tion which insid­ers find “nat­u­ral”, they would have to be on offer as an accept­able mode of oper­a­tion. The most effec­tive way to achieve this could well begin at school with chil­dren of diverse back­grounds and tal­ents learn­ing the hard lessons of tol­er­ance within their own EDINN cre­ations.

9. Con­clud­ing Thoughts

The pre­ced­ing dis­cus­sion raises more ques­tions than it answers. It could hardly do oth­er­wise, hav­ing taken the prism through which we see all of our life designs, and rotated it to an unfa­mil­iar angle. We live in puz­zling times, where the mag­i­cal solu­tions dreamed of by our ances­tors sud­denly have a banal appli­ca­tion in daily liv­ing. We have “fly­ing car­pets”, trans­port our voices and images instantly, mul­ti­ply our phys­i­cal strength a mil­lion-fold, cure incur­able dis­eases. Yet there is a para­dox.

While folk of the “under­de­vel­oped world” look with envy, and some bit­ter­ness, on the munif­i­cence of post-indus­trial soci­ety, it is not at all clear even to the win­ners in rich coun­tries that the quan­tum of human hap­pi­ness has increased. 

Hav­ing been given a par­adise on earth, our 21st Cen­tury Adam and Eve still find them­selves bick­er­ing, won­der­ing what it is all about, and look­ing fear­fully to unpre­dictable events that might scorch their Baby­lon of delights to bar­ren rub­ble at any time. Heaven, and its land­lord, God, have joined the fairies at the bot­tom of the gar­den for folk who have a TV set in every room, thank you very much. But when the power goes off our post-indus­trial man and woman still yearn for a light on the hill. 

The wealth of nations, an idea we thought our­selves a part of, is prov­ing to be a chimera. Econ­o­mists talk of a country’s ris­ing or falling “eco­nomic health” in terms that are almost totally unre­lated to any nor­mal individual’s per­sonal wel­fare. Now there is a “glob­al­ized econ­omy”, and it is not even cer­tain if “my coun­try” means much more than “my munic­i­pal coun­cil”. In short, men, women and espe­cially per­haps chil­dren, have lost focus. They are swamped with root­less infor­ma­tion, and told their futures depend upon it. Their imag­i­na­tions are swim­ming in an ocean of teem­ing images, but lit­tle nour­ish­ment.

The idea of the EDINN is to return the cycle of nur­ture, com­mu­nity and cre­ation to a human scale. It seeks to enable ordi­nary peo­ple to invest their pride, imag­i­na­tion and loy­alty in indi­vid­u­als who are tal­ented or who think in a cre­ative man­ner. It hopes to make the tal­ented account­able to and nour­ished by an extended group of peo­ple in ways that sat­isfy the needs of all par­tic­i­pants. EDINN may be an ambi­tious pro­posal, even naïve by accepted wis­dom. It pro­motes some very old ideas, fam­ily and vil­lage, in non-dynas­tic, non-genetic, non-rus­tic forms. Could this be a straw for fear­ful polit­i­cal lead­ers to grasp at? The lead­ers who at present can only think of bread and cir­cuses to keep the mob at bay. Might EDINN push us towards  a more hope­ful view of  the daily grind?

foot­note1: A first choice of title for this arti­cle was “Milk Bar Uni­ver­sity or the Casino …. where should an intel­lec­tual wash his socks?”. Ahhh, that would do strange things to an Inter­net search engine.Some­day a geek will plot the curve between human imag­i­na­tion and dig­i­tal machi­nes; in the mean­time I sub­mit.

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of this arti­cle is posted at The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic main web­site at http://thormay.net/skeptic/philos8.html

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