[Marxism] The New Intellectuals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 15 06:42:31 MST 2016

(All about the leftist intellectuals we have grown to love and whose 
backing for the Democratic Party will lead us to socialism--I guess.)

Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13 2016
The New Intellectuals
Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?
By Evan R. Goldstein

One night this spring, the New York Institute for the Humanities hosted 
a gathering to discuss, as the title of the event put it, "new public 
intellectuals." At the front of a crowded room, seated at a rectangular 
table, were three paragons of this ascendant breed — Nikil Saval, 
co-editor of n+1; Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation; and Jon 
Baskin, co-editor of The Point. All are under 40, not pursuing careers 
in academe, and integral to what the event’s organizers hailed as a 
"renaissance in cultural journalism."

It is a notably upbeat claim, especially when compared with the 
hand-wringing that typically accompanies talk of public intellectuals in 
America, who seem always to be in the act of vanishing. The few who 
remain pale in comparison to the near-mythic minds that roamed the 
streets of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, when rents were cheap, 
polemics were harsh, and politics were radical. Or so goes the 
conventional wisdom. What happened? Intellectuals who couldn’t survive 
as freelance writers — and as New York gentrified, who could? — became 
professors. By the 1960s, few nonacademic intellectuals remained. 
Careerism and specialization gradually opened up a gulf between 
intellectuals and the public. The sturdy prose of Edmund Wilson and 
Irving Howe gave way, by the mid-90s, to the knotted gender theorizing 
of Judith Butler and the cult-studies musings of Andrew Ross.

Bhaskar Sunkara
If an intellectual renaissance is underway, the catalyst has been the 
spate of little magazines that have appeared in the past decade or so: 
Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, The 
Point, Public Books. At the same time, older publications, like Dissent, 
have been rejuvenated; dormant magazines, like The Baffler, have been 
resurrected. James Livingston likens the present moment to the first few 
decades of the last century, when magazines including The Dial, The New 
Republic, and Modern Quarterly, reoriented intellectual life in America. 
"Between 1900 and 1930, those little magazines defined the literary 
canon and came up with all these ideas of how to reform the market " 
says Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers University at New 
Brunswick. "It was an incredible time of intellectual ferment. Our time 
is similar in that everyone knows we have to do something radical."

Like their early-20th-century predecessors, today’s new public 
intellectuals are almost uniformly on the left. They mostly came of age 
in the ’80s and ’90s, a period marked by the post-Cold War triumph of 
capitalism and a sense that the big questions had been settled. To the 
extent that they share a political agenda, it is to challenge 
neoliberalism. When the economy nearly collapsed, in 2008, they embraced 
Marxist and structuralist critiques. In 2011 they rushed to the banner 
of Occupy Wall Street. The two months that the Occupy encampment stood 
in New York’s financial district represented one of the most hopeful and 
significant experiences of their lifetimes — the first time that things 
seemed up for grabs politically and intellectually.

Many of the new intellectuals are, or were until recently, graduate 
students. They arrived on campus long after their professors and 
professors’ professors had retreated from the public sphere, estranging 
the academic left from the political left. Campus politics had 
supplanted larger politics. Bruce Robbins, a professor of English at 
Columbia University and a prominent combatant in the PC skirmishes of 
the ’80s and ’90s, looks back on that era with regret. "I sometimes feel 
like I threw away 10 years of my life fighting the culture wars," he 
says. The new intellectuals, he adds, have ushered in a more substantive 
conversation. Samuel Moyn, who was a graduate student in the ’90s and is 
now a professor of law and history at Harvard University, describes his 
generation as quiescent. "There was never a thought that we could or 
should reach a broader public," he says, noting that graduate students 
today make no such assumption. "This is a generation that refuses the 
vocation of mere scholar."

In his 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby argued that the 
generation of writers and critics who came to political consciousness in 
the 1960s had been absorbed into the university and disappeared from 
public life, precipitating "a withdrawal of intellectual energy from the 
larger domain to a narrower discipline." For Jacoby, the implications 
were dire. "The transmission belt of culture — the ineffable manner by 
which an older generation passes along not simply its knowledge but its 
dreams and hopes — is threatened," he wrote. "Younger intellectuals are 
occupied and preoccupied by the demands of university careers. As 
professional life thrives, public culture grows poorer and older."

Remeike Forbes
Thirty years later, that process shows signs of reversing itself. 
Younger intellectuals don’t see the academy as a refuge. They see it as 
an institution in crisis. They’ve never known a healthy academic job 
market or a time when the humanities wasn’t in a defensive crouch.

But as academic life deteriorates, public culture grows richer and 
younger. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at The Los Angeles Review of 
Books and a visiting instructor at Claremont McKenna College, argued 
last year in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, that 
the hiring crisis has weakened incentives to produce peer-reviewed 
scholarship. Intellectual energy that in a previous era went toward 
filling a CV and trying to land a tenure-track job is now, for a small 
but influential clique, being channeled toward public debate. "The 
reward structure of academic life has quite obviously broken down," the 
n+1 co-editor Nikil Saval, who is 33 and has a Ph.D. in English from 
Stanford University, told the crowd at the New York Institute for the 
Humanities. "A lot of graduate students are like, … why should I 
participate in this? And they write for the places they want to."

And they’re finding an audience, aided by social media and the low 
barriers to entry afforded by the internet. Jacobin, for instance, a 
radical anticapitalist magazine that began in a George Washington 
University dorm room in 2010, now has 20,000 print subscribers, nearly a 
million monthly visitors to its website, and more than 80 reading 
groups, from Chicago to Calgary to Copenhagen. That’s a big following 
for a little socialist magazine.

The new intellectuals are "the biggest rebuttal to Jacoby’s argument," 
says Corey Robin, a political theorist at Brooklyn College who was 
himself deeply influenced by reading The Last Intellectuals in graduate 
school in the ’90s. "The entire premise of Jacoby’s narrative is a story 
of corruption: Intellectuals get absorbed into academe, corrupted, and 
lose their edge," Robin says. "We’re now at the other end of that tunnel."

U ntil recently, David Marcus spent most of his days holed up in a small 
cubby atop Butler Library at Columbia University as a graduate student 
in American history. His dissertation is on American political theory in 
the 1950s. He taught a seminar of "Contemporary Civilization," a 
Columbia core great-books course. On a cloudy afternoon in March, his 
desk is crowded with a stack of student papers in need of grades. But 
his morning was spent working on the editorial essay for the next issue 
of Dissent, which he edits with Michael Kazin, a professor of history at 
Georgetown University.

Marcus, who is 32, joined Dissent in 2006, a "glum and morbid" time at 
the magazine. For one thing, it was getting old. Founded in 1954 by 
Irving Howe and a circle of writers that included Norman Mailer, Meyer 
Schapiro, and Lewis Coser — "When intellectuals can do nothing else, 
they start a magazine," Howe wrote at the time — the average age at 
editorial meetings had long since been well north of 50. "I don’t think 
people in the Dissent orbit anticipated there being another generation," 
Marcus says.

Sarah Leonard
Over the past decade, however, the democratic-socialist magazine has 
undergone something of a generational reset. The masthead now includes 
several younger writers and scholars, including Tim Barker, Tressie 
McMillan Cottom, Sarah Leonard, Jedediah Purdy, and Nick Serpe. When 
Dissent celebrated its 60th anniversary at a gala dinner in Manhattan, 
The New York Times marveled at the "notable contingent of people in 
their 20s" in attendance.

Dissent’s circulation has never topped 10,000 (today it stands at 
roughly 5,000). Still, it’s always been a respected incubator of talent, 
a place where young, left-leaning intellectuals could begin to make a 
name for themselves. Among those writers were Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, 
and Benjamin Kunkel; in 2004, along with Marco Roth, Chad Harbach, and 
Allison Lorentzen, they founded n+1, arguably the most celebrated of the 
newish crop of little magazines. Appearing the year after Partisan 
Review, the flagship journal of the postwar intellectuals, ceased its 
69-year run, n+1 offered a blend of high literary seriousness and 
political aspiration that was greeted as a changing of the guard, a 
"generational struggle against laziness and cynicism," as A.O. Scott 
wrote in The New York Times Magazine. Bruce Robbins, "instantly smitten" 
by n+1, organized an event for its editors at Columbia. To his surprise, 
hundreds of people showed up. "The young people knew right away 
something significant was happening," he says. Within six months, the 
first issue of n+1 had sold out.

The influence of n+1 extends to the way it marketed and financed itself, 
in part, by throwing parties. The first one took place at a school 
gymnasium on the Lower East Side. "I walk in and there are like 800 
people excited about this little magazine that was serious and direct 
and unabashed about its elitism," recalls Jon Baskin. The basic business 
model — a few committed people, not a lot of money (n+1 began with an 
$8,000 investment from the founding editors) — seemed replicable. In 
2009, Baskin, along with Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick, two fellow 
graduate students at the Committee on Social Thought at the University 
of Chicago, founded The Point, a journal of philosophy, culture, and 
politics. (True to its University of Chicago roots, The Point is the 
least left-wing of the new little magazines.)

“This is the generation that refuses the vocation of mere scholar.”
  John Palattella, editor-at-large at The Nation and one of the 
organizers of the event at the New York institute, sees the fusion of 
intellectual commitment and entrepreneurial spirit as a trait unique to 
this new crop of intellectuals. They start magazines but also book 
imprints; they organize panels and are savvy marketers, promoters, and 
utilizers of social media. No one personifies this phenomenon more than 
Bhaskar Sunkara, the 26-year old founder of Jacobin, whom Vox recently 
anointed "the best socialist capitalist you’ve ever seen."

"Jacobin has become the darling of the professoriate," says James 
Livingston. "Bhaskar has recruited this younger generation of brilliant 
thinkers and writers who won’t compromise on their politics, which is so 
appealing in a world of splitting the difference." The magazine also 
stands out for its colorful and sleek design (its first paid employee 
was the creative director, Remeike Forbes). One glimpse at the cover and 
it’s clear this isn’t your father’s intellectual quarterly.

The brash look evinces the distinct generational sensibility of younger 
intellectuals, says Corey Robin. Its hallmarks are a lack of deference 
to professional, scholarly, and intellectual expertise. "They’re 
confrontational, argumentative, and don’t mind their manners," says 
Robin, a contributing editor at Jacobin. "They’re not respectful in any 
way — and that’s a good thing."

He contrasts this style with the polite and professional tenor of his 
own generation. "When I went to graduate school, I was told that the 
most important thing is to get a patron; it’s a feudal system, you need 
a protector. But nobody believes their adviser can protect them anymore, 
even at top programs. If in a feudal relationship the patron can’t 
protect you, the whole relationship of obligation and deference really 
starts changing."

Peter Frase
Peter Frase enrolled at the City University of New York Graduate Center 
with the goal of becoming a Marxist theorist. But he came to regard the 
culture of academic Marxism as arcane and insular. "By the time I 
started to draft journal articles and map out my dissertation, I became 
frustrated by having to write articles no one else would read that had 
to cite other articles no one else would read in order to satisfy peer 
reviewers and engage in a process that seemed internally self-justified 
to fill CVs and have an academic career but didn’t have much effect." He 
found more satisfaction writing his blog, which reached readers around 
the world.

One day he received an email from Sunkara. "I didn’t think Jacobin was 
going to go anywhere," says Frase, who is 36, "but Bhaskar seemed like a 
good kid." Frase contributed an essay about work ethic to the first 
issue. "Love of work does not come easily to the proletariat," he wrote, 
"and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for 
the capitalist class." In Frase’s best-known essay, published in 2011, 
he anticipated the end of capitalism and the emergence of new, more 
equitable social arrangements. That article is the basis of Frase’s 
first book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, just out from Jacobin’s 
imprint at Verso. Seven years into his Ph.D. in sociology, Frase walked 

"There is a lot of fear among young academics because they’re trying to 
start careers and get jobs and so there can be a real reluctance to make 
bold claims or to ruffle feathers, which is understandable," he says. 
"Having a platform to make arguments outside of that context liberated 
us from having to mind our manners."

While disappointment has long been the traditional disposition of 
left-wing thinkers in America, the new intellectuals exhibit a measure 
of hopefulness. "For the first sustained period in generations," begins 
the editor’s note in a recent issue of n+1, "it’s an exciting time for 
the American left." This optimism stretches back at least to September 
17, 2011, when a group of activists set up an encampment in New York’s 
Zuccotti Park. Similar protests soon spread across the country. The 
little magazines coalesced around Occupy Wall Street, forming what they 
called a "writers and artists affinity group," organizing conferences 
and panel discussions and arguing about the aims of the burgeoning 
movement. "Intellectually those few months were the best time of my 
life," says Nikil Saval, the n+1 co-editor.

Nikil Saval
  "For a long time, it seemed like there was no alternative to politics 
as it existed," says Sarah Leonard, 28, a part-time faculty member at 
New York University’s Gallatin School. "And so we kept on writing about 
socialism and inequality because that was the right thing to do, not 
because we thought our arguments were about to succeed. The optimism 
that came from Occupy meant that lots of people had the same feelings as 
us. Maybe we could succeed. Certainly these issues were live questions 
and live ideas. It was a big emotional shift."

Leonard and Saval helped start a pop-up publication, Occupy!, an early 
attempt to think through what was happening on the ground. The first 
issue featured a message from the New Left elder statesman Mark Rudd, an 
open letter to the police, firsthand accounts of protests in Atlanta, 
Oakland, and Philadelphia, and an Occupy songbook (Woody Guthrie, 
naturally, made the cut). Saval and his collaborators would transport 
stacks of Occupy! to the encampment. "I remember going around with the 
newspaper" — Saval adopts the voice of an early-20th-century New York 
paperboy — "get your Occupy! gazettes here, free!"

Whatever optimism was born with Occupy has been reaffirmed by the rise 
of Black Lives Matter and the surprising success of the Bernie Sanders 
presidential campaign. "For perhaps the first time in Dissent’s 60-year 
run," says David Marcus, "we are well positioned to the politics of the 
moment." In the wake of Donald J. Trump’s election, that means a 
politics of fierce opposition. “We have learned that the boundaries of 
American politics are wider than any of us imagined. The danger is 
greater, but so is the promise,” Timothy Shenk, a doctoral student in 
history at Columbia University, writes on the Dissent website. “Our task 
isn’t to cling to fragments of a shattered liberal order, gathering 
shards before the barbarians arrive.”

Seth Ackerman, 38, a member of Jacobin’s editorial board and a doctoral 
candidate in history at Cornell University, points to another lingering 
effect of Occupy: a surge of interest in political economy. "Young 
scholars whose previous work centered on Foucault or Barthes suddenly 
want to write about derivatives or off-shore tax havens." He cites 
historical precedent: "When you have a generation of intellectuals whose 
class standing is jeopardized, it’s likely there will be some kind of 
intellectual radicalization among young people."

Jon Baskin
That radicalization extends beyond the relatively remote archipelago of 
little magazines. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center found that a 
higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a more 
favorable view of socialism than of capitalism, which may help explain 
Sanders’s success in attracting young people to his presidential campaign.

The mood is captured in the introduction to The Future We Want: Radical 
Ideas for the New Century (Metropolitan Books), a 2016 essay collection 
and generational call to arms edited by Leonard and Sunkara. "We were 
told that in the knowledge economy good jobs followed higher education; 
there are few jobs, and we lock ourselves into miserable ones as quickly 
as possible to feed the loan sharks," writes Leonard. "You don’t need a 
college course to know when you’re getting screwed."

At least once a month for the past 30 years, a stranger asks Russell 
Jacoby for advice. The advice-seeker is typically a grad student 
desperate to become a public intellectual, to carry on in the tradition 
of critic-essayists of old: Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright 
Mills. The seeker wants affirmation from the author of The Last 

"I never know what to say," Jacoby relates with a sigh. "I hate to 
encourage them, because the economics are so daunting." He points out 
that even a successful writer like Christopher Hitchens had to teach 
part time at the New School. "Unless they have a rich partner or a rich 
family, it’s going to be very tough to survive." He knows from 
experience. Jacoby tried several stints as a freelance writer; none 
proved sustainable. When The Last Intellectuals was published, he was an 
unemployed 42-year-old journeyman academic and father of two who had 
taught at seven universities in 12 years. For the past 20 years, he’s 
had a position in the history department at the University of California 
at Los Angeles on an annually renewed one-year contract. "I am what’s 
called a professor in residence," Jacoby says. "Whatever that means."

Asked about the new crop of little magazines and the writers congregated 
around them, he responds, "How do they manage?"

David Marcus
The answer: precariously. Employees at Jacobin — there are 10 — earn 
salaries in the range of mid-$30,000s to low $40,000s. Saval takes no 
salary as co-editor of n+1. He is the author of Cubed: The Secret 
History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014) and writes about architecture 
and design for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, among other places. 
Frase makes most of his living as a statistical analyst. Ackerman, who 
is in the 10th year of his Ph.D. program, recently stumbled into a side 
career as the French economist Thomas Piketty’s English-language 
translator. He hopes the gig will float him long enough to finish his 
dissertation. David Marcus made no money as co-editor of Dissent and 
survived on his Columbia grad-school stipend and occasional freelance 
writing. "I’m 32 years old and making $30,000 a year," he said in March. 
"At some point I’ll need to find another form of remuneration for my 
work." In September he was named literary editor of The Nation.

The relationship between financial hardship and intellectual vibrancy is 
difficult to untangle. Still, most people see one. "The disappearance of 
academic jobs in the humanities undoubtedly has accelerated the 
resurgence" of little magazines by "denying so many talented young 
intellectuals a secure professional niche and forcing them to improvise 
alternatives," says Jackson Lears, a Rutgers cultural historian and 
editor of the quarterly journal Raritan. How sustainable are those 
alternatives? Not very, says Thomas Frank, founding editor of The 
Baffler. Culture workers are caught in a paradox: It’s never been easier 
to get published, and it’s never been harder to make a living. "This is 
the end of the road for nonacademic cultural criticism."

It's never been easier to get published, and it's never been harder to 
make a living.
In the meantime, little magazines continue to make inroads. Alyssa 
Battistoni, a 30-year-old graduate student in political science at Yale 
and a member of Jacobin’s editorial board, even worries that the new 
public intellectualism is creating onerous expectations of young 
scholars: "You should do public scholarship and writing on top of 
everything else, even though it probably won’t count for your job 
application or tenure file and might get you in trouble somewhere in the 
meantime." Even if you meet those demands and avoid a reputation for 
being difficult, the stipends, teaching assistant gigs, and fellowships 
eventually run out — and, odds are, the job prospects, too. And as 
generations of intellectuals have discovered, the romance of the 
struggle tends to wane as you draw nearer to your 40s. Then what?

Aaron Bady has thought hard about that question. A 37-year-old 
specialist in contemporary African literature with a Ph.D. from the 
University of California at Berkeley, he spent five years on the job 
market, including two years as a postdoc at the University of Texas at 
Austin. He was a finalist for three tenure-track positions but never 
received an offer. "My generation is not in danger of mistaking the 
university for a refuge," he wrote this year in Boston Review. "Instead 
we know it as a vocation stripped of its profession, a devalued form of 
labor that we must nevertheless struggle to do." Bady says he never made 
a decision to leave the academy; one day the checks simply stopped 
coming. He suddenly had no institutional affiliation and no promising 
leads. He’d become an ex-academic.

Rachel Rosenfelt
In 2012, Bady fell in with the anarchic orbit of editors at The New 
Inquiry, which had begun a few years earlier as a kind of salon for 
critical-theory-soaked Brooklynites. It’s the brainchild of Mary 
Borkowski, Jennifer Bernstein, and Rachel Rosenfelt, friends from 
Barnard College who graduated into the teeth of the recession in 2009. 
"We had nowhere to go to do intellectual work," says Rosenfelt, now 
associate director of the New School’s master’s program in creative 
publishing and critical journalism. "Graduate school was a dead end. 
Publishing and journalism was a sinking ship." The result was a "surplus 
population of intelligent, interesting, and interested young people," 
many of them women, many of them increasingly radicalized by student debt.

Bady’s work for the magazine is eclectic, covering popular culture, 
higher education, Kenyan politics, Donald Trump’s penis, the legality of 
strip searches — that in an essay memorably titled "We Cannot Afford to 
Protect the Anuses of the Condemned" — and much else. "The emptiness of 
the name The New Inquiry means it can potentially embrace almost 
anything," he says.

Bady now lives in Oakland, trying to scratch together a living as a 
writer. He and his partner, also a former grad student, want to start a 
family and worry about being able to afford it. He thinks a lot about 
whether grad school was worth it, and about the meaning of intellectual 
work. "If eight years ago I told my mother I’m going to leave graduate 
school and become a freelancer, her response would have been, You can’t 
afford to take such a risk if there is a safer option. But the more it 
seems like there is no safe option, the less attractive any sort of 
compromise becomes."

Bady falls silent. "If I’m going to struggle, I need to make it 
worthwhile," he finally says. "I need to pursue the work I find most 

Evan R. Goldstein is editor of The Chronicle Review.

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