IT IS a challenging task to select a few themes from the remarkable range of the work and life of Edward Said. I will keep to two: the culture of empire, and the responsibility of intellectuals — or those whom we call “intellectuals” if they have the privilege and resources to enter the public arena. The phrase “responsibility of intellectuals” conceals a crucial ambiguity: It blurs the distinction between “ought” and “is”. In terms of “ought”, their responsibility should be exactly the same as that of any decent human being, though greater: privilege confers opportunity, and opportunity confers moral responsibility.
We rightly condemn the obedient intellectuals of brutal states for their “conformist subservience to those in power”. I am borrowing the phrase from Hans Morgenthau, a founder of international relations theory.
Morgenthau was referring, however, not to the commissar class of the totalitarian enemy, but to western intellectuals, whose crime is far greater, because they cannot plead fear but only cowardice and subordination to power. He was describing what “is”, not what “ought” to be.
The history of intellectuals is written by intellectuals, so not surprisingly they are portrayed as defenders of right and justice, upholding the highest values and confronting power and evil with admirable courage and integrity. The record reveals a rather different picture. The pattern of “conformist subservience” goes back to the earliest recorded history. It was the man who “corrupted the youth of Athens” with “false gods” who drank the hemlock, not those who worshipped the true gods of the doctrinal system.
A large part of the Bible is devoted to people who condemned the crimes of state and immoral practices. They are called “prophets”, a dubious translation of an obscure word. In contemporary terms, they were “dissident intellectuals”. There were also intellectuals who were greatly respected in the era of the prophets: the flatterers at the court. The Gospels warn of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. By their fruits ye shall know them.”
The dogmas that uphold the nobility of state power are nearly unassailable, despite the occasional errors and failures that critics allow themselves to condemn.
A prevailing truth was expressed by US president John Adams two centuries ago: “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.” That is the root of the combination of savagery and self-righteousness that infects the imperial mentality — and in some measure, every structure of authority and domination.
We can add that reverence for that great soul is the normal stance of intellectual elites, who regularly add that they should hold the levers of control, or at least be close by.
A common expression of this prevailing view is that there are two categories of intellectuals: the “technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals” — responsible, sober, constructive — and the “value-oriented intellectuals”, a sinister grouping who pose a threat to democracy as they “devote themselves to the derogation of leadership, the challenging of authority, and the unmasking of established institutions”.
I am quoting from a 1975 study by the Trilateral Commission — liberal internationalists from the US, Europe and Japan. They were reflecting on the “crisis of democracy” that developed in the 1960s, when normally passive and apathetic sectors of the population, called “the special interests”, sought to enter the political arena to advance their concerns.
Those improper initiatives created what the study called a “crisis of democracy”, in which the proper functioning of the state was threatened by “excessive democracy”. “To overcome this crisis, the special interests must be restored to their proper function as passive observers, so that the “technocratic and value-oriented intellectuals” can do their constructive work.
The disruptive special interests are women, the young, the elderly, workers, farmers, minorities, majorities — in short, the population. Only one specific interest is not mentioned in the study: the corporate sector. But that makes sense. The corporate sector represents the “national interest”, and naturally there can be no question that state power protects the national interest. The reactions to this dangerous civilising and democratising trend have set their stamp on the contemporary era.
For those who want to understand what is likely to lie ahead, it is of prime importance to look closely at the long-standing principles that animate the decisions and actions of the powerful — in today’s world, primarily the US.
Though only one of three major power centres in economic and most other dimensions, it surpasses any power in history in its military dominance, which is rapidly expanding, and it can generally rely on the support of the second superpower, Europe, and Japan, the second-largest industrial economy.
There is a clear doctrine on the general contours of US foreign policy. It reigns in western journalism and almost all scholarship, even among critics of policies. The major theme is “American exceptionalism”: the thesis that the US is unlike other great powers, past and present, because it has a “transcendent purpose”: “the establishment of equality in freedom in America”, and throughout the world, since “the arena within which the US must defend and promote its purpose has become worldwide”. The version of the thesis I have just quoted is particularly interesting because of its source: Hans Morgenthau. But this quote is from the Kennedy years, before the Vietnam war erupted in full savagery. The previous quote was from 1970, when he had shifted to a more critical phase in his thinking.
Figures of the highest intelligence and integrity have championed the stance of “exceptionalism”. Consider John Stuart Mill’s classic essay, A Few Words on Non-Intervention.
Mill raised the question whether England should intervene in the ugly world or keep to its own business and let the barbarians carry out their savagery. His conclusion, nuanced and complex, was that England should intervene, even though by doing so, it would endure the “obloquy” and abuse of Europeans, who would “seek base motives” because they cannot comprehend that England is “novelty in the world”, an angelic power that seeks nothing for itself and acts only for the benefit of others. Though England selflessly bears the cost of intervention, it shares the benefits of its labours with others equally.
Exceptionalism seems to be close to universal. I suspect if we had records from Genghis Khan, we might find the same thing.
The operative principle is illustrated throughout history: policy conforms to expressed ideals only if it also conforms to interests. The term “interests” does not refer to the interests of the US population, but to the “national interest” — the interests of the concentrations of power that dominate the society.
In the article, Who Influences US Foreign Policy?, published last year in the American Political Science Review, the authors find, unsurprisingly, that the major influence is “internationally oriented business corporations”, though there is also a secondary effect of “experts”, who, they point out, “may themselves be influenced by business”. Public opinion, in contrast, has “little or no significant effect on government officials”.
One will search in vain for evidence of the superior understanding and abilities of those who have the major influence on policy, apart from protecting their own interests.
The great soul of power extends far beyond states, to every domain of life, from families to international affairs. And throughout, every form of authority and domination bears a severe burden of proof. It is not self-legitimising. And when it cannot bear the burden, as is commonly the case, it should be dismantled. That has been the guiding theme of the anarchist movements from their modern origins, adopting many of the principles of classical liberalism.
One of the healthiest recent developments in Europe, I think, along with the federal arrangements and increased fluidity that the European Union has brought, is the devolution of state power, with revival of traditional cultures and languages and a degree of regional autonomy. These developments lead some to envision a future Europe of the regions, with state authority decentralised.
To strike a proper balance between citizenship and common purpose on the one hand, and communal autonomy and cultural variety on the other, is no simple matter, and questions of democratic control of institutions extend to other spheres of life as well. Such questions should be high on the agenda of people who do not worship at the shrine of the great soul of power, people who seek to save the world from the destructive forces that now literally threaten survival, and who believe that a more civilised society can be envisioned and even brought into existence.