[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published January, 1993.]
In January 1993 Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky recorded a series of conversations which were later distributed by Z Magazine. Here we present a transcription of some material from the 1993 tapes, essentially verbatim, in three parts. Some of the topical material is now historical, of course, but the rest is as timely as when first discussed. It is divided into three parts: Part I — Part II — Part III
You once wrote an essay called "Responsibility and Intellectuals". Perhaps we could start by talking a little bit about that. First of all, what makes a person an intellectual in the first place. What is an intellectual?
It’s not a term I take all that seriously. Some of the most intellectual people I’ve met and known in my life were very remote from the so-called intellectual professions. Plenty of people who are called intellectual workers, who work with their minds, not their, say, hands, are involved in what amounts to clerical work. An awful lot of academic scholarship, for example, is basically a kind of clerical work.
Suppose we use the word positively.
With a positive connotation I would want to talk about whoever it is who’s thinking about things, trying to understand things, trying to work things out, maybe trying to articulate and express that understanding to others and so on. That’s intellectual life.
So "things" could be society, it could be quarks …
It could be music.
It could be sports. So basically, arguably, just about everyone.
Except that an awful lot of the activity of most of us is routine, not considered, not directed to problems that really do concern us and not based on efforts, maybe even opportunities to gain deeper understanding.
So intellectuals have a whole lot of time to do this part of life that we all do some of the time.
There are people who are privileged enough to be able to spend an awful lot of their time and effort on these things if they so choose. They rarely do. They often do turn to routine kind of hack work, which is the easy way.
So supposing a society like ours does give some people the opportunity to spend more time doing intellectual work, then I guess that’s the context in which we raise the question, What’s the responsibility of a person like that, a person who is free to have that time?
We can distinguish what we you might call their "task" from their moral responsibility. Their task, that is, the reason why social institutions provide them with this time and effort, their task is, say, so that they can support power, authority, they can carry out doctrinal management. They can try to ensure that others perceive the world in a way which is supportive of existing authority and privilege. That’s their task. If they stop performing their task, they’re likely to be deprived of the opportunities to dedicate themselves to intellectual work. On the other hand, their moral responsibility is quite different, in fact, almost the opposite. Their moral responsibility is to try to understand the truth, to try to work with others to come to an understanding of what the world is like, to try to convey that to other people, help them understand, and lay the basis for constructive action. That’s their responsibility. But of course there is a conflict. If you pursue the responsibility, you’re likely to be denied the privileges of exercising the intellectual effort.
It’s pretty evident, not hard to understand. If you’re a young person, say, in college or in journalism or for that matter a fourth grader, and you have too much of an independent mind, meaning you’re beginning to fulfill your responsibility, there is a whole variety of devices that will try to deflect you from that error and, if you can’t be controlled, to marginalize and eliminate you some way. In fourth grade you may be a behavior problem. In college you may be irresponsible and erratic and not the right kind of student. If you make it to the faculty you’ll fail in what’s sometimes called "collegiality," getting along with your colleagues. If you’re a young journalist and you’re pursuing stories that the managerial level above you understands, either intuitively or explicitly, are not to be pursued, you can be sent off to the police desk and advised that you are not thinking through properly and how you don’t have proper standards of objectivity and so on. There’s a range of devices. We live in a free society, so you’re not sent to the gas chambers. They don’t send the death squads after you, as is commonly done in many countries … you don’t have to go very far away to see that, say in
But certainly intellectuals aren’t only journalists, economists, political scientists and the like. T