Left Academics

This weekend I had the unusual and rather mixed pleasure of speaking at an academic gathering. I actually thought it was going to be my usual type of audience — students, activists, interested folks, etc. But instead, much to my surprise, it was about 140 academics. The event was a meeting of what hopes to be a new and important academic organization of people working on, teaching, studying globalism. A cross disciplinary group, and international.

This association could be exemplary. It certainly sees itself as leftist but what should that mean for an academic association?

Well…it seems to me a non ideological academic association will generally be driven by the intellectual interests of its members — their curiousity in the field. Thus, an association of biologists, or physicists or historians, and so on…has as its task to facilitate diverse reasearch and teaching in the field, in accord with the curiousity of the members — an that reasearch and teaching should be judged simply on its quality and its bearing on the field.

But what about a leftist academic association — whether about globalism or anything else? I should think it would see itself rather differently. Now the point should be to change the world, not simply to comprehend it. The point should be to unearth and develop and provide information, analysis, vision — really anything that the time and privilege and assets of being an academic can facilitates — to people who are working for left change.

But, I have to say, that isn’t what I found in the work of the academics at this gathering. When I looked at the topics of the papers presented – each one was plausible as something to think about and study. But, overall, they weren’t plausible as the output of a gathering of leftists. And this was because overall they were overwhelmingly (though there were exceptions, of course) unconnected to the needs of organizers or the public, for that matter — and therefore not, in my view, oreinted toward social change.

There was virtually nothing on vision, nothing on strategy, nothing on tactics. No paper, or nearly no paper, seemed to be conceived in response to an explicit need among organizers. I doubt many of those in attendence asked people in movements what questions they needed help with.

But please note, many in attendence in their non-acadmic pursuits, are active, interact with activists, and so on. It is the academic part that seems to fizzle away the orientation to win change.

Reciprocally, I asked myself — if the people who organize around globalization, as compared to those who teach about it, all read every academic paper being offered here before they worked on some major event or project — would it have any effect on what they did in their undertakings — for example would it have affected their organizing the Seattle events, etc.? My feeling was that it wouldn’t, or at least not nearly commensurate to the time and effort involved in the production of all these studies. I also felt that it was unlikely that even one such organizer had read or would read even one of the papers given, and certainly not many.

That isn’t necessarily a disaster. After all, it could be a two-stage process. Maybe the academics are writing and studying and getting together for conferences and publishing in their journals, and then other people are reading their product who in turn write up the lessons for wider audiences, including for organizers and the public. But on thinking about this it semed to me it was also very unlikely. I hadn’t read any of the papers these people had presented, and hadn’t even seen it, and I was unlikely to do so. My best guess was that no one who writes on ZNet had read any significant part of it, or would do so, much less convey the insights to wider audiences.

So my point is this — it seems to me that people who call themselves left academics have — by a variety of dynamics and probably in many cases very much against their own inclinations and desires (and even against what they do in other parts of their lives) — become, as academics, essentially irrelvant to left activism. They aren’t read by activists. They aren’t read by journalists and by others who in turn speak with activists. They are isolated save for interactions with one another — and yet this need not be the case.

My recommendation would be for left academics to look self critically at what is going on and to ask whether, in fact, what struck me as likely is really the case, and if it is, whether it is just a communication gap — a lack of conveyance of worthy material — or whether what left academics are doing just isn’t worth looking at, on average, by activists.

If the former is the problem, our academics need to think hard about communication.

If the latter is the problem, our academics need to think about how they are choosing their subject matter.

Or maybe both.

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