Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Defending Modernism? (2005)

Book Review from the May 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? by Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2004
Frank Furedi takes the opportunity in this book to rail against the modern 'cultural elite' and their 'dumbing down' of political, educational and artistic standards.He forcefully argues that an all pervading desire for 'inclusivity' leading to the flattery of interest groups - has replaced more hard-headed conceptions of scientific rigour, critical thought and above all, standards, as the driving force for decision makers in the modern world. Today, he argues, participation (or the appearance of it) is seen as the key issue, while the role of the 'intellectual', as arbiter of taste, independent critical analyst and robust generator of original ideas, has been compromised and diminished.

This is interesting and provocative, particularly as Furedi - currently Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent - is better known as the leading theoretician of the Trotskyist political current which called itself the Revolutionary Communist Party until a few years ago, notable for their annual 'Preparing For Power' conferences and their glossily superficial Living Marxism magazine. That his views now seem to have more in common with those routinely expressed in the opinion columns of the Daily Telegraph clearly isn't something he feels the need to apologise for. Strangely enough, Mick Hume, the erstwhile editor of Living Marxism (or 'LM' as it became, in a needless concession to the postmodernist culture and 'dumbing down' Furedi now ironically rails against), happens to be a broadsheet columnist spouting similar views to Furedi himself. This does nothing to diminish the prevalent view on the British left that their organisation was a rather bizarre cross between a cult and a sect with a tendency to say anything controversial if it could get them some media attention.

For all that, Furedi's book is well worth reading. He is a thought-provoking writer and something of a critic of the present 'postmodern condition', where everything seemingly has a value of some sort and banality is elevated into an art form, where science and reason are merely another perspective on the world, and where all attempts at fundamentally changing society are doomed to failure, are dangerous - or both. Here he is tilling fertile ground, and his writing is stimulating and energetic.

A large part of the book focuses on the way in which public policy in the major capitalist states is currently using 'inclusivity' and 'widening access' as bogus ways of enfranchising the disenfranchised, whether it be in political life, the arts, or Higher Education. This involves the recognition and flattery of 'identities' (ethnic, gender, sexual, national) and the promotion of the idea that everyone creates even if some of Furedi's hobby-horses lead him astray periodically.  instance, For the current agenda for 'widening access and participation' in HE is little to do with abstract social engineering but the response of successive governments to the demands of the labour market, including the demands of employers for more vocationally-focused university courses and for the creation of intermediate awards like Foundation Degrees. Indeed, this seems an odd point to need to make to someone who has spent most of his life calling himself a Marxist.

Furthermore, even if Furedi is a half-decent sociologist he is certainly not much of an educationalist, as his comments on modern methods of teaching and learning, accreditation of prior learning and other issues tend to show, for here he is unreliable and his approach lacks the type of rigour and engagement with serious study he otherwise insists on. But where Furedi's book misses the mark most noticeably is in his defence of the 'intellectual' as embodying everything that was good about Enlightenment ideals and modernist conceptions of progress. This is a partial, one-sided analysis and it is tempting to suspect that what Furedi really wants to defend is modernism, science and rationality itself against postmodernism, relativism and our seemingly irrational age.

But this has already been done by others quite recently, such as by Francis Wheen, so Furedi has cast around for a new angle that only serves to distort the picture, robbing it of clarity.

Society doesn't need a new phalanx of intellectuals at all, it needs a reaction against reaction and a confidence that humankind generally can look beyond the fragments of the postmodern condition and collectively work towards a vision of how the world ought to be.

Dave Perrin

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