Unemployed intellectuals have always been a rather dangerous class.
For when intellectuals cannot find a place in the current order they tend to make a new order more suited to their tastes.
As newly empowered Republican politicians defund scientific institutes, government bureaucracies, and universities alike, this point may become increasingly salient..
While it is typical of the unemployed to turn on the system that has made them obsolescent, intellectuals do so in their own unique ways. Their unemployment reminds them of the inadequacies of the system, they feel the sting of it in their own circumstances, they are often restless to make use of the talents, and they now have the time to lead movements for change. So argued the mid-twentieth century, American social philosopher and longshoreman, Eric Hoffer.
Scientists and academics whose programs have been cut by anti-government Republicans will start non-profits, social businesses, activist organizations and think-tanks. But most will just comment a little more on news sites, post a little more on Facebook, debate a little more with friends and family, and volunteer a little more with social change organizations. All of this together will impact public opinion.
Something similar happened with conservative intellectuals, who found an unwelcoming environment in academia in the 70s and 80s and turned their attention instead to politics. They founded think-tanks, became columnists and started talk-radio shows. They built what Sidney Blumenthal dubbed a conservative counter-establishment that changed the way Americans think. And in the process, they brought to power hundreds of highly unqualified thinkers, who had the time and energy needed to make a name for themselves. These thinkers in turn brought to power a whole new generation of politicians, whom they educated, poked and prodded.
But the current corporate order is not only disenfranchising intellectuals employed by the government —the academics, scientists, and bureaucrats referred to earlier. It is also using up tech workers at an astonishing pace. Programmers and IT specialists, who just a decade ago might have expected to find excellent and well paying jobs, are now finding themselves working for less, and often out of work, as their jobs are exported or made obsolete through the same processes of innovation and globalization that previously displaced a whole generation of well paid factory workers in the late 20th century.
These tech workers are turning on their corporate paymasters in droves. Their critiques are both social and economic, highlighting the dangers of this emerging mode of production to personal and political freedom. They point to the way social media are making us anxious, how the tech companies are using our personal information for profit and how they are manipulating our political system.
Meanwhile, the tech workers who have found it easier to adapt are re-creating the economic order through a series of disruptive innovations that are transforming the very roots of social organization. Much of the current conservative backlash is a reaction against this order in which many of the previously most privileged groups can find no place. The tech scene is quite fluid, so the unemployed and the entrepreneurial are often interchangeable.
What we have not seen from any of these groups, and especially all of them together, is the articulation of an alternative vision for society. But that vision is emerging on its own in the large culturally diverse downtowns of San Francisco, New York, Austin, and a multitude of college towns, like Boulder, Colorado. There we can find a newly emerging creative class developing an alternative culture that is fast going mainstream. But these cities are expensive, and there is an inherent tension between the visions of the securely employed and the rest.
What this wide ranging creative class seems yet to have realized is that they hold the future in their hands. And almost everyone seems to miss the politically regenerative power of out of work intellectuals. But a slight turn of mind from disempowered critics toward leaders of a movement for social transformation could quite literally mean the world. Perhaps Jesus was right and the geeks shall inherit the earth.
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Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Entertainment Weekly