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November 2001, no. 236


November 2001, no. 236

Bauman’s point of departure

Dear Editor,

Boris Frankel bursts in through open doors. He gives Zygmunt Bauman and me stick for speaking our truths (ABR, October 2001). Viewed in its own terms, what remains of the Left in Australia is in a bad way because it has failed (1) to clarify its ethics, norms and values and (2) to develop alternative visions and policies upon them; because (3) there is no popular bearer or social movement available to carry these invisible ends; and (4) because there is no evidence of popular support for a new society, present unhappiness and misery notwithstanding. If this is not modern, what is it? (If the Soviet and Nazi experiences were not modern, what were they?)

My view is that intellectuals do not lead culture, but express it; they articulate arguments and sentiments already moving within civil society. I start from the premise that people understand inequality as a fact of everyday life and accept it, as a matter of dull compulsion. It is in this context that I claim that ‘the political opinion of the intellectual is worth no more than that of any other citizen’. Intellectual authority does not translate into political authority: that way lies Bolshevism. Critical theorists, on this account, need to come to grips with the problems of democracy, pluralism and difference, among themselves and in society at large. If we agree that the people are to choose, within the constraints that we already inhabit, then we have to cop the fact that they have not chosen us, or socialism. The extent of this crisis suggests that it is pre-political.

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