Intellectuel engagé… so yesterday ?
Fresh from the 2008 economic crisis, a reinvigorated sense of pessimism took root in modern-day France. National media became dominated by a ‘sentiment de déclin’, with Le Monde going as far as to award France with the title of “championne d’Europe du pessimisme”. This new bleak outlook became linked to a certain nostalgia for the golden post-war era, as well as to what is arguably a dwindling global cultural hegemony, with less and less French books being translated into English (Sapiro, 2012: 378).
In these wounds of pessimism and nostalgia, an anti-intellectual sentiment is being allowed to fester. Academic Sudhir Hazareesingh (2016: 289) notes that within this current climate of national despair, attention has turned towards the failure of the once great oracles – the intellectuals – to guide the people out of these times of hopelessness. Interestingly, anti-intellectual sentiment appears to be widespread, evidenced in the number of publications with such names as Frank Furedi’s “Where have all the intellectuals gone?” (2006) and Richard Posner’s “Public Intellectuals: A study of decline” (2001), both of which observe anti-intellectualism in France, as well as in the U.K and the States.
Coming in the midst of this supposed decline, is economist Thomas Piketty. His book, ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, became a 2014 best-seller, not only in France but also in America, sitting atop the US Amazon charts and even selling out on the website. People were quick to draw parallels between him and Karl Marx, and one reviewer dubbed him the “rock-star of the policy-intellectual world.” However, does Piketty’s rapid ascent into the public eye mark the return of the great smoking, coffee-guzzling intellectual equal to the likes of Sartre or de Beauvoir?
The cover of Bloomberg Businessweek (fig.1) would suggest that this is not the case. Immediately, we are confronted with an image of Piketty presented as the heart-throb on the front of what appears to be a teenage gossip tabloid. His expression is somewhat dumbfounded, suggesting a certain degree of “how did I end up here?” Equally, he is adorned with cartoon hearts and kisses, effectively infantilizing the French economist. To add insult to injury, Piketty shares the space with Justin Bieber, who proclaims: “did someone say progressive radicalism?” This juxtaposition of Piketty with Bieber serves to put them both in equal standing, the ridiculousness of Justin Bieber discussing “progressive radicalism” is thus transferred over to Piketty – undermining his work. This synthesis of images and one-liners not only trivialize Piketty himself, but also those who follow his ideas. The word “Pikettymania” is emblazoned in pink and purple across the cover – the suffix ‘mania’ encapsulating a sense of obsession and madness. ‘Bloomberg’ also made explicit the fact that they wanted the cover to allude to how ‘obsessed’ people had become with him and his ideas – further specifying that by ‘people’ they meant those with “the most basic awareness of financial journalism.”
Although the Bloomberg cover is a heavily satirized portrayal of Piketty, it taps into long-standing fears of the evolving relationship between mass-media and the intellectual. For example, while the cover somewhat confirms Piketty’s intellectual status with the assertion that he is “Karl Marx’s new crush”, more prevalence is given to Piketty himself – the celebrity. Furthermore, in the subsequent article that oscillates between praise and insult, Bloomberg notes how Piketty’s success is due in part to “controversy.” They remark that his principal “catchphrase” of ‘r > g’ exacerbates the “collective anxiety about the fate of the middle class.”[i] This implication of controversy in Piketty’s success may echo what Jacques Derrida dubbed “the temptation of the media.” By this, Derrida argued that the intellectual could misuse mass media in order to gain power and influence, appearing in the media only for the sake of appearing (Derrida and Weber, 1995: 401). In this light, it may appear that Piketty has deliberately simplified his 750-page tome on economics into a simpler, easier to swallow algebraic equation for the sake of capturing headlines as well as the public’s attention. This simplification resounds through several critiques of his work, with many solely focusing on this equation while one article from The Economist summarizes his book in only four paragraphs.
Similarly, economist Richard Posner (2006:148) suggests that the modern intellectual tends to be a “radical simplifier of social reality”, opting for “extreme positions” to distinguish themselves from today’s information overload. This theory of dramatization also appears in certain reviews of Piketty’s work, with some referring to him as a “radical economist” and others remarking that his ideas are “utopian.” From this, one may start to wonder: “Does Piketty more closely resemble the modern-day celebrity, who weaponizes soundbites and scandal for personal profit, rather than Sartre’s famous intellectuel engagé?”
So, can we truly say that days of the intellectuel engagé are behind us? Not quite. It is worth bearing in mind that the intellectual of the past has always maintained a close relationship with the mass media. Before the internet, intellectuals such as Émile Zola famously publicized their protests in newspapers, while Sartre and de Beauvoir were known to be anything but camera shy. In fact, Sand and Fernbach (2018: 189) note that a key component of the intellectual is their ability to self-promote. Building upon this, Posner (2006: 85) asserts that the life of the public intellectual is a “charismatic calling.” He stresses that the intellectual is comprised of more than just “intelligence”, but rather is someone who can make complex ideas more tangible for the general public (2006: 85). This tangibility is a key trait of Piketty’s Capital, with the author himself outlining in the preface his intention to “make the book accessible without any special technical training” (Piketty and Goldhammer, 2014). Seen from this perspective, Bloomberg’s satirical portrayal of Piketty’s media presence (fig.1) is arguably a confirmation of his skill as an intellectual, as he has effectively captured the public interest whilst marketing his work on wealth inequality. Who’s to say that if Sartre had been writing in the 21st Century that he wouldn’t have received this glamorising and satirical edit by Bloomberg.
Ultimately, Sartre believed that the duty of the intellectuel engagé entailed “taking a stand against all injustices, wherever they come from” (Sartre 1948 cited in Hazareesingh, 2016: 45). Throughout Piketty’s oeuvre, he is taking a stand against the injustice of wealth inequality, going as far as to suggest a global tax on capital to “regulate the patrimonial capitalism of the 21st Century” (Piketty and Goldhammer, 2014: 663). Thus, perhaps rather than associating the economist with the sensationalist Bloomberg cover, it is instead more fitting to view him through Le Monde’s depiction (fig.2). Here we see Piketty the superhero, the fighter of injustice who is capable of impossible feats, namely topping the Amazon bestseller list with a book on economics (Brissaud and Chahsiche, 2017: 30). What is clear, is that although there are those that claim the intellectuel engagé has disappeared or is in decline, Piketty’s arrival onto the scene certainly demonstrates that the mighty pen of the intellectual hasn’t quite run out of ink just yet.
[i] When the rate of return (r) on capital exceeds the economy’s growth rate (g).
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, June 2-8, 2014. ©2014 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.
Source: M le magazine du Monde, June 27, 2014, Photo and Illustration by Maciek Pozoga.
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