On Intellectuals and Democracy

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Yemeni women looking for their names on a registration list before voting in the presidential election that ended the thirty-three-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sanaa, February 21, 2012

The following is drawn from Thinking the Twentieth Century, written with Timothy Snyder and just published by Penguin.

Intellectual activity is a little bit like seduction. If you go straight for your goal, you almost certainly won’t succeed. If you want to be someone who contributes to world historical debates, you almost certainly won’t succeed if you start off by contributing to world historical debates. The most important thing to do is to be talking about the things that have, as we might put it, world historical resonance but at the level at which you can be influential. If your contribution to the conversation then gets picked up and becomes part of a larger conversation or part of conversations happening elsewhere as well, then so be it and so much the better.

So I don’t think intellectuals do very well talking about the need for the world to be democratic, or the need for human rights to be better respected worldwide. It’s not that the statement falls short of the desirable, but it contributes very little to either achieving its goal or adding to the rigor of the conversation. Whereas the same person, really showing exactly what’s defective about democracy and democracies, sets a much better base for the argument that ours is a democracy that others should be encouraged to emulate. Merely saying that ours is a democracy or saying that I’m not interested in ours but I want to help make yours encourages the response: well, go away and fix yours and then maybe you’ll have a foreign audience, and so on. So in order to be international, we have to be national first.

What should we be caring about today? We are at the end of a very long cycle of improvement. A cycle that began in the late eighteenth century and that, notwithstanding everything that’s happened since, continued essentially through the 1990s: the steady widening of the circle of countries whose rulers were constrained to accept something like the rule of law. I think that it was overlain from the 1960s onward by two different but related spreads: of economic and individual freedom. Those two latter developments, which look as though they are related to the first one, are in fact potentially dangerous to it.

I see the present century as one of growing insecurity brought about partly by excessive economic freedom, using the word in a very specific sense, and growing insecurity also brought about by climate change and unpredictable states. We are likely to find ourselves as intellectuals or political philosophers facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how…

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