The empty wheelbarrow

From my communist youth, I still remember the formula, endlessly repeated in official proclamations to mark the “unity of all progressive forces”: “workers, peasants and honest intellectuals” – as if intellectuals are, by their very nature, suspicious, all too free-floating, lacking a solid social and professional identity, so that they can only be accepted at the price of a special qualification.

This distrust is alive and well today, in our post-ideological societies. The lines are clearly drawn. On the “honest” side, there are the no-nonsense experts, sociologists, economists, psychologists, trying to cope with the real-life problems engendered by our “risk society”, aware that old ideological solutions are useless. Beyond, there are the “prattling classes”, academics and journalists with no solid professional education, usually working in humanities with some vague French postmodern leanings, specialists in everything, prone to verbal radicalism, in love with paradoxical formulations that flatly contradict the obvious. When faced with fundamental liberal-democratic tenets, they display a breathtaking talent to unearth hidden traps of domination. When faced with an attack on these tenets, they display a no less breathtaking ability to discover emancipatory potential in it.

This cliche is not without truth – recall the numerous fiascos of the 20th-century radical intellectuals, perhaps best encapsulated by the French poet Paul Eluard’s refusal to demonstrate support for the victims of Stalinist show trials: “I spend enough time defending the innocent who proclaim their innocence, to have any time left to defend the guilty who proclaim their guilt.” But hysterical over-reaction against”free-floating” intellectual renders such a critique suspicious: distrust of intellectuals is ultimately distrust of philosophy itself.

In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious. If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns”, the threats from Saddam we did not even suspect, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the main dangers actually are in the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values. To unearth these “unknown knowns” is the task of an intellectual.

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian (UK) on February 19th 2005.]