I don’t know whether the generations which have grown up with television and the internet experience have experienced the power of seminal texts which many in my generation did. I was driven this past week to think about the key authors who had a profound influence (during my spell at University) on my way of looking at the world. For probably the first time, I saw the common theme in their message – celebration of pluralism and of scepticism at a time when the influence of ideology was still strong. I should also have mentioned the writing of Bernard Crick whose book “In Defence of Politics” (1962) celebrated the practice of politics as a necessary and honourable one and may have been one of the factors leading me a few years later to go into local politics. (We are in need of such a text these days!)
Two difficult recent questions have made me think about “figures of influence” – a question about which contemporary figure (s) I admired (I could come up only with that of Riccardo Petrella); and, today, with an invitation from Social Europe to nominate the (living) “thinkers” (my inverted commas) with the biggest influence on the European left-of-centre agenda in 2010/2011.
When I read the names of those nominated last year, my immediate reaction was that the left thoroughly deserved its present pathetic electoral position if the poll was correct in its judgement. The first three names were Paul Krugman, Juergen Habermas and Slavoj Zizek (who??). Even worse was that Anthony Giddens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Umberto Eco came next. Then Zygmund Bauman, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, Oskar Lafontaine, Ulrich Beck, Manuel Castells and (wait for it!)…Ed Miliband! When, 10 years ago, I wrote my own list of inspiring “standard bearers” it did include Lafontaine (and George Monbiot).
But I’m not sure how sensible the poll is – each country is so different – and how does one actually measure the influence which any thinker has had? And what exactly is a “thinker”? Do we not all think? And if by “thinker” we mean an academic such as Etzioni, is there not a certain contradition between being a “thinker” and having an influence on party agendas? Of course, you will say, neo-liberals such as Hayek have had a profound influence on the agendas of all parties in the past couple of decades – but he is dead. Keynes put it so well in 1935
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.There are so many voices today that we often require an intermediary (journalists like Will Hutton, Paul Mason and George Monbiot) to act as mediators and popularisers.
In any event, I would prefer to explore which “writers” have the most to offer the social democrats – regardless of the likelihood of their message being bought. In the article I wrote a couple of weeks back for the Romanian journal, I found myself using two quotations from the world of a green Irish economist - Richard Douthwaite – and would therefore certainly nominate him. I will now look around my (extensive) bookshelves and see who else should be nominated. And you, gentle reader? Who would you nominate?
I'm glad to be able to show a Romanian painting for once - by late 19th century painter Theodor Pallady