Adam Curtis’ new film series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace completes tomorrow night with the screening of the third and final episode. Around three weeks ago, Little Atoms recorded this illuminating interview with Adam on the new show, which examines power and political organisation.
Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land: A Treatise On Our Present Discontents is an elegantly crafted elegy for the postwar consensus and a concise and erudite statement by a towering public intellectual of political wisdom accumulated over a lifetime of achivement. Its intended audience is ‘youths on both sides of Atlantic,’ who are too leery of civic engagement because of their disillusionment with politics and suspicion of government. Judt aims to invigorate their interest with challenging ideas and a practical project for political transformation. He offers no utopia, but an alternative that is ‘better than anything else to hand.’ He makes a case for social democracy, a form of government that can play an enhanced role without threatening liberties.
Judt begins with a diagnosis of the present malaise, a condition JK Galbraith described as ‘private wealth and public squalor.’ Judt finds something ‘profoundly wrong’ with an age which has made ‘a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.’ Like Oscar Wilde’s cynics, he laments, ‘we know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth.’ With ‘growth’ as the only index of progress, politicians have been able to claim success even as inequality has reached grotesque proportions. The decline began with Reagan and Thatcher’s assault on the welfare state, but has proceeded apace both in Britain and the US under successive Democratic and Labour governments. The result is a society marked by extreme inequality and broken communities. Judt draws on the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, to show a correlation between the extreme inequality of the American and British society and its adverse consequences on health, crime, and social mobility.
Herbert Marcuse gained world renown during the 1960s as a philosopher, social theorist and political activist; his most famous work is One-Dimensional Man, which had a strong influence on the New Left. Here he’s interviewed by Bryan Magee on the Frankfurt School.
In response to the curious choices in Foreign Policy magazine’s ’Top 100 Global Thinkers’ list last year, we decided to publish our own. In 2010, Foreign Policy‘s selections were even more abysmal: among others it included Robert Gates, Ben Bernanke, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, Thomas Friedman, Ahmed Rashid, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bjorn Lomborg, Richard Clarke, Madeleine Albright, Salam Fayyad…and John Bolton! Would anyone outside FP’s editorial board confuse them for a thinker? Once again, it appears FP chose based on the alignment of an individual’s work with the global military and economic agenda of the US government. We therefore asked our writers and editors to nominate once again their own top 10 global thinkers. The following list was the result. (Also see our Top 10 Media Figures of 2010)
A towering intellect, a moral giant, a master of prose, and an outstanding historian, Tony Judt did what only the greatest of thinkers do: he constantly evolved. More significantly, he never succumbed to orthodoxies, he was always on the edge. In his later years, he also outgrew his middle-of-the-road liberalism to adopt principled, at times radical, positions on war and capitalism. He also jettisoned his youthful Zionism to emerge as the proponent of a single binational state in Palestine. In 2006 he was the only mainstream figure to come to the defence of Mearsheimer & Walt for their groundbreaking London Review essay. He later excoriated Israel as the ‘country that wouldn’t grow up.’ He was also the author of Postwar, an elegant and expansive history of Europe since 1945. We mourn his loss.
An exemplary scholar, Chalmers Johnson metamorphosed from a hardline Cold Warrior into one of the most formidable critics of US militarism, mapping America’s expanding imperium of bases and spotlighting the fraying edges of its republic. His 2000 book Blowback was as prophetic as his subsequent books The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis were prescient. His longtime JPRI associate Steve Clemons has described him as the ‘acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the “developmental state“’ and as ‘an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy’ in the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago. Johnson was also a literary critic, a skill he deftly used in his later writings to show how the imperial imagination was reflected in the language of metropolitan literature. His departure has greatly impoverished the intellectual world.
Note: In the Qur’anic account of man’s creation, God asks the angels to bow down to Adam; they bow down, except Iblīs. God banishes Iblīs but, granting his request, gives him the power to tempt and waylay humans except those who submit in sincerity to their Creator.
Old friend, how is your time spent in banishment?
In fire wrapped, pain-swept, surging, toiling, unbent.
At our heavenly summits, we often talk of you.
Should you repent, seek grace, give us the cue.
On 30 November 2009 Foreign Policy magazine published its ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’ list. We were naturally skeptical since the selection included Dick Cheney, General Petraeus, Larry Summers, Thomas Friedman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, David Kilcullen, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salam Fayyad, The Kagan Family (yes, all of them) and Ahmed Rashid among others. We don’t consider any of these people thinkers, let alone having global significance, and we couldn’t help but notice that the main thrust of all their work aligns with the global military and economic agenda of the US government. In response we asked twelve of our writers and editors to nominate their Top 20 global thinkers of 2009. Our criteria included choosing those who inspire critical thinking, as well as those who have been able to buck received wisdom and shape public debate. Always agreeing with their statements and positions was not a requisite, but in all cases our selections involved nominating those who have spurred people to challenge or enhance their own thinking in different ways. The following is our unranked list.
The top nominee when it came to number of votes among PULSE contributors, Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy is as much known for her non-fictional political work as she is for her award-winning fiction. She is a spokesperson of the alter-globalization movement and a critic of hegemonial US foreign policy, as well as vocal on behalf of the anti-nuclear and environmental movements both in India and abroad. She is also a staunch critic of the repressive Indian policies in Kashmir. Most recently a contributor to We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (October 2009), Roy continues to be passionately engaged and eloquently outspoken in building a social movement towards developing alternatives. Her latest book is Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.