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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Burchell's Rubicon « Previous | |Next »
March 3, 2008

David Burchell is now singing the conservative line of The Australian and doing the bog standard attack on intellectuals in politics. He reaches back to the French Revolution to do so:

Intellectuals are famous for their poetical and metaphorical conceptions of public debate. Yet, being on the whole cloistered types, they tend to shape these metaphors out of the material of their own quiet, logical and ordered existences.When the intellectuals of the French revolutionary era dreamed up the notions of public opinion and the public sphere, they had in the back of their minds the kinds of arguments carried on in books and letters by leisured but discontented folks such as themselves. In short, the public was them, or at least an imaginary entity conceived on an analogy with themselves.

And so with Australian intellectuals today:
Likewise, when intellectuals today talk of resuming a conversation between themselves and government, they usually have at the back of their minds a scholarly conference, complete with ritual niceties and polite jousting over airy theoretical differences. Yet relations between government and intellectuals, even those who like to style themselves public intellectuals (another elusive but gratifying term), have never worked remotely like this...Academic debate about policy-making moves far slower than does policy-making itself. And despite their self-image, intellectuals nowadays are more often found in the baggage-train of history than the advance guard.

Governing, he says, owes very little to the prognostications of critical intellectuals who, on the whole, are inveterate ideologists. The latter is bad because they are not concerned with the solution of practical problems of social and economic policy; rather they represent a loose assemblage of perennially grumpy cultural critics who imagine themselves to be the true intelligentsia.

And with that op-ed Burchell has crossed to the Rubicon to being a conservative ideologist attacking the left whilst posing as one who adopts an essentially empirical approach to public policy. Posing because he never talks about the specific issues of public policy in his various op-eds for The Australian over the last year.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:43 AM | | Comments (23)


We should welcome intellectuals into the debate but they should be reminded that not all the good players are on the same team. Intellectuals, and might I add faux intellectuals, waste too much energy denigrating the Left or Right, depending upon their own views. I would also like to say that journalists are welcome to join the debate however, the ability to throw a newspaper column together does not qualify that person as an intellectual.

You beat me to it.

He even went as far as bringing Keating into it.

Burchell's op-ed piece got up my nose today as well. Your other post in the Philosophy section could also sum up what Burchell is up to: a hybrid of Blairite neo-liberal/ social democractic discourse in which the neoliberal side trumps.

I've got a post Burchell's piece today, which uses Wendy Brown's writings on neoliberalism as a way of understanding Burchell's essay.

Burchell's become an academic bashing lefty intellectuals for Murdoch's culture wars.

Rumpole QC,
its not much of a debate is it. What is the debate about do you know?

the chapter from Wendy Brown's Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics is interesting. Brown highlights the common conservative and moralizing rejection of critique as untimely, and then responds:

The rebuff of critical theory as untimely provides the core matter of the affirmative case for it. Critical theory is essential in dark times not for the sake of sustaining utopian hopes, making flamboyant interventions,
or staging irreverent protests, but rather to contest the very senses of time invoked to declare critique untimely. If the charge of untimeliness
inevitably also fixes time, then disrupting this fixity is crucial to keeping the times from closing in on us. It is a way of reclaiming the present from the conservative hold on it that is borne by the charge of untimeliness.

Very true isn't it. This kind of critique involves efforts to grasp the times by thinking against the times. It attempts, as Nietzsche put it, to “overcome the present” by puncturing the present’s “overvaluation of itself,”5 an overcoming whose aim is to breathe new possibilities into dark times.

By coincidence my wife was listening to Barry Jones today and she brought his biography home for me.
I just put it down after dipping into it randomly.
I'm sure if I took one step to my right [unfortunate phrase], picked it up off the table and found the right section he has a rock solid case to completely demolish the puerile rantings of those such as Burchell.
My wife tells me Barry was rapturously received by the crowd today and I think we can take that as just one more piece of evidence that the Burchell types are in their death throes and have largely become yesterday's people, wrong in all sorts of ways then, recognised as such now.

Yes Gary, I do know what the debate is about. It seems to be a contest for the headlines on the one hand and control of the headlines on the other hand.

Rumpole QC,
is this politics as being about perception?

The conservatives trying to convey the perception that they are in top of things and have lots to say that is of great interest to the rest of us?

That is an interesting post on your Eurhythmania blog. This paragraph turns the spotlight back on Burchell:

If the policy solutions to the social and economic problems that Burchell advocates are best left to the policy makers who are at the centre of selling solutions in the marketplace of Australian society then commentators like Burchell seem to believe their role is to promote the naturalization of neoliberal rationality, rather than to question its bases; to figure public discourse in terms of 'capital', 'buying' and 'selling': the only true means of determining value.

I'm off to read Wendy Brown's chapter

"It seems to be a contest for the headlines on the one hand and control of the headlines on the other hand."

Now that makes sense. Michael notes: "Burchell admittedly is writing in the dominant organ of neoliberalism in Australia and would be shaping his language for this paper and its audience."

Lefty Intellectuals, Boo! He's drifted out of the territory of intellectual engagement and into undisguised political partisanship.

if it isn't careful he will be seen as becoming like Piers Ackerman: a rightwing blogger masquerading as a journalist;one who expresses (spews) the smears from the right wing sewers.

If I recall correctly Gary spotted him as one of those ages ago, back when I was still trying to defend him.

Burchell's initial position of defending working class life in western Sydney against the middle class professionals was a defensible one---there is a long Laborist tradition of this kind of writing that expresses the voice of "the working people".That really flowered in the 1980s in response to the neo-liberal governance of Hawke and Keating. But time doesn't stand still. However much it appears that way there is rush of flow of momentum behind a still present. Newtown Sydney shows that.

What Burchell failed to see coming was the ever deepening impact of the global economy on Australia and the way that it was transforming everyday life in the global city. As an academic he failed to be critical of his assumptions and address the loss of trajectory following the collapse of historical metanarratives that underpinned his labourist position. He was pushed by events into defending the common sense of the western Sydney working class as the authentic voice of the people (the battlers) against the trendy and irrelevant social liberalism of the professional left in the ALP

He fell into the trap set by Howard for 'progressivism'; became, by default, a social conservative defending the embattled white tory working class of old Australia and started denouncing the very idea of critique in dark times apart from his own. So he ended in situation where he was a part of the conservative machine's polarizing and confrontation that masqueraded as opening up the national conversation for diverse (ie., conservative) voices with a hatred of the Left of 1968.

Sad to watch really. It's the destruction of an intellect. I expect Burchell will start rehearsing that old trope in Western thought of manly autonomy (battling working class) being undone by ungoverned female sexuality (social liberals and inner city professionals)

where was Barry Jones talking? Was it at some writers festival? What was he saying?

Nicely put. I wonder how he feels about working at the home of the Whitlam Institute.

I am loving the irony of reading the posts here about the 'collapse of historical metanarratives' before rambling on about "neoliberalism." Come on, surely this whinge about "neoliberalism" was passe in 1990?

glad you love the blog. I love fans with a touch of irony. So post modern, don't you think.

As for the issue you raise I guess it all depends on what you mean by neo-liberalism. How do you unpack it?


In my experience "neoliberalism" is used only by three groups of people.

1. Marxists. Bless 'em. Still crazy after all these years.

2. The types who throw bricks and garbage cans at McDonalds store while trying to trip horses up with ball bearings.

3. University types heavily involved in the softer less analytical Social Studies departments.

The word is used to characterise a mindboggingly broad nhumber of government policies, economic theory, historical dynamics.

Towit "neoliberalism" is the "historical metanarrative" par excellence. It is also the lamest of metanarratives as it is used so incoherently and with contempt towards any notion of data or evidence.

It basically means "we don't like x/y/z." The flinging around of 'neoliberalism" is one of the more pungent signs of how braindead, anti-intellectual, and deluded a huge chunk of the western left has descended into; tragically event he universities are not spared.

Ah, John Greenfield. One of my favourite characters in the blogosphere. I mean that sincerely. Reading some of your arguments over at LP made me rethink some of my own assumptions. Some. You confirmed others.

Welcome. I hope you hang around.


I am overwhelmed that the true ecumenicalism of my blog-intentions are finally being recognised! :)

The blogosphere would do well to use the physically-displaced nature of the medium to explore one's own ideas (and yes bigotries) by test-running them (and their counter-positions) on blogs.

Towit, the ability to distinguish between trolls and agents provocateur would benefit all blogizens. To be rightly cautious of the former, but to embrace the latter.

I know it would help. ;)

"the ability to distinguish between trolls and agents provocateur would benefit all blogizens"

True. What, then, to do with the blogizen who is both troll and agent provocateur? It can be hard to tell them apart in this textual environment, worse when one blogizen slips between roles.

'neo-liberalism' is used here a bit differently to how the term is understood at Wikipedia, where it more or less means a return to classical liberal philosophy.

in the sense of a mode of governance--the state governing society and the economy through markets. 'Governance' is understood in the sense of shaping the conduct of free subjects towards particular objectives.

Put together it means carving markets out of society to drive reform --as in national competition policy--to achieve specific goals.

I am at a loss to understand this usage implies:

how braindead, anti-intellectual, and deluded a huge chunk of the western left has descended into; tragically event he universities are not spared.

There seems to be some premises missing that link the two. Care to put them into the mix.