Professions of Power

by Humphrey McQueen

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Responses to this article have been received from John Levett and Victoria Reynolds.

‘I have never been a militant.’ Simone de Beauvoir made this claim in a 1979 documentary about her life. Yet that film shows her on the streets of Paris in 1970 selling La Cause du peuple, a proscribed publication of which she was nominal co-editor. So when she said she had never been a militant, did she mean that she had never been a full-time revolutionary? In Australia de Beauvoir’s degree of involvement would have marked her down as a militant. 1

Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that the activists who produced La Cause du peuple represented the coming intellectual who, by following Lenin‘s command to provide militants with a more complete comprehension of capitalism, would fulfil Marx‘s call to change the world and not just interpret it. Sartre denied that he could become one of the new type, and so persisted with his 2500-page study of Flaubert. 2

Expectations about intellectuals are now different in the USA. In late 1995 Oxford University Press promoted Professional Correctness, a set of lectures from the literary critic and law professor at Duke University, Stanley Fish. Fish had advised his literary colleagues that if they want ‘to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it’. Since he cannot believe that a reinterpretation of Paradise Lost will be of interest to more than 300 other scholars he hopes that this severance will produce two results. First, the good causes of feminism and anti-racism will be advanced by professional political advocates, and secondly that university literature departments will secure their professionalism.3 This division of labour contrasts with the reaction apparent in the establishment in September 1994 of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics as an alternative to the Modern Languages Association and through the beat-ups against political correctness. 4

An injunction against scholars doing ‘work that resounds beyond the academy’ cannot be an absolute principle. Academics are not above and beyond the public domains, whether corporate or governmental. Objections to a scholar’s voice resounding beyond the academy are conceivable only from within practices directly serving neither finance capital, oligopolized industry nor its military clients, in what Noam Chomsky calls the national security state. One task is to contrast the penalty for subversion in the marginal area of literary studies with the subservience to corporate governance that is the normal public life of universities.

This hegemony appears in topics not tackled. When Alan D. Gilbert, now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, delivered a public lecture on ‘Defending Freedom’ in 1995, not only did he add ‘The Balanced and Liberal Approach’ as a subtitle but he spent his time attacking political correctness. That a handful of dissenters in such arcane fields as cultural studies can provoke so much alarm among the managerial circles of that power bloc is a measure of the conformity taken for granted. Gilbert’s focus turned inwards to the academy and ignored the ways in which Mass Murdoch presents a far graver threat to freedom. But to criticise monopolizing by News Corporation would be unbalanced, even insane, for vice-chancellors for whom public responsibility manifests itself as public relations. 5

Academics are public, reliant upon taxes or profits for their salaries and research funds in return for their training of other professionals and the refinement of techniques to manage human and natural resources. Yet these links are not what are usually taken as ‘public’. One presumption is that a ‘public intellectual’ will be a statistical abnormality. A free association of public with dissident or popularizing voice 6 indicates how conformist and immured the bulk of academics are in their public roles as teachers or researchers. Conformity is not just a matter of moral choice but an expression of the place that the full range of knowledges occupies in the reproduction of capitalism’s political, cultural or economic domains.

John Mulvaney now realizes that he once mistook the term ‘public history’ for a belated willingness by historians to involve themselves in public debates, 7 whereas it was being promoted as yet another specialist course to get jobs for graduates. Public history is not the same as people’s history. For instance, public historians may or may not speak out against environmental degradation. Once employed to write the history of a polluter, their innoculation with professional objectivity – Gilbert’s balance – will help them to discover arguments with which to mitigate any offence.

Although not all intellectuals are academics, all academics are public intellectuals in that they are employed to service corporations and governments. Medical, commerce and law faculties are exceptional, inasmuch as they combine service to conglomerates with opportunities for personal enrichment. For decades, universities trained foresters to chop down more trees than they planted, and taught geologists to quarry the land but not how to restore a mine site, or even to control its effluent. In the early 1970s Macquarie University sported a postgraduate degree in real estate science, co-funded by the Real Estate Institute. 8 . . .

Was it always thus? In the broadest sense the answer is Yes, although the enduring service of scholarship to power, beginning with that of monks to the church, is less pertinent to our purpose than are the changes that have gathered speed and intensity during the past two centuries. One indicator of the historical illiteracy of academics is the forlklore that the subservience of tertiary institutions to business and the state came with the Dawkins agenda of 1988. The Dawkins changes codified biases towards capital and government and also extended managerial regimes devised for science into the arts. In a slip of redistributive justice the reporting procedures that social scientists had devised to control workers or welfare recipients were imposed on their creators.


Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian and author of many books of social history.

Extracted with permission from Prehistory to Politics, John Mulvaney, the Humanities and the Public Intellectual, Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths (Eds.) Melbourne University Press.

If you wish to read further critical debate about the university, science and scholarship the new journal, The Australian Journal of Academic Dissent, is now available.


1. Simone de Beauvoir, a film by Malka Ribowska and Josee Davan, 1978; Deirdre Bair,Simone de Beauvoir, Summit, New York, 1990, pp.536-9 and 543-52 passim; Anne Whitmarsh, Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1981, pp.128-32.

2. Annie Cohen-Solal, Satre – A Life, Pantheon, New York, 1987, pp.474-84.

3. Stanley Fish, Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, pp.2,88.

4. John K Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1995. Fish is a defender of political correctness and of feminism, for which see his There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.

5. Alan D Gilbert, Defending Freedom: The Balanced and Liberal Approach, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, 1995.

6. For a catalogue of such cliches see Max Charlesworth, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic., 1978.

7. Reprinted in John Mulvaney, Prehistory and Heritage, Department of Prehistory, ANU, Canberra, 1990, p.318.

8. Terry Kass, The Sign of the Waratah: A History of the Real Estate Institute of NSWÑThe First 75 Years, Real Estate Institute of NSW, Sydney, 1987, pp.220-1.

Responses to this article have been received from John Levett and Victoria Reynolds.

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