Daniel W. Drezner

The Spread of The Idea Industry

Your humble blogger has been interested in the phenomenon of the "Idea Industry" for quite some time now. And in the past week or so two, articles have come out that touch on this phenomenon that demonstrate just how wide-ranging this industry has become. The first is Henry Farrell’s "The Tech Intellectuals" in the fall ...

Your humble blogger has been interested in the phenomenon of the "Idea Industry" for quite some time now. And in the past week or so two, articles have come out that touch on this phenomenon that demonstrate just how wide-ranging this industry has become.

The first is Henry Farrell’s "The Tech Intellectuals" in the fall issue of Democracy magazine. He focuses on those intellectuals who wish to engage the wider public sphere and the ways in which the political economy of attention shape the contours of the debate:

[Tech intellectuals] aren’t trying to get review-essays published in Dissent or Commentary. Instead, they want to give TED talks that go viral. They argue with one another on a circuit of business conferences, academic meetings, ideas festivals, and public entertainment. They write books, some excellent, others incoherent.…

They are more ideologically constrained than either their predecessors or the general population. There are few radical left-wingers, and fewer conservatives. Very many of them sit somewhere on the spectrum between hard libertarianism and moderate liberalism. These new intellectuals disagree on issues such as privacy and security, but agree on more, including basic values of toleration and willingness to let people live their lives as they will. At their best, they offer an open and friendly pragmatism; at their worst, a vision of the future that glosses over real politics, and dissolves the spikiness, argumentativeness, and contrariness of actual human beings into a flavorless celebration of superficial diversity.

This world of conversation and debate doesn’t float unsupported in the air. It has an underlying political economy, which is intuitively understood by many of its participants.…

The possibilities today reflect a different set of material conditions again, which don’t determine individual choices so much as they pull on them, gently but insistently. They influence what is discussed and what isn’t, who wins and who loses. And much goes undiscussed. The working consensus among technology intellectuals depicts a world of possibilities that seems starkly at odds with the American reality of skyrocketing political and economic inequality. It glosses over the deep conflicts and divisions that exist in society and are plausibly growing worse. And the critics of this consensus fare no better. They work within the same system as their targets, in ways that compromise their rejoinders, and stunt the development of more useful lines of argument.

What’s interesting is the ways in which this kind of intellectual branding blurs the lines between intellectual life, philanthropy, and business. For an example of this, we go to Alec MacGillis’s mini-biography of Doug Band in the New Republic. Band started out as the last of Bill Clinton’s body men in the White House and stuck with him during the darker, less popular days of his immediate ex-presidency. What’s fascinating is the ways in which Band uses his ties with Clinton to develop the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) … and to forge his own brand:

As conceived by Band, CGI was the perfect vehicle for Clinton. It allowed him to train his intellect on wonky dilemmas—improving China’s power grid, bolstering Mali’s market for locally produced rice. And it placed him at the center of a matrix of the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-powerful, the kinds of people Clinton has always taken a special pleasure in surrounding himself with.

CGI operates like an economy in which celebrity is the main currency. For Clinton, there is the appeal of tackling existential challenges by striking a deal, one on one, with the right influential person. He could help expand access to health care for millions, thanks to the whim of a billionaire like Saudi Arabia’s Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi; or get $30 million in loan guarantees to finance clean water utilities in India, via Dow Chemical; or $100 million for small-business development in Africa, courtesy of Shell. Clinton “has this abiding faith that, if you get the right people in the room together, magical things will happen,” says Priscilla Phelps, who was the housing expert for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which Clinton co-chaired. In some cases, such as securing agreements for carbon-emissions reductions, the solving-by-convening model has produced impressive results. In others, such as the Haiti commission, which held only seven meetings to little effect, it has not.…

As for Band, he was right where he’d always wanted to be. He solicited pledges from wealthy donors and doled out access to Clinton. He determined who got to be on stage with him and for how long, who got into the photo line, who rode on the plane. “If you look at CGI, it was an idea, and now it’s a huge business,” says the Clinton friend. “[Band] started realizing he had all this talent on the business side.” More than that, Band came to see entrepreneurial opportunities embedded within CGI itself. “When they were raising money for the foundation, Doug was the one who kept the tabs and the lists and cut the deals,” says the former White House colleague. “And Doug is very transactional.”

You’ll have to read the whole thing to see where the transactions go from there. Needless to say, any industry that includes both Doug Band and Evgeny Morozov is one worth investigating further.

Developing…

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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