Archive for April 2010

7 Questions about the May Elections

April 28, 2010

12 days to go before the May 10 elections. The political temperature is heating up and rising higher than the summer weather. I have collected 7 questions that have come up in conversations among my circle of friends. Here they are, with some answers.

1.  Elections create expectations for change. What changes do people expect?

There is a general desire for change, and there are three items that keep coming up: 1) A change in political leadership – away from the GMA presidency and those associated with her, 2) A less corrupt government and a government that delivers services to the poorer majority, and 3) A cleaner and more credible electoral process.

Social activists want to believe that there is also a desire for deeper and more significant changes. But ironically, they also believe that elections can not deliver these.

2.  The main focus is on the presidency. Is this good or bad?

The focus on the presidency has benefited the Noynoy Aquino candidacy, since he has been successfully projected as representing change vs. GMA. Contrast this with the negative impact of the “Villaroyo” tag on the candidacy of Manny Villar, and the poor showing of the overtly pro-administration Gibo.

Some who remain committed to GMA claim that her most feasible political project is in the House of Representatives. She expects to lead a bloc of constituency representative and party list winners. If we count the existing Senators and the front runners in the Senate race, the prospects for change are rather slim. A Noynoy presidency is likely to be confronted with significant opposition blocs in the Senate and Congress.

3.  Can the Automated Electoral System (AES) increase the credibility of the elections?

Although many of the questions, and suggestions, are directed at the Automated Electoral System, the main credibility issue is rooted in the general distrust of the COMELEC. The way they have responded to well-meaning proposals has reinforced the existing distrust.

The recent writ of mandamus issued by the Supreme Court ordering the COMELEC to report in 5 days about their preparations, including their response to the issues raised about the AES, gives the COMELEC a chance to reduce the level of distrust. Let’s see what happens by early next week.

4.  What is the probability of a failure of elections?

The prospect of a failure of elections tends to be focused on national elections. The basis is the high probability that a fully automated count and transmission cannot be achieved. However, there may be a fallback to partial manual count and transmission.

At this point, the bigger fear is that there is a successful manipulation of the automated electoral system, rather than a total failure of elections.

5.  What are the fallback options of the leading presidential candidates?

The Noynoy Aquino camp has declared that anything less than a proclamation of victory is not acceptable. Electoral defeat will be blamed on cheating by the COMELEC. They promise to mobilize “people power” to install what they call a “presumptive presidency,” based on the trending of the surveys.

How would the Manny Villar camp react to an electoral defeat? It is not clear if they have the plan or capacity to mount a mass-based protest, since the Aquino camp continues to make the case that the likely beneficiary of cheating is Villar (or less likely, Gibo), and since his survey ratings continue to fall. Will his fallback position simply be to control the Senate?

6.  What are the options of the Erap Estrada candidacy?

The survey ratings (steady, and sometimes rising) plus the response to his field campaign give the Erap reason to continue his candidacy, instead of withdrawing in favor of a leading candidate, as was often speculated upon.

There is unconfirmed information that a group allied with the Manny Villar camp has sent a serious query about what it would take for Erap to withdraw in favor of Villar. This happened before Erap’s recent attack on Villar. Some of his advisers propose that Erap call on Noynoy Aquino and other candidates (presumably without Villar) to agree on measures to make the elections as clean and credible as possible.

7.  Will democracy in the Philippines emerge stronger or will it be further weakened because of the May 2010 elections?

There are too many variables, including different ways of understanding democracy (narrower or broader, shallower or deeper). Compared to national/central governance, local governance and local democracy tend to generate a bit more hope.

Filipinos in general, and activists in particular, need to continue living out the tension represented by this blogsite’s title Between Honesty and Hope. Although addressed to a different context of change, Filipino activists can also clutch for some consolation in Gramsci’s aphorism: “Pessimism of the intellect. Optimism of the will.”

Public Intellectuals and Politics: Part 2

April 18, 2010

Filipino intellectuals who are involved in partisan electoral politics can feel addressed by the comments of a philosophy professor in South Africa about  intellectuals in relation to politics, and politicians.

Bert Olivier teaches at the Nelson Mandela University. In one of his blog posts, he cites the publicly-known involvement of Cornel West as “adviser” during the campaign of Barack Obama, and information he has about South African intellectuals who may have received funding from certain politicians in exchange for their “intellectual services.”

He asks if ” intellectuals who have placed themselves in the (perhaps paid) service of politicians, retain their integrity and independence as intellectuals.”

The premise of his question is that “it is characteristic of intellectuals… that they exercise their social and political involvement with a high degree of autonomy through the medium of intellectual engagement.”

His answer is carefully balanced: “An ‘intellectual whose ‘intellectual services’ are bought, that is, paid for to promote a certain political agenda – and one with which he or she does NOT necessarily agree – seems to me to have compromised his or her autonomy. (Schopenhauer called such people “bread-thinkers.”) However, if an intellectual supports and promotes the interests of a specific political figure or party voluntarily and for a certain time, because he or she believes in the principles or values represented by such a figure or party (at that time), it need not be a compromising activity.”

For him, Cornel West’s lending his intellectual support to Barack Obama is acceptable, “as long as West is using his formidable intellect as a way of exercising his political freedom to further certain societal values,” which Obama shares with him. But he is quite scathing of some South African intellectuals: “There are other so-called intellectuals in this country who have already compromised their intellectual integrity – that is, their commitment to what they understand as being the best and most just manner of organising society – by yielding to an irresistible offer or two. They have ceased being intellectuals in the true sense.”

Does Olivier’s sharp distinction between two forms of intellectual engagement in politics apply to the Philippines?

In the heat of partisan polemics, many Filipino intellectuals yield to the temptation of claiming that only those on “our side” are like Cornell West, while those on the “other side” are Schopenhauer’s “bread-intellectuals.”

This partisan framework extends to how they classify traditional political leaders who switch from the administration. They are either “principled” or “opportunist” depending on which opposition camp they join.

To them, Saul Alinsky offers a more realistic and fairer framework.

Saul Alinsky’s ideas on community organizing have influenced our generation of Filipino activist-intellectuals. He has written that good community organizers need to be “somewhat schizophrenic.”

Why schizophrenic? Because when community organizers agitate people for conflict-confrontation, they have to pose the issue in “either-or” terms, 100 percent versus zero. “Polarize and personalize,” he says. Analytically, organizers may know that the choice is only between 60% versus 40%. However, since no one will commit their energies for a 20% margin, public agitation must pose the choice as a stark 100 percent versus zero.

We could also describe this as the tension between being an analyst and being an activist. If we present our analysis with all its nuances, will we not be less effective partisans? If we “polarize and personalize” we may be effective agitators, but at the expense of educating the public. And would we not be sacrificing our intellectual integrity?

During the 1992 electoral campaign, I was a partisan for the presidential bid of Senator Jovy Salonga. At a forum sponsored by the Institute for Popular Democracy, I was asked to present an analysis of the comparative strategies and chances of the competing candidates. While doing my homework, I arrived at the conclusion that Fidel Ramos had the best strategy and chance of winning.

As an analyst, I would have to present that conclusion which favored Ramos. But that contradicted my role as a partisan campaigner for Salonga. I begged off from doing the presentation of the analysis. And in responding to it, I cited the fact that Salonga had twice been on top of the winning list of senators. Perhaps the analysis missed out on factors we do not know. Maybe we needed to consider what a Protestant pastor called a “margin of mystery.”  Well, that mystery still remains.

A final word from Olivier about the partisan choices of intellectuals: “Whether it is likely that she or he would be in agreement with everything promoted by the political figure or party in question, is a matter for debate; my own feeling would be that it is unlikely – if one were to be honest with oneself, it would be hard to claim that you always agree with even your closest friend. But this is not regrettable, because the ‘good’ is never definitively attained in any society; there is invariably room for improvement and improvement requires debate.”

Public Intellectuals and Politics: Part 1

April 16, 2010

The article referred to me by Pancho Lara and Ed Tadem, “The Market Colonization of Intellectuals,” and the comments from readers on the blog posting, made me think back to my past readings and reflections about public intellectuals and politics.

The reference in the article to Jean-Paul Sartre reminded me of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. When I read the book in the late 60’s, I wondered why the Introduction was written by Sartre. I associated Sartre mainly with the philosophy of existentialism, and was did not appreciate his role as a political activist.

I don’t have my copy of Franz Fanon’s book anymore, and have no time to re-read it. But I remember his message to intellectuals in so-called “Third World” countries, though not his exact words.

According to Fanon, intellectuals in the Third World have the advantage of possessing some “capital.” They have intellectual capital that may initially come from formal higher education, and which can increase through continuing education. In contemporary terms, through “lifelong learning.” More often than not, they are from middle class families, and have some material and financial capital, which they can increase through selling their various products and services. And through their public interventions and their social networks, they have some social capital.

The challenge he posed to his fellow intellectuals is this: Where do we invest this capital?

One choice is to invest our capital in the dominant system, as “minority shareholders.”  This is a safer investment, with more immediate returns. But the returns are relatively modest.

Another choice is to invest our capital in “the long-term revolutionary potential of the people.” This promises much higher returns. But it is a longer-term investment. And it is definitely high-risk.

A similar idea was introduced during the seminars on structural analysis conducted by the team from Louvain led by Canon Houtart in the early 70’s. They talked about a dominant class and a subordinated class, and in between, an “auxiliary class.” I think the categorization bear the influence of Althusser.

The seminars were pitched to aspiring activists in Christian circles. I presume that the idea of an auxiliary or servant class had positive resonance among them. It may even have appealed to the “martyr complex” that often operates among young, newly-conscientized, Christians.

In popular education terms, the challenge to the auxiliary class is this: Whom do we serve? The “powers that be”? Or the “powers that will be”?

Those were the days.

Four decades later, I wonder how our generation of public intellectuals (at least those who still want to take part in a continuing conversation) judge our choices and their consequences.

More than a decade ago, a funding agency invited me to speak at a workshop, and answer the question: “After 25 years of development assistance to the Philippines, what have you to show for it?” I told her that while the question is important, the more important question for us is this: “After 25 years of devoting our lives – our talent, energies, time, and hopes – what have we achieved?”

We still wish for the high returns of our investment in the “long-term revolutionary potential of the  people.” We still look to the future with hope for the “powers that will be,” though we sometimes allow ourselves to worry that they may be not too different from the “powers that be.”

In the meantime, we can relate to the words spoken by Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County: ” We had dreams. They did not work out. But it was good to have them.”

But the better choice is to respond to the second challenge of the Laws of Lifetime Growth: “Make your learning greater than your experience.”

Post EDSA 1986, beyond the more dramatic political framework of repression and resistance, martial law and revolution, what choices are open to public intellectuals in an elite-dominated democracy, and the treacherous terrain of electoral politics?

Although addressed to a different context, John Gerassi’s description of Sartre’s philosophy speaks to me:  “(It) is difficult to live. Perhaps because of that, most… preferred to praise the moral message propagated by Sartre’s existential rival, Albert Camus. Since all organized actions lead to doctrinaire authoritarianism, said Camus, all we can do is shout, No!

Bad faith, replied Sartre. What we must do instead, he said, is commit ourselves over and over again. No act is pure. All acts are choices, which alienate some. No one can live without dirty hands. To be simply opposed is also to be responsible for not being in favor, for not advocating change. To fall back on the proposition that human actions are predetermined is to renounce mankind. No writer can accept the totalitarianism implied by “human nature.” If he writes, he wants to change the world – and himself. Writing is an act. It is commitment.”

A Message to Public Intellectuals

April 14, 2010

The past week I have been mulling over what topics to blog about. The Philippine cyberspace is crowded with voices about the May 2010 elections, and I want to weigh in, beyond the concern I share with friends about the credibility of the whole exercise and the growing anxiety about possible failure of elections.

On our way back from Tagaytay and the LUMENS ceremonies of electric coops, Fr. Jovic from Daraga, Albay observed that the Noynoy campaign seems to have an edge on what he calls the “development of discourse.” We exchanged ideas about the balance between what political operatives call “air war” and “ground war.”

The electoral “air war” has mobilized a variety of public intellectuals (used broadly). Some are outright partisan propagandists; others are more subtle “analysts.”

From London, a good friend Pancho Lara sent me the following article, referred to him by another good friend Ed Tadem. The message is pitched at a global level, heavily weighted toward Northern/Western societies, but it can contribute to an needed “examination of conscience” of Filipino public intellectuals.

The Market Colonization of Intellectuals

Lewis R. Gordon. truthout. April 6, 2010

In many forums over the past decade, public intellectuals seem unable to talk about pressing social issues without performing the equivalent of an academic literature review. Although reasons range from trying to inform their audiences of relevant debates to efforts to demonstrate erudition, that many public intellectuals present their work as the basis for rewards in academe and the entertainment industry suggests influences tantamount to the colonization of intellectuals by the ever-expanding market.

There was a time when the divide between academic intellectuals and those whose primary vocation was the common weal was marked by location. The former worked in universities, colleges, professional schools and seminaries. The latter worked in public organizations, advocacy groups, civic and religious associations, political parties and given the consequences of dissent, a good number of them produced their work from prisons and the trenches in times of war.

These two spheres offered communities for intellectual development and, crucially, they offered, albeit in the past, modest employment. To think, everyone needs also to eat.

Along the way, some academics became public figures and some public figures became academics. But the political legitimation of either depended on the impact of their work on public institutions and social movements. Then came a wave of reactionary policies in the 1980s into the past decade in an effort to push back the achievements of the 1960s. Accompanying these efforts was a war against left-oriented intellectuals.

In an ironic development, the anti-left quickly took advantage of at least one Marxian insight, exemplified well in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged”: Attack the material conditions of the opposition. Right-wing think tanks, bloated with funding, waged war on social policies and institutions that offer safety nets for dissenting and creative left-wing and even centrist intellectuals. As public intellectuals became more academic, they increasingly relied on academic institutions for employment. So, the right hit them where it hurts.

Increased pressures in the academic job market began to affect every aspect of academic life, while the shift to neoliberal and neoconservative policies dried up government support once enjoyed during the cold war, where the public image of capitalist countries mattered as much as the demand for technical mastery over implements of war. Privatization became the mantra against humanistic projects and the shift, familiar to all, is to a corporate and consumer model of higher education. This change affected the sociology of academic institutions. One outcome is the emergence of an academic managerial class. In many universities, a consequence is administrators outnumbering faculty, a development rarely discussed as a factor in the rising costs of higher education. Administrators are more expensive than faculty.

Not all administrators fit this portrait. But the exception to a rule does not eliminate the explanatory force of the rule. It only shows that the rule has limits. In the past, an administrator was a scholar motivated by civic commitment to her or his institution. Today, there are administrators who skip over scholarship beyond achievement of the Ph.D. or comparable degree. Their relationship to academic management becomes, then, instrumental, the way managers with M.B.A. degrees learn the techniques of business without necessarily grasping its larger social problematics.

This academic managerial class consists of a mixture of academics, accountants, lawyers and business people (often serving on boards of trustees and on different levels of administrating universities). They are generally without goals short of imitation. Thus, their avowed purpose is to align the university with the sociology and norms of the market. This alignment brings along an accompanying rationality with market-driven social practices. The hegemony of those practices, which also assert themselves as the bases of intellectual and professional legitimacy, is a form of colonizing rationality. Since it has an impact on how academics behave and aims to determine what and how academics think and what they produce, I call it the market colonization of the academy. Its correlate is the market colonization of knowledge.

The managerial academic class works with a logic governed by quantitative models of assessment and consumption. Thus, knowledge is constantly measured and so, too, are its modes of assessment: the ranking of journals and the number of publications a scholar achieves in those of the highest rank. The result is the prevalence of more conservative models of assessment, where prestige of publishing houses and establishment auspices prevail over ideas.

Content falls sway to form and abrogated reasoning emerges, where judgment is supposedly reserved while only access to certain markers dominates. A weird circular logic results, in which work is praised by its appearance in distinguished places. In other words, a scholar or a public intellectual is important if her work appears in distinguished places determined by distinguished people appearing in them.

These developments have an impact on knowledge at the level of content in the following ways. As institutions become more consumer driven, interest in research declines as consumers seek degrees and predictable markers of appearing educated instead of the critical and difficult achievements of an actual education. As more scholars apply for fewer jobs, risk aversion develops and creativity declines.

In the humanities, for instance, employment safety means a return to scholastic forms of knowledge with the replacement of science instead of the god or gods around which past institutions were built. What this means today is that a demonstration of two kinds of expertise become marketable in a consumer-driven academy – namely, mastery of technical knowledge (sometimes scientific, but more often science-like) and textual mastery, which is a correlate of the first.

Mastery of technical knowledge offers opportunities of securing precious grants from private foundations, for-profit corporations, and neoliberal or neoconservative government projects. As well, for the consumers who also seek employment with their degree, technical scientific or professional knowledge offers skills for those markets.

Textual mastery imitates, in the humanities and some areas of the social sciences, scientific technical knowledge. The job of teaching texts promises consumers the appearance of education through textual familiarity. Thus, research that challenges texts, produces new kinds, and may even transcend textual virtuosity is less marketable. The academic, in this sense, offers technique, which is marketable.

Should a budding young scholar object to this portrait, her or his peers, in addition to advisers and friends, offer a powerful corrective: “You want a job, don’t you?”

Securing a job is the rhetorical trump that legitimizes the entire process. In the academy, it leads to a strange logic: The best way to get a job is to have one. Thus, many academics and by extension many public academic intellectuals are perpetually on the job market. Market potentiality governs everything they produce.

In the academy, nothing is more marketable than the reputation of being smart. This makes sense: No one wants dumb intellectuals.

The problem, of course, is how “smart” is defined. In a market-oriented society, that means knowing how to play the game of making oneself marketable. The problem here is evident if we make a comparison with ethics. I once asked an environmental activist, who argued that a more ethical ecological position is the key against looming disaster, which would bother her more: to be considered unethical or stupid? She admitted the latter. In a society that makes it stupid to be ethical, what should public intellectuals do?

The impact of this development of market-driven knowledge is evident in how many professional intellectuals with an avowed social critical project write and present their work. Although it is important to engage valuable research in presenting matters for the public good, the reality is that some scholars function more like the knowledge equivalent of brand names than ideas. The result is, as I initially protested, much cultural criticism looking more like academic literature reviews (textual marketability) in dissertations and professional journals. As the market gets more conservative, this becomes increasingly so in relation to canonical texts. The big boys of ages past offer marketable support.

The effect is that many well-meaning people no longer have the capacity to think, or at least formulate thought, outside of the rehearsal of the academic job talk. They present their marketability and this mode of presentation affects even those who are at first not academic. The nonacademic intellectual has “arrived,” so to speak, when the academic post is offered in recognition of the supposedly nonacademic intellectual achievement.

Now this concern about the market colonization of the academy and its impact on public intellectual life is not a criticism of individuals whose goals are primarily academic. It is not my wish to join the neurotic call of condemning academics for being part of a profession our civilization values, or at least used to value, greatly. What is crucial here is whether the underlying practices of academic assessment are, at the end of the day, academic at all. This consideration emerges not only from intrusive boards of trustees, who increasingly seem to want academics to lose spiritual remnants of their vocation and become the equivalent of automatons, but also from academics and public intellectuals who have learned how to play the market, as it were. Those academics and public intellectuals, having achieved the coveted judgment “smart,” understand that there is nothing more marketable than becoming a “brand,” and this is usually done at the level of phrases that become isomorphic with their authors.

To produce an idea that contributes to the advancement of human knowledge is a wonderful achievement. Yet, it could also leave its author out in the proverbial cold. To produce an idea wedded to the author in such a way as to make her or him the exemplar of the idea, the brand, so to speak, makes the presence of that author indispensable for the experience of the product. Even more effective is the transformation of the author’s name into a product itself or at least an isomorphic relationship between the two. There are many examples. In recent times, can one think of deconstruction without Jacques Derrida or Jacques Derrida without deconstruction?

This is not to say there must be something nefarious about these associations. After all, the same could be said about relativity and Einstein, psychoanalysis and Freud, hegemony and Gramsci, justice as fairness and John Rawls or Orientalism and Edward Said. The list can go on, but I think the reader gets the point.

Becoming an eponym for an intellectual achievement works, however, if the demand grows in the market place. Intellectuals thus face selling their knowledge goods in ways that many did not have to in the past. Prior intellectuals were subject to different criteria of assessment in a world with a very different relationship between the university and the market and the academic and the nonacademic intellectual. To illustrate this changed relationship, the discussion thus far can be made salient through consideration of the role of capital itself in modern times.

Capital refers to ownership over the means of production. This was the designation of the class known as the bourgeoisie. Correlated with the bourgeoisie was the production of mystifying modes of argumentation, knowledge practices whose purpose it was to create a labyrinth of rationalizations of the alienation of flesh and blood human beings. As Peter Caws, the famed English philosopher of science and culture, explained:

One convenient way of escaping responsibility for unfortunate social facts (private property and wage labor, for example) is to regard them as relations between people and things: The capitalist is related to his property, so the expropriated worker vanishes from the equation; the worker is related to his work, so the factory owner similarly vanishes. Marx insists that both are disguised relations between people and other people: The owner of private property deprives and the wage slave is enslaved to, human beings in flesh and blood, not economic abstractions.[1]

The bourgeois academy maintains itself, in similar kind, through legitimating the practices of bourgeois society. Sometimes, this takes ironic forms, as we find in elite anti-elitism (witnessed on a nearly daily basis by many of us who have taught in first-tier institutions across the globe), where bourgeois society espouses also commitments to equality and freedom while demanding that the justice of inequalities should at least receive demonstration.

Although they may be critical of bourgeois society, many public academic intellectuals have bourgeois aspirations. What do those intellectuals do when they lack ownership of the means of material production – when the only type of capital they seem to have is the cultural one of their degree? Our brief discussion of branding suggests that they seek its epistemological equivalent: ownership over the means of knowledge production.

This ownership, governed by the social, cultural and legal institutions in contemporary, market-dominated society, brings along with it the correlative problems of colonization faced by material production. For example, the more mystifying knowledge capital becomes, the more linked is the relationship between the author and the product, making them one and the same and, since no one else is identical with the author and the brand, the reference point of the flow of profit becomes restricted. What this means is that the demand for the product becomes the demand for the author who has also become the product and, thus, an affirmation of market forces.

In recent times, what is even weirder is that the political identity of intellectual product has also become marketable. Thus, consumers seeking right-wing, centrist or left-wing intellectual products have an array of public intellectuals and academics offering also their politics as grounds of their marketability. Under the right circumstances, one’s politics sells.

Together, these streams of market colonization – over academic institutions, academics and the squeezing of public intellectuals into the contemporary market logic of neoliberal and neoconservative academic life – inaugurate a claustrophobic environment for critical thinking and the production of new and revolutionary ideas.

Yet, this dismal picture has many lacunae. The list I offered of individuals associated with great intellectual achievements in the past and recent times is, for instance, a highly imperfect one. I simply included them because of their familiarity and also to encourage the reader to think through alternatives without taking a reactionary stand against the notion of an academic project. Many of the intellectuals on that list were and their proper heirs continue to be, correctly located in academic institutions, even with their clear impact on larger cultural knowledge.

But, yes, there are intellectuals who offered alternatives. For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois, the greatest of African-American scholars in the social sciences, had a tenuous relationship with the academy. He offered some of the most groundbreaking concepts through which to study racism, colonialism and modern political life. When fired from teaching because of his politics, he made a living through employment in alternative institutions and, of course, his writing. Anna Julia Cooper worked as the principal of the M Street High School, although she spent several years in alternative employment. She, too, had to seek alternative employment for a time after being fired because of her politics. Her work in black feminist thought continues to make an impact and she, along with Du Bois, was among the founders of the Pan-African movement. Aimé Césaire, who coined the term Négritude, was not mired in a permanent rationalization of the French academy. He will also be remembered in terms of his work as a political figure in Martinique, as the former Mayor of Fort de France, and a critical intellectual presence in the black Diaspora and concerns of postcolonial thought. The same can be said for Leopold Senghor, one of the other fathers of Négritude, in Senegal. And, of course, there is the work of Frantz Fanon, whose writings and biography, in spite of his formal role of training interns in psychiatry in Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, remains an abiding testament to the struggle for freedom in the colonial and postcolonial worlds.

Reflections on the market colonization of public intellectuals and academics and the mystifying practices they occasion are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the critical literature on some of the intellectuals I have offered as exemplars of alternatives. Their critics often offer celebrity academics as politically superior alternatives to intellectuals of the past who were, suspiciously, known as revolutionaries. An example among the more mainstream intellectuals is the presentation of Martin Heidegger (a celebrity philosophy professor who was formerly a member of the Nazi Party) over Jean-Paul Sartre (a celebrity philosophical writer and anti-imperialist who rejected being an academic and who aligned himself with nearly every left-wing revolutionary movement from his middle age to the end of his life) on supposedly political grounds.

This is not to say that there isn’t much in Sartre’s biography that would not be embarrassing instead of inspiring to a market-colonized academy. Sartre was offered all the prestigious academic prizes in French and the wider European society, including a post at France’s premier institution, the Collège de France, and the most prestigious one for a writer, the Nobel Prize for Literature. He rejected them all.

Although Sartre himself became a signifier for existentialism (a major branding if there ever was one), his decisions consistently suggested that he held himself to a standard beyond ordinary models of assessment. He knew he was a bourgeois writer, but he prized writing and the question of public commitment, with his notion of the politically engaged writer, to the point of living more modestly than he could have and dying much less wealthy. His godson John “Tito” Gerassi summarized him well when he eulogized:

Sartre was an enormously generous man and every modest. Though he earned a great deal of money with his plays, novels essays, philosophical works and biographies of Baudelaire, Genet and Flaubert, he died in debt, having given away most of his fortune to political movements and activists and to an untold number of struggling intellectuals. To this day, five young writers are receiving monthly checks from Sartre’s publisher not knowing their true source.[2]

Gerassi added:

Sartre’s philosophy is difficult to live. Perhaps because of that, most Anglo-Saxon commentators and teachers, raised on an escape-crammed philosophical tradition of pragmatism, preferred to praise the moral message propagated by Sartre’s existential rival, Albert Camus. Since all organized actions lead to doctrinaire authoritarianism, said Camus, all we can do is shout, No!

Bad faith, replied Sartre. What we must do instead, he said, is commit ourselves over and over again. No act is pure. All acts are choices, which alienate some. No one can live without dirty hands. To be simply opposed is also to be responsible for not being in favor, for not advocating change. To fall back on the proposition that human actions are predetermined is to renounce mankind. No writer can accept the totalitarianism implied by “human nature.” If he writes, he wants to change the world – and himself. Writing is an act. It is commitment. [Gerassi 2009, p. 275.]

These are certainly admissions that would make many contemporary academics and public intellectuals (most of whom are academics) squirm. Gerassi himself is an academic at Queens University of the City University of New York and public intellectual. His admiration for Sartre is not that Sartre was somehow better than the rest of us with the choices he made, but that he truly reflected his commitments in those choices. Being critical of being an academic, Sartre gave up being one and found a way to live as a writer without academic affiliation.

Critical of being a bourgeois, Sartre attempted to live, as best he could, a life that exemplified his commitment to freedom. Sartre’s life, as was Fanon’s, places upon all of us the question of the kinds of decisions we would make if we were in his situation. What are we willing to reject or embrace for our avowed commitments?

For many, it’s impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.

There are intellectuals out there who are struggling for alternatives. And even within the academy, there are those who labor, work and act according to commitments through which they hope to transcend the powerful gravitational pull of market forces. They offer inspiration for many who echo that powerful, historical search for what is to be done. Forgive me, then, as I here end by resisting the marketing seduction of offering their names.


Peter Caws, “Sartrean Structuralism?” in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, ed. Christina Howells (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 296.

John Gerassi, “Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates” (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 274.

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Easter, between Market and Marx

April 5, 2010

The Easter vigil rites at the Carmelite monastery in Lucena started at 10 pm and ended just past midnight. After the Exultet came the readings, starting with the Creation story in Genesis. Girlie asked in whispers how many readings to expect. We were surprised that the number of readings have been reduced.

During the homily, the priest reminded us that Easter is the more important feast in the eyes of the Church. But he admitted that it is Christmas that we celebrate. Why?

The first explanation he proposed was rather simple: We all have an experience of birth, he said. But we have no experience of resurrection. His second explanation is that resurrection is preceded by passion and death, and that is not easy to accept.

After the rites, Girlie asked what I thought of the priest’s explanations. I said that one reason the priest did not mention is the power of the market. Christmas has greater commercial support, which trumps Easter’s theology.

I wanted to post a blog about the impact of the market on Easter and other religious celebrations.

Somehow, Marx intruded.

Or rather, the philosophy of historical materialism: We shouldn’t believe anything unless it has a basis in experience, in reality.

What about resurrection, then, or even life beyond death?

I recall two stories that address the question existentially. In the early years of martial law, a priest-friend joined the New People’s Army in his home province. After six months, he was invited into the Communist Party of the Philippines. In a rare visit to Manila, he asked to meet, so he could share his experience of debates within the party about his religious beliefs.

At some point in our conversation, he asked with extra intensity: “Did Christ really rise from the dead?” I took time to answer, since I felt his unspoken question. As a guerilla fighter, he could die anytime. He did believe in life after death. But his training in Marxism posed the challenging question: What is the basis for his belief?

The only “rational” explanation I could retrieve was from our class in Fundamental Theology. The “proof” for Christ’s resurrection was the “empty tomb.” I remembered our professor going through an extended discussion to refute other possible explanations for the empty tomb.

We both recalled the bible story about “doubting Thomas.” He said he wouldn’t believe unless he saw the risen Christ and placed his fingers on his wounds. Christ made his appearance, and when Thomas proclaimed his faith, the story ends with a challenge: “Blessed are those who do not see, but believe.”

The second story is about another priest who was also in the underground movement. The house being used by his fighting unit was identified and surrounded by a platoon of soldiers. There was no escape route. His group decided to fight it out.

When I heard the story, I imagined what was going on in his mind, while waiting for the fire fight to start. Should he die, what biblical saying would apply? “He who denies me before men, I will deny before my Father.” Is that a judgment against party members? But then, there is a reassuring word: “Greater love than this no one has than he who lays down his life for his friends.”

Sometime later, I was able to check with him. He said those thoughts were farthest from his mind. The mantra he kept repeating to maintain his determination was “Serve the people.”

His companion who led the unit finally invoked another text: “Mao said that we must be ready to give up our lives in the service of the people, but we must avoid unnecessary sacrifice.” They decided to surrender , endure prison, and live to fight again in the future.

Happy Easter.


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