If you want to properly understand politics, history, culture and society, it’s pretty much essential to spend large parts of your time reading, reading about, or listening to those who tried to do it before. Especially for those of us on the left, “read theory” is a common refrain. In the 21st century, with society the most connected it’s ever been, it’s simultaneously very easy and very hard to get your thoughts heard.
Thankfully, these days ‘intellectuals’ aren’t considered a separate class or stratum as they once were. Even in the radical, socialist and labour movements of yore, most who are now known as crucial intellectuals or thinkers in fact had other means of making enough money to get by. Marx was generously bankrolled by Engels, who himself made money from the family factory business. Chomsky was a linguist before becoming known for his political criticism. August Bebel spent a brief stint as a carpenter before being fully employed by the German socialist movement. Having takes alone has seldom been a viable career path.
These options are all technically available to the aspiring political obsessive of today, in a sense. If you have family wealth or, less likely, generous comrades with cash to spare, it’s probably much easier to just write and publish in the hope it’ll take off. Academia is still a viable route but less so by the day in Britain; universities’ commercialisation and subjugation to the whims of both the market and highly paid executives mean that pretty much any academic area is extremely competitive to get into at the level of actual employment, and much of the work of the average academic is administration. You can certainly try to be a full-time employee of what remains of a left-wing political movement, if you’re willing to spend your teenage years arguing about the content of official tweets in the committee of your local Young Labour branch – an organisational machine for turning well-intentioned, motivated young people into stolid bureaucratic committee navigators. This can certainly be a route into work for a political party if you really want it, but it likely won’t afford you the chance to become an orator, writer and theoretician extraordinaire a la Bebel or Luxemburg. With many of the options for getting your political ideas out there partially constrained as such, but the means of publishing work independently accessible, simply writing and putting it out on the internet is the best shot most of us have.
The connectivity given by social media and the internet means that there are simultaneously vast means of being heard and extreme difficulty in so doing. The current state of the British punditocracy demonstrates that having original ideas isn’t especially rewarded. Owen Jones is probably the most famous and successful left-wing journalist since Orwell, the likes of Rod Liddle attempt to fill the space available for non-PC commentary. Writers and thinkers like these obviously have some merit – very few can attain the clout they hold without actually having skills – but being a reasonably eloquent and motivated totem of cliché can clearly be more lucrative and lead to more clout than sustained deliberation of serious questions or reporting on serious topics. There are of course many very good writers and thinkers on all sides of British politics, but it increasingly seems that those who can get the twitter beef cooking in the least fruitful fashion are the ones who ascend to the top of the pile.
Starting to compare yourself to prominent writers and thinkers can occasionally be useful, but can also be a way of severely damaging your own confidence. The fact that so much punditry and political writing is essentially an exercise in appeasing an audience rather than convincing anyone or engaging with the views of others can be a source of consistent disillusionment. Listening to great speakers can be difficult for different reasons. Those of us whose larynxes unfortunately seem too closely related to our sinuses for comfort know well the envy that comes with listening to the likes of Christopher Hitchens or others with sonorous voices which seem to lend themselves to respectability. But the feeling of not being good enough at writing or speaking can also inspire the twin feeling of motivation to improve.
Wanting to think and write about society for a living is a vocation which should entail frequent changes of mind, and plenty of self-doubt. Pretty much all of us who care about politics and engage in debate would do well to regularly remind ourselves to treat those with whom who disagree better, to listen more intently, to understand them more, to deal with them in better faith, and to not think of them in the crude caricatures and stereotypes which are so appealing. All of us no doubt feel our vertebrae compress with cringe when reading back our own old work, as I surely will immediately after submitting this very post. Admitting the problems with your prior work isn’t that fashionable, especially not when being a political writer is treated by some as a performance for a fixed audience, but we’d all do well to treat every tactless phrase, over-the-top metaphor or over-zealous simile, deliberately strawmanned argument, facetious comment, unfair trope or tasteless twitteresque gotcha that we write as a reason to improve, rather than the means of success.