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April 11, 2019

Research and revolution

Opinion

April 11, 2019

It is said that angst and anger helps produce the most creative work and the best minds are those that can translate their angst into ideas and actions to steer societies out of crises.

The Germans produced one of the best intellectuals of the world during the political turmoil from the 18th till the 20th century; their thoughts would change politics, economy, culture and philosophy of the modern world. In the 18th and 19th centuries bright and educated youth of middle-class families in Prussia had nothing to do other than thinking big and expressing their anger at the world of crisis they were born into.

During these tumultuous times they produced the best work in politics, economy and philosophy. The prosperous British Empire produced Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill while the Germans produced minds like Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. Germans produced one of the best philosophies and economic and political theories which overshadowed the work of British economists of prosperity.

Prosperity promotes instrumental reasoning – the will to dominate – while crisis gives birth to critical reasoning – the will to change. The British Empire promoted instrumental reasoning to dominate the world, the poor Germans provided the framework of revolutions and transformation. Adam Smith‘s instrumentality became metaphysical in his defence of capitalism while Marx provided the scientific principles to overthrow capitalism in favour of an equalitarian system. Adam Smith’s mysterious idea of the ‘invisible hand’ was an attempt to cover the logical lacuna of instrumental reasoning while Marx would resolve this invisible mystery by framing it an earthly secret of the accumulation of profit. The revolutions of the 19th and 20th century could never be possible without the Germans contributing towards critical thinking, transformative politics and new economics.

Britain perhaps stopped producing big minds after Francis Beacon except for the peripheral Scottish and Irish philosophers. But Germany continued to give birth to intellectual giants like Jurgen Habermas; Britain has Anthony Giddens. I have had a chance to read the works of Habermas and Giddens and I used to listen to them in the academic conferences organized by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). There is indeed a marked difference you can feel when you listen to the ingenuity and assertion of Habermas with a universal approach of communicative rationality and a vacillating Giddens in search of a middle way.

With all due apologies to Anthony Giddens and to the LSE, there is no academic rigour of even Fabian standards at such places now. Knowledge production takes place outside the academic chambers of commercialized academic institutions now; it has shifted to the hardened and extremist forces whose actions create new venues of highly paid research. Perhaps it was always like that but the polarizing extremities are tearing apart the theory of change at an epic proportion unknown to us in the recorded human history.

The perpetrators of 9/11 (whoever they were) could change the whole debate around national security, international relations and global engagement of the United States. Academic institutions neither have the power of assertion nor the intellectual capital to challenge the unilateral narratives imposed on the world. The recent tragic event of the massacre of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand has given birth to a new debate on immigration and integration of communities – a whole new dimension of research for a generation of academics. Research specialization will not allow a full-scale inquiry into the causes of political and economic alienation and disruptive violence. An emerging generation of academics – the product of business-oriented universities in the West – are wooed by the lustre of floating monies of the corporate world. When every other profession is driven by mercantile pursuits, then why not academics – since that is their bread and butter.

Critique-neutral and spineless academics see research as a lucrative career if they choose to be conformists. This conformist and specialized research usually ends up creating a new postulate for future research – and the story goes on. The research business is as lucrative as venturing into a gold business and academics, like miners, get the least out of its proceeds. But beyond this goldmine business, they do not have any other skill to make a decent living and they will die hungry if they dare challenge academic orthodoxy.

Funded research cannot be trusted as authentic knowledge in a world where the funding entities determine the outcome at the cost of the creative conclusions of academics. Academic researchers are employed only to establish a strictly deigned research question which leaves out the larger picture of human freedom. One research question was phrased recently in a leading academic journal like this. “Will increase in immigration lead to increased social conflict in the Western world?” A typical right-wing funding entity would like the academic researcher to prove this research question as correct. On the contrary, a liberal funding agency would like its researcher to falsify this question by presenting certain facts and their analysis through an over-referenced and non-assertive work.

In a nutshell, research is not a neutral venture of knowledge production but the reflection of the underlying forces of mode of economic production, social relationships and nature of political system. For instance, the issue of attack on immigrants cannot fully be understood without taking into account the cumulative anger whipped through the political system and via economic marginalization. The heinous act of killing innocent people across the world is not only a momentary act of terrorism. It is rather an indication of how economy and politics shape the worldview in a competing environment for jobs and social protection. The act of terrorism gets impetus in our virtual world of knowledge deficit and communication breakdown between intellect and politics.

Academics may venture into fact-filled research, change-makers would be focused on counter-action which will lead to alternate research ventures. Contrary to Giddens’ approach to find out a middle way and non-polemical research outcome, Habermas has questioned the very foundations of setting a research question. To Habermas, when we speak we make some validity claims which are essentially linked to our material and professional experiences. For a doctor, it is normal to call procedure for a surgery but this will have an entirely different connotation for an accountant.

A doctor and an accountant will never be able to communicate meaningfully unless there is a rational language transcending the professional compartments. I have seen subject specialists talking to each other in academic seminars rather meaninglessly. Habermas hints at a larger political question of co-creation of knowledge and an inclusive language for change-makers against the fragmentation of worldviews.

Habermas is a product of the age of crisis of critical reasoning and he does not seem to find much space in the elusive mainstream research which diffuses politics of knowledge production. Change-makers will continue to shape the priorities of social research but critique-neutral academics will not find comfort in rocking their boats. The world is once again in crisis but we are not producing proportionate angst to produce creative work and big minds to steer the way out of the crisis. Traditionally, universities have never created big minds and revolutionaries were never conforming students of an elite school.

This crisis will produce big minds and change-makers again to bring up new research dimensions for academics to interpret revolutions. As they say, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings with the onset of dusk.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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