Keywords for the Age of Austerity 30: Thought Leader

In his recent New Republic piece David Sessions reads the category of the “thought leader” as the organic intellectual of the one percent: a figure who gives an emerging class its sense of its purpose in society. This purpose, Sessions argues convincingly, is

to mirror, systematize, and popularize the delusions of the superrich: that they have earned their fortunes on merit, that social protections need to be further eviscerated to make everyone more flexible for ‘the future,’ and that local attachments and alternative ways of living should be replaced by an aspirational consumerism. The thought leader aggregates these fundamental convictions into a great humanitarian mission. Every problem, he prophesies, can be solved with technology and rich people’s money, if we will only get our traditions, communities, and democratic norms out of the way.

In his account of Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, Sessions writes that Drezner understands the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who has come to prominence in the wake of the “public intellectual”–a more skeptical, quieter sort of intellectual more likely to be institutionally housed in a university than a corporation.

There is certainly something new about our “thought leader,” something related to the sense of of selfhood modeled by many of the terms on this blog. Like the entrepreneur and the innovator, the “thought leader” models a certain kind of entrepreneurial self: restless, flexible, visionary, self-made, and never not at work. The major difference is that while anyone, theoretically, can innovate, not just any Tom, Dick, Harry, or Sheryl can be a thought leader. The thought leader is singular and exceptional. The concept, therefore, makes explicit the heroic, if not authoritarian impulses that the “entrepreneur” ideal sometimes conceals with its fuzzy odes to collaboration.

As Sessions suggests, thought leadership is also an example of contemporary capitalist thinkers’ anxious need to justify themselves. Thought leadership does not simply enrich the firm or the leader himself; it also makes the world a better place, often at the same time.

As with the “innovator” and the “entrepreneur,” the metaphorical model for the thought leader is often the modernist artist—visionary, solitary, scorned by convention, “disruptive” of the norm, always making it new.  The thought leader is a “strategic visionary,” says another of the legions of writers explaining how to thought-lead. “It’s like painting a picture.”

As Sessions suggests, the image of the “thought leader” as authoritarian, creative, and do-gooding is exemplified by the TED Talk genius cult that promotes the power of ideas—and those who have them—to overcome any obstacle. The many parodies of TED Talks document some of the primary features of thought leadership. For example, in the Onion Talk “Loudness Equals Power”–in which an entrepreneur promotes surgically-amplified vocal cords–mocks the class, race and gender dynamics of thought leadership. In this talk, a white man tells us that his invention is a simple fix to overturn entrenched social hierarchies, like gender inequality: “the biggest voice in the room,” he shouts, “will belong not to the man with the biggest voice or most lubricated vocal cords, but the one rich enough to afford the largest amplifiers!”

A paradox of this leadership model is its celebration of innovation in all things combined with its extreme formal conventionality—what could be less innovative than a lecture, what less original than thought leadership itself? And so one of the most ruthlessly mocked features of TED Talks is the autoerotic self-seriousness and repetitiveness of the genre. One of my favorite TED parodies comes from a CBC program, This is That, which presents This is That (i.e., TIT) Talks). Unlike many others, this parody makes fun of the familiar form of the TED Talk, rather than the bombastic content. The TIT Talker simply narrates the formal conventions of a TED Talk as he reenacts them. As he enters the darkened, bare stage, he recites, “walk on stage, walk on stage, walk on stage.” He then takes a position in the spotlight by announcing, “you know I’m a Thought Leader, because I’m wearing a blazer, I have glasses, and I’ve just done this with my hands,” as he folds his hands earnestly yet strongly in front of him. Despite the genre’s ritual performances of humility, and the ostensible centrality of the thoughts on display, what the TED model of Thought Leadership also (if not only) offers is an entrepreneurship of the self, in which the performer sells an ideal version of himself to an audience that bestows prestige or funding.

Thought leadership is not as new as it thinks, however. Like “innovation,” it is an old concept that thinks it is utterly new. And also like “innovation,” its origins are religious.

Most histories of the term credit it (mistakenly) to Joel Kurtzman, a prolific business-press editor and writer who began using it in 1995 to preface interviews with movers and shakers in Strategy + Business magazine. And Kurtzman, to give him credit, certainly popularized the concept in its current form. The idea here is that business success is a “mental game,” that “C.E.O.’s and their top leadership teams must not only outexecute their rivals, they must also outthink them.” If the “marketplace” is a just and efficient sorter of good ideas and products and bad ones, then commercial success is a logical consequence of creativity and intellect. “A thought leader,” writes another business author in a typical definition, “is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.”

Best practices can always be even better practices, you see. Never sleep, never stop change-fomenting.

The Nineteenth-Century Thought Leader


“Thought leadership” is much older than Joel Kurtzmann, however, and goes back at least to the late nineteenth century, when it connoted moral authority above all. In 1899, the Rev. J.O.M. Hewitt wrote: “the thought leader of the race must be a a man of self-control, of mature and reasonable speech.” The phrase’s first appearance in the OED comes from Lyman Abbot’s flattering biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the Brooklyn clergyman who became embroiled in a notorious 1875 adultery trial. Abbot, a Beecher ally and fellow pastor, wrote to exonerate his friend. Despite the well-publicized sex scandal, Abbot argued, Beecher “retains his position as the most eminent preachers and one of the great thought leaders in America.”

Thought leader, in other words, was the virtuous complement to “innovation,” at a time when this word was often still a pejorative term for heresy. An innovator was a false prophet, but a thought leader was a moral visionary.

Both terms are now virtues, and there is still something of the prophetic in the Thomas Friedmans and Ben Horowitzes of our era. It’s a little overwrought for modern tastes, perhaps, but if ever started a poetry section one could imagine finding this 1901 ode from The American Illustrated Methodist Magazine there:

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Back to the Future of Secular Thought Leadership

Its earliest meaning was religious, but thought-leadership’s secular meaning also predates the contemporary, post-1990s vogue. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was most often a public relations term. In 1961, the house journal of the U.S. Savings and Loan League advised bank managers to establish themselves as the main source of financial information in their community—and thus become “what is known in public relations circles as a ‘thought leader.’”

It was also used in ways that seem quite contemporary, though–to describe the best and brightest experts in business and political affairs, the Thomas Friedmans of the Cold War. In August 1963, a New York Times ad for Atlas, a subscription service collating translated news reports from around the world, appealed to aspiring movers and shakers: “If you’re ready to join the foreign affairs experts, the thought leaders, the people who want their ideas first-hand, start your introductory subscription now. The Statist, a quaintly named British newsmagazine, advertised “top-level review of current world affairs, industry and commerce, finance investment” all authored by Europe’s “thought leaders.”

And so while the term has definitely taken off in the age of austerity to describe a particular kind of ruling-class intelligentsia,  thought leadership is perhaps less a radical break in the tradition of the American public intellectual than the heir to some of its oldest exemplars: the adulterous moralist, the Cold War foreign policy expert, the American thinker who thinks he charts the course, as the poet wrote, for “the sons of every clime.”



Innovation in Action 3: Industry City, Brooklyn

For a concept that describes a business practice, innovation’s vernacular can be often remarkably detached from the market—that is, from the buying and selling of things and services, and the employment (or rather exploitation) of people. Brooklyn’s Industry City redevelopment is a case in point.

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Yoga amidst the warehouses. Brooklyn, a city of contrasts

The site in Sunset Park was largely abandoned by its industrial tenants during the post-war deindustrialization of Brooklyn’s waterfront, according to the history provided by the current main landlord, the real-estate developer Jamestown L.P. Jamestown now promotes the site as a hub for the “creative and innovation economy fields.” The Industry City website offers this unhelpful elaboration:

A microcosm of NYC with one distinction: we’re creating an innovation ecosystem that embraces the disruption created by advancing technologies.

Andrew Kimball, manager of the Industry City project, defines these as a combination of the arts and manufacturing: “the physical, digital, and engineered products, being driven by this creative class who wants to make things again.” The class-bound language of the “innovation economy” replaces the working class with the “creative class” and switches “workers” for “makers,” even describing the latter as a novel sort of class: “This new class of innovators and makers,” Kimball told Fast Company, “want to work in cool, old buildings with good bones and character.” One of the effects of this switch, of course, is the apolitical nature of a “creative” or “maker” class—these are groupings of individuals, and thus there is no solidarity among “makers,” like there is among “workers.”

 Elizabeth Yeampierre, a Sunset Park anti-gentrification organizer, asked the crowd at a rally against the gentrification of the neighborhood: “What did Columbus say? We made ‘fine servants.’ I think Industry City thinks that we make fine servants too — to their economy, and to the people that they’re bringing into Sunset Park.”  The appeal of the “maker” designation, of course, derives from its individualism and its distance from “workers” or “servants” or anyone else in thrall to someone else. The maker is in charge. And yet the “maker” ideal derives from a certain sepia-toned emotional attachment to manual and artisan labor. The “character” Kimball sees in the old buildings in Industry City, of course, comes from the men and women who once toiled there. The history that was once posted on Innovation City’s website (I found it reproduced on the website of one of its tenants) emphasized these ghosts of the waterfront workforce. Historic black-and-white photos of a bustling industrial waterfront framed this example of the bubbly, introduction-to-cultural-studies-Mad-Libs meaninglessness of so much innovation discourse.

The complex continues to emphasize its rich industrial heritage through an authentic aesthetic expression that is at once historical, referential and progressive.

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“Industry City,” American Field:

This chain of adjectives suggests that the development is itself an art project—a form of “authentic aesthetic expression”—rather than a real-estate venture. Industry City’s website no longer features this history, and while it still advertises for tenants, the site now emphasizes the retail, dining, and entertainment venues available to shoppers and visitors. As the Brooklyn news site City Limits observed two years ago, this is likely the planned future of the complex —as opposed to its long-stated purpose, to revitalize Brooklyn’s manufacturing waterfront.

“Innovation” is well suited to these cross-purposes. It is abstract enough to refer equally to tailoring, sculpture, or real-estate speculation. A planned hotel in the Innovation City complex, journalist Neil deMause noted in City Limits, would require zoning changes in the manufacturing district. “And so Jamestown is pursuing what it calls a ‘special innovation zoning district’ through the city Uniform Land Use Review Process,” he writes, along with $115 million in city money for infrastructure improvements. As deMause writes, the escalating real estate values that might result from such changes would eventually price our light manufacturing, which may be the point.

In any case: it’s hard to argue that appropriating public resources for private speculative investment under the guise of job creation isn’t some kind of “innovation.”

The Poverty of Entrepreneurship: The Silicon Valley Theory of History

My essay on Ben Horowitz, his father David, the Haitian Revolution (or some version of it),  and the impoverished historical imagination of the entrepreneurship cult is out from The New Inquiry.

WHY didn’t the Gauls overthrow the Romans? Why was Nat Turner’s revolt defeated so quickly? Why was the Haitian Revolution the only victorious slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere? And how can the answers to these questions help you, an aspiring entrepreneur, build an amazing business?

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the powerful venture capital firm AndreessenHorowitz, has an answer to these questions: “culture.” He made this case at “Culture and Revolution,” a talk delivered at the Startup Grind conference in Redwood City, California on February 21, 2017 In its grand sweep and recognizable informal style, the lecture is a creature of the TED-talk-derived genius cult, in which wealthy audiences receive open-collared men pacing on bare stages as oracular sages telling hard and universal truths. Improbably, Horowitz organizes his theory of company “culture” around a reading of C.L.R. James’s classic Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

You can read it here.

Decoding ‘Build the Wall’: What Liberal Critics Miss

This was recently published in NACLA Report on the Americas, in their excellent new issue on confronting the Trump government in Latin America. If you can access it, read it here:

Donald Trump’s border wall, if it is ever built, will of course be a monument to arrogance and folly. And obviously, it won’t “work”—that is, it won’t achieve the White House’s officially stated goals of restricting immigration and drug trafficking. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing about it.

Trump’s executive order mandating the construction of a border wall decries “aliens” as powerful vectors of crime and terrorism, a “clear and present danger” to national security. In response, liberal critics have lately emphasized  that the border wall is a waste of money and resources. The MIT Technology Review asks us to “set aside the questions of whether it’s wise to put a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border” in making a persuasive case for its exorbitant cost—some $40 billion USD, far more than the estimate of $12-15 billion USD that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has pledged to allocate for the project. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a liberal, D.C.-based NGO focused on human rights in the Americas, observes that building 413 more miles of fencing—the portion of the land border with Mexico not yet walled in by Clinton and Bush-era “border security” initiatives—would cost $11.37 billion USD. Another liberal wall critic, Robert Reich, at Berkeley, showed all the humanity of the average economist when he wrote on his blog in January 2017 that border crossings are down because Mexico “is producing fewer young people.”

It seems certain that the wall will be wasteful and useless—what’s less clear is whether this actually matters, at least to Trump and his right-wing allies. What pragmatic and economic arguments against the border wall miss is that its major objective is symbolic. And in this respect, the wall’s real target audience can be found in the exurbs and suburbs of Trump country, far from the Mexico-U.S. border.

Like any other political slogan, the Trump campaign’s battle cry of “Build the Wall!” is both a claim—about the chanters and what unites them—and a demand, about what they want their leader to do in their name. The claim, in this case, is primarily cultural, even though it pretends to be geographic. The chant unites the chanters in a community of race and language. Those inside the wall share a pure American nationality, uncontaminated by anyone perceived to be “Latin American” or otherwise “foreign.” They are hardworking, English-speaking, and, the slogan implies but does not need to say outright, white. The wall, in other words, is as much about who it keeps in as who it supposedly keeps out.

From this claim follows the demand. What the chanters want, and what Trump’s executive order mandating the wall provides, is an official validation and a material manifestation of this ethno-national fantasy. This is all the wall provides—but it’s a lot.

Indeed, the developer-turned-president himself seems to recognize that the major point of a border wall—perhaps the major point of borders at all—is in the spectacle of the thing. As he emphasized repeatedly on the campaign trail, the wall will be “big,” and it will be “beautiful.” And as he once tweeted during the presidential campaign, “A nation WITHOUT BORDERS is not a nation at all.” The presidential executive order Trump signed in January elaborated that the border wall is intended to preserve the nation’s “safety and territorial integrity”—it’s telling that these are separate values. Safety doesn’t follow from territorial integrity: “territorial integrity” is an ideological value, not a pragmatic one.

The dream of an impermeable cultural boundary with Mexico is also older than Trump, of course. The border with Mexico effectively existed nowhere but on a map until 1911, when as Rachel St. John recounts in her history of the border, Line in the Sand, the first section of a border fence was completed—to restrain wandering cattle. It was not until the Clinton era, in the wake of NAFTA, the drug war, and the rising jingoism of the nationalist Right that those fences were replaced by something you could call a “wall.” Trump’s presidential executive order to finish the job Clinton started also commanded federal agencies “to repatriate illegal aliens swiftly, consistently, and humanely.” Treat “aliens” as if they are human, not cattle, the president demands, even as the wall implicitly advertises an old point once put more bluntly on signs posted in border towns decades ago: “No dogs, no negros, no Mexicans.”

Further back, in another imperial era, before so much as a cattle fence separated Mexican and U.S. territory—indeed, before “U.S. territory” existed in its current form—the Trumps of the nineteenth century would have called their wall-building fantasy “Anglo-Saxonism.” The claim for the “Anglo-Saxon republic” had the distinction of stating more directly what “Build the Wall!” only says obliquely: the United States was a country destined to be ruled by European whites, and America, in turn, was a hemisphere destined to be ruled by those United States. In angry response to U.S. Anglo-Saxonism, the Colombian poet José María Torres Caicedo coined the term “Latin American” to defend the dignity of Spanish America. This is what simply pragmatic cases against the border wall don’t address, but which the wall distinctly does: the very idea that “Latin American” and “American” are distinctive cultural identities in the first place—an idea that is a product not of geography but of ideology.

There is one more compelling argument for the wall’s practical ineffectiveness, however, as Todd Miller has argued in NACLA and elsewhere: the wall is already here. Drone surveillance, increased Border Patrol manpower and, yes, many walls already police the border. Trump is simply doing what he does best: throwing up a gaudy façade with his name on it. “Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me,” Trump liked to tell the audience at his campaign rallies. To this end, the federal bid guidelines for contractors hoping to build the border wall stipulated that “the north side of wall (i.e. U.S. facing side) shall be aesthetically pleasing”—the south-facing side need not be, since the wall’s audience does not live there.

The existing border wall bears another level of imperial symbolism, one so startling in its historical symmetries that it almost seems like the invention of a rather heavy-handed left-wing novelist. Much of it was constructed out of surplus helicopter landing mats from Vietnam and the first Gulf War, the recycled waste of older imperial adventures. Compared to these, one could argue that the border wall has thus far been distinguished by relative thrift.

When we oppose the border wall, therefore, we have to ask ourselves what exactly we’re opposing. Is it the militarism and nationalism of Clinton’s wall, or just the extravagant tastelessness of Trump’s? The pragmatic arguments against the wall may be correct enough, but merely pointing out Trump’s hypocrisy has hardly worked so far. What’s more, arguing against the wall for its profligacy raises some uncomfortable questions. Would this xenophobia be more tolerable if it were only cheaper? And what case can be made against the border wall that shouldn’t also be made about the border itself?


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in NACLA Report on the Americas 49. Find the published version here, if you can access the paywall:

On Jared Kushner’s New After-School Project, The White House Office of American Innovation

Per the New York Post: “Jared Kushner will be announced Monday as the head of the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation, which is being called a strategic consultant SWAT team meant to make government more efficient.”

Nobody even told me the White House Office of American Innovation was hiring. I have a cover letter all ready to go and everything. 

I initially fixated on that bizarre and somewhat vile metaphor of the innovation “SWAT team.” But apparently the “innovation SWAT team”idea  was actually coined in the Obama administration, making the authoritarian cast of Jared’s new after-school project less Trumpian than it sounds, and more like routine neoliberal governance, in the same league as the “innovation czars” and unaccountable economic advisory boards that are business as usual at state and federal government. And obviously there’s nothing very new about “running the government like a great American company” and valuing “efficiencies” and “nimble power centers” and “flexibilities,” and you know Hillary Clinton would have pursued something that at least sounded similarly awful.

But when the Obama administration pursued these sorts of ideas–pursuing “innovation” through semi-privatization of governance–it gave it a much more convincing technological basis borrowed from Silicon Valley, which was part of its appeal (though not to me, obvs). It was also, to give them credit, almost certainly way more competent. I prefer Jared’s inept project because it looks so nakedly, clumsily ideological; from these early reports there’s barely any pretense of meritocracy or “accountability,” and no particular interest in technology at all. They use the wrong business buzzwords, borrowing from Dad’s building industry background. As Trump said in a statement, the government is beset by “congestion… leading to cost overruns and delays.” And then there’s the odd list of initiatives, headlined by the opioid crisis, which Jared is apparently going to tackle with ideas from other real estate tycoons and investment bankers. The meanness and graft that always lurks closely behind “innovation” discourse in government is just so much more out in the open here. I can’t even say the mask is slipping, because it’s not clear they will try to even wear it.

Bodies on the Gears at Middlebury

My piece defending the activist students at Middlebury College from the wailing mob of pious national journalists working the “free-speech-at-elite-colleges” beat was published at Inside Higher Ed.

From all the talk of campus “civility” to the “freedom of speech” controversies at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere over the past couple of years, one of the ways conservatives and elite liberals on campus and in the media police campus activism is by invoking a fantasy of the campus as a neutral sanctuary from the world of politics outside. This notion of campuses as sanctuaries from the “real world” only makes sense if you are either 1) connected to real-life campuses mostly through the gauzy haze of Ivy-League nostalgia or 2) cloistered in an elite institution yourself, where it is easier to indulge the fantasy of academia as a leafy idyll, rather than a workplace like every other.

For an example of the second, see what may be the least convincing of the hostile criticisms of the Middlebury activists, by Danielle Allen in the Washington Post. Allen is a classicist who has taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and it definitely shows. She laments the pollution of the “sacred groves” of academe–yes, “sacred groves”–by illiberal, angry protesters. The essay hinges on a truly outrageous comparison between Murray and the Little Rock 9 who integrated public schools in Arkansas’ capital city in the aftermath of the Brown ruling. The content of Allen’s comparison is very superficial–she brings it up in the opening paragraph as a hook and then never returns to it. It amounts to the fact that both Murray and the integrationist students faced a “shouting, shoving mob.”

Allen invokes another historical reference, Abraham Lincoln, when she describes his 1862 Morril Act that established land-grant universities, which disseminated her sacred groves across the nation. What she learns from the Morril Act is that “democracies are necessarily contentious but can survive only if they can channel contestation into peaceful forms of behavior.” Now, if you want to make a claim that important democratic social change comes only from reasoned debate, you can go right ahead, but you could certainly choose better analogies than the Civil-War United States and the Civil Rights movement.

What Allen wants from protest, in short, is that it conform to the standards of the classroom. And what this shows is an impoverished understanding of the history and strategy of political protest. It’s a familiar argument over all, though, since some version of this “sacred groves” business is used to discipline every campus movement that manages to unsettle business as usual, as protest must do if it is to avoid becoming a charade. I first encountered this sort of argument during the TA unionization efforts I was involved with an NYU. It’s not an argument that will go away anytime soon, but I’m grateful for the students who don’t buy it.

Allen writes that “the supreme academic aspiration is to defeat bad arguments with better ones.” I don’t know that I agree, since I’m not one for enumerating virtues, and in any case I prefer to think of college and universities as workplaces first. But in the spirit of the aspiration, here’s my argument.

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