Scholarly Publishing and Social Provision

Andrew Schiffrin

*** I had the opportunity to contribute this piece to the “Tenured Radical” section of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, however, some mitigating circumstances at work prevented me from publishing the essay. I’ve retooled it somewhat and made some updates, but it remains close to the original draft. Thanks to Heather Stauffer, my colleague, for giving it a thorough reading ***

In the recent past, academics and university press publishers have had conversations about the “crisis” in scholarly publishing and the attending devaluation of academic labor. As the ranks of tenured, research professors decreases, the sacrifice to become a scholar and publish research monographs is often met with disappointment at low sales from their university press publishers. Nonetheless, scholars show intense dedication to research and scholarly inquiry, and university presses continue to innovate in an evolving marketplace to maintain the quality of publications and deliver the tools with which scholars generate discourses in their disciplines and fields of inquiry. This national research matrix in the university system is central to the knowledge economy in the United States. Every non-profit, scholarly publisher certainly recognizes and sympathizes with the amount of time and resources each and every one of their authors dedicate to their work. However, the rise of the research library aggregators and book vendors’ demands for e-publication formats as a quid pro quo to marketplace entry is often met with dismay by scholars. To phrase scholars’ concerns simply, monographs offered for free on research library portals and e-pubs for e-readers has created the perception of the devaluation of academic labor. I will admit here that I fully understand how scholars feel that their abilities are being devalued within their university systems and on their campuses, myself having been an academic who now works in scholarly publishing. However, the university presses that represent and publish scholarly monographs are key partners in helping to elevate the value of scholars’ academic labor, while navigating a scholarly book marketplace and larger domestic and international book market that is heavily slanted against non-profit, university presses.

Where I work as a senior acquiring editor, we believe all of our authors deserve compensation from the sale of their work in all formats. Much like the devaluation of academic labor, non-profit university presses exist in an ecosystem of scholarly communications similarly devalued by the national, public fiscal climate that rolls back public spending for social provision, particularly funding for public universities. Public universities typically offer small subsidies to their university presses to manage annual budgeting, so presses are affected by lack of commitment to social provision. This is the current fiscal environment for university press publishers, in addition to external market forces that impact our organizations and define the size of the reliable, yet shrinking, scholarly book market. Fewer tenure-track scholarly researchers causes this market to contract; larger trends in the domestic book marketplace can reduce our access to the national marketplace; and our large, corporate vendors make demands to university presses for simple, marketplace entry for our book products that causes our costs to rise. Therefore, scholars and university presses feel the impact of the segmented, academic labor market, public spending for research universities, and book marketplace competition that shapes the size of the scholarly book market and the aggregate, national research matrix.

In essence, scholarly publishing has always been part of a larger, public fiscal outlay for public universities, as well as private universities that receive federal student loan and research grant subsidies. Scholarly publishing is also a critical part of the 20th Century expansion of social provision that began during the New Deal and Postwar WW2 Eras. Tony Judt, the noted European historian, wrote about the quality of our public universities in his last two books before his untimely death. In Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, Judt marveled and cherished our public, land grant university systems in the United States as shining exemplars of social provision, for these “internationally renowned institutions have no peers outside the US,” including our underestimated community college systems. The fate of public universities as well as other government agencies of social provision suffer under a general and “marked reluctance to defend the public sector on grounds of collective interest or principle.” The rise of state and federal disinvestment in social provision ultimately affects university presses and their ability to furnish the tools of scholarly discourse and contain rising costs to meet their primary market.[1]

In the most practical terms, university presses produce, manufacture, and market scholarly book products in much the same way that record companies, for example, produce, manufacture, and market slabs of plastic and digital sound recordings. Scholarly books exist as tools of the academic trade primarily. However, scholars also create works in their disciplines that can also be entertaining or timely to current events, and these books can resemble the majority of commercially-published books in the US. In this wider, domestic book marketplace, trade books at commercial publishers originate as entertainment products and key investment vehicles meant to sustain the stockholder and investor value of the commercial publisher, and boards of directors’ control these imprints on behalf of multi-integrated, media holding companies. This national trade marketplace is extremely difficult for non-profit, university presses to compete within, since the key vendors in this largest marketplace, book distributors, discount bookseller chains, and online book retailers like Amazon and others, earn the majority of their own annual net profits from the largest book publishing groups. All these book marketplace actors are also highly reluctant to cede any domestic market-share when possible to other publishers. The books that university press publishers sell do not wholly sustain economically the US domestic book supply chain, and there are both upsides and downsides to the limits of this trade marketplace. Andre Schiffrin, the celebrated book publishing intellectual, noted in Words and Money that multi-integrated media holding companies receive roughly 80-85% of annual US domestic sales; religious and vocational publishers receive roughly13-19% of those sales; and university presses receive roughly 1-2% of sales.[2] This shows that non-academic readers do not buy books that are meant for research and study; they buy books to be entertained. However, the “entertainment-book” in the trade market can also be ephemeral and have a short life on a publisher’s backlist, where the scholarly book marketplace is highly-reliable, almost recession proof, and books last longer on the publisher’s backlist, with backlist sales typically contributing 50% to as high as 65% of annual sales for university presses. Scholarly book publishing entails less financial risk and is overall more highly-stable than the commercial book marketplace because university presses create books that facilitate scholarly discourses, and the advancement of research and discovery of new knowledge.

The only comparison or metaphor I can use to describe university presses would be an independent record label; much like independent record labels such as Dischord Records, In the Red Records, or Subpop Records, university presses cater to a niche marketplace of scholarly communication in the sales of hundreds and thousands of copies of scholarly and trade books. It is a rare occasion that a university press will have the music equivalent of a Fugazi, selling well beyond 100,000 copies of a book. The economies-of-scale between university presses and independent record labels are comparable, and university presses could learn much from consulting with independent record labels for that very reason.

The comparatively low, lifetime sales of scholarly books does not indicate a trend of anti-intellectualism in my opinion; rather, it shows that the current reading trends among the public-at-large have changed since the early to mid-twentieth century, when knowledge acquisition among ordinary citizens was central to aspirations for social mobility more generally. Needless to say, there are “intellectuals” in many sectors of the workforce in the US and perhaps they are purchasing their own books in the religious and vocational book marketplace, as Schiffrin’s statistics indicate; that is, people who possess impressive historical knowledge of their vocational fields, whether it be welding, furniture design, ministering, health care services, music recording, or what have you.

Scholars need university press books as tools to perform their teaching and research duties in the end. However, there are some unrealistic and disturbing trends on university campuses and in federal and state government agencies for “open access” publishing, which means to offer scholarly or research content for free in the public domain. In the recent debates about open-access publishing, its proponents rarely have insight into the value-added that university presses contribute to scholarly publications and communication. In university press book publishing, peer review, sometimes developmental editing, copyediting, book composition and design, and typesetting are services that solidify the reliability and integrity of scholarly books, since all disciplines in the world of knowledge demand the high expectations of accuracy and reliability for research. In that case, there is only slight cost-savings to open access publishing; the savings are only reflected in paper, printing, and binding costs, as well as some savings of inventory carrying costs in publishers’ warehouses. But even at that, many university presses are moving to print-on-demand for cloth and paperback editions of scholarly books. Per project, paper, printing, and binding is roughly 15%-20% of the cost of a book.

Among the nation’s research libraries if they could have their way, in my opinion, they would try to obtain our authors’ books for free. I have found this development somewhat odd, since one would believe that both university research libraries and university presses share so many common interests. And there are segments of the research library world that embrace the university presses as key partners in the organization and dissemination of knowledge. However, I am afraid that the differences between a fixed-budget university unit and a profit-oriented state agency like a university press presents limitations to partnership based on budgetary and financial expectations within the larger university fiscal environment. In the end, I feel the enthusiasm for open-access publishing has some deeper thinking to do about how their model is problematic from the practical and fiscal standpoint. Research librarian hostility to university presses’ model of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination seems misplaced in some of the recent debates on open-access publishing.

There are also some negative perceptions of university presses by scholars that I meet on my regular travels to academic conferences, and they are a challenge for acquiring editors, editorial directors, and press directors to quell. Some scholars I meet believe university presses view scholars as uninformed about publishing and publishers, and take advantage of them. Among acquiring editors, I feel this is quite the contrary; it is the wide availability of very good books on the economics and how-to of publishing that keeps negotiations transparent between editor and author. White lies from publishers can be easily detected in the vast secondary literature on commercial and non-profit book publishing. More so than commercial publishers, university presses tend not to view our authors, scholarly or otherwise, as uninformed dupes to be taken advantage of, indeed, university presses are consistently strong advocates of each and every author we publish, all the way through the compensation we provide on royalties and subsidiary rights. University press book contracts are very fair and transparent on the rights and responsibilities of each party in the contract, unlike, for example, contracts that exist in other art and entertainment industry sectors, the music industry being the worst offender in supporting recording artists’ interests. When a scholars’ book does not sell as well as they think it should, that is fine with us, some scholarly fields have very small markets and we are not upset with the sales performance of a book that has a market of perhaps 200-400 scholars working in the subject area. However, university presses always love it when a scholarly book does much better than we expected. We also do not “blame” our authors or the quality of their research for lower than expected sales, indeed, we feel proud to have published the book. The expectations for a “break-even” point in sales is roughly 175-270 copies of each title. University presses are non-profit entities and our thresholds for break-even are not extremely high. With over 300,000 individual titles published in the US annually, sales competition for scholarly books in the domestic book market is often intense, however, university presses exist in a smaller-scale, niche marketplace that is highly-reliable and for the most part, stable and predictable. Schiffrin explained in Words and Money that the lifetime sales history of scholarly books averages 350 copies or less today.

In scholarly publishing, we would certainly be envious to have access to investment and working capital, much like Time-Warner Corporation, Bertelsmann SE & Co., Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, Sony Group, and The Walt Disney Company, which are publicly-traded and investor-driven, multi-integrated media corporations. In lieu of the immense economic scale of these corporations, university press publishers recycle profits into future fiscal years or into endowment funds, and rely on press friends and benefactor donations to endowment development for extra working capital. In many respects, this makes scholarly publishing a mix of annual net revenue; university support; and voluntary giving. Where I work, our mission-driven editorial program finds reflection in the need for roughly 5% or less of annual support we receive from our university system. We strive to close it and there is also a lot at stake when we invest sizable direct and indirect costs in a scholarly author and their work. We mind the gap on each project we acquire. It makes me feel bad when I hear scholars express the opinion that university presses should go out of business, for example, since we cannot organize investment on the scale of major, multi-integrated media holding companies, or create literary celebrity for our scholarly authors. These considerations exist on a larger economy-of-scale in the commercial publishing world. This leads me to believe that the current neoliberal economic thinking about social provision, which Tony Judt wrote about with great insight, has made significant inroads into the professional culture of academics. Where else will scholars publish the tools of their trade if non-profit university presses go out of business and declare bankruptcy? It will certainly not be commercial publishing imprints, and it might be for-profit scholarly publishers like Reed-Elsevier (now RELX Group) if they deem a discipline or subject area of sufficient profit to their publishing group. It might also be some other platform where profit is not a consideration and the premium, and the offset printed book is not the final format. But why leave the future of scholarly communication to chance or sheer market forces or the adoption of for-profit business models? The attitude reflects the punitive side of neoliberal disinvestment in social provision more generally. I cannot fathom the harm that would result from the bankruptcy of university presses upon the US domestic research matrix across all science, humanities, social sciences, and arts disciplines. This is why non-profit, university press publishing is such a critical part of our nation’s willingness towards social provision. New discoveries in the world of research knowledge are often not easily monetized, nor should they be held to the standard of the economic marketplace.

The most significant force currently driving the contours of the scholarly book market is technology. With the rise of digital book content, either direct-to-consumer e-pubs or research library aggregation formats, new external variables present new challenges for all publishers. An experienced publishing colleague of mine once remarked to me that technology is the genie in the bottle and it is not wedded to any particular ideology. He believes this is why so many businesses and publishers want to bend the potential of technology to their interests, either through law, court decisions, or new products and formats. However, university presses especially will want to employ the advantages of new technology vigorously to promote and sell books if a market exists in a new, technological format. In my opinion, the multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone corporations have exerted an undue and intense market volatility for all publishers, since they have moved into a book business sector seeking profits where they have historically had no marketplace presence or influence until the recent past. Due to the immense economic scale and large consumer market portals that Apple, Amazon, Nokia, Microsoft, and other corporations exert on the book market, they dictate the terms in vendor to vendor relations on profit margins, suggested list price, returns, and other market considerations. Amazon, for example, will not carry a title if a direct-to consumer e-pub is also not offered, even though for a scholarly book this format constitutes 1%-5% of lifetime sales in all formats. This industry quid pro quo passes the costs of e-pub preparation onto the publisher, when we’d rather do without it. This is more acute for commercial publishers than for non-profit university presses, however, especially conflicts over suggested list price (SLP) of direct-to-consumer e-pubs. Both commercial publishers and university presses are somewhat caught up in the “market share” wars of the multi-integrated computer, cell phone, and tablet manufacturers whose lawsuits against one another can be followed regularly in the business section of the Wall Street Journal and other business publications.

John Tebbel, the historian of book publishing and a former editorial director at a prestigious commercial house, states that during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, the average profit margins for all publishers existed in the range of 3%-4% net revenue per year.[3] More recently, Andre Schiffrin revealed in The Business of Books that publishers “have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.” Since the rise of multi-integrated media holding companies, the historical rates of annual net revenue in commercial book publishing exist within an historically aberrant and skewed range of 10-15% and even higher, and, as Schiffrin explains, it “is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much of it as possible.” Due to the rise of multi-integrated media conglomerates within the publishing industry generally, “publishing diversity,” which entails the aggregate and healthy variety of nonprofit, corporate commercial, and independent commercial publishers, has decreased significantly since the mid-1970s and the origins of discount book-selling. With monopoly and even oligopoly conditions, the variety of publishing imprints, and different types of books involving financial risk has decreased vastly in the international book marketplace.[4]

Monopoly if not oligopoly rules the US domestic book market today by the top 10-20 commercial firms. Independent commercial publishers and non-profit university presses would benefit from greater regulation of the book publishing sector through anti-monopoly laws already on the books in the US Code. A publishing colleague of mine who is a university press director and former American Association of University Presses president, talked with me once about the significance of the Bell Cases of the 1970s as the legal template by which the US domestic book industry could be broken apart to restore publishing diversity and better marketplace access, since those cases offer precedent to federal regulators to dismantle an industry sector monopoly. We agreed this was wishful thinking due to the lobbying obstacles with the US Congress. Schiffrin echoed similar thoughts about regulatory laws in Words and Money, stating that “to stop or slow the increasingly rapid disappearance of independent bookstores and publishers, the most important step these governments could possibly take would be to use these laws to break up the vast media conglomerates.”[5] This proposition is certainly appealing to non-profit and independent publishers, but regulation is very unlikely to happen given recent US circuit court decisions regarding publishers’ business relationships with multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone manufacturers’ marketing portals that have favored these manufacturers almost exclusively.

In the short term, the market conditions are somewhat unfavorable to both scholars and university presses, but university presses are fortunate to exist in the reliable niche market of scholarly communication to compensate for limited, trade marketplace access. In the long term, and I’ll share my optimism, there may not be a continuing trend of public disinvestment in social provision that includes our public and private universities, and by extension, the health and growth of university presses in the United States. But university presses will not be the primary agent to improve public investment in the knowledge economy of the university. My own feeling is that the consumers of education, mostly parents and family shouldering the burden of tuition or repaying their kids’ student loans, will not tolerate rising tuition costs and the lower level of instruction provided by provisional faculty in our public and private university systems. My thought is that once the intrinsic quality of a product, in this case higher education, is decreasing yet costs increase (due to bulging administrative hiring), consumers will notice and let their concerns be known to their elected representatives. If such a backlash leads to greater public investment in higher education, this will certainly benefit both scholarly authors and university presses as the US domestic research matrix increases by hiring more tenured academic researchers with expertise for the classroom.


[1] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010); and The Memory Chalet (New York: Penguin Press, 2010).

[2] Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (New York: Verso Books, 2010).

[3] John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 1 (Reprint: Clock & Rose Press, 2003).

[4] Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (New York: Verso Books, 2000).

[5] Schiffrin, Words and Money (Verso Books).


Strange Species: The Boomer University Intellectual

Henri Lefebvre

*** I had the opportunity to first publish this review essay in Reviews in American History toward the tail end of the Bush II administration, and right as the 2008 financial crisis ruined the country. I brushed it up a bit for presenting it below***

Strange Species: The Boomer University Intellectual

Matt Bokovoy

Eric Lott. The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual. New York: Basic Books, 2006. xi + 260 pp. $26.00.

      “As historians, we do take opposing positions, but we seem to be united on one thing: a reluctance to debate” controversial topics in American history. So says Richard White recently, president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Worried about scholarly timidity and “a prickly over-professionalization,” White notices there has been “a culture of caution – that has begun to influence all of us. We have become each other’s hostages” in a university system that exists to minimize controversy, and where a new genteel ethic rewards cautious historical interpretations and scholarly demeanor. “Politics” has been shorn from informed historical critique, and academics hide behind the authority of credentials. On the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the OAH, White believes, “In a profession where we should wear our wounds proudly and confront our critics gladly, we prefer to be safe and guarded and fear that we have enemies who can cost us our reputations – We should celebrate scholars who draw strong reactions,” he worries. “Instead, we shy away from them.” Certainly, this development is not new regarding the place of intellectuals within both the American university system and society-at-large. The critical writings and political stances of academics have consistently elicited internal and external pressures since the post-Civil War emergence of the modern university, especially during times of conservatism, social upheaval, war, or anti-intellectualism. Writing more than forty years ago, Laurence Veysey explained how university administrators worked to maintain the integrity of their institutions, where dignity “was a jealous master. It required, first of all, a certain solemnity of countenance; it frowned upon the humor born of irreverence – Still more importantly,” noted Veysey, “dignity urged that the institution, no matter how torn with dissent, appear united and harmonious to all who look upon it from the outside. – If unfavorable publicity prevented such a posture, then dignity insisted that the leadership take visibly stern measures against the threat to its authority.” Much like the recent past, the early modern university “had little room for trouble-makers in its midst.” Provocative historical writing today, notes one scholar of the profession, usually leads to undue scrutiny by special interest groups, dismissal from the university, or both. Whether this is a problem of “quality” of product in public intellectual work or not, historical criticism can become relevant only when present questions of political concern lend understanding to the past.[1]

Eric Lott’s The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual examines the generational gap in the American academy during the last fifteen years with fighting words and bold claims, revealing an impaired radicalism on the academic Left he calls “boomeritis.” Lott charges university-affiliated and independent, boomer scholars with wimpy progressive and reformist thinking in his construction of recent intellectual history, such as Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Michael Lind, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others. Boomer intellectuals write and speak “in the service of a new ideal of social democratic reform” and “lament the rise of ‘divisive’ new social movements – often described as ‘identity politics’ or the ‘cultural left’ – and the decline of a liberal Americanism that is in most of its versions explicitly nationalist, racially revanchist, and at best Clintonian in its address to social class” (pg. 2). The author finds the radical spirit of university intellectuals reared during the 1960s and 1970s lacking in critical vision, defining the condition as “little more than political complacency with a relatively youthful face” where one can “see boomer liberalism in all its aspects as a kind of ‘progressive osteoarthritis’ of the mind – a boneheaded degeneration of the radical spirit and one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first century” (pg. 2). Even though Lott finds himself a cohort of the baby boom generation, scholarly circles under age forty will likely respond with quiet enthusiasm to the author’s accusations disguised as informed criticism. This may be true because the book speaks to the transformation of scholarly imperatives in the university system and a younger generation’s distance from – and direct inheritance of – the legacies of 1960s radical intellectuals.

     The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual resembles a manic, scholarly lament rather than well-wrought criticism of the Clinton and Bush Era intellectual scene. The author proposes to critique the boomer intellectual retreat on African American social justice movements, liberalized radicalism, the perils of cosmopolitan nationalism, and liberal support for the Iraq War and economic globalization. Lott lays out a three-part topology to group boomer intellectuals, following “an organizational commitment: to identify these apparently various minds as a front in order to better combat them.” For Lott, argument about the role of the intellectual left could take a lifetime, so he finds his efforts “as a warrant to take out bourgeois thinkers in the relatively autonomous realm of debate and polemic” (pg. 17). He calls these tendencies neoliberal historicism, neoliberal Marxism, and neoliberal culturalism that stand as so many modest proposals of boomer liberalism shorn from the history of radicalism. With fists raised, Lott proclaims with a lack of seriousness, “I smell boomer blood” (pg. 22). What the author actually unravels in The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is a generational shift within the academy, where the history of social and economic class has been subsumed by younger scholars of race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, and the relationship of “culture” to political and economic power. And this development worries the New Left, boomer intellectuals and has become the basis of their public criticism: a type of intellectual cannibalism where Zeus eats his young so that no heirs would contest his power.

The author examines the legacies and transformation of New Left intellectuals, and their move away from formerly radical positions in public intellectual debate. His main purpose aims to “help clear the air of certain false prophesies and propose some ideas for a fresh conception of radical democracy in the United States” (pg. 3). Products of a lifetime spent in the American university first as students and finally as professors, it is no wonder some New Leftist’s radical and youthful activism changed to reformist institutionally-based proposals. This is the problem of generations and age, a tempering of vision due to experience and the rewards of success within university bureaucracies. Lott portrays Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998) as little more than a contentious reform tract more prone to attacking the academic Left than proposing radical, social and political change. The author believes Rorty “conveniently presents himself as a liberal martyr drowned out by noisy know-nothing leftists who just don’t get that intellectuals, boosted by the kind of national pride found in Lincoln or Whitman, should focus on policy rather than speculative debate, on economic inequality rather than what Rorty calls ‘stigma’ (race, for example), and on practical reform rather than radicalism” (pg. 30). Rorty offers little more than the plans devised by Clinton’s centrist, Democratic Leadership Council during the 1990s.

Lott finds a “similar political Cassandrism dressed up as tough-minded intellectual responsibility” as he turns to Paul Berman and Todd Gitlin, arguably two high-profile New Left intellectuals (pg. 31). The author brings the social critic Berman to task for his belittling historical revisionism focused on the excesses of the New Left and ethnic-based social movements in his book A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (1996), as well as Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars ( 1995) that blames scholars of racial and ethnic identity, and its politics, for destroying the legacy of the New Left with unrealistic academic radicalism. Lott uncovers the mea culpa of an aging intellectual generation, noting that Berman merely thinks “such radicalism lives today in a variety of new social struggles around race, sex, class, disability, and many others,” and that Berman “finds these too mere ‘revolutions of self,’” therefore, there are no intellectual heirs to the New Left (pg. 32). Similar to Berman, Lott examines how Gitlin denigrates the scholarship of political autonomy found within multiculturalism, identity politics, and new social movements rather than “demonstrate how that autonomy cripples the left, which would at least necessitate taking new social struggles seriously” (pp. 38-39). Berman and Gitlin share a special disdain for the Black Power Movement, blaming the Black Panthers’ militant rhetoric and racial separatism for the destruction of the New Left. As with so much selective memory and lack of scholarly insight, Peniel Joseph has recently shown the legacy of Black Power to be quite the opposite despite the movement’s problems, steeped squarely within the American radical tradition of the 1930s civil rights movement, and connected to women’s and gay rights movements at its demise.[2]

Incapable of believing that new social movements after 1968 embraced radical humanism, New Left public intellectuals like Gitlin and Berman view new social movements project as abandoning a “univeralist left” for smaller prizes. One wonders where to lay the blame, on the assimilation of university-based New Left intellectuals into the comforts ofo institutional life or on new research trajectories in the modern university. Historian Robin Kelley argues the failure of Gitlin’s generation to “conceive of these social movements as essential to the emancipation of the whole remains the fundamental stumbling block to building a deep and lasting class-based politics.” In a similar vein, literary critic Timothy Brennan alleges leftist intellectual debate from 1975 to 1980 shifted from a commitment to social democratic politics to a commitment to political identities. He believes both tendencies require integration for effective leftist politics. The shift from a universalist left to a separatist left, however, had little to do with debates among university-based Left intellectuals. The new legal climate in the United States after civil rights created the legal infrastructure and federal programs needed to ensure economic and racial equality. Agencies of the federal government defined individuals and social groups by markers of race. The terms of debate on the intellectual Left became shaped by society’s acknowledgment that historic recompense for racial discrimination and inequality required delving into questions of identity and culture. And there was nothing necessarily disingenuous, as scholars like Gitlin and Berman have claimed, about this turn of events.[3]

The roles of cosmopolitanism, liberal nationalism, black intellectuals, neoliberalism, radical social movements, and anti-Americanism preoccupy Lott in later chapters of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual. Regarding David Hollinger’s Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (1995), Lott charges “it’s frankly a bourgeois fantasy to suppose an affirmation of cultural diversity could proceed in any meaningful sense beyond the reach of the disadvantage in and through which many U.S. cultural fractions have been formed” (pg. 51). Rather than offer evidence to counter Hollinger’s argument to move beyond political and biological racial categories, Lott ridicules him without knowledge of recent historical scholarship on race and politics, identity and community, to bolster his claims.[4] The author positions minor works in American and literary studies as evidence of “public intellectual work,” like Walter Benn Michael’s Our Country: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995) and Eric Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations: Race and the Making of American Literature (1993) that garnered limited, academic audiences only. Lott accuses Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with tailoring their criticism to assuage white guilt over racial discrimination. The author thinks Dyson’s work “speaks without tooth to power” (pg. 102), implicates Gates for speaking out against “black anti-Semitism” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times (pg. 105), and excoriates Cornel West for his Christian-Marxist emphasis to oppose the “loss of hope and absence of meaning” and the “culture of nihilism” among black youth in America. West’s argument is “not only wrongheaded but purely ideological. It is difficult to overstate the danger of this virtually neoconservative perspective,” (pg. 114). Lott misses West’s concerns that beyond socio-structural limitations to black equality, the psychological effects of poverty and a life of diminished expectations immobilizes individuals. To explain political apathy in the United States, the author suggests fascination with Bill Clinton’s body “became the chief way of coming to grips with our relation to the state apparatus” (pg. 133). The argument that certain boomer intellectuals lack radical vision to transform society is alluring and likely true, yet Lott mobilizes little evidence or rhetorical skill to persuade the reader otherwise.

In the last two chapters, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual proves more convincing in its evaluation of the work of Robin Kelley and the agony of accusations against the “cultural Left” found in the pages of Dissent Magazine and other liberal review venues before and after the invasion of Iraq in March 2002. Lott wonders whether holding “fast to their ‘60s beliefs did they [boomer intellectuals] ensure their own obsolescence in an age of queer, feminist, and other new(er) social movements?” (pg. 5). The author praises Kelley’s willingness to see local political resistance in the workplace and everyday life as forms of class politics based on racial identity and economic inequality. In works like Hammer and Hoe (1990) and Race Rebels (1994) “Kelley produces an array of skirmishes between black workers and whites’ overseers,” explains the author, “to indicate not only the untold ways in which workers fought back but what they fought about” (178). Kelley’s work resonates with the Post-War projects of independent French Marxists like Cornelius Castoriadis, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau, all of whom wrote extensively about the working class, political autonomy outside of traditional trade union structures, consumer movements, and within the everyday life of worker leisure. Particularly striking here is the similarity to Castoriadis’ theory of worker autonomy during the wildcat auto strikes against the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy when he visited Detroit during the 1950s and fully developed this theory as a staple of working class organization under bureaucratic capitalisms. Lott rightly shows the social democratic possibilities of Kelley’s work against the dismissiveness of boomer intellectuals. The boomer intellectuals find no activist inspiration in this well-articulated tradition, likely due to the parochialism of boomer intellectuals locked in unaware, nationalist intellectual traditions. They would rather berate the “political fantasies” of the cultural Left for drawing on other national traditions despite the empirical basis of this work. Boomer intellectuals see little value in the home-grown writings of radical, social democratic critics like Carey McWilliams, who was venomously red-baited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other New York intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s, or the writings in Common Ground (1940-1949), the publication of the Common Council for American Unity during World War Two.[5] For boomer intellectuals, followers of various internationalist traditions such as that of Castoriadis, Lefebvre, and others must reflect “academic radicalism,” despite the fact both philosophers’ theories derive from social action and political experience when they fought against German, Italian, and fascism in the underground resistance during World War Two. The experience influenced their critiques of Cold War bureaucratic capitalisms profoundly.[6]

The polarization of the American Left preoccupies Lott in the final chapter, where he details the verbal broadsides of Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Michael Kazin, and Christopher Hitchens against the anti-imperialist and activist far Left. Commenting on an opinion page feature Gitlin wrote for the New York Times in September 2002, where he criticized some on the far Left for standing behind anti-imperialism and not supporting humanitarian imperialism, Lott charges “any sense of hesitancy about a war on ‘terror’ is ascribed to a loony left; U.S. imperialism, if it isn’t seen as some left fabrication, seems peculiarly untroubling” (pg. 184). The author believes Paul Berman’s much discussed Terror and Liberalism (2004) “is downy soft on U.S. imperial ambitions – and he continues to defend the anti-totalitarian language of Cold War liberalism, now in the context of fundamentalist Islam” (pg. 199). Boomer intellectual criticism of the lunatic left conjures the diatribes of Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado and Richard Berthold of University of New Mexico, but it hardly characterizes the position of the American Left. Some leftist scholars questioned why Islamic fundamentalists would attack America; others embraced pacifism and calls for diplomacy as a principle for lack of military retaliation; while others saw the erosion and potential revocation of civil liberties on the horizon. In this respect, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual has uncovered a tendency among boomer intellectuals to crowd the stage of public debate and pave over their previously held political positions in one fell swoop when their proposals become unpopular or simply wrong-headed.

The righteousness of conscience on the boomer left, found prominently within the pages of Dissent, likely had luminaries such as Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Jane Addams, and Merle Curti rolling in their graves. Jeffrey Isaac likened the stance of anti-imperialists and pacifists on the far Left as “a form of powerlessness; it is often a form of complicity in injustice – pacifism is always a potentially immoral stand.” Michael Walzer castigated in disingenuous fashion the supposed unsympathetic response of the far Left to 9/11. “Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics,” he said, “Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power” without naming or critiquing the position of one, single writer. Michael Wreszin, the biographer of Dwight Macdonald, argued against this agony of the boomer intellectuals, noting “Walzer, among others, decries the ‘indecent’ left’s lack of sympathy for the victims of terrorist attacks. There is something drastically wrong with a political analysis that judges whether one has shown enough concern for the victims.” With Dissent writers’ strong on polemic but short on insight, Wreszin lamented, “From the offices of the White House to the chambers of Congress, we now hear demands that Americans speak with one voice. If that should happen, all is lost.” Michael Kazin responded: “A left that followed Wreszin’s lead would continue to be essentially what it was in the months right after the minions of Osama Bin Laden smashed into our lives: a movement of bitter iconoclasts and moral cynics.” History has proven Dissent wrong, of course. No matter, they will rewrite their former positions in future issues of the magazine to disguise their inabilities to offer insight on the pertinent issues. During World War Two, Louis Adamic, the Slovenian-American socialist, preferred the term “inclusive defense” for love of country. It was “a wide-flung and deep-reaching offensive for democracy within our own borders and our own individual makeups.” He believed the left should not advance an “against program – mere ‘anti-fascism,’ mere ‘anti-totalitarianism’ is insufficient” and “may itself result in fascism and totalitarianism.” Adamic knew well his Eighteenth Brumaire. To Dissent, Wreszin the World War Two veteran is wrong. The old adage, “beware those who have not known war” still holds true.[7]

      The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual follows in the long tradition of the American jeremiad in many respects. The historian Russell Jacoby had previously riled the academy with his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: Politics and Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby equated the professionalism and scholarly antiquarianism of the university with the gentrification of the American city, the decline of urban bohemia that cultivated independent critics and scholars, and the uneasiness of institutional censorship during the Reagan years. Nearing the twentieth anniversary of publication, Jacoby’s durable book called for a more open, daring, and independent engagement of scholarship with public life. He argued the free-thinking intellectual had “been supplanted by high-tech intellectuals, consultants and professors – anonymous souls, who may be competent, and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life.”[8] The book caused a major stir because his argument rang true. It rankled professional historians who sensed a Trojan horse among their ranks. In Intellect and Public Life, Thomas Bender charged Jacoby’s book was “a careless, ill-conceived, and perhaps even irresponsible book,” but noted that scholarly irrelevance and careerism constituted worrisome trends for university-based intellectuals.[9]

Jacoby documented a quiet censorship and uneasy comfort behind the university barricade during the 1980s. Lott reveals similar trends, finding behind the barricade uninspired criticism, plum commercial publishing contracts for mostly vapid trade books, a bully pulpit in the mass media where scholars are experts of everything, and increasing institutional rewards for contributing nothing of real value to the public debate. Jacoby pinpointed correctly the demise of public intellectuals with changes in the modern university, especially the structure of incentive regarding compensation and promotion. He explained, “New Left intellectuals acquired the benefits” of university employment such as “regular salaries, long vacations, and the freedom to write, and sometimes teach, what they wanted.” But this steady arrangement came with a price: “Vast insecurities beset the academic enterprise. One’s future depended on a complex set of judgements made by colleagues and administrators. Academic freedom itself was fragile, its principles often ignored.” Lott merely berates boomer intellectuals for reaping the structures of reward and status in the new corporate university. Nor does the author engage the ideas of boomer intellectuals well, and embarks upon an intellectual project largely of his own making. Lott does usefully suggest, however, why baby boom intellectuals did a “political about-face” and came “home to centrism tail between the legs” (pg. 5).

But are boomer intellectuals really more influential than the cultural Left they bemoan? Perhaps not. Laurence Veysey explained the “price of structure” for intellectuals during the early years of the modern university. As a product of institutional prestige and incentive, “only a handful of American professors in this period were as influential as they liked to think. Most faculty researches stand unopened on the shelves of university libraries a half-century later, since in the interim nearly every field has turned its attention to newer problems of inquiry.” Peter Novick has explained well the plight of radicalism in the historical profession and university, for the “very acceptance of radical historians as legitimate participants in a pluralistic professional discourse carried with it the likelihood that particular aspects of their work would be assimilated in a way which defused its bite” due to the relationship between institutional acceptance and the structure of scholarly incentives. The majority of authors who publish timely and selling public intellectual work reside outside the main confines of academe, writers like Mike Davis, Liza Featherstone, Thomas Frank, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti among others.[10]

Perhaps the aging conservatism among select New Left, public intellectuals signals their move off the historical stage and the twilight of their ideals. Or maybe the Old Left and new social movement intellectuals, like the bond of grandparents and grandchildren, have one common enemy: the child-parent. Russell Jacoby notices how the “utopian spirit – a sense that the future could transcend the present – has vanished” from the work produced by academics today. Finding importance in new work on race and ethnicity, gender, disability, and LGBT in the U.S. academy, Jacoby also reveals a lack of a larger, political vision driving such work, where “politics becomes simply a series of slogans about marginalization, power, discourse and representation. These terms address real problems, but they fail to specify any particular politics. Marginal groups want power or representation, but how or why does this reflect cultural differences or an alternative vision?” Jacoby notes the very reformist and mainstream basis of political proposals in this work, akin to an inclusive bureaucratic capitalism within a broader neoliberal order. Richard White admitted recently that “Public intellectuals are certainly public; it is the intellectual part that worries me” regarding a screed written by Todd Gitlin in Raritan Review. White believes the “best public interventions by scholars are when the stars align and a matter of urgent public interest corresponds to topics to which we have been giving considerable thought and research.” “Then we have a responsibility to speak out no matter how unpopular our positions might be,” counsels White. “The worst moments are when we become pundits – experts on everything, masters of the superficial, purveyors of opinion for opinion’s sake.” Jacoby finds among university intellectuals “collapsing intellectual visions and ambitions – radicals have lost their bite and liberals their backbone.” In our recent climate of war and national conservatism, young professors have little incentive to speak to the public, and feel the quiet censure by their tenure committees and Deans, neoconservative special-interest groups, and university administrators and donors. Most scholarship stays safely within the parameters of professional peer review of publications, subfield discursive communities, institutional incentives, and scholarly “objectivity.”[11]

     The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual although provocative in argument is poor overall in execution and clarity. Should scholars take the book seriously under these circumstances? Perhaps so, even if the combative tone is not one’s style. Lott’s book received sharp rebukes similar to reviews of Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals almost twenty years ago. Nonetheless, the generational shift and intellectual odyssey within the New Left proves an irresistible and promising topic for further investigation and debate to understand the neoliberal intellectual mind.


[1] Richard White, “What Are We Afraid Of?,” OAH Newsletter 34, no. 3 (August 2006): 3; Laurence Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 381-382; On investigations of controversial scholars, left and right, in the recent past, see Jon Weiner, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower, (New York: The New Press, 2005). Historians on the left, argues Weiner, attract more scrutiny than conservatives; On the issue of “quality” in the public intellectual marketplace, see Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 83-127.

[2] Peniel Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006).

[3] Robin Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 110: Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: Cultural Politics Left and Right, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), ix, 147-169.

[4] The list could be exhaustive, see Nancy Shoemaker, American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999); Matthew Whitaker, Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005); George Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); James Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[5] Peter Richardson, American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 198-200; Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, (London: Verso, 1996), 445-454.

[6] See Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, David Ames Curtis, trans. and ed., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) and The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey, (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1975); See also C.L.R. James, Grace Lee, and Pierre Chaulieu (Cornelius Castoriadis), Facing Reality, (1958; reprint, Detroit: Berwick/ed, 1974); Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1, trans. by John Moore, (1947; London: Verso, 1991) and Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, vol. 2, trans. by John Moore, (1961; London: Verso, 2002); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Certeau was influenced by Lefebvre’s work, and brought the volumes of the Critique towards social science through structural linguistics.

[7] Jeffrey Isaac, “Ends, Means, and Politics,” and Michael Walzer, “Can There Be a Decent Left,” Dissent (Spring 2002): 19-20, 35-36; Michael Wreszin, “Confessions of an Anti-American” and Michael Kazin, “Response,” Dissent (Spring 2003): 85, 87; Louis Adamic, “This Crisis is an Opportunity,” Common Ground 1.1 (Autumn 1940): 62-63.

[8] Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: Politics and Culture in the Age of Academe, (New York: Basic Books, 1987), x.

[9] Thomas Bender, Intellect and Public Life, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 172n1.

[10] Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals, 118; Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, 335; Novick, That Noble Dream, 459: Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, (London: Verso, 2006) and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, (New York: The New Press, 2005); Liza Featherstone, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart, (New York: Basic Books, 2004); Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, (New York: The New Press, 2003); Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, (New York: The New Press, 2004).

[11] Richard White, “Are Public History and Public Intellectuals in Danger of Becoming Oxymorons?,” OAH Newsletter 34, no. 4 (November 2006): 3; Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), xi-xii, 40-41.