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Intellectual Capture

In his book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to WastePhilip Mirowski argues that economists were unable to respond adequately to the economic crisis of 2008-2009 because they were subject to “intellectual capture.”  Observers of markets have long complained of “regulatory capture” where those who regulate Wall Street are too cozy with those they regulate and thus held hostage or “captured” by those relationships and so unable to sufficiently regulate their old buddies.  Mirowski argues that many economists were similarly beholden to Wall Street, and unwilling to call foul on the theories that supported the governmental intervention to save Wall Street.

But it isn’t just economists and Wall Street.  The academy, I think the academy in general, but definitely philosophy, suffers a similar intellectual capture.  It works like this.  Junior faculty earn credibility by having senior faculty who vouch for them.  If you are a junior faculty member, you hesitate to call out those who seem to operate in the community of your own protectorate because that is what gives you credibility.  If you need the protectorate to be strong for your position to be strong, you can’t question it.  Especially more vulnerable members of underpresented groups within the community both need the protectorate for others to pay attention to them and are structurally unable to challenge the workings of the protectorate without their own position becoming more vulnerable.   You might not even call out other junior faculty because of fear of their protectorate.  And while justice would seem to demand it, the structure of the academy gives you no incentive to point out the ways your own community is patriarchal and racist, but rather to protect those who perpetuate those practices because it would seem to protect you.  This is one reason we need more women and people of color in the academy.

As academics become more engaged in activism within their institutions and beyond, we need to be thinking about how the structures of activism, in the name of changing the conditions in which we work, repeat them, and repeat them in a way that seems to structurally deny any real critical voice from within regarding how we are repeating them.

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