Where have all the ideas gone? It’s not a lament t
hat you hear in most circles, but it is one that keeps Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, awake at night. It is fair to say that Fox is on a one-woman mission to stoke the intellectual furnaces of the public and make debate a national pastime to rival football or Strictly Come Dancing. She recognises that it sounds a bit kooky, that the ‘Institute of Ideas’ could be just a “vacuous strapline” for an ineffectual talking shop. But she places her organisation in a much grander Enlightenment tradition, where “people sitting in salons or smoky rooms in pubs, writing and philosophising, propelled social change”.
Claire Fox may blame the authoritarian paternalism of New Labour for the demise of the smoke-filled rooms of old, but she says the crowding-out of ideas from the public sphere cannot be laid at any individual’s door. With the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, Fox argues, we entered a self-consciously post-ideological age, the liberal democratic system seemed triumphant and so ideas became secondary. At the same time, “we seem to have lost faith in the capacity of the public sphere to deal with complex and difficult ideas”; she may reject ‘dumbing-down’ as a rather glib phrase but it sneaks into her discourse. This emanates from many different institutions: government “nannies us”, the media start “chasing, not creating, an audience”, and shockingly, even our top academic institutions elevate the “student as a consumer” and not the expansion of knowledge for its own sake.
Fox’s analysis of “the academy” is interesting, and sharply at odds with current practice. On the one hand she recognises that “the aspiration to open up the ivory towers to greater numbers of people is a perfectly admirable and progressive one”, but she does not want to achieve this at the expense of genuine scholarship. She claims that to avoid this trade-off would have required “a massive commitment in schooling” but instead the government just “puts the onus on the universities to change, not on young people aspiring to universit
y”. There is an assumption that students can never rise up, so they don’t make them try.
This evidently ties in sharply with her comments about the ‘public sphere’ in general, the failure to challenge people intellectually, a satisfaction with consumers who act according to narrow fixed preferences and cannot be inspired to challenge themselves or others. Fox is rather unfashionable in her assertion that “we should, as a society, aim to give everybody as academic an education as we can, for as long as we can”, decrying patronising talk of multiple intelligences and ‘vocational students’. But what lies behind this ambition is a brutal honesty about the status quo: although a third of the population now goes to university, she says, most only go to a building with the word ‘university’ on the front of it, which is not quite the same as getting a university education. One cannot help but concede, as she does, that “in a way they’re being conned, they’re being sold a pup”.
Sensing her protectiveness of old-fashioned scholarship, I ask what she thinks of higher education being subsumed under the super-ministry of Peter Mandelson, anticipating her reaction. More and more, she responds, governments approach universities and insist that “you have to prove your worth according to how much you contribute to UK plc”, an explicit intervention in the life of the academy that instrumentalises education. But she is hard-nosed about the situation: “politicians have always been philistines – so what’s new?” she asks rhetorically. For Fox, the real shocker is that the academics go along with it. She is vehement that they need more backbone and should resist these perennial political pressures.
Claire Fox’s own intellectual development is an unusual one. She went to Warwick University to read Literature, which she describes wistfully as being “allowed to escape from the reality of getting a job, to enter into the world of the mind”. And this exploration of intellectual life, this freedom from the pedestrian work-a-day world, is the context for her passion for ideas. Having only got a 2.2 in her degree, Fox was already preoccupied by her involvement in the Revolutionary Communist Party, editing their journal, Living Marxism (later abbreviated to the more contemporary LM). The RCP at the time was a crucible for discontented young things, and when in the 1990s it ceased to exist in its old guise, many of her peers became involved in the thrusting, debate-oriented web magazine, Spiked Online, while Fox herself went on to found the Institute of Ideas.
Interested by this pedigree I challenge her on the value of revolution in the modern world, but her response is deflated; she concedes that “we’re so far away from the possibility of it that it just sounds hair-brained, a rhetorical flourish”. She has more modest, but no less important aims of “sowing the seeds so that people might actually start believing in social change”. Although her manner may sometimes come across as world-weary or cynical, when you talk to Claire Fox you come away believing that the real misplaced cynicism is in society at large, which has lost the sense of its own agency – a very Marxist critique of the modern world. We are afflicted by “presentism”, she insists; we are intellectually trapped in the present by our negativity about the past and our fear of the future. This is why we are so far away from meaningful progress, let alone revolution: “If you’ve got no future-orientation, you’ve got no social change agenda”.
Fox’s insistence on dynamism and progress through debate resonates with the principles of the Institute of Ideas’ annual conference-cum-workshop, the Battle of Ideas (BoI). She isn’t interested in having show-trial debates, where the conclusions are already ordained by political correctness. That’s why the BoI is questioning orthodoxies around anti-bullying campaigns, sex education, human rights and other pet-projects of the self-styled liberal-left. Fox may not shy away from calling herself Left-wing but her allegiance is far from tribal. Intellectual honesty and rigorous debate are the personal principles she has built into the architecture of her Institute of Ideas and which she will daub on her banners in the Battles ahead.
The Battle of Ideas takes place this weekend in London. A Satellite debate on ‘Post-recession Ideologies’ will be held in St.John’s Auditorium, Oxford, on Wednesday 4th November.