back to

The regrettable rise of the the "thought leader"


Over at The New Republic, David Sessions examines the historical rise and craven greed of “thought leaders” like Thomas Freidman, Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson. As the rich have become richer in recent decades, they have used their wealth to support the dissemination of ideas that enable them to become yet more rich—e.g., the notion that capitalism is a moral good, that the market can solve all our social problems, etc. Figures like Freidman have been all to happy advance these ideas in the guise of impartial scholarship, growing wealthy themselves in the process. Here’s an excerpt from Sessions’s article:

The rich have, writes Daniel W. Drezner in The Ideas Industry, empowered a new kind of thinker—the “thought leader”—at the expense of the much-fretted-over “public intellectual.” Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world.” Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the “big ideas” of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes”…

Surveying this new landscape, it is clear that the true role of the thought leader is to serve as the organic intellectual of the one percent—the figure who, as Gramsci put it, gives the emerging class “an awareness of its own function” in society. The purpose of the thought leader 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.

Image: Thought leader Thomas Freidman. Via Slate.