On the Material Foundations of Intellectual Production

Producing research and writing requires time and money, so inequality impoverishes human knowledge. How many great discoveries and cultural works are we missing?

My title is just a pretentious way of saying: before anyone can write, they have to eat. If you’re sick, thinking becomes much harder, and if you’re dead, you can’t think at all. Building the wealth of human knowledge depends on having human beings who are alive and well, and we can expect that the factors which determine how well (and if) people live are also going to affect which thoughts get thought and what knowledge gets produced. 

There is a famous quote by the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that relates to this: 

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

If you’re fifteen years old and your family depends on you to go out and pick tobacco, it doesn’t matter what contributions you could make to science. You are stuck. The economic circumstances you find yourself in demand that your time be spent otherwise. Whatever brilliant thoughts you might have thought if you had been able to spend all day in a library rather than a field will simply not get thought. They will never come into existence.

The story I like to tell on this subject is about Karl Marx’s overcoat. When Karl Marx was living in London, he was extremely poor. He often couldn’t support his family. Marx was so poor that sometimes he had to pawn his overcoat in order to eat. Now, Karl Marx used to do his economic research in the Reading Room of the British Museum. If he had his overcoat in the winter, he could go out and do his research. If his overcoat was in the pawn shop, then he couldn’t go and do his research (unless he wanted to risk getting very sick). In this very direct way, the intellectual activity of 19th century Britain was built on a material foundation: if Marx has a coat, Capital gets written. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t.

In order to produce intellectual work, it’s necessary to have a few things: basic physical health, a lot of time to think and write, and access to the materials needed to do research. I shouldn’t need to tell you that a lot of people don’t have these things. I happen to have them myself, which is why I am able to produce writing. I can write books on why you should be a socialist or how to respond to right-wing arguments. People can then (if they have spare time and energy) read those books, and perhaps they will join socialist political movements or be better able to combat right-wing politics. (That’s the idea, anyway.) But it’s only because I’ve found myself in a position where I have health, time, and research material that I can do the work.

I’m proud of the long books I’ve produced. But frequently, I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like for book projects, because book projects don’t pay well, and I need to do magazine writing to keep Current Affairs afloat (and thus keep myself afloat). I end up writing a lot of short “takes,” because these drive subscriptions, subscriptions sustain the magazine, the magazine sustains me. These often have to be written quickly, so the research on them isn’t as deep as I’d like. Someone once told me they thought my research was superficial, and they were quite right. What they didn’t understand was that the financial pressures of a small magazine mean that I can’t take a month to write a piece.

And, frankly, it’s a lot better at Current Affairs than some other places. I’ve read horror stories of clickbait-factories where writers have to churn out tons of “content” every day, and have no time at all to do real journalism. This means they not only put out things that are poorly-researched, but they’re easily manipulated by corporate public relations people, who can feed them “content” to fill their quotas. These writers might be people with interesting ideas who would produce very different work if they were free to write whatever they wanted, and take their time. But the economics of their industry naturally affects what gets produced.

My colleague Yasmin Nair has written a lot about these issues, including in a recent piece on what kinds of freedom people need in order to win Nobel Prizes. She asks questions like: What determines who gets to write? What determines what will get written? She looks at the ways that profit-seeking in the publishing industry shapes the kinds of stories that get told, and the kinds that don’t, and encourages people not just to critically read what does get published, but to think about what doesn’t, and why. She asks us to consider those mentioned by Gould, the ones whose voices aren’t heard because they’re too busy working, or they’re sick.

One of the most powerful voices to come out of Gaza was Dr. Refaat Alareer, a poet and academic, who edited a collection of stories from young Gazan writers called Gaza Writes Back. Dr. Alareer was recently killed, along with members of his family, in an Israeli air strike. TIME magazine has just published some of his final notes, which include moving passages on how Gazans are behaving generously toward one another even in harrowing conditions. (“You should have the last bottle of milk.” “No, you.” “No, you, I insist.” Etc.) Dr. Alareer wrote the extraordinary and haunting poem called “If I Must Die,” which foresaw his own death and pleaded with others to tell his story after he was gone. 

Needless to say, if someone is killed, they cannot speak, and Israel has (possibly intentionally) silenced one of its most vocal critics. There will be no more poems. Who knows what those poems would have been? Who knows how they might have moved people? They will never come into existence, just as the works that could have come from Gould’s field-workers can never be known.

It is not just that history is written by the victors. It’s written by those who are prosperous, those who are well, those who have free time and a good library. Even the last of those things can be hard to obtain. I have said before that the truth is paywalled but the lies are free. If you want to do serious research as an independent scholar, it can cost a lot of money. 

In my life, I’ve met a lot of the types of people Gould was referring to. Brilliant, insightful, thoughtful people. Many of them are stuck working shitty jobs. I’ve known people who could have been great writers, but spend their time working to earn money to care for sick family members. I always wonder what they might have written.

Now, I’m not saying writing and intellectual work are the highest calling, or that those who don’t end up engaging in them are not reaching their “potential” somehow. I’m saying that people should get to reach whatever their own ambitions for themselves are, and that what saddens (and angers) me is when they’re thwarted from that by economic necessity. The people I meet who have “thwarted” potential are usually women, who wanted something different from their lives but ended up with obligations that got in the way.

There’s a type of snooty “cultured” reactionary who looks back on the history of literature, sees how few women produced “classics” before the 20th century, and concludes that men were simply better writers. Any halfway intelligent person can see the obvious fact that before the 20th century, women were treated as property and of course they weren’t able to flourish as writers. In fact, when I look back at the times that reactionaries see as a golden age of culture (the 18th and 19th centuries), what I see is a hideous tragedy, because I think of all the unwritten books, unpainted paintings, and uncomposed music that could have been produced by women and Black people if they hadn’t been kept in subjugation. 

We should think about what kinds of knowledge can be, and would be, produced under different kinds of social and economic arrangements. There are extreme cases where it is obvious how external conditions determine intellectual production: when Stalin liquidated critical intellectuals, or when Israel’s attacks on Gaza kill a leading Palestinian poet, we can see clearly how thoughts can be destroyed. Thoughts are not immortal. They have to be conveyed by human brains within human bodies. Kill the bodies and the thoughts stop coming. They say you can’t kill an idea. I wish that were true. You can certainly keep an idea from coming into existence if you bomb and starve the people most likely to come up with it. 

I try to always be conscious of how much my knowledge of the world is biased by the fact that producing and spreading information is a luxury only a few can engage in. The genocide of Native Americans was very effective at keeping their stories from being told. Some of our only firsthand accounts of what life for the enslaved in America was like come because the Works Progress Administration funded the production of a slave narrative collection that recorded oral histories. If there hadn’t been a social democratic administration, the testimonies wouldn’t have been collected, and the voices would have been lost, along with the understanding of the world that comes from reading them.

We all know about academics who can’t get jobs in the field they studied. Sometimes they go and work in university administration positions, which can pay reasonably well. But the research they would have produced as a scholar, their contributions to human knowledge, never get produced. There are scientists who go and work in finance because they can’t get jobs in their field. They put their talents toward making money rather than discovering the secrets of the universe. That’s fine for them, but I can’t help but wonder: what secrets of the universe would we have learned if we’d funded research jobs for these people?

Chinese engineers have just built a new electromagnetic rail gun, an extremely destructive and powerful weapon. Think of how much work and know-how went into producing this impressive new means of killing people. Here in the United States, during World War II we had to put our leading physicists at work designing atomic weapons that could destroy entire cities in seconds. I’m glad the Allies won World War II (although I think the Hiroshima bombing was unnecessary and horrific). But from one perspective, it’s absurd how much time and talent is spent on devising horrific new kinds of weapons. It leaves you to wonder: if we spent as much time researching ways to improve life as we do researching new ways to destroy it, what wondrous things could human beings accomplish? 

All kinds of factors determine what knowledge gets produced. What kind of research is being funded? Who is funding it? Who has the time to study and learn? What are they taught? What information do they have access to? Whose voices will they hear? Will their own voices be heard? What do they have to do in order to make a living? I’m one of the lucky few in society who get to mostly spend my days thinking about the things I want to think about, asking the questions I want to ask and pursuing my intellectual interests where they lead me. That’s very rare, and even I am subject to economic pressures that can frustrate me and keep me from producing the work I would most like to produce. But because I’m so comparatively free, my creativity has really been allowed to flourish, and I make things that I could never have made if my circumstances had been different.

If Karl Marx’s poverty had killed him, maybe because he went out without his overcoat, we wouldn’t have Capital. If Capital hadn’t been written, revolutions around the world that did occur might not have occurred. I’m someone who believes that ideas and words matter a lot. Every historical event is a product, to one degree or another, of words. Someone has to convince people to join their political movement. They have to communicate their ideas. So much is affected by who gets to speak and whether they’ll be heard. It’s devastating to know that one of Palestine’s most effective voices was recently silenced forever. His isn’t the only voice we won’t hear from. There are also all of those Gould was thinking of. The people we don’t hear because they are tired after work every day, because they’re too busy trying to survive to organize their thoughts, or to let their mind wander for long stretches of time.

What I want is a world where everyone has enough time and energy to think, and the resources to produce whatever creative work interests them. We do not live in such a world right now, and I think the difficulty of noticing things absent (rather than things present) means we don’t often realize just how deprived we are of the contributions that could and would be made if people were able to fully flourish. There are the scientific breakthroughs that would occur if scientists didn’t spend half their time trying to find funding. There are the rich cultural treasures that would have been produced across the centuries by people who were kept subjugated. There are the poems that Refaat Alareer will never write. How much of our own capacity as a species do we destroy every day? How many wondrous things could we do that will never be done? We will only find out when we commit ourselves to guaranteeing each person the ability to flourish, and ending the brutal injustices that snuff out human potential. 

More In: Editor’s Notes

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs