[iDC] Defending UC

Blake Stimson blakestimson at gmail.com
Sun Oct 2 07:26:17 UTC 2011

Thanks again Brian for your thoughtful and productive challenges and your gracious highlighting of our common ground. We agree about the democratic aims you outline and the corruption of the democratic political process that the Koch brothers represent. I assume a wide swath of the political spectrum would also agree even if many don't know to call such freedom from corruption social democracy or communism and don't realize they are inadvertently supporting its demise. 

I think where we disagree is on what is needed now--you say "communities" and I say "institutions." By the latter I mean what Pierre Bourdieu had in mind when he said "We must never forget that institutions of cultural freedom are social conquests, no less so than Social Security or the minimum wage." I would even go so far as to agree with him when he said that in order to effectively pursue the democratic aims you outline, we "must first come to grips with the fact that, to carry this project forward, there must be chairs of philosophy or departments of sociology (which implies specific forms of alienation), that philosophy or social science as official disciplines, sanctioned by the state, have to have been invented, etc."

Bourdieu's words sound startlingly old-fashioned to our neoliberal ears, for sure, but this is only to say that we are products of our time no less than those of any other period. Our era is defined first and foremost by the dissolution of democratic institutions--social security, minimum wage, universities, etc--and the redistribution of the commonwealth that once supported them into the pockets of the Kochs and their friends. This has been accomplished by appropriating the anti-institutionalism of the 1960s New Left. The founding slogans of that anti-institutionalism that carries on today with the lavish financial support of the Kochs and others are still "There's no such thing as society" and "Government is the problem not the solution." 

Your critique of higher ed is absolutely on target but I think you put it too strongly when you say that it has been fully "eviscerated." It has suffered from the privatization wrought by the redistribution of wealth but just like the communities you refer to (perhaps we could use this list as an example of one such community?), higher ed institutions are not monolithic and homogenous entities but instead fields of debate, negotiation, and battle. Your advocacy for critical communities seems absolutely right to me as well but I would say that the communal creativity you refer to--I would call it social entrepreneurialism--is only the means, not the end. The means is important, of course, but the goal is Bourdieu's "institutions as social conquests"--minimum wage, say, or free speech laws that acknowledge the ways that money makes speech unfree, or educational institutions that not only train students to be instrumentalized DIY consumers of knowledge in the same way they build playlists but also to be independent critical thinkers actively in dialogue with a long history of accumulated and actively contested human understanding. 

Communities are often institutions-in-the-making, of course, but until the social conquest of durable institutional form has been achieved they are just as prone--maybe even more likely--to end up as somebody else's cultural capital. As such, I worry that abandoning institutionalized higher ed as an existing social conquest (by treating it merely as an empty "shell") in favor of new, still unformed "platforms"--particularly when I think we both agree that the name of that platform in the end is most likely to be some variant of "iTunes U." 


On Sep 29, 2011, at 9:29 AM, Brian Holmes wrote:

> It's great to sustain the public debate, Blake. It's the only way to get beyond the usual schiz of
> promotional confidence and total cynicism.
>> I assume that we both agree that the root issue vis-a-vis education
>> today is something like the progressive displacement of
>> socially-minded critical thinking by opportunistic, self-interested
>> calculation and the role this has played in the antidemocratic
>> redistribution of wealth and power that defines our times.
> We agree on that!
>> I understand you to see bureaucratized higher ed as the bigger cause of
>> this whereas I take the future of DIY higher ed to be more
>> significant. In the 1960s I would have agreed with you that
>> institutions are the problem. Now that the most successful challenges
>> to the Establishment arise from the unholy marriage between Tea Party
>> resentment and Wall Street greed, I think institutions are less of a
>> problem than the larger cultural effort to dismantle them.
> But here our analysis diverges, because I think that universities have already been largely repurposed along neoliberal lines. I don't think UC is public anymore. The ethos of equality does not exist in the system, because the administrators are frankly on the take, the majority of professors are paid off the wage scale and most of teaching is done by adjuncts under vastly unequal conditions. If Schwartz's analysis is right, there is no public support for undergraduates since their tuition pays for their entire education, while the government, corporate and endowment money goes to sports and research labs. To this extent, "the market" is not exterior to "the institution." Rather, since the time of Re agan and Clinton you have a powerful and partially completed trend towards a "market institution." There is a lot of frustration and anger across the board in the face of this situation, and the point is to elevate those sentiments into a constructive leftist and social-democratic critique of that which founds them in reality. I am, by the way, a taker when it comes to names, references, projects elaborating such critique. Without it the left is just nostalgia.
>> In the best light, the future of DIY higher ed seems rightfully
>> enough labeled "iTunes U," with large corporations serving as
>> clearing houses for, say, a progressively defunded and deregulated
>> science curriculum that ranges from biopolitics to evolution to
>> creationism.
> Here again we agree. I think the ideal corporate model is functional knowledge piped directly into your brain by networked media without any of that subversive classroom and discussion stuff. As a complement, the traditional upper classes and their more recent imitators have no intention of letting go of the Ivy League schools where more agile and powerful forms of subjectivity can be cultivated.
>> Looked at in a poorer light we might imagine future
>> higher ed to be more like the US insurance/healthcare industry
>> now--with market dynamics progressively disenfranchising a growing
>> segment of the population through voucher policies and
>> democratically-minded politicians increasingly vilified for their
>> efforts to provide some minimal measure of equal access. Further, it
>> will surely be significantly harder to fight for any standards of
>> equal access to education because it is less important than
>> healthcare.
> This will definitely be the case if the marketization of the state university systems is completed! That's why I am saying it's nuts to "defend UC" without a deep critique of what's already indefensible in it. The grad student/adjunct population has a very sour view of the institution today, largely based on their economic experience doing the majority of the teaching without ever having a career. So the so-called public university is supported on a foundation of seething resentment. Without a simultaneous recognition of the situation the graduate teachers are describing and an effort to campaign against it very actively and at all levels - analysis, department and university politics, activism, state and national politics - there will be no social forces to resist the kind of Tea Party populism that is shown in the sinister Lebed "College Conspiracy" video you linked to, which is worth watching for sure (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpZtX32sKVE). We do need a critique of neoliberal financialization, which is the target of that video. But we don't need *their* critique, because it will turn us into morons under the boot of the right-wing oligarchies.
>> To repeat for emphasis, I am not saying that DIY initiatives from
>> Wikipedia to many of the projects referred to on this list are not
>> valuable. Nor am I saying that existing higher ed institutions should
>> not be critiqued and transformed. Instead, I am saying that such
>> critical DIY initiative needs to be pursued with a clear sense of
>> larger social, political, and economic interests that circulate
>> through the huge education economy so that it can most effectively
>> pursue its own aims and not be a pawn in someone else's game.
> Here we go! We perfectly agree. However probably I take it a good deal further than you and I'm curious what you and other people may think.
> I think we need to create a strong left civil society that can make ideas politically active. This is urgent because the right is doing their version of it, and after the long Reagan and Clintonian transformation of the New Deal institutions, this effort of the right cannot be fought by just defending the eviscerated shells of formerly public institutions. To create a powerful left praxis with only a weak institutional base and no billionaire Koch-brother resources is going to require several things. The creation of intense discursive communities outside the university. The movement of people between universities, critical communities, workplaces and social movements. The forging of a new egalitarian political discourse and a cooperative aesthetics. The creation of supple and resilient networks to link all that. Ultimately, new political platforms based in this expansion of critical civil society and social movements.
> It sounds like a lot, but otherwise it looks to me like the writing is on the wall for social democracy, let alone the "communist horizon" that Jodi Dean is talking about. I guess university professors would have to begin by reorienting their research and publishing activities towards areas that have some use value for people outside, while simultaneously elaborating meta-discourses to prove to themselves, first of all, that this is not about populism or the watering down of their subjects, but instead about the creation of a more rich and socially complex form of knowledge. Personally I find that kind of creativity the most passionately interesting one!
> further, Brian

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