[iDC] Defending UC

Brian Holmes bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com
Sun Oct 2 20:54:36 UTC 2011

On 10/02/2011 02:26 AM, Blake Stimson wrote:
> 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."

Now this is interesting stuff! As you surely know, Bourdieu's ideas 
largely underlay the biggest strike in France since 1968, in which the 
sociologist himself played a very active role. This was the so-called 
"metropolitan strike," where millions of unaffiliated citizens joined 
transportation and other public sector workers for over a month in the 
winter of 1995, particularly to defend universal public healthcare which 
is what they mean by "Social Security." They defended by taking 
institutional power to the street. I lived in France at that time, 
participated in that strike, and had many chances over two decades to 
understand how strong social-democratic/egalitarian forces can create 
and exercise socially progressive powers from within institutional 
positions which are not closed upon themselves. Therefore I understand 
very well what you are talking about when you quote Bourdieu. And so I 
repeat, my argument is NOT one of simplistically opposing the academic 
institution to community activism, labor organizing or the work of 
public intellectuals. (And by the way, I am puzzled why you want to lump 
all that together with the market: it's generally managers and business 
theorists who conflate these different categories into a blanket notion 
of "social entrepreneurialism").

My argument is that social-democratic/egalitarian institutions in the 
United States have been seriously and often almost mortally weakened by 
their closure around themselves, through the increasingly 
self-referential nature of their specializations and above all, through 
their increasing focus of their highest ranked individuals on their own 
exclusive interests (whether as sectoral groups or as private persons). 
The latter process has not only exposed those specific professional 
groups to damaging corruption, which I define quite simply the neglect 
of the public interest in favor of private profit. It has also allowed 
the broader neoliberalization of public institutions to proceed 
practically unchecked, resulting in the conditions denounced by the 
occupations movement in the UC system two years ago, and much more 
widely, by the occupations movement now targeting the financial 
nerve-centers of neoliberal capitalism. Therefore I argue that to 
overcome the increasing tendency of academics to become an interest 
group among others, there has to be an effort to step outside the 
boundaries of the disciplines, to cease the market-oriented emphasis on 
"excellence," and to address the fast-degrading conditions of the 
university, the public sphere in general, and society as a whole. And I 
mean, to address it politically, and not just descriptively or 
theoretically (because most of that essential work has already been 
done). For this I now propose a strategy of cooperation, cross 
fertilization and also positively dialectical rivalry between those 
working in universities and others occupying various positions within a 
post-industrial society of mass intellectuality which is now subject to 
rapid proletarianization, where the greatest number are threatened by 
hypercompetitive predatory strategies which professionals of all kinds, 
including professors, are called upon to embody, to exercise and even to 
exemplify. These predatory strategies are the very ones that we see at 
work within the neoliberalized university -- or rather, that I see, 
because you seem to be in some denial on that point.

> 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.

How could I not agree? Because since 1995 I have been knocking myself 
out to illuminate exactly those things, through diverse media and in 
discursive styles that many different kinds of people can understand and 
act on. My 2001 essay "The Flexible Personality," which describes in 
detail what you're talking about, was explicitly designed to 
cross-connect French, American and German intellectual traditions, to 
appeal to several different generations of critical and dissenting 
intellectuals whether academics or not, to produce actionable knowledge 
for political activism and to smuggle that knowledge past the 
disciplinary gatekeepers and into the academic institutions where it 
could combat the facile New Leftism of tenured radicals. I am glad to 
say that the gambit was a success, the text has been read by many 
thousands if not tens of thousands of people and translated into some 
ten different languages. In between times I also collaborated on 
Documenta X which helped make critical political analysis and activism 
part of the Euro-American institutions of art once again. Plus I helped 
translate every vanguard concept I worked on into some kind of socially 
active practice and campaign. In many cases these campaigns have been 
anti-institutional because the institutions concerned have been 
self-referential, neutralizing and frankly corrupt: check out my 
arch-Bourdieusian text "Liar's Poker" if you want an example. Now, I'm 
sorry for the immodesty but I say these things, first just to clarify 
where I'm coming from, and second, to suggest more generally that there 
are ways to defend social democratic and egalitarian institutions which 
do not involve defending one's own self-interests, and that you can do 
that from outside the academy without being some kind of "entrepreneur" 
or useful fool of the Koch brothers.

You probably know that in the wake of 1995, and increasingly toward the 
end of his life, Bourdieu supported many European social movements 
including the counter-globalization movements. He also did a number of 
public appearances and interviews with anarchists and 
anarcho-syndicalists, whose traditions, he claimed, deserved further 
attention and elaboration in the present. Why such a claim from the 
inveterate defender of public institutions? Because he was keenly aware 
of the complacency, corruption and political ineffectiveness of the 
broad majority of those institutional positions which he had struggled 
throughout his life to build into something more potent and useful. 
Bourdieu explicitly theorized a conception of intellectual capital which 
at once proposed the necessity of accumulating it within the precincts 
of internally governed professional/disciplinary fields, AND the 
necessity of "spending it," that is, of exchanging it for social, 
cultural, political and/or symbolic capital, so that the accumulated 
institutional power could have effects in the fields of labor and 
community organizing, of art and cultural activity, of formal politics 
and in the broad symbolic field of public perception and belief.

Here's what I think. Academics who have no intellectual capital had 
better build it right now through ethical-political struggles within 
their own hypercompetitive, corrupt, and radically inegalitarian fields. 
Which means changing the ways they work so that the products are not 
self-referential, self-interested and therefore aligned with predatory 
neoliberal management strategies. Those who have built it up already 
through such struggles had better spend it right now, critiquing and 
opposing the sudden and violent power grab that money capital has been 
carrying out since 2008 on the entire public sphere and on the majority 
of humanity, or "bare life" as Agamben says. I have been told that 
Cornell West is camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York City. Until I 
see great numbers of purportedly leftist academics following suit, 
either in that movement or in other, better, more potent ones, I shall 
go on trying to help you by producing concepts and agitational forms, 
and (in all friendliness) by goading you from those extradisciplinary 
and extra-institutional positions that I occupy and which are 
dialectically related to the public institutions, as civil society is 
dialectically related to the state. One of the concepts I'll continue to 
use is that of the "total corruption" which in my considered analysis is 
threatening the public university and all public institutions.

It's a pleasure to have a good debate, so thank you, Blake. Respect to 
all those who resist and create!


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