The academy in context


Philip Mirowski’s soon-to-be-published book, Science-Mart, contains a good discussion of the destruction of the university as community of scholars.

This epochal – literally millennial – event is placed in some kind of political-economic context:

Viewed dispassionately, the ultimate objective of US education policy is two-pronged: to preserve a few private legacy institutions like the Ivy League for the affluent seeking that boutique diploma, encouraging them to flirt with corporate behavior but never entirely renounce their special status; and for the great mass of the population, to convert most of the rest of opportunities to low-cost for-profit options. The great public state universities are being slowly phased out: appropriations cut except when the sports teams are doing well; permanent faculty replaced with contract labor; the top-down imposition of business models on academic units in the name of ‘accountability’; and the blurring of public/private identities.

In this configuration of the future of education, it has not gone unnoticed that there is very little room for an elaborate or extensive research capacity. The cheap for-profits providing distance education have explicitly renounced any such functions as not a part of the business plan; the state universities lose their ability to maintain a diversified base as tenured faculty are phased out; and the gold-plated private schools pour most of their own resources into areas of the natural sciences that are able to attract private money, while starving everything else. The net result can only be that, wherever research is to be conducted, it will only be supported under conditions of commercialized co-operation with external corporations.

And here we observe the individual trends described above begin to mesh together into a neoteric system. Everywhere you turn, things that used to be cheap (if not free), are now occasions for making a profit. In the New Knowledge Economy, a dollop of high-class human capital is an offer you cannot afford to refuse, so you are willing to pay dearly for it, including student loans that stretch out well into your working career. If you are not one of the fortunate few born with a silver spoon or a golden credit rating, then the Internet supplies a lower quality version of the commodity on the cheap in the form of distance education. Since education is no longer about the formation of citizenship or character, then all that really matters is that some bureaucratic entity sanctions that you purchased the stipulated commodity—one reason for the popularity of the MBA and the undergraduate business major. The worldwide strengthening of IP imposes this Knowledge Economy upon the entire globe, under the rubric of Free Trade, including the ability of areas newly devoid of manufacturing to apparently live off the tribute of far-off others. Since the whole idea of an academic peer group loses its rationale, and information shades off imperceptibly into infotainment, knowledge becomes defined in a circular manner as whatever the market will pay for. And just when the modern corporation seeks to outsource its R&D functions as part of its restructuring, voilà, universities everywhere are vying with each other to accept contract research. Since information can be digitally transferred, owned and controlled far outside the bounds of the nation state, the university as research provider finds it must compete with both non-academic and foreign academic units, imitating the prior global reach of the transnational corporation.

Is it just an accident that such far-flung phenomena come together into something that looks very much like an integrated political economy?

Indeed, the university is just one theatre of operations in a decades-long project to raise the share of social activity subject to for-profit production. This is what Duncan Foley has called an outward shift of the ‘commodity frontier’, now encroaching upon more and more aspects of human life.

Through privatization of state assets, and other uglier means, capitalist property relations and commercial imperatives have expanded into formerly publicly-owned or not-for-profit territory.

Sectors with low capital-output ratios, such as education, have proved especially profitable and alluring targets.

Average, economy-wide rates of return on investment, from their low point in the 1980s, have thereby received a rejuvenating, if temporary, shot.

But the corresponding effect on the newly-colonized zones – including knowledge and intellectual enquiry – has been stultifying. The STEM fields have ensured a healthy afterlife performing outsourced R&D, but most disciplines of the humanities, social sciences and liberal arts have assumed an undead pallor.

Something more lurks behind this.

It is alluded to by Mirowski as ‘the ability of areas newly devoid of manufacturing to apparently live off the tribute of far-off others.’

The trade deficits of countries including the US, UK and Australia arise from the unwillingness, at prevailing rates of return, of resident firms and their owners to make investments in their respective productive bases (i.e. capital goods, plant and equipment).

A large proportion of the economy of these countries is in fact unproductive.

The activities of their large financial, advertising and legal sectors constitute a deduction from the social product. The agents whose income depends on such activities (the employees of the unproductive sectors, as well as executive management and all those whose income derives from interest and dividend payments) have gained the right to unproductively consume the product of the basic sector.

This of course leaves less available for reinvestment in production and employment. Such a slowdown in accumulation follows predictably from the maturation of capitalist economies.

In such circumstances, the role of education is no longer to provide the population with the widespread technical and general knowledge necessary for growth in national wealth or real capital assets (as distinct from monetary profit).

Instead, the priority of higher education becomes, as Mirowski explains:

  1. Extracting revenue from maintenance of the great mass of the population at subsistence levels of learning;
  2. Bestowal of titles to income streams. Today’s patents of nobility are degrees in law, finance, management etc., awarded by prestigious universities and marked with the necessary seal.

As (2) makes clear, the purpose of grandes écoles is simply to ration entry to the ruling elite.

This has become clear in the arguments surrounding affirmative action. Racial quotas in admissions to graduate programmes at high-end colleges are explicitly justified by the presumed existence of a ‘compelling state interest’ in ensuring ‘diversity’ of those student bodies from which corporate and state leaderships are selected.

Major corporations contributed this argument in an amicus brief for a case involving the University of Michigan Law School:

The students of today are this country’s corporate and community leaders of the next half-century… Diversity in higher education is therefore a compelling government interest not only because of its positive effects on the educational environment itself, but also because of the crucial role diversity in higher education plays in preparing students to be the leaders this country needs in business, law, and all other pursuits that affect the public interest.

The effect of all this on the wider culture, here joining other trends, is of course dismal. The state’s withdrawal from education provision leaves the way increasingly clear – no crowding out! – for the free dissemination of ignorance and obscurantism. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

Hence the bumptious philistinism of a ruling elite stacked with law degrees and MBAs; the thriving agnotology of climate-change denial, anti-vaccination guff and industry shilling; the inconsequential joshing of continental philosophy, with its latest ‘post-secular turn’; the desperate unseriousness of mass culture.

These phenomena are usually described with a sort of cheery grumbling. They inspire their proper dread only when viewed with an eye to the longue durée.

The urban efflorescence of eleventh-century Europe, centred on Italy and Flanders, and which birthed the university, was founded on a simple division of labour with the countryside. Agricultural surpluses, extracted as rent from the peasantry, were exchanged by lords for armaments and luxury textiles from the towns. This trade formed the basis for the towns’ mercantile and artisan culture. From it also emerged Europe’s first non-monastic institutions of higher learning since the fall of the Western Empire. The university as autonomous community of scholars subsequently survived through peasant revolts, plague and demographic collapse, Reformation, the absolutist state, revolution and intra-European warfare, the solvent of capitalism, transplantation to other continents, and so on. Its decline now should alert us to the fundamental shifts going on beneath us, of geological significance but occuring on the timescale of a human lifespan.


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8 Responses to “The academy in context”

  1. Know Nothings « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] of income. The former was an algebraic result of the latter, not its cause. Similarly, as Philip Mirowski has observed, what today counts as ‘knowledge’ is determined by what someone is willing to pay for. […]

  2. Voices in the air « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] characteristic modes of valuation, and private-property rights into new social domains, including higher education, health, retirement provision, entire countries, charity and now the atmosphere. The latter item is […]

  3. Our favourite peons « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] work in the ‘career path’ of many young people in advanced economies is bound up with changes to higher education. In recent decades, due to rising tuition fees and an inflated housing market, many young adults […]

  4. Australian native title in context: group-based corporate property in the SW Pacific « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] new domains including retirement provision, the atmosphere, marine fisheries, river basins, higher education, charity, and whole regions of the world from which capitalist property relations were […]

  5. Go long on nonsense! Higher learning from the office tower « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] The demise of the millennium-old scholarly project (the university as community of scholars, with its own internal standards of quality control, peer review, discipline and legitimacy, free to some extent from ecclesiastic or commercial judgement) is a product of a particular stage in the development of capitalism. […]

  6. The ‘green’ economy: a fantasy fuelled by financialization « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] have played a privileged role in commercializing university research, and transforming ‘discoveries’ into claims on wealth that entitle their holder (the […]

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    […] labour-intensive lines of production (e.g. ‘service’ industries such as health and education), the growth of unproductive employment (e.g. in law, advertising and financial services), and the […]

  8. Australian native title in context: incorporated group-based property in the SW Pacific | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] new domains including retirement provision, the atmosphere, marine fisheries, river basins, higher education, charity, and whole regions of the world from which capitalist property relations were […]

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