From the vaults: Behind the crisis in liberal education

Posted: August 30, 2015 by Admin in Alienation, At the coalface, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Commodification, Cultural studies, Democracy movements, Economics, Limits of capitalism, Marxism, Students, Universities

The following article is another in our series of reprints of articles that originally appeared in revolution magazine, one of the print precursors of this blog. The article below appeared in the third issue of the magazine, dated August/September 1997. Although now 18 years old, it very much applies to universities here and now.

The modern university: Churning out the right subjects for contemporary capitalism

The modern university: Churning out the right subjects for contemporary capitalism

by Grant Pheloung

It is impossible to understand the fate of higher education in New Zealand without examining it in relation to capitalism. If we can see that the economics of universities are affected by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall then it is clear the kind of ‘knowledge’ produced in universities will be affected.

There is a clear connection between ‘money’ and ‘knowledge’, ‘profit’ and ‘pedagogy’ in universities in New Zealand and all other capitalist countries. As the economic slump continues, the ‘knowledge’ produced becomes increasingly apologetic in the face of shrinking opportunities for graduates.

Universities themselves reflect the sorry state of capitalism as a system. As fees increase and learning conditions worsen the student population has become less – rather than more – radical. Instead of the ‘brightest minds’ of our generation asking questions, they are passive and pessimistic about change.

Traditionally students were at the forefront of radical social movements and protest, taking collective action and fighting state repression; now it seems that students are more concerned with the economic viability of their degree than with engaging with the real world and trying to change it.

Understanding capitalism as a system

In order to understand the university in a capitalist society you must unnderstand capitalism as a historical economic and social system. Capitalism is characterised by three major aspects:

1. Generalised commodity production
The vast majority of products created under capitalism are not produced to be used by their producer, but for the purpose of being sold on the market to realise a profit. Therefore they are produced as commodities.

2. Class division
Capitalism is characterised by a class division between capitalists and workers. The means of production (eg factories, technology, machinery) are owned and controlled by a small minority while the vast majority owns no private property and therefore no means of production and are forced to sell their labour-power in order to survive.

3. Reproduction on an increasingly expanded scale
In order to survive, capitalists must reinvest substantial portions of surplus-value in new means of production and labour-power. More and more of society is drawn into the capitalist nexus. Capitalism continues on an ever-increasing scale to expand commodity production and force people into the two major classes, thereby enlarging the division of labour. The need to maximise profit levels also sends capital from the advanced capitalist countries into other areas of the world, where labour and raw materials are cheap.

This expanded scale of capitalist reproduction and the enlargement of the division of labour is important for understanding education under capitalism. The underlying economics of capitalism have a profound effect on the politics of education and the political and social relations that flow from that economic base.

Universities and capitalism

As the division of labour intensified with the rise of manufacturing and the factory system, the university changed and reflected the new social and economic conditions. The university today exercises a virtual monopoly on theoretical and scientific knowledge and has, in the same way as the factory destroyed the independent producer of commodities, eradicated the independent inventor, scholar and even fiction writers. In the same way as the factory and factory owner control the means of production, the university now regulates knowledge production.

The same tendencies that drive the production of commodities in the factory also affect knowledge production at the site of the university. In the context of the slump in capitalist profitability, the main priority at the university becomes knowledge production driven by and for profit. In other words, knowledge becomes separated off from such questions as ‘social emancipation’ and ‘human liberation’ and instead is bound up with, and subordinated to, questions of the expansion of capital or “Can we make money from this?”

Like all other ionstitutional sites, the university is thus caught in the social contradictions of capitalism and must try to resolve this position.

The university is therefore a site of class struggle where the drive for knowledge meets with the historical and economic limits of capitalism and the desire of the state to produce ‘good’ subjects for capitalism. However the larger tendencies of capitalism mute this struggle by what Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs has termed ‘reification’, which is related to the division of labour under the factory system.

The process of reification

Within the factory the absolute differentiation of tasks, and the subordination of each individual worker to a broader process over which the individual has no control and no comprehension, is the model of ‘reification’ which extends increasingly to the university under capitalism.

In the logic of reification, ‘objects’, physical and social, are viewed as separate, autonomous and isolated ‘things’ with no necessary or discernible connection between them. Thus ‘economics’, ‘political science’, ‘history’ and ‘lierature’ are seen as inherebtly separate and autonomous disciplines – no need is felt to integrate them within an understanding of society as a whole. Furthermore, the objects of study which correspond to these disciplines are treated mechanistically, reductively and idealistically. This allows for the separation between theoretical knowledge and actual practice and creates a highly fragmented consciousness that is unable to make connections between different spheres.

In this way the logic of reification creates an ‘ivory tower’ in which knowledge production has no connection to actual existing conditions and the mass of people are alienated from the university, a process which will only increase as the econoic barriers to higher education escalate.

Naturalising the limits of capitalism

The lack of action on the part of students, in the face of higher fees and shrinking opportunities, is a reflection of the economic and ideological exhaustion of contemporary capitalism. Unable to provide any dynamic vision of the future, the ideologists of the ruling class emphasise a society of limits and set about lowering the horizons and expectations of everyone, including students.

Under the present system what do students have to look forward to but harsh living conditions while studyng in cramped classes and, once their degree is completed, years of debt without any certainty of finding a job? After all, having a PhD is no guarantee of getting commensurate work.

The limits of what is actually a social system, created by human beings, are reified and naturalised as the way things inevitably are. This ‘naturalising’ is now the dominant function of the university as an institution which, far from being the place of objective social knowledge and ‘free-thinking’, is increasingly limited by a slump society. The university as a social site is caught in the contradictions of capitalism; supposedly committed to academic freedom, it finds that ‘freedom’ undermined by the authoriatarian demands of capitalist conformity and the authority of the market.

These contradictions – the degradation of knowledge and the lowered horizons inflicted on society by capitalism today – are even reflected in the way universities and other tertiary institutions present themselves to prospective students now.

“Awesome”, reads the half-page advertisement for the University of Canterbury featuring a student wide-mouthed and wearing glasses covered with the university’s emblem. In the text we read, “You know how sometimes you just get the feeling that someone’s really come into their own? Well, that’s how it was with her. She was really positive and confident. I guess it was that she’d flound what she wanted to do. . .”

The advertisement illustrates the sorry state of ‘higher learning’ under slump capitalism as it completely erases any notion of deep thinking or knowledge acquisition – surely what a university should be committed to. Instead it offers a subject effect (positive and confident) which is more attitude than education. Like other universities, Canterbury, increasingly caught in the contradiction between the pursuit of truth and ‘budgetary constraints’, is trying to make itself attractive in a market where it must comete wioth polytechnics by de-emphasising knowledge and fact acquisition – which could easily become a liability in the changing job market – and instead emphasise an anti-intellectual ‘feel-good’ factor.

Faced with the tyranny of the market the university must now drop all pretensions to ‘disinterested inquiry’ and stand revealed in its complicity with the status quo as producing the appropriate subject for slump capitalism.

The illusion of freedom

In the reproduction of any society the production of the historically-necessary subjectivities is essential. These necessary subjectivities are people who ‘see’ themselves as ‘free’ and ‘autonomous’ individuals who then ‘freely’ consent to the authority of the market and capitalism.

As Terry Eagleton has commented, “This form of subjectivity is the space of our freedom and creativity – which is to say, the place where we are bound most firmly to the capitalist social order. We are bound as firmly as we are precisely because we do not seem bound at all. The space of our modern subjectivity is a prison camp which offers itself as an endlessly open horizon.”

The depoliticised subject of the University of Canterbury advertisement is positive and confident (attitude) in the face of a continuing capitalist slump, reactionary government policies and objective social inequalities produced by the ruling social relations. The ad is a good example of the intellectual retreat that is happening globally – what is important is no longer abstract social thought and rational knowledge but instead the ‘pleasure’ of the university experience: “She’d just finished her first year of study. And she loved it. At Canterbury University. Of course.”

In place of rigorous study and in-depth theoretical knowledge of the historical and social world in which we live, we have individualised ‘experience’ or ‘strong feeling’ (‘awesome’). This produces a subject who, supposedly unrestrained by the laws of motion of capital and the real, objective limitations these laws place upon people’s lives and potential, views her/himself as a free individual, while blocking any inquiry into the status of this freedom. Thus, far from ‘educating’ well-rounded, free individuals, liberal education is actually a process of constructing one-dimensional subjects to fit the economic needs of the ruling class. Moreover, such subjects will lack the skills and critical thinking necessary to question and challenge the existing order of things, even when that order is undermining their own prospects in life.

One of the key ways in which critical knowledges are displaced today is through the utilisation of relativism.

The rise of relativism

At a time when there is clearly a great deal wrong in the world, it might appear logical that there should be a clash of views over big questions about society, for instance over the way society is organised. Yet the reverse is the case: these days the affirmation of any kind of strong opinions or deeply-held views is decidely out of fashion. Relativism and sensitivity are the order of the day.

The one place where you think this retreat from principles even as basic as ‘free speech’ and ‘open debate’ would be contested would be the university campus; but, instead, it seems that relativism and sensitivity are embraced most strongly within universities.

In fact relativism is institutionalised and taught as the ‘new’ post-modern way to deal with social problems. For instance, it is now argued that we do not need to examine the historical and material origins of racism in order to formulate a praxis to transform a racist society or practices; we just need to accept ‘difference’ and thereby create a social space that is conflict-free. This, of course, in no way explains or understands the existence and functioning of racism, but merely affirms the existing social differences, thus ‘naturalising’ the material inequalities of capitalism.

This relativism and sensitivity also produces a subject that is passive and compliant because, under the guise of removing unattractive racist attitudes (attitudes that are part of the material functioning of capitalism and cannot be removed by an act of personal will but only by a social revolution). In fact, it removes all political traits because all such traits are only instances of ‘difference’; they are therefore to be ‘respected’ and not ‘privileged’ over any other ‘difference’.

In ideological terms, this relativism, the right to be ‘different’, leaves matters unresolved, issues unclarified and tries to repress actual conflict. It shifts attention away from a historical social totality characterised by a class division between capitalists and workers and towards local and arbitrary matters of individual concern.

Uncertainty and compromise, taught as the ‘new’ concern for the contingencies of gender, race and sexuality, are the ideological tools of the ruling class at present because they allow the system to continue not by the promotion of specific principles, but by eschewing any fixed priniple at all. As Pat Roberts has noted on the retreat from principles: “Liberal anti-extremist sentiment and avant-garde cynicism provide the language in which such agnosticism can be peddled” (‘Problems of the New Political Cycle’, Living Marxism, February 1995,p30).

In other words, the university produces in ‘new’ and ‘different’ ways the ideological effects which sanction the values necessary for naturalising capitalism, masking the economic inequalities of the existing relations of production and producing a compliant labour force.

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