In this mailing we include two recent articles from ZNet, but first a little news.
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And now here are the two articles. The first article is about understanding events in Venezuela to date as well as potentially coming in the future. It is by Michael Albert. The second article is on academic labor by Noam Chomsky. It is excerpted from a public talk on the topic.
By Michael Albert
People are confused about Venezuela, and reasonably so. Why conflicts? Who is protesting? On what scale? What is the government response? What are the deeper issues? Even more, what do the deeper issues and possible responses portend for the future?
Answers vary greatly, even among non-hysterical commentators.
For example, as to why, some astute folks say the protests are an effort by Leonardo Lopez to usurp leadership of the opposition from Henrique Capriles. Others say the protests seek to push the government into repressive measures in order to undermine its support. Still others say the protests seek to remove Maduro and sweep away all aspects of Chavismo.
As to who, some say the battles are orchestrated by Venezuela’s rich, others say it is discontent from average folks without prodding. Some say it is wealthy students, others say it is students per se. Some say it is militarily savvy thugs and even Columbian exiles, others say it is kids without portfolio. Some say the country is massively against the government, others say this is a serious because violent uprising but is carried out by small numbers with largely elite backgrounds.
As to the government’s response, some say they are engaging in harsh repression, others say they are exercising extreme restraint. Some point to deaths and claim government killers, others point to deaths and claim opposition killers. Some call government interference with media dictatorial censorship, others say private papers and TV operate with near total abandon with only minor curtailments temporarily warranted to reduce violence.
To me, however, the protests appear to be primarily opposing precisely what is good about Chavismo, in particular income redistribution, dispersal of power, and increasing mass participation. They attract ample average folks with serious criticisms of crime, corruption, inflation, and shortages, as well. The popular concerns appear to be used, however, by Venezuela’s most reactionary elements, perhaps to shift the balance of power in their own movement, but perhaps hoping to create enough havoc to attract international intervention to remove the government. The government, in contrast, appears to be trying to curtail public disruptions without resorting to extensive violence, though with some elements no doubt favoring greater repression. To me, the situation mirrors but also escalates the whole Bolivarian history, wherein the government has sought massive change but without coercion and true to respecting elections, while the opposition has wished to reverse election results and employed any means they could find — including coup, sabotage and overt violence.
Beyond choosing sides on these matters, perhaps I can shed some light on future possibilities and indicate the kind of data that would clarify not only what is occurring, but also what is in the cards for the future.
Factors Propelling the Conflicts
What problems have generated opposition and especially the forceful disruption of social services? What has motivated small numbers of dissidents to blockade streets, set fires, hurl rocks, and even shoot officials and others? What caused the public emergence of fascistic dissidents like the Retired General who outspokenly urged blockaders to kill citizens by stretching nearly invisible clothes line like wires across roads, which, indeed, decapitated a citizen? What caused the government to utilize police and “riot squads”?
The biggest factor generating opposition is the logic of the Bolivarian Revolution. Chavismo seeks to enlarge public participation, undercut old forms of authority and power, develop workers councils and neighborhood councils and communes, and fundamentally redistribute Venezuelan wealth to Venezuela’s poor from its rich. All of this generates fierce opposition from the owning class and often also those high in religious or other hierarchies. Resistance against redistribution and the rest motivates Lopez, Capriles, and the opposition generally, as well as the private media and the owners of private companies and many in their upper strata of employees. Like the rich and well off everywhere — not least in the U.S. — these folks tend to pursue their own interests.
Beyond the opposition’s leadership, however, it is not known how many young people dissenting in the streets are also motivated by a rejection of Chavismo’s virtues. The youth in the streets appear to be overwhelmingly from well off sectors, often private universities, and when interviewed, complain that they have no future. Does “we have no future” mean they are concerned about crime or inflation? Or does it mean they desire great wealth and power, and realize such privileges are at risk? Given their background, their quite violent and impassioned behavior makes some sense if they are worried about their preferred futures as wealthy and powerful elite citizens — but not if they are merely worried about crime. The good news is that the number of students blocking streets and worse remains relatively low.
Factors which concern a far wider population — including most Chavistas — include corruption, crime, inflation, and shortages. The reason to be angry about these problems is they dramatically diminish the quality of life. But, a large issue is, what are the roots of these problems?
Corruption means, to me, people enriching themselves via illegitimate behavior undertaken at the expense of others. (In this sense, to me, all of capitalist business is corrupt, but let’s set that aside.) So where do we see corruption in Venezuela?
The price of milk is subsidized so the poor get ample. That’s a good policy but it gets a bit complicated. Say you live reasonably near the border with Brazil. If you produce milk and you export it, or even if you just buy lots of milk at its low subsidized price and smuggle it over the border, there is a killing to be made because you can sell it for way more in Brazil. The temptation is great. The margin is high. There is plenty of excess profit, enough, even, to bribe folks. And the milk supply inside Venezuela drops — even into shortages. The same goes for oil/gas, even more so, say, at the border with Columbia. Worse still, the access to corrupt advantage by exploiting subsidized prices is hugely aggravated by Venezuela’s approach to exchange rates for Bolivars and dollars. Suffice it to say that policies aimed at benefitting the poor and stabilizing sensible rather than market-ruled prices inside Venezuela, as a byproduct create avenues for huge financial gains by the corrupt practice of buying with Bolivares inside and selling for dollars outside, and coming back and getting way more Bolivares in exchange than you initially spent — or even by just directly exploiting government largess for travel and the like.
What about crime’s causes? First, we might wonder how could the Chavistas have the slightest interest in generating or even just being soft on crime? That is not plausible. Corruption? Some yes, are complicit. But crime, robbery, kidnapping, murder? No. In contrast, the opposition and local police often have a very real interest in increasing levels of crime. First, some engage in it for personal gain. Second, and more important, they want it to flourish so as to create disenchantment and dissent. The largest uptick in crime, I am told, though I have doubts, had to do with Columbian exiles escaping Columbian repression and arriving to operate in Venezuela. The key factor is criminal behavior of the usual sort, but given considerable room to maneuver by opposition-supporting, or criminally bribed, local police.
Shortages have to do with exchange rates and subsidized goods being smuggled out, and with outright sabotage by opposition owners who stockpile output that they don’t ship out, literally to create shortages. Again, one can ask, what possible motive would the government have to itself promote shortages? Of course, if a wealthy person feels a shortage that isn’t a priority to correct for the government in their high end stores, and realizes that it is caused, in part, by the government subsidizing prices for the poor, this person might see things differently than I indicate. One important point is that shortages do indeed hit the middle and upper classes hardest partly because those constituencies have no experience of not getting what they want and have no patience for it, and partly because the government is very diligent to ensure that lower income citizens aren’t made hungry.
(There are many articles on ZNet about all these matters – the events and their causes – and I would suggest a quick study and overview is the two recent video pieces by Greg Wilpert, first on the events now occurring and their causes, and second on inflation and the economy. From there, I hope you will avail yourself of the other content available on Z, to get a deeper view.)
There is, however, another explanation that some offer for shortages – not obstruction and sabotage by owners, not corrupt export and smuggling of products to neighboring countries for profit – but low productivity. Some see this as due to workers in the public sector not fearing for their jobs and, as a result, slacking off. Others see it as workers in those sectors feeling alienated due to their relations not altering dramatically from past alienated ways, and in that mood, they slow down.
Reactions to the Street Conflicts
So, what’s next? What will the government and population do both about the demonstrations and about the underlying issues – and what will it auger for the future?
First, about disruptions in the streets, there are ultimately only a few short run choices. The first three, I think, are obviously flawed and will be seen as such in Venezuela.
- The government and the public can hope it winds down. I think this is likely not wise, because spontaneously winding down is not guaranteed, but friends in Venezuela and the U.S. who know more than I do, think it is quite likely. Also, while most outside Venezuela think these demonstrations are hurting the government, that isn’t the only view. Others, largely from Venezuela, think that the opposition is accepting losing domestic support, which is fed up, in hopes of attracting international aid. If such aid isn’t forthcoming, the opposition winds up losing due to its miscalculation.
- If disruption doesn’t dissipate on its own, or even grows, the government could bring it to an end by leaving office, or, short of that, by giving very clear and convincing signs that Chavismo will relent in its plans and no longer threaten and instead even support the interests of wealth and power. Both those options would sacrifice the poor for the rich. I hope they are not even being contemplated.
- I have also heard some say the government could share power. Let the opposition into a revamped government – say 40% opposition to Chavismo’s 60% in federal positions. There are many problems with this seeming high road, not least that for the opposition it would merely be a beachhead in pursuit of attaining full power and eradicating progressive gains and desires. There would be a brief calm, perhaps, followed quickly by the opposition seeking more, and using its newly gained positions to go back on the attack.
As the above three options seem to me badly flawed, I can only offer some hypothetical additional options trying to clarify what else we might see.
- The government and public institutions and movements could work hard to undermine all support for violent dissent even in opposition constituencies, and perhaps particularly among the young. This means literally going to opposition youth and talking, clarifying, elaborating, etc. It should have been occurring for many years, as a high priority – and one of my criticisms of the Bolivarian process has long been the relative lack of attention to this task. Can outreach be done in such hostile times? I don’t know, but it is certainly worth trying.
- The government could repress, with restraint, the most violent elements of the opposition in hopes of diminishing violence and opposition energy. I should say, describing the government as violent thugs is ridiculous, at least so far. With opposition blocking streets, burning fires, assaulting citizens, attacking public offices and officials, and attacking police and troops to provoke a response, all while calling for mayhem and even murder, if the government was the bunch of authoritarian thugs most media claims, the death toll would be vastly higher — rather than being low with most seemingly caused by the opposition, and with those in the government responsible for violence being charged, as has occurred.
- The government could repress with massive force and aggressive tactics. It could jail widely and meet any counter action that is violent with overwhelming repression. In short, it could do the kind of thing that would immediately occur in the U.S.
- The government and the population could respond to violent dissent with nonviolent organization. This would be unprecedented, I believe. 50 to a 100 to 200 opposition stalwarts occupy an intersection. Instead of police arriving and seeking to forcefully clear them away, imagine a march of a 1000 or 5000 or 20,000 citizens seeking to pass or just continually removing obstacles and cleaning up the mess opposition activity leaves behind. What does the opposition do against that? What makes this hard to organize is that the opposition is smart enough to stay clear of poor neighborhoods. It instead acts largely in middle class and upper class areas where there aren’t such constituencies available to nonviolently displace it. So this adds another possible tactic. Unarmed and nonviolent Chavistas could block and even close in violent actors, reducing their ability to commit mayhem on down town streets. Could nonviolent mass popular activity work fully? Probably not. But such approaches, done in large scale, with the government indicating that it has no intention of fighting with people who have just grievances even if they are acting in consort with those who do not, might go a long way to helping with point 1, above. And if opposition intransigence and violence persists, then a degree of forceful dispersal would be better justified and clearer to implement as well as less likely to slip slide into something lasting.
So, regarding the above options, if we see steadily more of 1 – that is a good sign. More 2 – with restraint, certainly isn’t exemplary, but nor is it likely to be a slip slide into bad outcomes. More 3, however, would augur a potential growing sway of repressive and authoritarian thought, a very sad possibility and one that the opposition would love to provoke. More 4 would, supposing it proved possible, be exemplary.
How will we know which is happening? This is a judgment call. One has to utilize reports and come to tentative conclusions. For myself, I don’t trust mainstream reports — they have been and will remain overwhelmingly absurd — though by repetition also very effective. Opposition claims are reported as fact, even when they are demonstrably and self-evidently ridiculous. Likewise manufactured images and videos are broadcast as fact. So it isn’t just biased spin, which is bad enough, it is description that is horribly unreliable — to put it mildly.
Thus, as usual, one needs to find trustworthy journalists, if possible on the scene. It is true that left and progressive journalists, whether on the scene or not, could also generate information that is biased or just honestly wrong. So, again, one has to find worthwhile sources. I heartily recommend, Z, of course – but also, and especially, Venezuela Analysis. Some will say, but wait, Venezuela Analysis is composed of folks who are pro Chavista. True. But VA’s writers are also, as far as I can determine, independent and aggressively honest, including criticizing the government. They have few material means, but a great deal of drive and commitment to journalism. Strangely, many activists, right now – though in no other case that I can readily remember – dismiss any commentator who likes the Bolivarian revolution, which tends to mean anyone who is writing about Venezuela and sincerely concerned about the well-being of the bulk of the Venezuelan people. On the other side, typically folks will decry, perhaps, but then be very substantially affected by the barrage of reports from mainstream newspapers and TV. Mainstream messages are in our face, over and over. To find reports, isolated and rarely repeated, that contradict the mainstream, one has to look. After a while even many who abstractly understand the motives of mainstream media feel, well, they are professional, they have means, they report frequently and widely, they all seem to agree, and look how polished and large they are. Their reports must be true. Alternative viewpoints are small, few, and I can’t even find them. They must be delusional, biased, etc. The Catch 22 in all this ought to be very evident. We critique mainstream media for their institutional constraints, their connection to wealth and power, and so on. We praise alternative media for the opposite. So far, so good. But then, at least in this case, many of us imbibe what the mainstream pushes, and ridicule what the alternative reports.
Reactions to Deeper Concerns
Now what about the deeper issues – crime, corruption, inflation, and shortages? What lies behind those? What might the government and the population do on those fronts, and what would the choices auger?
The broad indicators are these. Does a particular policy that seeks to deal with any of these problems – or any other problems, for that matter – improve the conditions of the poor and weak and not the rich and powerful, or vice versa? Does such a policy increase the capacity of the poor and weak to seek further gains and diminish the capacity of the rich and powerful, or vice versa?
Venezuela is still a capitalist country with many institutions and associated constituencies that want to keep it that way but also with a federal government and a great many grass roots and also federal institutions that are seeking change toward a new system. When there are problems – and there are – the question is, are they addressed in a manner that moves Venezuela back toward old repressive relations, or in a manner that moves Venezuela toward liberating new relations?
Indicators to consider when deciding are the likely effects of proposed policies on the consciousness and organizational wherewithal of constituencies on either side of the old system versus new system divide, and on their well being and the resources they can utilize for their own current lives as well as for fighting for or to prevent more gains in the future.
So, take crime. Reducing the ease of committing crime it is positive, as is prosecuting within the dictates of the constitution, particularly if there is also sympathy and attempts at rehabilitation. Removing the incentives to commit crime and making it harder to undertake is positive, as well. So is reducing the temptation to commit crime and the ease of gaining advantage by it. A very risky option, however – but I think much needed – was to find a way to override local police who were in some instances in thrall to capital and abetting crime. A contrary approach ultimately benefitting wealth and power would be harsh repression, stop and frisk type policies, and overly harsh penalties.
For corruption the situation is somewhat similar, but with a twist. When government officials violate the public good by selling their favors or coercing self-serving results, the penalty can and probably should be quite firm and prompt. The same goes for companies that are making a killing by exporting goods needed in Venezuela, or by smuggling or withholding output, etc. But what about a person smuggling, or a guard accepting a bribe. Here I think far more leniency is in order, and would be a good sign. But there is more to say, in accord with the criteria noted above.
Take the case of a business owner who is selling abroad or smuggling. Jail may be warranted, but it doesn’t increase the relative power of the poor and affects only, and temporarily, individual violators. A different option would be, in any such case the firm in question is nationalized and put under the auspices of its work force. If an owner wants to violate the public good, fine, they forego their ownership. Once transferred to workers, a question arises – how to operate – but this clearly aimed at increasing the wherewithal and improving the conditions of the poor, not the rich.
What about shortages? They owe, as indicated earlier, largely to subsidized prices on some goods leading to sales abroad, and to sabotage. But another issue is productivity. So, first, regarding low prices, what to do? Well, simply raising the prices, for example of milk, removes the incentive to export or smuggle, but it also hurts low income people. However if you keep the price down, the incentive to export or smuggle is huge. There may be other choices, but one that I can imagine is to have the price rise — but then directly aid the poor. How? Their price, and only their price for milk, for example, could be reduced by their receiving some government subsidy beyond their income — or, for that matter, by their getting a dramatic increase in their income that more than offsets the added costs for their milk. But then what about prices, they could be frozen – risking the corruption dynamic, again – or they could rise, but there could be a major tax on profits, with the revenues used, in turn, for working people. These are possible routes out of this conundrum to look for. Or take oil and automobile gas. Again, in Venezuela oil is hugely subsidized. The price, that is, is nearly zero. The incentive, therefore, to buy or produce inside Venezuela and sell in Columbia, say, is intense. What to do? Again as long as that price difference exists violations will occur. But also again, raising the price would have horrible repercussions for those of the poor who drive, or even use public transit if those prices were to rise. Solution – raise the price, but tax profits and then return the revenues to the poor in diverse ways. Free greatly improved public transport would be one example. A reverse income tax for low income people would be another. One can think of other options.
What about productivity? This issue, which gets almost no attention from anyone, at least that I have seen, may actually wind up being most revealing. If it is true that public firms are producing at a low level, what should be done? One idea would be to call in owners and managers and exert market discipline via their command. The claim would be that the workers don’t put out sufficiently due to knowing they won’t be fired, and that they need to be pressured to produce more. The left version would be to claim this is required for output, even if disliked, and will be temporary once the workers are better trained. I would say all of it is nonsense. This step would not be a temporary deviation from a path toward a new type economy, but a hard retreat toward the old, greatly empowering forces seemed reaction, and demoralizing the base of movements for change. But if this isn’t the way, what is? If workers aren’t producing sufficiently in public firms, what will cause them to do so other than aggressive market discipline and one man management, for example?
The answer, however hard to implement given all kinds of habits and expectations from the past, must be a serious push toward self management. The task is to get workers in plants to feel solidarity with one another, and with society, to leave behind alienation and want to control their own lives, while contributing to social well being by their labors. The steps that would move in such directions, I believe, are trying to introduce a new division of labor nurturing and using all actors’ capacities to participate and contribute to decisions, council based self management, and, to the extent possible — and steadily more as time passes – coordination of actions with other firms via collective negotiation, not command or market competition. This is a longer discussion, and of course I have my own favored ideas, but for purposes of assessing in the short and near term – the issue will be is there a rhetoric of worker failure requiring discipline, or a rhetoric of organizational failure requiring steadily more democratization and even self-management, plus job innovation and moves toward a new kind of participatory planning.
Returning to the more proximate and in the news issues, the exchange rate causes all kinds of trouble. If I can buy a car, say, again to make things simple…for 100,000 Bolivares, take if over the border, sell it for dollars, and come back and exchange the dollars for 800,000 Bolivares, say — you can see the incredible incentive to do it, whether I am a citizen or an auto manufacturer. The exchange rates need to be equilibrated so what you get with currency in surrounding countries, and what you get for the Bolivares that that currency would exchange for in Venezuela, is quite comparable. This means rising prices for many items, particularly imports, in Venezuela, which would hurt the poor, again. But this is like above. If the exchange rate is corrected and prices rise for Venezuelans, those of low income need an offsetting gain. That is rising wages and even a reverse income tax, funded via profit taxes.
What about inflation? Inflation is a climb in prices and wages and basically all indices, which means a Bolivar yesterday is worth less than a Bolivar tomorrow. What is the impact? There are quite a few, but one thing is clear — spend today, don’t wait until tomorrow because tomorrow what you have will purchase less. Suppose I earn 5,000 Bolivars a month. And I do it all year, and all next year, too. Suppose inflation of prices was 50%, but my salary did not climb. Egad, I will earn the same number of Bolivars next year as this, but it will be worth only half as much when purchasing items for myself and my family. This imposes irrational pressures to spend fast as well as hurting wellbeing. In the large, if inflation occurs in prices, but isn’t matched in wages, wealth redistributes to the rich and powerful. That is horrible. What can be done? Price controls plus steady wage increases for those earning less than some ample amount and income freezes for those above that ample amount is one option. Because of the exigencies of market economics, however, this can have unwanted side effects. Another way to do it is to wait until things settle down, and then use strong taxes to redistribute the benefits of economic activity toward the poor, from the rich. This is all serious business, for sure, but the key idea is simple.
If Venezuela moves to reduce clashes by giving the opposition more means to make demands and demobilizing the public, much less by simply reneging on positive programs, it will be on a road toward the old days. If it reasserts social programs and finds a largely non forceful way to reduce clashes, it is moving forward. Likewise, if it deals with issues like crime, corruption, inflation, and the exchange rates in ways that strengthen elites and weaken the poor — materially and organizationally — it is moving toward the old days. If it adopts, instead, approaches like those mentioned above, that will reveal positive future likelihoods. The issue is having the poor and working people bear the burdens (as in the U.S. response to its own crises), or having the share of social product that goes to those with lower incomes rise, and the share that goes to the rich fall, as would occur in any morally worthy country.
On Academic Labor
By Noam Chomsky
The following is an edited transcript of remarks given by Noam Chomsky via Skype on 4 February 2014 to a gathering of members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, PA. Prof. Chomsky’s remarks were elicited by questions from Robin Clarke, Adam Davis, David Hoinski, Maria Somma, Robin J. Sowards, Matthew Ussia, and Joshua Zelesnick. The transcript was prepared by Robin J. Sowards and edited by Prof. Chomsky.
On hiring faculty off the tenure track
That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities. The idea is to divide society into two groups. One group is sometimes called the “plutonomy” (a term used by Citibank when they were advising their investors on where to invest their funds), the top sector of wealth, globally but concentrated mostly in places like the United States. The other group, the rest of the population, is a “precariat,” living a precarious existence.
This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan wastestifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more. That’s the way you keep societies efficient and healthy from the point of view of the corporations. And as universities move towards a corporate business model, precarity is exactly what is being imposed. And we’ll see more and more of it.
That’s one aspect, but there are other aspects which are also quite familiar from private industry, namely a large increase in layers of administration and bureaucracy. If you have to control people, you have to have an administrative force that does it. So in US industry even more than elsewhere, there’s layer after layer of management—a kind of economic waste, but useful for control and domination. And the same is true in universities. In the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a very sharp increase in the proportion of administrators to faculty and students; faculty and students levels have stayed fairly level relative to one another, but the proportion of administrators have gone way up. There’s a very good book on it by a well-known sociologist, Benjamin Ginsberg, called The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011), which describes in detail the business style of massive administration and levels of administration—and of course, very highly-paid administrators. This includes professional administrators like deans, for example, who used to be faculty members who took off for a couple of years to serve in an administrative capacity and then go back to the faculty; now they’re mostly professionals, who then have to hire sub-deans, and secretaries, and so on and so forth, a whole proliferation of structure that goes along with administrators. All of that is another aspect of the business model.
But using cheap labor—and vulnerable labor—is a business practice that goes as far back as you can trace private enterprise, and unions emerged in response. In the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students. Graduate students are even more vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education. The costs, of course, are borne by the students and by the people who are being drawn into these vulnerable occupations. But it’s a standard feature of a business-run society to transfer costs to the people. In fact, economists tacitly cooperate in this. So, for example, suppose you find a mistake in your checking account and you call the bank to try to fix it. Well, you know what happens. You call them up, and you get a recorded message saying “We love you, here’s a menu.” Maybe the menu has what you’re looking for, maybe it doesn’t. If you happen to find the right option, you listen to some music, and every once and a while a voice comes in and says “Please stand by, we really appreciate your business,” and so on. Finally, after some period of time, you may get a human being, who you can ask a short question to. That’s what economists call “efficiency.” By economic measures, that system reduces labor costs to the bank; of course it imposes costs on you, and those costs are multiplied by the number of users, which can be enormous—but that’s not counted as a cost in economic calculation. And if you look over the way the society works, you find this everywhere. So the university imposes costs on students and on faculty who are not only untenured but are maintained on a path that guarantees that they will have no security. All of this is perfectly natural within corporate business models. It’s harmful to education, but education is not their goal.
In fact, if you look back farther, it goes even deeper than that. If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt. At the liberal end of the spectrum, there’s a book called The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki (New York University Press, 1975), produced by the Trilateral Commission, an organization of liberal internationalists. The Carter administration was drawn almost entirely from their ranks. They were concerned with what they called “the crisis of democracy,” namely that there’s too much democracy. In the 1960s there were pressures from the population, these “special interests,” to try to gain rights within the political arena, and that put too much pressure on the state—you can’t do that. There was one special interest that they left out, namely the corporate sector, because its interests are the “national interest”; the corporate sector issupposed to control the state, so we don’t talk about them. But the “special interests” were causing problems and they said “we have to have more moderation in democracy,” the public has to go back to being passive and apathetic. And they were particularly concerned with schools and universities, which they said were not properly doing their job of “indoctrinating the young.” You can see from student activism (the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movements) that the young are just not being indoctrinated properly.
Well how do you indoctrinate the young? There are a number of ways. One way is to burden them with hopelessly heavy tuition debt. Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt. It’s a trap for the rest of your life because the laws are designed so that you can’t get out of it. If a business, say, gets in too much debt it can declare bankruptcy, but individuals can almost never be relieved of student debt through bankruptcy. They can even garnish social security if you default. That’s a disciplinary technique. I don’t say that it was consciously introduced for the purpose, but it certainly has that effect. And it’s hard to argue that there’s any economic basis for it. Just take a look around the world: higher education is mostly free. In the countries with the highest education standards, let’s say Finland, which is at the top all the time, higher education is free. And in a rich, successful capitalist country like Germany, it’s free. In Mexico, a poor country, which has pretty decent education standards, considering the economic difficulties they face, it’s free. In fact, look at the United States: if you go back to the 1940s and 50s, higher education was pretty close to free. The GI Bill gave free education to vast numbers of people who would never have been able to go to college. It was very good for them and it was very good for the economy and the society; it was part of the reason for the high economic growth rate. Even in private colleges, education was pretty close to free. Take me: I went to college in 1945 at an Ivy League university, University of Pennsylvania, and tuition was $100. That would be maybe $800 in today’s dollars. And it was very easy to get a scholarship, so you could live at home, work, and go to school and it didn’t cost you anything. Now it’s outrageous. I have grandchildren in college, who have to pay for their tuition and work and it’s almost impossible. For the students that is a disciplinary technique.
And another technique of indoctrination is to cut back faculty-student contact: large classes, temporary teachers who are overburdened, who can barely survive on an adjunct salary. And since you don’t have any job security you can’t build up a career, you can’t move on and get more. These are all techniques of discipline, indoctrination, and control. And it’s very similar to what you’d expect in a factory, where factory workers have to be disciplined, to be obedient; they’re not supposed to play a role in, say, organizing production or determining how the workplace functions—that’s the job of management. This is now carried over to the universities. And I think it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has any experience in private enterprise, in industry; that’s the way they work.
On how higher education ought to be
First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.
These are not radical ideas, I should say. They come straight out of classical liberalism. So if you read, for example, John Stuart Mill, a major figure in the classical liberal tradition, he took it for granted that workplaces ought to be managed and controlled by the people who work in them—that’s freedom and democracy (see, e.g., John Stuart Mill,Principles of Political Economy, book 4, ch. 7). We see the same ideas in the United States. Let’s say you go back to the Knights of Labor; one of their stated aims was “To establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system” (“Founding Ceremony” for newly-organized Local Associations). Or take someone like, John Dewey, a mainstream 20th-century social philosopher, who called not only for education directed at creative independence in schools, but also worker control in industry, what he called “industrial democracy.” He says that as long as the crucial institutions of the society (like production, commerce, transportation, media) are not under democratic control, then “politics [will be] the shadow cast on society by big business” (John Dewey, “The Need for a New Party” ). This idea is almost elementary, it has deep roots in American history and in classical liberalism, it should be second nature to working people, and it should apply the same way to universities. There are some decisions in a university where you don’t want to have [democratic transparency because] you have to preserve student privacy, say, and there are various kinds of sensitive issues, but on much of the normal activity of the university, there is no reason why direct participation can’t be not only legitimate but helpful. In my department, for example, for 40 years we’ve had student representatives helpfully participating in department meetings.
On “shared governance” and worker control
The university is probably the social institution in our society that comes closest to democratic worker control. Within a department, for example, it’s pretty normal for at least the tenured faculty to be able to determine a substantial amount of what their work is like: what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be. And most of the decisions about the actual work that the faculty is doing are pretty much under tenured faculty control. Now of course there is a higher level of administrators that you can’t overrule or control. The faculty can recommend somebody for tenure, let’s say, and be turned down by the deans, or the president, or even the trustees or legislators. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it can happen and it does. And that’s always a part of the background structure, which, although it always existed, was much less of a problem in the days when the administration was drawn from the faculty and in principle recallable. Under representative systems, you have to have someone doing administrative work but they should be recallable at some point under the authority of the people they administer. That’s less and less true. There are more and more professional administrators, layer after layer of them, with more and more positions being taken remote from the faculty controls. I mentioned before The Fall of the Faculty by Benjamin Ginsberg, which goes into a lot of detail as to how this works in the several universities he looks at closely: Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and a couple of others.
Meanwhile, the faculty are increasingly reduced to a category of temporary workers who are assured a precarious existence with no path to the tenure track. I have personal acquaintances who are effectively permanent lecturers; they’re not given real faculty status; they have to apply every year so that they can get appointed again. These things shouldn’t be allowed to happen. And in the case of adjuncts, it’s been institutionalized: they’re not permitted to be a part of the decision-making apparatus, and they’re excluded from job security, which merely amplifies the problem. I think staff ought to also be integrated into decision-making, since they’re also a part of the university. So there’s plenty to do, but I think we can easily understand why these tendencies are developing. They are all part of imposing a business model on just about every aspect of life. That’s the neoliberal ideology that most of the world has been living under for 40 years. It’s very harmful to people, and there has been resistance to it. And it’s worth noticing that two parts of the world, at least, have pretty much escaped from it, namely East Asia, where they never really accepted it, and South America in the past 15 years.
On the alleged need for “flexibility”
“Flexibility” is a term that’s very familiar to workers in industry. Part of what’s called “labor reform” is to make labor more “flexible,” make it easier to hire and fire people. That’s, again, a way to ensure maximization of profit and control. “Flexibility” is supposed to be a good thing, like “greater worker insecurity.” Putting aside industry where the same is true, in universities there’s no justification. So take a case where there’s under-enrollment somewhere. That’s not a big problem. One of my daughters teaches at a university; she just called me the other night and told me that her teaching load is being shifted because one of the courses that was being offered was under-enrolled. Okay, the world didn’t to an end, they just shifted around the teaching arrangements—you teach a different course, or an extra section, or something like that. People don’t have to be thrown out or be insecure because of the variation in the number of students enrolling in courses. There are all sorts of ways of adjusting for that variation. The idea that labor should meet the conditions of “flexibility” is just another standard technique of control and domination. Why not say that administrators should be thrown out if there’s nothing for them to do that semester, or trustees—what do they have to be there for? The situation is the same with top management in industry: if labor has to be flexible, how about management? Most of them are pretty useless or even harmful anyway, so let’s get rid of them. And you can go on like this. Just to take the news from the last couple of days, take, say, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase bank: he just got a pretty substantial raise, almost double his salary, out of gratitude because he had saved the bank from criminal charges that would have sent the management to jail; he got away with only $20 billion in fines for criminal activities. Well I can imagine that getting rid of somebody like that might be helpful to the economy. But that’s not what people are talking about when they talk about “labor reform.” It’s the working people who have to suffer, and they have to suffer by insecurity, by not knowing where tomorrow’s piece of bread is going to come from, and therefore be disciplined and obedient and not raise questions or ask for their rights. That’s the way that tyrannical systems operate. And the business world is a tyrannical system. When it’s imposed on the universities, you find it reflects the same ideas. This shouldn’t be any secret.
On the purpose of education
These are debates that go back to the Enlightenment, when issues of higher education and mass education were really being raised, not just education for the clergy and aristocracy. And there were basically two models discussed in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were discussed with pretty evocative imagery. One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model.
The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education. One world-famous physicist, in his freshman courses if he was asked “what are we going to cover this semester?”, his answer was “it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.” You have gain the capacity and the self-confidence for that matter to challenge and create and innovate, and that way you learn; that way you’ve internalized the material and you can go on. It’s not a matter of accumulating some fixed array of facts which then you can write down on a test and forget about tomorrow.
These are two quite distinct models of education. The Enlightenment ideal was the second one, and I think that’s the one that we ought to be striving towards. That’s what real education is, from kindergarten to graduate school. In fact there are programs of that kind for kindergarten, pretty good ones.
On the love of teaching
We certainly want people, both faculty and students, to be engaged in activity that’s satisfying, enjoyable, challenging, exciting—and I don’t really think that’s hard. Even young children are creative, inquisitive, they want to know things, they want to understand things, and unless that’s beaten out of your head it stays with you the rest of your life. If you have opportunities to pursue those commitments and concerns, it’s one of the most satisfying things in life. That’s true if you’re a research physicist, it’s true if you’re a carpenter; you’re trying to create something of value and deal with a difficult problem and solve it. I think that’s what makes work the kind of thing you want to do; you do it even if you don’t have to do it. In a reasonably functioning university, you find people working all the time because they love it; that’s what they want to do; they’re given the opportunity, they have the resources, they’re encouraged to be free and independent and creative—what’s better? That’s what they love to do. And that, again, can be done at any level.
It’s worth thinking about some of the imaginative and creative educational programs that are being developed at different levels. So, for example, somebody just described to me the other day a program they’re using in high schools, a science program where the students are asked an interesting question: “How can a mosquito fly in the rain?” That’s a hard question when you think about it. If something hit a human being with the force of a raindrop hitting a mosquito it would absolutely flatten them immediately. So how come the mosquito isn’t crushed instantly? And how can the mosquito keep flying? If you pursue that question—and it’s a pretty hard question—you get into questions of mathematics, physics, and biology, questions that are challenging enough that you want to find an answer to them.
That’s what education should be like at every level, all the way down to kindergarten, literally. There are kindergarten programs in which, say, each child is given a collection of little items: pebbles, shells, seeds, and things like that. Then the class is given the task of finding out which ones are the seeds. It begins with what they call a “scientific conference”: the kids talk to each other and they try to figure out which ones are seeds. And of course there’s some teacher guidance, but the idea is to have the children think it through. After a while, they try various experiments and they figure out which ones are the seeds. At that point, each child is given a magnifying glass and, with the teacher’s help, cracks a seed and looks inside and finds the embryo that makes the seed grow. These children learn something—really, not only something about seeds and what makes things grow; but also about how to discover. They’re learning the joy of discovery and creation, and that’s what carries you on independently, outside the classroom, outside the course.
The same goes for all education up through graduate school. In a reasonable graduate seminar, you don’t expect students to copy it down and repeat whatever you say; you expect them to tell you when you’re wrong or to come up with new ideas, to challenge, to pursue some direction that hadn’t been thought of before. That’s what real education is at every level, and that’s what ought to be encouraged. That ought to be the purpose of education. It’s not to pour information into somebody’s head which will then leak out but to enable them to become creative, independent people who can find excitement in discovery and creation and creativity at whatever level or in whatever domain their interests carry them.
On using corporate rhetoric against corporatization
This is kind of like asking how you should justify to the slave owner that people shouldn’t be slaves. You’re at a level of moral inquiry where it’s probably pretty hard to find answers. We are human beings with human rights. It’s good for the individual, it’s good for the society, it’s even good for the economy, in the narrow sense, if people are creative and independent and free. Everyone benefits if people are able to participate, to control their fate, to work with each other—that may not maximize profit and domination, but why should we take those to be values to be concerned about?
Advice for adjunct faculty organizing unions
You know better than I do what has to be done, the kind of problems you face. Just got ahead and do what has to be done. Don’t be intimidated, don’t be frightened, and recognize that the future can be in our hands if we’re willing to grasp it.