By Catherine Liu
We are in the midst of a class war, but only Fox News dares to use that scandalous expression. According to its pundits, it’s the “havenots” with their healthcare reforms and “entitlements,” public pensions and other soul sapping “scams” who are attacking the “haves.” At least Right-wing pundits aren’t afraid of the word “class.” Liberals, Leftists and Progressives are about as eager to talk about class as they are to undergo voluntary root canal surgery. The “haves” are much more aggressive than the “havenots” about guaranteeing that they have more and more, and the “havenots” have less and less. The “haves” continue to militate against public inefficiencies while Progressive economists and analysts have tried to show that the diminished powers of the state and the financialization of global economic activity are responsible for our slow burn crisis and the concomitant loss of consumer and political confidence. The “haves” may have lost a few skirmishes after October 2008, but you can be sure that they remain vigilant and aggressive about their long-term agenda. On a Federal level, the “haves” have targeted social and public services of every sort, from Federally funded after-school care to Social Security. At the state level, they relish the idea of privatizing public universities, whose successes have been based on decades of public investment. They have also succeeded in securing profitable arrangements between privately owned testing companies and public schools, where the demand for accountability has produced a need for ever changing instruments by which teacher and student performance are measured. They continue to argue for school vouchers and school choice and they continue to make public school teachers and unions feel the heat of their reformist ardor.
Kevin Phillips, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank and this blog’s Chris Newfield have all been making the argument about the war against the middle class. It’s time to understand the “crisis in the Humanities” (its most recent iteration was launched by Stanley Fish
in the pages of the New York Times) in the context of a larger class war. As usual Fish provokes with his, “the Humanities don’t do any good, but they should be supported nevertheless.” He appears both tough-minded and pragmatic. According to Fish’s numbers, the Humanities may be profit centers in high tuition private Universities, but not the case in of low-tuition public ones. No worries! He wants us to stop whining about how much good we do in the Humanities, and urges us to appeal instead to the historical mission of research universities to support authentic research and researchers. Scientific and humanities research are open-ended enterprises and should be measured by internal standards of specialists: as any historian of the modern University can tell you, preserving autonomous research values is vital to any institution that aspires to the status of “university.” Let us show then, that National University and University of Phoenix are not actually universities because they do not support research in any way.
Much as I wish many of our upper administrators would read Fish and take him seriously, I’m afraid that they could ignore the appeal to their better historical sensibilities and derive a very different “takeway” from his article. They could very well say that it is perfectly all right to keep the Humanities in expensive, private institutions, because it is in these institutions that the Humanities are more economically viable. At private institutions, gifted and well-heeled and well-funded students will prosper like well-tended orchids. Large public institutions cannot afford to maintain the conditions where Humanities are taught: it only makes economic sense that heartier, less rarefied students should be taught to survive in less climate controlled conditions. As I argue in my forthcoming book,The American Idyll: Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press), since 1945, leaders in higher education have tried to reserve the study of the Humanities and Liberal Arts for an economic and cultural elite. President Obama’s focus on community colleges does nothing to challenge the assumption that while some students will be able to study for pleasure and curiosity, the majority will be consigned to pursuing higher education as a form of job training.
Higher education is functioning as an efficient sorting system that allows for the rationalization of entrenched inequalities. Neglect in regulating for profit education during the era of Bush has allowed for ITT Educational Services, Inc. and UC Regent Richard Blum to make a tidy profit from the bottom end of the higher ed hierarchy. Until recently, it looked as if for profit universities in which Blum has deep financial and philosophical investments would be able to make handsome profits from educating the neglected low performing students who happen to be eligible for generous Federal student loans. For profit higher ed is just one part of Blum’s spectacularly successful portfolio. Will Parrish details Blum’s ability to use opportunities produced by “strong nation-state interventions” to generate massive wealth for hedge fund and himself. We linked to the Peter Byrne article about Blum’s conflict of interest in being a UC Regent and a major and we do so again.
From the very top of the higher ed hierarchy, elite students, global creative and finance leaders will emerge to found Facebook, work in what remains of high finance and or devote themselves to cutting edge cultural and philanthropic institutions. Land-grant public universities educate the large majority of highly qualified middle class students for lives as middle managers and competent professionals. State universities train their future employees. Community colleges train pink collar workers for service jobs. If SUNY Albany is cutting its Russian and French programs and UC Irvine is allowing its French and Italian department to deliquesce, elite private institutions are said to be gurgling with joy and savoring the opportunities for poaching and profiting in national research rankings from the defeat if not disappearance of their public competition. Poaching has already begun and it will sharpen the very hierarchy and divide in public/private higher ed that Clark Kerr, for all his faults, sought to undo. Within the UC itself, a group of professors from UC San Diego wrote to UC President Mark Yudof in order to suggest the imposition of an internal pecking order among the ten campuses. “Top tier” campuses would enjoy greater autonomy and greater access to funding, while lower tier campuses like UC Riverside, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz would be allowed to gather crumbs falling from the tables of the great while fumbling with the UC imprimatur for a sense of mission and identity. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the UCSD professors generously relegated UC Irvine where I teach, to the middle tier.)
Chris Newfield’s argument that war on the middle class is a war against a tolerant/ liberal/progressive world needs an Ehrenreichian caveat. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Fear of Falling
during the recession of the 1980s. In this book, she demonstrated how the undoing of the social safety net was changing the American middle class and making it more anxious and more conservative. In fear, the middle class clings to its own relative privileges: access to better education and safer neighborhoods. In times of economic crisis, it is a class particularly susceptible to adopting political attitudes that are ungenerous and anti-egalitarian in spirit. The more economically vulnerable the middle class feels itself to be, the more politically conservative it becomes. The hegemonic logic of neoliberalism tries to appeal to an anxious and objectively besieged middle class. Research professors and public sector retirees are just latest cast of characters including welfare mothers and NEA artists that conservatives love to evoke in their morality play about “the people” and the “parasites.”
In the drama of outrage and indignation, conservatives fuel a general animus against any group of people who might enjoy some modicum of freedom from mercurial market forces. Economic elites have tried with different degrees of success to impose an instrumentalizing attitude towards all human activity because they think no one should be free of economic anxiety, ever. The hard numbers show that the elites are succeeding in transferring the nation’s wealth to itself: UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez has shown
that by 2008, the top 10% of American earners took home 48.2% of the nation’s annual wages. As public education and public services are hollowed out, those numbers are even more dramatically skewed in favor of the ultra-rich at the expense of the middle and working classes. The middle class that could once think of itself as part of the “haves” is finding itself in an increasingly precarious position. It is not an exaggeration to say that it has been proletarianized.
Chris Newfield’s point bears repeating: in times of economic prosperity as in times of economic crisis, cuts in public funding to the UC are touted as the only way to produce efficiencies in higher education. In Great Britain right now, Eton-educated, pasty-faced young Tories are trying to defeat the bogeyman of deficit spending by turning 490,000 public sector workers onto the unemployment rolls. Theirs is a vicious and hyperbolic version of neoliberalism’s shock doctrine. Paul Krugman believes
that the Tories are victims of freemarket groupthink and that their economic policies will prove disastrous in both the short term and the long term. Do the Tories really believe that their budget cuts will suddenly make the private sector so effervescent that half a million jobs will be created out of the thin air of free markets?
In France, the protests are about much more than the changes the Sarkozy government is trying to impose on the French retirement age. Le Monde
reports that a mass political mobilization is taking place capable of expressing complex forms of political solidarity, across lines of class and race. Protestors are rejecting Sarkozy’s peculiar form of market authoritarianism. The recent deportation of the Roma from France was allegedly welcomed by the ordinary Frenchman. Sarkozy may have staked too much on the toxic blend of racism and economic resentment to bolster his extreme attempts at producing pension reform. No single political party is able to embody all of the demands of the protestors, and it does not matter. Unfortunately, the English language media have focused on the anger of “students” rather than the grievances of workers. Almost all of the photographs we find in American media feature angry attractive middle-class white students who are more easily dismissed as pampered citizens of a welfare state. The reality of the French protests is more nuanced: this is an authentic, mass Left movement, with deep economic commitments to the forms of resistance it is creating. Most critically, it has mobilized the young, but is not a simply “a student movement.”
The struggle to control the terms by which we speak of higher education is taking place across major and minor theaters of the class war: the “crisis of the Humanities” is only one front in a larger battle. It is critical to put the present budgetary crisis in public Universities in the larger political and economic framework of a continuing class war the terms of which have been up until now controlled by reactionary forces.