Charles C. W. Cooke, labor activist

Some people will no doubt ding me for being positively quoted in this National Review piece about campus speech codes. That sort of thing never really bothers me; I said what I said on Twitter about the chilling effect of current campus speech norms and I stand by it. Guilt by association doesn’t move me.

No, the problem isn’t the quotes Charles C. W. Cooke put in, but the one he left out, because it’s the key. Here’s something else I said on Twitter:

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It’s that mass contigency– the dramatic rise of at-risk academic labor like adjuncts and grad students– that creates the conditions that Cooke laments on campus. In the past, when a far higher portion of college courses were taught by tenured professors, those who taught college courses had much less reason to fear reprisals from undergraduates. They had the protection of the tenure system and often the benefit of faculty unions that could agitate on their behalf. But with so many instructors in a state of minimal institutional protection or authority, lacking long-term contracts, benefits, or collective bargaining, the risk of angered students multiplies. Adjuncts don’t even need to be fired; they can just not get any classes the next semester. Grad students don’t even need to be fired; they can just have their job applications placed on the deny pile. This is why I think the problem is actually probably much larger than the high-profile anecdotes would suggest. The greatest impediment to real pedagogical and political freedom on campus is self-censorship due to labor insecurity. Discussion of contingency is almost entirely absent in Cooke’s essay. (Also conspicuous in its absence: the names “Steven Salaita” or “Norman Finkelstein.”) He laments one aspect of a larger problem that he ignores.

(Note, too, that the rise of the service vision of college– a four-year resort vacation plus some classes where the student is the customer and the instructor the servant– is a product of a corporate capitalist vision of education.)

And this extends outside of the world of campus, too. When labor markets are bad and labor unions have been crushed, the average worker lacks power to assert rights like the right to free expression and free political association. The risks of saying the wrong thing or being in the wrong political party can be mitigated in a world of powerful labor unions, robust job markets, and social safety nets that can protect people in the event of firing. So if Cooke wants to defend the intellectual and academic freedom of college instructors and other workers, my sincere advice to him is to support unionization, government employment and stimulus, and redistributive social programs like a universal basic income. Only under those conditions can truly free political expression really flourish.

Of course, the utter demise of worker power in this country is a problem that conservatism is totally incapable of solving on its own terms. I don’t even know what a conservative effort to empower workers would look like. And it’s likely that Cooke sees little to be gained from actual pro-labor agitation; after all, in the vast majority of cases, his own political preconceptions are likely aligned with the corporate structure, not with the dissenting labor. There’s a lesson in that for campus activists, too: don’t forget how small the campus spaces you control really are, and don’t forget that after graduation you will find a world that is far more hostile to your views. College administrators, I’m sorry to say, increasingly see you as customers whose needs must be served. But what happens in the future, when you find that your job depends on other people’s approval of your political views, too?