a few (dozen) notes

My piece on corporatism in the American university, and the ways in which it’s eroded intellectual and political freedom, is available today in the print edition of the New York Times Magazine, bundled with the Sunday paper. I have gotten a tremendous amount of feedback, the vast majority of it positive, and I really couldn’t be happier about the overall response. At the risk of violating my own belief that nonfiction writers should spend far less time explaining and that nothing is more boring that the expression of facts, I wanted to respond to a few points that have been made. This will be long, and is all just marginalia for the essay itself, which is what you should read. So feel free to skip.

First, I’ve gotten a few people saying that my essay posits an era of enlightened freedom on college campuses that never really existed. I don’t, in fact, think that there was ever such a period on college campuses. As I said in my essay “The Story of College,” the university system functioned as an explicitly elitist enterprise for most of its history. Here’s a passage that I wrote for the Times that we cut for space considerations:

We should be as clear as glass: there’s no enlightened past that the academy has left behind. Though many people understand that college was once an elite phenomenon, I suspect that few understand just how explicit universities were in their role as the incubators of the ruling class. It’s not just that elites were the only ones who had the social capital or financial wherewithal to get in, though that was surely true. It’s that college simply existed for them, that it was the explicit and unapologetic purpose of universities to train the members of the ruling class before they got old enough to actually rule. That elite function brought about all of the bigotries, petty and grand, that the elite always does. But while we should be frank in acknowledging that the university has traditionally been a hive of elitism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, I want to suggest that there was a period when we began, in a partial and incomplete way, to democratize the university. A period after bringing in more poor students and women students and students of color, but before every campus began to look like a high-end shopping mall. There was, for a little while, an interregnum, a place between the feudal university of the past and the corporate university of the future, and if nothing else, I mourn its loss.

In other words, it’s absolutely true that college was once intended only for the elite and the narrow demographics that made it up, but that this elite function had the benefit of creating the kind of intellectual freedom that we now associate with higher education. I’m not, in general, a fan of the kind of gotcha argument where any positive reference to the past means yearning for the bad things about the past as well. Just as I can look back with envy at the strong unions and low income inequality of the 1950s without also wishing for the return of Jim Crow or higher infant mortality, I can look back at the benign neglect for expression that was common to the university’s feudal period and wish that we could preserve it as we continue the work of making the academy a more egalitarian space.

I am, of course, far from the first to allege that the university has taken a corporate turn. Look at, for example, Jennifer Washburn’s 2006 book University, Inc. But I felt it was necessary to connect this transformation to the long-churning debate about campus expression, political correctness, and intellectual freedom. I do agree that the culture of campus has changed, and I do believe that members of the instructional profession feel constrained in what they can say to students for fear of reprisal. But I’ve been frustrated by the degree to which this conversation has focused on personalities and moral failure, rather than economic and structural change; and I’ve been dissatisfied with the degree to which this conversation indicts undergraduates, rather than the systems in which they live. As a Marxist, my natural tendency is to see human practice not as the result of changes in culture but as the result of changes in economics. I think that is absolutely true of how campus political culture has changed.

When I refer to corporatism, I mean a philosophy in which institutional goods are represented as superior to individual need, and in which institutional structures exist to privilege those institutional goods. In contrast to collectivist structures like socialism, their intent is not to spread utility between members of the system but to sublimate individual utility to the institutions themselves. Sometimes, this ultimately redounds to the benefit of a few, such as in a publicly held corporation where the efforts serve shareholders in the long run. But the justification is made through reference to the institution itself — “for the good of the firm.”

A few people complained that my discussion of the Borg-like assimilation of the physical infrastructure of American universities was disconnected from the broader argument about corporatism. Well, again: I loathe the “A+B=C” school of essay writing. But to be as explicit as I am willing to be, the physical transformation is the literalization of the process by which once variegated and diverse spaces have been bent into shape to be congruent with totalizing ideological visions of a given university space. When you take a building that once had unique character and bring it into aesthetic conformity with the rest of the campus architectural vision, you are symbolically mimicking the way in which university intellectual spaces are made to conform to corporate institutional visions.

Corporate structures, by design, dehumanize institutions and erect regulatory and procedural apparatuses that minimize human judgment. That’s because corporate structures are self-defensive and legalistic. Part of the purpose of the modern legal and social conception of the corporation is to create institutions that enjoy rights and protections similar to individuals but for which no individual punishments can apply. Think of the obvious example of giant financial firms, which benefit from corporate personhood concepts but which can’t, obviously, be thrown in jail for malfeasance. Risk is pooled among the various members of the institution, while the rewards, again, are meant primarily to be enjoyed by the institution. While we tend to see government intervention and corporations as operating in a relationship of mutual antagonism, in fact no type of institution has demonstrated itself to be better at navigating the modern world of government than the corporation. Indeed: with its large managerial class — the notion of the stripped-down, efficient corporation being one of the many myths about the structure — and its talent for creating a legalistic and administrative architecture that can react to any governmental inquiry with an equally bureaucratic response, the corporation is uniquely symbiotic with the governments that are so often posed as its foils.

Corporatism erodes free expression because of that legalistic and self-defensive nature. It compels the managerial class into action by fiat; again, part of its basic DNA is that it removes individual judgment in the equation by insisting on a self-protective response as a matter of policy. Northwestern student activists seemed to understand this mechanistic quality in corporate controversy response when they demanded that university response to perceived offense come “automatically.” (Why activists would insist on such an inherently insincere response is unclear to me.) It’s essential to say that this automaticity in response removes agency from the very managerial class that is eating the university. I got a few genuinely moving emails from current administrators who asked if I really thought that they were unconcerned with students and principle. I don’t believe that. In fact, my whole point is that their jobs exist to sublimate principle and care for students into a legalistic and mechanical approach to navigating university life. As Alan Jacobs writes, “When students demand the intervention of administrative authority to solve every little conflict, they end up simply reinforcing a power structure in which students and faculty alike are stripped of moral agency, in which all of us in the university — including the administrators themselves, since they’re typically reading responses from an instruction manual prepared in close consultation with university lawyers — are instruments in the hands of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic regime.” It’s not that I don’t think your average Vice Assistant Provost for Diversity doesn’t really care about diversity. It’s that the entire structure exists to make that caring irrelevant.

As I said in my piece, I beg young political activists to understand: as much as appealing to administrative authority for redress of your grievances might seem natural to you, in doing so you necessarily direct your anger into processes and structures that exist to protect the institutions and not you. I’m sure most of you are familiar with Audre Lorde’s concept of the master’s tools. What could be a better example than policies written by a corporate council, designed to limit a school’s legal liability, and interpreted by a bunch of distant bureaucrats? These students are often radical in their critiques of establishment power, but profoundly naive in their invocations of that power. Who do you really think these structures, whether institutional or governmental, exist to serve? If they really threatened the interests that you rightly see as your enemies, do you think they ever would have been built in the first place?

Some have said to me that this entire discussion is an example of white people’s problems. Given that a significant majority of Americans don’t have a college degree, and that the total population of people currently on campuses is very small relative to the overall population, they feel this discussion is a distraction from broader left-wing concerns. But I think that these issues are in fact a perfect symbol for the fundamental question that confronts today’s left: the relationship between left-wing political movements and the establishment power structures they sometimes invoke in their cause. By taking revolutionary energy and using it to appeal to reactionary power, too many student activists seek progress in precisely the places where they are least likely to find it.

You can see this dynamic play out again and again in today’s left-wing controversies. The simmering debate over carceral feminism is the perfect example. It pits those who would seek gender equality and justice through the violent enforcement mechanisms of the state (the police, the courts, the prisons) against those who regard those mechanisms as so inherently corrupt and unequal that we must look beyond them, even though we must in many cases take advantage of them in the short term. Or look at #BlackLivesMatter and the 2016 election. I was thrilled by the response of BLM to the phony symbolism and vague affirmations of the DNC. Electoral politics, particularly presidential politics, are where grassroots movements go to die. Indeed: that is the very function of Democrats, to take left-of-center political energy and direct it into the maintenance of the status quo.

The central quandary for today’s left is that we need to use the state for various essential functions, such as providing free public education and preventing racist housing discrimination, while recognizing that our long term project must be the destruction of the state. Revolutionary socialism does not mandate a future where the state owns everything. It mandates a future where the people own everything, where the productive apparatus of society is owned by all people and where that productive apparatus is directed towards the common good of all. The state serves the needs of the few by its very nature. That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t, in the short-term, bend the repressive power of the state to egalitarian needs when we have to. But it does mean that we should never abandon our fundamental skepticism and antagonism towards the state, and that when we fall into the trap of becoming the enthusiastic statists our enemies have made of us, we fundamentally lose sight of our mission. That resistance to the state does not make me a libertarian. Indeed, it’s a statement of absolutely banal, traditional left-wing intent. Today, we need to use the state, but never forget that it was the state that choked Eric Garner to death in the street.

If some liberals are guilty of the state worship that they are frequently accused of by the right, though, corporatism demonstrates the profound distance between conservative and libertarian philosophy and practice. Look at the university: does this corporatism actually serve libertarian ends, given the way in which it erodes the open expression of ideas on campus and coats everything in a layer of administrative bloat? Does it serve the traditionalist functions of conservatism? Despite the presumptions of many of my peers, I recognize that conservatives are often champions of the humanities and the traditional values of the liberal arts, though they invoke these in a spirit I don’t agree with. But because the “free market” ideology has so thoroughly invaded the entirety of conservative intellectual space, there is little room for conservatives to recognize the ways in which that ideology is actually the enemy of the very traditions they wish to preserve.

When Robby Soave complains that I’ve blamed corporatism for the nefarious influence of government, he is positing as antagonists structures that are in fact mutually parasitic. This is the fundamental failing that libertarians  fall into over and over again: they attack left-wing regulation and taxation on the basis of free market principles that have never existed in real life, and in so doing defend structures that gleefully undermine those very free market principles. The modern corporation is as far from a free market edifice as I can imagine. BP likes it when libertarians like Soave attack governmental regulations that provide some minor check on its activities, but it then turns around and sucks on the teat of a vast array of government subsidies and protections. Libertarians tend to see such a behavior as a minor flaw in the system, as a random and unfortunate behavior of individual firms. But far from being accidental, that fusion of government and capitalist enterprise is absolutely central to the corporate enterprise. Capitalism as we know it simply could not exist without this fusion. When Soave asks whether it’s corporatism or government causing these changes, the answer is to deny that there’s any space between the two. The notion that there ever has been is a free market fantasy. All capitalism is crony capitalism.

If conservatives see something in the old ways of universities worth preserving, they will have to make the intellectual leap they simply refuse to make: to see that unfettered capitalism has no more interest in free markets or traditionalism than it does in redistribution and equality. To be a force for progress, conservatives would have to see that capitalism serves the interests of capital, not of conservatism. I’m not holding my breath.

All of this, I admit, is getting pretty far afield of the immediate questions on campus. The battles that are happening will occur in various spaces throughout the university system and our culture. See, for example, this brilliant piece by Emily Bazelon, also from this issue of the NYT magazine, on the battles between sex-positive feminism and sex-panic feminism. In writing this piece, I intend to stand against the wave of dismissive, insulting attacks on undergraduate students that represent them as coddled, censorious, and entitled. I know far too many brilliant, committed college students to stand for that. At the same time, I wrote it to urge those self-same students to reconsider their stance towards establishment power, and more, to reconsider their faith in their own good intentions. Far too much of left-wing practice involves forgetting the law of unintended consequences. “I don’t advocate for trigger warnings out of a desire to censor, therefore they can have no censorious intent;” “I am not a racist personally, so therefore aggressive new policies to combat campus rape cannot possibly be enforced in a racist manner;” “My intent is not to empower the administrative apparatus of the university or the state, therefore the outcome of my engagement cannot be to empower them.” Each of these is a profound mistake, motivated by a faulty conception of the relationship between good intentions and real-world effects. The refusal to really examine the consequences of these well-intentioned mistakes demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the true meaning of solidarity.

Change, as usual, is unlikely but possible. If students and instructors came together to insist on the centrality of the educational exchange and the principle that professors must come before administrators, we could create the kind of robust workplace protections for instructional staff that would greatly diminish the fear of eroding intellectual freedom. If we speak loudly and passionately, then alumni, trustees, administrators, state governments, and citizens might recognize that the madcap race to secure an ever-more-elite group of incoming freshman has degraded our institutions and resulted in a perverse marginalization of education compared to expensive gyms and dining halls. If we stop turning high school into a four-year-long Hunger Games that exhausts and grinds down our young people before they ever step foot on campus, they might see college as an opportunity for learning they will never enjoy again, instead of as a reward for all of that manic, punishing effort. If we choose, we can make schools into schools again. But we have to choose.

Our colleges cannot survive the limitless growth of their administrative classes, which drive up tuitions, divert resources, and make the actual instructional enterprise marginal in our schools. The social role of education cannot be fulfilled where at-risk faculty and students from political minorities alike feel pressured to not upset the political mainstream. The needs of a genuinely left-wing campus political movement cannot be served by supplicating ourselves at the feet of corporate entities that exist for the protection and perpetuation of themselves. That any of these would be classified as anti-left by my critics only demonstrates the degree to which our conceptions of left-wing practice have been corrupted. The positive reception of my essay, and the existence of a growing body of leftist literature like it, perhaps suggests that a new perspective is finally emerging.