The Right-Wing Attack on the Universities

Chris Newfield has a response (lifted from Facebook) to my previous post.  Here it is (in quotes) followed by my reactions to his comments:

“I’m reposting this because I meant to comment on this before. Thank you John McGowan for raising so pointedly both the Right’s systematic attacks on public universities and the question of their end game. To amplify what you’ve written, I think there are two big things going on.

One is a struggle for political control: 40 years of culture wars has convinced the Right that universities are a block arrayed against them, and with few exceptions it favors their political enemies. The university seems to them to have powers of deep cultural change and not just of truth-claims that generate policy and lawsuits, though those are also a major threat.

The second thing is their real economic plan, one that I detail in Stage 8 of the book. That is to cut capitalism’s dependence on knowledge and knowledge workers–to move it “past the knowledge economy,” though no one ever uses that phrase. This involves reducing brain workers’ independence from management, shrinking the middle class, particularly its politically troublesome “liberal professions” (in the French sense), freeing employers of any obligations to their direct employees (health care, pensions, shared governance through unions or employee representatives), and dumping any and all social costs. In the Right’s traditionalist capitalism, poor people have existed to provide fungible and hence precarious labor on demand, not to get better educations than their parents had; everyone should be fireable at will, etc.

The Right’s model makes cultural and economic sense in US history: it remarries corporate ownership to patriarchy, affirms de facto white supremacy, helps restore an earlier dependence of women on men, to name just a few cultural features. And it makes economic sense in the context of the American extractive economy–which requires mass quantities of cheap docile labor via slavery, then Jim Crow and immigration without rights– that is historically the bedrock of American wealth, and still is in most “red state” sectors of the country (e.g. NC’s hog and poultry agribusiness).

In short, the right’s “endgame” is the restoration of plantation capitalism. It will have new forms, but the key economic strategy is the prevention of knowledge workers from keeping the value of their productivity gains, which requires they be marginalized politically. The Great Mistake also discusses the various ways university administrators have played into the Right’s hands on economic as well as policy matters. At the same time, I’m fairly sure that if more regular voters understood what the weakening of universities will do both to their salaries and their status in society, these NC-style attacks would lose most of their (already mostly passive) support. I think the national politics are more fluid than they appear.”

I agree with Chris that red states (especially) are pursuing a strategy that undercuts the “knowledge-based economy” in pursuit of a nostalgic vision of “manufacturing” that fits the “extractive model.”  But I am more convinced than I am sure he is that such a strategy is hopeless.  The Alabamas of our union are condemning themselves to comparative poverty—and the agony here in North Carolina is watching a state that has attracted a fair share of the knowledge based economy to these parts work to dismantle it and become Alabama instead of Massachusetts.  In other words, I don’t see where the right can win if it is playing the game that Chris describes—and I think much (hardly all) of the business elite understand that fact.

That said, it is worth saying a few further things.  One, North Carolina’s prosperity is largely based now on the Research Triangle Park (RTP), which was built as a private—public partnership between businesses, state government, and the three research universities: Duke, UNC, and NC State, starting in the late 1950s.  That kind of public investment—as opposed to the kind of negative investment of tax credits epitomized by the new FoxComm deal in Wisconsin—is pretty close to unthinkable today.  The difference is that the positive investment of public dollars gave the public a place at the table in the planning of the RTP, with largely positive results.  It was also based on a fifty year plan that proved to be fairly accurate about the challenges facing North Carolina (decline of textile, tobacco, and furniture industries) and pretty accurate about what could replace those lost economic drivers.  There’s a decent case to be made that the original fifty year plan is now outdated and that the RTP needs a serious reboot and rethink at the moment.  Not surprisingly, the ability to forge the kind of partnership that got things rolling in 1957 appears totally lost.  But there is also no coherent vision of what the next fifty years will see us requiring.

There is no denying that North Carolina’s prosperity is very, very unevenly distributed.  This is not just about income and wealth inequality, which still does not reach Northeast levels (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts) in this state, but is nonetheless real.  It is also about geographic distribution.  The eastern and western parts of the state are far poorer than the prosperous Piedmont in the middle.  Given the structure of American political districting, which gives disproportionate power to rural over urban voters, the legislature is skewed toward those who are not beneficiaries of the knowledge economy—and who, in many cases, view that economy as their cultural and economic enemy.

If nothing else, the left should be pushing for a realistic “living wage” for all workers and for basic job security and health/retirement benefits.  I don’t see any realistic alternatives to a market economy.  That’s where I am liberal.  But I do think there should be strong state intervention in/regulation of that economy.  On the intervention side, some measures should address market forces directly (like a high minimum wage) while other measures—primarily progressive tax rates—should mitigate the market’s tendency to produce extremely unequal outcomes.  That’s where I am a social democrat.

And, as my last few posts have suggested, I believe the tax revenues should be devoted in part to investment in infrastructure.  I take universities—and the creation of an educated citizenry—as part of that infrastructure.  Even if the right wing refuses such investments—and, in fact, as Chris suggests, desires a return to “plantation capitalism”—I don’t see how such a strategy can be anything but self-defeating.  The knowledge economy will leave the Alabamas in the dust.

Note that all of this says nothing about “finance capitalism.”  New York (and the way wealth is generated there) is not California (Silicon Valley).  The relation of finance capital to education is very complex—as is suggested by today’s Kevin Drum piece about the way that membership in a fraternity increased lifetime earnings by a whopping 36%.  That wouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone in the development office at UNC.  All the Wall Street guys were frat boys back in the day.  And the measures needed to regulate/intervene in finance capital (starting with a transaction tax, a meaningful increase in capital gains tax, and strict rules about computer trading) are different than those called for when dealing with Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Finally, I agree with Chris that the political situation in this country is more fluid than might appear.  One of the left’s biggest problems has been its inability to overcome the “passivity” of which Chris speaks.  I was astounded—and still am—by how quietly the unemployed took their fate in the wake of 2008.  They crawled into a corner, ashamed, and licked their wounds, as if it were a personal flaw that led to their being laid off.  I don’t understand that.  There’s an enthusiasm gap, at least when it comes to electoral politics, that is fatal in the low turnout on the left for mid-term and local elections.  Counting on 75 year old Bernie to solve that problem is a formula for disaster.  We need some you, fire-breathing, and inspirational leaders.  I think there are plenty of people out there who could be inspired by such a visionary.

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