Capitalism and the Modern University

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The most common rebuff to utopian thinking is not that its premise is false. You need not be a card-carrying socialist to agree that capitalism has engendered massive social inequalities.

Quite the contrary: it is often the case that our magnates, the masters of private property, are quickest to give away their money to charitable causes, both at home and abroad, in a tacit admission of wrongdoing. Today, with capital scuttling across the globe, drawing its web of exploitation ever wider, it is no longer possible to maintain that the system is a force for good. The most sympathetic will likely admit this; only they will add that there is nothing better.

Yet it seems to me that this last group of people, the bastions of capitalism, are the most utopian. For them, the capitalist state is already that utopia. Unlike those of us who dare tentatively to imagine or project a space in which a better future society is possible, these people have the clearest idea of what the best possible society would look like, as it exists concretely before them today. Even nice liberals, rightly extolling the virtues of a welfare state, think that capitalism is the last word in modes of production, that the secret lies not in a single great change, but in innumerable tweaks, a touch more tax, a little less discrimination, a few more benefits. For them too, utopia has basically arrived.

Thus it is no longer radical to be utopian. The issue is that even our clearest reveries of a better world are fettered to the material conditions under which we live and work today. Our imaginations are not external to our bodies; they too grow tired under the strain of a long day’s work. As labour is divided ever more finely, as life becomes ever more fragmented and specialised, so too our imaginations narrow, and those projections of a utopian future fit more closely the character of a seemingly inescapable capitalist present. Slavoj Zizek has suggested that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I would shift the emphasis: it has become possible to imagine the end of capitalism only as the end of the world.

The perfect emblem of our imprisonment in a historical moment is the steampunk genre. In such works, we find depictions of a post-apocalyptic future as the Victorians might have envisaged it. What is striking, of course, is less the similarity between their images of futuristic technologies and what we have today; it is rather the irreconcilable difference between the two frames of reference, the sense of anachronism that pervades, indeed is intrinsic to, the steampunk genre. The escape to the future, it becomes clear, is possible only on the condition that we relapse irretrievably into the past–in this case a past distinguished by the heyday of Victorian industrial capitalism.

All of the above serves only to raise more insistently the question of how we escape ourselves, our coordinates in the giant network of capitalism, to glimpse what might exist beyond it. The answer, I think, lies in Ernst Bloch’s notion of nonsynchronous or uneven development. This is the idea that a particular mode of production (capitalist, feudal, ancient, and so on, at least in Marxist theory) never fully dominates, that there is always a residue of an older, or a hint of a future, economic organisation in the present society. For Bloch, the existence of uneven development can impede change. If we all lived in the same present, if we all experienced the strain of the same economic conditions, it would be easier to form a revolutionary proletariat. But the reverse is also possible, as uneven development contains latent in itself the potential for subversion.

We already have, in this country and at this moment, institutions that are, at least in theory, fundamentally incompatible with capitalism. Let me take as my prime example the most familiar one: the university. As soon as capital penetrates to its innermost recesses, the university is alienated from itself. The free pursuit of knowledge is at odds with a system that compulsively transforms objects in the world, whatever their use, into exchange values. How do you impose a price on research, on critique? One cannot simply demand critique as one might demand some clothes or a car. Neither can one supply it as one might supply champagne or diamonds. The name we have given traditionally to the mass production and reproduction of thought is propaganda.

Yet the increasing specialisation in the commercial sector finds its most extreme expression on campus, as it has become ever more obscene to work beyond one’s immediate area of expertise. It should be no surprise that we see, with every day that passes, another anxious defence of this or that subject, a renewed effort to fortify disciplinary walls. I speak from experience when I say that study in the humanities appears to have become an exercise in self-justification. We no longer ask the genuinely radical question about what actually merits study. When writing our funding proposals, we must ask instead the reactionary question about what the funders would like us to think merits study. From the outset, their capital guides our lines of research.

The university is now little more than the entrance hall to glittering corporate skyscrapers, the degree little more than an access card. Whatever their ambitions, students are forced to see their programme as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Even our most dignified efforts to learn something about literature, history, economics, science, and so on without reference to some career goal are tarnished by the discourse of transferable skills, which convinces us that there isn’t–indeed, that there never was–such a thing as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

But I don’t mean to suggest that the university is a thing of the past. My point is the opposite: that it affords us a glimpse of the future. We know the university cannot continue to exist under present conditions, so it will remain incomplete until the rest of society, labouring still under the profit motive, finally catches up. The university is then a utopia in miniature, and the corridors, desks, and library shelves where genuine free thinking persists become key pockets of resistance, invested with the highest political urgency. Most significantly, these utopian spaces have one great advantage over our projections of how a better society might look: they already exist. No anachronistic imagining is required.

What I have said about universities also applies to the NHS, which is gradually being privatised, but becomes private only on the condition that it ceases to be a national health service. The liberal ideology would have us believe that we can have both. Indeed, liberalism today is like a long, bad Freudian dream. Freud tells us, in his study of dreams, that they know no ‘either–or’, that even our most conflicting desires can find expression alongside one another in the dream-work. Perfectly analogous is the present political situation, in which the steady privatisation of the NHS and the university is presented as the best way to fulfil the intrinsically socialist goals of equal healthcare and education.

‘“No” seems not to exist so far as dreams are concerned,’ Freud writes. So it is that the revolutionary act today is not the positive moment of the utopian dream, but the absolute negation of dreaming. The revolutionary act consists in saying ‘no’.

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Discussion3 Comments

  1. avatar

    One point I think you’re tying to make from this very well written article, is that humans are increasingly becoming nothing more than a factor of production for the capital owning elite.

    A mass cull of the human race may be due…

    The reason researchers and students look towards real world applications and transferrable skill is the competitiveness of the Labour market.

    With less competition, students are no longer turning to higher education simply in an effort to differentiate themselves from the workforce.
    Researchers aren’t bending their thought to what they believe are the whims of financial backers.

    Extremely bleak solution I agree, but I do not feel there is any other way to avoid the social inequalities that I believe will end the human race.

  2. avatar

    In thinking of a comment on your claim that “it is no longer possible to maintain that the system is a force for good” I fell immediately into a trap which I think is a major flaw of capitalism. Capitalism is not just an economic system rooted in inequality, as opposed to simply causing social inequalities, it is also the yard stick through which we measure it’s own virtue. The system appears to be a force for good when for instance you look at Hans Rosling’s statistics on the percentage of people who earn over $1 a day compared to 25 years ago (a recent TED talk to anyone interested). Why is this a good thing? Because capitalism, that’s why.

    It’s not just about saying no to liberal-capitalist optimism. I think we need to put morality back into our discussions of these systems and in a more nuanced way than simple economic fairness or free thinking. Perhaps as you say, we already have an answer to the ‘good’ society, based on your virtues at least. But how to engage people in a thoughtful future? It is so much easier to look forward to the next iPhone release.

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