Tuesday, 22 October 2019

A Bodyguard of Truths.

One, Two, Many Truths: With the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in 1991, the universities of the West found themselves saddled with a new mission. With their ideological competitors now soundly defeated they were no longer required to demonstrate the superiority of capitalist values. Their job now was to cement in place the crushing victory of free-market capitalism. Intellectual pluralism was out and unchallengeable dogma was in. As far as the academic community was concerned, it was a case of: “We are all commissars now!”

WHAT’S HAPPENED to our universities? That is the question which New Zealanders educated in the universities of the 1970s and early 1980s are asking themselves. Their search for answers has been prompted by the failure of at least two of New Zealand’s academic institutions to defend the principle of free speech on their campuses. Such a dramatic departure from the academic values of the second half of the twentieth century, while disturbing, is surely inseparable from the many other changes that have transformed our universities over the course of the past 35 years. What’s happening on today’s campuses has been brewing for a long time.

What sort of world was it that required our universities to be centres of intellectual pluralism: places where different ideologies contended with one another openly and without undue rancour? First and foremost it was a world in which the struggle between market-driven and market-suppressing ideologies was ongoing. In the 1970s and well into the 1980s the outcome of the Cold War was still in doubt. Vast swathes of the planet and hundred-of-millions of workers remained off-limits to capitalism. No matter how truncated and unfree, there was still an alternative to the free market – and, as any good capitalist will tell you, competition enhances performance.

Universities, like all the other important institutions of capitalist society, had to demonstrate the superiority of capitalist values over communist ideology. If Soviet universities were hidebound bastions of unchallengeable dogma where intellectual unorthodoxy wasn’t simply unwise but punishable by dismissal, imprisonment, or worse, then the West’s universities had to be showcases of intellectual ferment and free debate.

Censorship and the suppression of free speech might be attempted by misguided university authorities (as they were in the early 1960s on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley) but all such attempts were stoutly resisted by staff and students. The Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” marked the beginning of the campus upheavals that made students a by-word for radical dissent throughout the 1960s and 70s.

With the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in 1991, the universities of the West found themselves saddled with a new mission. With their ideological competitors now soundly defeated they were no longer required to demonstrate the superiority of capitalist values. Their job now was to cement in place the crushing victory of free-market capitalism. Intellectual pluralism was out and unchallengeable dogma was in. As far as the academic community was concerned, it was a case of: “We are all commissars now!”

For students, the new regime was even more rigorous. The intellectual leaders of free-market capitalism had noted the effects of heavily state-subsidised or even “free” tertiary education on students. From the perspective of the free-market capitalist, giving young people the space and time to think about the world they were about to enter had proved a near fatal mistake. High fees and crippling student loans were their answer to the radical dissent of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Serendipitously, the policy of “User-Pays” turned out to be a genuine “twofer”. Not only did it transform students from scholars into paying customers; but also, by requiring university staff to give these “customers” what they were paying for, it undermined academic freedom. Students won’t pay for exams that are “too hard”, or enrol in courses that are of “no use”.

That only left the pesky problem of “Truth”. Traditionally, this was the whole point of attending university: learning how to approach, ever more closely, the true nature of things. For the free-market capitalist, however, the only truth worth pursuing was the truth of free-market capitalism. But, how to establish that truth without encouraging the growth of a counter-truth? That was the problem.

The survival strategy free-market capitalism came up with was nothing less than brilliant – and astonishingly successful. To protect the brutal realities of capitalism it was necessary to conceal them behind one, two, many realities. Turn the whole idea of a single truth into a monstrous and authoritarian notion – like the communist ideology of the now defunct Soviet Union. What this meant in practical terms was that while in the STEM disciplines 2+2 had to remain 4; in the humanities 2+2 could equal whatever the hell you liked!

Henceforth, and in perfect conformity with the individualistic ethos of free-market capitalism, each human-being would be given the right to determine their own truths. Naturally, these would be derived from their own insight and experience. The sum total of these insights and experiences constituted an individual’s “identity”. Protecting one’s personal truths and protecting one’s identity were thus made one and the same. Anyone attempting to impose an unwanted and/or false identity upon the individual: one that did not accord with the truths they had derived from their own insight and experience; was to be resisted as an “oppressor”.

Since free-market capitalism can only be overthrown when people are willing to subsume their own individual identities in a collective identity arising out of such all-embracing categories as “human-being”, “citizen”, or “worker”, the irretrievably divisive politics of identity have emerged as free-market capitalism’s surest defence. The only injustice capable of uniting these diverse identities is the wicked lie that there are causes around which it is possible for diverse identities to unite.

This is what the liberal arts faculties of our universities have become: institutions dedicated to the investigation, celebration and protection of personal, sexual, ethnic and gender identity. While the STEM faculties crank out the technologists needed to keep the free-market capitalist machine running, its commissars in the humanities make sure that the monstrous, planet-destroying reality of its existence remains hidden behind a bodyguard of truths. Each of them ready to use the thug’s veto against anyone foolhardy enough to raise their voice in opposition.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 18 October 2019.

11 comments:

Don Franks said...

The thugs veto just imposed by Massey on feminist group Speak Up For Women shows clearly what establishment toadies our universities have become.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Students won’t pay for exams that are “too hard”, or enrol in courses that are of “no use”."

I feel reasonably qualified to comment on this, given that I did study at Auckland University in the 1960s and 70s, and have been studying at Massey University for the last – maybe 30 years – partly to keep my brain supple. I also have kept pretty much all my assignments since I was in form seven as it used to be known. And I think I can safely say that the implication that there has been some sort of diminution of academic standards is wrong. I was not a good student in the 1960s and 70s – if I got a B+ it was cause for drunken celebration. They were reasonably rare. I think I might have got one A- in the whole of my career at Auckland University – maybe not even that it's so long ago.
Just the moment, I feel a slight disappointment if I get an A- – and devastated if I get a B of any kind. And when I compare the assignments that I did years ago, with those I do today after 50 years or so of life experience which does I must say help quite a lot, they are poor. I would be ashamed to write anything that bad these days. So I must come to the conclusion that if anything academic standards have risen. :) Just sayin'.
And I don't know about not enrolling in courses that are "no use". I haven't seen any figures, and being extramural I don't get to see the size of classes, be interesting if there were some figures though.

Billythekid said...

I remember when the Russian School was closed down at Otago University in the early 90's.

And when I mentioned this to a registry bureaucrat at the university, she said, (in a Lyn of Tawa accent) 'Aw yeah, Tolstoy's just not popular.'

kiwidave said...

"The only injustice capable of uniting these diverse identities is the wicked lie that there are causes around which it is possible for diverse identities to unite.
This is what the liberal arts faculties of our universities have become: institutions dedicated to the investigation, celebration and protection of personal, sexual, ethnic and gender identity."
That's a hell of a long bow to draw Chris. The recent trans versus feminist fiasco is surely just a manifestation of the contradictions inherent in the positions of both camps and is the exception rather than the rule in the overall "woke" movement where positions are generally overlapping and tiresomely predictable.
just what the motivations for censorship by our universities are is far from clear; their obfuscation is probably deliberate. Just today Massey are at it again, tearing down posters supporting the Hong Kong freedom fighters.
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/116723925/posters-depicting-hong-kong-protests-removed-by-massey-university-within-12-hours?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

peteswriteplace said...

The young are politically ignorant and not interested anyway. I haven't had a decent political discussion in ages.I keep reading that socialism is basically dead. I suggest the writer(FB) wouldn't know socialism,communism etc if they fell over it.Hell, I was never that left-wing anyway. Good Labour supporter - democratic socialist. Most have never heard of it.I'm too old to worry anyway. I didn't like the old comms, didn't like rightwingers.

Tom Hunter said...

There's no doubt that dividing the Left up into endless slices based in individual "Identity" is a sure-fire way of failing to collectively challenge the dominance of our systems of free enterprise.

There's also no doubt that applying a bums-on-seats payment approach to university has put increased pressure on academics to not fail students. I don't know about NZ, where stats are always hard to come by in almost any area you choose to look at, but in the USA there's no question that grade inflation has become a problem. The paradox is that the competitive pressures to enter the likes of Harvard are stronger than ever, but once you're in the system even Harvard makes every effort to prevent their students from failing. And it has also led to the recent lawsuit against Harvard by Asian students who know they've been discriminated against in entry because of "diversity" conditions applied by the university.

But to lay these problems at the foot of free enterprise is a stretch. Those students of the previous system included countless numbers of people like the ones who formed your dreaded Fourth Labour Government. They certainly had aquired a revolutionary approach to things at varsity in the late 60's/early 70's. The problem for Lefties like you was that while you could cheer them on as they tipped over the tables in areas like traditional military links with the USA and socially conservative approaches to sex and drugs, that same revolutionary fervour got applied to other traditional areas of New Zealand - like how our economy was managed!

Well, that's revolutions for you. You can never tell what directions they'll go in.

And while you point the bone at such "neo-liberal" thinking infecting how universities operate, it should be pointed out that the US system had never operated that way in the first place and it produced a wealth of ideas, inventions and very smart people over the decades. Yet they now have the same problems. The key was not charging for attending university, the problem was supplying money. In NZ it was the government and like all "free" government payments it came with rationing. In the US it was scholarships that had to be earned and private bank loans that were grudging, as well as kids who lacked both and worked jobs during university. Since the GFC the US government has taken over all loans and it's basically money-for-nothing - hence the fantastic inflation of university "costs" as they take advantage of the Federal sugar daddy. Much the same here though not as bad.

But it's worngheaded to blame all this on free enterprise while ignoring the massive contributions of Focault and other Post-Modern philosophers that have argued - and in the humanities at least - won the arguments over objectivity and truth in favour of "personal truths" and pure subjectivity. It's from that nonsense that all the rest has sprung and metastaticised and that is the responsibility of the Left over the last forty years. Nothing to do with the Right at all, a fact demonstrated by the overwhelming dominance of the Left in the humanities academic leadership, where ratios of 20 to 1 for Left vs. Right are not uncommon in US departments of history, sociology, history, and so forth.

And luckily for those concerned about the STEM fields producing endless numbers of mechanics to keep our horrific system going, the good news is that the woke brigades are now invading those spaces as well, with serious arguments being put up about the natural racism and White Supremacy of math, engineering and computer science. It'll take at least a couple of decades but I'd bet that the Left will wreck STEM as much as they've wrecked the Humanities.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" US system had never operated that way in the first place "
US universities have always operated like that, at least the elite Ivy League ones. As do Oxford and Cambridge.
"it came with rationing"
There is more than one form of rationing. There is economic rationing which means if you haven't got the money you can't do it. Any basic economics textbook should tell you that.
"it's basically money-for-nothing "
Not at all sure what this means, that's not unusual with you. But if you knew any American student she would know that they are not the ones benefiting from the student loans.
"won the arguments over objectivity and truth in favour of "personal truths" and pure subjectivity."
Sometimes I despair about people who reach a Wikipedia level – actually not even that a lot of the time – understanding of post-modernism. Post-modernism is more complicated than that, God help us I haven't got time to go into it in any depth you should read further than – wherever you got to.

DayJob said...

Two books for further reading on the ludicrous nature of universities these days:

'Degrees for everyone' by Bob Jones

'White Noise' by Don DeLillo

kiwidave said...

Top comment Tom hunter, second that.

Mike Grimshaw said...

As someone who works in a university and teaches in sociology the situation is not as dire as is often feared from the outside; but you have to be prepared to argue for structural critique and argue for the reality of class against what Nancy Fraser in dissent has rightly criticized as 'progressive neoliberalism'. When you do so you find that students are listening and are wanting to do more than identity politics, they just don't know how to move past the personal to societal politics alternatives.
It's good old 'consciousness raising' of the ongoing issues of class and capitalism...