By Michael Meranze
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy
As Thatcher’s epigone marshal their forces to dismantle the social contract in England, the long devolution continues in the United States. But while Cameron brandishes his vision of a “big society” here there is no semblance of an intellectual vision. In part, this difference lies in the intellectual legacies of the English and American political classes: there Thatcherism here Reaganism. Thatcher’s attack on society was rooted in a brutal individualism and aimed to secure Britain an ideological preeminence in the Atlantic alliance to compensate for the loss of empire--it was not for nothing that she was dubbed the "Iron Lady." Reagan's regime was no less destructive. But it was more utopian—albeit a utopianism bought with the substitution of futuristic fantasy for a genuine grappling with reality, the cheery predecessor to the Bush administration's contempt for those operating with a “reality based world view.”
To be sure, the recurrent English desire to be the intellectual mentor to the Americans was always a sham (as evidenced by Blair’s willing self-transformation from Clinton’s frat buddy to Bush’s Seneca) but it did at least demand of New Labour and its Coalition successors some requirement to make an argument. In the ruins of the Reagan revolution the American political class cannot even muster that.
Instead the politicians and press of the world’s wealthiest nation insist that burdens must be moved downward on the social scale simply because that is the way things are. A grumpy old man who chortles at the social pain that the markets will command and a former Clinton operative who could not achieve elective office lead the President’s deficit commission in its proposals to lower taxes on corporations and raise the retirement age and cut benefits for social security recipients.
Never mind that social security could be fixed relatively painlessly (without the cuts they demand) and that it has nothing to do with the larger deficit (driven largely by Bush tax cuts, bailing out of the banks who triggered the great recession, and the rising costs of health care driven by the political failure to establish a single-payer plan). Republicans in the House and Senate line up to deny to the unemployed benefits they need to survive in order to protect the wealth of the top 2% of the population. Never mind that they justify cutting unemployment benefits as a deficit reduction mechanism while claiming that the trillions lost by extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy don’t count, or that they have resuscitated the 18c argument that the poor need to suffer to force them to work while the wealthy need to wallow in luxury to stimulate their labors.
Given that our own Lord Eldon leads a Supreme Court determined to protect corporations against the public and to strike down any controls over campaign spending there is even less need for Republicans to do more than follow Fox news. Not that the Democrats offer much in the way of an alternative vision. They can’t even articulate a meaningful vision of fairness or link the crisis to the banks because the President’s economic policy appears to include doing nothing that might upset Wall Street. Things are so bad that the person acknowledging that we have become two countries defined by inequality is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. I leave aside the continued cost of empire.
Unlike England, the lack of a central funding regime has meant that students' fees have risen at a more varied rate across the United States. Indeed, the tuition system being imposed in England has already been put into place here and has been spreading since the 1980s. As we all know, student debt now totals over 800 billions—exceeding credit card debt in the country. While much of that is rooted in the for-profit industry not all is; and public universities are increasingly shifting the burdens of their operations onto the students. The result is a lifetime of debt. Just as the United States has asked its workers to live diminished lives, just as it is asking its retirees to forego their semblance of security, so it is telling its young that they must spend their prime years paying off their debts.
What is Freedom?—ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well—
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
‘Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell
And as student fees and tuition has risen, faculty positions have declined, and higher education implodes. As states struggle with deficits caused by the recession and a lack of political will to challenge inequality, universities are moving to ask students to pay more for less. Systems in Washington, New York, Louisiana, and Texas, to name only a few, either have sought to gain greater power over tuition or to increase their authority to control or fire faculty. At UC, fees have been rising for the last decade, while administration has expanded at a far greater pace than faculty, classes have gotten larger, and UCOP's has focused ever more intensely on protecting UC's "businesses." Unlike England, where the Coalition threatens to destroy public higher education with a single stroke, in the US accessible high quality public education is suffering a long strangulation.
Given this larger context of shifting burdens onto the young, the poor, and the elderly how did the Regents proceed at their last meeting? While declaring their deep regret over tuition increases (see, they are not like Alan Simpson) the overwhelming majority insisted that there was no other choice—that President Yudof had thought of everything and increases were impossible to avoid and that all in need would be protected. Let’s forget that, as Bob Meister has shown these claims are untrue. What is more striking is that the board could imagine that the claims could be true—that in any situation there could be no rational alternatives to debate.
But like the rest of the nation’s political and institutional leadership the idea of actually arguing that transferring debt from public to private will distort lives, that sacrificing the young to keep corporate taxes low sacrifices the future, that cuts at the top might be better than raising costs on the bottom, and that an administration that seeks to determine “price-points” to charge students as much as possible might have lost the capacity to protect a public trust, appears inconceivable to them. Whereas university leaders once offered visions of an enhanced future, now the best they can do is proclaim their wisdom in adapting to “life from day to day.” Of course, they say these things because that is the world they inhabit. The Board has benefited from the world we now inhabit. And they are under little real challenge.
Students have, to be sure, organized a wide range of protests against fees (at both UC and elsewhere) and in favor of the Dream Act. But organizing on anything more than a local scale is a formidable challenge. Unions have sought to protect their members and Senates have made some efforts to speak in the name of an educational mission.
But unlike England, the intellectual collapse of the political, media, and intellectual elites has not been met by a collective effort by faculty and others to articulate a vision of a revived university in a more equal society. Those blogs that have tried to do so, one thinks of Changing Universities, How the University Works, or Citizen of Somewhere Else are all heroic efforts by individuals. We have nothing like the Campaign for the Public University or Defend the Arts and Humanities. The LRB has put up powerful critiques of the government’s plans by Collini and Mckibbon; nothing comparable has appeared here (instead we are forced to listen to the trifles of Stanley Fish).
There are deep historical roots for this problem: the greater geography of the States, the lack of a central city, the greater complexity of the higher education system, even the nature of critical traditions. It also seems likely that the more gradual nature of our dissolution makes it harder to see connections. But without some effort to link scholars and teachers across campuses, institutions and disciplines no meaningful pressure we will concede the argument over higher education to those who insist there can be no real argument. It is not too late to start.
Ye are many—they are few.
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