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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Class War

By Catherine Liu

We are in the midst of a class war, but only Fox News dares to use that scandalous expression. According to its pundits, it’s the “havenots” with their healthcare reforms and “entitlements,” public pensions and other soul sapping “scams” who are attacking the “haves.” At least Right-wing pundits aren’t afraid of the word “class.” Liberals, Leftists and Progressives are about as eager to talk about class as they are to undergo voluntary root canal surgery. The “haves” are much more aggressive than the “havenots” about guaranteeing that they have more and more, and the “havenots” have less and less. The “haves” continue to militate against public inefficiencies while Progressive economists and analysts have tried to show that the diminished powers of the state and the financialization of global economic activity are responsible for our slow burn crisis and the concomitant loss of consumer and political confidence. The “haves” may have lost a few skirmishes after October 2008, but you can be sure that they remain vigilant and aggressive about their long-term agenda. On a Federal level, the “haves” have targeted social and public services of every sort, from Federally funded after-school care to Social Security. At the state level, they relish the idea of privatizing public universities, whose successes have been based on decades of public investment. They have also succeeded in securing profitable arrangements between privately owned testing companies and public schools, where the demand for accountability has produced a need for ever changing instruments by which teacher and student performance are measured. They continue to argue for school vouchers and school choice and they continue to make public school teachers and unions feel the heat of their reformist ardor.

Kevin Phillips, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank and this blog’s Chris Newfield have all been making the argument about the war against the middle class. It’s time to understand the “crisis in the Humanities” (its most recent iteration was launched by Stanley Fish in the pages of the New York Times) in the context of a larger class war. As usual Fish provokes with his, “the Humanities don’t do any good, but they should be supported nevertheless.” He appears both tough-minded and pragmatic. According to Fish’s numbers, the Humanities may be profit centers in high tuition private Universities, but not the case in of low-tuition public ones. No worries! He wants us to stop whining about how much good we do in the Humanities, and urges us to appeal instead to the historical mission of research universities to support authentic research and researchers. Scientific and humanities research are open-ended enterprises and should be measured by internal standards of specialists: as any historian of the modern University can tell you, preserving autonomous research values is vital to any institution that aspires to the status of “university.” Let us show then, that National University and University of Phoenix are not actually universities because they do not support research in any way.
Much as I wish many of our upper administrators would read Fish and take him seriously, I’m afraid that they could ignore the appeal to their better historical sensibilities and derive a very different “takeway” from his article. They could very well say that it is perfectly all right to keep the Humanities in expensive, private institutions, because it is in these institutions that the Humanities are more economically viable. At private institutions, gifted and well-heeled and well-funded students will prosper like well-tended orchids. Large public institutions cannot afford to maintain the conditions where Humanities are taught: it only makes economic sense that heartier, less rarefied students should be taught to survive in less climate controlled conditions. As I argue in my forthcoming book, The American Idyll: Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press), since 1945, leaders in higher education have tried to reserve the study of the Humanities and Liberal Arts for an economic and cultural elite. President Obama’s focus on community colleges does nothing to challenge the assumption that while some students will be able to study for pleasure and curiosity, the majority will be consigned to pursuing higher education as a form of job training.

Higher education is functioning as an efficient sorting system that allows for the rationalization of entrenched inequalities. Neglect in regulating for profit education during the era of Bush has allowed for ITT Educational Services, Inc. and UC Regent Richard Blum to make a tidy profit from the bottom end of the higher ed hierarchy. Until recently, it looked as if for profit universities in which Blum has deep financial and philosophical investments would be able to make handsome profits from educating the neglected low performing students who happen to be eligible for generous Federal student loans.  For profit higher ed is just one part of Blum’s spectacularly successful portfolio. Will Parrish details Blum’s ability to use opportunities produced by “strong nation-state interventions” to generate massive wealth for hedge fund and himself. We linked to the Peter Byrne article about Blum’s conflict of interest in being a UC Regent and a major and we do so again.

From the very top of the higher ed hierarchy, elite students, global creative and finance leaders will emerge to found Facebook, work in what remains of high finance and or devote themselves to cutting edge cultural and philanthropic institutions. Land-grant public universities educate the large majority of highly qualified middle class students for lives as middle managers and competent professionals. State universities train their future employees. Community colleges train pink collar workers for service jobs. If SUNY Albany is cutting its Russian and French programs and UC Irvine is allowing its French and Italian department to deliquesce, elite private institutions are said to be gurgling with joy and savoring the opportunities for poaching and profiting in national research rankings from the defeat if not disappearance of their public competition. Poaching has already begun and it will sharpen the very hierarchy and divide in public/private higher ed that Clark Kerr, for all his faults, sought to undo. Within the UC itself, a group of professors from UC San Diego wrote to UC President Mark Yudof in order to suggest the imposition of an internal pecking order among the ten campuses. “Top tier” campuses would enjoy greater autonomy and greater access to funding, while lower tier campuses like UC Riverside, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz would be allowed to gather crumbs falling from the tables of the great while fumbling with the UC imprimatur for a sense of mission and identity. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the UCSD professors generously relegated UC Irvine where I teach, to the middle tier.)

Chris Newfield’s argument that war on the middle class is a war against a tolerant/ liberal/progressive world needs an Ehrenreichian caveat. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Fear of Falling during the recession of the 1980s. In this book, she demonstrated how the undoing of the social safety net was changing the American middle class and making it more anxious and more conservative. In fear, the middle class clings to its own relative privileges: access to better education and safer neighborhoods. In times of economic crisis, it is a class particularly susceptible to adopting political attitudes that are ungenerous and anti-egalitarian in spirit. The more economically vulnerable the middle class feels itself to be, the more politically conservative it becomes. The hegemonic logic of neoliberalism tries to appeal to an anxious and objectively besieged middle class. Research professors and public sector retirees are just latest cast of characters including welfare mothers and NEA artists that conservatives love to evoke in their morality play about “the people” and the “parasites.”

In the drama of outrage and indignation, conservatives fuel a general animus against any group of people who might enjoy some modicum of freedom from mercurial market forces. Economic elites have tried with different degrees of success to impose an instrumentalizing attitude towards all human activity because they think no one should be free of economic anxiety, ever. The hard numbers show that the elites are succeeding in transferring the nation’s wealth to itself: UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez has shown that by 2008, the top 10% of American earners took home 48.2%  of the nation’s annual wages. As public education and public services are hollowed out, those numbers are even more dramatically skewed in favor of the ultra-rich at the expense of the middle and working classes. The middle class that could once think of itself as part of the “haves” is finding itself in an increasingly precarious position. It is not an exaggeration to say that it has been proletarianized.

Chris Newfield’s point bears repeating: in times of economic prosperity as in times of economic crisis, cuts in public funding to the UC are touted as the only way to produce efficiencies in higher education. In Great Britain right now, Eton-educated, pasty-faced young Tories are trying to defeat the bogeyman of deficit spending by turning 490,000 public sector workers onto the unemployment rolls. Theirs is a vicious and hyperbolic version of neoliberalism’s shock doctrine. Paul Krugman believes that the Tories are victims of freemarket groupthink and that their economic policies will prove disastrous in both the short term and the long term. Do the Tories really believe that their budget cuts will suddenly make the private sector so effervescent that half a million jobs will be created out of the thin air of free markets?

In France, the protests are about much more than the changes the Sarkozy government is trying to impose on the French retirement age. Le Monde reports that a mass political mobilization is taking place capable of expressing complex forms of political solidarity, across lines of class and race. Protestors are rejecting Sarkozy’s peculiar form of market authoritarianism. The recent deportation of the Roma from France was allegedly welcomed by the ordinary Frenchman. Sarkozy may have staked too much on the toxic blend of racism and economic resentment to bolster his extreme attempts at producing pension reform. No single political party is able to embody all of the demands of the protestors, and it does not matter. Unfortunately, the English language media have focused on the anger of “students” rather than the grievances of workers. Almost all of the photographs we find in American media feature angry attractive middle-class white students who are more easily dismissed as pampered citizens of a welfare state. The reality of the French protests is more nuanced: this is an authentic, mass Left movement, with deep economic commitments to the forms of resistance it is creating. Most critically, it has mobilized the young, but is not a simply “a student movement.”

The struggle to control the terms by which we speak of higher education is taking place across major and minor theaters of the class war: the “crisis of the Humanities” is only one front in a larger battle. It is critical to put the present budgetary crisis in public Universities in the larger political and economic framework of a continuing class war the terms of which have been up until now controlled by reactionary forces.


Bronwen Rowlands said...

Oh I think it IS an exaggeration to say that the middle class has been proletarianized. Do you consider yourself to be a member of the middle class? Have you experienced food insecurity in the last few days?

But, ten points for using the word "deliquesce" in a sentence.

Chris Newfield said...

Bronwen - the argument is more that the "mass middle class" -- white, blue, and pink collar alike, with at least "some college" being an important qualification --is being partially deskilled and having resources withdrawn. The growth of adjunct teaching, the micromanaging of K-12 curriculae are examples of the former. Nationwide cuts in pensions and the replacement of tax support with high tuition are examples of the latter. Flawed as it was, the post-war expansion envisioned a broad-based improvement of living standards that can be seen in income statistics, and that has been reversed by the inequality boom, which has been the result, in some cases -- as in tax policy -- deliberately so, of national policy (trade and bank deregulation, etc.) College and non-college wage earners are losing ground, though the latter more rapidily and more painfully than the former - so far. UC is set up to train tens of thousands of students for middle-class mid-level organizational jobs (managers, accountants, designers, coordinators, marketers) that are disappearing. High-end customized education still exists at high-end private universities, but the stable corporate economic system which was to make the UC-style upper-middle type of educated person similarly stable and comfortable (though at a lower level of income and prestige) has been disappearing, and UC"s current response is MORE standarization rather than less. I think it's worth considering how the "middle class" can't be regarded as protected and exceptional anymore, even though as you rightly say, "proletarianized" isn't the right word.

Catherine Liu said...

Bronwen and Chris, -- the process of proletarianization takes place as labor agency is stripped from the working class. The proletariat exists in a relationship to labor, not consumption, or even food consumption. I'm being hyperbolic, but I don't think I'm wrong about the decline of the American middle class. Proletarians are those who have no power over their labor, and can only sell their labor power on a marketplace in exchange for the means to survive.They can't save money, their wages are never turned into investment capital. They live on debt. After the Great Depression, the American working and middle classes used to believe that home ownership and public/social services would allow for it to experience some kind of economic security. Perhaps I should have written, the middle classes are destined for increasing economic insecurity, but that seems to have less rhetorical power. I still stand by proletarianize. And the proletariat are not always hungry. BTW, I'm not basing my analysis on autobiographical anecdote. For all you know, I could be a from an oligarchical family. What does that matter what I consider myself to be? Why would your judgment of my analysis be based upon my "self location" or identification?

cloudminder said...

i've responded to this post but it is longer than the max limit please view it here

Catherine Liu said...

Cloudminder, I don't know what you mean by race in your response to my post. Frankly, I think it is a lot easier for us in the cocoon to talk about race than it is to talk about class war. In the book, I try not to focus on race, but make it a part of the way in which meritocracy purports to manage the distribution of educational opportunity. Spurious and racist science of course must be addressed. Just as Bronwen Rowlands implied that I have to do due diligence before i can talk about class, it seems that you expect that I have to talk about race and religion before I can talk about class. This is a function the our living in the cocoon. The economic collapse has been devastating for people around the globe. Neoliberals tell us making govt small will help. Meanwhile, the rich have stripped their countries of their wealth. Carlos Slim and the oligarchs of the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin and Dick Cheney.

Catherine Liu said...

have all profited from the retreat of the state from the protection of public goods...sorry to have left that sentence dangling

cloudminder said...

re:"it seems that you expect that I have to talk about race and religion before I can talk about class."

no, i do not expect/think you need to do it BEFORE-- i wondered if you address each -- as i said at the beginning of my post i don't know if you discuss each factor (race,class,religion etc) in your book- but i was not seeing it in your post and it felt/read as incomplete in this certain way to me. others no doubt will find it incomplete in other ways - and even more may find it highly satiating in every way on the subject. thanks for your explanation on how you address race in the book.

re:"Frankly, I think it is a lot easier for us in cocoon to talk about race than it is to talk about class war"

--my life experience tells me that both topics are equally difficult-- just sit in a room with an open bar talking about health disparities with a group from each dept on campus and see what happens.

i highly value cocoons- it wasn't used as a pejorative

Catherine Liu said...

I find discussions of "diversity" incomplete when economic difference isn't addressed, but we agree on one thing -- cocoons are good. And I don't think we need to celebrate butterflies when we praise the cocoon.

Toby Higbie said...

An interesting post and conversation. I think the thrust of what Catherine is saying about income redistribution is self evident. There is a nice set of charts online here: http://www.slate.com/id/2266174/slideshow/2266174/fs/0//entry/2266212/ . Note that since 1973 the income share of the top 0.1 earners has quadrupled.

Whether we call this "proletarianization" seems less important than specifying what we're talking about. In that respect, Catherine's comment at 2:08pm is more to the point. Look around at the foreclosure crisis and the level of indebtedness among "middle class" folks. The debtor class works to feed interest payments to the financial sector.

I do not see the need to parse out race and class so starkly. Clearly they are overlapping and reinforcing structures of inequality. In my experience, the ethnic studies programs are home to many working class students and first generation college students. I assume this is what Cloudminder is referencing. I look forward to reading Catherine's book!

cloudminder said...

i don't think i have ever heard a conversation on diversity where economics was not addressed. but discussions on economics without reference to race are all too common.

Toby, exactly. i don't parse them out- i link them. (I was seeking a link b/ween the class war post with the cuts we are seeing at UC- my blog's focus is solely UC - all issues covered there are routed back to UC, not global. Catherine's post is global.)Making connections and identifying differences in the topics is a good thing.

i'm well aware of the income redistribution data - it would also be interesting to see a melanin graph laid over that data.

Melanin, gender things like that will always be linked to class.

Catherine Liu said...

I just can't have the race/class/gender debate over and over again. Thanks to Todd for his clarification. I do believe that the economic war of the elites against everyone else foments race/gender resentment and division, but is focused on one goal -- the redistribution of wealth and agency to the top.

Toby Higbie said...

Cloudminder: if you follow the link in my comment and click through the charts, you will find what you're looking for (income ratios by race/ethnicity/gender).

Catherine: agreed. We're being "managed" by the divide and conquer strategy from above.

Bronwen Rowlands said...

We're just talking here, folks. We're not being graded, no one's taking notes. Can we speak in such a way that our terms don't need to be defined? It's good exercise. Clean thinking; clean writing. Here's your rhetorical power:

"Food will become, very soon, a major political weapon."

Chris Hedges

Catherine Liu said...

Another thought: income difference within racial groups and communities is widening. When we talk about "race" without this in mind, we lose perspective on the bigger trend -- growing economic polarization and insecurity for the majority -- dissolution of the "mass middle class>"

Anonymous said...

Here's a quote from John D. Rockefeller, architect of the US Department of Education in 1906, when he set out to reform the educational system in order to make a more productive workforce - he was put in charge of the "General Education Board" at that time:

"We shall not try to make these people, or any of their children, into philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen -- of whom we have an ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way."

Of course, the US hasn't fully funded the Department of Education / Education Department / Office of Education since the 1960s, precisely because the result was the sixties.

cloudminder said...

i still want a chart on MELANIN literally and income, anyone have that chart? it is a wish, but thanks again for the link.
anyway, here is a mish mash pile of things on my mind, too lazy to blog formally today but wanted to share these links 'cause i think they are important or they are stuck on my mind:

"So you want to get a PhD in the humanities"

"So You Want to Go to Law School"

and one corner of the Thought War
Students Protest Yeshiva Stipends Across Country

Backward Legislation

and the Redlining of Education and Spinning The Waste of Billions

while our US Senate is rich and white
Senate Procures Influx of Millionaires


did you happen to catch the South Carolina Gubernatorial Debate
they talked at length about education and cuts to it- they even talked about removing their entire Regent board- while we get crickets on the subject from Meg and Jerry- I think we are going to see the first full on chop shop of public higher ed happen there or in another red state first because there is high bipartisan support for it - then it will be copied widely

and i don't feel divided or conquered, but agree they are trying to do it.
thanks again all for the real, ongoing conversation on this stuff
gotta run

Unknown said...

Just one quick point, re. "Economic elites have tried with different degrees of success to impose an instrumentalizing attitude towards all human activity because they think no one should be free of economic anxiety, ever."

I believe the first half of this comment is correct, but the real difficulty today is that neo-liberalism had become too grand in its utopian predictions & was arguing that the days of capitalist cycles of boom & bust were over. In the future, there would no longer be economic anxiety but the up & Up of perpetual growth with no downturn. This enabled spectacular levels of debt - look at Ireland - & now vasts hordes of people have to pay with their jobs & livelihood for excesses of a euphoric finance sector (as in the UK). The readjustments that are occurring as a consequence will be those saying that no longer can we afford mass public education (the reality of tertiary education in every country outside the USA is that it is largely publicly funded) & that is why the humanities will become the preserve of the elite few, as in the Middle Ages.

Catherine Liu said...

Andrew, I take your point about the bubble economy mentality, but behind the bubble is the winner takes all logic. In the winner take all logic of neoliberal competition, winners will be working/playing/enjoying/earning while losers scramble to keep up by taking on more debt in order to stay in the game.

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