Economy, politics and the “crisis in the humanities”

Darin Barney
Darin Barney, McGill

This is a guest post from Darin Barney, Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship, Dept. of Art History & Communication Studies at McGill University. It is a slight variant of a talk given March 18th, 2014 as part of the McGill for Humanities Speaker Series.

Last month, Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia made a promise: “We are going to engage with post-secondary institutions about what kinds of programs they are providing and ensure they are connected to the needs of the private sector.” This followed her government’s Speech from the Throne, which signalled an intention to “re-engineer” education to address the problem of students taking degrees that do not lead directly to employment, a  situation that she went on to describe as “a significant human loss.” It should not be surprising that she would place priority on the articulation between education and occupation, given that her own post-secondary experience—an incomplete degree in political science—seems to have qualified her perfectly for the job she is now doing.

Premier Clark does us all a great service by speaking frankly. She is not alone. In Florida, a Blue Ribbon panel recently recommended that the state reduce tuition and increase public subsidy for so-called “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand” bachelor’s degree programs in “strategic areas” while leaving non-strategic programs to cover their own costs through higher tuition. Commending the idea, Governor Rick Scott said, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”  And just so our friends in anthropology do not feel singled out, here is Governor Patrick McCrory of North Carolina: “If you want to take Gender Studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

This question of jobs is a very serious one. Humanities professors with tenured positions at elite universities are in no position to look down their noses at the need for a decent job or the expectation that gainful employment will follow completion of a university degree. If you think that reading the Great Books can sustain someone who doesn’t have the benefit of a living wage, then I suspect you might never have been poor or hungry, or at least not for very long. We need to remind ourselves that we are not just talking about places like McGill, where the humanities are likely to survive as a mark that distinguishes elite institutions from the broader educational “system” in which lower and working-class people fork over tuition they can’t afford in hopes of at least being able to land a job that will allow them to pay it all back when they are done. This is not to suggest that turning the university into a machine for filling cubicles is the best way for us to service those people and their hopes, it is to remind ourselves to not be so quick to dismiss the reality of things we ourselves rarely have to worry about (at least until we have children, or grad students, of our own).

Still, all this talk by politicians about connecting education to jobs is meant to sugar coat a truth that only Premier Clark was honest enough to speak: that higher education must be “re-engineered” to meet the “needs of the private sector.” What are the needs of the private sector? To answer this question, we need to keep in mind that the “private sector” is a euphemism for the common economic interests of what might be better described as “capital.” The private sector names that class whose purpose it is to derive and accumulate private benefit from the commons. For this, it needs technologies and it needs human labour. In the case of British Columbia, for example, the private sector needs an infrastructure to extract, process and export liquefied natural gas and it needs engineers and other skilled workers to build it. In her forthrightness, Premier Clark is simply confirming that, in the age of neoliberalism, this is what mass public education is primarily for.  Corporations and industry also seek out and benefit from the creativity, literacy and communication skills associated with educational exposure to the humanities but, when the ground itself harbours a precious commodity demanded by global markets, such “values” cannot be allowed to drive the mission of public education.

The thing about the private sector’s needs is that the private sector does not really want to pay to satisfy them. What makes the private sector private is the ability of capital to privatize the benefits of the industry it commands. However, when it comes to the costs of this industry – the costs of developing its technologies and preparing and sustaining its labourers – the private sector would prefer to externalize these to the greatest extent possible, as it does with the costs of other sorts of infrastructure. The private sector needs benefits to be privatized, and costs to be socialized (in this context, in the form of publicly-financed education and training) or borne by individuals themselves (in the form of student debt and foregone possibilities).  Of course, one way for the private sector to make sure educational infrastructure meets it needs would be to pay for it and thereby own and manage it. This is happening as well, especially via the increased private funding of scientific research. However, when it comes to the more mundane matter of preparing a workforce to meet its needs, this is a cost the private sector would prefer to externalize, and it is one that the state form we currently inhabit seems prepared to socialize on its behalf. The configuration of mass education to meet the needs of capitalists is not something that can be spoken out loud very often, and this is why state representatives of industry more typically invoke the imperative to provide jobs for learners when seeking to justify this ongoing structural adjustment.

As I have said, in a democratic society beset with inequality and personal debt, securing the prospect of gainful employment after graduation cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant to what we do. However, the problem facing the humanities and the university more broadly is not that people are concerned about jobs, the problem is that this is not what the reengineering of education is actually about.  After all, if making sure that most people have meaningful, healthy, decently-remunerated and secure employment upon finishing their education was really the goal, then our sights would be turned elsewhere than the university. The reason that graduates cannot find decently-paying jobs with pensions and benefits and job security and good training and professional development is because the private sector does not want to provide those sorts of jobs. Over the past few decades, capitalists have succeeded in relieving themselves of the obligation to provide decent employment as a cost of extracting private benefit from the commons, and liberal democratic states no longer impose conditions that might compel them to do so.

Against this structural fact, the claim that somehow the humanities can be blamed for failing to prepare people for gainful employment is comical. Is this really what they expect us to believe? That the reason bright, hard-working kids can’t get a decent job is because they wasted their time getting an English degree? That it has nothing to do with the structural characteristics of the contemporary capitalist economy? Do they really expect us to believe that the reason people fail to achieve economic security is because they made the fateful and irresponsible choice, at 18 years of age, to take all those electives in film studies? That contemporary firms offer short term-contracts and unpaid internships instead career positions and pension plans because the universities just aren’t producing enough qualified applicants? If you were really concerned about making sure that people find decent employment after graduating from university what would you do first? Regulate the mobility of capital, or scrap the Creative Writing program?

As absurd as it sounds, this is exactly how the table has been set for the university in general, and for the humanities in particular. It is as if the entire pathology of the neoliberal economy has been laid at the feet of the university, and the both state and capital have stood back to say: “There. You deal with it.”

The result is two-fold.

First, the ongoing reengineering of post-secondary education to meet the needs of capital has produced a range of conditions that together comprise what goes by the name of the “crisis in the humanities”: the cutting of funds to humanities teaching programs; the amalgamation and elimination of programs deemed expendable; the reconfiguration of curricula and programs in response to administrative pressure and incentives; the reduction of research funds for humanities research or, in what amount to the same, the misrepresentation and contortion of humanities research in order to attract what funds there are; and last, but very far from least, the conversion of the humanities professoriate from a tenured collegium to an overworked, underpaid, contingent and precarious workforce whose PhDs are no longer a ticket to the academy but are, instead, what Marc Bousquet has provocatively called the academy’s “waste product.”

Second, the perpetual announcement of a “crisis in the humanities” sets a scene against which the moral drama of neo-liberalism unfolds. In this drama, the power of capital and state magically disappear, and responsibility for the economic conditions under which people live is assigned to the choices made by individuals themselves. This includes especially choices about what sort of education to pursue, for it is through a calculated choice about whether and what to study that individuals first assume responsibility for a future they nevertheless do not control. Whether they choose to study the humanities or not, what is important is that in making a choice they are assuming responsibility for whatever happens to them as a result. This formation of the self-responsible subject, who either chooses a business degree because of the “crisis in the humanities” or who chooses art history despite it, is arguably more valuable to capital, structurally and over the long-term, than a steady-stream of trained-up engineers. This is the real, subjective, value of the crisis. In this sense, “the crisis of the humanities” has a performative character:  it produces the condition it names by the mere fact of its utterance. This suggests that if there was not already a crisis in the humanities, someone would have to invent it.

All of this is merely to express what has become commonplace: that, in the current moment, the university’s independence from the needs of capital has diminished dramatically; that the state has facilitated rather than impeded that assimilation; and that the humanities have not fared well under this arrangement. We are thus living an example of what critics of neo-liberalism have long described as the extension of the economic logic of capitalism into spheres of life that had previously been at least somewhat distanced from that logic.

The “at least somewhat” in that sentence matters. As we know, the university and the humanities have never been entirely free of service to ruling interests, and have always been bound up in hegemonic projects of one kind or another, even as those who practice them have sometimes tried and succeeded in doing scholarship otherwise. It is something like this that now places us in what political theorist Wendy Brown has described as the melancholic position of mourning something which we never really loved in the first place. Brown was referring to the institutions of liberal democratic government which, though far from perfectly inclusive or just, nevertheless represented principles that held them somewhat in tension with the principles of an unbridled capitalist market, providing what she described as “a modest ethical gap between economy and polity,” a gap that could sometimes be exploited for progressive, if not radical, purposes. This is probably how most of us feel about the humanities. Despite their history as a delivery mechanism for hegemonic projects of nation-building and colonialism, and as an alibi for humanisms that have bolstered white, masculine and heterosexist violence and privilege, the humanities have existed at least somewhat in tension with the logic of capitalism, and have marked a “modest ethical gap” between that logic and the university. That gap is now closing, and we are feeling what it might be like to lose it altogether, which leaves us in the tremendously unsatisfying position of mourning the loss of the humanities as, to quote Brown quoting Gayatri Spivak, one of those things “we cannot not want.”

To be sure, mourning is a form of political work, but it is only once the mourning is done that other sorts of political work can begin. What is happening to the humanities is a political matter and it calls for a political response, in the very strict sense of politics as an organized, disruptive, sustained, collective and material intervention that opens the possibility of something new, something whose shape and outcome cannot be guaranteed in advance. Politics of this sort is demanding in two senses: it makes a demand, and it demands a great deal of those who enact it. There are possibilities. Educational workers could organize across the employment categories and institution types that now artificially separate them, transforming themselves from easily manipulated special interests into a fearsome labour force capable of striking until its demands were met. Or there could be an organized, purposeful exodus, the founding of alternative institutions in which a humanities for all was a central rather than marginal concern. These are political possibilities, but unlikely ones, not just because they would take years of struggle to achieve.  There is no politics unless those who undertake it are willing to lose what they already have, with no certainty that what they will end up with will be any better.  That does not sound like the mind of a professor. Whatever our convictions, our investment in that which we cannot not want is perhaps too great.

And so we resort to one of several disappointing alternatives. We turn on each other, blaming the predicament of the humanities on those who have done the most to validate and invigorate them in recent years: the feminists, the post-colonialists, the queers, and the theorists.  We plead that the skills we teach are relevant and transferrable, conceding the terrain before the battle is even joined. We take up administration and, claiming pragmatism and necessity, begin to execute the very logic we purport to oppose. We let us ourselves believe that it is technology that is killing us (or will rescue us). We withdraw into cynicism, wielding approval and disapproval as if they were criticism, and wait for a god to save us. Worst of all, we do what we do best: we write clever papers and give engaging talks diagnosing the whole thing and then go out for drinks satisfied that we have made a contribution to “the debate.”  This is what it means to be discouraged.

But that is too dark a note on which to end. After all, the gap is closing but it is not closed. Every day on my campus and across hundreds of others, students, faculty members and precarious academic workers carry out their practices in a manner that keeps the gap open. Like Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca and Princess Leia stuck in a trash compactor on the Death Star, they refuse to be discouraged, and they place their minds and bodies between the collapsing walls, amidst all the crap and garbage, and they keep that gap open. It is a small battle, but they win it and they live to fight another day. Eventually, they destroy the Death Star, and begin again, but first they had to keep that gap open. This is my theory of the micropolitics of the Star Wars trash compactor as applied to the crisis of the humanities. And it encourages me.

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