Monday, December 26, 2016

On Social Control in Universities

Chris Hedges has concerns with Trump's impact on intellectuals:
Trump and his Christian fascist minions, sooner than most of us expect, will seek to shut down the small spaces left for free expression. Dissent will become difficult and sometimes dangerous. ... The Trump administration will hand our Christian jihadists a platform to champion a repugnant religious chauvinism that fuses the symbols and language of the Christian religion with American capitalism, imperialism and white  supremacy.
He spoke with historian Ellen Schrecker, author of several books on McCarthyism, who says this has been in the making for the past four decades since America has been "cannibalized for profit." They spoke mainly about the Powell memorandum launched in the 1970s and the current rise of watch lists targeting leftist academics for discrimination against conservatives or for criticizing capitalism, an act allegedly committed by Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist on the list. Left-leaning alternative media is also being targeted.

Schrecker refers to Martha Nussbaum's discussion of the importance of the humanities to give us a taste for the other through literature, history, and sociology. They think it makes you a better person and citizen when you put yourself in another's place mentally, but the pressure on people to focus on the self is very strong, even from parents who dissuade students from degrees in the humanities in order to focus on more lucrative professions.

Hedges ends with a plea for us to hold fast to
values of compassion, simplicity, love and justice....Tyrants have silenced voices of conscience in the past. They will do so again. We will endure by holding fast to our integrity, by building community and by spawning new institutions in the midst of the wreckage. We will sustain each other. Perhaps enough of us will endure to begin again.
This article is timely for me because I recently watched Jordan Peterson talk about the demise of universities, but from the completely opposing side. [He gave a 3-hour interview about many topics - some I agree with entirely, so I'll get to more of them another day.] A prof at U of T, he's been given written warnings after refusing to use alternative gender pronouns upon request. His refusal is in part to make an important point about freedom of speech. His concern, and here he runs parallel to Hedges, is that our speech is being micromanaged in a way that could be dangerous if allowed to continue. He's also concerned with the lack of a cultural history in the populous. And, like Hedges, he praises Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago for its compelling story of the inner workings of the Soviet Union. They're both concerned with the erosion of civil liberties, and Hedges takes from Solzhenitsyn's book that,
"unless these informants on the streets, in the prisons and manning our massive, government data-collection centers are disarmed we will never achieve liberty."

But that's where the similarities end. Peterson seems to take from Solzhenitsyn's book that horrors of the time were entirely due to Marxist ideas, which he further conflates with anything left-leaning, and deduces that therefore the problem with the universities is the leftists who are all Marxists, who are all unwittingly (or dimwittingly) promoting the horrors of the Gulags. The fact that Trudeau said anything nice about Castro makes him suspect in Peterson's eyes.

The atrocities of the Soviet Union might be pinned on Lenin's revolutionary actions, but Marx and Lenin had marked differences, primarily in their view of control over the people. Peterson sets up a straw man when he suggests that the Marxists all think it didn't work with Stalin because he was a monster, but it could work if they were in charge. And then he argues that we would all end up as brutal dictators given that much power. But he misses the point. Marx didn't want an authoritative body to be in charge; he wanted workers to be in charge of the factories: "to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class." His writings promote anarcho-syndicalism more than what we currently call communism.

Peterson thinks people like Marxism because it's compassionate, which is nice and all but doesn't work with a large group because we can't treat one another as kin once society gets too large. So it's misguided to have equality of outcome. All positive motivation renders the world unequal. He's on the conservative side of this meme below in terms of handouts, expecting the little guy to be motivated enough to negotiate the solution shown on the right. But, as far as he's concerned, if we just set it up like in the right image, then nobody will be motivated to do anything.
Here's a little history of this meme.
So, if I understand him, if we ensure that everyone has what they need, compassionately, then all progress will end. Here's Marx's response to that claim,
It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: that there can no longer be any wage-labour when there is no longer any capital.
Peterson's analysis implies an underlying premise that the poor don't work hard, which basically suggests that the rich and poor are divided entirely through their efforts. But it's clear to me that there are elements of luck and mass obsession and exploitation of others that lead some to become outrageously wealthy with relatively little effort. And there are many working a variety of jobs but just barely surviving. He's concerned with the lack of progress that would entail with equality of outcome, but then later gets all Taoist. But progress is largely antithetical to the Tao. Curious. He's a little hard to pin down.

Furthermore, Marx insisted that "Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriations." He wanted to end the exploitation that enabled the few to become exceedingly wealthy off the backs of the many, not to end the profit that comes from innovation.

Peterson rails against the left, but left and right are a slippery dichotomy. In some regards, Marx is not that different, ironically, from John Locke who some call the father of capitalism. Marx wanted to stop the exploitation of the factory workers by the managers, and Locke wanted to stop the exploitation of the peasants by the aristocracy by allowing them to own the land they worked:
The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
The father of communism and the father of capitalism and Adam Smith and Aristotle and many others, all implore us to compassionately reject exploitation of the masses and most of them want to ensure the people all have the basics to thrive. Here's Aristotle:
It is manifest therefore that a state is not merely the sharing of a common locality for the purpose of preventing mutual injury and exchanging goods. These are necessary preconditions of a state's existence, yet nevertheless, even if all these conditions are present, that does not therefore make a state, but a state is a partnership of families and of clans in living well, and its object is a full and independent life.
Back to universities. Peterson thinks the leftist ideology boxes people in. It controls and suppresses the marketplace of free ideas. He includes in this Woman Studies Departments which all dangerously foster revolution with a false anthropology that claims there used to be an egalitarian paradise before patriarchal oppression. For evidence he implores us to look at any Women Studies website, but his specific concerns seems to be that they promote class-guilt in their belief that we're responsible for the sins of our past and that they believe the oppressed deserve special compensation. [I'll dismantle that bit another day.] Because of the Marxism of the universities which is leading to the "slow creep toward social control," he thinks universities do more harm than good. We can educate ourselves online better now. Wisdom has moved outside the universities.

And then he spent many minutes applauding the reach of his own monetized videos and possibly being convinced by the interviewer to shift to a podcast model for an even wider audience, and it all started sounding a bit like an infomercial.

But then he took a decidedly left-wing view and argued for limits on the profits to be made by managers in a university. He notes the proportion of funds going to administration has massively increased and that administrators are essentially stealing the future earnings of the students who aren't allowed to declare bankruptcy on their student loans. Or, one might say, the proletariats of the system are creating indentured servitude. Interesting. He adds a capitalist twist to it with a concern that this burdens citizens at a time when they're most likely to take entrepreneurial risks. For a minute there, it almost seemed like he was forming a compassionate kinship regardless the size of our society.

He loves YouTube because it documents issues without interrogation. He calls it a revolution as overwhelming as the Gutenberg press and a re-birth of genuine journalism where people can seek out contrary viewpoints. I agree, except I'm not convinced it's entirely a good thing to promote as potentially the dominant form of education. Information needs some form of curation. There's a lot of crap out there. And if Marxist courses are the problem in universities, then people like him should stay put to offer an alternative viewpoint.

But I do agree with his concerns about social control, just like I agree with Hedges' concerns. I'm fascinated with the idea that both are concerned with social control, but both think it comes from opposing places: external right-wing think tanks and internal left-wing humanities departments, and targets opposing groups. I worry to what extent Peterson's crusade is muddling the truly frightening concerns from the other side? But maybe that's just my brainwashed leftist ideology talking.

Peterson says "university is a place to be confronted by horrible ideas. History is a bloodbath....Stay home to be safe." I agree absolutely. We must be able to express minority, dissenting views freely and openly, especially in educational facilities. I support him on that even though I'm exactly the kind of person he's blaming for it all - a crazy Marxist feminist egalitarian schooled in a leftist humanities department.

I'll get to those pronouns next time.  (ETA - here's my discussion on that)

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