Yesterday I came across the April 2021 issue of Passport. This review belongs to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. The title caught my eye:
…”Okay.” I gulped. “Here we go.”
I steeled myself for a some new horrible analysis of the post-covid job crisis. Thoughts raced through my mind, what had already been a long-shot, was now probably completely impossible. There will probably be some great reckoning in these pages, a sober and frank admission that the jig is up, the well is dry, the curtain has fallen, it’s time to go home…
But, unexpectedly, reading it came as something of a relief. Not because the job numbers look good, because they don’t, but because, for some reason, I suddenly felt overcome with a sense that, aside from a handful of genuine insights and daring ideas– one contribution calls for the abolition of tenure!– the collection was mostly entitled, self-righteous, whining. I suddenly felt safe, protected, not from the poor job market, which still looms, but from ever becoming such a crybaby.
But I am not actually superior to these people, I’m inferior, in fact; certainly in status, but probably also in talent. They are all intelligent and accomplished, and like almost all my competition on the job market, I’m confident they are capable researchers. So why did I suddenly feel so smugly zen?
I think it’s because the turmoil over this last year has put a couple things in perspective for me, and I think it’s a perspective worth sharing. The perspective has three parts: 1) the nature of academic jobs; 2) the national role of academics; and 3) and the way our impasse is ultimately anchored to a narcissistic leftist-humanitarian identity typical of the leaders of our class. It’s the values and dreams of the new left that we should really cast into the dustbin.
Let me explain, starting first with
1. The Job.
What is the nature of our “job”? For some of the most highly educated people around, there is a distinctive lack of self-criticism about the nature of our work. Some (not all) of the authors of the recent Passport issue seem to believe that our job is just like any other job. That we are simply one subgroup among the masses of the poor miserable workers, sharing in their suffering and partaking in their fates. I think anyone who isn’t totally indoctrinated into the faux- populism of our class will justifiably laugh at how absurd this sounds. I’m almost embarrassed to belabor the point because it seems so obvious.
Still, I worry that people still might not get it, so let me spell it out: the most highly educated people at the most prestigious universities in the world are not the wretched of the earth, any class analysis that says otherwise is opportunistic, self-serving, nonsense. One often encounters the term “false consciousness” to describe the way primary producers identify with the interests of the capitalist class, but Lo, here is the real false consciousness! The intellectual elite of a civilization play acting at some pathetic indignity.
Thankfully I found some authentic video footage of PhDs being exploited, content warning: it’s terrifying.
This misidentification would be harmless if it weren’t so central to the whole problematization of the so-called “job crisis”. Its centrality is evident in both the description of the grievances and the proposed solutions.
For example the applicant must suffer the “capricious cruelty of the tenure track job market” because of the “overwhelming stress and anxiety as one contemplates a plan B”. PhDs are haunted by the horror stories of “budding scholars with stellar CVs who did not receive tenure track offers.” The essays have been collected in order to “help SHAFR members learn about the degradations of being an early-career scholar”.The essays are so replete with invocations of personal suffering that it would tiresome for me to repeat them all here.
One of the essays remarks that these “expressions of grief, rage, frustration, or despair– [are] often beautiful, often searing, [and] always important”. But why are they important? There are two implicit reasons.
The first is simple enough, a humanitarian sense that all sadness, grief, etc is important because people are important and empathy is important. Now, I do not deny that this work is stressful, that the risks are real, that there is “precarity”, and so forth. Nor do I in any way challenge that these expressions of mental and emotional anguish are honest, genuine, authentic, etc. But so what? What does this anguish signify? These are the sufferings of the elite trying to increase and maintain their share of power and privilege in society, of course!
Instead of that honesty, we get the second, and I think wholly erroneous implication: that these feelings of anguish signify that the feelers sit among the ranks of the oppressed classes! Cogito ergo sum proletarian! It sounds ridiculous, I know, but how else to interpret the repeated attempts to shift from feeling stressed-out to a hackneyed class critique and wistful melancholy over the inevitable social crisis? What we have here are elites examining their emotional states and mistaking their own sadness for a universal social crisis, at best harboring some Turchinian rage for an upheaval to come.
For example the editors introduce the general “crisis” by claiming:
There is no escape from the miseries engendered by contemporary austerity and inequality—not within the university, and not outside of it. We believe that the only effort that might begin to change the present situation is one that begins with us. We should make use of our labor power and collective knowledge to band together with other workers—from adjunct faculty to university staff, from archivists and librarians to high school teachers, from Uber drivers to Amazon employees—to demand that society’s resources be redistributed to aid the many and not the few.5
But why would Amazon workers and Uber drivers band together with you!? What can you possibly offer them as workers? Are we really to believe that the intellectual leadership which holds the reigns of the ideological apparatus at the heart of contemporary capitalist society can make common cause with the people who are quite literally their servants? Against whom would they struggle!? Get real! What we have here is not an analysis of social structure, but the mystification of social structure for an indulgence in sentimentality. Academic employees are no more exploited than are police officers or other state bureaucrats, their labor produces no value, rather they man the helms of the state apparatus: just like cops, our job is to restrict the access of social goods. And while we might take comfort that we never have to shoot at or be shot by anyone, certainly we should be painfully aware that the world we produce is no more racially or socioeconomically egalitarian than a cop’s. So let’s get off our high horse!
2. Our National Role.
The first mistake is to believe PhD holders without a tenure track job are the wretched of the earth, standing shoulder to shoulder with Amazon workers who, literally, are forced to shit in bags in order to deliver these same academics their obscure monographs in a timely manner. The second related mistake is to see the university as a space that transcends national and class interests, hovering in a zone of pure humanitarian concern.
These two mistakes are strangely intertwined, giving lie to the previous attempt at a class diagnosis. For example one essay laments that,
in these expressions [of quit lit], we lose sight of the crux of the problem: a system of producing knowledge that relies on exploitation. The current “jobs crisis” is in fact a slow-burning social crisis.
But what is this “exploitation,” and what is its relation to the “social crisis”? It’s unclear, but the author goes on to explain that it has something to do with the fact that
higher education in the United States became a commodity, social and communal ties became less important than economic ties. As the walls between academia and the general public became higher than ever, curiosity and imagination lost ground to efficiency and productivity as important social values.
We are now in the realm of a Polanyian fall from grace, not “exploitation” and the social fractures inhering in the production of commodities. The author elsewhere identifies the problem as the “erosion of middle-class stability in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s”. This is a much more honest representation of the class dynamics of “the crisis”, which is not about the PhD holder’s structural solidarity with the working classes– an absurdity to any honest spectator, but rather the PhD holder’s Right to NOT be working class.
Unfortunately the clearer understanding of the class is undermined by an idealistic view of the university which is shared by, I think, every essay in the collection, and frankly in the genre (with some exceptions). Just as the class character of the degree holders is mystified, so too is the class character of the university itself. The suffering of these poor souls is so remarkable, apparently, because they are selflessly devoted to the “Public Good”!
The author affirms the findings of another essay (written, it turns out, by the guest editors of the special issue):
The jobs crisis […] is more than a jobs crisis. It foreshadows a knowledge crisis. Without tenured scholars producing historical knowledge, history as we have come to understand it will erode, thinning with the passage of time into something insubstantial, something far less than wisdom. […] the reason academia exists is not to provide jobs for eccentric intellectuals, but rather to enrich and grow the store of human wisdom
This moving appeal to the public good encapsulates so much about the left’s struggles over the university. The thrust of it all, in retrospect, has been that we need to have our costs lowered because we are doing work for the “public good”. We demand that taxes subsidize our tuitions, and now, that we be entitled to cushy jobs, because our curiosity about, say, Byzantine sexuality, or Vietnamese Sinophobia, is really all about serving the public!
Such slogans violate the theoretical foundations of our own analyses! Imagine the foucauldian, or the marxist, uttering such clichés, you’d be ridiculed out of the field. Our refusal to acknowledge our desired role in the national structure is transparently opportunistic. And importantly, one need not have an expensive PhD to see it! More and more colleges are only viewed positively by Democrats, a fact that closely maps onto the demographics that depend on them for the perpetuation of their class and patronage positions in a winner take all struggle over rents.
But not only have we obscured from ourselves that our role is about the perpetuation of a ruling class and hierarchical division of labor, we have also obscured from ourselves that this role is a NATIONAL one. Our job isn’t only the perpetuation of a stratum of managers and technicians who organize the national productive activity, it is also the creation of the knowledge and personnel necessary to directly guide the affairs of the state. Incidentally, one of the authors and editors of the special issue, Daniel Bessner, partially recognizes the implications of this in a previous article, but he nonetheless sees the realization as a new idea for “leftists” or “avowedly socialist” academics without academic employment, instead of an inherent aspect of the position of the university in capitalist society. Participation in the state, in terms of class reproduction, class domination, and imperial competition, is central role of the university. The academics, both the tenured ones clutching their pearls, and the newly minted PhDs, wringing their sweaty little hands, want to have their diet coke marxism: all of the enjoyment of serving the ruling class with none of the calories!
3. To the dustbin, Boomers.
This is the place where a typical leftoid genre pamphlet would indulge in some half hearted invocation of the proletariat. Maybe the academics dwelling on the hill will see their fates somehow tied to downtrodden workers, uniting in some struggle over… who knows what… police brutality maybe? Oceanic micro-plastics? Whatever social movement is on the menu for that day will have to work. But once we take a second to step back from the clout-chasing cause du jour and think critically about our position, the whole fantasy seems absurd. So how did we get here?
Bessner’s above-mentioned essay provides an entree into the problem: from C Wright Mills to Chomsky, Bessner tracks how the boomers’ generational maturation coincided with the crystallization of an elite disdain for the affairs of the state. But there is an important corollary that he doesn’t mention: this process also entailed an identification with “humanity” instead of America. No longer were the bleeding heart liberals, or their scrappy little cousins, the so-called “marxist academics,” working for the bildung of a new generation of Americans, they were humanitarian internationalists, standing up for the little guy on the world stage against their own national jingoism. Weird that proletarian internationalism has so few proletarians and so closely resembles yankee imperialist humanitarianism… 😬
The problem is that the boomers have calcified all throughout the academic system, and it does a great disservice to the actual working classes who depend on their rulers and managers to accept the responsibility of their privileges and take seriously the national leadership with which they have been favored. From the boomers we’ve inherited a retreat from national duty hidden behind a knee jerk glorification of weakness, a perpetual underdoggism, which is no more than a moralistic mask for their leisurely and decadent cosmopolitan neglect. The rationale for their elite revolt has become so transparently tenuous, that it’s high time we’ve just wiped away the whole sordid legacy. Instead, our response to their national indolence has been to help fortify their little college redoubts. Now they’ve told us there’s simply no more room, and we say, “No fair, we want to be indolent too!” Instead of acknowledging our debt to the country which has secured our privileges, the academic left (a redundant phrase!) has tried to become the guilty conscience for the world, something like what Zizek has called the Tolerant Postmodern Father: not only do you have to recognize our privilege and domination, but you must also pretend we are peers!
It’s probably too late to help the “jobs crisis”, but academics can still give the melodrama and moralism a break. The military, the police, the whole ensemble of governing institutions that hangs over this often tragic world of ours, to the academic I say, “thou art that”. Maybe if we realized that nobody in the country is entitled to tenure, and that it requires a huge expenditure of the national pool of labor to sustain a single tenured academic, then those that make it could be humbly appreciative of such an honor, and those that didn’t wouldn’t see it as a personal slight. We should recognize that, like political office, promotion to upper management, or being drafted by the NBA, it’s an extreme competition between competent candidates, subject to all sorts of nerve-wracking idiosyncratic whims and contingencies. Whoever makes it into academia carries a debt to the country. If you are using academia to play out your class struggle LARP, or if you are holding on to academia because you think that careers in government and business are morally suspect, just know that college instructors are just prestigious cops.
To wrap this post-up, one of the essays in the collection examines the failure of a 1977 Career In Business program organized to address the PhD “jobs crisis” of that era by placing humanities PhDs in industry jobs (side note: a sure sign of a fake emergency is that it lasts 50 years!). The author notes that many of the participants didn’t like the jobs, and he concludes:
The biggest lesson we can take from CIB is also the most obvious. PhDs, especially in the humanities, want to be academics. The deep reservoir of adjunct or contingent faculty that elite and non-elite universities alike depend on for their courses is testament to this fact—as is the excellent scholarship so many adjuncts produce without department support. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, and, as CIB shows, possibly dangerous, too.
When I read this passage I was struck by how entitled it all appeared. “The whole society must change! There is no way I can be expected to adjust my desires! Raise taxes and give me tenure because it’s a public good” For a group of people who pride themselves on seeing the structural determinants of personal outcomes, who pride themselves on seeing the forest for the trees, we are pretty unwilling to reevaluate the way our own desires are expressions of class and self interests. Do you want a job? Stats show you’ll be fine. Do you want to do a “long march through the institutions”? Well, then enlist in the army or the state department, they are ripe. Is all that plebeian work beneath you? Well, maybe you are hiding a selfish desire for a cushy job behind righteous indignation and lamentations.
Yes, all people deserve healthy, well paid, jobs. But no, you don’t deserve whatever you want, and no, most of us aren’t getting tenure. I’d wager very few people will quit grad school over this realization, because I think most graduate students realize that they are lucky and they enjoy their work, even if they are worried about what they will do next.