From The Archive
Chris Lehmann
No. 9  March 1997

Popular Front Redux?

  

s
a
l
v
o
s

The fact remains, the most civilized community is reluctant to trust its serious interests to others than men of pecuniary substance, who have proved their fitness for the direction of academic affairs by acquiring, or by otherwise being possessed of, great wealth.

Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America

After decades of baroque theorizing, the American academy seems to be working itself into a lather of solidarity with the working class. Last October, a Columbia University “teach-in” brought together celebrated left intellectuals with leaders of the new, revitalized AFL-CIO, including recently elected union president John Sweeney. More than 1,700 people thronged to the event’s opening session; satellite events at campuses like the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas at El Paso drew healthy turnouts as well. Then in December, the interdisciplinary journal Social Text—subject of much unwelcome press ever since it published a prank article by NYU physicist Alan Sokal purporting to refute the existence of reality—devoted most of its Winter issue to the “Yale Dossier.” This collection brought together testimonials and scholarly analyses denouncing the Ivy League school’s efforts to break the fledgling teaching assistants’ union, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), and Locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), which represent Yale’s cafeteria and maintenance staffs.

It seems a thaw is under way in the long cold war that sundered organized labor and the American university during the fabled upheavals of the 1960s. And it would be churlish indeed to deny that this turn represents a welcome shift in the intellectual climate. Supporting the labor struggles of clerical workers, maintenance staff, and teaching assistants is a far better use of institutional time, after all, than writing another tortured defense of the wartime activities (and postwar lies) of Nazi collaborator/literary theorist Paul de Man.

Yet there is also cause to question the sudden round of labor-academic nuptials. Neither the labor movement nor the intellectual class is as hale or self-confident as it was during the flush days of Popular Front radicalism, when workers and intellectuals came together under the banner of Communism as “Twentieth Century Americanism.” And more to the point, the nature of intellectual labor has changed dramatically since the time when partisans of the Popular Front referred to themselves as “brain workers” and the notion of “organic intellectuals” had real-life resonance instead of merely theoretical cachet.

In other words, the sometimes unwieldy rank and file of Popular Front intellectuals—novelists, religious thinkers, journalists, screenwriters, musicians, etc.—has vanished from the historical stage. American intellectual life has become stolidly professionalized. The idea of a “brain worker” who doesn’t brandish a curriculum vitae and a fistful of monographs is analogous to, say, the entrepreneurial gangster: strictly a period piece. Likewise, the institutions that harbor professional intellectuals have fewer and fewer resources to bring to bear on the struggles of working Americans for self-determination and social equality. Most of the mythologies surrounding American social mobility have been made obsolete by the heady ferment of the new global/information economy, but the university’s stock in trade, a college diploma, has, if anything, appreciated in value as the future has become the quarry of literate “symbolic analysts” and administrators of what Mark Crispin Miller calls “the National Entertainment State.”

The university of excellence, after all, is a university of streamlined labor costs.

With their prestige appreciating, universities have increasingly decided to make themselves over in the image of the corporation. As Bill Readings observed in his posthumously published study, The University in Ruins, the discourse of national culture that guided the founding of 19th-century universities has given way to a discourse of “excellence.” Correspondingly, Readings argues, universities are no longer in the business of minting students into autonomous (though obedient) subjects of national cultures: instead, students are recast as consumers, and the administration of education becomes an exercise in Total Quality Management. Readings sees political opportunities for a meekly resurgent left in the university’s corporatized “ruins,” but a more forthright understanding would find that left politics in academia are, more or less by definition, ornamental. Since both culture and politics must rely on some rough consensus of shared purposes if they are not merely to shrink into ever-more irrelevant self-mythologization, the collapse of national culture as an animating ideal all but guarantees an exhaustion of meaningful intellectual resistance in American universities.

haircut

Consider the striking incoherence of the university in the labor problem that concerns it most directly: the sweated conditions of an enormous, and rapidly growing, cohort of entry-level university teachers. The university of excellence, after all, is a university of streamlined labor costs, and the customary attrition of professors through retirement or death is now being greeted in campuses across the land as an opportunity simply to abolish full professorships and transfer their teaching duties to graduate instructors and adjunct professors, who are often given per-semester stipends in the low four figures for work that is often more than full-time.

Such practices make a mockery of the trappings of institutional privilege in which university professors are accustomed to swathing themselves. And yet it is precisely those trappings—notably the institution of tenure, which (claims of sacrosanct academic freedom to the contrary notwithstanding) is the most politicized and solidarity-resistant accessory of university privilege—that continue to blind most university professors to the degraded working conditions visited on many of their putative peers.

The university of excellence has wasted little time sensing this weakness and moving into the vacuum. Today college executives are creating entire open-shop academic institutions: a new University of Arizona campus (called, in a winning tribute to the new global economy, Arizona International University) is proudly advertising its status as a “tenure-free” institution. Another Sunbelt concern, the University of Phoenix, is the nation’s first for-profit institution of higher education. Specializing in the disbursement of professional credentials to already-working adults, the University of Phoenix—owned by a holding company called The Apollo Group and operating on 85 campuses in 11 states and Puerto Rico—now claims more than 32,000 students, making it the second-largest regionally accredited private university in the U.S., just behind NYU. In a truly excellent blurring of corporate and academic interests, AT&T has contracted the University of Phoenix to provide direct in-house instruction and training to employees. (Motorola is reportedly taking this process of identification one step further, by developing its own degree-granting postsecondary education program.) The University of Phoenix has also performed admirably as an investment. It began trading on Nasdaq in 1994, at a split-adjusted price of $2.06 a share; in March 1997 it traded at $27.25, a gain of 1,222 percent. Apollo Group CEO and University of Phoenix founder John G. Sperling, a former economics professor at San Jose State, is estimated to be worth some $300 million. Most traditional academics, of course, would dismiss such brave new institutional innovations as mere diploma mills, dealing in something distinctly other than “real” liberal arts pedagogy. But to do so is to gravely misread decades-long trends in higher education.

To grasp this point clearly, it’s important to take stock of the internal economics of the university. As college education becomes one of the feverishly coveted accessories of the New Information Economy, colleges and universities, like most other social goods in America, are passing into a twilight of public access. A week after the Columbia teach-in, the New York Times reported that the College Board had found that for the fifth consecutive year overall college costs—tuition, expenses, and room and board—had increased by 5 percent, at twice the rate of inflation. The General Accounting Office reports that since 1980, tuition at public colleges has more than tripled, while household income increased by just 90 percent.

So as upper-income families blanch at the exorbitant costs of education at elite private colleges, they pack their scions off to the nation’s more prestigious state schools: the University of Michigan, Berkeley, the University of Virginia. Russell Jacoby charts the steady “gentrification” of America’s public universities in his study of the culture wars, Dogmatic Wisdom. At UCLA, more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen hailed from families with annual incomes of more than $60,000; 40 percent of these came from families with incomes greater than $100,000. Meanwhile students from lower middle-class families, who don’t qualify for many forms of federal financial aid, decamp for community colleges—which now enroll more than half of the nation’s incoming freshmen—or, astutely grasping the reading assignments they get from the bursar’s office, throng to business programs and vocation-minded majors. In 1991, Jacoby reports, more than 250,000 of the more than 1 million bachelor’s degress awarded in America went to business majors; foreign languages, by contrast, netted 12,000 majors, while philosophy and religion together totalled a mere 7,000. The American Academy of Liberal Arts Education reports an arresting sea change in the last generation of college students: Liberal-arts majors now comprise just 30 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded nationwide, down from 70 percent in 1970.

At the bottom of the academic market, federal assistance, not surprisingly, is drying up. Pell Grants to disadvantaged students had been frozen for the better part of two decades before a recent Clinton initiative proposed modest increases in this year’s budget. According to the College Board, Pell Grants have lost one-third of their value to inflation over the past 15 years. And as they have depreciated—and as fewer lower-income Americans attend college—they’ve fallen into increasing disuse: the grants showed a surplus of $506 million in fiscal 1996. Clinton plans to use this budget boon, with typical New Democrat elan, to underwrite his “targeted tax credits,” which overwhelmingly favor the middle- and upper-middle-class families who are more likely to be able to afford college in the first place. As tuitions skyrocket, student loans are proliferating, plunging many unhirable humanities students into debt peonage. Students racked up $32.5 billion in debt in 1994, up 57 percent from 1992.

The postures of radical intellectual vanguardism may be a beguiling intellectual hangover from the 1930s.

Against the backdrop of these trends, the tales of solidarity between academicians and the working class start to look more and more irrelevant—and, indeed, downright delusional. The American university is less than ever a refuge for the embattled aims of liberal education and social reform—and increasingly a clearinghouse of business hegemony, equal parts vocational shopping mall and corporate slush fund. The postures of radical intellectual vanguardism may be a beguiling intellectual hangover from the 1930s (or, worse yet, the 1960s), but they bear no resemblance to the experience of the vast majority of American students—and faculty—at the institutions left intellectuals serve. This doesn’t mean, of course, that concerned left intellectuals should drop their loyalties and become obliging arbiters of excellence. It does mean that they should relinquish some long-cherished myths about the place of the university in American public life.

They could begin by shifting their gaze from the elite precincts of a place like Yale, which is not only a class anomaly in U.S. higher education, but a labor anomaly, in that it has two union locals on campus around which the graduate students’ organizing efforts have hinged. Instead, consider a place like Long Island’s Adelphi University—still a small and private liberal arts school, but one not nearly so cosseted from the logic of the market. Adelphi’s story is an extreme case study, but it should serve as required reading for academics setting off for a career of freewheeling, Popular Front subversion.

This February, the New York State Board of Regents voted to dissolve the Board of Trustees at Adelphi University, only the fourth such action taken in the Regents’ 212-year history. Like many private liberal arts schools, Adelphi had lately been experiencing declining enrollment and enacting a long series of tuition hikes. Neither prevented the 19-member Board of Trustees from approving a compensation package of more than $550,000 in salary, benefits, and deferred compensation to Adelphi President Peter Diamandopoulos last year, more than tripling his starting 1985 salary and making him the second highest-paid college president in the country. In addition the board graciously procured (and failed to report) a $1.15 million Manhattan condominium for Diamandopolous—which he had the option to purchase at a reduced rate of $900,000 supplementing his university-supplied house, maintained at a cost of $100,000 a year in Garden City, Long Island.

Nor was Diamandopoulos’s the only snout in the trough. One Adelphi trustee, insurance executive Ernesta Procope, raked in $1.2 million in commissions by arranging with Diamandopoulos to take on the school’s liability insurance as she sat on the board; another, ad executive George Lois, took in $155,000 in commissions from the school’s newspaper advertising campaign. (Other dismissed trustees included shipping magnate Peter Goulandris, one of the 10 wealthiest men in the world, Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio, splenetic right-wing Boston University President John Silber, who beat out Diamandopolous for the highest salary among American university presidents, and the neocon art critic Hilton Kramer.)

Adelphi had always been a capable dispenser of middle-class credentials, boasting solid programs in nursing and education. But Diamandopoulos saw the opportunity to line up serious money behind an inviting intellectual vanity project. The Olin Foundation, which fertilizes right-wing scholarly publications and faculty appointments across the nation to the tune of about $15 million a year, set aside $700,000 to fund an “Honors College” under Diamandopoulos’s guidance at Adelphi that has sheltered neocon scholars such as Partisan Review editor Edith Kurzweil, revisionist Rosenberg historian Ronald Radosh, and Carnes Lord, a former national security adviser to Dan Quayle. (The Olin Foundation’s president, former Nixon Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, was an honorary Adelphi trustee, but resigned last year, after the Foundation itself withdrew its Adelphi support in the wake of the Diamandopoulos controversy.)

checkbrains

To its credit, Adelphi’s faculty union was instrumental in getting the state Board of Regents to dump the vultures on the Adelphi board. Yet the larger point remains: Professional academics—and entire departments and institutions, for that matter—are little more than interchangeable tokens in the transformation of American universities into virtual corporate theme parks.

The University of Rochester, the site of my own abortive graduate education and a way-station for Eastman-Kodak corporate largesse, boasts the lavish William E. Simon School of Business Administration (which infamously expelled an employee of Fuji, Kodak’s leading global competitor, on the grounds that he might steal company secrets), a Bausch and Lomb science building, and all manner of Eastman institutional paraphernalia, from a music school to photography archives. The school also boasted a notable left-wing history department, but it would be fanciful to suppose that historians called any institutional shots.

Like any other business cartel, American private universities are standing pat to control their labor costs.

Indeed, last year, Rochester’s own downsize-and-damn-the-torpedoes administration—the college’s president, Thomas Bradley, is a former bankruptcy lawyer—proposed eliminating the school’s graduate history program altogether. Unprofitable graduate divisions such as anthropology and comparative literature had already fallen under the axe; graduate mathematics had already been eliminated—although after an unflattering New York Times story appeared about the decision, it was soon restored and “refocused” with 28 percent cuts in faculty. (“Refocusing” on a somewhat smaller scale was also the fate of Rochester’s graduate programs in history, philosophy, mechanical engineering, and environmental sciences.) Meanwhile, the market obsessed “empirical” social sciences could not have been more robust: Rochester continues to provide generous support to its high-profile “public choice” political science, behavioral psychology, and neoclassical economics departments.

It is important to fix such cases clearly in mind when considering the rapprochement of labor and the academy, because today’s left academics sometimes engage in a good deal of what earlier generations of more epistemologically confident leftists used to call “mystification” when they speak of the university and its aims. The essays collected in the Yale edition of Social Text, for example, all register varying degrees of astonishment at the thuggish labor practices of an institution supposedly steeped in traditions of critical inquiry, dissent, and humanism. Understandably, most of the contributors want to prick the university’s institutional conscience, and elicit anew the vision of campuses as hotbeds of dissent. As NYU historian Robin D. G. Kelley argues in his Social Text piece:

After all, despite the resemblance, universities aren’t exactly banks and investment firms. They have historically been places where alternatives to exploitation and oppression have been discussed and imagined in an institutional setting. They have been the sites of historic movements for social change precisely because the ostensible function of the university is to interrogate knowledge, society, history, and so on.

Such sentiments are, like the vision of a powerful strategic alliance between the AFL-CIO and America’s university faculty, noble things to want to believe. They are, however, patently false. Small contingents of students—usually in shrinking humanities departments—will drink of these wellsprings of dissent; many more (in and out of the humanities) will see their colleges as porticoes to banks and investment firms. Most faculty are, if anything, more career-conscious than their students, and resigned to “interrogating” little beyond the odd controversial appointment or meaningless redoubt in the “culture wars.” For that matter, on their side of the ledger, banks and investment firms tolerate many expressions of dissent and independent thought—as long as no one takes them seriously enough to consider acting on them. The situation in most American universities is precisely the same.

More revealing still are University of Illinois professor Michael Bérubé’s reflections on the anti-GESO propaganda campaign conducted by Yale faculty and administration, in concert with the Modern Language Association. Bérubé, usually one of the most enthusiastic epigones of critspeak as revolutionary praxis, blasts the lies and doublespeak of antiunion faculty members, and subjects their pronouncements to close critical readings. He points out, as numerous other contributors do, the enormous profits and financial holdings of Yale, and scores the school’s vicious, elitist, and “Dickensian” campaign to wipe out HERE Locals 34 and 35.

But he can never bring himself to supply the simplest explanation for the intransigence of Yale’s trustees and administration in the GESO campaign: No private school in America has recognized a graduate student union. Heretofore, all collective bargaining rights have been wrested from state universities; when graduate students are recognized as state employees, they can effectively go over the heads of administrations and win their bargaining rights from state legislatures and labor agencies. Yale is not standing firm purely out of its Dickensian greed—though that, of course, is an ancillary interest not to be discounted. It is acting out of institutional class interests that extend far beyond its leafy New Haven campus: If it were to cave in to GESO’s demands, other organizing movements at other private universities would soon seize on the precedent and follow in its wake. Like any other business cartel, American private universities are standing pat to control their labor costs. Management’s conduct in the Yale stalemate becomes especially intelligible as more than a curious “Dickensian” tic when viewed alongside a critical 1996 National Labor Relations Board ruling, which finally recognized graduate TAs as employees. That decision paves the way for collective bargaining rights if GESO can successfully get recognized by management as the bargaining agent for Yale’s teaching assistants. Ergo, that recognition will be one of the very last things that Yale officialdom will extend, unless they are coerced by something a trifle more compelling than moral suasion and close readings of their many liberal-arts hypocrisies.

Rather than appealing to the elusive, and largely mythical, verities of liberal education—which Yale administrators believe in about as fervently as Coke executives think their product actually “adds life”—university faculties would be better occupied if they were forming alliances with unions and labor lawyers and “interrogating” ways they can organize across their individual campuses and challenge unpropitious conditions in private universities. They could look into the feasibility of lawsuits, assist in NLRB actions and investigate conflicts of interest among university board members. When finance scandals break out in one national political campaign, they are easily and correctly understood to grip all of our politics; yet when an Adelphi scandal or a Yale stalemate takes place, each is regarded as the byproduct of sui generis management styles.

Bérubé is aware of the gap between the successful organizing drives at public institutions and the bitterly stalemated one at Yale. But significantly, he chalks it up to Yale’s generalized institutional culture of “elitism,” instead of a brute conflict of interests. Faculty defenders of the administration’s stand-pat labor policies, in Bérubé’s account, regard schools with graduate-student unions as “plebeian, inferior”; they object to GESO’s affiliation with Locals 34 and 35 because the latter are “smelly hotel and restaurant workers who don’t know how a university works.”

Elitism is no doubt real enough at Yale, but blaming the school’s actions against GESO on the moral shortcomings of individual faculty is wildly misguided. The individual attitudes of antiunion university officials reflect, rather than inform, the labor agenda of Yale University. If administrators and faculty were to become suddenly nicer, or less elitist, the situation of graduate students and cafeteria and maintenance workers would change not at all.

Blindspots such as this tendency to personalize the Yale struggle are more than symptoms of that notorious academic misapprehension of “real world” relations of power. For some time, American politics generally, and academic left politics most particularly, has been trapped by a fatal reflex to recast questions of class as questions of culture. It is not too great an exaggeration to label this habit of mind a compulsion.

Speakers at the event made some sympathetic noises.

The Columbia teach-in provided a singularly instructive case study in the compulsion. Confronted over and over again with matters of inequality—declining living standards, the upward redistribution of wealth, the desperate need to revitalize the stagnant-to-declining state of organized labor, the workplace, and the welfare state, as well as the arid, depoliticized character of our intellectual life—speakers at the event made some sympathetic noises, but rushed with alacrity to the familiar, reassuring question of who in any given room benefits and suffers from which form of overarching cultural oppression. Hence the angry buzz when Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson urged a rethinking of immigration policies. Hence the celebrated showdown between University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt over the New Left’s role in abetting labor’s decline, or the kindred, familiar face-off between Kelley and fellow NYU professor Todd Gitlin over identity politics.

Consider in this connection the curious notion of “classism.” This locution (popularized in Herbert Gans’s The War Against the Poor, but circulated widely among most au courant academicians) seeks to downgrade class antagonism—a conflict of material interests and the basis for a more just distribution of wealth—into a question of enlightened sensitivity. The main problem between classes, as it turns out, is snobbery and, as with the other “isms” of race and sex, the remedy for “classism” is presumably a program of re-education, of patiently tutoring plutocrats, like their fellow race and gender oppressors, to abandon their folkways of benighted ignorance. Wealth need not be redistributed, if only diversity workshops are broadened.

There’s still another force behind the academy’s painstaking class-to-culture alchemy, and that, of course, has to do with one of the most jealously guarded sources of prestige among contemporary intellectuals: their bottomlessly self-regarding sense of their own subversiveness. Culture, after all, is the natural habitat of most members of the left professoriate, and they naturally regard it as the pre-eminent domain of political confrontation. This sort of fanciful vanguardism is as old as intellectuals, but in the hands of Social Text coeditor Andrew Ross, it takes on rather comical proportions. In his Yale essay, Ross refers briefly to the downsizing of faculties and the erosion of tenure and full-time employment among academics. Then he takes a deep breath and delivers this analysis:

Add this economic pressure to the acute political siege of sectors of the humanities and social sciences via the Right’s media-oriented campaign against the political correctness of tenured radicals: the result is an extensive backlash against the generational revolt of the 1960s, which declared that universities could no longer be seen as reliable sources of legitimation for the values and actions of the corporate-military state…. [T]he abdication, in state capitals and in Congress, of the political will to fund education is hardly disconnected from the efforts to squeeze the academic Left.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to such preening rhetoric, except to patiently note its irrelevance. Would that the academic left were one-twentieth, or one-one-hundredth, as influential as Ross imagines. State legislatures withhold funding from faculties in the humanities and social sciences for the same reason they are short-shrifted at “right-sizing” institutions like the University of Rochester: They preside over departments with declining enrollments, in a culture where their educational benefit is deemed marginal. Prattling about the “extensive backlash” directed at the “generational revolt of the 1960s” feeds, rather than combats, such perceptions.

Of course, none of this means that left academics should abandon their efforts to mobilize support behind Sweeney’s AFL-CIO or their commitment to the struggles of GESO and Locals 34 and 35. It does mean, however, that if the academy is serious about embracing the agenda of labor, it should do so on labor’s terms, and not its own. It should strive to emulate not just the broad social justice aims of the labor movement, but the very particular ways in which labor has propagated a more democratic culture—the documentary film and scholarship efforts of 1199, a union of hospital and healthcare workers, or the successful Detroit Sunday Journal published by the striking employees of Detroit’s two dailies. Such breakthroughs in union culture, fragile though they may be, are infinitely more valuable instances of political education than the interminable diversions of the culture wars.

Solidarity begins at home.

Just wrapping its institutional brain around this fundamental point should keep the American professoriate occupied for some time. One indication of just how far professional academics will have to go is again supplied by Ross, who felt compelled to remind readers of his Social Text piece that, no, unions are not “exclusively preoccupied with bread-and- butter issues” and, more condescendingly, that “it is wrong to think of unions as antithetical to the spirit of education.” (Just imagine the tumult that would have occurred at the Columbia teach-in if John Sweeney were to have calmly mused in an aside, “Well, maybe not all college faculty are middle-management toadies, after all.”)

Moreover, despite such caveats, Ross can’t restrain himself from addressing his fellow left intellectuals in the very next paragraph as deferential, impressionable students. And the advice he offers them is singularly bad. “If there is going to be a graduate union at universities like Yale, why not aim for an expansive, utopian union with a broad intellectual role to play on and off campus?” Stumbling into the very “bread-and-butter” stereotype he had tried meekly to fend off a few sentences back, he continues:

Don’t settle for a technocratic bargaining unit, whose only mandate is the protection of its students’ material concerns. Make sure that it also has some voice in curricular reform and in faculty recruitment, and that it is set up to sponsor and broker debates about academic matters. These must include issues related to the vocational structure of graduate education. Make sure, in other words, that your union has something to say, because a union with nothing to say in the long run may be a union not worth having.

Consider how ruinous this sort of strategy would be. For the moment, of course, students juggling enormous teaching loads on sub-living wages would be achieving a tremendous breakthrough to win mere “protection” of their “material concerns.” Moreover, it is entirely appropriate for Yale grad students—and Americans in general—to reverse the polarity of Ross’s sage advice and ask simply, “What have the culture wars done for me lately?” Why on earth should anyone be exercised over “curricular reform” when the vast majority of American universities don’t have curricular requirements in the first place? Why should fledgling unions steer into the quagmires of “faculty recruitment” or the sort of identity obsessed “academic matters” Ross champions when such melees will only, at best, distract and divide their memberships?

More important, if intellectuals intend to make class politics more than just another specialty on their CVs, they sorely need to re-examine the academy’s entire system of governance, and the accelerating inequalities in the distribution of higher education. Writing almost 80 years ago, Thorstein Veblen argued for the abolition of university boards of trustees and college presidents—or, as he called them, “captains of erudition.” No other Western country had bothered to establish college presidencies, he noted; and academic boards and executives alike are “quite useless to the university” even “for any businesslike purpose.” Modeled on earlier, ecclesiastical systems of university governance, boards functioned, in Veblen’s view, chiefly to shore up members’ prestige by granting them the powers to enforce intellectual conformity and generate publicity for themselves via “a bootless meddling in academic affairs they do not understand.”

Veblen’s critique has grown more urgent with time, as a case like Adelphi’s amply demonstrates. Yet the academic left, despite its loving characterization of itself as an embattled, victimized minority of opinion, won’t advance anything resembling such an analysis. Few left academics would even entertain the notion of taking a critical look at sacrosanct institutions like tenure in light of what unions may have to teach them. And the reform that would most obviously bring higher education in line with the principles of social democracy—the nationalization of American universities into a publicly administered system, as is the common Western European model—is not even up for discussion.

Nor is it hard to understand why: Too much is at stake for the professoriate in the preservation of the current regime of university management. The institutional prestige they derive from present arrangements—as well as the distant allure of superstar six-figure incomes at name institutions—is infinitely more powerful than the drudge work of piecing together class solidarity, which is the political equivalent of grading your own blue books. And meanwhile, left academics are institutionally rewarded for practicing a nonthreatening, diversionary cultural politics that produces nothing but meandering, tail-chasing arguments and publishing opportunities. The rewards for such activities are no longer confined, by the way, to the towers of Ivory: Andrew Ross recently roped in a six-figure advance from Ballantine—one of the many jewels in the crown of rightwing publishing mogul S. I. Newhouse—for a book to be based on his forthcoming move to Disney’s planned community of Celebration, Florida. (The opus will presumably be something other than a diary of Ross’s efforts to organize the unorganized imagineers who make the Magic Kingdom hum.)

For all the beguiling talk of a Popular Front redux, immersing professors, teaching assistants, and unions into an undifferentiated tide of New Deal social democracy, some preliminary spadework needs to be attended to. Until academics start to reckon with the social forces that have made American colleges into bastions of privilege and business culture, they will have done little to advance the cause of working Americans. Teach-ins and high-profile publications may get all sorts of press attention, but the real rebirth of labor politics in the academy should start with four simple words: Solidarity begins at home.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

You Might Also Enjoy

If I Were President

C. Wright Mills

The new President, like all Presidents before him, began his office by throwing out men unlike himself and by gathering around. . .

ancestors

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading

 April 4

Official oversight commissions tend to perform all of the trappings of democratic accountability while rarely resulting in lasting reform.