The ongoing neoliberal offensive in the United States has carried out a thoroughgoing restructuring of higher education. Administrations are now bloated and overpaid while academic departments, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, are being instructed to “tighten their belts” and graduate more students with fewer resources. Henry Heller’s new book, The Capitalist University, examines the roots of this offensive.
He documents the history of collaboration between the academy, the capitalist class, and the state from the Cold War to today. He shows how this has shaped the theoretical and methodological development of the social sciences and humanities, providing an impressive survey of a range of academics’ work in each field. He argues that the changing political and economic landscape of the United States is reflected in “intellectual/ideological reflection in the development of the disciplines” and that capital, through the state apparatus, manufactures consent by drawing on the legitimacy of academic institutions to justify the current system of exploitation and oppression.
He also looks at the ways capitalists and state managers use the knowledge produced by academic institutions to run and justify the current system of exploitation and oppression. Heller cites a 1956 academic study for the Air Force on effective torture and interrogation practices as just one example of the way in which universities and their research have furthered the goals of the imperial US state.
That’s a particularly crude example. Heller shows how ruling-class interests shape the agenda and ideology of the university in more subtle ways. He pays particular attention to how economics departments naturalized capitalism, idealized its so-called free market, and reduced their research to quantitative analyses of a system they presumed was the best humanity could achieve.
Heller writes that “in its very method it sought to deny the volatility of a system whose progress had been based on repeated economic and political crises.” It also obscures how the system is not one based on exchange between free individuals, but on class exploitation that produces class struggle and revolution.
Beyond exposing the capitalist ideas at the heart of disciplines, Heller highlights how the ruling class in the neoliberal period has fundamentally altered the system of higher education, narrowly instrumentalizing it to serve its interests. The federal and state governments have cut funding to public higher education, forcing universities to turn to capitalist foundations to bankroll centers, departments, and endowed professorships. Unsurprisingly, these foundations have financed neoliberal and conservative programs.
To accomplish this transformation, Heller argues, the ruling class had to defeat the challenge that student radicals mounted in the 1960s. He recounts how students, beginning with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, protested higher education’s role as a knowledge factory that curtailed students’ freedom, reproduced the ruling ideas, and aided American imperialism in the Vietnam War. They touched off nothing less than a battle over the nature of the university and the purpose of knowledge in our society.
Heller documents the impressive victories won by students and faculty out of the 1960s, including the proliferation of courses and programs like Black Studies and Women’s Studies, increased student participation, and the phase out of the “in loco parentis” model of universities managing students’ lives. While the academic bosses reluctantly conceded these reforms, they quickly moved to roll back most of them over the last few decades.
Students—themselves increasingly squeezed within the neoliberal world order—have been compelled to adopt the individualistic, competitive approach to education that capitalism demands. They study business and economics, eschewing humanities and social sciences, and focus on earning degrees that they have been told will grant them some modicum of stability—a job—in today’s world of seeming universal precarity.
In recounting this successful backlash, Heller shows how the academy, particularly with the development and spread of postmodernism in the humanities, became “complicit” with capitalism. He contends that postmodernism with its retreat into idealism, embrace of indeterminacy, and rejection of grand narratives of liberation and revolution represents nothing less than “capitulation to the seemingly overwhelming power of the capitalist status quo.” The ruling class thus successfully reshaped the capitalist university, imposing the neoliberal features that we know today: huge cuts in state funding; bloated, overpaid administrations; increased reliance on contract and adjunct faculty; high tuition paid for by students through massive loans; securing profits by patenting intellectual property; and the exporting of the US model of higher education to the rest of the world. Heller stresses that this globalization of the American-pioneered neoliberal university “must be understood as just as much an aspect of US imperialism as its military, financial, and economic power overseas.
He concludes by discussing the developing resistance inside the university system. Noting the explosive growth of graduate student unions, Heller sees the “potential for growth in political and class consciousness” among broad layers of students. We’ve seen a renewed BDS movement take shape, mass protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, outrage over the continued scandal of sexual assault on campuses—to name just a few examples of radicalization. These are the building blocks of a new radical movement on campuses.
The universities bosses have, however, continued to develop institutional and intellectual structures to quash dissent. They have engineered a “buildup of security and police forces on campus,” fired or driven out leftist faculty members like Steven Salaita, and at the same time rolled out the red carpet for right-wing bigots like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Steve Bannon. Governor Rick Scott went so far as to declare a state of emergency before Spencer came to speak at the University of Florida to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to protect him and target the left.
Since The Capitalist University was published, we have seen what can only be described as a heroic wave of struggle in year one of Donald J. Trump. Students were among the millions that marched after Trump’s inauguration. Faculty, staff, and students were at airports protesting the Muslim ban and have been central to the #MeToo movement.
Indeed, campuses are set to become even more important battlegrounds between the left and the right as well as between workers and their neoliberal university bosses over the nature and function of higher education. Heller’s book is an invaluable weapon for our side in this struggle. It will help us understand the role of the university as a knowledge factory integrated into the capitalist system and, further, it will help guide our effort to liberate people and their education from the profit motive.