Decentering Neoliberal Knowledge: Toward New Learning and Research Spaces

A central tenet of ecosocialism—contrary to widespread belief that the capitalist market can develop “green” yet lucrative solutions to the environmental crisis—is that degradation of the ecosystem is not a temporary misstep, but essentially bound to capitalism’s relentless elevation of profit over all other values. This essay draws on the writing of André Gorz as well as a range of recent critiques of academia to argue that when people want to study and teach about capitalism’s destruction of the lifeworld, they should be able to do so in spaces of intellectual sociability which are as free as possible of neoliberal norms. Apart from online forums, however, almost no such spaces exist today. Aggressive forms of competition, ranking and exclusion dominate academia as well as arts-related institutions. Attempts to resist capitalism from within sites governed by capitalism’s own performance principle of competition face significant obstacles.

“Destroy the University” by André Gorz, 1970, in Les Temps Modernes,


Over several decades, André Gorz (1923­­­–2007) published valuable insights into the historically specific ways post-Fordist capitalism exploits knowledge, laborers, and the environment. Gorz’s writing has much to offer in view of a red/green political synthesis because he understood that environmental degradation was only one of many effects of capitalist modernity’s assault against the “culture of daily life.”[1] Therefore, ecological problems cannot be corrected through the instrumental approach of professional “expertocracy.”[2] Gorz highlighted analogies between formal knowledge’s rise to dominance over intuitive, experiential ways of knowing, and the destruction of the lifeworld (including humans’ balanced relationship with the environment). In this argument he echoed Ivan Illich, who identified an imperialist project at the heart of professionalized knowledge’s efforts to displace “vernacular” knowledge and claim a monopoly for itself.[3] For the purposes of this essay, the fact that ecological destruction has been only one of many consequences of capitalist development means that we must be skeptical of ecological discourses bound to spaces which have themselves been colonized by capitalist ideology. Such spaces include universities, as well as institutions like the art market.

Gorz also understood that capitalism today depends on converting knowledge into capital. While knowledge tends to circulate freely (for example, via the internet), and hence escape commodification, contemporary capitalism turns it into profit by limiting its dissemination. This sheds light on exclusionary and hierarchical aspects of academia, such as forbiddingly high tuition, expensive subscription costs of peer reviewed journals, and other gatekeeping mechanisms discussed below. Treating knowledge as capital, Gorz argued, reduces all activity, including the aesthetic, to instrumental considerations.[4] Gorz’s point about late capitalism appropriating modes of knowledge production is confirmed by recent studies of neoliberal colonization of intellectual and artistic traditions. Hence, the “new spirit of capitalism” researched by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello drew on mid-twentieth-century artistic critiques to disparage Fordist workplace conditions and champion flexible, creative yet precarious jobs.[5] According to Miya Tokumitsu, corporations try to tap into the do-what-you-love work ethic, which is common in the arts and academia, resulting in workers performing uncompensated labor.

Gorz himself envisioned new spaces of work and creativity, free of the practices of ranking and eliminating used by capitalism to intimidate and exploit workers.[6] His call can be read as part of a growing realization that neoliberalism must be resisted through forms of sociability which intentionally reject its core principle of competition. Pierre Laval and Christian Dardot argue, for instance:

To neo-liberal governmentality as a specific way of conducting the conduct of others, we must therefore oppose a no less specific double refusal: a refusal to conduct oneself toward oneself as a personal enterprise and a refusal to conduct oneself towards others in accordance with the norm of competition.[7]

Critiques of neoliberal competition articulated from within the neoliberal university will remain abstract and theoretical until more inclusive and cooperative sites have been created.

Resistance​ ​from​ ​within​ ​Academia​ ​Is​ ​Not​ ​Enough

While critiques of the corporatization of higher education are familiar, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, among others, have influentially argued that resistance ought to take place from within academia; more recently Henry Giroux called on faculty dissatisfied with the neoliberal university to embrace their position of “exile” within its institutional structure.[8] Intellectuals fortunate enough to be employed by universities can and do make a difference this way. Still, the need for new, non-formal spaces of learning and research remains urgent. This, because academia excludes many people with disabilities from even subaltern roles; the precarity of part-time instructors’ jobs significantly restricts opportunities to question institutional norms; students’ learning is overshadowed by economic constraints; and hierarchical academic practices result in the need to translate local experience into hegemonic discourses.

Today, the main sites of intellectual sociability often pay lip service to diversity, as if it were fully compatible with neoliberal norms of competition and performance. Yet higher education’s pattern of exclusion of people with disabilities discredits claims of truly democratic deliberation. Disability Studies scholar Lennard Davis has noted that disability is not featured within academia’s purported efforts to become more diverse and multicultural.[9] Capitalist ideology furthers discipline among workers by glorifying economically lucrative, competitive, ableist forms of control over mind and body. Building on Rosemary Radford Ruether’s concept of “body people,” ecofeminist Richard Twine argued that emerging capitalism in early modern Europe demanded control of body and mind in the service of profitable work, and devalued women and other groups who were supposedly too marked by their bodies, or by non-instrumental forms of subjectivity, to transcend them in this manner.[10] Although today feminism has mostly dismantled the stereotype of women as being more encumbered by their bodies than men, the ideal of control over body (and over non-commodifiable forms of subjectivity) reigns supreme, and legitimizes exclusion of anyone who cannot produce their embodied self according to ableist understandings of competitive performance.

For academia to challenge this erasure of disability would involve rethinking the assumptions that go into evaluation and ranking of students and faculty. Discussing her experience with gaining tenure as an academic with a medical condition, Kimberly Myers explains, “I was aware that revealing a chronic illness might make them think twice about my ability to continue to perform well as a teacher and scholar.”[11] Scholars with disabilities that cannot be concealed face even greater obstacles. In academia, hierarchy depends on willingness to believe that competitors are basically equal; inclusion of people with radically different neurological patterns or experiences of embodiment could unravel the fiction of ranking being meritocratic. So, the option of ‘resisting from within academia’ is not available to all.

New inclusive spaces are especially necessary for conducting public deliberation about ecological issues. The Eco-ability movement identifies analogies between environmental abuse and oppression of people with disabilities, yet draws attention to persistent ableist bias in much “green” rhetoric.[12] The legitimacy of ecological discourses will be undermined until they start being articulated from within spaces which have repudiated all ableist ideology and practice.

Although academia generally only retains workers who exemplify the most hegemonic mode of control of mind over body, Marc Bousquet has drawn attention to systemic waste of intellectual potential within academia by invoking the carnivalesque image of a sewer—reversing the mind/body split taken for granted in most discussions of cognitive labor.[13] Universities flush away the majority of well-qualified trainees to the invisibility and indignity of low-paid jobs. Unless unionized, adjunct faculty are significantly constrained in their ability to teach subversive ideas. Renewal of their contracts depends on satisfactory student enrollment and evaluations. Their working conditions are comparable to the dictatorial employment situations described recently by Elizabeth Anderson—worlds removed from the intellectual freedom enjoyed by the elite of tenured professors.

The reception of “critique from within academia”—when instructors are free to articulate it—is also conditioned by the socioeconomic forces which bring students to campus in the first place. Neoliberal ideology measures the value of higher education “almost entirely on the question of return on investment.”[14] As Stanley Aronowitz noted, college students are encouraged to collect “essential cultural skills that have practical value,” and approach courses in view of gaining credentials they need to become employed and repay loans. This limits critical engagement with course content in favor of parroting whatever will get high grades, and it turns students into rivals rather than “fellow learners.”[15] High-ranked universities systematically exclude low-income applicants, and students from wealthy backgrounds are less likely to be radicalized by professors critical of capitalism. Teaching left-wing ideas on elite campuses may reduce “socialist learning [to] a hobby of rich people’s children.”[16]

Knowledge Production Beyond Competition and Hierarchy

Critiques of academia have also drawn attention to constraints on expression situated not only in the university itself, but in gatekeeping mechanisms like the peer review process, required for any argument to count within academic circles: “[o]riginally introduced as a way of enhancing objectivity, the peer review has long since become an instrument of (self-) government, and as such bolsters existing structures and encourages their system of inclusion and exclusion.”[17] For instance, the prevalence of Eurocentrism means that “in order to publish in Western journals,” scholars “necessarily have to speak within the framework circumscribed by Western thought-categories.”[18] More generally, “professional academia establishes its social status on the basis of a distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge and by claiming to be the sole site for production of “knowledge.””[19]

Against the above, it might be argued that education has always revolved around competition and therefore hierarchy. Competition, according to this view, is a timeless, hardwired element of human nature. However, an individual’s historically specific experience of competition is shaped by the types of job opportunities available to competition’s losers, and the extent to which losers are able to meet basic needs and participate in alternative channels of public communication and political organization. Under neoliberalism, the ideology of globalized competition teaches the lesson of “everyday sadism”—that losers are personally responsible for their plight.[20] Besides being consigned to economic precarity and exploitation, losers are erased by what Henry Giroux calls a “politics of disappearance.” Academia today cannot meet the unprecedented need for spaces of inclusive deliberation, refutation of neoliberal victim-blaming, and practices of concrete solidarity. Competition and careerism leave little time for the “acts of solidarity and kindness” which Chris Hedges recently urged as a form of resistance to hegemonic individualism and self-promotion.

Precedents exist for spaces of learning, research, and creativity outside of academia. Marcelo Vieta recently reported on a number of educational and creative initiatives, which he associated with Herbert Marcuse’s call for non-mainstream forms of education and organization.[21] Allan Antliff showcased an anarchist free university which offered courses in Canada.[22] Colectivo Situaciones is a group of researchers who intentionally distance themselves from the careerist motivations of professional academics. [23]

Recognizing the need for non-university spaces of deliberation and research does not entail avoiding engagement with formal academic publications and conferences. As Marina Sitrin argued, mainstream academics frequently ignore radical social movements or represent them as failures, by measuring them up to definitions of success which are alien to participants’ own understanding of their movements’ goals. Non-university practices of deliberation are likely to be erased or caricatured by professional academics. Researchers and thinkers outside academia must stay informed about professional publications and respond by publicly articulating their alternative principles: “in a world where it is all too often the academic or scholar who has the final authority on whether something is ‘legitimate’, and whether it should be included in the history books … not engaging in a debate that insists on your obsolescence is a huge error.” [24]

Research and teaching must be reclaimed as forms of solidarity and anti-capitalist resistance, to be practiced by those people who are most marginalized by economic austerity, inequality and environmental violence—not monopolized by elite academics pursuing career advancement.

References

[1] André Gorz, Ecologica, trans. Chris Turner (2010), 49.

[2] Ibid, 47.

[3] Ivan Illich, Vernacular Values (1981), accessed at:
http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Vernacular.html

[4] André Gorz, The Immaterial: Knowledge, Value and Capital, trans. Chris Turner (2010), 95.

[5] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (2005).

[6] André Gorz, Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-based Society, trans. Chris Turner (1999), 78.

[7] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, trans. George Elliott (2013), 320. Emphasis in original.

[8] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “The University and the Undercommons,” The Edu-factory Collective, Toward a Global Autonomous University (2009).

[9] Lennard J. Davis, “Where’s the Outrage when Colleges Discriminate Against Students with Disabilities?” Chronicle of Higher Education (July 23, 2015).

[10] Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Woman/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (1975); Richard T. Twine, “Ma(r)king Essence-Ecofeminism and Embodiment,” Ethics and the Environment 6: 2 (2001): 31-58.

[11] Kimberly R. Myers, “Coming Out: Considering the Closet of Illness,” Journal of Medical Humanities 25:4 (2004), 269.

[12] Anthony J. Nocella II, Judy K.C. Bentley, Janet M. Duncan, eds, Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation: The Rise of the Eco-ability Movement (2012).

[13] Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (2008), 27.

[14] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015), 192.

[15] Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2000), 139, 142-3.

[16] Benjamin Kunkel, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (2014), 63.

[17] Gerald Raunig, Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity (2013), 35.

[18] Amit Basole, “Eurocentrism, the University, and Multiple Sites of Knowledge Production,” The Edu-factory Collective, Toward A Global Autonomous University (2009), 36.

[19] Basole, 37.

[20] Philip Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (2013), 130.

[21] Marcelo Vieta, “Inklings of the Great Refusal: Echoes of Marcuse’s Post-technological Rationality Today,” in The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements, ed. Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, Peter N. Funke, Angela Y. Davis (2017).

[22] Allan Antliff, “Breaking Free: Anarchist Pedagogy,” in Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization, ed. Mark Coté, Richard J. F. Day, Greg de Peuter (2007).

[23] Colectivo Situaciones, “On the Researcher-Militant,” in Utopian Pedagogy (2007).

[24] Marina A. Sitrin, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (2012), 113.