The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Eight: Class Harmony

This is an  elaboration of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 13):

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

This view is ideology in the worst sense of the term. It is an appeal to what ought to be in some utopian world (“the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire”)–that can never be in the given context, and then assuming that the utopia is somehow possible in such a context (“the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire“). In a society dominated by employers–including public-sector employers like universities, it is highly unlikely that such workers as “lab technicians, students and support workers” have the same goal–“the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Such a view may apply in a socialist organization, but to assume such a situation in universities, which function in a capitalist context, is bound to lead to inadequate policies and theories.

The illogical nature of the assertion is called asserting as a fact what you are supposed to prove; more technically, it is called begging the question. Professor Noonan assumes that all the workers at universities have the same goal. This view can be criticized on a number of grounds.

The collectivity called the university, in a capitalist setting, involves the purchase of workers on a market for workers. The workers do not collectively and consciously get together to decide to form an organization called the university; rather, it is the employer who sets up a formal organization called a university and then hires workers as employees for a certain period of time. These workers “belong” to the university as a formal collectivity but, since they do not freely unite to form the university, this organization is something imposed on them as a force that is external to them. In other words, the unity which is supposed to be the university is a formal unity that is not self-organization of that which is organized or unified (the workers); the unity is imposed from without or in an external and therefore unfree manner.

The self-organization of workers and the formal organization of workers into a unity makes all the difference in the world in the quality of lives of the workers. In self-organization, the workers express themselves in their unity as something which they have made and to which they have freely subordinated themselves as a power that is their power. In formal organization, workers are brought together as a unity by an external force (in this case, through a formal organization that owns money); their own unity is not their unity but the unity of the employer. The workers then find that the unity is oppressive in various ways.

Consider support workers. I worked twice at a university library, once doing my practicum to obtain a library and information technology diploma (from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) between 1988 and 1990) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. One worker remarked, when I noted that the work was very hierarchical (something which academic Marxists seem to overlook in their own workplace often enough–at least on a practical level when they acknowledge, in the books they have published, the work of librarians, who necessarily oppress workers lower in the hierarchy, but fail to acknowledge the support workers), that she would prefer having a benevolent dictator than a mean one (implying that she had a benevolent dictator).

Again, at the University of Manitoba, where I worked on a temporary library project for Dafoe Library, one of the library assistants, Juliette (a feisty Philippine woman) talked to me explicitly how her supervisor, a white German woman, had explicitly indicated that she did not want to have any more Asians filling the higher ranks of library assistants (library assistant 4, if I remember correctly). Juliette complained to the Human Rights Commission, which apparently found that such library 4 positions were indeed being filled illegitimately by non-Asians.

Although Juliette was protected in some ways from being fired because of the finding that there was discrimination in the assignment of library assistant 4 positions, she also told me that one time she found feces thrown onto her car. Another time she found that someone had somehow opened her car doors and slashed some of the interior. Another time she was driving her car home from work when she found that she had a flat tire. When she had it towed to a garage, the mechanic remarked that it looked like someone had slashed her tires (perhaps with a knife).

Consider another situation at the University of Manitoba. The racism evident in Dafoe Library of the University of Manitoba led someone to post a petition for an Ombudsman’s office on racism at the University in the library staff lounge. I showed Juliette this, and she circulated the petition to library workers in circulation and in the cataloguing department. Only a handful of workers signed the petition (including Juliette and me), not because there was no racism in those departments but, according to Juliette, but because the workers were afraid to sign it out of fear of the possible repercussions from management–and fear is characteristic of many work sites among the lower levels of the hierarchy (whether public or private).

Of course, academics at the University of Manitoba knew nothing about this situation; despite their research skills, they are often blind to events that immediately surround them.

Professor Noonan evidently looks at the world in terms of class harmony–at least in his own environment. Such a world is not filled with degradation and oppression in order that he engage in his activity. Such a world can-without opposing his and all other employers–realize a world where all who work can freely pursue the same goal.

Where you work: Do you feel free? Do you participate equally in the decisions of the place where you work? Can you engage in one activity or another freely (say, be a cataloguer in the morning and tenured professor in the afternoon and a musician in the evening? Or are you oppressed at work in various ways? Are the decisions made at work not subject to your will at all? Do you find yourself restricted to engagement in one particular activity if you are going to live at all because you need the money to live?

Returning to Professor Noonan’s idealism: quoting part of his illogical statement:

Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true,

Of course, the assumption that this is true in the context of a capitalist society is illogical and, coming from a supposed progressive philosopher professor illustrates the limitations of such academics (and social democracy in general).

Compare this limitation with Professor Noonan’s arrogant claim:

The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.

Apparently, Professor Noonan’s updated “historical materialism” for “new times” involves ignoring completely the nature of wage labour–even when it does not involve directly working for a profit. His assumption that all workers at a university somehow magically share the same goal compares poorly with the following by Marx. The quote applies just as much to university workers (less so for university professors with tenure, undoubtedly) as to a capitalist factory (from Capital, volume 1, pages 449-450):

The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function arising from the nature of the social labour process, and peculiar to that process, but it is at the same time a function of the exploitation of a social labour process, and is consequently conditioned by the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the raw material of bis exploitation. Similarly, as the means of production extend, the necessity increases for some effective control over the proper application of them, because they confront the wage-labourer as the property of another. … Moreover, the co-operation of wage-labourers is entirely brought about by the capital that employs them. Their unification into one single productive body, and the establishment of a connection between their individual functions, lies outside their competence. These things are not their own act, but the act of the capital that brings them together and maintains them in that situation. Hence the interconnection between their various labours confronts them, in the realm of ideas, as a plan drawn up by the capitalist, and, in practice, as his authority, as the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose.

Professor Noonan may counterargue that the university is not a capitalist. True. However, this fact does not prevent the above description from being applicable to the situation of most workers at universities. Universities, from subordinate workers’ point of view, are impersonal employers, and as impersonal employers they constitute an external unity for workers that is imposed on them from without. Such an external unity assumes the form of despotism (some employers being better or worse, admittedly, but nevertheless all being forms or kinds of despotism.)

Professor Noonan’s position is similar to John Dewey’s position: assuming cooperation is somehow superior to class conflict and class struggle. As I wrote in my masters’ thesis (Towards a Critical Materialist Pedagogy: Marx and Dewey, page 121):

Philosophy, or the method of intelligence or democratic inquiry, according to
Dewey, was to contribute to the resolution of conflicts through problerm-solving, just as in the natural sciences. Like Marx, Dewey posited that reason or philosophy (a means) was to be used to try to contribute to the resolution of social conflicts (achieve an acceptable end goal or end in view) (Brodsky, 1988). Problems would be openly breached and defined, and common solutions to the specific problems sought (Colapietro, 1988). However, this method is applicable only when the distribution of power is relatively equal and when relations of domination do not arise. When the distribution of power is skewed, as in a capitalist society, conflict can be resolved through reason only if those in power deign to listen. Moreover, those in structural positions of power will often see no need to change since the situation corresponds to their interests. They will deny that the
situation is problematic and refuse to engage in debate and negotiation (Brosio, 1994a).

What constitutes a problem will be more easily defined by those who control the
working environment–the employers and managers. Similarly, solutions sought will tend to be in accord with problems defined by employers and managers rather than in terms defined by those who concretely use the means of production.

It is also typical of social democrats like the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, who assumed as a fact what needed to be achieved politically: the control by workers of their own working lives. From Christoph Henning (2014), Philosophy After Marx: 100 Years of Misreadings and the Normative Turn in Political Philosophy, page 36:

In making these points [about the social nature of “joint-stock companies, cartels, monopolies and cooperatives”], Marx meant to encourage socialists to engage in political activity. Bernstein turns the political conclusion on its head by turning an anticipation of the future into a fully realised fact. In his work, actual political transformation is replaced by theoretical transformation. In Bernstein’s considerations, class antagonism, which rests on property relations, is simply elided [slurred over] – and with it, the capitalist character of ‘society’. …he [Bernstein] blurs the boundaries between theory and reality, turning a theoretical possibility into a reality by abstracting from the problems associated with it. 

It is typical of social democrats and social reformers that they idealize the public sector–as if working for a non-profit institution is somehow freer for workers. Professor Noonan, by making the assumption that the goal of a university is one unified goal–does the same and serves, objectively, as an ideologue of public-sector employers.

Such is the nature of one form of “historical materialism” for “new times,” it is really just a rehashed form of social democracy that cannot even deal with the real world of regular workers in the workplace where these academic Marxists or academic historical materialists work.

Furthermore, as I argued in an earlier post ( What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five):

A few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have decent jobs, but even that situation has eroded over time. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

If we add various categories of workers who work at a university, then this poem is really applicable to many academic leftists. They may pay lip-service to being sympathetic to the exploitation and oppression of workers in other industries, but when it comes to doing anything practical in fighting against the oppression of workers characteristic of their own employer, they take flight to an ideal hypothetical world:

Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true