Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2015

Uncivil Rites

Filed under: Academia,Counterpunch,Palestine — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita

As such my attention has been riveted on the trials and tribulations of Steven Salaita who was unfortunate enough to be the victim of a combined assault by the Israel lobby and a university officialdom that was determined to make him pay for telling the truth, no matter how bitter that truth. Since I am very close to some tenure-track professors, I have a better handle than most on what it means to be robbed of a tenured position. Getting tenure nowadays is almost like winning the American Idol contest, so the very idea of being denied a position and thrown to the wolves (no offense meant to a member of the animal kingdom far more noble than the University of Illinois mucketymucks) struck me as a wantonly destructive act—all the more so since it was defended in Pecksniffian terms by the likes of Cary Nelson.

read full article

October 6, 2015

Steven Salaita: why I was fired

Filed under: Academia,Palestine,repression,zionism — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

(Just got a copy of his book from Haymarket. This is an excerpt.)

Why I Was Fired
By Steven Salaita OCTOBER 05, 2015

In August 2014, I was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The firing made me a free-speech darling — or the world’s most violent person since Stalin, depending on your perspective. It also sparked a debate about academic freedom, faculty governance, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the role of social media in university life. That debate rages with no resolution in sight.

The story of my notoriety begins on July 21, 2014, when The Daily Caller ran an article about me titled “University of Illinois Professor Blames Jews for anti-Semitism.” With the brio and wisdom for which right-wing websites are known, the piece begins, “The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has continued its bizarre quest to employ as many disgusting scumbags as possible by acquiring the services of Steven Salaita, a leading light in the movement among similarly obscure academics to boycott Israel.”

The article, and subsequent coverage, focused on several tweets I wrote in the summer of 2014. One tweet read: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” In another, I wrote, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

It has since become popular to call me uncivil. Or intemperate. Or inappropriate. Or angry. Or aggressive. It’s unseemly to describe myself, but because “unseemly” is an improvement over what many people now call me — why not? I am a devoted husband and a loving father. I never talk out of turn. I deliberate for long periods before making significant decisions. As is normal for somebody born and raised in Southern Appalachia, I call everybody “sir” or “ma’am.” I do not raise my voice at people. I am deeply shy and chronically deferential. That is to say, I am civil to a fault.

This exegesis on my disposition probably seems unnecessary, but it’s important to distinguish between somebody’s persona and his personhood, though in most cases one informs the other. This is the extent of my feelings on the matter: It is precisely because I am a loving person that I so adamantly deplore Israel’s behavior.

My tweets might appear uncivil, but such a judgment can’t be made in an ideological or rhetorical vacuum. Insofar as “civil” is profoundly racialized and has a long history of demanding conformity, I frequently choose incivility as a form of communication. This choice is both moral and rhetorical.

The piety and sanctimony of my critics is most evident in their hand-wringing about my use of curse words. While I am proud to share something in common with Richard Pryor, J.D. Salinger, George Carlin, S.E. Hinton, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, and countless others who have offended the priggish, I confess to being confused as to why obscenity is such an issue to those who supposedly devote their lives to analyzing the endless nuances of public expression. Academics are usually eager to contest censorship and deconstruct vague charges of vulgarity. When it comes to defending Israel, though, anything goes. If there’s no serious moral or political argument in response to criticism of Israel, then condemn the speaker for various failures of “tone” and “appropriateness.” Emphasis placed on the speaker and not on Israel. A word becomes more relevant than an array of war crimes.

Even by the tendentious standards of “civility,” my comments on Twitter (and elsewhere) are more defensible than the accusations used to defame me. The most deplorable acts of violence germinate in high society. Many genocides have been glorified (or planned) around dinner tables adorned with forks and knives made from actual silver, without a single inappropriate speech act having occurred.

Academics are usually eager to contest censorship. When it comes to defending Israel, though, anything goes.
In most conversations about my termination, Israel’s war crimes go unmentioned, yet it is impossible to understand my tweets without that necessary context. My strong language — and I should point out that much of my language is also gentle — arises in response to demonstrable acts of brutality that in a better world would raise widespread rancor. You tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of children or using impeccable manners to justify their murder. I no more want to be “respectable” according to the epistemologies of colonial wisdom than I want to kill innocent people with my own hands. Both are articulations of the same moral rot.

In 11 years as a faculty member, I have fielded exactly zero complaints about my pedagogy. Every peer evaluation of my instruction — the gold standard for judging teaching effectiveness — has been stellar. Student evaluations ranked higher than the mean every time I collected them. Yet people affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have impugned my ability to teach.

Students are capable of serious discussion, of formulating responses, of thinking through discomfort. They like my teaching because I refuse to infantilize them; I treat them as thinking adults. I have never disrespected a student. I have never told a student what to think. Nor have I ever shut down an opinion. I encourage students to argue with me. They take me up on the offer. I sometimes change my viewpoint as a result. My philosophy is simple: Teach them the modes and practices of critical thought and let them figure out things on their own.

The hand-wringing about students is pious, precious claptrap, a pretext to clean the stench from a rotten argument raised to validate an unjustifiable decision.

Troublesome assumptions underlie accusations about my fitness for the classroom. It is impossible to separate questions about my “civility” from broader narratives of inherent Arab violence. This sort of accusation has been used to discredit people of color (and other minorities) in academe for many decades. Administrators and the public monitor and scrutinize our actions in a manner to which our white colleagues are rarely subject. It is crucial to train us in the ways of civility lest our emotions dislodge the ethos our superiors hold so dear.

When it comes to opposing colonization, there is no need for dissimulation, which is the preferred vocabulary of the cocktail party and committee meeting. I could make a case that dissimulation is immoral. It is undoubtedly boring. When I say something, I have no desire to conceal meaning in oblique and wishy-washy diction. This is especially so when I respond to the various horrors of state violence and the depravity of those who justify it. On campus, such forthrightness is unconventional.

But no tenet of academic freedom considers failure to adhere to convention a fireable offense.

Professors are often punished for disrupting convention in informal ways, however. My case is interesting because administrators ignored the de facto standards that regulate our behavior and exercised their power directly. This should be worrisome to any scholar who isn’t a sycophant.

People with doctorates who make claims unsupported by evidence and who uncritically repeat terms like “incivility” as if it describes anything other than their own dull prejudice are the ones most unfit to teach college.

Being called an anti-Semite is deeply unpleasant. Those who make the accusation should be responsible for providing evidence, yet it is I who has been saddled with the impossible task of disproving a negative.

The rhetorical incoherence of my critics is evident in their ever-evolving justifications for my firing. First I was anti-Semitic. Then I was uncivil. Then I was a bad teacher. Then I was too charismatic. Then I was too angry. Then I was too profane. Then I was too radical. Then I was too unpatriotic. Then I wasn’t really hired. Then I was unqualified in the field of American Indian studies. Then I benefited from nepotism. Then I was a poor scholar. Then my colleagues were incompetent. Then my colleagues were deceitful. Then my colleagues were ignorant. Then the American Indian-studies program required special guidance. Then the decision to hire me was solely based on politics. Then indigenous studies was illegitimate. Then the entire damn field needed to be shut down.

Part of our charge as educators is to encourage students to find the language that will help them translate instinct into concrete knowledge. It’s the kind of preparation we all need to survive the capitalist marketplace. While antiauthoritarianism may start as an attitude, it has infinite capacity to develop into an ethic.

Distrusting the motivation of institutions and their managers often means demotion or recrimination. But there is reason to distrust authority on campus. Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is lucrative without also being corrupt.

As Thomas Frank put it in an essay in The Baffler:

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a 19th-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

Frank later pinpoints the reason for campus authoritarianism:

Above all, what the masters of academia spend the loot on is themselves. In saying this, I am not referring merely to the increasing number of university presidents who take home annual “compensation” north of a million dollars. That is a waste, of course, an outrageous bit of money-burning borrowed from Wall Street in an age when we ought to be doing the opposite of borrowing from Wall Street. But what has really fueled the student’s ever-growing indebtedness, as anyone with a connection to academia can tell you, is the insane proliferation of university administrators.

Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is lucrative without also being corrupt.
The numbers validate Frank’s observation. Benjamin Ginsberg points out that in the past 30 years, the administrator-to-student ratio has increased while the instructor-to-student ratio has stagnated. The rise of untenured, or non-tenure-track, faculty exacerbates the problem; a significant demographic in academe lacks job security or the working conditions that allow them to maximize their pedagogical talent. Over a recent 10-year period, spending on administration outpaced spending on instruction. At American universities, there are now more administrators and their staffers than full-time faculty. In the past 10 years, administrative salaries have steadily risen while custodians and groundskeepers suffer the inevitable budget cuts — as do the students whose tuition and fees supplement this largess.

When so much money is at stake, those who raid the budget have a deep interest in maintaining the reputation of the institution. Their privilege and the condition of the brand are causally related. The brand thus predominates. Its predominance often arrives at the expense of student well-being.

Take the matter of sexual assault. Reporting rates have recently risen, but all versions of sexual assault remain woefully underreported. There are numerous reasons why a victim chooses to keep silent. One reason is that she may expect a wholly inadequate, or even hostile, response from her own university. In 2014, Columbia University fielded 28 federal complaints claiming the university had inadequately investigated reports of sexual assault. Florida State University, with the help of the Tallahassee Police Department, orchestrated a clumsy cover-up of a rape allegation to protect the star quarterback Jameis Winston. A different category of sexual assault infamously occurred at Pennsylvania State University, where the onetime defensive coordinator of the football team, Jerry Sandusky, was found to have molested various children, some of them on campus. The university’s complicity is but an extreme instance of a common phenomenon.

In this era of neoliberal graft, universities barely pretend to care about the ideals upon which higher education was founded. Sure, administrators and PR flacks still prattle about dialogue and self-improvement and the life of the mind, but not even impressionable 18-year-olds believe that claptrap. They know just as well as their superiors that college is really about acquiring the mythical-but-measurable status conferred to them by a crisp sheet of cotton-bond paper.

As universities more and more resemble corporations in their governance, language, and outlook, students have become acutely brand conscious. Guardianship of the brand thus predominates and overwhelms the primacy of thought and analysis to which the academy is nominally committed. Students no longer enter into places of learning. They pay exorbitant prices to gain access to the socioeconomic capital of affiliation with the most recognizable avatars, adorned magisterially with armor and pastoral creatures and Latin phrases.

Take that most sacred element of pedagogy, critical thinking. Many faculty don’t know how to do it, never mind imparting instruction in the practice to those trying to learn it. (My conception of “critical thinking” includes acting in some way on the knowledge it produces, if only in the formulation of a dynamic ethical worldview.) One of the greatest skills critical thinking provides is the ability to recognize and undermine bunk. In short, if critical thinking is to be useful, it must endow a reflexive desire to identify and understand the disguises of power.

This sort of focus is low on the list of what universities want from students, just as critical thinking is a terribly undesirable quality in the corporate world, much more damning than selfishness or sycophancy. Let us then be honest about critical thinking: On the tongues of cunning bureaucrats, it is little more than an additive to brand equity, the vainglorious pomp of smug, uptight automatons who like to use buzzwords in their PowerPoint presentations.

Critical thinking by faculty is even more undesirable. In research institutions, we are paid to generate prestige and to amass grant money; in teaching-centered colleges, we enjoy excess enrollments according to fine-tuned equations that maximize the student-teacher ratio. (In elite liberal-arts colleges, we pamper the kids with simulations of parental affection.) Critical thinking is especially harmful to adjuncts, reliant as they are for income on the munificence of well-paid bosses who cultivate a distended assemblage of expendable employees.

Nowhere in our employment contracts does it say, “Challenge the unarticulated aspirations of the institution, especially when it acts as a conduit and expression of state violence; and please try your best to support justice for those on and off campus who are impoverished by neoliberalism.” If we practice critical thinking, though, it is difficult to avoid these obligations.

Because of their high-minded rhetoric, it is tempting to believe that university managers care about ethics or maybe even about justice, but most managers care about neither. The exceptions, of course, deserve our praise — just don’t poke around the highly ranked schools if you want to find them. The key to a successful managerial career isn’t striving to be a good person, but developing enough instinct to cheat and charm at opportune moments.

Whatever independence can be acquired in academe requires a fundamental distrust of authority, be it abstract or explicit. There never have been pure epochs of uncorrupted democracy, but increasing corporate control disturbs greater sectors of American life, particularly on campus. There has to be a better way to conduct the practices of education.

What to do about injustice? I hear this question a lot since I was fired. I have no solid answer. My instinct, which I fully understand isn’t actually instinctive, is simply to tell people to do what they feel comfortable doing. I’m not big on demands or injunctions. Yet I recognize that as somebody who now exists in a public position I am summoned to analyze a set of dynamics in which I and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are embroiled. These dynamics are especially important to folks in academe who wish to pursue material commitments alongside theoretical and philosophical questions.

Graduate students and prospective graduate students are especially anxious these days. They are right to be. Decent humanities jobs are in decline. Grad-school slots have become more competitive. Any advantage is a great asset. Being deemed a troublemaker or a radical is no advantage.

Making trouble is precisely the function of the intellectual, though. And being radical is a solid antidote to boring work.

There’s always been repression and recrimination in academe. Anybody with an eye toward a career as a scholar has to internalize this reality. Aspiring and established scholars should not abdicate intellectual commitments in order to please the comfortable. This would be careerism, not inquiry.

And that’s the point. If we don’t examine relationships of power and highlight the disjunctions of inequality, then we’re not doing our jobs. (We will be according to the preferences of the managerial class, but pleasing its functionaries isn’t generally the mark of an interesting thinker.) Upsetting arbiters of so-called common sense is an immanent feature of useful scholarship.

“What can/should we do?” is not a universal question. Consider that the labor of minority scholars is already politicized. We have to publish more. It’s risky to be introverted because so many white colleagues cannot tolerate a minority who doesn’t pretend to like them. We have to act as diversity representative on all sorts of committees. We cannot be mediocre because our tenure and upward mobility rely on senior colleagues who reward only their own mediocrity. It’s hazardous for us to show emotion because we’re aware of the possibility of confirming to others our innate unreason. Adding “activist leader” to this list of tasks is a heavy undertaking. In many ways, simply deciding not to appease power is an active form of advocacy. It is the activism of survival.

Getting fired doesn’t make me an expert on anything. I’m doing my best to make sure something productive comes of it, though. My having a job changes nothing if the system that orchestrated my ouster remains intact. I am merely a symbol of the stark imperatives of the wealthy and well connected. We all are, really. Unless the system changes at a basic level, everybody is merely buying shares in a corporation with the power to dissolve our interests the moment we become an inconvenience.

Steven Salaita holds the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. This essay is adapted from his new book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, just out from Haymarket Books.

June 19, 2015

Professors as contingent labor: a Left Forum 2015 workshop

Filed under: Academia,workers — louisproyect @ 12:37 am

This is the fifth and final video I recorded at the Left Forum over the weekend of May 29 to 31. Titled “Organizing Grad Student, Contingent, and Tenure-Track Faculty: A Fight Against Corporatization for the Soul of Higher Education”, it touched on matters close to my heart as a 21 year employee of Columbia University, someone very concerned about the corporatization of Bard College and the New School where I studied in the early to mid-sixties, and very close to someone who is both an adjunct and a tenure-track professor. For my earlier thoughts on what’s going on in academia, I’d refer you to my review of Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors” written in 2008. (http://louisproyect.org/2008/06/19/the-last-professors/)

Kathryn Eskew, who is a tenured professor at Hilbert College in upstate NY, chaired the meeting and spoke about her administration’s efforts to cut tenured faculty.

Ruth Wangerin is a long-time adjunct at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the CUNY system. She described a two-tiered labor system in her school and the rest of CUNY that undermines solidarity just as it does in the auto industry and other one-time strongholds of the AFL-CIO.

Joe Richard, who is a member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, gave an inspiring talk about how the faculty and blue-collar staff joined forces to take on an administration bent on undermining wages and working conditions.

Natasha Raheja is with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU, a group that has had relative success in resisting an administration that practically defines corporatization.

November 13, 2014

Roland Boer: plagiarist

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

From Roland Boer’s “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative”:

Already in the late 1950s, real wages increased by 75 per cent, returning people to pre-war levels, while collective farm workers were the beneficiaries of the first agricultural welfare and pension scheme in Europe. By the 1960s, agricultural incomes rose by 6.7 per cent per year and industrial incomes rose by 4.9 per cent annually. Consumption of healthy foods – fruit, vegetables and even meats – increased significantly, while doctors and medical facilities became commonly available. As a result, fewer children died and people lived longer. While 138.9 in 1,000 children under the age of one died in 1939, by 1990 it was 14 in 1000. And those who survived could expect to live longer: life expectancy rose to over 68 years for men and over 74 years for women. Indeed, a reasonable number could expect to make a century: in the late 1980s, 52 people were found over one hundred years of age per one million.

And where did these numbers come from?

From here, a Wikipedia article that Boer does not credit. Whoever wrote the Wiki entry did the right thing and footnoted Library of Congress papers. I wondered how this sky-pilot knows so much about Bulgarian economic performance. Now I know, he plagiarized Wikipedia like so many mediocre undergrads and high school students do.

In the mid-1950s, Soviet-style centralized planning produced economic indicators showing that Bulgarians were returning to their prewar lifestyle in some respects: real wages increased 75%, consumption of meat, fruit, and vegetables increased markedly, medical facilities and doctors became available to more of the population, and in 1957 collective farm workers benefited from the first agricultural pension and welfare system in Eastern Europe.[7]

Increases in real incomes in agriculture rose by 6.7 percent per year during the 1960s. During this same period, industrial wages increased by 4.9 percent annually.

n 1939 the mortality rate for children under one year had been 138.9 per 1,000; by 1986 it was 18.2 per 1,000, and in 1990 it was 14 per 1,000, the lowest rate in Eastern Europe.

Even before Zhivkov, Bulgaria made significant progress in increasing life expectancy and decreasing infant mortality rates. Consistent social policies led to an increase in life expectancy to 68.1 years for men and 74.4 years for women.

Roland Boer: having his cake and eating it too

Filed under: Academia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

My first reaction to Roland Boer getting the Isaac Deutscher Prize was one of shock, since Boer’s pro-Stalin blogging is antithetical to what Deutscher stood for, even if some Trotskyists—James P. Cannon in particular—viewed him as soft on Stalin.

In his comment on my last post, Boer stated that I am “missing even the slightest sense of humour.” I am not exactly sure what the joke is about but perhaps Boer’s blog is really a big put-on. He does say:

Do I want to rehabilitate Stalin, who was more ambiguous than the popular conception would have it? That is up to the reader to decide, although – in case the quirkiness of Australian humour is not obvious already – one should never take what is written here too seriously. Like Lenin’s jutting chin of history, I suspect that one of Stalin’s greatest achievements was that amazing moustache.

Well, it is up to the reader to decide and I decided long ago that Boer is a Stalinist. Probably the best evidence for that is that when comments appear under his posts cheering him on for defending Stalin, he has never once said anything like “Er, mate, I was only kidding.”

Plus, when Boer writes for other publications the smirk tends to disappear from his face and the Stalinism oozes forth unabashedly. For example, in an article titled “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative” for the Philosophers for Change website, he makes the case for Bulgarian Communism, advising his readers that the dictator Todor Zhivkov was a gentle and permissive leader who did wonders for his people. That is unless you were unfortunate enough to be a Turk. Wikipedia, which is generally deferential to Zhivkov, reports:

In December 1984, Todor Zhivkov began a campaign of forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, most notably forcing all Turks to take Bulgarian names. By 1989, resistance to this policy led to riots, which resulted in multiple deaths. In May 1989, Zhivkov suddenly granted permission of all Turks to leave the country, which led to over 300 thousand emigrating to Turkey within three months.

I imagine that this would not perturb an admirer of Stalin and/or his mustache; the tyrant was quite adept at ethnic cleansing and no friend of Muslims.

Getting back to the Deutscher prize, I can only surmise that the judges have no idea that “Stalin’s Moustache” exists. Like many academics, their emphasis is on print rather than the net. Plus, you’d have to assume that Boer’s books on Marxism and theology have zero to say about Stalin. From the little I have seen from Boer on that topic, mostly on MRZine, I found them unobjectionable but not particularly useful in terms of understanding religion from a historical materialist perspective. Boer is mostly interested in how early Christians were communist. But above all, Boer’s focus is on ideas.

Typical is “Religion and Political Thought: Introduction”, an article he wrote for “Political Theology Today”.

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in an Australian project called ‘Religion and Political Thought’ – itself part of an international project known as ‘Religion and Radicalism’. Funded by the Australian Research Council, it seeks to do nothing less than kick-start an Australian tradition of political philosophy in relation to religion and theology.

Boer has received five grants from the Australian Research Council, a branch of the Australian government that advises it “on emerging issues and strategic policy challenges.” Well, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? Blogging on behalf of Joseph Stalin and getting handouts from a government think-tank. What a marvelous combination that certainly makes Max Horkheimer’s observation seem quaint by comparison: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”


Roland fucking Boer?

Filed under: Academia,religion — louisproyect @ 12:33 am

Roland Boer

The latest on the Stalin worshipper:



I discovered from a report on the HM conference in London that this asshole just received the 2014 Isaac Deutscher prize, the worst decision since it was given to Francis Wheen in 1999 for his Karl Marx bio. It was announced at a lecture by Panitch and Gindin:

The lecture started with the announcement of the winner of the 2014 Deutscher Prize, which was awarded to Roland Boer for his In the Veil of Tears: On Marxism and Theology, V, both in recognition of the book itself and of the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series of which it was the culmination. The other shortlisted works were Costas Lapavistas’ Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, Frederic Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism, John Saul and Patrick Bond’s South Africa – The Present as History.

I’ll take Patrick any day of the week.

Boer is a clown. His “Stalin’s Mustache” blog is the sort of garbage that could be heard at the Stalin Society in London, even more embarrassing than the junk I used to hear from Maoists in the 60s and 70s. Here’s a sample:

Screen shot 2014-11-12 at 7.31.11 PM


Here’s the HM blurb on the book:

In the Vale of Tears brings to a culmination the project for a renewed and enlivened debate over the interaction between Marxism and religion. It does so by offering the author’s own response to that tradition. It simultaneously draws upon the rich insights of a significant number of Western Marxists and strikes out on its own. Thus, it argues for the crucial role of political myth on the Left; explores the political ambivalence at the heart of Christianity; challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution; is highly suspicious of the ideological and class alignments of ethics; offers a thorough reassessment of the role of festishism in the Marxist tradition; and broaches the question of death, unavoidable for any Marxist engagement with religion. While the book is the conclusion to the five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, it also stands alone as a distinct intervention in some burning issues of our time.

“challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”?

Where have I been? How did I miss this? I guess I was lost in the woods spending all my time on putting Lenin in context than in addressing the “unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”. I’ll pick up a hernia belt at CVS tomorrow. That should help.

November 9, 2014

Slavery, capitalism and economic growth: a response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: Academia,economics,slavery — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 2.30.54 PM

Timothy Shenk

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s an article by Timothy Shenk titled “Apostles of Growth” that is a review of recent books making the case that slavery was integral to the rise of American capitalism, as well as a platform for some questionable theorizing about economic growth. Since the article is nearly 10,000 words long, one wonders how a mere dissertation student can exercise such clout. (Then again the editorial judgment of the magazine is suspect, demonstrated most recently by its urging a vote for Andrew Cuomo.)

This is not the first time that Shenk has used the magazine as a bully pulpit. Earlier this year our Ivy League prodigy had a 9,500-word article there titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that was also notable for a hefty word count and its confusion over what Marx stood for. After it came out, I wrote:

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

You find the same misunderstanding of Marx in his latest article. He writes: “In Capital, Marx wanted to prove not just that capitalist practices were uglier than the soothing fables its theorists spun (though he made that point too), but that capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse.” Although Shenk is a dissertation student, he has apparently not learned the need for citation. Where would you find Marx saying anything like “capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse”? I doubt that you could find such sentiments in Capital. (I just checked on www.marxists.org. There aren’t any.)

In fact the idea that capitalism will collapse because of internal structural defects like the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is a crude reading best described as vulgar Marxism. Ernest Mandel, who was widely regarded as the foremost Marxist economist of his time, had a far more nuanced analysis in his 1990 “Karl Marx”:

Does Marx’s theory of crisis imply a theory of an inevitable final collapse of capitalism through purely economic mechanisms? A controversy has raged around this issue, called the `collapse’ or `breakdown’ controversy. Marx’s own remarks on the matter are supposed to be enigmatic. They are essentially contained in the famous chapter 32 of volume I of Capital entitled `The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation’, a section culminating in the battle cry: `The expropriators are expropriated’. But the relevant paragraphs of that chapter describe in a clearly non-enigmatic way, an interplay of `objective’ and `subjective’ transformations to bring about a downfall of capitalism, and not a purely economic process. They list among the causes of the overthrow of capitalism not only economic crisis and growing centralisation of capital, but also the growth of exploitation of the workers and their indignation and revolt in the face of that exploitation, as well as the growing level of skill, organisation and unity of the working class. Beyond these general remarks, Marx, however, does not go.

Turning to Shenk’s critique of the books under review, it is worth noting that although he rejects their premise, it is not from the “Political Marxism” perspective—one which describes the plantation system as “precapitalist”.

For Shenk, the new books, such as Edward E. Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”, are defined by their shared belief that capitalism can be defined as a system based on economic growth:

Viewed from this perspective, capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results—not by what it is, but by what it does. The variety of ways in which labor can be commodified, the diverse forms that capital can assume, the different institutions that structure relations of production and exchange—all of these are just means subordinated to the larger end of economic growth. A weak definition of capitalism that might seem banal when reduced to its simplest terms—“capitalism’s only constant is change”—supports a historical narrative of remarkable scope.

Although I have yet to read Baptist or the other books under review, it seems unlikely to me that they were attempting to theorize capitalism. These are historians much more interested in identifying the role that slavery played in capital accumulation in the 18th and 19th century. For example, there’s not a single entry for Marx in Baptist’s index and a cursory examination of the pages indexed under “capitalism” reveals nothing of theoretical consequence. I suspect that the real importance of works such as his and Walter Johnson’s is the empirical data that will help confirm Eric Williams’s original hypothesis that without slavery capitalism could have not taken off in Britain and the USA. These are works that rest on the minutiae of receipts and tax records, not theorizing. At a certain point, Shenk has to admit as such:

According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism.

It is too bad that Shenk found matters of cotton less interesting than “grand abstractions” of the sort that mesmerize him. If he had given more time to the authors’ research than his own agenda, the review would have served some use.

Understanding that the books got short shrift, let’s turn to some of our dissertation student’s Grand Theorizing, which was really the main focus of the nearly 10,000-word article.

The real agenda of the article is to investigate the possibilities for “economic growth” in the 21st century. He writes:

But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.

In this section, he makes sure to misrepresent Marxists once again:

A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions.

The system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions? Where in the world does he encounter such vulgar Marxist formulations? The New Left Review? Socialist Register? Unless he is reading material I am unfamiliar with, the only collapse noted by Marxists with a functioning brain is the one gripping the socialist left, a movement much more in a state of collapse than capitalism. After the financial crisis of 2007, there was suffering across the planet, especially in southern Europe. But who in their right mind would have argued that capitalism in Greece was about to collapse under its own weight?

Most people with a background in Marxist politics—unlike Shenk—understand the importance of the subjective factor. With a divided left in Greece, one in which the Communists stubbornly refuse to back Syriza and anarchists hurl Molotov cocktails as if flames can destroy commodity production, who thinks that the system will collapse? In 1914, the European bourgeoisie were ready to destroy billions of dollars in property and the lives of millions of working-class soldiers to protect their own narrow interests. If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the miserable war might have lasted for another decade. As Mao Zedong once said, “It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” (Probably the only useful thing he ever said.)

Despite the article’s focus on economic growth, there’s little indication of how Shenk thinks this is possible or even if it is worthwhile. Flirting with the “no growth” current of the environmental movement, he writes:

Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth.

Missing from this gargantuan article is any consideration of the real measure of an economic system. It is not simply a question of a rising GDP. Class society is marked by violence both explicit and implicit. In South Africa striking workers are gunned down. In the USA, striking workers might not get gunned down but their factory might disappear to another country if the boss so decides. In my view people are far less interested in growth than they are in security and the right to live in dignity. I suspect that the well-heeled, Democratic Party supporting owners of the Nation Magazine had everything to gain by giving such ample space to an “expert” on Karl Marx who had so little interest in such questions.


September 8, 2014

Separated at birth

Filed under: Academia,separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 2:13 pm

m-kennedyChris Kennedy, chairman of the board of trustees at U. of Illinois

ratsarticleLouisiana swamp rat


August 25, 2014

He passed muster at the U. of Illinois

Filed under: Academia,racism,Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-25 at 3.24.29 PM

Screen shot 2014-08-25 at 3.27.09 PM

Weissberg speaking at American Renaissance Conference, an organization whose journal promotes racial supremacy. Weissberg himself has written that Blacks are genetically inferior to whites.


Chief Illiniwek

Filed under: Academia,indigenous,repression,Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

Chief Illiniwek performing at a football game

“As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.”

–Phyllis Wise, U. of Illinois Chancellor

From Wikipedia:

On January 17, 2007, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, issued a resolution asking that the University of Illinois return the regalia to the family of Frank Fools Crow and cease the use of the Chief Illiniwek mascot. The resolution was delivered to the university’s Board of Trustees, UI President B. Joseph White, and Chancellor Richard Herman. The campus’ Native American House was authorized by the Oglala Sioux to distribute the resolution to the public.

Some Illiniwek were forcibly removed from the state of Illinois during the time of Indian removal. The forced relocation of Indian nations between 1818 and 1833 made way for non-Indians to claim the territory as the state of Illinois. Due to government-sponsored assimilation programs, many Native people moved in the 1950s to large urban areas such as Chicago. Founded in 1953, Chicago’s American Indian Center is the oldest urban Indian center in the country, and there is a substantial American Indian population in Chicago.

In 2006, the University Board of Trustees opted to study the issue and passed a resolution calling for “a consensus conclusion to the matter of Chief Illiniwek.” Many on both sides of the issue found this resolution problematic, given that former trustee Roger Plummer determined that a compromise on the issue was not possible. At that point, the Board of Trustees has not consulted on the matter with the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program.

On March 13, 2007, the University of Illinois board of trustees voted to retire Illiniwek’s name, image and regalia.

In October 2012, the Chief made an unsanctioned halftime appearance at Memorial stadium, in the Homecoming football game against Indiana.

Students and fans still chant “Chief” during the performance of Three In One during halftime. Since neither the NCAA nor the University have any control over what the fans chant, opposition groups have called to additionally ban the Three In One performance.

In April 2014, an indigenous student, Xochitl Sandoval, sent a letter to the university administration (which she also posted on her Facebook page) describing her thoughts of suicide resulting from the daily insults she felt due to the continued presence of “The Chief” on campus, including other students wearing the old image and name on sweatshirts and the continued “unofficial” performances the current “Chief”, Ivan A. Dozier at some events. She stated that these thoughts came as a result of her feeling that she had no recourse because the university had not enforced its own policies regarding racism and the creation of a hostile environment for indigenous students such as herself; but had instead stated her only recourse would be personal action.[51] Soon afterward there was a gathering on the Quad organized by the president of the Native American Indigenous Student Organization in support of Sandoval, and calling for further action by the University to eliminate the presence of the Chief on campus. The Campus Faculty Association (CFA) also issued a statement in support of Sandoval.



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