Higher Education for Hire

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

Michael Principe

The Capitalist University:
The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States since 1945
By Henry Heller
Pluto Press, 2016, 252 pages. $35 cloth.

THE CAPITALIST UNIVERSITY is an ambitious work. In it, Henry Heller announces a twofold task: to investigate the connection of higher education with “the evolving political economy of the United States after 1945,” and to “acknowledge and celebrate” its accomplishments. (viii)

Writing from an openly Marxist perspective, Heller focuses on three different periods: “The Cold War (1945-1960),” “The Sixties,” and “The Retreat from History (1980-2008).” The justification for the project comes through Heller’s claim that the university ranks in importance for American society only behind the corporation and the military.

Through the sheer mass of accumulated examples, Heller cements what most readers of this review are well aware of: The university in the U.S. serves an extraordinary ideological function, as well as being at times nearly indistinguishable from corporate and military functions. The book concludes with a chapter on the Neo-Liberal University, focusing on the ongoing restructuring of the university as a business.

With World War II, the role and function of the university changed. As Heller notes, “government funding for war-related projects poured into universities for the first time.” (24) This coincided with viewing the university as a research institution tied more deeply to the larger economy.

Trends that are now clearly evident began to take hold:

“Administrators whose numbers were expanding gained power at the expense of departmental and faculty autonomy. They began to collect data on departments and individual departmental members including reports on research output, numbers of graduate and undergraduate students, the amount spent on each student, which eventually gave them decisive leverage over faculty.” (25)

At the same time student enrollments climbed as a result of the GI Bill and the perception that college education was needed to achieve success in U.S. society.

Hegemonic Knowledges

Heller’s discussion of the Cold War focuses on the humanities and social sciences. It was in these disciplines — economics, history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and geography — “that hegemonic ideologies and knowledges were created which justified the continued dominance of the capitalist system under overall American command.” (42)

Across disciplines, the valorization of “value-free research,” methodological individualism, and the denial of history were pervasive. The generalized atmosphere of McCarthyism led to a near absence of radical and Marxist voices within the academy. At the same time, Heller cites many examples of professors at elite universities who worked with the CIA to recruit top students, while producing ideologically supportive scholarship.

The work of Harvard historian Crane Brinton, Heller asserts, is particularly telling with regard to the connection of academia to the CIA. Elected president of the American Historical Association in 1960, he was also deputy director of intelligence in the CIA from 1962-1966. Specializing in the French Revolution, “The fundamental assumption of Brinton’s work was that revolution is a pathological condition or fever rather than a characteristic feature of modernity.” (48-49)

More generally, the field of history saw the emergence of “a new school of American history dubbed the consensus historians…who acknowledged but downgraded the influence of economic factors and conflicting class interests in American history.” (50)

Heller includes Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz and Arthur Schlesinger in this group. In like manner, Heller proceeds through the disciplines. In the field of English literature, Lionel Trilling became the Cold War’s “most important literary critic,” arguing in The Liberal Imagination for “balance and moderation in politics and literature.” (60)

The New Critics focused on individual works, developing a technical language whose “rigor and self-consciousness made it a serious rival to the mathematical discourses found in the science or economics departments of universities.” (61)

In philosophy, Heller argues, the work of both pragmatists and positivists, while emerging initially with some critical bite, was easily assimilated into a largely apolitical calculative rationality seeking to mimic science.

In this context Heller focuses significant attention on Sidney Hook, whose journey from Marxist pragmatism to the right wing is fascinating, though Heller may overemphasize his importance within academic philosophy.

Political Science and Psychology

Heller’s discussion of political science begins with the statement, “The most influential work of political theory of the Cold War years was Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism.” (82)

While one cannot deny the influential and ideologically helpful categorization of the Soviet Union and Nazism under the heading of totalitarianism, Arendt’s body of work lies in many ways outside mainstream political science’s push for quantitative methodology on which Heller otherwise focuses.

While Heller acknowledges this, the rapidity with which he moves through his sequence of thinkers necessarily has its limitations. Sometimes his descriptions are a bit facile. He describes Arendt as “a German Jewish refugee, lover of the philosopher and Nazi and anti-Semite Martin Heidegger and ultimately married to a Marxist professor at Bard College.” (82) The description of her relationships isn’t particularly illuminating, and Heinrich Blucher wasn’t particularly a Marxist.

The field of psychology already had a long history with the American state prior to the Cold War, when it only intensified as “psychology professors…with few exceptions…enthusiastically and unabashedly participated in defense-related research…No other discipline showed itself so un-self-consciously and unquestionably loyal to the state.” Heller speculates that in addition to careerism, this was connected to the use of individualist methodologies that led to some level of naivety. (80)

Also, funding of psychological research constituted the largest portion of Defense Department spending on the social sciences. (81) There is a straight line, claims Heller, to the involvement of academic psychologists more recently in torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

Revolt of Knowledge Workers

In transitioning to his discussion of the 1960s, the crucial breakthrough, says Heller, comes with the student-based 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Part of the FSM’s significance lies in illustrating what Heller sees as a contradiction of the capitalist system:

“Knowledge workers occupy a strategic economic and political position, while their social and economic condition is rendered more and more insecure as a result of the increasingly precarious situation of knowledge and other producers within the system. At the same time their education, skills, and increasingly strategic location with the capitalist accumulation process give knowledge producers significant and perhaps decisive political leverage. It is our contention that the struggle at Berkeley in the 1960s foreshadowed this situation.” (93)

In this context, Heller focuses on the power exercised by students in the Civil Rights movement, antiwar and anti-imperialist struggles with particular emphasis on Students for a Democratic Society. “Universities,” claims Heller, “revealed themselves to be focal points of intellectual and social revolt capable of shaking up the rest of society.” (109)

Heller considers how academic disciplines were infused with a degree of radicalism during the period, noting the status of Hebert Marcuse as well as the ascent of Noam Chomsky, whom he describes as “far and away the most popular intellectual among the student movement.” (117)

Included also is the development of “identity politics,” for which Heller offers what some may consider an overly simple explanation. The end of the antiwar movement, retrenchment of revolutionary hopes, “and the increasing frustration within the sexist and racist contradictions with the radical student-based movement led to the emergence of identity politics.” (119)

Brief reviews of many thinkers are included. Eugene Genovese’s journey from Marxist and author of Roll, Jordan, Roll, which Heller calls “the most impressive piece of American historical scholarship” of the period, to “political reactionary” is detailed.

Interestingly, though without further analysis, Heller suggests that “Genovese’s highly individualistic not to say idiosyncratic cursus no doubt reflected his own personal foibles, but it also reflected the failures of an academic culture that might otherwise have helped scholars better survive the rigors of the oncoming neoliberal age.” (124) [On Genovese’s trajectory, see Christopher Phelps’ discussion published in Against the Current 162, https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3782 — ed.]

Within the field of history, Heller notes the importance of Robert Brenner, identified as having been “a member of IS/Workers Power/Solidarity and is presently the editor of the radical journal Against the Current,” whose work “laid the foundation of a whole school of Marxist historiography known as Political Marxism.” (125) In addition, Heller examines and criticizes the ambiguous radicalisms of C. Wright Mills, Marshall McLuhan and Leslie Fielder.

Singled out for particular praise is Frederick Jameson, whose “insistence that forms of culture need to be understood as part of an evolving mode of production represents a real advance in overcoming the chronic reductionism that has plagued Marxist thought.” Furthermore, “Jameson represents the most powerful bridge between the intellectual and social ferment of the 1960s and the current revival of Marxism.” (134)

Crises of Capitalism and Marxism

The 1980s, according to Heller, “saw a dual crisis — a crisis of Marxism but also a crisis of capitalism.”

With political crisis and change in the Soviet Union and China, political pushback from rightwing academics and think tanks, and the onset of neoliberal austerity including budget cuts in education, a new context was created which “spawned postmodernism as a new cutting-edge academic movement. It constituted a wide-ranging attack on Marxism, couched in the form of a rejection of meta-narratives… What the times demanded was an intellectual position that appeared to be an advance but which concealed a retreat or defeat.” (137, 140)

Rather than concentrating on particular figures (Foucault and Derrida are referenced), Heller focuses on a general sensibility, representing a “nihilistic” (169) skepticism of significant consequence:

“Postmodernism…tried to disarm whatever critical capacity existed in the humanities and social sciences, paving the way for the academic capitalism of the new millennium and putting into question the future of these disciplines and thereby the existence of the university.” (144)

Presumably, for Heller this illustrates again the contradiction within the capitalist university: it is both necessary for the smooth running of the system, while the system continually tries to control and undermine it.

At a theoretical level, Heller considers Frederic Jameson the “most important” of the “tenured radicals who clung to their Marxism.” (146)

Of particular import is Jameson’s account of the postmodern as a real sort of experience and a kind of skepticism “stemming from the conditions of intellectual labor imposed by the late capitalist mode of production. Such skepticism arises from the fragmentation of experience, the invasion and commodification of the cultural realm by capitalism.” (146) Jameson, though, sees this in the context of a still ongoing history that must be grasped from a Marxist perspective.

Heller offers accounts of the post-1980 disciplines, discussing cultural studies, post-colonialism, post-feminism and neoliberal economics as well as figures like Edward Said, Richard Rorty, Clifford Geertz, Hayden White and Richard Posner.

While some figures identify and promote “left” politics, Heller depicts an academic culture increasingly liberal, individualistic and non-materialist in its approaches. Included are a number of broad and controversial judgments, such as the claim that third-wave feminism “in its diversity represented a retreat from organized politics in conformity with neoliberalism.” (150)

Site of New Struggles

In Heller’s final chapter, he briefly reviews how universities increasingly operate in accordance with corporate logic, seeking to generate capital through real estate investments and patents, while at the same time for-profit institutions become a more visible part of the higher education landscape.

Additionally, with public institutions receiving decreased state funding, tuition has skyrocketed leading to a level of student debt that threatens the economy as a whole.

Business and political leaders have sought to recast the university in the image of the market; “the emphasis shifted from the pursuit by universities of the public good, which always included the business community, toward more or less exclusively serving business and themselves becoming business-like.” (183)

While “theoretical knowledge pursued for its own sake” was once used to smuggle in business interests, such pursuits are no longer tolerated by these same business interests, a contradiction that Heller insightfully suggests opens up the possibility of crisis:

“Education for neoliberals is by no means a public right but rather a potentially profitable private investment which produces rational consumers and disciplined workers. Such ideas can only lead to the undermining of the bourgeois form of the democratic state, moving society back toward nineteenth-century levels of poverty and political disenfranchisement while undermining the ideological and institutional foundations of capitalism.” (187)

Heller devotes his final few pages to the fightback inside universities since the 2008 financial crisis. With the increased proletarianization of faculty, there is, he claims, a possibility for “class struggle from below based on increasing class consciousness and unified trade unions which would include tenured and non-tenured teachers as well as students and non-academic workers.

“Knowledge workers — who by definition have high levels of skill, work at strategic locations, and need to cooperate with one another in an increasingly interdependent work process — are at one level ideal subjects for a new stage of struggle against capitalism.” (202)

The Capitalist University reads as a substantial catalog of the institutional practices and intellectual trends within U.S. higher education since 1945, while showing the university to be a key institution within capitalism. Given the scope of the project, little can be covered in detail, which does sometimes result in somewhat underdeveloped accounts of major academic figures and trends.

Finally, one would have hoped that Heller said more regarding his quite intriguing and recurrent suggestions that the university is an essential site of contradiction within capitalism, with knowledge workers occupying a crucial subject position — necessary for the production of ruling-class hegemony, but also in a position to challenge power as the university in the neoliberal era becomes, by the application of business models and budget cuts, less and less able to serve its needed ideological function.

November-December 2017, ATC 191