By Jim Miller
Depending on how things line up, this week may be when we learn whether or not the House of Representatives delivers Obama a win on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a bipartisan effort that will more thoroughly enshrine a neoliberal structure in U.S. law in the service of bolstering corporate control of our democracy.
Of course this only provides more depressing evidence in support of recent research on the state of American democracy by scholars James N. Druckman from Northwestern University and University of Minnesota’s Jacob R. Lawrence showing that “presidents from both Republican and Democratic parties mainly serve and are guided by the wishes of the wealthy and political elites and exploit public opinion in order to serve those ends.”
Their study on “Who Governs” follows in the footsteps of the scholarship of Princeton professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page who last year released similar research documenting how over the past several decades “America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.” And this phenomenon is the most tangible result of the neoliberal turn in our politics.
In my column last week, I cited Bill Fletcher, Jr. who noted how under neoliberalism, the very notion of citizenship has been deeply diminished as a whole range of inequities has transformed our world:
The neo-liberal world is a world of vast inequalities. In the last several years the matter of economic inequality has received significant attention. Yet the neo-liberal world contains other forms of inequality, not the least being between the citizen and the sub-citizen. The inequalities exist on multiple levels including relationships to the police; housing; education; employment; and healthcare.
Thus, as bad as horrible trade deals like the TPP are with regard to job loss, the undermining of labor and environmental regulations, and the erosion of democracy, the neoliberal project is even larger in its scope.
For instance, in the world of education, we are seeing the decimation of democratic standards, as the corporate model has sometimes subtly, and at other times not so subtly, penetrated academia. One of the less than subtle examples of this is the nightmare that is Wisconsin’s higher education system under Republican Governor Scott Walker. Walker, after famously busting his state’s public sector unions, is now in the process of going after the academy itself.
In “Killing Tenure is Academia’s Point of No Return,” Mark Devine observes that Walker’s current attack on tenure and shared governance in Wisconsin’s once proud university system is part of a much larger picture:
In particular, shared governance has been a bedrock principle of higher education, through which faculty members have meaningfully participated in the institutional governance of their universities alongside other staffers and senior managers. Together with tenure, shared governance means that faculty members can have a voice beyond the particular departments, disciplines and schools in which they teach.
It is not surprising, then, that conservatives—who have long attacked the notions of tenure, shared governance and academic freedom more broadly—would now set their eyes on Walker’s Wisconsin (it’s worth noting here that Walker did not graduate from college) as the moment to break the institution of tenure, based on the same corporate-dominated neoliberal principles that supported the near fatal weakening of unions a generation ago.
So just as neoliberal trade deals like TPP take away decision-making powers from workers and citizens in favor of supra-national formations in the service of corporate interests, the assault on the university is designed to take autonomy and power away from the professoriate in favor of a new neoliberal business model at a time when, “The share of the more than 1.5 million faculty (teachers at accredited two- and four-year colleges and universities) who are tenured or on tenure track is as low as a quarter by some counts—half the share of the 1970s and one-third of the 78 percent of the late 1960s, at the height of the postwar boom in university education.”
As Devine points out, as the percentage of tenured faculty has declined, “the share of nontenured or adjunct faculty has skyrocketed to upward of 75 percent of teachers, while the number working in university administration and commanding outsize paychecks has grown massively. With the elimination of tenure, the drive to corporatize the university is reaching its end stages.”
Of course none of this serves students or the communities that universities are supposed to enrich as in this brave new world of the corporate university, tuition continues to rise, less business friendly disciplines suffer neglect or elimination, and the mission of higher education in American democracy is transformed in ways that will do us great harm if we want to produce thinkers and citizens rather than just workers.
As goes Wisconsin, so goes the nation—that at least is the fear. And what will be lost here is not just the intellectual freedom of the last real professors, but one of the few remaining spaces in American public life with relative autonomy from the total control of market forces.
And that, Devine argues, should matter to anyone who cares about our ability to address the severe challenges we face in an evermore threatening and uncertain future:
On this 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Association of University Professors, when the principles of academic freedom were first expounded in the midst of another “great” war that history looks upon with horror, the renewed threat to tenure represents not merely an attack on the minority of academics who today enjoy the privilege but also on the bedrock principles upon which America’s system of higher education was built. If faculties across the country don’t take a very public and aggressive stand in defense of their colleagues in Wisconsin, there will be little to stop the process of complete corporatization of higher education, with all the damage to the quality and diversity of teaching, research and knowledge production that this will produce.
With the United States and the rest of the world facing so many unprecedented natural and human threats and challenges, destroying the one edifice that protects independent thinking and knowledge for its intellectual class could prove even more costly than destroying the unions upon which America’s unprecedented postwar prosperity was built.
In sum, whether you are an endangered industrial worker or a college professor, there is no escaping from the growing proletarianization of the entire population. Indeed, despite the continued presence of our formal rights, all of us are losing more and more control over our lives and the increasingly less democratic decision making processes that are supposed to govern our civic institutions.