Marxism in Modern Academia

A spectre is haunting American academia – the spectre of neo-Marxism. Just over two-decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the academics who once praised the glories of communism were laughed into silence for being unquestionably disproven by the utter futility of such a system, a new breed of blind men have occupied the halls of the Ivory Tower and have carried the torch of self-immolation and sacrifice into the Twenty-First Century. Whereas the professors of the 60’s and 70’s preached the possibility of utopia that communism allegedly presented, the professors of the new millennium, the past students of the former, are unable to defend such lies – they know all too well the results of communism, as does the American public, to defend it openly. Instead, they pursue their goals subversively and indirectly, thus allowing them to attack capitalism and disseminate the premises of socialism, and even communism in extreme cases, without actually saying the word.

This became shockingly apparent at an academic conference I attended this Saturday, ominously entitled “Capitalism in America: A New History.”  According to the professor who encouraged me to attend, the conference was designed to discuss the possibility of publishing a textbook on the history of capitalism in the United States, something he claims does not presently exist. The purpose of the various panels of speakers, in turn, was to discuss which ideas and topics different professors found important enough to include in the new textbook.

Having been aware of the University of Georgia’s history department’s affection toward Marx and his social theories, I likely would not have attended were it not for the extra credit offered for doing so. In any case, I only attended Panel III in the afternoon session, not only because this was all that was necessary for extra credit, but because I could not bear a minute more.

The first lecture given was “Social World, Property Rights, Politics: Enduring Themes in the History of American Capitalism”, presented by Prof. Colleen Dunlavy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The central theme of the lecture was innocuous: asserting that the three main areas of focus for any study in the history of capitalism are the nature of capitalism, the role of the government, and the social aspects of capitalism. Even so, the subcategories within those three more extensive categories exemplified a massive misunderstanding and mischaracterization of capitalism on the part of Prof. Dunlavy such that what was being discussed could no longer be called “capitalism”.

For example, within the “nature of capitalism” category, Prof. Dunlavy subdivided the time period since the Enlightenment into various “types” of capitalism: merchant capitalism (until about 1815), industrial capitalism (1815-1920s), modern capitalism (1920’s-1960’s), and “???” capitalism (1970-present). As a capitalist, I reject the idea that there are different kinds of capitalism, or that it has ever been consistently achieved in the United States or anywhere else. Already, the meaning of capitalism had been lost in this lecture, even if there were other legitimate points about that which the history of capitalism should include, e.g. changing business models, technological changes, levels of production, and scales of size and distance over time.

The concept of capitalism was further misapplied when the role of government was explained in greater detail. While understanding the antagonistic relationship between capitalism and government regulation is a necessary component of studying capitalism’s history in the United States, claiming that economic regulation is a part of capitalism itself is inherently incorrect. Moreover, Prof. Dunlavy’s notion of government promotion of capitalism is contradictory, as any sort of promoting which the government could undertake can be nothing but anti-capitalistic in nature (unless simply practicing the principles of laissez-faire is considered a “promotion”).

Once the social aspects had been covered, it became clear that capitalism as a political-economic theory was never the focus of the lecture at all. It was not the study of the various social relationships, as such, which supports this conclusion, but the terminology employed by the lecturer. The word “capitalist” was utilized à la Marx, meaning an individual who possesses, accumulates, and invests capital in an economic system. “Capitalist” in this sense is the upper tier of a Marxist economic class structure, which means that men like Warren Buffet and George Soros would be considered “capitalists” even though they support noticeably anti-capitalist political policies. These mistakes, however obnoxious and common, were nothing compared to ideas proffered by the next speaker.

Introduced as a “labor organizing comrade” (yes, those words were actually uttered at a conference discussing “capitalism”), Prof. Sarah Haley of UCLA, where she teaches women’s studies, presented her lecture “On Gender, Punishment & Capitalism.” From the beginning, she confessed that she did not view herself as a historian of either capitalism or economics (an honest admission, considering the following points). Almost immediately, Prof. Haley argued in favor of understanding the “role of force and punishment in the history of capitalism.” No, she was not speaking of the role of force and punishment as antagonistic toward capitalism any more than Prof. Dunlavy was when addressing the role of the government. It is her view that capitalism is and requires force.

Rather than simply failing to distinguish between retaliatory and initiated force, Prof. Haley went so far as to assert that the history of “capitalism” in the United States is nothing but a legacy of initiated force against women and minorities, ignoring the fact that capitalist ideals led to the abolition of slavery and the expansion of women’s rights. The values of domesticity and chastity so common in early America – both results of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, not the Enlightenment – were blamed by Prof. Haley as being necessary components of a “capitalist” system which “requires” the separation of gender roles in the labor force and the home, which further “requires” the suppression of homosexuality to maintain these gender separations. Moreover, vagrancy laws were treated as hallmarks of “capitalism”, forcing usually non-white individuals into jobs as domestic servants under the control of white heads of household.

The growth of the prison system in the United States, under Prof. Haley’s theories, is the appropriate metaphor for the “capitalist” system. Just like prisoners whose debt to society is paid in time rather than progress toward reform, wage laborers are paid, not by their output, but by the time they spend working. Similarly, home and early Nineteenth Century ideals of domesticity and republican motherhood served as “capitalist” prisons for women, and the perpetuation of a racial-imbalance in our prison system is a symptom of white, “capitalist” aggression against minorities. The “impact of capitalism and its excess on working classes” during the “extremes of protecting private property and its ideal objectivity” is supposedly the most important narrative of “capitalism” in the United States; the massive growth in the prison system in the United States is merely treated as the result of “capitalism”.

As sickeningly inaccurate as all of that is, Prof. Haley’s final point was perhaps the most interesting. Early on, she asserted that “punishment histories help excavate capitalism’s hidden contradictions,” meaning the nominal calls for a small state while simultaneously supporting more government expansion. Perhaps she was equating the concept of “capitalism” with the policies of the Republican Party over the last several decades, but whatever the case, she illustrated this with an example of excessive police force against a woman being removed from a public housing project for over one month of bad rent. The woman came at the cops with a knife, thus causing them to shoot her in the hand and then the chest, killing her. The woman was mentally unstable and supposedly thought she saw Ronald Reagan coming through her window. When Prof. Haley’s students merely shrug and say that the police should have been more careful with an insane woman, she asks the question, “But was the woman really crazy?” According to Prof. Haley, the woman really did see Ronald Reagan coming into her house – in the form of the police. The forcible removal of this woman from a public housing project for which she was not paying and her subsequent death represent, according to Prof. Haley, the injustice and initiated force of neo-liberal (i.e. small government) policies supported by Reagan and others. Prof. Haley’s conception of an ideal alternative to capitalism came up in later discussions: a non-capitalist state, a thinly veiled endorsement of socialist and likely communist governmental policies.

What makes these attacks on capitalism so poisonous to university students – not to mention the general public – is not that the history itself is fabricated. Prof. Haley’s final point that the woman in the public housing project was the victim of initiated force rather than the initiator notwithstanding (not to diminish the possibility of excessive retaliatory force on the part of the police), most of the above complaints listed primarily by the second professor are true throughout the history of the United States: confining concepts of domesticity and chastity in the early Nineteenth Century did restrict women’s rights, homosexuals were harshly persecuted throughout the same time period, minorities were legally kept in a lower class status even following the abolition of slavery, and our prison system in the United States does enforce grossly unjust laws (55% of federal prisoners, for example, are held on drug offenses). Instead, the error exists in ascribing these problems to capitalism, a system which cannot be blamed for any of these problems as the United States has never had capitalism nor do capitalist ideals lead to or perpetuate these problems in the first place.

The real, unstated goal of this conference was to turn capitalism into what Ayn Rand calls an “anti-concept”. She defines an anti-concept as “an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.”1 This means that when a speaker uses the an anti-concept in front of an audience, every member of the audience would have only a vague idea of what is being discussed, allowing the speaker to exploit that vagueness for his own purposes, here being the vilification of “capitalism”. Whereas the precise definition of capitalism – the separation of economy and state and the removal of initiated force from human relationships – would have been unhelpful to the silent goals of the neo-Marxists at this conference, they intend to destroy that conception of capitalism and replace it with an ambiguous, meaningless word.

Prof. Dunlavy alone offered several different notions of capitalism, ranging from merchant capitalism to “???” capitalism, and Prof. Haley amalgamated nearly every distinct political and economic period in the United States – from the era of slavery to our modern mixed economic, welfare system – under the term “capitalism”. My own history professor defines capitalism as simply “formally free labor”, a more generous definition than Prof. Haley but still anti-conceptual by its nature. Why do they use their terms so vaguely? The answer should be clear – they want a “non-capitalist state”. What is a “non-capitalist state”? It is the opposite of a “capitalist” state. What is a “capitalist” state? As Prof. Haley incorrectly argues, it is the state which America has now and has had since at least the early Nineteenth Century. With those parameters, is it any wonder that one would conclude that capitalism is evil and ought to be replaced with a different, better system? In fact, many have been taken in by such anti-conceptual doublespeak, as noted by the numerous “End Capitalism” signs at the now mostly disbanded rallies of the Occupy Movement, but the truth is that the United States does not have capitalism, nor has it ever had capitalism. Capitalist ideals have only been practiced with varying degrees of consistency throughout the history of the United States, but admitting such would not aid those who wish to erect a non-capitalist state. Why? Because then the neo-Marxists would be compelled to admit that the United States has always been a “non-capitalist state”, requiring that they openly defend socialism – their ultimate goal, even today – as a unique type of non-capitalism. Even they know, however, the absolute impossibility of doing so, thus requiring them to employ anti-concepts to achieve their ends.

Prof. George Selgin, University of Georgia

Fortunately, the epistemic games being played by most professors at this conference did not go unnoticed by the few voices of reason in the audience. Besides myself and a fellow classmate who pointed out how vague their definitions of capitalism and the role of state were, one Prof. George Selgin of the University of Georgia criticized his colleagues for abusing the word “capitalism” throughout their lectures. In response to Prof. Haley’s “Ronald Reagan” bit at the conclusion of her lecture, Prof. Selgin retorted that capitalism was being defined so broadly that there did not even have to be private enterprise and his colleagues would have still considered it “capitalism”, allowing them to apply the term to almost any social situation. Whether or not he knows it, that is precisely the point – they want to apply it to almost any situation so that they may criticize it as unfairly as they please. Prof. Selgin was actually the one who elicited from Prof. Haley her desire for a non-capitalist state: he offered a hypothetical in which the same shooting occurred due to the same woman attacking the police who were there to remove her for the same unpaid rent, but this time in the absence of Reagan’s cuts in welfare statism (much to the chagrin of one of his neo-Marxist colleagues who accused him of ignoring the context of the situation). He asked if this could be blamed on capitalism, to which Prof. Haley responded, “Well I don’t think, in a non-capitalist state, the shooting would have occurred,” assumingly because there would be no property rights to protect and no reason to remove someone from property which they did not own or did not fulfill the requisite contractual obligations to retain. In any case, Prof. Selgin’s point was correct – so much ill was being blamed on capitalism which could not otherwise be attributed to it in the presence of clearer, more precise definitions. To ensure that such definitions exist and are vigilantly protected in the still hostile intellectual environment of the American university, proponents of capitalism must redouble their efforts to reform the existing educational system – we have reason on our side, and our ideas have a right to be taught.

One final point worth noting is the peculiarity in Prof. Selgin’s field in an audience of largely history professors: he is an economist. While the university system itself has not yet cycled out its old Marxist influences, Marxism has become so disreputable in several fields that it largely no longer exists within them. This is not to say that no Marxists teach economics, but that Marxism has become so discredited within the economic field that it is an extremely rare occurrence. This is the reason “neo-Marxism” exists: to ignore Marxist economics and Marxist political theory, i.e. communism, and instead defend Marxist social theories, the premises of which lead to the conclusions of the other two implicitly. This way, the neo-Marxist “saves face” in the academic community by not defending communism forthrightly, but he still, with infinite cowardice, fills the minds of his students with illogical and anti-conceptual doctrines. It was argued by Prof. Morgan Marietta, a conservative (another anti-concept, though that is another matter) professor of mine who teaches political science and political psychology at the University of Georgia, that Marxism collapsed in the university system with the Soviet Union. In his field as in Prof. Selgin’s, this is largely true – I have yet to have a political science professor who defends Marxist politics. Even so, Marxism is alive and well in the modern university. It never left – it merely changed departments.

Rand, Ayn. “Credibility and Polarization.” The Ayn Rand Letter.

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8 thoughts on “Marxism in Modern Academia

  1. First, great post! Marxists may be dying out, both figuratively and literally, but they and their fellow travelers are still present in academia, and still doing damage to young minds. There is one point of friendly contention I would like to address, that is the issue of whether are there different kinds of capitalism. There certainly were economic systems/approaches that can be distinguished from one another, should they fall under the heading “capitalism.” But should there only be one precise meaning of capitalism? We’re in a semantic debate now. I would really like to say that I think we should try to limit the meaning of “capitalism” to one that consists of free markets, private property etc; sadly, I think popular usage of the term, along with the numerous manifestations of what people have called “capitalism,” makes this a somewhat futile cause. Far too many people accept that capitalism can refer to more than one economic system for this approach to work. We would go down the road of debating with people what “true capitalism is,” and in doing so, we will miss the real debate, and that is to show why what you and I support is the most superior system.
    As a quick note, this is why I am skeptical about Rand’s concept of an anti-concept: while it is certainly the case that people have manipulated language to conflate one thing with another, and thus manipulate people’s attitudes, I think we have to be careful because there are things which lend themselves to the “type-subtype” taxonomical structure. Whether we’re talking about binomial nomenclature or the different branches of an ideology, many things are best understood as “broad type-more specific subtype.” Everything does not have to be—and indeed, may not reasonably be—seen as an extremely specific, self-containing concept.
    Back to my main point…To say “as a capitalist, I reject the idea that there are different kinds of capitalism” begs the question of what capitalism is; an advocate of a “false capitalist” approach could say the same thing, and we’d have gotten nowhere. At this point, we need to argue why our particular understanding of capitalism is best, and I think both conceptually and strategically it is wise to admit there are several types of “capitalism.”
    The alternative approach then, is to use a taxonomic approach: group all of the possible “capitalisms” and try to “distill” them down to their most basic shared elements. Once we know these, we have a choice: we can either come up with a different, unique named for every single type of capitalism, saving “capitalism” for the system consisting of private property rights and ‘truly’ free markets, or we can retain each system’s association with capitalism by adding modifiers (state capitalism, free market capitalism, crony capitalism). Personally I think the best way is to do both, since there are terms referring to specific “types” of capitalism—or how capitalism has manifested itself. “Corporatism,” for example, which has many different subtypes itself, when used in its economic context, refers to a politico-economic system in which “groups” are represented in the economy via the government; that is, aspects of the economy are subject to state regulation, with members of various concerned groups (labor, management, investors, consumer groups, etc) having a role in designing the regulations.
    Our situation is that many people support capitalism, yet there are different understandings of what capitalism is, and the current mainstream—or one, anyway—understanding is not quite what you and I want. Whatever we actually call what we want, the real fight is not in figuring out a name, but in persuading people to support the type of system we support; that said, there is no way around dealing with the terminology issue. So, I suggest a compromise: in the broadest of terms, let’s speak of capitalism as if it were the system you and I believe in, but refrain from saying (the relevant) alternative understandings are not “really”/true capitalism. If there are useful terms for what we don’t want (such as “corporatism” or “dirigisme”) we should use them to educate people as to the differences; likewise, if there are phrases that describe what we do want (free market, free market capitalism), we should use those to distinguish them. Personally, I’ve found myself using both approaches, but more and more I try to say “free markets” or “free market capitalism”; ideally, ill be able to actually describe what I desire, and not simply leave it at a label.
    Perhaps, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter from a proselytizing perspective, which approach we take. I hope that’s the case, but it does make more sense to me to pursue the taxonomy approach. It seems that the “one true meaning” approach might actually lend itself to the anti-concept issues you brought up: if everyone insists there is one true meaning of capitalism, yet they offer different meanings, then the average person will be left with a confusing mix of often contradictory, if not always opposing views; if we insist that there can only be one meaning of capitalism, then whatever happens to be in vague will

    All that said, the professors you mentioned showed an amazing amount of intellectual laziness. Defining one’s terms is of the utmost importance—especially when there are different conceptions of said term. Dr. Haley in particular seemed not only intellectually lazy but intellectually dishonest—she was clearly unabashedly abusing the language to, as you point out, criticize anything and everything as resulting from ‘capitalism’. I don’t know how any serious thinker—nay, any reasonable person—could have accepted her belief that (such a ) shooting would not have occurred in a non-capitalist society. Thank God for people like Dr. Selgin!

    As for the presence of Marxism and Marxists in academia, that’s an interesting suggestion that Marxists in academia—the few who are left—focus on the social critique of capitalism, and in doing so are able to attack capitalism without relying on the all-too-debunked political and economic arguments. Thus the highest concentration of Marxists is in disciplines not reliant/focused on those subjects. I actually think the social critique is the most interesting because it’s the most plausible, though I think many if not most of their arguments (especially if they are of the caliber of Dr. Haley’s) are easily defeated.
    I don’t remember the original source of this argument, but there is a suggestion that there are so many Marxist/socialist/communists in academia has something to do with the fact that academics know that their skills wouldn’t be rewarded well in the market, and so they take the very market system as being personally hostile; furthermore, they see themselves as pursuing what really matters (philosophy, culture, science, teaching young people, etc), yet they are paid a pittance compared to people who do less “valuable/important work,” thus they become jealous and bitter…and thus the common hostility to capitalism/free markets/competition found amongst academics. I don’t know how plausible this argument is: for one thing, it might be the case that people who are anti-capitalism are drawn towards academia for these reasons (and that academia, though competitive, still allows room for anti-capitalist types…yet if current trends continue, there will be less room b/c fewer people take it seriously), but I doubt whether academia makes academics anti-capitalist…if anything, the way the higher ed establishment works, more competition and innovation is probably seen as desirable by many an academic. Second, while there may not be a demand for their interests or knowledge in the market, there is always a great demand for the skills of careful research abilities, writing abilities, and teaching. Of course, people want to do what they are interested in, not necessarily what they are skilled at…so I don’t know if many academics would even want to leave academia. This doesn’t address the pay issue within academia, though…and all I’ll say on that point is a) research and teaching are not skills highly amenable to performance-based compensation, at least not in the humanities, and b) the current higher ed system is very affected by various internal and external govt policies, economics, and cultural norms, and there is also a higher-ed bubble, so any discussion about how “the market” rewards professors needs to take all of those things into account…

  2. I personally think volutnaryism is going to be the way forward. Let the marxists make their communes, and the capitalists buy their land. There is no reason to fight though, as long as no one is being coerced.

    1. I agree…but fight we must to get to that point. As long as there are people who want to impose a way of life on a society and forbid people from opting out, we have to oppose them, otherwise we’ll probably just see a lot more ruby ridge/waco situations. But you hint at a really good point, which is in a “meta-voluntaryist/capitalist” society, all sorts of societies would be allowed, including socialist-and communist-style ones; yet in a meta-basically anything else, this will never happen

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