When I was a kid my father and his friends used to get together to play cards around our kitchen table. They'd sit up all night talking about politics, the union and its latest confrontation with management, and the general "rotten" state of the world. There were many different political perspectives at that table: conservatives, liberals (my father prominent among them), and some socialists even. But as the evening wore on, as they talked more, and played more hands, and the pot was redistributed several times around the circle, a curious event took place. It became harder and harder to remember who had started out the night as what, politically, or to figure out where they would all end up, except for several central beliefs that they all shared.
One thing they all had in common was their belief in the freedom to organize, to collectively bargain, and to strike. In other words, they believed in unionism. Many of them had been union men since high school, when their fathers had gotten them jobs in the local shop. Others joined later, but they were no less believers--as a matter of fact, I noticed that they were usually the firmest, and the most radical, in their beliefs.
They also shared a belief in the work ethic. They were all hard working, diligent people. They didn't so much "take pride in their work"--a phrase that seems to draw up an image of someone standing back and admiring their own accomplishments egoistically--as they looked upon work as the single most important engagement with the world that they or anyone else could conceive of. And they tended to look upon those who made their living outside hard manual labor as somewhat suspicious, akin to management, or at the very least "on the make" in some way. I can honestly say that in this sense the people I grew up around scared me somewhat. They were very honest and very straightforward, but they were also very hard, tough people. They didn't give an inch, and if you pressed them on larger matters, they usually didn't give a damn.
I was more philosophically oriented than most of these people--although I got along well with several of my father's friends who were more radical--and by the time I went off to college, I'd had enough of them and their view of the world. The limitations had become more apparent: they could be bigots, racially and in other ways, and they had a provincial outlook on life that I found stifling in general. Their morality centered around family, but when it came to anything beyond that immediate circle, and the community in which it was embedded, they viewed the world with cynicism. Power was power, they said, and it was going to do what it was going to do. To them as well as for them.
One way of looking at their overt, pessimistic determinism was that they had no illusions about the world. They had been on the barricades (literally) and they knew what power was capable of in a confrontation: blackmail, thuggery, reduction, and even self-destruction if it meant taking the "troublemakers" down with it. Late in my teen years there was a second strike at my father's plant, and this time it was uglier, longer, and in the end, it involved deeper concessions from the workers. A two tier wage system was instituted in all the major job classifications, including machining, and this meant that the living wages (enough to afford a house, a car, maybe a college education for some of their kids) were history. The tradition of getting your children a job at the plant was destroyed, too. Limitations, always in place, were suddenly enforced. The real face of power began to show itself, and it was worse even than what my father and his card-playing buddies had thought.
This was the early '70s, and while the protest movement against the Vietnam War was reaching popular proportions, the big confrontations between labor and management were just starting to heat up. The economy was heading into a tight squeeze, and labor would be the one to pay for it. Throughout the decade and well into the 80s, strike after massive strike emerged throughout the manufacturing sector, and spread far beyond. Offshoring and onshoring (hiring cheap immigrant labor to do work "here" rather than displacing it "over there") became major corporate strategies, both as a way to deal with increasing cost and as a sign of the failure of companies to deal with financialization and other symptoms of late capitalist decline. The resulting wars between labor and management were also facilitated by efforts from above, schemes which were designed by government planners and "corporate governance" reformists supposedly to help workers, with lesser and greater degrees of sincerity, and which ended up trying to contain the contradictions raging in the system as a whole. This was about as effective as trying to catch a thunderstorm in a cup.
So when I went off to college, I had the distinct impression that the world I was leaving behind, my father's and mother's world, the world occupied by all those tough, difficult, but fair people I had known growing up, was coming to a crashing end. This may sound awful now, from a distance, but at the time I felt a certain satisfaction in my pursuing a college degree rather than going my father's route. He'd offered to get me a job as a machinist when I was seventeen, right before the strike hit at his plant, but I'd turned him down. As I arrived on campus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I felt no regrets about leaving "that world" behind. I was all about making a fresh start for myself.
Of course, Madison was probably not the best place to be in the fall of 1972 for someone who wanted to leave conflict behind. Two years prior, in August, 1970, a building on campus, Sterling Hall, had been bombed in protest over its housing a research center that contributed to weapons work for the Pentagon, a program known as the Army Mathematics Research Center. One person was killed, and several others wounded--none of them were associated with the AMRC. The way I remember it, only one of the four bombers was actually enrolled as a university student at the time of the bombing, although one other worked at the school paper, and one had dropped out.
Nevertheless, many students identified with the bombers far more than the victims, and nobody was shy about voicing their opinions on campus. I clearly remember one of my first-year lecturers going into a tirade when a student in the audience accused him of "conspiring with the real enemy, the military-industrial complex." The comment that had elicited the loud accusation from the student was the lecturer's offhand remark about the "terrible attacks that took place here." The lecturer responded to the characterization of his own remarks by telling the student that he was "fucking insane." This was a staid, elderly academic, who taught literature and who had probably never used such language in public before. Anyway, that was the atmosphere of the time.
But this was not my first introduction to conflict. My first intimation of it was quite "pure," so to speak, and not based on classroom debates, however serious the subject matter. Remember I wrote earlier about how my father took me out to a picket line during a bitter strike at a local slaugherhouse in my hometown. Later, as the strike dragged on, the workers gave in on a series of concessions to management, only to find that this indicated to the company that they could get a lot more. Not satisfied with instituting a two-tier wage system, they cut benefits, healthcare, pensions, and everything else. By the end, the workers, still locked out and forced to accept, along with all the other denigrating measures introduced by the company, the permanent employment of dozens of the scabs that had been hired during the strike, were reduced to almost nothing. Meanwhile, all the government agencies that are supposed to look out for workers and their interests--the NLRB, and local officials--stood by and watched. These were my first lessons in conflict: First, if you give in, things only get much worse. Second, don't expect official power to help you because their real job is to protect the rich.
Considering my background, it would be reasonable for one to assume that my radicalization, begun in my youth, continued at university, where I would feel at home in the middle of another type of struggle against power. That was not the case. Partly because I imagined college as a separate sphere from where I grew up, and partly because I felt no particular investment in the struggle being waged by students against the administration, my first two years at Madison found me withdrawing into myself. I kept my head down and got my work done. I didn't join any organizations or participate in any rallies, which were still going on--in fact, they multiplied to include protests for womens rights, free speech, gay rights (the state would later be the first to pass a non-discrimination law in employment on the basis of sexual orientation, in 1982), and a proliferation of other causes. And I decided to study English literature (after trying out anthropology and classical studies, and making a brief stop in the psychology department). Literature was as yet, I thought, a relatively calm island in a churning intellectual sea.
At the same time that this was all happening, however, something interesting was beginning to occur in the humanities. Not only were certain of these movements, these causes, that had exploded on campuses all over, beginning to make inroads on more traditional areas of study--sociology, history, the arts, and yes, literature--while at the same time establishing new ones--film studies, interdisciplinary studies of all species and kinds engaged in new critical perspectives, post-structuralism, post-modernism, meta-archaeology etc.--but there was also beginning to be a movement, more generally, and across these disciplines, causes, and critical orientations, toward a new kind of learning institution. Or at least toward new structures being embedded within the old ones (ultimately intended to inform, if not displace, them). What this movement entailed was not just a challenging of certain structures--governmental, administrative, pedagogical--or the confronting of these same agencies of power on the basis of particular issues: anti-war, pro-civil rights, pro-free speech etc. It was a more fundamental critique that this new movement, or bricolage of interests, was aiming at. Their target was the academy itself.
By this I mean that people were becoming concerned, at a very basic level, with what kind of subjectivity the university produced. After all it's the function of institutions of higher education to produce the professionals and specialists for a certain form of society: a modern, mediatized, technocratic, capitalist society. But the understanding of this process usually stops with the functionalist point of view. Engineers are produced by departments of engineering, and their various adjacent professional and accrediting organizations, so that they can build bridges, and design cities, improve other infrastructure, and create new cars and electronics. Mathematicians, while seeming to work in a more "abstract" field, are produced by their academic and professional organs so they can assist in all types of procedures: timing traffic, writing computer code, experimenting in "pure" mathematics, and even assisting engineers in their work (thankfully, since most engineers I've met were surprisingly poor mathematicians when you came right down to it). The problem with the functionalist point of view of this process, of this "disciplining of subjectivity," is that it doesn't describe the full process. Also, as my fellow students and I saw it--from the point of view of the contentious, raucous, and often violent early 1970s--functionalism could not explain the culpability of the educational process in power and its most deadly activities.
This last claim may seem like a straightforward statement of agreement with those students I met who were so convinced of the rightness of their various causes, including those who supported the bombers, that they wouldn't stand for any deviation. But it actually goes much further. Rather than thinking of the project of confronting the academy only on the basis of the types of people, and the types of knowledge, produced, the focus should also be on confronting the split created between the world of the academy and the "regular" world, that is, the world of labor. Along with the activities aimed at criticising the involvement of the university in certain forms of research, and the expansion and challenging of the traditional disciplines, their subject matter and methods, even their organization into separate, specialized spheres of knowledge, there was also a growing emphasis on academic employees as workers--engaged in all the struggles of workers everywhere, for better wages and benefits, better working conditions, and more autonomy. Even students started regarding themselves as workers engaged in a very particular form of labor: self-construction.
At the time, these efforts were just gaining steam. The students were doing most of the work. The myth of radicalized professors in the '60s which has grown up since really is just that, a myth. Most faculty stayed safely ensconced in the establishment without issuing so much as a peep of protest throughout the turmoil. Graduate students--always more radical than their Ph.D colleagues, who have already taken up a position in the institution--were the most outspoken on issues of curriculum and administration. Despite the violence that preceded my arrival, and the continuing protests, the campus, when I got there in '72, was beginning to look and feel like a university again, not a war zone. On my first day, I saw kids jogging to class in the rain holding runny newspapers over their heads, professors chatting in the entryway, and there were flies buzzing around in the hall at my first lecture...
As for the two strong impulses present on campus when I arrived, the activist and the theoretical, they weren't entirely separate entities. What the experience of dealing with an administration that initially had promised to be "impartial," and said that they, too, only wanted "peace," had taught a number of the protestors, was that what they were confronting was power itself. Right there on campus. And not just in the person of the police, or other local officials. As all the familiar rhetoric about academic freedom evaporated, and impartiality turned out to be careerist self-interest, and peace revealed itself as a code word for obedience, the legitimacy of the institution came more and more into open question.
The same process of necessary disillusionment developed in the theoretical set, too, who saw their numbers added to by the survivors of the previous few years of chaos on the mall. As these people started together to interrogate the basis of what they were being taught, in the face of directly contradictory realities, and were met with resistance from faculty who had built careers on certain unexamined assumptions, it was the most theoretically oriented critics who found themselves with little or no support. Howard Zinn used to point out that he was the only Ph.D historian in the entire U.S. that came out publicly against the policy in Vietnam. This wasn't an egoistic statement. It was meant to remind people of how few institutional intellectuals joined in the resistance to a brutal, imperialistic, racist war, and a sociopathic administration led by a megalomaniacal drunk. Huh. Sounds familiar...
Unfortunately, the partnership between theory and practice forged back then was incomplete. The split between the theoretical and the activist set remains sharp in certain ways to this day, especially on the radical left. When Naomi Klein, an effective activist intellectual, says that we should be suspicious of systems, she gets a round of applause from the "pure" activist set, the anti-globalists, autonomists, localists etc. But if what we want is to dismantle global capital, what are we proposing to put in its place? One of the best, and quite frankly one of the only things the system has going for it today is the lack of any proposal for a hegemonic alternative on the activist left.
Instead we're treated to endless suggestions for "progressive" regulatory reforms. The absurdity of the idea that a system such as the one we live under today is capable of reforming, let alone policing, itself, in any way, is further compounded by an imagined history of such activity. The system was never controlled--it has always been an unconscious social-organic based on exploitation, and it has always sought to control labor, not itself, for the interests of capital. The mistake is in thinking of government as anything other than an arm of capital, or in proposing that it can be wrenched free or "repurposed" for anything other than serving profit. I have always been at odds with those on the left who believe in this fantasy past--and who peddle it as a model for a fantasy future. I know better, and I have, since I was about nine years old and visited a picket line at a slaughterhouse. There never was any "truce" between labor and capital, and there never will be, just as government always will be on the side of profit.
As for the blindnesses of the theoretical side, they're too much discussed in our time. We live in an age, and a country, consumed by anti-intellectualism. It's become depressingly commonplace, even among intellectuals. What is needed, if anything, is a full-scale revival in real intellectual work, both to counter the seemingly endless production of state intellectual crap that spews from the media, and to save the academy which has gone a long way toward being fully capitalized in the last 30 years. Despite the resistance that was building up when I was there, and that resulted in a lot of excellent and important work and a number of important institutional changes, the window that was opened up by the interrogation of the academy was brief. At the same time that many of us were trying to alter the institution's functions and structures, administrators scared by the protests, and big corporations set on making a buck, were learning how to use the university to produce more extreme versions of what I call "educated stupidity." Chief and most extreme among these is the adherence to free market fundamentalism that now marks most areas in economics, business, and general research. The humanities, too, are steadily being annexed.
Even some of the best work produced in the most resistant areas of interdisciplinary study, which have as their roots either struggles for free speech and minority rights or revolutions in methodology (or both), have been absorbed wholesale, and redeployed for profit. The specular theories about objectification and commodification of women are the best known examples. If Zinn were still around, he might remind us how movements against any system of power tend to produce their own counter-movements within the system. And this doesn't signal that change for the better is on the way. As one very astute theorist, Diana Fuss, has pointed out, the process of being absorbed is not pleasant, and it definitely is not productive of progressive change. Absorption, she says, is not a matter of the system taking something foreign or challenging into itself and then being altered in its own structures. Rather, Fuss suggests, think of it as being like a large snake swallowing a rabbit whole. You can still see the outlines of the rabbit inside the snake for a time. But eventually, and pretty rapidly, the rabbit will be digested. And the snake will no more be a rabbit than it was before its meal.
Perhaps the most gruesome and large-scale absorption in our own time has been that of the NGOs. Theories about how non-governmental organizations were going to change global capital--tame it, make it more civilized and more responsive to social needs--proliferated in the '80s and '90s. They all had as a common theme the idea that there was supposed to be a mutational effect, whereby the "good work" of the NGOs, structured and positioned as a mirror or parallel system to the for-profit system, would cause the latter to begin to head in a better direction. I used many of these ideas in my work on conflict in corporations to try and produce a similar transformation. Instead NGOs were co-opted by capital, and now often assist in its most ruthless operations: disaster capitalism, debt restructuring, and the most sinister term created to date, "repopulation." Haiti is a current example of their duplicity, but similar situations could be found recently in Nigeria, much of central Africa, the Sudan, New Orleans after Katrina, and even in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But now we've gone far beyond the matter of education proper. What we're talking about is politics...
Next: Union Life, part 4: Politics