Creating an Educational Alternative Front to the Neoliberal Academy

Photo by Rocky Sun | CC BY 2.0

One of the types of wars in which you find yourself is the war that you don’t know you’re in, but is nonetheless in full swing.  When I was in a small airborne reconnaissance unit in the US Army we used the expression, “Move out and draw fire.” The idea here is that if you don’t know where (or who) your enemy is, you must draw them out into the open because then you’ll gain knowledge of who your enemy is. If you don’t know your enemy your ability to fight or resist is neutralized. Worse, if the enemy appears to be on your side by providing security against ever looming ominous threats (“terrorism,” “the immigrant,” “poverty,” economic collapse, apocalyptic scenarios and so on) and on the bases of which such constructed threats actively blackmail the populous into blind obedience and fear less the world collapse before you, then you’re in a war without knowing it.

This war, and its defused apparatuses, is both psychological and material: it is strategically designed and executed by how information is gathered, deployed and metabolized.  We don’t need the likes of McLuhan, Chomsky or a Naomi Klein to bring this war’s logic out of darkness and into light:  The information society is given is overwhelmingly generated by a mere handful of elite wealthy men who have a vested interest in maintaining monopoly control over the financial-cum-information industry.

But don’t we all know this? And yet, knowing that Wall Street and the elite controllers of power are deploying this psychological warfare onto us citizens isn’t enough; indeed we remain vulnerable to their ability to “shock and awe” us all the way to the demoralizing point that we can’t even imagine an alternative. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s daunting slogan, “There is no alternative.”

The 18th century Prussian general and war theorist, Carl von Clausewitz argued that to win a war you must neutralize your enemy’s ability to resist. Mark Fisher summarized the “thought-conditions” of this war when he said, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Once you’re unable to imagine or even think that things can change, change becomes impossible.

In short, knowing the enemy of democracy (the 0.001%) and even their strategic and tactical aims isn’t enough. Knowledge, in this case, has been sundered from any coherent or even possible counter-resistance, and so, it turns out that it’s not quite a war, for a war by definition requires at least two parties fighting over something.  Without fighting for an alternative we are all at the caprice and whim of those who control the means of production and thus the reproduction of vastly unequal power.

How would such a resistance look? By what means and resources would a resisting alternative compose itself?

It helps to note that in the early days of the United States, many raised concerns about the vulnerability that democracy and citizens faced in the wake of the rise of banks and corporate power. Thomas Jefferson named the inner-logic of profit-driven corporations as that “selfish spirit of commerce (that) knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.” (Doesn’t that sound familiar in America after Trump took office?) Jefferson further proposed a counter-resistance: “I hope we shall crush… in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” But Jefferson, for all his own contradictions, didn’t just publish articles and books about this looming threat to democracy; he implemented a concrete means of institutionalized resistance, when in 1819, he founded, The University of Virginia.

People tend to forget that the modern university, which emerged around the same time as industrialized capitalism, the late 18th and early 19th century, was purposed to discipline and educate the citizenry, which was essential for the very survival of democracy. A cursory look at the history of civilization reveals how power is inherently intertwined with the control over language, knowledge and education. Think of medieval Western Europe when the Roman Catholic Church controlled the principle language (Latin) and illiteracy was unthinkably high. These were ideal conditions for the Roman Church to flourish without a rivalry.

Eventually courageous philosophers, drawing on different methods of reason and empirical knowledge, began constructing a counter-world from the Roman stronghold, which subsequently blossomed into political revolutions (England, France, United States) the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Many of these thinkers were exiled or worse for challenging the status quo, but over time, the virtue of thinking within a protected space was essential because it prevented the monopolization of one entity or institution from undermining other institutions and even democracy. Protected space, or tenure, is crucial for research, unsavory findings, or new ideas to be published for the public’s gain. It’s a way that knowledge holds in check a corporation, a judge, a politician, or even an entire anti-democratic ethos (i.e., neoliberalism) from claiming there is no alternative to their power and control.

It was the academy, and education as such, that served to hold in check social, economic or political institutions from going off the democratic rails. Knowledge (its production and apparatus) served the public good as a whole. But what we have witnessed over the past four decades was an all out assault on knowledge and it’s distribution, (i.e., the academy and public education), which was the very means by which powerful or corrupt institutions are held accountable and in-check. An all out war of annihilating any resistance to an unbridled, unregulated economic ideological outlook was launched.

Neoliberalism and Education

The examples are plural but the narrative arch is singular: It first began by depleting public taxes that helped support universities. This forced public universities into the cutthroat environment of “free-market” enterprise in which they compete for students. The student is now strapped with new financial burdens, and forced into economic precarity by giving their future earnings and wages to banks that provide them with loans. The loans are the gateway into the academy, a precondition to learning as such.  There are few exceptions, especially if you’re from the upper-middle or elite class.

This in turn, fundamentally and irreversibly changed the entire dynamic of learning: Instead of the classroom being a safe place to carefully reflect on and evaluate society’s values, question the status quo, engage histories of the rise and fall of empires, liberate one’s ability to think, and then to be able to think widely, and to even ask questions of human existence, classrooms were were transformed into consumer incubation chambers designed to equip students with the best chances of getting employed in an increasingly shrinking job market. It also created a culture of “the party” that became the petri dish for rape culture on campus.

Additionally, the commercialization of sports was needed to raise funds for university budgets and branding (recruiting) purposes and, just like that, the public university was turned into a profit driven corporation that masks for a hedge fund, sports enterprise, a Ponzi scheme, and/or a real estate business. One is shocked by how, according to Henry Blodget, Harvard University’s top 5 hedge-fund managers make more than 450 of its professors combined. The academy in the US has uniformly surrendered its most sacred mission and raison d’être to not just provide education to citizens, but to do so in a manner that keeps the act of reasoning and critical thinking protected from the pressures that threaten our democracy and our emancipatory capacity.

This neoliberal economic ideology designed to undermine another public asset called “education” finally came to my attention back in 2009 when many of my students who had graduated with a BA or a masters degree came to my office and made their personal plight a matter of public concern. They shared how far into debt they had to go just to be able to experience how learning and the education process was there to free their minds and bodies (you know, the liberal arts) from forces looking to exploit them and compromise our sacred democracy. It was a contradiction. How could I continue teaching about liberation, emancipation, and the joy of living a life worth living if I, by definition, required them to assign their future labor wages over to banks. I couldn’t.

I began thinking about how education might form an alternative? Was it still possible to create a space outside the reach and ravages of neoliberalism? This was my burning question that led me and other leading public and academic intellectuals to form a new school guided by a new educational ethos in 2013, The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS). We were one of the first, if not the first not-for-profit school to start teaching online whereby leading theorists would share their knowledge and research accessible to anyone in the world with Internet access. Those who couldn’t afford our already unsustainably low tuition costs could attend free or at a discount. Such thinkers as Alain Badiou, Jack Halberstam, Antonio Negri, Catherine Malabou, Adrian Parr, Lewis Gordon, Corey Walker, Tod Sloan, Micah White, Najla Said, Giovanni Tusa, Julie Reshe, Daniel Tutt, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Simon Critchley, Jean-Luc Nancy, Luce Irigaray, Carl Raschke, Azfar Hussain, Joshua Clover, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Farhang Erfani, Brad Evans, Clayton Crockett, Oliver Stone, Richard Wolff, Henry Giroux, Chris Hedges, Catherine Keller, are but a few who have taught at GCAS thus far. Without institutional support, or the support of those who were looking to turn profits, we became one of those rare spaces in which your thoughts weren’t policed by the influence of special interests groups, or the George Soroses of the world, or an alumni who might threaten to hold back on his annual donation. Soon, this free learning online space started organizing, forming networks, and eventually materialized into seminars, workshops, conferences, series, and other events held at such places as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Athens, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Maribor, Havana, and Berlin.

Topics that could never be discussed in the established, colonized “academy” were unfolding and disparate, fragmented pieces of knowledge began blossoming and blending with other subjects and events that together developed a more complete picture of our world informed through ideas, figures, and events. It wasn’t just about knowledge, it was the culture in which knowledge is shared that transforms knowledge from a tool used to get a job into a value of knowledge for its own sake.

For example, we could talk about the unrest in Ferguson without feeling threatened that if you pissed off a student in your “colonized” classroom they would tell the Dean that they didn’t pay for this kind of education (a trend that is on the rise and why not, especially if the student is a customer, and the customer is “always right”?).

Again, it’s not just about knowing what’s wrong in our world, the injustices, the inequalities, the misogyny, the racism, global warming, colonialism etc., or even the root causes and consequences of these problems. That is not enough. We have a good idea about what’s wrong, the question is: What is to be Done? The question is how to articulate and compose a coherent resistance to the war scenario into which we have found ourselves.

We believe, over the past four years, we have found a space not only of resistance, but also a place in which we are creating a protected “sanctuary” in which a different world is already being composed. This may sound utopian to those of you who haven’t experienced our work together as a community, but it feels close to it. For example, Dr. Sviatlana Viarbitskaya (PhD in physics, Uni. of Stockholm) is one of our researchers and after our summer institute she wrote, “I’ve been breathing for the last 10 days or so thanks to/in the midst of strangers turning into breath-sustaining buddies and friends, under the umbrella of GCAS conference and summer institute. How awesome is that, to breathe freely. Can’t wait to see and be a little fraction of this glorious thought-thinking-pie this fall already…mmm:) Love and peace (in the times of war)!”

Of course, we are far from perfect. We are not the solution, but are one of many fronts reclaiming, reimagining and decolonizing knowledge in the very act of learning together. Much more work is needed but we are on our way.

In the end, given four years of experiencing GCAS, we agree with Terry Eagleton when he says that, “Universities and advanced capitalism are fundamentally incompatible….” It’s time for alternatives; it’s time for professors and students to have the courage to form an educational resistance front.

Creston Davis is the Founder and Director of GCAS. Along with Slavoj Zizek, Clayton Crockett, and Jeffrey Robbins, Creston currently co-edits Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics & Culture (an academic book series published by Columbia University Press). He has published several books including Paul’s New Moment (with Slavoj Zizek & John Milbank), The Monstrosity of ChristHegel & the Infinite (with Zizek and Clayton Crockett), Theology & the Political (with Zizek and Milbank), Theology after Lacan: A Passion for the Real (with Marcus Pound and Crockett), and Contradiction & America (with Alain Badiou) forthcoming.