Cultural Concessions in a Class War

Photograph Source: Alper Çuğun – CC BY 2.0

In the spring of 2005 I was teaching a course on social class in America. Around mid-semester we were discussing the relationships between workers’ wages (stagnating), productivity (rising), and profits (soaring). I explained that the state of these relationships was the result of strategies intentionally pursued by capitalist employers. The next day I was chatting before class with a conscientious and attentive student who always sat in the front row. She told me she was double majoring in sociology and business. I braced myself for a blast of skepticism about the analysis I’d been offering. Instead, she said, “Professor Schwalbe, you talk about a lot of the same things my business professors do, but you sure do talk about them differently.” Her comment reminded me of the old saying that every successful capitalist has to know what a Marxist knows about where profit comes from.

That saying came back to mind a decade later over dinner with my partner, one of her colleagues, and the colleague’s husband, who worked in the world of finance. As usual, we found ourselves talking about the politics of higher education in North Carolina. The three academics at the table framed those politics as a struggle between right-wing reactionaries in the state legislature and left-liberal faculty in the universities. After listening patiently to our troglodyte-bashing, the colleague’s husband said, as I recall, “I don’t think the struggles are about ideology; they’re about who controls the flow of money through individual campuses and through the university system, and who’s going to benefit from that control.” Here was the non-academic, the person on intimate terms with capitalism, offering the hardnosed materialist analysis! At the time, I balked at discounting the importance of ideology; but I now think he was right. The ideological froth on the surface of the politics of higher education is largely a distraction.

It’s not that there aren’t genuine ideological differences between left-liberal faculty and right-wing legislators. No doubt many of those legislators would firmly reject the radically egalitarian, anti-imperialist, small-d democratic politics of faculty members on the left. But much of the recent denouncing of critical race theory, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other humanities fields by right-wing state legislators is more about riling the base than about fighting substantive intellectual battles. This is evident when the denouncers are asked to describe exactly what they disagree with, and it turns out they have no clear understanding what critical race theory, or any other academic target du jour, consists of. Which is what one would expect if all the rhetorical turbulence served mainly to keep other issues off the table.

I don’t mean to suggest that what we teach about race, gender, sexuality, and class is unimportant. Nor is it unimportant to resist attempts to curtail our freedom to teach the truth about these matters, as we seek to discern it in our respective disciplines. Diversity and inclusion, affirmative action to overcome historical oppression, as well as respectful treatment of all members of a university community are also undeniably important. People’s opportunities to flourish, to enjoy good lives, and to benefit from the justice everyone deserves depend on our willingness—as progressive, left-liberal faculty, staff, and students—to resist reactionary, anti-egalitarian forces that threaten universities. Regardless of the motivations driving these threats, the battles have real consequences and need to be engaged.

In one sense, we have already won. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are revered in the culture of academia today. Respectful treatment of all is the avowed norm, despite lapses attributable to lingering implicit biases. And while PR-conscious administrators often stumble when it comes to defending academic freedom, professors are routinely let alone to teach what and how they see fit to teach. In fact, some people might argue that it’s because liberalism has so thoroughly and visibly conquered universities that we’ve become easy targets for conservative legislators trying to impress the folks back home. It might hurt to take these hits, but at the same time we can take comfort in thinking that we have prevailed in the struggle for a more egalitarian culture.

And yet that’s the problem: our victories are largely cultural. In the face of modest protest, regents, trustees, and administrators have agreed to remove statues of bygone racists, rename buildings, and try to recruit more minority-group students and faculty. Some have even hastened to remove allegedly offensive rocks from campus. This is mostly to the good, of course. But even while university leaders happily endorse giving people control over their pronouns, they will fight to the death before relinquishing control over budgets, spending, staffing, and relationships with outside funders. Which is to say, they will, when pressed, grant concessions on symbolic matters, but will not give up any real power—the power that comes from control of economic resources.

What’s happened in universities parallels what’s happened in the U.S. more generally over the last forty years. Many cultural battles have been won. Overt expression of anti-Black racism is now completely unacceptable. Public monuments to racists have been scrapped. The historical theft of land from Indigenous peoples is ritually acknowledged. Abortion is legal, for now. Gays and lesbians can marry. Government agencies accommodate people who identify as transgender or non-binary. To be sure, these are positive changes.

Yet, over the same period, economic inequality has worsened, wealth and political power have become more concentrated, the working class has been effectively divided, the labor movement has been crushed, military spending has grown, poverty has persisted, and proposals for universal health care have been beaten down again and again. Despite gains on cultural grounds, we’ve been losing the class war. It is as if, upon meeting resistance to changing the rules of the capitalist game in which we are caught, we have settled for being allowed to redesign the team logo.

Conservative pundits like to say universities are run by liberal professors. This claim has always struck me as either naive or as clever propaganda. Yes, professors create courses and curricula, and usually decide, with minimal oversight, what to teach in their courses—as should be the case, given that professors have the requisite subject-matter expertise. But nearly all universities are authoritarian bureaucracies with power concentrated at the top. And what one finds at the top, on boards of regents and trustees, are mainly people from the business world. These are the people who set institutional priorities, approve budgets, hire and fire chancellors and presidents, and sign off on hires, promotions, and major program initiatives. It’s rare to find professors on—or even represented on—boards of trustees, regents, or “governors.” In the meeting rooms where shots are called, liberal professors are present only in the abstract.

The culture wars fought on the field of higher education are analogous to the politics on display in Supreme Court nominations. Our attention is directed to where nominees stand on abortion, LGBTQ rights, gun ownership, affirmative action, the place of religion in public life. As important as these issues are, the near exclusive focus on them obscures what matters to the most powerful political and economic actors in U.S. society: where nominees stand on matters of property law, labor law, contract law, tax law, and regulatory law. These are the realms of law that determine the distributions of wealth and power in our country. Skirmishes over critical race theory, gender studies, and so on, likewise distract from what should be the more fundamental battle: for democratic control of universities and the material resources on which they depend. Forestalling that battle, keeping the very idea of it out of mind, is a way to keep us resigned to accepting symbolic gestures toward equality in place of the real thing.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at