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Welcome to the Working Class, Professors

by Stan Goff


A man I met recently said, "The way to determine who's a proletarian is by asking who is a commodity." The UNC Board of Governors is moving to take tenured faculty from their protective shell to display them on the peddler stands of monopoly capital's bazaar. In what has been characterized as a pre-emptive strike in the germinal nationwide push to defang an already largely docile academy, the Board plans to adopt a "post-tenure review" scheme sometime this spring.

It has been noted that the energy of the debate over tenure revisits an intensity reminiscent of the Vietnam War years. We mustn't fail to explore this important observation for its most direct implication that academic freedom is again in the crosshairs. The Vietnam-era effort to dismantle tenure was mounted in response to the university's role as a center of resistance to the official policies of the United States government. We ignore the parallels to the present situation at our hazard. Though much of the academy has remained submissive to the ruling class in recent years, or has concealed itself from involvement in post-modernist camouflage, many tenured and politically active professors have continued to engage students in social, cultural, and political critiques. Even those who have been largely passive represent the dangerous potential to resist.

The campaign of monopoly capital to consolidate its impressive gains over the last two decades has been conducted on many fronts, but three areas of concentration clearly have the greatest strategic significance. The strategic concentrations have been destruction of the power of organized labor, the establishment of more complete corporate hegemony over the electoral process, and the control of information all information. The latter includes publishing, news media, entertainment, and schools. Primary and secondary schools have long past been converted into apologists for white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. The institutions of higher learning, however, remained (to a greater or lesser extent) sites where deeper and more critical analyses of social, political, and economic questions might be explored.

The corporate system for commodifying labor is already in place. The only thing remarkable about its application to the academy has been the collective state of denial that allowed the academy's members to ignore their own inevitable role as targets. Central to the mechanism of commodification is progressive de-skilling of the workforce, rendering them more nearly interchangeable. In the academy, that translates into reduction of the curricula to isolated, quantifiable modules, and the utilization of a less powerful group of workers to perform progressively more academic tasks. Graduate teaching assistants, who represent this less powerful alternative workforce for now, will testify that their responsibilities are steadily multiplying. Resistance to increasing their pay or benefits ossifies, even as university systems become more profitable.

Courses not easily lending themselves to modular reduction have already been targeted for extinction by the hired public relations guns who trivialize critical race theory, critical gender theory, and economic theory hostile to market apotheosis, as "Politically Correct." PC is then counterposed to something called "standards." From here it is a short step to play on class resentments characterizing tenured faculty to working people as a privileged group immune from "standards," as parasites who suck up tax dollars and who are accountable to no one.

As working class activists will attest, capitalist disinformation campaigns designed to direct the unfocused hostility of overworked, insecure, struggling people at one another is a tried and true prophylaxis against unified opposition. University faculty will be particularly vulnerable to the exploitation of inter-class enmity, because they have generally believed themselves to be non-working-class and behaved accordingly (with significant exceptions). It will be relatively easy to build a case against academics, who (justified or not) are perceived by many working people as effete snobs who contribute nothing tangible to society.

Like some physicians around the country, many faculty are now beginning to recognize the long term implications of their collaboration with a system that allows the almighty market to act as the central engine of social evolution. Some medical doctors have begun forming unions to confront the expanding domination of Health Management Organizations.

Unfortunately, faculty in the University of North Carolina system are state employees, who can form unions, but who cannot collectively bargain or strike. This makes it crucially important, for themselves and for the future of academic freedom, that concerned faculty reach out to working class and community activists to begin working in multi-issue coalitions for mutual self defense.

It is late. It is very late. Today, not tomorrow, university faculty, tenured and untenured, need to lend themselves to workers' movements in their communities, to serious electoral reform struggles at the state and national levels, and to the effort to get real information into the hands of working people. When academics look for allies, those workers are it. We do well to remember no one is immune to subjugation. In the words of Pastor Niemoeller in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.


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