The Magic of the Invisible Middle Finger

By Gordon FellmanMarch 4, 2015

Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education by Henry A. Giroux

HENRY GIROUX correctly sees that universities, at their best, prepare students for a citizen’s role that is informed, critical, and visionary. He views the goal of neoliberalism, by contrast, as cultivating education that prepares the student to be a reflexive supporter of the status quo, take orders uncritically, and accept consumerism as a major desire and goal in public and private life.

Giroux’s book on the relationship of neoliberalism to higher education opens with a succinct summary of the accomplishments of neoliberalism.

Four decades of neoliberal policies have resulted in an economic Darwinism that promotes privatization, commodification, free trade, and deregulation. It privileges personal responsibility over larger social forces, reinforces the gap between the rich and poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy individuals and groups, and it fosters a mode of public pedagogy that privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest, if not an unchecked selfishness.

Capitalism has for its several centuries-long history promoted the so-called “interests” of the individual as supreme. It is not really the general individual that the system has in mind, though, so much as the entrepreneur who, given complete lack of restraint, is assumed to be able to produce goods and services beneficial to society, and can do so only with the freedom to ignore non-market values and the possibility that this kind of individualism — which can be called hyper-individualism — will magically yield freedom and justice for all.

Indeed, at the heart of the standard capitalist narrative is magic, as if the will to realize the abstract ideal of a cornucopia for all will itself — through fervent wishing and belief that can only be called religious — bring about the imagined state. It is the “invisible hand” idea from Adam Smith — the conviction that there really is a hidden force that given free rein sets everything aright. It is the God meme in capitalism and its writings, Smith’s among them, that is to capitalism what the Torah is to Judaism, the Gospels to Christianity, and the Koran to Islam: holy texts whose authenticity and reality must not be challenged or questioned unless as an adolescent moment of doubt, eventually subsumed by the re-embrace of total belief.

There is no convincing logic to those assumptions about how markets can make us free, so, like all religious claims, they are repeated endlessly as if the repetition could substitute for the lack of evidence substantiating the assumptions. Why, after all, is there a Nobel Prize in economics but not in any of the other social sciences? Are there no great books written by historians? No breakthrough finds by archaeologists? No magnificent conceptual insights by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists? Of course there are, so why is the only social science awarded a Nobel Prize economics? It is because economics as an academic discipline shyly hides an insinuation that assumes the correctness and superiority of the institutions it endlessly analyzes and attempts to tweak. The prizes reinforce the commitment of mainstream economics to pay no attention at all to the possibility that there might be a better way altogether to organize an economy than one that relies on social Darwinism (Giroux calls it economic Darwinism), and the magic thrills of “free markets,” “rational consumers” (I wonder what might be the social history behind that truly bizarre concept), and the mind-boggling idea that workers own their labor, which they can in rational ways sell. The Nobel Prize in economics is the link between capitalism and higher education. The larger economic system seems to need academic justification to present itself as respectable and inevitable, and it is an academic discipline that bestows that seeming grace upon it.

Somehow this is all to be coordinated — again, by magic — by way of the invisible hand. Well, the invisible hand turns out to be an invisible middle finger. The free market is what Marx calls a ruling idea, that is, an idea that rationalizes and justifies the status quo. “People are selfish” is a ruling idea. “Greed is natural” is a ruling idea. “It is human nature to compete” is a ruling idea. The claim that there is no better way to organize an economy than capitalism is another ruling idea. The historical fact is that lack of constraints encourages more than a few individuals to take advantage of others’ naïveté and gullibility to take them to the cleaners. Hence, the magic of the invisible middle finger.

It is interesting that the word “capitalism” has all but fallen out of use as the name of the economic system that has not only ruled in the United States for two centuries but also has now been extended, exactly as Marx predicted 150 years ago, now named both “neoliberalism” and “globalization,” to the entire world. Whatever its several upsides (easy communication, growing familiarity with other societies and peoples, populations finding much in common with others in faraway places), its principal downside is that globalization is capitalism writ as large as possible. As one wag put it decades ago, under classic imperialism and colonialism, metropolitan countries owned their colonies. Under globalization, they rent them. Elites of the developing countries serve as the links with the larger system, which allows them to live well while thwarting yearnings of the miners, sweatshop workers, and customers forced to play their roles in a global capitalist marketplace.

Giroux makes clear that for this system to work, education needs to credential people as trustworthy to take their places in the institutions that keep this whole thing going. The goal of the system is in effect to replicate a primary lesson of lower education: that authority must at all costs be respected and criticized only in slight ways that will help it to function ever more effectively in an unjust set of institutions. What Giroux calls economic Darwinism “thrives on a kind of social amnesia that erases critical thought, historical analysis, and any understanding of broader systemic relations.” What he calls for by contrast is critical analysis of how ongoing institutions work and what efforts they make to silence dissent.

Giroux’s trenchant critique of neoliberalism and its war on higher education includes close inspection of how careers are, increasingly, organized to promote the neoliberal worldview. The process is not overt propaganda so much as the need for academics to “overcome an intense obsession with the demands of their own circumscribed professional pursuits, rejecting the privatized notion of scholarship and agency that dominates academic life.” He suggests that academics fuse scholarly concerns with worldly concerns and take as their model and aspiration the public intellectual.

Sometime in the famous ’60s, I came across a line from W. H. Auden where he defines an academic as “one who lectures on navigation while the ship is going down.” That remark cut me to the quick and played a major role in the ways that I, at the time a neophyte academic, shaped my aspirations and career. It seems to me that Giroux would like that line of Auden’s.

Yet Giroux’s urging that the responsible professor is indeed one engaged in society, with an eye seeking real social change and a hand reaching out to touch it, to some serious extent contradicts his analysis of neoliberalism’s war on higher education. For Giroux’s analysis is, after all is said and done, only an analysis. It is a call to arms but purely rhetorically.

Giroux’s book, to put it another way, suffers the fate of almost all academic progressive political analysis. It is an appealing mixture of astute, insightful deconstruction of a destructive set of institutions and practices; hand-wringing; outrage; and alarm. But there is no recommended action to accompany it. As a fellow academic whose works can be accused of the same shortcoming, my heart goes out to Giroux in this limit he and I and thousands of other progressive academics share.

So the matter seems to resolve to this: How can we who imagine social change, advocate social change, demand social change, put our money where our mouths are? I have an answer to my question, at least a partial and provisional answer. I will put it in terms of a role model, a historian who to me exemplifies one of the two ideal blends, as I see them, of critique and activism. The reader of this review might guess by now that I am thinking of the late Howard Zinn. Consider the difference between Giroux’s book under review here and Zinn’s most celebrated work, the increasingly known and famous A People’s History of the United States. When I ask my classes of undergraduates in recent years how many of them have read that book, about a third to a half have. Almost all of them read it in high school history classes.

Zinn’s great accomplishment in that book is to write vivid, compelling social history with a clarity and directness that makes it as agreeable to read as a fine novel. Historians, like our colleagues who teach literature, know that stories grab readers like almost nothing else. That those stories happen to be about the subjugation and humiliation of Indians, women, African Americans, and blue-collar workers opens up historical trends to the most casual reader by way of real stories.

Suppose Giroux were to walk away from the standard academic critical analysis template and bask in the light of an alternative template — let’s call it Moving from Abstractions to Concrete Stories. Present the hard facts on how top universities’ executives’ salaries go up while the replacement of tenured and tenure-track faculty with adjuncts means a drastic lowering of the salaries of the majority of professors in this country. Why not offer real data (e.g., the average pay per course for adjuncts in the US is $2,300, meaning that a PhD who teaches four courses a year — a full load at my university — is paid under $10,000 a year). For the same course load, I — who was clever enough to be born in the 1930s — get paid 10 times that. Why not offer stories, real stories such as that of the older adjunct female professor who could no longer pay rent and eat and who eventually starved to death. Or the story of a Harvard PhD in history who could only find a course here and a course there and a lot of driving time between one and the next and wound up managing his wife’s thriving chiropractic practice.

Why not tell the stories of scholars like Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita whose devotion to telling truth is undermined by forces who decide that criticizing Israeli policies and practices is not acceptable in universities? Why not examine how it is that there are colleges and universities that allow themselves to be vulnerable to pressures and threats from parties who mistakenly think that stifling critical analysis of anything is acceptable in the one institution in the entire society whose explicit commitment is seeking truth?

Giroux forcefully admonishes faculty who choose safe topics and meeting career demands as preferable to engaging in that delicate square dance where the performer extends the right hand to scholarship and then a do-si-do with the left hand stretching out to clasp activism. Give some real-life examples of what it is like to do this and what it is like not to do this.

The one place where Giroux shines in storytelling is in his ruthless putdown of college athletics. Maybe because he taught at Penn State during the sex abuse revelations of a fabled football coach and the higher-ups who covered up his depredations, Giroux does tell a story here, a most compelling and sickening one. Nothing could better illustrate the bankruptcy of the sad coupling of higher education and competitive sports.

Giroux could offer stories of how faculty are intimidated to moderate their views and their values, and by whom and under what circumstances. He could easily gather stories of how universities hire chief operating officers who fire longtime loyal staff and replace them with minimum-wage part-time workers. He already shows beautifully how the university is becoming corporatized. He who eloquently makes the case for liberal arts education and especially for teaching and learning how to think critically might even show how students who major in business and/or economics are probably rarely urged to think critically about the economy, let alone anything else. Show a few curricula, interview a few students.

All of this is to suggest taking Zinn as a model of how to write for a vast audience rather than the restricted academic one that enjoys reading trenchant social criticism.

So writing for a broad audience is one way the public intellectual can meld professional training with social engagement. The other is to become active in climate change organizations, antiwar organizations, anti-inequality movements, healthcare reform, transportation reform, and so on. Rather than simply decrying the follies of the embarrassingly lacking American health insurance system, become major advocates for single payer. Advocate for shifting massive funds from war spending to rebuilding infrastructure, catching up with other developed nations in high-speed train service, challenging the very bases of a social class system that has outlived its usefulness by now, ending the farce of student debt by making higher education free through a transfer of funds from totally wasteful, useless, hyper-expensive weapons development programs and war planning. Etc., etc., etc.

In the 1930s, there was serious understanding of social class and the major flaws of capitalism. These were brought to public attention by a Communist Party and a Socialist Party and a march on Washington of the unemployed and destitute. The Second World War interrupted this practice, and the relative postwar prosperity sent class awareness back into the closet where US elites have for eons tried fervently to keep it under lock and key. But then with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the conditions (New Deal reforms and a noticeably decent distribution of wealth and prosperity beyond the tiny elites on the top) that ameliorated class pains and antagonisms were undermined. The old anti–New Dealers found (or rather, created) their representative who would begin to undo the leveling-off policies that Roosevelt and Democrats after him put into place not to subvert or even criticize the social class system but just to make it a bit less odious to its non-elites. Controls over banking and regulations favoring labor and justice were tossed into the wastebasket in favor of “free market” opportunities and the exuberance of unfettered capitalism, taught in business schools and promoted by their graduates.

As the relentless redistribution of wealth upward proceeded, so did social disorder and so did social discontent. These forces objected to freewheeling capitalism and all it implied, from tax policies favoring the super-rich to killing unions to reducing entitlement programs to corporatizing the university. The frustration and displeasure of the victims of these policies and practices exploded in the form of the Occupy movement that spread like wildfire. It was quickly doused, literally and metaphorically, by coordinated police actions throughout the land.

Occupy is not dead, but its days of high visibility and drama are over. What remains, though — and this may be its greatest and enduring contribution to 21st-century class awareness — is the first powerful public social class analysis since the 1930s. The 1% / 99% divide famously publicized by Occupy (it’s more accurately .01% and 99.99%, but that does not scan as well) streams ever more data on the tiny fraction of the world population that owns half its wealth and the billions at whose expense they have it.

With gratitude to Giroux for his knowledge, his analysis, and his passion, it is now time to build from that the stories and hard data that combine to slice through the Gordian knot of what Marx named “false consciousness.” Marx predicted that capitalism would drive its elites to insist on expropriating just about all the wealth. It is not evil individuals but rather the imperatives of the system itself that drives them.

I used to teach that Marx did not, and could not, foresee the resiliency of capitalism in the brilliant invention of a solid upper middle class that would not only work the institutions that keep the system going but also be a willing (because well paid and comfortable) buffer between the rich and powerful elites and the masses below. I can’t teach that anymore, because my riff on Marx was wrong; Marx was right in the first place. The 99% / 1% trope parents its companion, the sudden and growing attention to “inequality.” Thus two systems of social class analysis within five years of each other after several decades of no such analysis at all.

Is public awareness of social class growing? Will social media — the internet more generally — become the medium growing genuine consciousness and the energy and determination to act on it? Giroux is no Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, but his book takes its place in that ever-lengthening shelf of critiques of an increasingly unsustainable status quo. Read it to learn about the higher education piece of the puzzle. And read more on other institutions and the capitalist base on which they stand. And then bend every effort to and act with others to publicize, organize, and act for an economic system that honors all lives including that of our planet itself.


Gordon Fellman is a professor of sociology at Brandeis University and chair of the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies Program.

LARB Contributor

Gordon Fellman is a professor of sociology at Brandeis University and chair of the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies Program. He is the author of Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival and the soon-to-be published The Coming End of War.


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