Brian Holmes on Tue, 22 Nov 2011 19:37:58 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Debt Campaign Launch

Thanks for answering, Sascha. It's better to have a debate of ideas.
Here's something I think is really important:

if we're doing an analysis of the systems and structures responsible
for the mess our society is in, don't we need to include "the
academy" too? Colleges and universities are (just as) responsible in
some ways for the present predicament--for teaching to, for, and in
support of the status quo--as any other institution or governmental
body within our society.

We completely agree. The social movements that began two years
agrhetorico in the UC system, around the issues of rising tuition
costs and creeping privatization, have made some people really come
to grips with the total makeover of the formerly public university.
There was already some very good writing on this (books like Bosquet's
"How the University Works" and Newfield's "Unmaking the Public
University"). But a social movement changes things: when people
confront what is now the universal response to any attempt to reclaim
a space of public debate - that is, when they confront the police - it
makes them ask what they are involved in on every level. The picture
that emerges is a university almost completely refashioned to meet
the needs of financial and managerial capital. I called this "total
corruption" in a debate with Elizabeth Losh and Blake Stimson, which
you can check out at the bottom of this page:

The problem is, what to do about it? Blake thinks we should defend
the institutions because neoliberalism systematically attacks them.
I think that's theoretically wrong, and in practice it just means
defending the status quo. The universities are not attacked by
capital interests, they do not shrink beneath the rule of the 1%,
they actually grow and are transformed into high-performance machines
producing more climate change, more competition-centered social policy
and more domination over our hearts and minds. They produce, not just
corporate labs, managers and legal teams, but more generally, the
kind of neoliberal subjectivity that calculates life itself as human
capital. What disappears are the departments devoted to critical
inquiries of any kind, not only in the humanities but also in the
sciences. Now, some people think this process has gone so far that
the universities should be abandoned. But by my lights that too is
naive: we live today in a knowledge economy and our only hope is to
turn this into a knowledge society, where ideas matter once again and
all actionable thinking is not governed by the imperative of making
a profit. Only then can we start doing something about the emergency
situations our society faces on every level.

The present question, a good one, is whether the movement to repudiate
student debt can add to such a transformation. The short answer is
yes, IF thinking people make an effort. A massive repudiation of debt
is inevitable in an economy where people cannot get jobs. As Michael
Hudson says, the truth of unpayable debt is that it will not be paid.
The question is, what effect will that massive repudiation have? We --
and this means students and professors, but also engaged citizens --
have to weigh in and help remake the university, reshape its functions
so that it can respond to the present crisis rather than worsening
it. That's not going to happen through pious wishes. Just starting
the process takes the equivalent of an earthquake, which in this case
would be the end of the bizarre transfer system whereby the American
state borrows money from foreign countries to shackle its most capable
people with a "publicly" guaranteed debt that, unlike all others, can
never be cancelled by bankruptcy. Massive repudiation of the debt
means the end of the system of pseudo-public education. Obviously it's
a risky endeavor, because the end of one system does not guarantee
that another, better one will be put in its place. This is why we
really do need much more debate on what a "public" university could
look like, and what it could do, in our time. I have some ideas about
it but so do many other people, it would be great to hear them.

best, Brian

PS to Martha, did you notice that the in the very midst of last week's uproar at Berkeley they brought out that nice old fuddy-duddy Robert Reich to give the first Mario Savio memorial lecture, properly transferred to the steps of Sproul Hall for the occasion? Well, it was a little ridiculous.... As far as those withered husks of meaningless lives, hmm, excuse the poor writing but have you seen any zombie movies lately? Or zombie marches on streets all over the US for that matter? I should just have said "maimed, gory, putrefied corpses of meaningless lives"! More contemporary!

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