Class consciousness in the lumpenbourgeoisie

by Carl Dyke

I’m going away for the long weekend, so for those of you escaping the loving clutches of family and unrescued by football I thought I’d leave a long, debatable one to chew on. It’s rough (I wrote it around the edges of a lot of grading) but if you’re patient and read generously I think the gist is here. I promise to reply faithfully to comments when I get back.

One of my first posts on this blog ventilated my thoughts about academic labor. Now a new institutional outrage in the Tennessee higher education system, which pays adjuncts $15k a year without benefits for a 5/5 teaching load (five courses per semester; four is generally considered high for permanent faculty), has once again refreshed my treachery toward the interests of my class. See, unlike many of my colleagues I am not convinced that it makes sense to describe people getting paid for academic work as exploited, oppressed, overworked, downtrodden, what have you. And although I am affectionately sympathetic to this kind of argument, and believe it is appropriate and strategic to make in a lot of situations for a lot of people, I think it is in some important ways counterproductive for academic professionals to make it about themselves.

Of course ‘making sense’ only happens within structured systems of meaning – cultures, theories – and I don’t mean to sidestep the relevant one here. Obviously it makes no sense to a calvinist, a daoist, a stoic, a burkeian conservative or a libertarian to describe academic work as exploitive, because that standpoint of critique does not exist in those systems of meaning. I’m saying I don’t think it makes sense to describe academic work as exploitive in marxist terms, which is the native vocabulary of such critiques. I’ll mention in passing that I also don’t think it makes sense to describe academic work as ‘oppressive’, but only because I find that to be a catch-all pseudo-critique that’s flung about by some folks on the left like monkeys fling poo anytime something upsetting happens.

Marx of course wanted to smash capitalism, but he admired capitalists and considered them a progressive historical force: destructive in important ways, usefully doomed by their own success. His disdain was reserved for well-meaning clueless intellectuals of various kinds, who he considered worse than useless, including utopian socialists (“Communist Manifesto”), liberals (“On the Jewish Question”), Young Hegelians (The Holy Family, The German Ideology), anarchists (The Poverty of Philosophy), reformers and trade unionists (“Critique of the Gotha Program”). For a brilliant redeployment of these critiques onto recent radical politics, see Robert Meister’s Political Identity: Thinking Through Marx. There’s a lot of sophisticated suspicion of the radical cred of eggheads in these references, but we’ll start with the obvious:

College professors are not proletarians.

I sometimes jokingly refer to my years as an itinerant adjunct as strawberry-picking, but it’s only a joke because it’s transparently silly. I did honest work but I wasn’t breaking my back in the hot sun, humiliated, subordinate and expendable, little more than a sentient machine. My working conditions were pleasant (I find schools pleasant), I enjoyed virtually complete autonomy in my workplace, I was respected as a professional and got full social credit for my work. Although I was sometimes needed, sometimes not, I accepted my responsibility to make my work ongoingly desirable. And as an independent contractor I could say screw this anytime, and I fully controlled the means of my production. It’s an insult to the struggle of real working-class folk to compare my life to theirs.

I was not well-paid. I’m still not by professional standards. Big deal. I coulda gone to law school. I make enough to live on. All needs beyond subsistence are social (Grundrisse) and I’m comfortable with many sociabilities. More importantly, since the bourgeoisie are themselves alienated in their own way, every bit of what I do in this job is my choice and my responsibility, or logically follows from my choices and responsibilities (e.g. there must be administrators; there must be assessments; to fight these things is to fight ourselves). I do not produce commodities, I work with students; and they are mirrors in which I see reflected my essential nature. My work is inherently satisfying, “a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.” In short, my labor is unalienated and I am fully in touch with my species-being.

I was content to kibitz on other people’s posts about this until an intriguing reader comment at the post on this scandal at Easily Distracted drove me past the word-count threshold of polite commentary. Here’s what PQuincy said:

And I think we are exploiting adjuncts whom we pay $4500 a quarter for one course! Evidently, the market for academic proletarians is highly variable by region and institution.

But that still doesn’t justify radically divergent pay-scales for different groups with fundamentally similar qualifications. The steady differentiation between ‘full-time’ and ‘part-time’ faculty may be part of the ongoing commodification of expertise, but paradoxically, it also contributes to our ongoing movement (back) towards a society of estates in which privilege and distinction, not qualification, are primary determinants of status, and in which rent-seeking, not profit, drives all sorts of economic decisions.

This is a nice challenge. Just for reference, in the late 90’s I was paid as little as $1200 and as much as $3500 per class; as a tenured associate professor I am currently paid about $1700, I believe, for overloads. I don’t think these numbers are important in themselves, nor did Marx. There’s nothing about “justifying” different pay scales in Marx, or about fairness. In a capitalist economy everything is commodified, expertise being no exception. And as the expert and highly qualified Lumpenprofessor points out, in a capitalist economy work is not paid by its quantity or quality (the “labor” itself), but by its cost of reproduction – the amount it takes to get someone to do that work when it needs doing (the comments on his post are also illuminating):

Instead, Marx demonstrates that what the wage actually pays for is our “labor-power” — our capacity to do work. The wage pays a value equal to our means of subsistence — our house, car, food, clothes, cable-tv, health care, and kids — so that we can continue to come to work. This means that there is always a difference between the value of the wage paid and the value of the actual work done. The greater this difference, the better it is for the employer. This means that the difference in wages between tenure-track and adjunct faculty is not really about the amount or quality of work done, it is just about how well they eat.

That $1700 has nothing to do with my qualifications or my effort or my teaching ‘outcomes’. It has to do with securing a set minimum quality and quantity of work as needed. Apparently it’s sufficient, because I keep teaching overloads. From the labor-as-such standpoint all that matters is that I do it ‘well enough’. If I do it better than ‘well enough’, that’s a nice bonus for the students, the school, and my sense of vocation, but it’s irrelevant from a pay standpoint as long as I or someone enough like me keep(s) being willing to come back for the same pay.

It’s not hard to explain why the University pays adjuncts the minimum amount it takes to get them coming back. It’s much harder to explain why they ever pay more than that. And as long as we herd like lemmings to graduate programs and spend years earning doctorates for which there’s little apparent market, we will have little leverage to change this. No doubt it’s a nice ego boost to have a doctoral program at your school. Each new one incrementally damages the collective bargaining power of academics as workers. We’ll either need to dramatically cut our production of competitive laborers or wait for the revolution to solve that one.

But again – college professors are not proletarians. And the University is not (just) a capitalist enterprise. We operate in a capitalist context, which tends to drive the economics in ordinary ways. But there are also larger fiduciary responsibilities involved: the University is providing a service considered to be a general social good, and therefore providing as much of it as possible as cost-effectively as possible is a positive social good. Who is our employer? Students; society; the imagined community of a fully-educated population. For this reason, it also ought not to be hard to explain why committed academic professionals cheerfully provide instruction at levels higher than required to reproduce compensation. This is our mission, our ‘vocation’ in the calvinist/weberian sense, not just our job. We want our employers to get maximum value out of us for minimum cost; we should be actively complicit with this ‘exploitation’. To grub after money and quibble about what our colleagues make is a violation of our species-being.

Furthermore, when PQuincy says that pay inequality in academe “contributes to our ongoing movement (back) towards a society of estates in which privilege and distinction, not qualification, are primary determinants of status, and in which rent-seeking, not profit, drives all sorts of economic decisions,” s/he is on the right track, but there’s not a movement back here. The professional professoriate has always been a guild; its distinctive self-image, privileges and prerogatives go back to the medieval university. That’s why we wear the dopey robes to gragitation. Our remaining a guild is the only way to explain the fact that academic work has not been completely proletarianized, with price tags explicitly and universally attached to our every ‘product’ from teaching to advising to scholarship. Like all guilds, we are paid much more visibly in status and autonomy than mere, crude, dirty money.

Our leverage to get more than the market price of our labor-power and better than the usual conditions of work comes from that status, and is dependent on the University’s hybridity as both an enterprise within the economy and a status-conferring holy place hovering above it. It is accordingly catastrophically counterproductive to sink to the discourse of proletarian exploitation; it’s like throwing away the face cards in your hand and playing to lose. The question is not how to make ourselves more like workers by unionizing and struggling and Fighting The Man and whatnot. Furthermore this is not even more generally a way to achieve fairness and equality, and it’s a very dangerous strategy in its own right, as the UAW is currently discovering. We need to be working out ways to redescribe our status and privileges as foreshadowings of unalienated labor, then figuring out how to generalize this, not scrambling to join the chorus of the exploited – if for no other reason than they know better, and when they have their revolutions we eggheads are always among the first to get taken out and shot (or ‘re-educated’) no matter what.

So why is this discourse so appealing to people who ought to know better? Well, I’d say that has to do with the expansion of higher education in the postwar that brought a massive influx of proletarians into the academy. We control it now. We brought all of our class resentment with us and worked diligently to demolish the university’s elevated character, while simultaneously championing the right of every person to access its elevating gifts. Hmmm.

Colleagues, we must cease to soil our own roosts.


53 Responses to “Class consciousness in the lumpenbourgeoisie”

  1. I appreciate this post, particularly in light of “from those according to their ability; to those according to their need,” but I don’t agree with it completely. I am having a hard time putting my finger on it, so my comments might be a bit scattered.

    While I believe you feel truly satisfied in your job, I think where your “we’re not really proletarian” argument snags is when you point out that if you don’t like your job you can leave it. I have a hard time believing that. Of course, you can quit, and you may have different connections that enable different employment opportunities, but you still work for a living. Given enough time without a job, your as hungry as any unemployed plumber, shoe-maker or whatever.

    What’s more is that you do produce a commodity. You produce college graduates. Not all by yourself, but like in a factory bit by bit. That is to say, and please correct me if I’m wrong, most of the students you ever had have taken your classes as part of a degree program. Now, of course some students just take your class “for fun,” but whether they’d do that if they weren’t in a degree program is questionable, and I imagine that you rarely get non-degree or post-bacc students. There may be a blissful union between duty and inclination, but I think you’ll agree that out of the population as a whole it is duty (you must get a degree, because you must be “qualified” to get the job you must have if you want to have the money you must use if you’re going to buy, among other things, the things that keep you alive) and not inclination (I love learning) that delivers your students. Of course, you don’t tell your students these things, but that isn’t your job. Your job is to teach in your field, just like it isn’t Gary’s job to make people buy a Ford Mustang, just to make sure the front-axles are installed properly. You may say you aren’t really interested in producing college graduates so much as teaching, and I bet you that most of your students would say they aren’t really interested in learning (for its own sake) so much as getting a good job.

    Maybe I’ve got this all wrong though, because I completely dig what you say toward the end.

    We need to be working out ways to redescribe our status and privileges as foreshadowings of unalienated labor, then figuring out how to generalize this, not scrambling to join the chorus of the exploited…

    The problem I have up until this point is that you treat the academy as not simply “above” the proletarian struggle, but in some sense uninvolved, which I think dodges the stickier issues of how your job supports and is supported by that against which the working-class struggles.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting post. Like the comment above, though, and given my nom de blog, I need to take issue with your claim that “college professors are not proletarians.” For Marx, there are only two classes. Either you own capital, or you work for capital. Speaking for myself, it’s clear I’m not an owner of capital so there’s really only one option left. I’m part of the proletariat. The conditions of one’s labor, and whether or not one enjoys the job isn’t relevant to one’s class position. It’s not dirty finger nails that make a proletarian, it’s the production of surplus-value for capital. Sometimes the fact that most universities are not for-profit institutions tends to hide the fact that academic labor both produces a commodity and directly contributes to the production of surplus-value. Academic labor produces the fundamentally important commodity for capital of labor-power. And the cheaper it is produced, the more profitable it is for capital. So every poorly paid adjunct and every college student in debt is subsidizing the production of college educated labor-power for every capitalist that hires that labor. That’s work that ought to be unionized, and would be, if we college professors didn’t keep insisting that the thing we do isn’t really work.

  3. LP, I have lifelong close experience of a unionized academic shop and was myself on the union steering committee as the campus adjunct rep at Cal State. Walked the picket line and everything. So again I’m not unsympathetic to this approach, but I’ve been struck by the unintended consequences as issues of some existential subtlety get boiled down into the brute language of pay and benefits by the logic of collective bargaining. There are babies in that bathwater.

    And I would usually want to defer to your superior understanding of Marx, but I can’t agree here that for Marx there are only two classes. Even in the Manifesto, a rather crude polemical exposition, he describes this as an immanent tendency of the logic of capitalism: society was then “more and more splitting into two great hostile camps.” Of course, like a good dialectician he then goes on to develop the argument as if this historical movement was in fact fully accomplished rather than a theoretical extrapolation. But in various other analytical works, such as “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” he is quite careful to describe the class fractions and conjunctural mediations that considerably complicate the logic of pure opposition.

    I’m not just quibbling. Again, babies in the bathwater. If in fact the class struggle never boiled down to a pure opposition of owners and workers, if in fact capitalism has insulated itself from the self-destructive logic of this simplification by reinvesting in retention of some older social forms and invention of some new ones (the “new class,” technical intelligentsias, e.g.); if in fact a dynamic balance of production and consumption has been achieved, rather than a mindless race to the omega point of crisis overproduction; then we need to be mindful of the flexibilities and possibilities within capitalism rather than tossing everything into the class struggle wagon. Oops, I’m late for an honor board so I hope this makes some interim sense….

  4. Joe, you cover a lot of ground and I wanted to do some justice to your points. You’re quite right that ‘take this job and shove it’ is a weak argument in the context of a mandatory work economy of any kind. Communism would not change that. We have to work to live no matter what. Marx starts with that as the obvious material foundation of human life in German Ideology.

    The change would be that we would control the nature and conditions of our work, and therefore it would be a positive expression of our humanity. Motivation would be intrinsic, compensation would be beside the point. So he says in “Critique of the Gotha Program” that in a first moment of the revolution, shaped by its emergence from capitalism, labor time would become the unmediated measure of exchange; so that in this limited sense everyone is being paid ‘the same’ (i.e. enough). But that’s still a bourgeois way of thinking (‘fairness’ in wages being a concept he much lampoons), so eventually you’d want to get all the way to work needing no compensation or measurement whatsoever, because it’s just what people do for the human fulfillment of it.

    In the post I was trying to dramatize my sense that this approach to work is already available within the current organization of academic labor, and that taking the attitude of the exploited worker is not just to misrecognize but actively to reject the ways our work already resembles what Marx describes as unalienated labor.

    You’re also quite right that students can be seen as commodities (or rather their labor-power as mixed with the ‘dead labor’ of education is a commodity). As long as the economy is capitalism this is objectively a fact for marxist analysis, and as LP says “every poorly paid adjunct and every college student in debt is subsidizing the production of college educated labor-power for every capitalist that hires that labor.” But as I suggested to LP, this kind of in-the-last analysis is a crude tool. After all, Marxnengles also announced the death of the family in the Manifesto; which, while a striking and poignant image, has proven to be theoretically projective and sociologically wrong.

    Back to exploitation. Ironically, bourgeois critics of communism point out that come the revolution “the communist state” will continue to operate in exactly the position of workplace control and objective exploitation as the capitalist. Cosmetic redistribution of profits will not change the fact that we will not be working ‘for ourselves’, but ‘for the state’. Again, Marx is clear enough in “Critique of the Gotha Program” that all sorts of costs of production and expansion will have to be funded collectively out of individual labor; it is society as a whole that is enriched, not the individual.

    So again, what’s the difference? Well, that the communist state is oriented toward the good of all and each, and I identify with it, so I give my work freely; whereas the capitalist exploiter is oriented selfishly and therefore my work for her must be extorted by the threat of starvation or the temptations of greed. So the surplus value of work I do that is skimmed off for the community good in communism is also for my own benefit, whereas capitalist profits are not.

    My argument is that academic work is a mixed case, because education is not just a commodity, it is a community good. Therefore, I accept that my lowly-paid work “is subsidizing the production of college educated labor-power for every capitalist that hires that labor.” But I also enjoy that the capitalists and their children who pay for higher education are subsidizing the community good of an educated and more humanly enabled population. This coincidence of interests is especially pleasing because, for a variety of reasons ranging from legitimation to containment to the genuine usefulness of critical thinking skills, the capitalists who pay directly for higher education are subsidizing the incubation of ways of thinking that can contribute to the overcoming of capitalism, and do so by funding a workplace that in many substantive respects, if we are willing to adjust our perspectives properly, already resembles the ideal of self-controlled, unalienated labor that Marx described.

    This has gotten very long and I can already see that there’s a lot I’d want to tinker with if this was a formal statement of my views. So in the interest of blogorific expedience and on the principle of rero I’m going to hit submit and hope the conversation files some of the rough edges off.

  5. Here’s some support for Joe’s and LP’s points:

    “If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a school-master is a productive worker when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to that relation.” — Marx, Capital vol. 1, 644.

    Here’s the crux, from German Ideology:

    “Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest,” but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”

    Do I teach in an education factory ultimately owned by the capitalists who fund it? Yes. Do I have one exclusive sphere of activity without which I lose my livelihood? Yes. Does this doom my argument? Yes… except that Marx also tells us in GI that the critique of a mode of production becomes possible when the existing forces of production come into contradiction with the existing social relations. If it seems to me that my work is unalienated this is, from the perspective of the forces of production, clearly wrong (in a way that in vulgar marxist terms suggests false consciousness). But my argument is that the social relations of academic work are actually in contradiction with the conditions of production, and that in many respects this contradiction takes the form of an anticipation of unalienated labor.

  6. Carl, I like your last formulation much better. Given the quotes you unearthed for us, it seems you may be backing away, at least a little, from your earlier claim that college professors aren’t part of the proletariat. Given recent stories like this, I do think it’s important for us not to underestimate our how far we still have to go on some very basic bread and butter issues involving wages and health care.

    However, even if academics as a group haven’t been as successful as some other professions at organizing around wages and benefits, I do think you’re right that we’ve been much more successful at organizing around issues involving the conditions of our labor — about what and how we teach and write. We in the academy ought to be justifiably proud of the wide ranging freedoms we’ve carved out for ourselves, and most faculty are very diligent at defending those academic freedoms too. Those freedoms to teach and write may be exactly what academics have to contribute to the wider class struggle. On my good days, I think the freedom to teach Marx to undergraduates, and get paid to do it, has at least some radical potential to it. Also on my good days, I think shared faculty governance is a wonderfully radical way to organize the workplace. When budget cuts hit, though, the fragility of those progressive social relations of production start to become apparent, and working to preserve and expand those freedoms becomes even more important.

  7. Thanks, LP. It really depends who I’m talking to, and in what context. When I teach Marx to libertarian newbies from the business school I make fun of the ‘middle class’ swindle and identify myself proudly as a proletarian. They need to know that if someone else is paying you a wage or salary, you’re not somehow out of the working class, nor are you enjoying a society in which the value of all of your labor winds up in your own column. I mean, these are folks who think the government is robbing them with taxes, but think nothing of contributing their surplus value to the enrichment of capitalists.

    On my own blog and with smarties like you, though, my marxism is not so vulgar. Already by Gramsci’s time it had become apparent that capitalism was far more flexible, and the class picture far more complex, than marxist popularizations could capture. In particular, Marx’s confidence that one could bore past the appearances of social complexity to the material essence of things and build a politics on that turned out to be, um, wrong. He even knew it was wrong; that’s why he ran out of steam halfway through Capital which was, after all, only a fraction of his larger project. And I suppose even he must have gotten a little sick of constantly having to criticize and correct all the morons and backsliders on his team whose theory and practice kept getting diverted by mere appearances of one kind or another. Well, the specters and fantasies of our social relations are profoundly effective in all but the last instance, so as long as capitalism is successful in keeping things from getting to the last instance marxism as such is powerless; and brutal adventures like the Stalin purges, Cultural Revolution and Khmer Rouge look necessary to force the issue.

    It’s in the context of social relations that never reach the last instance that I argue academics are not proletarians. And I tell the story of academic organizing differently than you; to me it’s a story of tampering with oblivion, because what I know is that as a guild, since the Medieval university, academics have always enjoyed the wide-ranging freedoms you’re ascribing to more recent organizing. Those freedoms are the key to our status, and our status is the key to our legitimacy as conferrers of higher-order socialization. Brute capitalists are really confused by the university, they can’t make sense of it because it seems like a terribly inefficient way to impart useful skills and knowledge. And they are totally right about that. What the university is actually imparting, costing so much and taking so long, is the aura of culture. In weberian terms, the university is a charismatic institution, just like a church. More sophisticated capitalists understand this more ethereal value-added, and so they pay for us to do what we do and willingly leave us alone about it – because we’re not proletarians.

    Now the thing is, if we accept the brute capitalist’s definition of the situation and make what we do a mere job, where we’re just proletarians like any others and where sacred things like academic freedom and self-governance are subject to collective bargaining on the same table with profanities like wages and benefits, which is how unions work, we ourselves are participating in the conversion of higher education into mere technical training. And the danger is that this will work, and it will turn out that the charismatic dimension of education can be done without, and then we are hosed. Because in that world, there’s really no argument that can make tenure, academic freedom, ‘research’ in the humanities, Philosophy departments, and medieval literature conferences look like anything anyone with money would want to pay for.

    So you’re right, these ancient privileges are precious and fragile as hell. All the more reason to think very carefully before we go reaching for weaponry that will blow up in our faces.

  8. Hi. I have about fifty things that I _have_ to blog about over at CHE-BS, plus four articles, two talks, and a fretful infant in the next room. But this is an interesting conversation, Carl. (I’ll be in NC in March for NC-AAUP; would love to talk in person in detail then!)

    I guess I’m not 100% sure where you’re coming from on this, and where you want to take those of us active in the academic labor movement (and/or those of us you might call “left-literate” and variously left-committed).

    When you say “professors” aren’t proletarian, are you talking about the modest fraction of faculty who are tenured/tenure stream? 2005 data have them about 30% and dropping; The same data have full-time nontenurable over 20% and rising; where do the ntt ft fit?

    Of the 50% who serve part-time, a third have other jobs, a third only want part time–many of these are professional-managerial types or the spouses of pmc types. At least a third want full-time teaching and can’t get it–are they proletarian?

    Or is it better to talk, as most of us do, about “proletarianization,” the movement toward a non-guild situation, what Rhoades dubbed “managed professionalism” a decade ago, and what is probably plainly dubbed, as by Noble, deskilling and displacement, deprofessionalization?

    Where do student workers fit in? See my Chapter 4 on the How The University Works blog, about the Appalachian youth used up and spit out in a “financial aid” scheme by Louisville higher ed and UPS? Are they proletarian enough?

    When you have mass higher education, are you comfortable with dubbing only those outside of higher ed proletarian? Or can’t we see higher ed itself as complicit in proletarianization? What about higher ed globally?

    I’m also curious about your use of exploitation. It would seem that many faculty wage-earners, tenured, not tenurable alike, are exploited–universities accumulate in a bunch of ways, including most obviously endowment and fixed capital that goes to benefit/pleasure/reproduce the ruling class and their pmc servants.

    Isn’t “superexploitation” a useful way of thinking about the faculty wage-earner, who compounds simple exploitation with the discount of the psychic wage?

    I’m curious also what you mean about weaponry blowing up in our face–are our (flawed) trade unions what you mean? Or the rhetoric of exploitation? Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough.

    Anyway, these are just hasty thoughts, hastily phrased, not even up to blog-post standards! I’m genuinely curious about how you parse the situation. As I said, I’d be happy to have this conversation over a drink when I’m in your neck of the woods. Solidarity, M

    Marc Bousquet (blogging at CHE “Brainstorm,” The Valve, and home blog,

  9. Hi Marc – I’m enjoying the conversation too and would love to get together when you’re in town.

    I’ve poked around before and have started a more thorough reading so I can answer you properly. In the meantime I’ll say that my argument depends on splitting, as Marx does (or rather, as he says happens), conditions of production and social relations. It’s from the mismatches between these that critical distance is possible. So in answer to several of your specific questions above, within a marxist analytic it is an objective fact about the conditions of production that academic workers of all kinds, including students, are exploited proletarians. But that’s only half of the analysis.

    The fissure between conditions of production, in which we are exploited proletarians, and social relations, in which we are simultaneously honorable professionals with status, legitimacy and significant workplace privileges, CAN be resolved by folding social relations back into conditions of production; it looks to me like you’re doing that very ably and convincingly. And it’s true that in certain extreme instances where push is coming to shove, which are your focus, that resolution gets close to a must.

    And even outside the extreme cases there are certainly dynamics of proletarianization afoot. In all of this I agree with you. What I’m arguing is that the danger of a specifically syndicalist response is that unions take the proletarianization of their members as a starting point, and therefore give up part of the game without a struggle while limiting the available discursive options from the outset to those contained in the conditions of production. The consequence of this is that whatever leverage and unique perspective our privilege in social relations (symbolic capital) may have given us is lost.

    I’m just repeating myself. I’ll try to use stalling on reading final papers as an excuse to throw together a better response.

  10. Note to self here: are unions solutions to problems, or solutions looking for problems; or solutions that construct problems to be solutions for? What happens to problems when unions become the solutions for them?

    The principle here is Gary’s: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Surgeons want to cut, lawyers want to sue, and economists want to tax.” Hammering, cutting, suing and taxing are all good things to do, in the right contexts, and terrible things to do in the wrong ones.

  11. “Note to self here: are unions solutions to problems, or solutions looking for problems; or solutions that construct problems to be solutions for?”

    Upon first glance, I thought that said “or solutions that contract problems to be solutions for?”

  12. Joe, that’s funny. Did you construe contract in the sense of shrinking, or in the sense of catching like a disease, or in the sense of arranging to happen?

  13. But re pay and all needs above subsistence being social:

    * adjuncts at schools with good libraries are OK, but what if to stay current enough to keep you job you need to buy books?

    * if there are conferences and symposia at your school, you can meet people, but what if to stay current and in the loop you really need to attend conferences (note that many schools do not fund conferences at more than 30% even for regular faculty, so having a decent salary becomes important if you expect to make tenure, promotion, etc., because you need to buy the wherewithal to do this)?

    * relative comfort helps work. I have a good couch and it doesn’t hurt my back to sit on it and read, grade, type on the laptop. The adjuncts do not have these things and they are crabbier.


  14. Profacero, your adjuncts are crabbier than you? Yikes! ;-P

    You cite various tools of the trade. They are indeed socially necessary as conditions of our academic production and reproduction, like a carpenter’s hammer or a musician’s axe. So I would generally expect them to be top priority purchases out of whatever compensation we receive (insofar as cheaper alternatives like interlibrary loan, disciplinary blogging and nice local cafes are not available – been there done those). And with Marx I would expect compensation normally to wiggle its way toward the minimum cost of getting the worker to work prepared to do the work.

    Regular faculty are generally paid much more than they need to be for this purpose. The experiments of real life show that adjuncts are apparently paid about right for it. The question is why regular faculty are ‘overpaid’, and my argument here is that what’s being paid for is status. So there’s only so far proletarianization can go before the university ceases to offer status as a commodity, and as long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by proletarianizing ourselves into unions, this is a point of leverage for us.

  15. hi Carl,

    I started to reply before reading the comments, I’ve scrapped most of that now. A few things. For one, while I disagree very strongly with the post above, one thing I like in it is that it flies in the face of a “poor me” sensibility and a great narcissism that I think is all over academic culture, and some talk of academic workers as exploited can play into this (even though I agree with the ostensible point of that kind of talk).

    You wrote that “the University is providing a service considered to be a general social good, and therefore providing as much of it as possible as cost-effectively as possible is a positive social good” I think you’e scrapped part of this argument, but I think there’s elements of it in what you say later. I don’t buy this is an argument against academic workers being exploited or the institution being capitalist. Here are some parallel examples: “the tooth paste factory is providing a service considered to be a general social good, and therefore providing as much of it as possible as cost-effectively as possible is a positive social good.” (When I used to work retail I got this all the time – “serve the customer, work longer,” my brother gets it all the time now at his retail job. Nurses get this too, so do most medical employees, I’d say anyone who works with people probably gets something like this on the job sometimes.) Other examples might be a bicycle factory, a medical electronics assembly plant, a for profit childcare delivery company (nanny agency), a for profit educational company like the Princeton Review (I worked there a while, I did real teaching and really enjoyed it, the place is most definitely a capitalist enterprise), the list goes on.

    I think there are elements of this perspective in your more developed argument in the comments. Not 100% sure though, so I’ll leave it.

    You write about a “fissure between conditions of production, in which we are exploited proletarians, and social relations, in which we are simultaneously honorable professionals with status, legitimacy and significant workplace privileges”

    I don’t really get this, I don’t think exploitation and status, legitimacy or privileges are contradictory. I guess it depends what you mean by exploitation. If privileges mean smoke breaks and eating the boss’s food and status means pride in making my own money then I wasn’t exploited when I worked at Subway in high school. Put another way, I think you’re making a category mistake here between two types of
    analysis, as part of trying to argue that a certain type of category/analysis doesn’t cut it for you. It seems to me that your main argument is that there are things that marxist type arguments don’t grasp. That’s very reasonable, but “X leaves out Y” is different from “Y contradicts X.”

    You wrote “the danger of a specifically syndicalist response is that unions take the proletarianization of their members as a starting point” and “if we accept the brute capitalist’s definition of the situation and make what we do a mere job,
    where we’re just proletarians like any others and where sacred things like academic freedom and self-governance are subject to collective bargaining on the same table with profanities like wages and benefits, which is how unions work, we ourselves are participating in the conversion of higher education into mere technical training”

    I actually share some of what I think is motivating this, but a couple things – you sound a bit romantic about education. That’s cool, me too, but I think that’s a gut feeling I think, more than an argument. (That’s also not an argument on my part.)

    I think with all of this you seem to of an implied definition of what a union is that you don’t make explicit. My hunch is it’s an ahistorical one. There’s no reason to limit the term to the dominant legal definition (and there’s important variations in the legal defs too), or to the prevailing practices, which is mostly what you seem to be doing here (ditto re: variation) though you might then say “why retain the word union?” That’s another arguement.

    Leaving that aside, there are also locals of organizations that are uncontroversially recognizable as unions (like AFSCME and SEIU) that fly in the face of your argument. Nurses unions at for profit hospitals routinely fight for things like patient care and so forth, equivalent to what you call the ‘sacred’ things in our industry, because nurses generally care very much about patient care. Ditto social workers’ unions.

    And not just unions of more professional types. The exact same things happen with caregivers at nursing homes – those workers routinely cite the desire to give adequate patient care as a primary reason to unionize. And it’s not just caregiving workers either. Before I came back to school I worked as a union organizer. I had a committee of janitors at a hospital at one point. One of the main things they were mad about was that they ran out of cleaning supplies at the end of every month because the hospital was trying to save a few bucks. So they didn’t have disinfectant to clean the bathrooms with sometimes. This made several of the janitors really angry because they worried that patients who were already sick might get sicker if they had to use bathrooms that hadn’t been disinfected. So this became a union issue. I knew another organizer who worked with workers at a plastics factory, their main issue was that the company was recycling medical plastics into stuff for use in food packaging, which is really unsanitary. They felt like that was immoral and fought over it.

    So, in sum, re: unions, I think you have every right to say that actually existing unions fail on key issues in education, or that some issues may be very hard to deal with in a collective bargaining setting, but I don’t think you can support your stronger implication/claim which I think is along the lines of “unions qua unions just can’t do this and can only do that…”

    take care,

  16. Hi again Carl,
    I just read your latest comment, sorry to post twice. I wanted to add – as for the overpayment of regular faculty, I agree with you that a lot of regular faculty are overpaid. I think it may well be in the interests of a lot us lower on the food chain to see folk higher up get restructured (a lot of them end up just acting like management a lot of the time anyway – that’s part of why they’re overpaid) while we get ours via unionization.
    take care,

  17. Chums, this is fun. Thank you all.

    @Marc, Nate prompts me to clarify my implied definition of unions, and points out that they come in various types and agendas. That’s right, but I and Wikipedia think that the native mode of unions as such is to organize workers for collective struggle over compensation and conditions of work. The native assumption is that ‘they’ are trying to screw ‘us’, the native discourse is aggrieved and adversarial, the native leverage is to withhold labor, and the native outcome is uneasy compromises unsatisfactory to ‘both sides’ punctuated by renewed conflict when the contract expires.

    Unions as such push in these directions. They don’t have to, but that’s their inertia. I don’t find any of that attractive, and although it might be realistic, I’d like to consider options before jumping to that conclusion. Further, I suspect unions of constructing their own reality: that is, it’s possible to me that union fundamentalism is the same sort of wacky faith position that free market fundamentalism is. To me they look and feel very much the same, with the same sort of surface plausibility and smoothly-elaborated rationalization that breaks down into shouting under any kind of critical pressure. Of course if unions are not churches but tools, then the questions become pragmatic – what are they good for exactly? What are the right and wrong jobs for them? What can and can’t they accomplish? What’s the right way to use them and what are the consequences of using them wrong?

    Still thinking. More follows.

  18. @Nate, like any association of persons unions can decide to do whatever they decide to do together. But as I’ve said just above, unions have a native mode that is historically quite deeply embedded in concept and practice. They identify their members in a certain way and push toward certain definitions of the situation.

    Most importantly for my argument, union memberships do not themselves fully control their space of possible concepts and practices, either outside the association itself or in their own skulls. There is an elective affinity between the conventional concept of a union and the desire to join one, of course, which is half of this self-fulfilling prophesy. The other half is that when interlocutors see a ‘union’ coming, they have quite a thick preconception of what that means and how the situation is being constructed, as I’ve described above. In a sense this is a testament to the historical success of unions; much of the work of getting the forces aligned has always already been done at this point. But for better or worse, unions are procrustean beds, so it’s important to see if how they stretch and cut things is right for the situation seen from a broader perspective.

    Still thinking. More follows.

  19. Just to clarify: I think faculty can and should be organized advocates for themselves, the university and where possible the place of the university in the wider world. What I’m objecting to about unions as such is the framing of faculty as aggrieved workers and of the solution as struggle. I’ve mentioned the medieval guild as an alternative and historically accurate model, but I don’t actually think that clock can be turned back. So assuming I can get any kind of traction on bracketing the union model for a moment, what I’m looking for is a form of collective advocacy that is not inertially and perceptually aggrieved and conflictual.

    Just to refresh some progress, we’ve established that calling faculty ‘exploited’ is technically correct, in the ordinary sense that anyone who works for a wage in a capitalist economy is by definition exploited. Higher wages and better job security do not change this, nor does any measure of workplace control, so short of a social revolution this portion of the discussion is unhelpful – unless we’re prepared to consider my point that aspects of academic labor may prefigure unalienated labor. I’ve also finally been driven, over at LP’s place, to dredge up Lenin reminding us in What Is to Be Done that Marx and Engels considered the critical intelligentsia to be a defecting part of the bourgeoisie (Bourdieu calls us “the dominated fraction of the dominant class”), which on good authority scotches the notion that academics are proletarians.

    Still thinking. More follows.

  20. @Nate (and Joe), you’re damn right that much of this is motivated by my impatience with the “‘poor me’ sensibility and great narcissism” of much academic self-talk. My earlier post linked above addressed this from a more overtly stoical perspective. I’ve never liked it, but now that I teach world history I like it even less. There’s just no informed way to get any version or phase of our professional lives out of the top ten good ways humans have lived and into the enormous pile of bad ways humans have lived. I think people who can bitch about academia can bitch about the sky being blue – wah, wah, one and one is two, we got a drama. I don’t think we make a lot of sense or get much sympathy from folks who actually live hard lives when we moan about ours. And I think we could stand to be much more humble and grateful and dignified about that, while acting as good stewards of the blessings we’ve received and working within our best idiom to extend them as widely as possible.

    There’s a real occupational hazard built into the construction of critical intellectuals. Good critical thinking includes both criticism and appreciation, but we tend to train for the former because it’s the visible sine qua non, and as a result we self-select for crabby negativity. It may be accordingly that getting academics to embrace what’s cool about our work and focus on finding positive ways to enhance that is a non-starter, but that’s the idea I’m floating here.

  21. @Nate, you are correct that I used the forces of production/social relations argument to do a category shift. What I did there (among other places) was smuggle a little Weber (“Class, Status, Party”) back into Marx; which may be justified only in that Weber thought he was pulling some undeveloped threads out of Marx. The difference as I understand it is that Marx dealt with social relations like status as mediations within historical moments of production and reproduction (which are themselves social relations, but that’s a long story), whereas for Weber class, status and party were all social relations that enjoyed substantial relative autonomy as points of access to power. In some sense what Weber offers is a shorthand to talk about the mediations of power in determinate historical moments without doing all the work Marx would want to do, a la Capital, to fully embed them. So yes, I was cheating there – not exactly saying that marxist-type arguments can’t handle the particular kinds of power professorial status carries, but that getting at that through marxism is prohibitively cumbersome for most practical purposes. And the way marxism is usually vulgarized for practical purposes, to read status straight back into the class struggle, is in our historical moment simply wrong and tactically counterproductive. What we need to do is figure out how to leverage our status effectively, not just jettison it for naked class warfare.

    Nor should we be sitting on our fat asses in our ivory towers like so many balding Rapunzels waiting for our prince. Here’s where I agree thoroughly with Marc – there’s work to be done. What it is and how to do it are the questions.

    I’d argue that education is different than toothpaste, or even nursing, which are both socially necessary and wonderful, in that the product we offer is uniquely enabling of the human person as such. I’m not so romantic to think this is always the outcome, of course; see my Hitler post following.

    It’s really neat to be read so carefully and intelligently. Thanks.

  22. hi Carl,

    This is definitely fun. I’ll try not to repeat myself a lot but I don’t think I can resist doing some of that. I think your post expresses (though I don’t agree with forms of _how_ you express it and what you do with it) a really important criticism of practices in a lot of unions – members not calling the shots and so on.

    I think you’ve got a fair point about a lot of the actually existing labor movement past and present, but I think you overstate your case and flatten out a lot of differences. Again I’d point to unions of nurses and other workers who perform functions which are socially necessary (not in Marx’s sense of socially necessary labor time but in a normative sense along the lines of the humanist sense that I think is working in the background of a lot of what you say here, and which I share). Nurses are really careful about striking because care for the patient is often a top or even the top concern for nurses, and a top concern behind why they unionize. I think education unions would do a good job to look to healthcare unions as a parallel – healthcare unions pretty successfully move the message that healthcare workers and patients have a community of interest, often over and against the interest of management. I feel the same way about teachers.

    One reason I’d like to unionize is to have more power with which to act on the care that I have for my students (sorry for the tortured phraseology, writing in a hurry). I think this only makes sense, again to parallel nurses: nurses spend the most time with patients of anyone in hospitals. People who hate patients don’t last as nurses – they burnout and quit or find other ways to get away from patients (there are exceptions and bad apples, of course); a parallel relationships holds with teachers and students.

    All of which is to say, the stuff you’re calling for is compatible within unions. This may sound like an insult, I don’t mean it that way – I think some of what you’re saying is analogous to the practices of company unions and business unionism, collaboration between employers and employees. You concerns about teaching and the importance of education could be the basis for a rank and file caucus or committee within a union of academic employees – I’d join something like that if we worked together at a unionized place. That body would engage in conflicts within the larger organization, against others in the organization: like against some colleagues I’ve got who I like and who are really smart but who look at teaching like just this hoop they jump through to get to do their research, I find that infuriating for all kinds of reasons and I’d vote for measures those folk would vote against. In the long term, if higher education was heavily unionized then I’d even make it a priority within our unions to try and make it so way less people like that come into and are produced by graduate programs.

    I also think that people like that are partly a product of institutional priorities which are out of whack within higher education at least the humanities and social sciences. As part of this, it seems to me that there’s a correlation between pay/conditions and doing teaching work: more teaching = less status and pay and control etc. Unionization insofar as it redistributed power more equitably would increase the power of people doing teaching work, who as I said I think are more likely to care about teaching and the aspects of education that you’re talking about.

    take care,

  23. Well – for example, in the non US countries I am familiar with, university presidents are elected by the faculty from among them, not recruited by headhunters and hired by mysterious boards. That right there makes faculty less [proletarian]-like.

  24. Nate, you’re going to have to work much harder if you want to insult me… :-p I agree with you and think you’ve well described the kinds of negotiations and conflicts over priorities and postures that occur within groups. There’s no doubt that under the right circumstances a union could function in the way I’m thinking of; there are even examples of it within the academy to add to yours. Even so, the elective affinities, meaning spaces and problem-construction inherent in unions as such that I address above continue to trouble me. Will you admit at least that old habits die hard?

    In that respect you haven’t addressed my reciprocal concern about the reception of unions. Whatever their internally-constituted intents, unions go out into the world as ‘unions’, and this entrains a set of conventional meanings (baggage) in their interlocutors that we can’t control and that I continue to think are counterproductive in our specific case.

    As for the prioritization of teaching, a lot of that has to do with a division of labor within the academy as it’s developed since WWII. For example, I teach at a nice smaller regional university that is proudly teaching-oriented, although our new dean is beginning to rumble a bit about encouraging more research. I’ve done some publishing and conference work, but my tenure was really on the strength of teaching, service and collegiality. As I’ve mentioned above, and this may be a locally-enlightened thing, we don’t hire a lot of adjuncts or have much pay disparity, except in fields where there’s no other way to bring people in. There’s a lot less angst and a lot more collegiality here than some other places I’ve been. So the issues here are quite different than those at the big R1s and state education factories (where I have also taught).

    How to factor these niche differences into the current discussion is another thing. Any thoughts?

  25. Also: my hourly wage works out to $15, as calculated by the university. That is before benefits and taxes are taken out of it. From there I subtract professional expenses.

    I also pay $15 per hour for house cleaning … the house cleaner does better than I insofar as I pay cash and she does not have to pay for conferences out of it, but then again my job is more interesting.

    This is fair enough but the adjuncts make minimum wage and sometimes less, and it is *not* true that it is possible to fund the kinds of professional expenses out of that salary that I fund out of mine.

    “You cite various tools of the trade. They are indeed socially necessary as conditions of our academic production and reproduction, like a carpenter’s hammer or a musician’s axe. So I would generally expect them to be top priority purchases out of whatever compensation we receive (insofar as cheaper alternatives like interlibrary loan, disciplinary blogging and nice local cafes are not available – been there done those).”

    Top priority purchases, how and when? With what money if you are making $18K? Many people I know have to do it on credit, and adjuncts, if they finally get ‘real’ jobs, start them with student loan debt *and* credit card debt from the adjuncting years, and it is not because they have lived large.

    “And with Marx I would expect compensation normally to wiggle its way toward the minimum cost of getting the worker to work prepared to do the work.”

    How well prepared do you want them to be?


    There is something about all of this that sounds like what my Republican relatives say, for instance that academics should not be paid a living wage because then people who want money will be academics. The thing is that these relatives *have* their own money, so they *can* work as a hobby.

    I do get your point about the foreshadowing of unalienated labor and so on, but I just wonder: proletarianization has gone *really* far in some cases. Should one then be expected to live on air and say one has a higher calling … ? I know that is not what you mean to say but it seems to be one practical-type result of it. ?

  26. Profacero, at the beginning of the semester I always introduce myself to my students by playing with conventions of naming and titling (with Dyke as a family name it was either a sense of humor or a lifetime of rage) – I tell them they can call me Carl, because that’s how I think of myself, or Dr. Carl, or Dr. Dyke, which is preposterous, or Professor Dyke, but they cannot call me Mr. Dyke (if you’re going to use titles you have to use the correct, that is the highest one) unless it’s in the context of calling me Mr. Dr. Prof. Dyke, according to German usage.

    Which brings me to your point, which is a good one. In most places outside the U.S. higher education never became an entitlement entrained to the legitimation of mass democracy, so much more of the character, structure, and charismatic status of the medieval university has persisted, including the extreme social honor enjoyed by educated folk and the history of administrations serving faculties by offloading unpleasant tasks and freeing them up to go about their professorly calling.

    Of course this is a tough model because all of it depends on much more frank and straightforwardly restrictive elitism, which would be politically and culturally unpalatable in the U.S..

  27. @Profacero, as to #26, again the ‘how well’ is well enough, which is a matter of ongoing experiment in the academic labor market. At the moment, as you and Marc point out, schools can rely on a lot of subsidy from their workers to keep themselves at that well enough level, which in the case of much lower-level college instruction is pretty low indeed. As long as that’s true, there’s very little incentive on the demand side to change the situation.

    But is it a subsidy, exactly? Here’s another thought to toy with. Let’s try it out.

    In the U.S. we pay to go to school beyond K-12. It’s an inherently desirable activity outside the economic frame, and an investment within it. Investments, of course, involve risk.

    For people on the academic track, at a certain point you start getting paid to go to school. Sweet! In the early phases of this status-transformation it would not occur to us to link that pay to a complete living wage. My first-year fellowship at UCSD was probably livable IF I had still been single, but I was married, so of course it was essential to supplement. But I was getting paid to go to school, duh, which a lot of my classmates were not.

    As I continued to go to school I continued to be paid for it, more in fact as I became a T.A., which I have always considered the most valuable and enriching of my educational experiences. Again, not enough for a married couple to live on, although easily enough if I had fully understood the conditions of my life and the consequences of my choices and stayed single. But there was no need, because I was in a liberated marriage, my wife was developing her own career, and the collective income was more than adequate.

    Once I finished my doctorate I continued to be paid to go to school, eventually much more than, as I gradually learned my way into teaching Philosophy, Sociology and Human Development in the Bay Area. Insofar as other income (my wife’s, thanks to her) had to supplement this education it continued to be the same sort of investment it always had: to prepare myself for further levels of being paid to go to school, eventually even enough to finally make the full transition from paying for school to being paid to go to school.

    I am currently paid enough for all of my going to school plus the incidentals of a comfortable professional life as well, although my wife’s income is certainly a pleasant enhancement. She is currently considering returning to grad school for her MFA, at which point she will begin once again to pay for going to school and I will happily subsidize her, including by taking out further loans that her future employers will pay off as return on our investment – or not, in which case our risk tanks and she clears out of the market.

    Thinking about it this way, the notion that at every step of the development of an academic career a living family wage should be paid reveals a striking sense of entitlement. Which goes back to the previous comment.

  28. hi Carl,
    Lots to say but no time. Real quick: “the notion that at every step of the development of an academic career a living family wage should be paid reveals a striking sense of entitlement”

    Not necessarily, if by entitlement you mean differential entitlement – that academic workers should get paid a living wage because academics. I think this comes up a lot and is often quite reactionary. On the other hand if the argument is that academic workers should get paid a living wage because workers then it’s a different story altogether. Then it’s a matter of acting upon or implementing that moral right, which seems to me largely a matter of power and conflict – whether mediated through ‘normal’ operations of markets and so on or through things like the conventional sorts of unionism that you suggest would threaten academia.

    The other thing I’ll say on this, somewhat repeating an earlier point, is that paying a living wage and maintaining a more livable workload across the board among academic workers will enhance the delivery of those fundamental goods that you see in higher education.


  29. Are you trying to say academic labor isn’t labor? Or that teaching, say, 5 sections of comp or Spanish 101 as our adjuncts do is “going to school” – ?

    All of this strikes me as really ‘Darwinian’ and as coming from a position of privilege – and as not being particularly good for teaching, research, and so on.

  30. Cero, there’s much academic labor that isn’t labor. We don’t normally pay our students for all their hard work writing papers for us or teaching each other in class discussion and peer review, although certain kinds of financial aid could be construed that way. I’m suggesting (and I know it’s a can of worms, that’s my point) that there’s a very significant hybrid zone between the sort of work students do and the sort of work professors do, and what hybridizes it is, roughly speaking, ‘training’ or ‘apprenticeship’.

    Of course that can be, and is, abused. This is an area where, as I keep saying, some kind of comprehensive collective engagement by faculty in defining the conditions of our production and reproduction would be a good thing. But there’s nothing automatically upsetting about people in the student/faculty hybrid zone not getting paid at a full worker rate, since they are also simultaneously and fractally students.

    Thanks as always for the prompt to clarify. Could you say more about what you mean by “privilege” in this specific context? So often this is just used as a brush to tar all inconveniences, but I know that’s not your style.

  31. Carl,
    “Not labor” and “not waged” are two very different categories. I think your last post to Profacero conflates those two.

  32. Nate, in the idiom of the question no. In the idioms of Marx or Debs, yes. I find I confuse most people when I speak in more than one language per sentence. ;-\

  33. OK, about the language thing; @everyone and no one: I recognize that much of the commentary has been oriented toward getting me to say things more like Marc Bousquet says in How the University Works. This is a very fine book that eloquently and in detail lays out the case for grievance and struggle in the academic workworld. For anyone committed to that way of looking at and talking about these issues, he’s got that covered. Check out the blog too, and the one at Brainstorm.

    I am good for a variety of things. Chorusing orthodoxies is not one of them. In this post and the comments I am seeking to jostle the perceptual and discursive defaults that lend Marc’s work its self-evidence to a predictable self-selected audience. To do this I am working a variety of strategies, including redeploying the default critical vocabulary, interpolating theoretical systems, shifting perspectives, and reprioritizing moments of experiential and analytical sequences. I’m playing with language games to wedge open some critical distance and enable different thoughts.

    That’s my idea of fun, but the value of it is debatable, as is the value of all critical thinking. The world can be interpreted in various ways; the point may be to change it. When something clicks into a needs to be done, you gotta stop noodling around with ideas, plant your feet and go.

  34. @Nate, you said: “paying a living wage and maintaining a more livable workload across the board among academic workers will enhance the delivery of those fundamental goods that you see in higher education.” I agree. Now, time permitting, what I’d be interested in is refracting this point through the lens I offered in #28.

    Marc says flatly in HUW that apprenticeship in academia ended in 1970. That’s a striking claim and sets the scene nicely for his argument. But it does not offer a frame to make sense of my experience or the way I’ve interpreted it above – it’s just straight to moaning masses. There’s a lot of leverage behind that simplifying move, but I think it misses something about the liminalities of identity transformation and hence can’t tell us anything useful about the conditions under which enhanced delivery of fundamental goods ever happens.

  35. hi Carl,
    I get that you feel like your experiences don’t fit within analyses and rhetoric put forward by others. That’s totally reasonable. Along similar lines a lot of people have had terrible experiences working at union shops (or not being able to get jobs due to union rules) and so are hesitant to get on board if there are unionization attempts in their workplaces. That’s also quite reasonable. I don’t think that this has much prescriptive force, though. It says you’re not convinced and that some other folks’ claims overstep their proper scope. But I don’t think your negative/deflationary claims don’t actually support the positive claims you make as alternatives, except rhetorically. For what it’s worth, I’m eminently sympathetic to your negative claims. It’s your positive claims about the nature of labor in academia and education and the nature of unions (or, as you reformulate it later, the weight of history bearing down on current practices within unions) that I find unconvincing. I think you also overstep the scope of your arguments in a way similar to the view your unconvinced by.

    All of that said, I want to add that I think across the board arguments for unionization or not are best addressed with as much local specifity as possible. It’s like marriage – an argument for or against marriage as such, at the level of the category of marriage, is not often the most useful register for someone who is considering whether or not this marriage to this person right now is a good thing to start (or continue). Likewise with unionizing – is it a good idea here, where I work, with affiliation to this or that union – I think that’s a more productive register for considering the question. Either against or for. (Which is to say, I take your point that conversation among fans of academic unionization, myself included, may not do the work that the conversants think it does.)

    take care,

  36. Nate, what I feel like is that my experiences, like everyone’s, can be perceived, understood and narrated in a variety of ways, each of which leads to different thoughts, feelings and actions.

    I’ve made very little in the way of prescriptive claims, beyond some handwaving at the guild concept as the shell of an alternative, because I agree with you that local specificity is likely to be critical in successfully working out what sorts of associations fit particular nodes and problems within the academic milieu. For this reason my main purpose has been to bracket unions, across the board because otherwise they keep sliding in as the procrustean bed of all labor organizing, because I want to clear space for consideration of real alternatives in actual cases.

    You’d like to say that unions can flex to fit local specificities. I know that’s true, I’ve agreed with that, but unions come with costs too and I’m wondering if other models might avoid them. There’s no sense even asking that question if we’re going to keep defaulting back to unions, so I’ve been insistent on problematizing unions to try to get head space clear.

    It’s kind of like energy policy. Perhaps we want to use energy more efficiently as part of a progressive program. And I say, well first of all we need to get everyone into a Prius. Which would certainly be better, and perhaps in a few instances even optimal. But if that’s the only place the conversation can go, we never get to the one about dismantling the interstate highway system, building up rather than out, diverting resources to mass transit, transforming a culture of entitlement to personal transport, and so on. And then I say, but don’t you know that the Prius comes in different colors and option packages?

    I appreciate you thinking along with me. If you like, here’s a place we could easily stop: I LIKE UNIONS. I think they’re great like puppies, sunny days and tangy reubens. But that’s not my point, never has been. We’ve agreed all along about getting down to cases, but I want to do that in new ways, because:

    (#10) “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Surgeons want to cut, lawyers want to sue, and economists want to tax. Hammering, cutting, suing and taxing are all good things to do, in the right contexts, and terrible things to do in the wrong ones.”

    (#18) “Of course if unions are not churches but tools, then the questions become pragmatic – what are they good for exactly? What are the right and wrong jobs for them? What can and can’t they accomplish? What’s the right way to use them and what are the consequences of using them wrong?”

  37. hi Carl,
    I take part of your point to be that I’ve become a bit axe-grindy and that there’s a direction here you want to go such that I’m not willing/able/helpful. Fair enough. I’ll back off. I look forward to reading your thoughts as you develop them further.
    take care,

  38. Re #31 – I am not talking about students, I am talking about people who are working at the university for pay and are not enrolled in it.

    Privilege, I mean, you have to be doing well and always have been doing well to be willing to suggest that salaries don’t matter or shouldn’t. People who live on these salaries, are concerned about them and for good reason.

    My question about all this is is, isn’t the guild model what they steeped you on, so to speak, in college and graduate school? It was the ideology we were sold, definitely, and we believed it initially … and could, because we were University of California graduate students in more reasonable economic times than these. The university was cushy, the town was cushy, we were young and strong, tuition was cheap, and everything was so beautiful that our mini apartment and lack of savings were inconsequential. If one then went on to a nice job with good benefits and travel funding and so on, it was easy to continue to believe it was an ancient guild and money didn’t really matter because there was enough. Except that there are cracks in this golden bowl.

  39. I mean – I’d love to be in guild world but I strongly suspect I am actually in the world John Lombardi describes here:

    HOWEVER, the idea of pushing back with the guild model could be a good one. If people would do it. I can’t even seem to get people to join an AAUP chapter or participate in shared governance … they are more interested in some other kind of mode, patron client relations or I do not know what!!!

  40. Thanks Cero, these are good thoughts to think with. I’m grinding through final essays and journals right now and trying not to allow myself too much pleasant distraction, but just briefly:

    *I’m trying to see if it makes sense to think of some of the people we’re talking about as hybrids: no longer ‘just’ students, not yet ‘just’ workers. There’s a learning curve on teaching that isn’t all the way traveled in grad school even by the most prolific T.A.s, as I know from being on the hiring side. I even want to say that in some sense teaching is always about also being a student. That said, permanent adjuncts are as close as academics get to the full sense of brute exploitation. They’re priority one for any kind of organized faculty pushback. I think we agree completely about that.

    *I am not independently wealthy and I know few academics who are. Of course salaries matter. Mine is small but ample, and not because it’s being supplemented or backstopped but because I have a modest expectation from life. So I don’t think ‘privilege’ as you usefully define it is the only way to understand incredulity toward the metanarratives of exploitation among the lumpenbourgeoisie, unless we add to privilege a basic emotional ability to be at peace with the world (‘doing well’ as an optional subjective state). Which I will totally admit is a privilege. But again, permanent adjuncts have a real beef and deserve solidarity. I’m saying I don’t buy the metanarrative; I am not saying I don’t see systemic abuses.

    *You’re right about the guild sell and the cracks in the golden bowl. Except I never expected the bowl to be golden. My image was always the absent-minded scholar/teacher in the ratty, frayed sweater and taped-on glasses with the wobbly bicycle and the messy little apartment with the thrift-store furniture. Which is no less a romanticization of the profession, but it’s one that doesn’t lead me to need an income on par with more businessy professionals to think I’m being treated right. As much as I need the salary and would have to work to get one no matter what, I am monthly delighted and amazed to discover that someone is willing to pay me at all for the odd stuff I do.

    *The guild is an image I’m floating as a headspace-creator, and in some contexts reviving it might be worth a try, but it may not be the right model any more than the union is. As another possibility, why don’t university faculty have a professional organization/lobby like the AMA? I know each discipline kind of has one (MLA, AHA, APA, ASA etc.) but that’s all too fragmented and ethereal to do much concrete systemic good. Those AMA guys kick a lot of ass. Lots of problems with the parallel, but there might be something to learn there. And it would flatter the non-joiners’ egos in a totally different way than the union, which is burdened with the baggage of its working class origins and hence is an epic fail with respect to the status-seeking motives of many academics.

    *That’s a real good point you make about patron-client relations. Those explain many things. I’ll have to think more on that. Cheers!

  41. Nate, ours is the narcissism of small differences. Let us both think of new ways to develop this fine conversation!

  42. Note to self, re: patronage: explore samurai/ronin analogy.

    “What’s really happening” vs. “ways to think about the various things that are happening” as usual. (Frame analysis.)

  43. Now it is I who am trying to evade grading for another 15 minutes. Professional lobby like the AMA, I think it’s a great idea. A fantastic idea. Let’s do it now.

    Patron-client relations, AHA, I think you see more in my comment than I do. I’ll look forward to reading what it is.

    Minor stuff:

    Hybrids: do you mean that if one is still learning one deserves less compensation? How is the way in which we are still learning different from the way other professionals are also still learning?

    Wealth: well, I am a 5th generation academic and I have tenure. I’d like to be able to fund research and dentistry some way other than a home equity line of credit (I bought a low income house on the FHA a few years ago, which is why I have home equity). In said house I have no dishwasher, television, camera, ipod, etc. My big purchase this month was a bicycle pump and now I am saving up for a new screen door. Hurricane Gustav took my sabbatical money and had we had a hurricane beyond Ike I would not have had cash to fix the roof a third time. Are my desires modest enough? I’d like to fence part of the yard and the materials are only a couple of hundred dollars but that, plus taking time out of work to do the building, is a big deal for me.

    Re: un-golden bowls: I am a 5th generation academic, and I am speaking of 5 generations in the humanities. I never expected a great deal. But your image of a professor is a romanticized version of a graduate student. I hope you are not living that way now. I do not know any academics in the humanities who dream of living like business-y professionals. Odd stuff you do, I don’t know what it is so I cannot judge it, but people in other professions are also paid to do “odd stuff.” And just because you enjoy your job does not mean you do not deserve to be paid for it. That idea is one of the MAJOR elements in the “Koolaid.”

    There is a post at Historiann on related matters:

  44. By way of tangential reply, just wanted to recommend Nate’s excellent followup post pingbacked at #40 and hijack Adam W.’s sharp diagnosis from the comments. He starts by recalling what he learned from Bourdieu et. al. about education as reproduction, then adds his own observations:

    What they said was that largely college is a process of enculturalization/socialization that prepared participants to join certain status groups in society (ie professionals) and that much of the particular knowledge they ‘learned’ was largely tangential or useless to the skills and knowledge they wound up using in the job world. Related to this, what I’ve seen on my own is that college is largely about preparing you for jobs/social status’ where you ‘care’ or ‘believe in’ whatever it is you are doing and that part of this is getting you to believe in certain values. These require you to work in a very much self-directed manner, where you understand the mission/goals/tasks of an institution and are expected to execute them largely independent of oversight, instead you report back and are evaluated in a very individualized way…. This is in contrast to most working class manual/blue collar jobs where they don’t expect you to believe in anything, just to do your work and largely shut up….

    So being a radical academic seems like such a hard proposition because you are expected to first follow the rigorous hoops getting degrees and learning this kind of individualized discipline via professors and then you are expected to replicate the whole process. At the whole time you are critical of what the real goals and actual practices of the whole institution. You are stuck in this predicament of doing the work to ‘believe in it’ but not really ‘believing it’ and being conscious of the larger social processes at work. I think these ideas could be developed more, but in short- being in the academy and being a radical and an academic seems like quagmire of sorts. And I think this has a lot to do with the crux of what sucks about academic work.

    Yup, that’s about right. Is this the kool-aid you had in mind, Cero?

  45. HOLA. No, that’s more like part of what I’d say is actually going on.

    The Kool-Aid is the idea that you are lucky to be paid at all for doing this work, that you don’t need more than subsistence wages, and that your situation is, you are a member of an ancient guild. I thought those were things you were seriously suggesting … and I mean, if you believe that, or really feel that way, then they’ve got you where they want you!

    “This is in contrast to most working class manual/blue collar jobs where they don’t expect you to believe in anything, just to do your work and largely shut up.”

    But that’s where academia is going, too. Has already gone, in fact!!! It is why I laugh at the ancient guild idea!!!

  46. Also: saying one wants fairer compensation is NOT the same as saying one wants the income of a “businessy professional.” That is another part of the Koolaid, the myth that people who want to be above the poverty level are demanding to be made rich. As in this dialogue:

    Prof: I need more money.
    Admin: So you have the bourgeois aspiration, eh? I thought you were a better person than that, young man.
    Prof: I do not mean a six figures, I mean enough of a raise to cover my insurance deductibles.
    Admin: Of course, when I was first employed here, we did not even have insurance.

    Here is another example:

    Dept. chair, friend of mine: This asst. prof. is really worrying me. He insists on teaching night and summer classes to fund his expensive research trips, rather than taking out loans.
    Me: He sounds like he knows what he is doing. Is he publishing?
    Dept. chair: Yes, he is doing well in every way, but every minute he spends teaching extra courses could be spent publishing even more, to ensure tenure, really ensure it. He is a fool not to invest in his future by subsidizing himself with loans rather than work.
    Me: I remember you telling me that, and as you know I now have too much debt to move.
    Dept. chair: But things are different now…

    Do you see? She is making everything the professor’s responsibility, not the university’s for not funding his research trips or paying him enough to do so himself out of regular salary (yes I know there is ACLS and so on but one also needs one’s own money in this day and age). She is expecting the prof. to do something really irrational, bet on futures or something, and calling him irrational for not doing it. All this rhetoric is designed to throw up a smoke screen around the issue at hand which is that basic needs aren’t covered by salary.

    I guess I am just tired of the rap about being a noble guild of sacrificers. I want to be able to desire a Mad River kayak/canoe hybrid for $800 – even if I cannot buy it, or cannot buy it now – and not hear a professor saying in my ear, “Now, now, you knew you should have gone into business if you wanted access to that kind of thing. Think nobly, dear, and renounce.”


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