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.