Saturday, May 27, 2023

Florida, Man! The War Against Higher Education


Alligator has to be the best University Mascot

“What is happening in Florida will not stay in Florida." From the AAUP's Report on Florida

There is no shortage of critical responses to what is happening to higher education in Florida. There is the report from the AAUP cited above, and the podcast I co-host even dedicated an episode to it. In many, but not all of these cases, these responses have dovetailed with DeSantis' political career, focusing on the person, the policy, and the overall strategy. See for the example the great episode of Know Your Enemy. 

While there is much to be said about that, I watched the following clip below and was struck by its ability to mobilize and tap into existing frustrations against higher education.

Leaving aside, at least for a moment, the attack on DEI, There are three prongs to this attack. The first is on tenure. The attack on tenure can be understood as a kind of negative solidarity, in that job security and protection can seem like an egregious excess for an elite class when so many, even those within academia, are subject to absolute precarity and instability. 

I have been talking about "negative solidarity" for a long time, ten years (and I did not even coin the term), and one of the things that I focus on in my forthcoming book is that negative solidarity has to be understood as a kind of affective constitution of politics. To cite a passage from that book:  

"Negative solidarity can be understood as a particular affect, indignation at those who are perceived to not work hard enough, are not engaged in real work, or who rely on political power or corruption (these two things are seen as more or less synonymous) to keep their jobs. This affect, this anger, aimed at everyone from those who benefit from the last remnants of social protection to those public employees who still have union protections, has to be seen as both an exclusion and an inclusion. As much as it excludes those who do not work or who are not perceived as working, it does so in the name of a loose collectivity A popular bumper sticker in the US reads, “Keep Working: Millions of Welfare Depend Upon You,” defining a particular kind of indignation. The person affixing such a bumper sticker car is not just angry at the person who is supposedly living off of their labor, but, as it addresses, or interpellates, its imagined audience, it draws them together in shared indignation. There is a sense of a “we,” a collectivity of “real” workers, “real Americans,” an imagined universality albeit a weak one defined by both work and its ethical norm that is being harmed. This is what puts the solidarity in negative solidarity. There is a unity, a community, albeit loosely defined in and through their shared engagement in work, in productive work. Work that is defined through both its physical difficulty, or at least the stoic fortitude it takes to endure it; its economic centrality, or perceived economic centrality; and ethic of individual commitment, rather than collective protections. The solidarity is negative in the sense it both eschews any collectivity, unions are seen as the deviation rather than the expression of this collectivity precisely because they undermine the shared commitment to work that defines it, and in the way that it functions as a strategy. Negative solidarity can only see any improvement, collective bargaining, protection of employment, and so on, as not only partial, and thus some sense corrupt, but also as a deviation of the fundamental ethical basis of work itself, which demands individual strength and fortitude. As much as negative solidarity is aimed at others, at those who are perceived not to work, seeking to discipline those who rely on state spending or those who are protected by union agreements, it ultimately further the attenuation of class struggle, obscuring actual divisions with imagined ones. The attachment to work and independence ultimately undermines its own status in the world, as individual workers are left to fend for themselves."

Tenure, the idea of job security supposedly independent of effort seems absolutely antithetical to a world where effort, hard work is supposed, to be the basis of not only continued employment, but one's very existence and worth as a person. There is nothing more out of sync with the contemporary regime of work subject to constant surveillance, evaluation, and examination than the idea of someone continuing to work with no other motivation than their own particular passion and interest. 

One important difference between the tenured academic and the other figures of the negative solidarity imaginary, such as the welfare queen and lazy school teacher, is that there is an actual injustice here. It is not the one that DeSantis imagines, of tenured faculty as deadweight (although I am sure that happens as well), but the fact that people doing the same job, and probably even more work, are doing it for a fraction of the salary and with no job security or stability. This is worth imagining because the attack on tenure that is starting in Florida, Texas, and other states is an attack on an already divided and demoralized labor force. I cannot really imagine the thousands of adjunct faculty rallying to defend tenure when it already has been effectively eroded for so many (often with tenured faculty doing little to stop this transformation). Moreover, while some people have responded to the attack on tenure in Florida to argue that this will make it difficult to attract talented teachers and researchers, making it ultimately self defeating. I would argue that such an argument overlooks the truly desperate and demoralized state of the academic job market. Many talented researches and teachers are already working for poverty wages at multiple institutions. Some of these people would gladly take jobs in Florida even without the prospect of tenure if those jobs would at least pay for rent, food, and maybe even insurance. 

Negative solidarity is at its strongest when it is able to mobilize actual grievances and frustrations, attaching them to illusory objects and fictitious goals. The "Keep Working" bumper sticker referenced above is fueled by an actual frustration, the experience of working hard with no real improvement of one's life. It is this sense that something has gone wrong with work that fuels its indignation. It imagines the cause of this condition to be the welfare queen rather than say the CEO, to put it simply, or, more accurately, the structure of capital. It is an inadequate idea in Spinoza's use of the term, reflecting more the imagination and bias of the one using it than anything about the world. Its inadequacy in terms of a grasp of the world does not diffuse its hold on the imagination, and one could argue it is all the more convincing in that it refers to imaginary causes and less to the actual causes and conditions of the world. This becomes even more the case as these figures, the welfare queen, the radical professor corrupting the youth, the lazy school teacher become part of a powerful mythology circulated though pundits and the media. This is what Yves Citton refers to as a mythocracy and, as he argues, these myths and some sense function by acting on and channeling existing frustrations, anger, and indignation. The more these myths circulate, the more they become the common sense that we grasp the world. Case in point people still believe in the "welfare queen" in millions living off of welfare long after the program has become gutted and subject to disciplinary work regimes. 

Beneath the Boardwalk, The Gators 

All of this is a rather long preamble to discussing the video above. Two things strike me in DeSantis discussion of his crackdown on higher education: the increasing cost of higher education and its inability to deliver a better job to those who graduate. These are real sources of frustration. Of course neither of these things have much to do with what DeSantis is proposing, but, as with the idea of the "Millions on Welfare" the important matter is how DeSantis is mobilizing actual frustrations towards imaginary targets. Eliminating majors in things like Women and Gender Studies, Black History, or other sorts of Ethnic studies will do little to reduce the cost of tuition. DeSantis invokes the figure of the taxpayer, arguing that the taxpayer should not bear the costs of such niche and unmarketable majors. 

The taxpayer could be understood as a kind of stand in for the the citizen, but, as theorists such as Wendy Brown have noted, the shift from the political to the economic has a fundamentally anti-democratic function. The taxpayer is a figure of both individual sovereignty and mass conformity. With respect to the former, it is more akin to a consumer than a citizen, as in the often repeated phrase uttered at school boards, teachers, and city halls, "I pay your salary." The citizen gives consent, elects officials and passes laws, but the taxpayer pays the bills and always reserves the right to get its money back. The taxpayer never alienates some of its liberties or claims in exchange for rights, as in a social contract, but demands to be treated as a customer, and the customer is always right. At the same time, however, the taxpayer is a figure of the majority. The taxpayer is a figure of a kind of silent majority, taxpayers only pay for the general good and, in our society, the general good can only take one form, jobs: it can only be private self interest. 

This is the second claim of DeSantis speech, that such majors are not well positioned to be employable. We could argue about the employability of majors in women studies, ethnic studies, philosophy, etc., Or we could even talk about the fact that the university's role is to prepare people for more than just work, preparing them for political and cultural life. However, both responses miss the point that the university has, at least in the US, been touted for decades as the only solution to declining wages, automation, and globalization, replacing unions, collective action, and legal protections as the path to a "good job." The solution to every problem with work has been "go to college; get a good job." There are many faults to such a slogan. It overlooks the many "good jobs" that do not involve college, as well as the inherent limitations of such an individual solution to getting, acquiring, and protecting good jobs--leaving everyone to compete with everyone else in getting classes, credentials, and other investments in human capital. It also seems wholly inadequate to the changes of work in recent decades. Education cannot contend with the structural forces of deskilling, offshoring, and casualization that have made work more precarious, less financially rewarding, and just worse. Many students work through college only to return to the same service jobs when they graduate; or, as Communique from an Absent Future put it, "We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow.  And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have." 

All of which is to say that DeSantis is drawing on existing frustration and indignation with the university. Rising tuition combined with failures to deliver on social mobility have made many people frustrated at the university system. What DeSantis is offering is targets and directions for that frustration; it does not matter that these targets have little to do with the real problems with the university. In fact one could argue that the targets he picks are all the more effective in that they tap into existing myths about race, professors, and universities. The imagined nature of the targets should not overlook the real problems. College cost and with it college debt have been increasing at exponential rates. Students find themselves massively in debt upon graduation only to go into jobs that might require college degrees, as it becomes the new high school diploma, but do not offer the same class mobility. Thus it would foolish to respond to DeSantis by simply defending the university as it is, defending academic freedom, tenure, and so on. Any defense of the university has to be against both the assaults on freedom and the neoliberal university that makes those assaults possible. What I hear when I listen to speeches like the one above is the beginning of a larger assault on the university that will come to every state not because DeSantis will be President, but because it is fueled by real frustrations, college costs, jobs, uneven labor protections, and imaginary enemies. (In retrospect I should have called this post De te Fabula Narratur part two, emphasizing less the exceptional state of Florida and more the general condition). As this struggle spreads from state to state  I fear that a rearguard defense of the university as it exists is just not going to be enough. Any attempt to confront the right's attack on the university is going to have to take on rising costs and also address head on the university's role in the meritocratic mythocracy which claims that the solution to the collective condition of work is individual education and advancement. I realize that these two propositions are nothing less than revolutionary, but it appears that we are living though, once again, the lesson that revolutionary change is the most effective opposition to fascist creep (and fascist creeps). 

I decided to illustrate this post with pictures of Alligators from my recent trip to Florida

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