Anarchists Not In Universities

By design and legacy, universities as formal social institutions easily end up closely conforming to, actively supporting, and strongly defending sociopolitical systems of power and authority, socioeconomic orders of hierarchy and inequality. In how higher education is typically structured and operates, degrees and tenure plays a gatekeeping role for the professional-managerial class and a bulwark against any challenges to the ruling elite. It filters out the non-conformists, iconoclasts, radicals, rabblerousers, and troublemakers. For those who don’t get the message, they might be kicked out or fired, silenced or blackballed.

Right-wingers have this bizarre fantasy of universities as bastions of left-wing politics. That is as far from the truth as one can get. Few universities have ever welcomed radicals, much less sought to promote activism. The only reason that campuses have been a site of political action is because they are a prime location of institutionalized power. It’s the same reason people protest on Wall Street and in front of the White House. The only way to directly challenge power is to meet it where it resides. And for college students, the power that most affects their lives and is closest within reach is university bureaucracy, which these days is typically run according to a profit model of business management and not Marxist working class control, communist revolt, or democratic self-governance.

There is a reason why, in the Cold War, the CIA hired professors as spymasters and recruited students as agents; and surely the CIA still operates this way (it’s the same reason why enemy states try to infiltrate each other’s universities, just as they do with each other’s governments). Universities have often been in that key middle position between state and citizenry, sometimes making them a useful tool of propaganda as American Studies served during the Cold War. And rarely have university staff, including tenured professors, dared to challenge this power structure. After all, if they were the type to do so, they wouldn’t likely lasted long enough to get a secure position within the hierarchy. Professors in most universities, at least in a country like the United States, quickly learn to keep their heads down. The same has been true in other countries drawn to authoritarianism, as Milton Mayer explained about how the Nazis slowly changed German society, step by step:

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

That is a good transition to what inspired this post. David Graeber is one of the more well known anarchists, at least in the English-speaking world. That is saying something considering how effectively mainstream media and politics excludes anarchists from public awareness and public debate. It is also the higher education system that excludes them, often a matter of them not being hired or getting tenure as was the case with Graeber. Minorities are probably more well represented than anarchists in positions of power and authority. Partly, that is because anarchists aren’t prone to seek positions of power and authority in the first place. But even when an anarchist tries to work within the system, most wouldn’t be very happy or likely last long. Graeber’s experience demonstrates this for not only was he an anarchist but also came from a lowly and disreputable background, from a family of working class and radicalism. Apparently, that makes him precisely what every American university wants to avoid like the plague.

Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, did have a successful career as an anarchist and academic but he did so by entirely separating the two and by compromising his principles in working on Pentagon-funded programs. I have a feeling that Graeber wouldn’t be willing to follow Chomsky’s example.

One has to be willing to admit how much Chomsky compromised, more than some are willing to do, as compromise over times becomes a mindset and a habit. The compromise is political, intellectual, and psychological. This can be seen in the positions Chomsky has taken, which don’t make sense from a position of principled anarchism, but it also can be seen in how on multiple occasions has acted as a sheepdog for the Democratic Party in telling people to vote for neocons and neoliberals because they are supposedly a lesser evil. Is Hillary Clinton a lesser evil in the way Chomsky’s friend John Deutch, academic turned Deputy Defense Secretary and later Director of the CIA, was supposedly a lesser evil according to Chomsky’s own rationalization? If they are genuinely lesser evil, why are they such key political actors in promoting greater and greater evil over time?

Chris Knight writes (When Chomsky Worked on Weapons Systems for the Pentagon):

Naturally, having argued that people like Rostow and Faurisson should be able to work in academia, Chomsky was in no position to be too hostile to any of his colleagues at MIT, no matter what they were up to. In the 1980s, for example, MIT’s most notorious academic was its Provost, John Deutch, who was particularly controversial due to his role in bringing biological warfare research to the university.[31] Deutch was also heavily involved in the Pentagon’s chemical weapons strategy, its deployment of MX nuclear missiles and its Nuclear Posture Review of 1994.[32] By this point, student and faculty opposition meant that Deutch had failed in one of his ambitions – to become President at MIT – but he had succeeded in becoming Deputy Defense Secretary. Then, in 1995, President Clinton made him Director of the CIA.

It was around this time that Chomsky was asked about his relationship with Deutch. He replied:

“We were actually friends and got along fine, although we disagreed on about as many things as two human beings can disagree about. I liked him. … I had no problem with him. I was one of the very few people on the faculty, I’m told, who was supporting his candidacy for the President of MIT.”[33]

In another interview, Chomsky was even more positive about his friend, remarking that Deutch “has more honesty and integrity than anyone I’ve ever met in academic life, or any other life. … If somebody’s got to be running the CIA, I’m glad it’s him.”[34]

One of Chomsky’s most controversial political positions concerned Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia. Although he never denied that the regime committed atrocities, it is hard to read his early writings on this subject without getting the impression that he is understating what was going on in Cambodia under Pol Pot.[35] Chomsky’s right-wing detractors have implied that this was because he had some ideological sympathy with the Pol Pot regime. This was clearly not the case. A better explanation is that it pained Chomsky’s conscience to be too critical of any country that had been so brutally targeted by the Pentagon, i.e. by the same people who had so generously funded his own academic career.

If Chomsky didn’t tell you he was an anarchist, how would one know from his academic career? Well, you couldn’t. He has always argued that ideas are separate from politics, that academia is separate from the personal. No one who is even slightly psychologically self-aware and knowledgeable of the social sciences could make such an argument, but then again Chomsky conveniently dismisses social science out of hand. You can dissociate parts of your life and self, but they never actually exist separately. If anarchism doesn’t inform how you live every aspect of your life, what purpose does it serve in being sectioned off to where it doesn’t personally threaten your lifestyle? If Chomsky isn’t an anarchist in practice when it matters most such as when money and career is on the line, is he really an anarchist? He would rather not think about that because his entire career has depended on never answering that question or rather never acknowledging the default answer.

That isn’t to say that his political work is of no value, but one has to be honest in admitting how much he chose to sacrifice, especially considering how his anarchism so often brings him back to the DNC establishment. So, that compromise wasn’t limited to a brief period of academic work long ago for it has left a permanent mark on his life and politics with repercussions in the decades since. Graeber took a different path. He still ended up in academia, just not in the United States. There was nothing stopping Chomsky from working at a different university where he wouldn’t have compromised and been compromised. It would have been a sacrifice, but in the long term it might have been a much smaller sacrifice with greater gains. I guess we will never know.

Interestingly, Graeber’s troubles began at Yale, which like MIT is one of the last places in the world an anarchist would feel at home. It was at Yale that Norman Holmes Pearson was a student and who later, as a professor, acted as a World War II secret agent for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), precursor of the CIA. Pearson was one of the major figures who established American Studies at Yale. He also went onto teach and train James Jesus Angleton who for 21 years became the CIA chief of counter-intelligence, one of the most respected and feared agents in the non-communist world. John Hartley said of him that, “His obsessive search for spies turned to domestic suspects during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, among them the liberal and countercultural elite of American society, including Martin Luther King and Edward Kennedy.” Angleton wielded much power and, along with catching actual spies, destroyed the careers and lives of many innocent people. Under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, he was in charge of CIA domestic spying for Operation Chaos. That is what higher education in the United States is mixed up with.

Is it surprising that an anti-authoritarian activist would have a hard time getting tenure at Yale? Not really. So much for universities being a haven for left-wingers and hotbed of radicalism. This would also explain, as I’ve noticed, the scarcity of academic research on anarchism (not even an anarchist like Chomsky who gets into academia will dare to apply his anarchism to his academic work, much less make it a focus; or else he wouldn’t have had a long academic career). Meanwhile, there are many millions of pages of academic research obsessing over authoritarianism. Maybe there is a reason authoritarians find universities, especially the Ivy League colleges, to be a convenient place to promote their careers. There are more academics who will write and teach about authoritarianism than will actually stand up to abuses of power in the real world. This makes one wonder what is the real purpose for studying authoritarianism in an academic setting — to prevent it or promote it?

* * *

Unraveling the Politics of Silencing
by Laura Nader

A young David Graeber came from a blue collar family. His mother was a union organizer for New York garment workers and his father fought in the Spanish Civil War. Graeber went to the University of Chicago for graduate work. He carried out his first major fieldwork in Madagascar. After Chicago, he was an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale, from 1998- 2007, author of Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology in 2004. Although he was prolific and a clear writer, his contract was not renewed at Yale. He had during his Yale stay been doing fieldwork on anarchism in New York, participant observing, and eventually became one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street Movement (Graeber 2013). He describes himself as a scholar in New Haven, an activist in New York. But after Yale, Graeber has not been able to get a job in the United States.

The Sounds of Anthropological Silence
by David Price

David Graeber’s work is exceptional. He is a rare scholar who is able to grapple with complex social theory in a very straightforward way, but it seems that it was his decision to not let theory simply be theory that lead to his leaving Yale. I am sure that had Professor Graeber been satisfied with only writing books and articles for other academics on the problems of pay inequities and globalization he could today be sipping a dry martini within the secure confines of the Yale Faculty Club. But moving beyond theory to action is seldom welcomed on university campuses when one is studying inequality.

I think that self-proclaimed anarchists can fit into an establishment university, so long as their anarchism is limited to the written and spoken word–universities can and do welcome people espousing all sorts of beliefs; it is just when professors and students behaviorally challenge power structures either off or on campus that trouble begins. It would seem that Professor Graeber’s activism both on and off campus is what put the kybosh on his tenure application. Another way of looking at this is to say that activism matters–matters so much in fact that those who engage in it must be marginalized.

It Wasn’t a Tenure Case – A Personal Testimony, with Reflections
by David Graeber

There are many mysteries of the academy which would be appropriate objects of ethnographic analysis. One question that never ceases to intrigue me is tenure. How could a system ostensibly designed to give scholars the security to be able to say dangerous things have been transformed into a system so harrowing and psychologically destructive that, by the time scholars find themselves in a secure position, 99% of them have forgotten what it would even mean to have a dangerous idea? How is the magic effected, systematically, on the most intelligent and creative people our societies produce? Shouldn’t they of all people know better? There is a reason the works of Michel Foucault are so popular in US academia. We largely do this to ourselves. But for this very reason such questions will never be researched. […]

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of social class. I was told by one ally at Yale that my problem was that owing to my proletarian background and general comportment, I was considered “unclubbable.” That is, if one is not from a professional-managerial background, one can be accepted by one’s “betters,” but only if one makes it clear such acceptance is one’s highest life aspiration. Otherwise, ideas or actions that among the well-born would likely be treated as amusing peccadillos—such as an embrace of anti-authoritarian politics—will be considered to disqualify one from academic life entirely. […]

The (tacitly authoritarian) insistence on acting as if institutions could not possibly behave the way the anthropology department at Yale did in fact behave leads almost necessary to victim-blaming. As a result, bullying—which I have elsewhere defined as unprovoked attacks designed to produce a reaction which can be held out as retrospective justification for the attacks themselves—tends to be an effective strategy in academic contexts. Once my contract was not renewed, I was made aware that within the larger academic community, any objections I made to how I’d been treated would be themselves be held out as retroactive justification for the non-renewal of my contract. If I was accused of being a bad teacher or scholar, and I objected that my classes were popular and my work well regarded, this would show I was self-important, and hence a bad colleague, which would then be considered the likely real reason for my dismissal. If I suggested political or even personal bias on the part of any of those who opposed renewal of my contract, I would be seen as paranoid, and therefore as likely having been let go for that very reason… And so on.

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Authoritarians in Authoritarianism

Recent articles I’ve read point toward a typical confusion about authoritarianism, what it is and what causes it. The confusion seems built into the way we frame and measure authoritarianism, in particular as seen in the earliest research. Some social scientists speak of ideological mindsets and personality traits in the way that race realists talk about races, such that there are ‘authoritarians’ and ‘non-authoritarians’ as clearly defined and demarcated types of people. But it’s beginning to occur to some of them that this is inadequate.

Maybe unintentionally, Amanda Taub gets at this point in her Vox piece, The Rise of American authoritarianism. She states that, “Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.” This is based on “researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.”

It’s interesting research and I’ve read many of the scholarly writings on this and so I’m already familiar with what Taub is discussing, but my understanding of such things has shifted these past years. When we label something, we tend to reify the underlying concepts and forget that they are social constructs we project onto the data (and hence onto the world) in trying to make sense of complexity, which then can lead to increasing simplification as the reified concepts are fed back into further research design and analysis.

The quote above about ‘non-authoritarians’ gets at this. If non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians, then maybe there is no such thing as authoritarians and non-authoritarians. Instead, a more reasonable conclusion is that all people possess within their common humanity a wide variety of potentials for psychological traits, social behaviors, and ideological tendencies. If so, it wouldn’t be helpful then to speak of subsets and subgroups as if that adds further clarity and insight. To be fair, Taub touches upon the issue rather directly, albeit briefly:

“More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)”

Immediately after that, Taub goes right back to the assumption that authoritarianism is an inherent “psychological profile” that can get activated. From this view, seeming non-authoritarians don’t become authoritarian but were secretly authoritarian all along, just waiting for the right conditions to make their true nature manifest. Sleeper agents of societal madness ready to be unleashed on the naively innocent, Manchurian candidates waiting for a trigger from an evolutionary demiurge lurking in human synapses. At any moment, so goes the dark fantasy, alt-right trolls could transform into goosestepping Nazis who will suddenly take over the country. But in reality that isn’t how it ever works, as these things gradually build up over time and involve the entire society. Authoritarianism is far from being a strange relic of abnormal psychology and social deviants, like an infectious Darwinian maladaptation that must be quarantined and studied by the intellectual elite standing above it all. Even if we were to think of it as a mind virus, the greater threat would be those intellectual elites becoming carriers and spreading it into polite society, as has happened throughout history.

Projecting authoritarianism onto individuals or narrow groups is the opposite of helpful. It’s a way for people like Taub to maintain their belief that authoritarianism is something that only involves those other people, not good liberals like herself. Here is the problem. Taub is a Democrat and has strongly supported Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign has shown how strong the authoritarian tendencies are built into the Democratic Party. In supporting corrupt oligarchs like Clinton, Taub demonstrates how easily supposed non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians and defend authoritarianism. It does appear that authoritarianism closely tracks with social conservatism, but social conservatism comes in many forms. Democrats, for example, can be extremely socially conservative in their defense of the status quo, no matter how ‘liberal’-sounding is their empty rhetoric.

The reality is that no individual is an authoritarian. Rather, it’s social systems that are authoritarian, whether we are talking about organizations or movements or parties. In the US, the two-party system has long had an authoritarian streak. Both parties create the conditions for increasing neoliberalism and neoconservatism, increasing inequality and police-surveillance state. And those conditions in turn create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that, for the general public, elicits authoritarianism. It’s a great means of ensuring submission and social control. Social dominance orientation types, such as the lesser evils of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then attempt to use that to their advantage. If you’re looking for the least authoritarian Americans, you’d need to look entirely outside of the two-party system.

In a fairly authoritarian society such as ours built on a long history of oppression, it is meaningless to talk about ‘authoritarians’ as if they were a distinct group of people. Nor does it help to blame it all on a single issue like racism, as a way of dismissing the larger context of authoritarianism. Obviously, as Taub explains, various forms of bigotry and other factors can elicit and activate authoritarianism. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to separate out all of the tangled threads of dysfunction.

Let me return to the significance of the racial order. It is true that, as we live in an authoritarian society, we also live in a racist society. Both authoritarianism and racism become internalized by everyone within this society, even if normally these remain hidden. It’s there in the background, shaping and informing our worldview. Research shows that it’s easy to find racial biases in almost anyone, but more than that it is how racism is woven into the social structures and institutions we are part of. Not as much research of this sort has been done on underlying authoritarianism, but it has become more of a focus and it would be expected to operate in a similar way. There is pervasive racism with a rather small minority of overt racists, and so it should be unsurprising that there can be pervasive authoritarianism that is not primarily dependent on the authoritarianism of individuals. The continuation of systemic problems don’t require vocal, active support since silent, passive complicity can be so much more powerful.

This is hard for people to grasp. We can’t see clearly the society we are inseparably a part of, that defines our entire sense of identity and experience of reality. This makes it difficult for researchers who are trying to understand the very problems they are implicated in, as members of the society under scrutiny. Many researchers, as with many journalists like Taub, are good liberals which creates another bias. Obviously, authoritarianism will operate differently among liberals than among conservatives or right-wing reactionaries. Yet we know from history that authoritarians often come to power when good liberals, out of fear, turn to authoritarian leaders. Clinton in calling her enemies deplorables (just like she did when calling young blacks ‘superpredators’) was intentionally provoking an authoritarian response of fear from her followers, framing the other side as an existential threat to the ‘liberal’ way of life… and it worked, even though it turned out that her establishment authoritarianism was less effective as she lacks charisma and raw force of personality.

It’s not hard, though, to understand the likely reasons for authoritarianism manifesting differently throughout the social order. Growing inequality (of wealth and opportunity, of power and influence) inevitably will lead to authoritarianism, but that authoritarianism will be expressed in disparate ways according to demographics and the historical legacies that they represent; lower classes or upper classes; or if middle class, downwardly mobile lower middle class or stable upper middle class; populations with high or low rates of unemployment, food deserts, incarceration, and lead toxicity; those directly impacted or not by the numerous negative externalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism; et cetera.

The liberal class tends to be relatively more economically secure and comfortable, and so authoritarianism is less often to be seen in overt ways on the personal level. Instead, good liberals will support the authoritarianism of the system that their lifestyle is dependent on. That way, their hands are kept clean. They let the professionals like the Clinton New Democrats do the dirty work of forcing punishment on minorities through racialized tough-on-crime laws, drug wars, and mass incarceration… through corporatism that maintains the class system and keeps the poor in their place… through war-mongering, CIA interventions, and neoliberal foreign policies that ensures the American Empire runs smoothly.

In basic ways, the liberal class even on the lower end of the economic spectrum are protected from what the rest of the country experiences. The greatest of privileges is never having to acknowledge one’s privilege. It is all taken for granted, not just as a privilege but a right — if required, to be protected from the dirty masses that demand to be treated with equality and fairness. When that privilege is challenged, the authoritarianism of good liberals becomes very much overt. It’s just that in recent history good liberals have been kept comfortable and content while the lower classes have been kept disempowered and silenced, but that has begun to change and so we are beginning to hear authoritarian rhetoric from establishment Democrats, in their fear of the coming backlash of righteous justice, outraged vengeance, and populist unrest. Status quo Democrats know that they have been on the wrong side of history and this all-encompassing anxiety has led them to lash out blindly, making them a dangerous animal (e.g., their paranoid conspiracy theorizing and war-mongering about Russia that could initiate World War III).

Sadly, liberals tolerate, help to create, and often defend the very conditions that make authoritarianism inevitable: hyper-partisanship, identity politics, increasing inequality, stagnating wages, weakening organized labor, loss of good job benefits, worsening job insecurity, scapegoating the poor, law and order politics, racist dog whistle rhetoric, war hawk policies, militarization of the police, drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Major figures such as President Jimmy Carter have voiced concern that the United States has become a banana republic and, based on the overwhelming evidence, it is impossible to argue against those concerns. In Taub’s article, she discusses this as if the conditions of authoritarianism are new, but the reality is that they’ve been building for decades and generations. Democrats have done little if anything to stop this, often promoting policies that make it worse. Both parties have embraced a corporatism that somehow balances the requirements of an oligarchic police state and the demands of plutocratic inverted totalitarianism, all the while maintaining the endless spectacle of a banana republic.

What motivates supposed liberals to promote the policies that undermine liberal-mindedness and strengthen authoritarianism? That isn’t to scapegoat liberals, in opposition to those who would like to scapegoat some other group, but obviously many who sound liberal-like aren’t the enemies of authoritarianism that they pretend to be. This faux liberalism is what one would expect in an authoritarian society born out of classical liberalism. Most people on all sides don’t understand the kind of society they are in or how it shapes them. As with faux liberals, Trump’s followers and his election to the presidency are symptoms, not the disease. No single group can be blamed for what has become of this society. All of it has to be taken as a whole, including the role of good liberals and every other sector of society. It is the society that is authoritarian. In a non-authoritarian society, individual authoritarians would be powerless and insignificant. The source of of the problem is systemic and institutional.

There is no inborn psychological profile of authoritarians, just as I’d argue that there are no genetic-based personality traits of addictiveness, neuroticism, etc. There are simply authoritarian conditions, no different than there are conditions for other mindsets and behaviors. Authoritarianism along with so much else is latent in everyone, as a potential within a shared human nature.

I’ve long been fascinated by personality traits/types and other areas of social science. Myers-Briggs personality theory was what initially drew me toward using web searches to find info. The first website I ever became an active member of was a Myers-Briggs discussion forum, although such things as trait theory was also regularly discussed. Most fascinating of all was the research and the many correlations shown, but over time I’ve grown more circumspect.

These days, I feel less certain about what correlations might (or might not) indicate. It partly comes from years of seeing how research can be misused by race realists, but that is only possible because much of the research itself is problematic. Correlations are dime a dozen, whereas proving causation is often near impossible. It’s not easy to determine that a correlation is not spurious, that it is significant and meaningful, and then articulating a falsifiable hypothesis that leads to useful results that don’t merely confirm one’s biases and expectations.

My interest here goes far beyond only authoritarianism. This involves my growing appreciation for the power of all kinds of environmental influences. Not just influences, though. To be more accurate, we are environmental creatures to the core of our being. We are inseparable from our environments, both physical and social. This has become a major theme of my writing. It comes out in my discussions of race realism and capitalist realism, of rat parks and high inequality, of toxo plasmosis and lead toxicity, WEIRD research and ancient societies.

Authoritarianism is yet another lens through which to peer into the social nature of humans. Living in this society, all of us are products of our environment while also being participants in the social order. What if studying authoritarians holds up a mirror to our own psyche, individual and collective? What does this say about us?

* * *

Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams
Dark Matter of the Mind
Investing in Violence and Death
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
America Is Not Great For Most Americans
The Comfortable Classes Remain Comfortable
Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology
Bias About Bias

Inequality leads to authoritarianism: Why Trump is acting like “a generalissimo with a giant brass eagle on his hat”
by Edward McClelland

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable
by Tom Pepinsky

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism
Frederick Solt

Authoritarianism’s Hidden Root Cause
by Matthew Wills

The Rise of the Servant Society
by Michael J. Thompson

Authoritarian capitalism in modern times
by Peter Bloom

Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism
by Henry Giroux

Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism
by Riad Azar

Inequality causes rise of authoritarian leaders
by Hamid Ansari

The Preschooler’s Empathy Void
by Alia Wong

People With This Personality Trait Literally See the World Differently
by Cari Romm

Creative people physically see and process the world differently
by Alice Klein