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. 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. 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.”
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.”
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. 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?
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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.