Critical Theory and the Current Crisis in Education

This is an English version of a paper presented in Portuguese in Campinas, Brazil, on September 16, 2010.


Occupy everything! Dieser Hörshaal ist besetzt! ¡Huelga! Greve! These and many other slogans have been shouted on university campuses during this last year, a tumultuous one for many universities throughout the world, as students, workers, and professors have come together to protest the state of affairs in higher education.

Although grounded in global economic tendencies, the shape of these struggles, their rhetoric, and their goals have so far emerged mainly from local political contexts. In California, a decades-long trend of state disinvestment and administrative malfeasance, combined with falling state revenues, threatens to destroy the Golden State’s world-class university system. In Europe, privatization proceeds apace under the guise of curriculum reform known as the Bologna Process. In Brazil, low wages and poor working conditions prompted professors to strike and a presidential candidate to call the government in São Paulo “o governo PPPP: privatizações, presídios, pedágios e porrada.” The University of Puerto Rico was closed by a massive, student-led strike. Other strikes have occurred in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. These situations vary, but underlying them all is a basic fact: wherever one looks, public, state-funded education is being systematically defunded.

In England, the closure of Middlesex’s well-regarded Philosophy program is one of the latest and most publicized manifestations of a managerial logic that considers an academic unit’s ability to procure external funding to be the primary factor in determining its “worth” to the university at large. Non-essential services and programs (that is, those that do not directly or indirectly procure private funding) are outsourced to the private sector or cut entirely.

What connections can be made between the crisis of education and the global financial crisis? Are these simply the result of a neoliberal managerial culture which values short-term profit over long-term social investment, or are there deeper, structural causes involved?

Is there any possible articulation between a critical theory whose greatest exponent, Theodor Adorno, notoriously called police on student activists not unlike the ones currently protesting education policies on several continents, and the practical struggle to save education?

Finally, what does critical theory have to say about an educational system that seems to aid the very society that should be the object of critique, a capitalist world system in which education, rather than existing as a realm apart, is deeply imbricated and whose values education inculcates and promotes even while purporting to critique them? Does Critical Theory manifest itself other than as part of this educational apparatus? Or is it, too, now part of the machinery?

Drawing upon the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and other, more recent critical theorists associated with value-form critique (in German, Wertkritik), I will attempt to answer these and other questions.

A couple of clarifications may be in order regarding the focus and scope of my remarks. First, I’m approaching the crisis of education as, primarily, a crisis of its institutions and disciplines, grounded in a much deeper and systemic economic crisis. While it may or may not also be appropriate to speak of a crisis of pedagogy, my remarks won’t address this directly. Rather, I will focus mainly on shifts in higher education, both in the composition of its work force and the conception of its social mission. My second clarification concerns the scope of my talk. While I attempt to frame the crisis in education in terms of global trends, much of this analysis is based on my observations of and participation in recent events in the United States, particularly in California, where I live and work. Parts of this essay also constitute a polemic, grounded in a spirit of solidarity, against certain ideas and trends that have emerged within the California student protest movement. As such, it is as much a self-critique as anything else.

Crisis Theory

What connections can be made between the crisis of public higher education and the global financial crisis? Are these simply the result of a neoliberal managerial culture which values short-term profit over long-term social investment, or are there deeper, structural causes involved?

The dominant narrative of the financial crisis among the American Left (I realize this may sound like an oxymoron) is that it is essentially caused by deregulation and excessive risk in investments, all motivated by greed. Deregulation, it is said, has led to complicated financial instruments which impede transparency, allowing predatory banks to make risky loans and distribute the risk throughout the entire financial sector. American liberals explain that deregulation is a result of neoliberal doctrines, free-market fanaticism, and Milton Friedman’s “greed is good” ideology (viz. rational, self-interested behavior will lead to the best possible outcome).

While it is more or less accurate blame these economic doctrines, it ignores the fact that neoliberal doctrines themselves emerged as right-wing solutions to a very real economic crisis in the 1970s. It also ignores that the economic transformations associated with neoliberalism–the privatization of the public sector, the formation of supranational free-trade blocs, the tertiarization of the economy, and the casualization of labor–have all proceeded, at varying rates but more or less universally, throughout the world, even in places like China that still maintain state control over many economic sectors. Likewise, the privatization of the public sector, including universities, is a global trend. Unless we are to believe that this is merely coincidental, we cannot look for its causes in local or national contexts. Neither can we lay the blame for privatization directly on a particular ideology or regulatory scheme. Privatization has occurred even in those countries most opposed to the Washington Consensus.

Critical theory understands that the roots of the crisis must lie in the very nature of commodity-producing society. I take as my point of departure the analysis of Germany’s Wertkritik circle, which traces its intellectual genealogy back to Adorno and the Frankfurt School (as well as to more peripheral figures like Alfred Sohn-Rethel), via Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus. The work of Reichelt and Backhaus has inspired a number of related, “value-form” approaches to Marx, including Wertkritik. The central figure of Wertkritik is, of course, Robert Kurz, who (thanks to Roberto Schwarz) is reasonably well-known in Brazil but who remains mostly unknown in the United States.

According to Robert Kurz, during the so-called Third, or Microelectronic, Industrial Revolution, automation and mechanization rendered labor superfluous in an unprecedented way. Since abstract labor is synonomous with value and, as such, is the “substance” of capital, the latter renders itself absolete. In Hegelian terms, capital produces its own determinate negation in the form of non-labor time. In more secular terms, the productive forces developed by capitalism make labor less necessary, thereby creating the conditions for a form of social life not mediated by abstract labor. Kurz describes the moment at which this occurs as capital’s absolute historical limit. This limit is not imposed by external forces such as environmental degradation, but rather by capital’s own internal dynamic. Kurz locates this historical moment in or around the year 1968.

1968 was a watershed year in many respects. I won’t dwell on the many social upheavals that occurred that year. I will only mention that, in 1968, the Bretton Woods system of international currency regulation ceased being viable. By 1971, the system was abandoned and the US dollar was no longer pegged to gold. The 70s were a decade of economic crises as the effects of the shift in currency valuation cascaded through the world system. Eventually, economies stabilized, but not without fundamental transformations. Thus began a decades-long economic decline masked by the rapid expansion of the finance sector. Credit-inflated investment bubbles–made possible by the de-linking of the dollar and gold–appeared to offset the decline in real industrial production. The global working class shifted inexorably away from industry and into the service sector.

It’s also worth noting that other theoretical perspectives have arrived at the same conclusion: that the current crisis of capital is terminal. For instance, world systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein says: “The question is no longer, ‘how will the capitalist system mend itself, and renew its forward thrust?’, but rather, ‘what will replace this system? What order will emerge from this chaos?’”

I prefer Kurz’s explanation, simply because it relies on a more properly Marxian analysis of capital’s internal dynamic. Without understanding the roots of the crisis as a dimension of capital, the left cannot propose radical solutions. They remain mired in a moralistic condemnation of the “culprits” while clinging to outdated (capitalist!) models of regulation (i.e. Keynes). This is where critical theory must intervene.

Institutional Transformations

With these fundamental economic transformations in mind, I’d like to outline some of the more important trends in American research universities. Since these universities have served as a model for many institutions throughout the world, many of these trends may sound familiar.

During WW2 the era of “applied research” began, that is, research designed to help overcome social problems or, more often, technological barriers to industrial production, agriculture, or the extraction of resources. Universities became, more than ever, a vital part of national economies. During the 1950s and 60s, government investment in public universities was understood to be in the public interest. Universities were seen, not only as engines of innovation and, therefore, of economic growth, but also as an important part of national defense. After all, universities trained the diplomats, engineers, psychologists, physicists, and spies who would help America in its ideological and military struggle against the Soviet Union.

However, after the economic turmoil of the 1970s and the rise of right-wing politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, austerity became the watchword and social spending, including investment in public universities, was curtailed. Government disinvestment has led to increased reliance on privately funded research and student fees as a source of income. For example, annual student fees at the University of California have risen from zero in 1961, to $450 in 1971, to $3600 in 2000, to $11285 in 2010.

Via rapid privatization, universities began shifting the burden of their operating expenses to the private sector and to the student in the mid 80s, as a response to government funding cuts begun in the 70s. The characteristic post-Fordist transformation of the work force is also evident in universities: labor is casualized as poorly paid part time instructors now outnumber tenured professors, labor is outsourced, as custodial staff, service workers, and even teaching and administration are now often provided by for-profit corporations under contract to universities.

The composition of the student body has also been transformed by economic forces. Once the province of a wealthy, almost exclusively white elite, the future political and business leadership, a liberal education is now available to a much broader demographic, as long as the students are willing to take on debt to pay for it. Universities love to tout their own inclusivity and accessibility, but the reality behind increased access to a liberal education is a decreased access to jobs. As labor becomes superfluous, the number of people with access to stable, well-paying jobs decreases. Competition for those jobs increases. Workers who lose their jobs go to college in a desperate wager that a credential will put them back into the labor force. This is sometimes celebrated euphemistically as “reskilling.” Young people with no work experience enter universities to defer unemployment. Once in college, students find part-time jobs with which they struggle to pay rent and feed themselves. When they graduate, they find that these are still the only jobs available to them, and that they must now repay their student loans. Seven percent of student loans are now in default, and the total amount of student debt now exceeds consumer debt. If we recall that American consumer demand is responsible for export-driven growth in countries like China and Brazil, the dimensions of this “education bubble” should become obvious. American universities are home to a reserve army of unemployed or semi-employed students who are being trained for jobs that no longer exist.1

Despite this bleak outlook, both in terms of students’ job prospects and universities’ ability to remain solvent in the face of government disinvestment, it would be a mistake to assume that the economic significance of research universities has diminished. On the contrary, as former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl explained back in 2000,

[T]here is a significant shift that has taken place over the last few years that is worth noting, because it may signal an entirely new phase in the historical development of American universities. This new phase can be summarized…as signaling the emergence of an industrial-university research partnership.The evolution of this partnership has been especially evident in California, above all in Silicon Valley, and in Massachusetts, in the industrial region known as the Route 128 corridor, outside of Boston. But university research parks, intended to attract industrial partners have sprung up everywhere. These are the centers of high-technology industries dependent both on the intellectual capital — the ideas generated in research universities — and the human capital — the students educated in these universities.

Without endorsing such phrasings as “human capital,” I do want to point out this development as a possible silver lining. As corporations become increasingly dependent on the intellectual capacity of universities, it is difficult to think that they could function at all in their absence. As good leftists we are conditioned to think ill of all such corporations, and for good reason. But when it comes to harnessing productive and innovative capacities these university-corporation hybrids are extremely effective. After all, unless one subscribes to a primitivist view of socialism, such production must continue, only in more rational form. Some corporations (Microsoft, Google), ones that rely most heavily on research and creative “labor,” have transformed what once would have been the shop floor into something resembling a university campus. Clearly these corporations are not benign (Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil,” but it can’t help itself) but my point here is that the university could potentially function as a nexus for making collective and rational decisions about production, if only the one true imperative of commodity-producing society–let value beget value–were finally removed.

The University as a Potential Site of Collective Future-Building

I’d like to consider the notion of the university as an institution that predates capitalism but that might, somewhat unexpectedly, form a nexus for the collective determination of productive forces in a postcapitalist society. In the “Communiqué From an Absent Future,” a tract that has served as a call-to-arms for many of the occupation-style student radicals during the (2009- ) California protest wave, there is language to the effect that the university has no history outside of capital. On the face of it, this statement seems false. The university has existed since medieval times. However, if we remember that the first universities arose in cities, as the ecclesiastical order attempted to professionalize its clergy for the new demands of administrating these cities, it might be said that the university catalyzed the incipient value regime, or at least gave it an institutional presence.

It was in the cities that standard measures of time were first widely adopted in order to measure work time. The first universities responded to the demands of urban life and its incipient bourgeois economy by offering training in accounting and law, thus laying the institutional groundwork for the coming bourgeois society.

The university may have functioned as a bridge between the old ecclesiastical order and the coming bourgeois order. What were the characteristics of the university which allowed this transformation to occur? How important was it for this transformation? To gain clear answers to these questions would require rigorous research. But, in a speculative mode, let us proceed under the assumption that the university did, indeed, mediate between the two social orders: feudal and bourgeois. This does not imply that it was the only such mediator. Could it not again perform a similar function?

Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, in A History of the University in Europe, Vol. 1, quotes Peter Classen’s Studium und Gesellschaft im Mittelalter:

The schools of the twelfth century and the universities of the thirteenth century never set themselves the goal of providing the courts and municipalities with specialized experts. Nevertheless, the new social pattern which took form in the university was in part shaped by society, since it was the lively interest of wider social groups which made it possible for the higher schools to become enduring and independent institutions. From the very beginning, education was subject to the tension between the fundamental and primary impulse to seek the truth and the desire of many persons to acquire practical training. Conversely, without really wanting to do so, the schools formed the new academic stratum and changed the whole structure of society, enriching it and making it more complex. (11)

The university, at its origins, was an institution in which the religious ideals of the old society and the more utilitarian ones of the emerging bourgeois society coexisted.

The tension described here, between the ideal of education for its own sake (i.e. the search for truth) and the need for vocational training, foreshadows von Humboldt’s well-known description of education or Bildung as a productive tension between the development of the individual and the needs of society. A similar tension exists today and can be seen in competing views of the university. It must be recalled, though, that the needs of contemporary commodity-producing society obey the single structuring imperative of that society: to create value. As a consequence, commodity producing society admits no personal development that isn’t also vocational development. The eternal question asked of students who study less obviously “productive” disciplines (i.e. the Humanities or Arts) is: “What are you going to do with that?”

So there are two competing concepts of education in the modern university. On the vocational side, education is seen as the adquisition of a set of skills needed to do certain tasks, the most highly valued of which, based on compensation, is management. Most importantly, this instrumentalized education results in a credential, which demonstrates that its holder is capable of fulfilling an endless set of meaningless, bureaucratic tasks similar to those encountered in the workplace. On the other side, that of education for its own sake, a university education is seen as an opportunity to develop one’s intellectual capacities independently of any practical purpose.

The split between these views of education is symptomatic of the real schism between the economic and social spheres. This divide has practical implications for organizing to defend public higher education. Students in the sciences, for example, are much less likely than students in the Humanities to take part in protests and strikes against budget cuts and privatization. In part, this is because science departments have been impacted to a lesser degree. It is easier for researchers in science to find private partners from whom to obtain external funding. On the other hand, there seems to be a greater concentration, on the science side, of pragmatists who buy into the instrumental view of education. Most science research, after all, is applied research. The Humanities, on the other hand, tend to attract the more idealist, ivory-tower types, who disdain practicality and professionalization. These are extremely broad generalizations, of course, but my observations of efforts to organize protests have shown me that this divide is very real.

A major part of realizing the university’s potential as a site of anti-capitalist struggle and collective control of production consists of bridging the divide between instrumental and idealist views of education. In other words, the battle for the university is the battle to overcome the division between education as a decontextualized, abstract “good” and education as a mere instrument to facilitate the creation of surplus value.

Critical Theory and Organization in the University and Beyond

I realize that it is unorthodox to think of universities as key sites, or nodes, for the emergence of post-capitalist social relations. Traditional Marxism has always looked to the factory, to the proletariat, for this tranformative potential. In Lukács one sees an unequivocal expression of this faith in the working class: “only the practical class consciousness of the proletariat possesses this ability to tranform things” (HCC 205). In 2010, though, we can see that the proletariat, classically defined as the industrial working class, is rapidly diminishing, as is its ability to successfully mobilize against capital. On the other hand, Marcuse, already in 1966, anticipated the revolutionary potential of students:

To the degree to which organized labor operates in defense of the status quo, and to the degree to which the share of labor in the material process of production declines, intellectual skills and capabilities become social and political factors. Today, the organized refusal to cooperate of the scientists, mathematicians, technicians, industrial psychologists and public opinion pollsters may well accomplish what a strike, even a large-scale strike, can no longer accomplish but once accomplished, namely, the beginning of the reversal, the preparation of the ground for political action. That the idea appears utterly unrealistic does not reduce the political responsibility in contemporary industrial society. The intellectual refusal may find support in another catalyst, the instinctual refusal among the youth in protest. It is their lives which are at stake, and if not their lives, their mental health and their capacity to function as unmutilated humans. Their protest will continue because it is a biological necessity. ‘By nature,’ the young are in the forefront of those who live and fight for Eros against Death, and against a civilization which strives to shorten the ‘detour to death’ while controlling the means for lengthening the detour. but in the administered society, the biological demands counter-organization. Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight. (1966 Preface to Eros and Civilization)

It’s interesting to reconsider the concept of Eros now, reclaiming it from a mythologized and watered-down version of the 1960s that associates Eros with hippies and free love. For Marcuse, Eros and Thanatos were both manifestations of libidinal impulses: the former represents the drive toward social unity, while the latter is the impulse to destroy the repressive aspects of society. Both these instinctual drives or desiderata can be seen at work in the California student protest movement. There is a double movement at work in the struggle, a simultaneous urge to create social bonds (i.e. democratize the university, allow universal access, etc.) and to destroy social compulsion (the target of the destructive urge is, most often, university administrators and police). These desiderata are communization and anti-capitalism, respectively. But insofar as these libidinal impulses remain unrecognized and un-theorized, they can only manifest themselves in great orgiastic discharges–ludic, violent, or both at once.

Caught up in the day-to-day organizing of protest marches and other actions, activists admitted they were driven by an erotic impulse that ran counter to rational calculations about the personal consequences of continued involved. “I can’t stop,” “It’s like being in love,” were common claims. Likewise, the other, destructive impulse appears in the form of riots, vandalism, and spontaneous occupations of roads and buildings. This is not to imply that there has not been significant planning behind the protest actions, only that, thus far, organization has failed to predominate over the spontaneity of these libidinal drives.

In addition to the two poles of irrationalism I’ve outlined, there is a super-ego component to the education struggle. I associate this regulatory impulse with the Trotskyist and social democratic tendencies, which seek, above all, to build a movement. The problem with this approach is that actual political content (i.e. action) is subordinated to the abstract idea of the movement itself. The movement-building fetish can also be understood as the desire for communization, sublimated, perhaps irredeemably, by the pragmatism of “available options” or the merely apparent possibilities for reform. This means that there are strong normative pressures, both inside the student movement and outside it (disciplinary and legal action taken against students, including incarceration and punitive fines, the omnipresent threat of police violence, etc.).

To overcome these dueling irrationalisms, as well as the super-ego component within the movement, it is perhaps appropriate to turn back to Lukács, whose thinking so often pushed past the boundaries of his orthodoxy. Lukács formulates a strong critique of spontaneity: “The spontaneity of a movement, we note, is only the subjective, mass-psychological expression of its determination by pure economic laws…However, such outbreaks come to a halt no less spontaneously, they peter out when their immediate goals are achieved or seem unattainable” (HCC 307).

For Lukács, spontaneity cannot lead to revolution unless the proletariat can somehow rally other social classes to its cause. Given the current ideological climate, at least in the United States, in which the very existence of unions and workers pensions have been successful demonized by the right, it seems unlikely that whatever remains of the proletariat in that country will convince anyone that its standpoint is the correct one. However, Lukács also says that movements must be understood

“in the historical totality of the world-crisis. This context is the extension of the crisis to every class and not just the bourgeosie and the proletariat. Where the economic process provokes a spontaneous mass-movement in the proletariat [here we might interject that, in a universal crisis, spontaneous mass-movements might emerge in any number of social sectors, not primarily or exclusively among workers or students; one can imagine a mass-movement of landless peasants, unemployed persons or debtors] there is a fundamental qualitative distinction to be made between a situation in which the society as a whole is basically stable and one in which a profound regrouping of all social forces and an erosion of the bases of the power of the ruling class is taking place.” (HCC 307)

It is at this point that critical theory must come forward to provide both the correct analysis of the crisis and the final goal of praxis. As I have stated, contemporary value-form critics like Robert Kurz and others associated with the journals Krisis and EXIT!, along with American historian Moishe Postone, have elaborated the most adequate categorial critique of contemporary capitalism. Their radical conclusion (which, one could argue, was Marx’s conclusion, too), that abstract labor must be abolished rather than realized as the dictatorship of the proletariat, must be the starting point for conceptualizing a post-capitalist society beyond the realm of necessity. This society, as Lukács recognized, must be “a principle, a synthesizing factor” (HCC 313) that guides the process of revolutionary organizing. One might interrogate Critical Theory on this account, asking whether it has taken seriously its role in pedagogy, whether it has continued its educational mission to prevent another Auschwitz? If capital has reached its absolute historical limit, then the radical transformation of society is inevitable. It’s no longer a question of overcoming capital as a social form, but rather of overcoming its vestigial ideologies–the neoliberal logic of austerity, the cults of work and of time discipline–of interrupting what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” but which is more accurately described as disaccumulation, as individual capitals pillage one another. Capitalist ideology produces a recurring fantasy, that of the Hobbesian regression to a state of nature. The reality is that, in times of disaster, people most often turn to cooperation rather than competition. The logic of capital, insofar as it continues to operate in the absence of its motivating factor, the creation of surplus-value, represents a historical regression in a far more tangible sense than Hobbes’ nightmare. Critical Theory must provide an alternative to barbarism. It must redeem the libidinal impulses of Eros and Thanatos by bringing their causes to light. It must develop a critical pedagogy (Adorno is still perhaps the best model for this) to bring these desires to consciousness, to show them for what they are: the desire to create socialism and to demolish the heteronomy of commodity-producing society. Critical theory must organize social life from the standpoint of redemption, locating Utopia as a dimension of the practices and institutions of the existing social form, in the “ought” immanent to the “is” (Postone). Why not also in the University?

HCC: Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (1971).

  1. As perhaps the most trenchant statement of this reality, see the “Communiqué from an Absent Future.”