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A Call to Arms From Oz to American Academics

(Photo: Halans / Flickr)

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Australia government.(Photo: Halans / Flickr)The view from Australia is unusually grim. A new kind of social disease has spread from recession in the United States to austerity in Europe to manufactured crisis in Australia. Australia, with a growing economy, an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent and falling and government debt of around 20 percent of GDP just elected a conservative government on the premise that economic mismanagement was spiraling out of control. Australia has even begun a “debt ceiling” debate of its own.

The new government has convinced the electorate that the biggest problems facing Australia today are too much environmental regulation, too little government support for coal barons, and the arrival by sea of around 25,000 refugees. To solve these problems, the government must eliminate taxes and regulations on corporations and dismantle public health insurance and public education. This in the world’s most successful advanced economy.

If this is what happens in Australia – a highly developed democracy with a well-funded public broadcaster and compulsory voting for all citizens – what hope is there for the rest of the world?

The organized forces that hold power to account are everywhere in retreat, nowhere more so than in the main centers of the English-speaking world. Unions are now next to irrelevant, so irrelevant that many of the most creative among them have stopped even trying to organize members. In 2013, fast food workers have demonstrated all around America – before and after working their scheduled minimum-wage shifts. They can’t afford to go on strike.

Journalism as a salaried profession is all but dead.

Academics in the humanities and social sciences are next in the firing line. Those of you who teach at US state universities know this only too well. Those of you who teach in the UK know it even better.

Yet academics are the last remaining salaried professionals defending civilization against the new state-corporate barbarism. After us, there are only volunteers. Valiant, dedicated volunteers, but … it is difficult to feed your family and pay the rent by volunteering in the cause of social justice.

The great sociologist Pitirim Sorokin thought that civilizations moved in epochal cycles from ideational through idealistic to sensate cultural foundations. He identified the postwar cult of science in America and the Soviet Union as the culmination of centuries of sensate culture that had begun around the time of the birth of the modern world-system in the late 1400s. A spiritualist and an optimist, he looked forward to the dawn of a new ideational Age of Faith at the close of the 20th century.

Sorokin died in 1968, in the midst of the death throes of the old sensate age. He just missed the birth of the new Neoliberal Age of faith-based economics. Forty-five years into that age, governments are defunding universities; rich individuals and corporations lavishly fund “think tanks” that produce and promote “knowledge” to support their capture of the public discourse; and even the most progressive elements of the mainstream English-language press – The New York Times, The Guardian, MSNBC, “The Daily Show”? – take the legitimacy of transnational corporate capitalism for granted.

Science – real social science, anti-scientists call it what you will – has been relegated to the role of critique, and even that critique is increasingly relegated to peripheralized publication venues. Academics implicitly accept this when they define their own appropriate role as that of “critique.” As Max Weber taught us, an important characteristic of legitimate rule is that the ruled accept the right of the rulers to rule them. So long as progressive academics define themselves as critics of power, we will never exercise power.

Neoliberal economists, their sponsors and their followers do not conceive of themselves as critical social scientists. They are in command – of the government, of the corporations and increasingly of civil society. They suffer embarrassments, but they do not suffer losses. Their Great Recession has only strengthened their grip. Even in Australia, which dodged the Great Recession through old-fashioned Keynesian demand management under a largely technocratic Labor government, the neoliberals have taken power, resoundingly.

The 1957 novel and 1959 film On the Beach is set against the aftermath of a global nuclear war. Only Australia remains habitable, and the nuclear cloud is slowly spreading into the southern hemisphere. A stray radio signal gives some hope that there have been survivors in the north, and an expedition sets out to track down the source. Finding that the signal is false, Australians decide to commit suicide rather than await a slow but certain death from the radioactive fallout.

Australian academia is still free and robust, but the poison clouds are visible on the horizon and the Geiger counter is starting to click. A sociology department has been disbanded in suburban Melbourne, a heterodox economics department in suburban Sydney. The new government pledges to end “ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads.” Unionized Australian academics will fight to keep their jobs, but they are in no shape to fight for a better world.

But someone has to fight. The only alternative is to give up: to commit academic mass suicide before the poisonous cloud imposes a slow, painful death on us all. For those (quite reasonable and realistic) social scientists who prefer the pill, I suggest secure non-academic careers in market research rather than marginal academic careers in survey data analysis. For those with more quixotic personalities, Western Europe might be the best base from which to mount a counteroffensive.

As for that counteroffensive, all tenured and emeritus academics should be hoisting the banner of civilization, raising the battle-cry for justice. You have a life sinecure. Use it to do good in the world, not merely to indulge your intellectual curiosity. If we do not act now – more likely, because we did not act yesterday – all is lost. The universities have the potential to be the conscience of society, but it will take more than a few committed leftists and anarchists to have an impact. We need the rest of you, too.