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As Universities Submit to Neoliberalism and Fascism, Workers Must Fight Back

Faculty unions need to scale up organizing among academic workers to counter far right attacks on higher education.

University of California Riverside graduate student researcher Hannah Freund, from the genetics department, shouts into a megaphone as she protests with others in the lobby of Hinderaker Hall in Riverside, California, on December 5, 2022.

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We are witnessing the rise of a unique brand of U.S. fascism, which has once again reared its ugly head and has made higher education one of its primary targets. This fascist attack on the university is made possible by the longstanding neoliberal withering of its institutions, which now rely mostly on underpaid contingent workers. The disempowerment of university labor runs hand-in-hand with a right-wing ideological front — rooted in rampant anti-intellectualism and rugged individualism — which seeks to control what knowledge universities can produce and teach. In order to counter this attack on higher education, faculty unions must scale up their organizing efforts against neoliberalism and the rising tide of fascism.

It is not surprising that former President Donald Trump accused universities of “radical left indoctrination.” It is a familiar right-wing talking point to characterize the university as a breeding ground for Marxist consciousness; a site of socialist production threatening traditional “American values” — the latter a convenient euphemism for white supremacy, anti-communism and anti-LGBTQ+ ideology.

This conspiratorial and reactionary form of politics is on the rise in Florida in particular, under Gov. Ron DeSantis. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the “Stop WOKE Act” are key examples of this ideology manifesting in the form of legal fascism. DeSantis’s administration recently blocked an AP African American Studies course for state public schools, which Florida’s Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. referred to as “woke indoctrination masquerading as education,” posting an infographic that attempted to rationalize the decision by providing the names of scholars taught in the course, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Robin D.G. Kelley, and other prominent Black intellectuals. Diaz Jr. pointed to Davis’s affiliation with the Communist Party, for instance, and cited Kelley’s book, Hammer and Hoe, about the history of Black communists in Alabama, to justify the decision. New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project has already faced bans from the Florida education board.

DeSantis has been explicit about his intent to “recaptur[e] higher education” and, by referring to these and other prominent Black intellectuals by name, he has left no question as to who he intends to recapture it from. When we consider these factors alongside DeSantis’s and Ted Cruz’s reactions to the election of leftist President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez in Colombia in 2022, warning of the rise of Marxism and communism from south of the equator, a fuller picture of this fascist, anti-Marxist, anti-Black front crystalizes evermore.

Furthermore, as Black studies scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly observed after the FBI raid on the African People’s Socialist Party in 2022, it’s not insignificant that a “Black organization” was targeted, “especially one that was headquartered in Florida.” Burden-Stelly makes clear how “the ‘Anti-Woke Act’ and this anti-LGBTQ legislation … coming out of Florida … is the convergence of anti-communism and anti-blackness.”

Similar examples abound throughout the country, including the “Canceling Professor Tenure Act” in South Carolina. Even more recently, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders had barely even lifted her hand from the Bible she was sworn in on before she signed an executive order barring critical race theory from being taught in the state. “Critical Race Theory,” the order states, “is antithetical to the traditional American values of neutrality, equality, and fairness. It emphasizes skin color as a person’s primary characteristic thereby resurrecting segregationist values, which America has fought hard to reject.” Through this order, Sanders commits a counterfactual sleight of hand, turning U.S. history on its head; as one astute commentator observed, it is now illegal in Arkansas to teach the history of the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock’s Central High School — the very school which became a symbol of desegregation after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

The highly influential Elon Musk has also contributed to this same kind of right-wing “demagogic stoking of popular resentment.” His recent acquisition of Twitter — and his campaign to replatform fascist conspiracy theorists like Kanye West, Ali Alexander, Andrew Anglin and, most recently, Nick Fuentes — reveals his aspirations to become the major propaganda arm of the far right, turning Twitter into what scholar Mohan J. Dutta calls a “digital infrastructure of disinformation.” Musk has explicitly allied himself with this anti-intellectual front, echoing Trump’s views on higher education by describing “progressive professors” as the root of all evil to his 127 million followers. And let’s not forget the role of Meta in digital disinformation, as demonstrated by the recent decision to reinstate the Facebook and Instagram accounts of the coup-mongering, white supremacist Donald Trump.

These figures and others have pried into the cultural and political imagination with their brazen charlatanism, positioning themselves as a new generation of “public intellectuals.” The collective goal of this brand of fascism and right-wing extremism — from the media sphere all the way through local, state and federal government — is to transform institutions of higher education into what Dutta calls “hubs and incubators for settler colonial/neo-capitalist experiments.” According to Dutta, “the global right has organized systemic campaigns targeting academics engaged in public conversations on the raced, classed, and gendered roots of neocolonial/capitalist knowledge.”

Dutta is right to point to the global scale of this anti-intellectual, right-wing front against higher education. Take the case of Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, two left-wing philosophers who face threats of violence and decapitation from far right fascists in India. We find similar fascist anti-education rhetoric spewing from the lips of Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and the recently defeated Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (whose coup attempt on January 8, 2023 — just two days after the two-year anniversary of Trump’s attempted coup on the Capitol — incidentally unfolded while the dyspeptic former president was vacationing in none other than DeSantis’s Florida). We are seeing similar scenarios play out in Peru after the recent coup against President Pedro Castillo this past December, in which protesting university students have faced violent backlash from pro-government police forces in Lima.

It should not go unmentioned that the left is itself not immune to a similar kind of nationalism. As Gerald Horne has convincingly argued, the left wing in the United States often parrots right-wing talking points on so-called “wokeness” and “identity politics” all while eschewing the historical and ideological roots of settler colonialism and the legacy of slavery in this country. A certain brand of “left wing white nationalism,” as Horne describes, assumes a reactionary position against analyses that grate up against certain received ideas of U.S. history, such as The 1619 Project, which has inflamed many on the right as well as many self-proclaimed leftists.

Horne, arguably one of the most important public intellectuals alive today, has himself received backlash from white left-wing commentators accusing him of race essentialism for focusing on the role of slavery and Blackness in global capitalism. This accusation pairs alarmingly well with the language of Sanders’s executive order in Arkansas, which, again, accused critical race theory of spreading segregationist ideology.

These views have also found their way into academic discourse, as in the first chapter of Catherine Liu’s latest book in which she stumbles through a tirade against The 1619 Project. These arguments were also core to former American Historical Association President James Sweet’s recent essay on identity politics and the problem of so-called “presentism.”

To say that academic freedom is at risk as a result of this political culture, both legally and ideologically, is an understatement. For those of us working in the university on a contingent basis, like myself, the looming threat of nonrenewal weighs heavily on our shoulders from semester to semester. The additional threat that nonrenewal may come as the result of political retribution only twists the knife for those of us with little academic freedom as it stands. As James Rushing Daniel explains, “for … contingent faculty especially, being an anti-capitalist is often perilous and, in many cases, grounds for outright dismissal.”

That a public intellectual such as Cornel West can be denied tenure from Harvard University, an institution rooted in slavery, is a telltale sign. It should not be forgotten that there are countless instances of tenure denial and nonrenewal that happen all the time that don’t receive the same attention as these other, high-profile cases.

As Cary Nelson writes in his essay “Contingency,” “Academic freedom for faculty who have no voice in governance is an illusion.” Adjuncts, graduate students, and other non-tenure track faculty are often kept at an “imagined distance from departmental affairs,” as Sharon Crowley once put it. We are rarely if ever invited to participate in important departmental decisions regarding textbooks, curriculum development, scheduling, policies, hiring procedures, let alone annual budgets. As James Rushing Daniel observes, “few … have acknowledged academia’s bifurcated (tenure-track versus non-tenure-track) hierarchy is far more vertical than the managerial structure of many companies.”

How can we expect to form an anti-fascist, anti-capitalist unity when university faculty can barely crack through the edifice of this “managerial culture” that exists between contingent and tenured instructors? Though we often find solidarity from tenured faculty, “advocacy,” as Erin Bartram recently noted, “is not the same as building power and exercising it.”

With the coordinated attack on higher education here and abroad, we can expect the further erosion of academic freedom in tandem with the deepening plight of the contingent workforce. In his recent book, Toward an Anti-Capitalist Composition, James Rushing Daniel nicely summarizes the current crisis of higher education:

The university has become gradually bound to a capitalist culture and a vast body of typically conservative financial stakeholders including donors, trustees, partner universities, foreign nations, and corporations that limit the freedom, and indeed the security, of faculty.

The impact of this conjuncture on students, university staff and faculty is universal, not least on the 75 percent of faculty who are contingent, like myself, and represent the most economically vulnerable population in the university system.

With contradictions mounting from multiple fronts, including the ongoing epidemiological crisis as well as the twin existential threats of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war, we face losing more than our jobs. As Anna Kornbluh boldly put it in 2020, “The wholesale destruction of the precious environment of the university means there are only last critics standing; the wholesale destruction of the Earth means there will soon be few humans at all.”

To combat this scenario, faculty must commit to organizing and collective bargaining in single unions and to shared governance, while also seeking broad, multi-industry coalitions on and off campus. The recent graduate student-led victories at the University of California, the New School, and most recently the University of Illinois demonstrate the viability of union organizing and collective bargaining. Kornbluh, who is active in the University of Illinois movement, calls on faculty to “behold the university as a site of workplace struggle and as an immediate sphere in which it is possible to be effective.”

“Paul Robeson once said that ‘freedom is hard-bought,’ and so it is with building unity and solidarity through conscious and methodical effort,” write Donna Murch and Todd Wolfson. “Because of the nature of their labor,” they continue, “many faculty members do not automatically think of themselves as part of the same workforce as dining-hall workers.” If we take the Party of Socialism and Liberation’s vision of socialist education as a guide, then we should actively “break down barriers between intellectual and manual labor,” as exemplified by the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, which includes 20,000 campus workers from multiple industries. Moreover, we can’t risk the sedimentation of our organizing efforts into so many atomized localisms cut off from the universal struggle against neoliberalism and fascism. Our aspirations have to become internationalist in scale.

The university is widely perceived by right-wing fascists as a breeding ground for socialism. It’s time we turn their nightmare into a reality. As educators, we should openly and unapologetically profess these goals. We shouldn’t fetishize or romanticize the university, but rather treat higher education as a central site for political and labor struggles. We should rethink the role of academic conferences, regionally, nationally, and even internationally, as they provide ample opportunities for solidarity and coalition building.

The classroom itself presents numerous opportunities to organize students and faculty. We should be open about these compounding crises with our students at the classroom level, which means discussing the economic and political realities faced by the vast majorities of their instructors, including the erosion of academic freedom and the fascist, anti-Black, anti-communist, anti-LGBTQ+ attacks on higher education more broadly.

We should, to borrow a phrase from Alain Badiou, collectively strive to “corrupt the youth” against the rising tide of global fascism in all its guises.

Note: A correction has made to the pronoun used to refer to Cary Nelson.

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