Contested Spaces

Henry Heller, The Capitalist University: The Transformation of Higher Education in the United States since 1945

Pluto Press, 272pp, £22.50, ISBN 9780745336589

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

It is one of the most potent ironies of the neoliberal age that the expansion of the universities has also meant a narrowing of their contribution to social understanding. For those of us born into the era of ‘critical courses’ and university occupations, the hope was that the education sector would produce critical citizens, interrogators of governments and institutions, free thinkers driven by moral and ethical principles. And their debates would be informed by a sense of history, whose course would lead to greater freedom, social justice and the definitive liberation of human beings from enslavement to the machinery of capitalist production. If there was a metaphor for wrongs we hoped to right, it was Chaplin’s Modern times.

Henry Heller’s informed and comprehensive analysis of the evolution of higher education in the US is specific to the North American experience. While it is true, as he discusses, that the British university system did permit the emergence of critical engagement with the dominant ideas of the time – especially in the area of social history – in the end the university system in Britain has undergone a similar experience, and is increasingly subject to the same outcomes. Heller describes how, impelled by neoliberal ideology, higher education has undergone a definitive shift – towards marketisation, privatisation and the commodification of knowledge. Research in most areas, and not just in science and technology, is shaped by corporate funding; indeed it is increasingly removed from the university altogether and relocated to private institutions directly under the control of the business sector. This has a second, and more far-reaching effect. In a world dominated by the World Trade Organisation, ideas themselves become property, subject to commercial secrecy and ownership. The role of the university as a place for reflection and the development of ideas and insights that become social property, for the benefit of all, has been systematically undermined.

It may be reasonable to suppose that this will occur more thoroughly and rapidly in the US, where the private university sector is huge; and that in Britain, where universities (with one exception) remain public institutions, it might play out more gradually. But privatisation can happen in several ways. Heller lays considerable emphasis on the role of university administrations which have not only grown dramatically as a proportion of university employees, but have taken a leading role in shaping what happens in the content of education. Their decision-making priorities are entirely financial and managerial. Everyone who has worked in a university in recent times, will recognise the endless trail of forms demanding detailed breakdowns of the use of space and time, the ceaseless pressure to find ‘external funding’, the demotion of some to ‘mere’ teachers, and the new vocabulary of education in which students are simply sources of money or ‘clients’. Whether private or public, the neoliberal university increasingly mimics the private corporation in its methods and, more significantly, in its purposes.

Heller’s introduction is an impassioned denunciation of the process which began with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the early 1960s and which has culminated in the ‘unwarranted and untenable scepticism’ of postmodernism. The importance of Berkeley was that it called into question for a new generation ‘the purposes of creating knowledge.’ If the role of the post-1945 university in the US had been to offer a route for individual achievement as an alternative to the projects for social transformation symbolised by the New Deal, the radicalism of the 1960s constituted, in Heller’s view, ‘an uprising from below’ over the very purposes of education. It began with an identification with the movement for black civil rights. But the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, the Port Huron Statement, went far further, denouncing the McCarthyism that had such destructive effect on universities as well as more broadly, and exposing their subordination to military interests and priorities. It was equally critical of the Soviet Union and instead embarked on a rediscovery of Marxism.

By the early 1970s, however, as Heller shows in impressive detail, capitalism and its ideologues fought back. Marxism remained as part of the academic curriculum in many areas, but ‘shorn of politics’. It became theory divorced from practice, increasingly emptied of its critical and contestatory capacity. Henry Heller is himself a historian, so it is not surprising that he places a central emphasis on ‘the refusal of history’ which is an alternative to materialism, the negation of the ‘this-sidedness of Marxism.’ In the practices and administration of academic life, the values of neoliberalism – individualism and the permanent present of consumerism with a predominant vision of ‘reality’ shaped by the banality of daytime TV – came to prevail. In pointed riposte to Marx’s famous dictum that the point of philosophy is not just to interpret the world but also to change it, postmodernism has limited itself to continuous and arbitrary interpretation, to pastiche and irony.

As Heller underlines in his conclusion, capitalism’s 21st-century iteration has produced a new generation that, even in pre-Trump America, had rediscovered the tradition of resistance and struggle. They have found ‘the purposes of knowledge’ in the streets of Standing Rock, in Occupy! and in Black Lives Matter. In their battles for public rights and participation, they are taking on the very heart of neoliberalism – its denial of the public good, its assessment of value as profit, and its violent suppression of collective power. Education and the universities have a duty to find their place in those battles – all the more so now that Donald Trump has become the representative of what John Maclean, the great Scottish revolutionary, described as ‘a capitalism red in tooth and claw.’