Life After Debt: Why America Needs an Anti-Capitalist Left

Does America need a Left? Yes, very much. We need a Left that rejects a vision of politics based on the expansion of an unjust economic system, which is to say that we need a Left that rejects James Livingston’s advice that we “compromise with the world as it actually exists.” This is not a call to reject pragmatism, but rather to acknowledge that the “world as it actually exists” has for too long been defined through reactionary terms. We argue instead for an activist, avowedly anti-capitalist Left, one that seeks to tear away the constraints that have impeded necessary, fundamental change.

The Left, which for too long has capitulated to rules of engagement established by conservatives, needs to work to find alternatives to our present debt-financed society.

Unfortunately, this Left, though it exists in fragments, is overshadowed in the United States. Those who would claim the mantle of the Left have tried for too long to advance their goals by appeasing the Right, hoping, misguidedly, to find common cause and to compromise their way into a better world. The progressive movement—the institutions, think tanks, pundits, and politicians that currently stand in as the serious spokespeople of the Left—speaks of  “good jobs,” “economic growth,” and “regulated markets,” appealing to a mythical middle ground that has never and cannot exist. By capitulating the very terms of engagement to conservatives, progressives have distorted their message and acted against the interests they purport to serve.

America needs a Left that does not, as Michael Lerner noted, approach the question of social change in an “economistic” fashion. The progressives that dominate political discussion and action share in common a vision of change as emerging via market mechanisms. This mainstream Left is beyond rehabilitation. We believe, like Eli Zaretsky, that “progress is blocked by the same internal capitalist dynamic that created progress in the first place.” We must counter capitalism not by appealing to it, but by opening space for people to no longer be dominated by its logics. The demand for such a Left is undeniable. What’s missing is only the political will to see it through.

Read the rest of this article (co-authored with Henry Ostrom) in Tikkun.

We’re All Workers and We’re All Intellectuals

“The white collar/blue collar distinction makes very little sense.”

Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead

There is a growing online literature, by those with no access to the traditional academic forums, that tells the stories of former academics and graduate students being forced out of their jobs. Some decide they no longer want academic careers, but most report being unable to support themselves in the low-wage hellscape that some still call “higher education.” The last few years have also seen rising anger and frustration from students and families who are paying an ever higher price for college at the same time that, for most students, a four-year degree is more likely to lead to a lifetime of debt than to a higher wage job. I’ve been thinking about the convergence of these two phenomena in relation to the “leaving academia” genre. As the old idea of higher education as a publicly funded social good and a viable career path for teachers and researchers dies, there have been fewer accounts by post academics of what the scholarly fields we wanted to join look like from afar, once reflections on personal experience become deeper ruminations on the connection between individual lives and global transformations.

This essay examines Rhetoric and Composition, a sub-field of English in which I hold a PhD, from such a distance. My thinking about the issues raised in this text has been informed by theories on the political left that illustrate how education at all levels is being restructured according to the capitalist imperative to consolidate power and wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of everyone else. I hope to add something to the conversation about the particular (and, I believe, substantial) role that “Rhet Comp” has played in that process in academia and how those of us who identify as Compositionists might usefully employ our knowledge and skills in the aftermath of our discipline.

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The Devil’s Bargain in Composition and Rhetoric

I am grateful to all the smart people who read and commented on a post I wrote here in which I argued that the labor crisis in Composition and Rhetoric can only be fully understood through a global economic lens. I used David Harvey’s theory of capitalism in crisis to make the claim that finance capitalism circumvents barriers to accumulation by creating low-wage industries staffed by contract workers (such as academia) that are managed and legitimated by the very intellectuals who ought to know better.

My grief over Rhet Comp’s complicity in perpetuating this system is captured in many of the comments made by readers, including one by Anthony Paré, a thirty-year veteran of the field. You can read his full note here. In brief, he writes about “a central and damning paradox at the heart of rhet and comp’s history”: Continue reading

The MLA President And The New Faculty Majority

I don’t hate MLA President Michael Bérubé’s report from the New Faculty Majority conference in Washington D.C. I respect that he positions himself as a listener, as someone who has something to learn from the NFM and from the part-time and contingent faculty who now teach two-thirds of all courses in college and universities. And Bérubé seems to understand just how dire the labor crisis is in higher education. He seems, in short, to care. But Bérubé’s position of authority and influence (and the fact that he seems genuinely interested in getting the strategy right) means he must be held to a very high standard with regard to how he frames the problem and proposes solutions.

I have to point out some problems with his report. Continue reading

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