15 December 2014
One way to exert power in restraint of democracy is to bend the state to a market logic, pretending one can replace “citizens” with “customers.” Consequently, the neoliberals seek to restructure the state with numerous audit devices (under the sign of “accountability” or the “audit society”) or impose rationalization through introduction of the “new public management”; or, better yet, convert state services to private provision on a contractual basis.
– Philip Mirowski “The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism”
Who’s minding the store while thousands of academics across the globe debate ‘best practices’ for activism? The free market analogy is apropos, for while we focus our attention on the divisive nature of the two tier system, the assault on public education and the part-timization of the workforce go on unabated.
Adjuncts are a white collar symptom of systemic and deep global wounds to freedom. The plight of adjuncts is often compared to that of fast food and WalMart workers, but we need to consider that our advanced degrees provide us a privilege not shared by most of the wounded. We are equal to our fellow wounded but possess an additional step to economic access. So, even though many adjuncts subsist at or near poverty levels, we also exist within a realm of opportunity granted via advanced education – an irony we can’t afford to ignore.
Because the piece of the pie relegated to education keeps shrinking, we are all fighting for our very existence, and without realizing it or meaning to, we are being conditioned to accept a norm that says there is no public good, only allegiance to oneself. Such a focus erodes freedom. We need a concerted effort to fight the undermining of programs that actually helped bring about the ideals of democracy for forty-plus years, one of which is public education.
The ongoing Adjunct Question is a tool being used to misdirect us from the subversion of public education since the 1940s and the big push against New Deal programs. This era saw the formation of Friedrich Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, the adoption of ideas by Ludwig von Mises, and the birth of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), “generally regarded as ‘the first libertarian think-tank,’” into which both Milton Friedman and future John Birch Society founder Robert Welch put energy:
The purpose of the FEE – and libertarianism, as it was originally created – was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale to back up its policy and legislative attacks on labor and government regulations. (Mark Ames)
Think of it this way – there is billions at stake in the testing-accountability movement that accepts public funding into its own coffers as a way of doing business, framing the siphoning as ‘public-private.’ This means that tax dollars are being used to make profits at the expense of all of us, profits that are not being returned to the classroom. Nor are these monies being used to support citizen interests such as job security, pro rata compensation, student loan subsidies, or education the way we ourselves practice it.
No, as it turns out, public education is an investor’s dream. Often cloaked as social enterprise investing and venture philanthropy with directive strings attached, education investment opportunities include everything from owning charter schools, student loan corporations, and assessment facilities to manipulating curriculum and operating billion dollar hedge funds. As reborn education activist Diane Ravitch put it:
What’s in it for the hedge fund guys? A fun hobby; power; a chance to call themselves “civil rights leaders” (not too many to be found in the big cities’ exclusive clubs); and, yes, a chance to make money. Those who invest in charters can double their money in seven years, thanks to a federal program called the New Markets Tax Credits.
It may seem realistic to accept the neoliberal argument that education is not a right (and it is eek, socialist!), and therefore schools must compete for consumers just like businesses, but it’s actually opportunistic and clearly doesn’t work. The question should be: how do we fight the nexus of the behemoths of big politics and business in order to redress the contingency crisis?
The two-tier system is an excellent tool for the divide and conquer strategy of Jeffersonian free markets. Forcing tenured professors to protect the tenure system misdirects attention away from the assault on the teaching profession as a cover for union busting and removing obstacles to the godhead of the market. While educators as a whole are attacked on multiple fronts, the unions we rely on to protect academic freedom and tenure are in a fight for their lives. The business-political elites have been busy forcing education unions to spend large sums fending off legislation meant to weaken our voices. Unfortunately, the two tier system, viewed by assailants as a socialist program, unwittingly and conveniently helps weaken public education. This is not a justification for the inability of unions to protect academic freedom and make gains for all faculty members – just a demonstration that the assault on multiple fronts is working very well.
So, if the unions are busy fighting for their existence (relying on the same methods used in the past), and tenured faculty are busy protecting tenure (relying on academic freedom arguments that necessitated the rise of faculty unions), and the adjunct faculty are busy working to improve their working conditions, who is minding the store?
Our old ways of handling academic infighting is made obsolete by the legislating of our lives in which every move is calculated toward repealing any semblance to the freedoms we understand as guaranteed in the Constitution. In “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom,” Political Science Professor Corey Robin argues that big business, “uncurbed and unchecked, portends…personal domination,” and that government is a source of freedom:
When government is aligned with democratic movements on the ground, as Walter Reuther and Martin Luther King Jr. understood, it becomes the individual’s instrument for liberating [oneself from one’s] rulers in the private sphere, a way to break the back of private autocracy.
Contingent labor is being made out to be the new norm, not just in academia, but worldwide. We need to consider that our fight is not just a fight for adjunct faculty, but for the denial of what the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states as
The right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular:
(a) Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with:
(i) Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work;
(ii) A decent living for themselves and their families in accordance with the provisions of the present Covenant;
(b) Safe and healthy working conditions;
(c) Equal opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level, subject to no considerations other than those of seniority and competence;
(d) Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.
We must take the big picture into consideration to broaden our thinking and thus our discourse. This doesn’t mean abandoning our work to claim our rights and improve our working conditions, but enriching it. Educational budgets are ensconced in state budgets, and changes to Ed Codes are likewise made without consulting the public, so working to change the very legislative conditions that cripple education is a necessary tool. In this way, lobbying advocacy groups such as California Part-time Faculty Association (CPFA) are vital. We must also challenge the entrenched power of the business elite who seek to further shift Americans from citizen to consumer with calls to investigate this unwarranted influence at the local, state, and national levels. Equally important, adjuncts should join efforts against the business elite, working hand-in-hand at every level of education and connecting to efforts from those who, like us, are being denied freedom through economic manipulation.
Think about how we have become accustomed to doing so much more with so much less – and with little to show for it but our sense of loyalty to the public. If we are to take back education and our freedom, we need to be a solid front of citizens who seek to denormalize what is being force fed us as givens.
This article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of CPFA’s Community College Journal.