John Holloway: cracking capitalism vs. the state option

by Amador Fernández-Savater on September 29, 2014

Post image for John Holloway: cracking capitalism vs. the state optionWith left parties on the rise in Spain and Greece, John Holloway reflects on his influential 2002 thesis: can we change the world without taking power?

Interview by Amador Fernández-Savater. Translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

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Firstly, John, we would like to ask you where the hegemonic idea of revolution in the 20th century comes from, what it is based on. That is, the idea of social change through the taking of power.

I think the central element is labor, understood as wage labor. In other words, alienated or abstract labor. Wage labor has been, and still is, the bedrock of the trade union movement, of the social democratic parties that were its political wing, and also of the communist movements. This concept defined the revolutionary theory of the labor movement: the struggle of wage labor against capital. But its struggle was limited because wage labor is the complement of capital, not its negation.

I don’t understand the relation between this idea of labor and that of revolution through the taking of state power.

One way of understanding the connection would be as follows: if you start off from the definition of labor as wage or alienated labor, you start off from the idea of the workers as victims and objects of the system of domination. And a movement that struggles to improve the living standards of workers (considered as victims and objects) immediately refers to the state. Why? Because the state, due to its very separation from society, is the ideal institution if one seeks to achieve benefits for people. This is the traditional thinking of the labor movement and that of the left governments that currently exist in Latin America.

But this tradition isn’t the only approach to a politics of emancipation…

Of course not. In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.

These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.

The rejection of alienated and alienating labor entails, at the same time, a critique of the institutional and organizational structures, and the mindset that springs from it. This is how we can explain the rejection of trade unions, parties, and the state that we observe in so many contemporary movements, from the Zapatistas to the Greek or Spanish indignados.

But it isn’t a question of the opposition between an old and a new politics, I think. Because what we see in the movements born of the economic crisis is that those two things come to the fore at the same time: cracks such as protests in city squares, and new parties such as Syriza or Podemos.

I think it’s a reflection of the fact that our experience under capitalism is contradictory. We are victims and yet we are not. We seek to improve our living standards as workers, and also to go beyond that, to live differently. In one respect we are, in effect, people who have to sell their labor power in order to survive. But in another, each one of us has dreams, behaviors and projects that don’t fit into the capitalist definition of labor.

The difficulty, then as now, lies in envisioning the relation between those two types of movements. How can that relation avoid reproducing the old sectarianism? How can it be a fruitful relation without denying the fundamental differences between the two perspectives?

Argentina in 2001 and 2002, the indignados in Greece and Spain more recently. At a certain point, bottom-up movements stall, they enter a crisis or an impasse, or they vanish. Would you say that the politics of cracks has intrinsic limits in terms of enduring and expanding?

I wouldn’t call them limits, but rather problems. Ten years ago, when I published Change the World without Taking Power, the achievements and the power of movements from below were more apparent, whereas now we are more conscious of the problems. The movements you mention are enormously important beacons of hope, but capital continues to exist and it’s getting worse and worse; it progressively entails more misery and destruction. We cannot confine ourselves to singing the praises of movements. That’s not enough.

Could one response then be the option that focuses on the state?

It’s understandable why people want to go in that direction, very understandable. These have been years of ferocious struggles, but capital’s aggression remains unchanged. I sincerely hope that Podemos and Syriza do win the elections, because that would change the current kaleidoscope of social struggles. But I maintain all of my objections with regard to the state option.

Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.

Could it be a matter of complementing the movements from below with a movement oriented towards government institutions?

That’s the obvious answer that keeps coming up. But the problem with obvious answers is that they suppress contradictions. Things can’t be reconciled so easily. From above, it may be possible to improve people’s living conditions, but I don’t think one can break with capitalism and generate a different reality. And I sincerely believe that we’re in a situation where there are no long-term solutions for the whole of humanity within capitalism.

I’m not discrediting the state option because I myself don’t have an answer to offer, but I don’t think it’s the solution.

Where are you looking for the answer?

Whilst not considering parties of the left as enemies, since for me this is certainly not the case, I would say that the answer has to be thought of in terms of deepening the cracks.

If we’re not going to accept the annihilation of humanity, which, to me, seems to be on capitalism’s agenda as a real possibility, then the only alternative is to think that our movements are the birth of another world. We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.

If we think in terms of state and elections, we are straying away from that, because Podemos or Syriza can improve things, but they cannot create another world outside the logic of capital. And that’s what this is all about, I think.

Finally, John, how do you see the relation between the two perspectives we’ve been talking about?

We need to keep a constant and respectful debate going without suppressing the differences and the contradictions. I think the basis for a dialogue could be this: no one has the solution.

For the moment, we have to recognize that we’re not strong enough to abolish capitalism. By strong, I am referring here to building ways of living that don’t depend on wage labor. To be able to say “I don’t really care whether I have a job or not, because if I don’t have one, I can dedicate my life to other things that interest me and that give me enough sustenance to live decently.” That’s not the case right now. Perhaps we have to build that before we can say “go to hell, capital.”

In that sense, let’s bear in mind that a precondition for the French Revolution was that, at a certain point, the social network of bourgeois relations no longer needed the aristocracy in order to exist. Likewise, we must work to reach a point where we can say “we don’t care if global capital isn’t investing in Spain, because we’ve built a mutual support network that’s strong enough to enable us to live with dignity.”

Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.

And there are a great many people dedicated to this effort, whether out of desire, conviction or necessity, even though they may not appear in the newspapers. They’re building other forms of community, of sociality, of thinking about technology and human capabilities in order to create a new life.

John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico. His latest book is Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2010).

http://roarmag.org/2014/09/john-holloway-cracking-capitalism-vs-the-state-option/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

“The Roosevelts”: Ken Burns’ economics lesson for America

The new PBS documentary examines how New Nationalism and the New Deal saved the country from capitalism’s excesses

, Next New Deal

"The Roosevelts": Ken Burns' economics lesson for America
Scene still from “The Roosevelts”(Credit: PBS)
This originally appeared on Next New Deal.

Next New Deal Ken Burns’s superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

The film also has much to say about the transformative nature of government: the idea, which all three Roosevelts shared, that it was the responsibility of government to serve as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans – not just the privileged few at the top. It was this belief that formed the basis of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and this belief that helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by the United Nations just three years after its 1945 founding.

What is often overlooked in this story is the role that all three of these remarkable leaders played in helping to preserve the American free enterprise system, of trying to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, not only out of a desire to protect the American people from exploitative labor practices or fraudulent financial dealings, but also out of a desire to protect our very way of life during an era when liberal capitalist democracy was under siege in much of the rest of the world. As the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once remarked, the twentieth century in many respects can be viewed as a struggle of ideologies, a time in which the anti-democratic forces of fascism and totalitarian communism were on the march, so that by January 1942 at the height of the Second World War, there were only a handful of democracies left on the planet.



In the rhetorically charged atmosphere of the mid 1930s, FDR’s critics alleged that the reforms he instigated under the New Deal were designed to take the country down the path to socialism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and granting labor the right to organize were all inspired by the desire to provide the average American with a basic degree of economic security within the capitalist system. So too were the many financial reforms that brought us the likes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same argument could be made about Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to take on such conglomerates as the Beef Trust or the Northern Securities Rail Company was driven by the desire not to destroy big business but to limit monopoly and restore the cut and thrust of the free market. In short, both men were motivated by the idea that the federal government had a responsibility to make capitalism work for the average American.

Eleanor Roosevelt concurred with these ideas, and in spite of her reputation as a left-leaning reformer, spent much of her considerable energy in the post-1945 world arguing in favor of the World War II monetary and trade reforms that helped launch the globalization of the world’s economy. In her May 21, 1945 “My Day” column, for example, ER spoke out in favor of the 1944 Bretton Woods accords which established the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank. Here, she argued in favor of the stabilization of currencies, because in the past there had been much speculative trading in this area, which resulted in “economic warfare” that in time brings us to “shooting warfare.” And she had this to say about the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Some foolish people will ask: Why do we have to concern ourselves with the development and reconstruction of the ruined countries? The answer is simple. We are the greatest producing country in the world. We need markets not only at home, but abroad, and we cannot have them unless people can start up their industries and national economy again and buy from us. If Europe or Asia falls apart because of starvation or lack of work for their people, chaos will result and World War III will be in the making. In that event, we know that we will have to be a part of it.

Hence, ER insisted that we needed “both the bank and the fund for our own security, as well as for that of the rest of the world.” She then urged her readers to write to their Senators and Congressmen in support of the treaty, for as she so eloquently put it:

Whether you are a farmer or a merchant, whether your business is big or little, you are personally affected by it. Even if you don’t sell directly to a foreign country, you are indirectly affected – for the prosperity of the[foreign] country means your prosperity, and we cannot prosper without trade with our neighbors in the world of tomorrow.

As is so often the case, when we look back we see that the challenges of the past are not that different from the challenges we face today. Once again we face a world where the free-market system is in desperate need of reform; a world where income inequality has reached levels not seen since the gilded age; a world where the specter of long-term unemployment and limited opportunity has dimmed the hopes of an entire generation; a world where poverty and a lack of opportunity have given rise to anti-democratic extremists that threaten the very lives and well-being of millions. Yet sadly, and unlike the heady days of the first six decades of the twentieth century, our leaders in Washington seem incapable or unwilling to shape a response to these many challenges befitting the legacy of such great political figures as Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A great deal of this can be attributed to the irresponsible behavior of many members of Congress, particularly among the members of the extreme right, whose obstructionist policies and rigid anti-government ideology have played a significant part in rendering the 113th Congress one of the least effective and least respected in American history.

But we should also never forget – as Ken Burns and his outstanding script writer Geoffrey Ward have reminded us through this outstanding film – that we too must share part of the blame. For as much as we may admire the leadership of the Roosevelts, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of the American people. Leadership, after all, is a dynamic process that requires the cooperation of the both public figures and the public, and if we are living in an age that seems incapable of producing transformative government, we need to recognize that in a democracy it is the people who bear the final responsibility for their fate.

Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put it best when he urged the American people to recognize that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

 

 http://www.salon.com/2014/09/27/the_roosevelts_ken_burns_economics_lesson_for_america_partner/?source=newsletter

Obama’s Bourgeois Presidency

When Words Fail
by Andrew Levine
http://thecollegepolitico.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Fall-Out-Obama.jpg

In the Age of Obama, inequality is on the rise and austerity politics rages on.

Obama could do more to improve the lot of those made worse off by these developments.  But he really can’t be blamed for them – much.

Enriching the “one percent” at everyone else’s expense is what late (overripe, irrational) capitalism does.  The main job of the state in capitalist societies — and therefore of those who lead states — is to make capitalism flourish.

Within the confines of “normal” politics in the early twenty-first century, it was therefore inevitable that Obama would preside over a regime in which inequality would become worse, and in which austerity would be the order of the day.

Increasing inequality is a worldwide phenomenon – afflicting all developed capitalist countries.  The labor movement and the welfare state are under attack everywhere; and everywhere people are worse off as a result.

Palliative measures are still possible within the confines of the present system, and they can sometimes do a lot to make peoples’ lives better.  But, until the basic economic structure is transformed, the underlying causes of the problems affecting us will remain – and so will the problems themselves.

To dig up the hackneyed slogan of James Carville, the Clinton family functionary: “it’s the economy, stupid.”  More precisely, it’s the entire regime contemporary capitalism sustains.

Therefore the only solution, as progressives used to say (but now seldom dare even to think), is revolution.

Or, since the solution need not  – and probably can no longer – resemble the revolutions of old, we might better say that the solution is “regime change.”  Too bad that neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have taken over and debased that otherwise useful expression.

This side of regime change, there is nothing to do but make the best of an increasingly bad situation.  Obama has done precious little of that, perhaps because he has internalized the values of the beneficiaries of the status quo.  But no one could have done a whole lot better; the constraints are too formidable.

In the United States, with mid-term elections just two months away and a presidential election coming in another two years, liberals and others who are tempted to cast their lot with “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” should bear this in mind.

We can certainly do worse than, say, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders; just imagine Hillary Clinton back in the White House or some whacked-out Republican.

But no matter who is next elected President, the most those who care about equality and the wellbeing of the vast majority can hope for are a few woefully inadequate changes at the margins.

In becoming President, Obama stepped into a current that he could have done more to resist.   But he could not have turned the current back.   Only the great sleeping giant that “we, the people” have become can do that.

This is not to say, however, that our Commander-in-Chief gets a pass.  There are far too many other things for which he deserves all the blame we can muster.

Acquiescing to the demands of unreconstructed Cold Warriors who want the United States and Europe to court catastrophe by encircling and humiliating Russia, is a prime example.

So too is letting clueless imperialists take charge of American meddling in the Middle East.  His “humanitarian” interveners may seem kinder and gentler than Bush’s and Cheney’s neoconservatives, but they are just as dangerous.   They have already done incalculable harm, and are presently about to do much more.

Obama also deserves blame for not moving forward more aggressively to halt global warming, and for not putting world energy policy on a less insane footing.  Lately, even some billionaires have come around to the view that there is money to be made in “green” energy.   They are way ahead of Obama; all he can do is muster a few weasel words.

Not only has he done almost nothing to limit carbon emissions; his “all of the above” support for the nuclear power industry has put the world at ever-greater risk of potential catastrophes.

Obama deserves blame too for a host of other noxiously wrong-headed policies – for trashing privacy rights and due process, for example.

High on the list too is his grudging, but nevertheless steadfast, support for the great American tradition of enabling Israel to do whatever it wants to ethnically cleanse Gaza and the Occupied Territories of Palestinians, descendants of peoples who have lived from time immemorial on lands diehard Zionists covet.

In capitalist societies, nearly everything governments do has economic consequences.  But the constraints Obama, or any American President, has to contend with in these areas, and others like them, are primarily political.

The Obama way is to take the path of least resistance.  When the constraints are mainly economic, he cannot be blamed too much for this – there is not much else he could do.  But when they are mainly political, he has more freedom of action, at least in principle.  Then the more reprehensible what he actually does becomes.

A leader with more vision and backbone than Obama – one genuinely moved by “the audacity of hope” — could surely have done better.   Even after Obama, that prospect is not foreclosed.

But neither are the prospects encouraging.

Fans of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders should realize that the views that they advance that make them look good, compared to Obama, pertain to issues about which Presidents can do very little.  In areas where a President actually could do a lot of good, Warren and Sanders seem no better than the rest.

We no longer have a good way to account for, or even describe, the difference between those things for which Obama should not be severely blamed because no one, not even someone better at governance and more “progressive” than he, could have done much better, and those that a more able leader, operating within the confines of normal politics, could have much improved.

This was not always the case, but the words – and the thinking behind them — have fallen into disuse.

In the not too distant past, it would have been natural, for people on the left, to call Obama – along with other practitioners of what I have been calling normal politics – bourgeois politicians; and to call the politics they practice bourgeois politics.

This terminology nowadays seems irremediably quaint.

This is unfortunate, but it is also understandable; it is even justifiable.

For one thing, these words harken back to a time when it could be said, with some plausibility, that there really was a full-fledged bourgeoisie, and that it functioned as a ruling class.

To the extent this was ever the case, that time is long gone.

The word “bourgeois” has a complicated history.  At first, it designated town and city-dwellers, particularly those involved in commerce.  In early modern Europe, the bourgeoisie was a “middle class” – with aristocrats above them in wealth and influence, and with peasants, shopkeepers, tradesmen and others below.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, in socialist circles especially, the term came to denote owners of capital, “capitalists.”  The Marxist tradition adopted this usage.

Even in the Marxist view, however, bourgeois politics was more of an ideal type than an empirical reality.

Part of the problem was that aristocratic power proved more resilient in the face of capitalist development than most Marxists and other socialists expected.  It was not until well into the twentieth century that the old aristocracy’s hold over society definitively expired – thanks mainly to the declining economic importance of land ownership and the devastating effects of two World Wars.

By then, however, the bourgeoisie had largely disappeared as well.

Being bourgeois, in the fullest sense of the term, involved more than just occupying a defined niche in a capitalist economic structure.  There was a cultural component to it too.

Bourgeois culture developed in opposition both to the aristocracy above and the popular masses below, but there was nothing intermediate about it.  The bourgeoisie was the bearer of a new from of civilization.

Even so, it was seldom the case anywhere that a bourgeoisie, so conceived, genuinely ruled.  At most, there were periods in the history of post-Revolutionary France, and in a few other Western European countries, where this was very nearly the case.

Nevertheless, the broad contours of the civilization the bourgeoisie created are still with us.   The social class that gave rise to it is gone, but the civilization it produced survived its demise.   Indeed, bourgeois society – in many of its several aspects — has actually flourished in the decades since the last remnants of the classical bourgeoisie went missing.

In North America, there never was a real aristocracy (except perhaps in the pre-Civil War South), much less an aristocratic ruling class, and neither was there a genuine peasantry.  Much the same was true in Australia and New Zealand.

Therefore, in these places, a full-fledged bourgeoisie never emerged either – despite the nearly universal prevalence of capitalist economic relations.

The United States has had capitalists galore since even before its inception, and they have run the country to their advantage from the beginning.  But culturally they never quite comprised a genuine bourgeoisie; they never made the grade.

It is hardly the least of their shortcomings, but, compared to the genuine article, they never had enough couth.  This is even truer of the fraction of the one percent who nowadays own almost all there is to own; and truer still of the politicians who serve them.

Nevertheless, an attenuated approximation of bourgeois civilization became established in the United States and throughout Britain’s White Dominions – and, in due course, nearly everywhere else.

And now that American-style consumerism has become globally hegemonic, the process of worldwide embourgeoisement is nearly complete.

Thus, even in the absence of a real bourgeoisie, it still makes sense to speak of “bourgeois society” and “bourgeois culture” – and “bourgeois politics.”

Credit for keeping the notion alive must go to those who subscribed to the view of world history that Marxists and others took more or less as given.

For them, the French Revolution, though carried forward mainly by the popular classes, resulted in the demise (for a while) of the power of the old aristocracy and its assumption by a rising bourgeoisie.

In their view, in the next (all but inevitable) revolution, the working class, conceived as a proletariat – “in society but not of it,” and with “nothing to lose but its chains” – would do to society’s new masters what they had done to the aristocrats of old.

This idea provided yet another reason to keep on talking about bourgeois politics, even in the absence of a genuinely bourgeois ruling class.

But as it became increasingly clear that the proletariat of Marxist theory had long ago gone missing, this rationale eventually lost its appeal.

Nevertheless, as long as Marxist politics survived in one or another form, “bourgeois politics” remained in the political lexicon.  This was especially true in Maoist quarters, where the word “bourgeois” came to be used, with scant concern for its stricter meanings, as a general term of disapprobation.

Well into the twentieth century, this usage was common in the West as well, including the United States.  Remember Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” written in 1937.   It indicts racial segregation in the nation’s capital.  Washington, Lead Belly famously sang, is a “bourgeois town.”   He got that right; more right than he probably realized.   He hit all the bases.

Politically disparaging words are like that – often, they have strict meanings that can expand into new domains without much regard for what they meant historically.

Then, as circumstances change, they sometimes retract back into more historically correct usages.

“Fascist” is an example.  It is like “bourgeois” in some respects, and different in others.  The similarities and differences are instructive.

Strictly speaking, “fascism” refers to a political tendency that emerged in Europe, and areas influenced by developments in Europe, during the inter-war years of the twentieth century.  Fascism arose in response to conditions peculiar to that historical period.

By the end of World War II, the fascist moments of the twenties, thirties, and forties had suffered an historic defeat.  The remnants that survived – in southern Europe and, more ambiguously, in Latin America — were pale shadows of what once had been.

However, in countries where fascism had been defeated, and in the countries that fought against fascism in the Second World War, the word lived on – mainly as an epithet, an insult.

Typically, public officials and the police bore the brunt.  Officials who were more than usually authoritarian, and police who were more than usually brutal called it upon themselves; often, they deserved the abuse.

But however reprehensible they were – and however much their behavior resembled behaviors characteristic of bona fide fascists — they were not themselves fascist in any significant respect.  The usage had become so expansive that the term’s original meaning was effectively lost.

However, fascist or, better, neo-fascist groups never entirely died out – neither in regions where genuine fascism once flourished nor in liberal democracies, where fascist movements had never thrived.

And so, they have remained at the ready to spring back to life.  The surge in anti-immigrant feeling in many European countries has had this effect.  So has the rise of Islamophobia.

Even more saliently, Western machinations in Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics and in regions close to the former Soviet Union have made the idea descriptively useful again.

These developments make the less careful uses that were once so common more than usually misleading.  Now that the term again has more legitimate referents, these uses, not surprisingly, have fallen off.

Careless uses of “bourgeois” have subsided too, though for different reasons.

“Fascist,” in something like its original meaning is back, because fascists are back.   The bourgeoisie is gone, and will not return.

But this is not why the word has passed out of general currency.

That happened because political traditions, Marxist and otherwise, that found the term useful have themselves passed into desuetude.

But the term is useful still.  In the Age of Obama, it is more useful than ever – because it calls attention to what normal politics does its best to obscure: the class character of the politics of our time.

When “bourgeois” was still in wide use, there was a class antagonist with which it contrasted.  For Marxists, that was the proletariat.

However, even before Marxism fully took shape, it was plain that the proletariat as such no longer existed.   What was left in its stead, the working class, was, however, a real world approximation.  Its existence was indisputable and, for decades, its power was on the rise.

In most capitalist countries, working class parties formed and sometimes even ruled.

Nevertheless, with the arguable exception of the Socialist Party in the years preceding World War I, the United States never had a working class party of any significance.

For many reasons – some structural, some not — the American labor movement backed Democrats instead.   They are still at it, despite a decades long legacy of betrayals.

Even in these coming elections, organized labor continues to offer the Democratic Party money and foot soldiers, demanding little or nothing in return.  When it is over, workers will find that, as usual, they will have gotten back even less.

In recent decades, it has even become rare for a Democrat to utter the words “working class.”  “Middle class” is the accepted euphemism.

How fitting that a bourgeois party would deny the very existence of the bourgeoisie’s historical antagonist!  And how ironic inasmuch as the bourgeoisie was once, genuinely, a middle class!

In having a party system that effectively excluded direct working class representation, the United States truly was, for many decades, “exceptional.”  It no longer is.  In other developed countries, political parties with historical ties to the socialist movements of the past and to the labor movements of their respective countries survive.  But, under the skin, they are all Democrats now.

Or what comes to the same thing, they are all bourgeois – in just the way that the Obama presidency is; not literally, but in effect.

Words fail; the language is inadequate.  But there is no concise way to say it better; and therefore no better way to grasp the nature of the constraints politicians today confront.  There is certainly no more illuminating way to mark the difference between those things Obama does for which he deserves a lot of blame, and those for which he deserves not so much.

Inevitably, Obama’s has been a bourgeois presidency.  As such, it could have been worse and it could have been better.   Indeed, it could have been much better, at least in principle, in areas that don’t directly impinge upon the functioning of the economic system as a whole.

But it could not have been fundamentally better, and neither can the presidencies of Obama’s successors, until the class character of American – and world – politics is radically transformed.

This is not a task that even the best (least bad) Democratic Party politicians currently vying for office are equipped to perform.   Like their counterparts in other countries, they cannot do much good – especially not with respect to inequality and austerity — because what needs to be done exceeds the practical and theoretical limitations of normal politics in our time.

They could do better in foreign and military affairs, and in countless other ways where the constraints are mainly political.  Perhaps they could even do more to keep impending ecological catastrophes at bay.

How much better off we then would be!  But one has to wonder whether even this is too much to expect from bourgeois politicians in bourgeois societies, superintending capitalist economies in which ever fewer numbers of people own ever more of all that there is.

Perhaps all we can reasonably expect, in these circumstances, is to be led by Obama-like dunces, pursuing Obama-like policies that edge us closer to disaster.

The only solution… well, we’ve known about that forever.  But how do we get from here to there?  That, not who wins this or that paltry electoral contest, is the basic question of our time.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/09/26/obamas-bourgeois-presidency/

 

 

Why Facebook, Google, and the NSA Want Computers That Learn Like Humans

Deep learning could transform artificial intelligence. It could also get pretty creepy.

lol cats

Illustration: Quickhoney

In June 2012, a Google supercomputer made an artificial-intelligence breakthrough: It learned that the internet loves cats. But here’s the remarkable part: It had never been told what a cat looks like. Researchers working on the Google Brain project in the company’s X lab fed 10 million random, unlabeled images from YouTube into their massive network and instructed it to recognize the basic elements of a picture and how they fit together. Left to their own devices, the Brain’s 16,000 central processing units noticed that a lot of the images shared similar characteristics that it eventually recognized as a “cat.” While the Brain’s self-taught knack for kitty spotting was nowhere as good as a human’s, it was nonetheless a major advance in the exploding field of deep learning.

The dream of a machine that can think and learn like a person has long been the holy grail of computer scientists, sci-fi fans, and futurists alike. Deep learning—algorithms inspired by the human brain and its ability to soak up massive amounts of information and make complex predictions—might be the closest thing yet. Right now, the technology is in its infancy: Much like a baby, the Google Brain taught itself how to recognize cats, but it’s got a long way to go before it can figure out that you’re sad because your tabby died. But it’s just a matter of time. Its potential to revolutionize everything from social networking to surveillance has sent tech companies and defense and intelligence agencies on a deep-learning spending spree.

What really puts deep learning on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) is that its algorithms can analyze things like human behavior and then make sophisticated predictions. What if a social-networking site could figure out what you’re wearing from your photos and then suggest a new dress? What if your insurance company could diagnose you as diabetic without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you on the subway is carrying a bomb?

And unlike older data-crunching models, deep learning doesn’t slow down as you cram in more info. Just the opposite—it gets even smarter. “Deep learning works better and better as you feed it more data,” explains Andrew Ng, who oversaw the cat experiment as the founder of Google’s deep-learning team. (Ng has since joined the Chinese tech giant Baidu as the head of its Silicon Valley AI team.)

And so the race to build a better virtual brain is on. Microsoft plans to challenge the Google Brain with its own system called Adam. Wired reported that Apple is applying deep learning to build a “neural-net-boosted Siri.” Netflix hopes the technology will improve its movie recommendations. Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Pinterest have snapped up deep-learning companies; Google has used the technology to read every house number in France in less than an hour. “There’s a big rush because we think there’s going to be a bit of a quantum leap,” says Yann LeCun, a deep-learning pioneer and the head of Facebook’s new AI lab.

What if your insurance company diagnosed you without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you is carrying a bomb?

Last December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared, bodyguards in tow, at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Lake Tahoe, where insiders discussed how to make computers learn like humans. He has said that his company seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” Facebook researchers have used deep learning to identify individual faces from a giant database called “Labeled Faces in the Wild” with more than 97 percent accuracy. Another project, dubbed PANDA (Pose Aligned Networks for Deep Attribute Modeling), can accurately discern gender, hairstyles, clothing styles, and facial expressions from photos. LeCun says that these types of tools could improve the site’s ability to tag photos, target ads, and determine how people will react to content.

Yet considering recent news that Facebook secretly studied 700,000 users’ emotions by tweaking their feeds or that the National Security Agency harvests 55,000 facial images a day, it’s not hard to imagine how these attempts to better “know” you might veer into creepier territory.

Not surprisingly, deep learning’s potential for analyzing human faces, emotions, and behavior has attracted the attention of national-security types. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has worked with researchers at New York University on a deep-learning program that sought, according to a spokesman, “to distinguish human forms from other objects in battlefield or other military environments.”

Chris Bregler, an NYU computer science professor, is working with the Defense Department to enable surveillance cameras to detect suspicious activity from body language, gestures, and even cultural cues. (Bregler, who grew up near Heidelberg, compares it to his ability to spot German tourists in Manhattan.) His prototype can also determine whether someone is carrying a concealed weapon; in theory, it could analyze a woman’s gait to reveal she is hiding explosives by pretending to be pregnant. He’s also working on an unnamed project funded by “an intelligence agency”—he’s not permitted to say more than that.

And the NSA is sponsoring deep-learning research on language recognition at Johns Hopkins University. Asked whether the agency seeks to use deep learning to track or identify humans, spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” AP Photo/Ben Margot

Deep learning also has the potential to revolutionize Big Data-driven industries like banking and insurance. Graham Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has applied deep-learning models to look beyond credit scores to determine customers’ future value to companies. He acknowledges that these types of applications could upend the way businesses treat their customers: “What if a restaurant was able to predict the amount of your bill, or the probability of you ever returning? What if that affected your wait time? I think there will be many surprises as predictive models become more pervasive.”

Privacy experts worry that deep learning could also be used in industries like banking and insurance to discriminate or effectively redline consumers for certain behaviors. Sergey Feldman, a consultant and data scientist with the brand personalization company RichRelevance, imagines a “deep-learning nightmare scenario” in which insurance companies buy your personal information from data brokers and then infer with near-total accuracy that, say, you’re an overweight smoker in the early stages of heart disease. Your monthly premium might suddenly double, and you wouldn’t know why. This would be illegal, but, Feldman says, “don’t expect Congress to protect you against all possible data invasions.”

An NSA spokeswoman only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

And what if the computer is wrong? If a deep-learning program predicts that you’re a fraud risk and blacklists you, “there’s no way to contest that determination,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bregler agrees that there might be privacy issues associated with deep learning, but notes that he tries to mitigate those concerns by consulting with a privacy advocate. Google has reportedly established an ethics committee to address AI issues; a spokesman says its deep-learning research is not primarily about analyzing personal or user-specific data—for now. While LeCun says that Facebook eventually could analyze users’ data to inform targeted advertising, he insists the company won’t share personally identifiable data with advertisers.

“The problem of privacy invasion through computers did not suddenly appear because of AI or deep learning. It’s been around for a long time,” LeCun says. “Deep learning doesn’t change the equation in that sense, it just makes it more immediate.” Big companies like Facebook “thrive on the trust users have in them,” so consumers shouldn’t worry about their personal data being fed into virtual brains. Yet, as he notes, “in the wrong hands, deep learning is just like any new technology.”

Deep learning, which also has been used to model everything from drug side effects to energy demand, could “make our lives much easier,” says Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. For now, it’s still relatively difficult for companies and governments to efficiently sift through all our emails, texts, and photos. But deep learning, he warns, “gives a lot of power to these organizations.”

Once again, UN climate meeting comes up empty

http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/09/climate_summit_2014.jpg

By Daniel de Vries
25 September 2014

As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the Climate Summit in New York this week, he described climate change as the defining issue of our age, warning that “there is no more time for business as usual.” The summit must not be about talk, he urged, but rather about “producing actions that make a difference.”

What world leaders offered up, however, was little more than empty, self-serving pledges that will do nothing to stave off the impact of global warming.

One of the key goals of the meeting had been to build momentum for the Paris Conference in December 2015, which the UN has targeted for a binding agreement on climate change. Fifteen months away, almost no one expects such an agreement to be forthcoming. The Obama administration underscored this last month, saying they intend only to “name and shame” countries into setting voluntary targets, rather than pursuing a legally enforceable treaty.

Tuesday’s summit was the highest-profile effort to bring together leaders of the major countries on the issue of climate change since Copenhagen in 2009, when the last attempt to negotiate a binding agreement ended in debacle. Over 120 heads of state participated in the summit.

However, despite the large numbers of dignitaries, low expectations and rising geopolitical tensions ensured that leaders of several of the most important countries, in terms of both economic output and greenhouse gas emissions, stayed away. Angela Merkel of Germany, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and Narendra Modi of India, among others, were absent.

A day after initiating the bombing campaign in Syria, President Obama used his remarks to take aim at China. Obama challenged China as the world’s second-largest economy and biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Like the US, China has a “special responsibility to lead,” he said. “That’s what big nations have to do.”

The US has long since gone back on the past concession that the wealthy industrialized countries, having created the bulk of greenhouse emissions, had greater responsibility than the poorer countries for finding a remedy. Instead, the primary aim of Obama’s international climate policy is to gain a competitive advantage against China. In this respect, his singling out of Beijing can be understood as the “green” component of the US “pivot to Asia.”

While Obama boasted in his speech about the United States “stepping up to the plate” to regulate pollution from power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly announced September 16 that it was delaying implementation of the new rules at least through the end of the year.

The president also bragged that the US was on track to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent in 2020. This goal, which is based on a cherry-picked starting point when emissions neared their peak, is nowhere near adequate. The US remains on a trajectory to exceed 1990 emissions by five percent in 2030. The bulk of the recent reductions are attributable to the transition from coal to natural gas in the power sector. Made economically attractive by the boom in hydro-fracking, this development has carried alongside it devastating environmental consequences.

Obama was far from the only leader to make cynical claims of environmental progress. The UK’s David Cameron remarked, “As prime minister, I pledged to lead the greenest government ever and I believe we have kept that promise,” before touting the low-carbon benefits of shale gas exploration.

French President François Hollande was one of the few to announce any new commitments, pledging $1 billion over four years to the Green Climate Fund. Formally established at the Cancun climate conference in 2010, the fund is intended to raise $100 billion a year to finance climate-related projects in so-called developing countries. Four years later, however, the fund remains near empty, with only Germany equaling France’s pledge, plus a handful of other countries making smaller donations. The $1 billion pledge by France is a mere drop in the bucket, equal to roughly half a percent of the country’s military spending over the same four-year period.

The Green Climate Fund, like all the “market-based measures” advanced at the UN conference, is based not on what is needed to limit climate change or adapt to its consequences, but on the profit interests of the banks and major corporations. Wall Street is preparing for a bonanza, eying the fund as a vehicle for huge profits at essentially no risk. National governments would provide loan guaranties and subsidies, essentially covering losses in case the climate investments fail, while ensuring windfall profits flow to private companies.

Underscoring the subordination of climate policy to business interests, Tuesday’s summit had the largest ever involvement from the private sector. A UN press release highlighted this fact, stating, “In a major departure from the climate negotiations and previous climate summits, the business community and civil society are playing a major role. There were 181 representatives from the business and investment community, including 90 chief executive officers.”

Meanwhile, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that global temperatures this summer were the hottest on record. This year is on track to break the record for the warmest ever, previously set in 2010, they project.

The NOAA announcement is just the latest in a steady stream of reports and assessments highlighting the severity of the climate crisis. While the governmental, business and “civil society” leaders present at the summit near universally admitted this, they once again demonstrated that it is impossible, within the framework of capitalist property relations and the nation-state system, to muster any meaningful response.

The Alibaba IPO frenzy

http://www.wallstreetotc.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/alibaba.jpg

Symptom of a diseased economic order

22 September 2014

The initial public offering (IPO) of shares in the Chinese Internet trading company Alibaba, which led to a frenzy on Wall Street last Friday, is the latest, and one of the most spectacular, expressions of the parasitism that is now the dominant feature of the global financial system and the world economy more broadly.

Initially priced at $68 per share, the stock began trading on the New York exchange at $92.70, with 100 million shares changing hands in the first ten minutes, before closing at $93.89. The 38 percent rise took the market value of the fifteen-year-old company to $231 billion, more than Amazon, Proctor & Gamble and JP Morgan.

The IPO reportedly made Jack Ma, the company’s founder, China’s richest man, with a net worth of $26.5 billion. It is hard to ascertain what is more repugnant: the scale of the plunder or the extent of the hypocrisy that accompanied it. Ma told the CNBC business TV channel that the issue was not money, but getting “trust from the people.”

Silver Lake Management, which focuses on trading in technology firms, reaped five times its initial outlay on Alibaba. Silver Lake bought into the company in October 2011 in a series of deals that put Alibaba’s market value at around $30 billion. At the end of Friday’s trading, it had reaped profits of $4.6 billion. Likewise, Yahoo stands to gain about $5.1 billion after selling its 121.7 million shares in the company.

The 35 underwriters of the deal collectively raked in around $300 million in fees, with five major banks securing about $45 million each.

The entire operation was a graphic demonstration of the putrefaction of the profit system. The IPO itself was an exercise in insider trading, with some 25 institutions securing more than 50 percent of the shares and the biggest portion of the profits on offer.

Fabulous fortunes were made in a matter of minutes as a result of share trading in a company that produces nothing, but is engaged in e-commerce, that is, facilitating buying and selling through the Internet. The naked display of avarice occurred under conditions of stagnation and slump in the real economy and relentless attacks on the conditions of workers, justified by the claim that “there is no money” for jobs, decent wages or basic social services.

The overall indebtedness of the city of Detroit, now in bankruptcy and at the centre of the assault on the working class, including the shutoff of water to thousands of households, is put at around $18 billion—less than the profits raked in during the first hour of trading in Alibaba shares.

The parasitism involved in the IPO is underscored by a consideration of why the “market value” of Alibaba is so inflated. It is not because it has developed some new form of technology, facilitated an important innovation, or brought forward a more advanced production technique.

Its attractiveness flows from its monopolisation of Internet services in China. It dominates operations that in other countries are run by different companies. It owns Chinese firms that are the equivalent of Amazon and eBay and earns money from transaction fees flowing from the Chinese equivalent of PayPal.

This monopoly position has been facilitated by the company’s close connections to the Chinese Stalinist regime. An article in the Australian Financial Review noted that Jack Ma had fostered “warm relations” with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Truth be told,” the newspaper reported, “Alibaba couldn’t have reached the heights it already has without the support of the upper echelons of the Communist Party.”

This is a striking revelation of the role played by the Chinese regime in propping up world capitalism, with all its socially destructive consequences, and the global character of the international financial aristocracy.

The Alibaba IPO came at the end of a week in which a report by Wealth-X and UBS showed that the world’s billionaires had an accumulated wealth of $7.3 trillion, an increase of 12 percent in the last year. This increase of wealth at the very top is accompanied by worsening social conditions for the working class in all of the major capitalist centres. These are not parallel processes, but causally connected.

Since the eruption of the global financial crisis in 2008, the economic policies of the ruling elites have proceeded on two main lines: the supply of ultra-cheap money to the banks and financial institutions to finance speculation, and the driving down of the social position of the working class.

The connection between the two has again been illustrated. Within a day of the Alibaba IPO orgy on Wall Street, halfway round the world at a meeting of G-20 finance ministers and central bankers in Cairns, Australia, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde insisted on the necessity for so-called “labour market” reforms—code words for the destruction of what remains of legal protections for workers.

The frenzy on the financial markets, the surge in corporate stock buybacks, IPOs and takeovers, and the return of the same practices that led to the crisis of 2008 are themselves expressions of the deep and ongoing crisis of the world capitalist system.

The euro zone economies are either stagnating or in outright recession, with production levels still below where they were in 2007. The Japanese economy has experienced no growth this year, despite the massive financial stimulus package carried out under “Abenomics.” Chinese growth is slowing, with mounting questions arising over the stability of the country’s financial system. The American economy has failed to return to anywhere near the growth levels reached before the financial crash.

In other words, money is pouring into the financial system because it has nowhere else to go. The rise of speculation, parasitism and the monopolisation of socially produced wealth by a money-crazed and semi-criminal elite are manifestations of the deep-going historical crisis of the capitalist economic order.

The Alibaba IPO exemplifies the manner in which the capitalist market and monopoly domination turn the Internet, a technological advance that potentially opens up vast prospects for social advancement, into a means for generating fabulous wealth for a mere handful. It is another demonstration of the necessity for the complete overturn of the profit system and the reconstruction of the global economic order on socialist foundations.

Nick Beams

Professors on food stamps

The shocking true story of academia in 2014

Forget minimum wage, some adjunct professors say they’re making 50 cents an hour. Wait till you read these stories

Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014
(Credit: domin_domin via iStock/Roobcio via Shutterstock/Salon)

You’ve probably heard the old stereotypes about professors in their ivory tower lecturing about Kafka while clad in a tweed jacket. But for many professors today, the reality is quite different: being so poorly paid and treated, that they’re more likely to be found bargain-hunting at day-old bread stores. This is academia in 2014.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

Merklein was far from the only professor with this problem.



“It can be a tremendous amount of work,” said Alex Kudera. Kudera started teaching in 1996 and is the author of a novel about adjunct professorship, “Fight For Your Long Day.” “When I was an adjunct, I didn’t have a social life. It’s basically just work all the time. You plan your weekend around the fact that you’re going to be doing work Saturday and Sunday — typically grading papers, which is emotionally exhausting. The grading can be tedious but at least it’s a private thing. It’s basically 5-10 hours a day for every day of the week.”

One professor from Indiana who spoke to Salon preferred to remain anonymous. “At some point early in my adjunct career, I broke down my pay hourly. I figured out that I was making under minimum wage and then I stopped thinking about it,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I essentially design my own courses. And sometimes I don’t find out how many courses I’m going to be teaching until maybe Thursday and they start Monday. … So I have to develop a course, and it’s been the case where one summer I taught English 102 where the course was literally dropped in my lap three days before it started and I had to develop it entirely from scratch. It didn’t even have a text book. That was three 16-hour days in a row developing a syllabus. … You’re expected to be in contact with students constantly. You have to be available to them all the time. You’re expected to respond to emails generally within 24 hours. I’m always on-call. And it’s one of my favorite parts of my job, I don’t regret it, but if you factored those on-call hours in, that’d be the end of it. I’d be making 50 cents an hour.”

Being financially secure and teaching at an institute of higher education are almost mutually exclusive, even among professors who are able to teach the maximum amount of courses each semester. Thus, more than half of adjunct professors in the United States seek a second job. Not all professors can find additional employment. An advanced degree slams most doors shut and opens a handful by the narrowest crack.

Nathaniel Oliver taught as an adjunct for four years in Alabama. He received $12,000 a year during his time teaching.

“You fall in this trap where you may be working for less than you would be at a place that pays minimum wage yet you can’t get the minimum wage jobs because of your education,” Oliver said.

Academia’s tower might be ivory but it casts an obsidian shadow. Oliver was one of many professors trapped in the oxymoronic life of pedantic destitution. Some professors in his situation became homeless. Oliver was “fortunate” enough to only require food stamps, a fact of life for many adjuncts.

“It’s completely insane,” he said. “And this isn’t happening just to me. More and more people are doing it.”

“We have food stamps,” said the anonymous adjunct from Indiana. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”

“Many professors are on food stamps and they go to food donation centers. They donate plasma. And that’s a pretty regular occurrence,” Merklein told Salon.

Life isn’t much easier for those lucky enough to find another income stream. Many are reduced to menial service jobs and other forms of first-world deprivation.

“I ended up applying for a job in a donut shop recently,” said an Ohio professor who requested to go by a pseudonym. Professor Doe taught for over two decades. Many years he only made $9600. Resorting to a food service job was the only way he could afford to live, but it came with more than its expected share of humiliation.

“One of the managers there is one of the students I had a year ago who was one of the very worst writers I’ve ever had. What are we really saying here? What’s going on in the work world? Something does not seem quite right. I’m not asking to be rich. I’m not asking to be famous. I just want to pay my bills.”

Life became even more harrowing for adjuncts after the Affordable Care Act when universities slashed hours and health insurance coverage became even more difficult to obtain.

“They’re no better off than people who work at Walmart,” said Gordon Haber, a 15-year adjunct professor and author of “Adjunctivitis.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, other professors echoed this sentiment.

“There’s this idea that faculty are cheap, renewable labor. There’s the idea that student are customers or clients,” said Joseph Fruscione, a former adjunct of 15 years. “And there are some cases where if a student is displeased with a grade, there’s the notion where they’re paying for this, so they deserve an A or a B because of all this tuition.”

“The Walmart metaphor is vivid,” Kudera said. “There are these random schools where they’re just being terrible. But as some of the schools it seems like there’s some enlightened schools and it doesn’t seem like every single person who speaks up loses their classes. It varies school to school. They’re well aware some of their adjuncts may not afford toothpaste at the end of the month or whatever those kinds of tragedies may be.” He suggested looking at the hashtag #badmin to see transgressions and complaints documented in real time.

Robert Baum, a former adjunct and now a dean, was able to provide insights from both sides of the problem.

“That pressure [to make money] has been on higher education forever,” he said. “A lot of the time when I was an adjunct, things were very black and what I’m finding is that the graying is happening a lot. I’m losing track of the black and white.” Still, Baum noted that the current system was hardly ideal, and that change was necessary. “The Walmart model is based on the idea of putting the burden on taking care of the worker on either the state or on the worker’s credit card or on the worker’s family. And that is no different than what I’ve experienced across my adjunct life. No different. Zero difference.”

Ana Fores Tamayo, an adjunct who claims she was blacklisted over her activism, agreed with the latter parts of Baum’s assessment.

“Walmart and the compartmentalized way of treating faculty is the going rate. The way administration turns around and says, for instance, where I was teaching it was probably about 65% adjunct faculty. But the way they fix their numbers, it makes it looks as if it’s less when they show their books because the way they divide it and the way they play with their numbers it shows that it’s less.”

“As soon as they hear about you organizing, they go on the defensive,” Merklein said. “For instance, at my community college, I am being intimidated constantly and threatened in various ways, hypothetically usually. They don’t like to say something that’s an outright direct threat. … They get really freaked out when they see pamphlets around the adjunct faculty office and everyone’s wearing buttons regardless of what professional organization or union it is. They will then go on the offensive. They will usually contact their attorney who is there to protect the school as a business and to act in an anti-labor capacity.”

The most telling phrase in Merklein’s words are “the school as a business.” Colleges across the country have transitioned from bastions of intellectual enlightenment to resort hotels prizing amenities above academics. Case in point: The ludicrously extravagant gyms in America’s larger universities are home to rock climbing walls, corkscrew tracks, rooftop gardens, and a lazy river. Schools have billions to invest in housing and other on-campus projects. Schools have millions (or in some cases “mere” hundreds of thousands) to pay administrators.  Yet schools can’t find the money to hire more full-time professors. If one follows the money, it’s clear that colleges view education as tertiary. The rigor of a university’s courses doesn’t attract the awe of doe-eyed high school seniors. Lavish dorms and other luxuries do.

Despite such execrable circumstances, professors trek onward and try to educate students as best they can. But how good can education provided by overworked, underpaid adjuncts be? The professors Salon spoke to had varying opinions.

Benay Blend has taught for over 30 years. For 10 of those years, she worked in a bookstore for $7.50 an hour because she needed the extra income.

“I don’t want to fall into the trap that the media use that using adjunct labor means poor education,” Blend said. “I have a PhD. I’ve published probably more than full-time people where I teach. I’ve been teaching for 30 years. I’m a good teacher.”

“On the whole, teaching quality by adjuncts is excellent,” said Kane Faucher, a six-year adjunct. “But many are not available for mentoring and consultation because they have to string together so many courses just to reach or possibly exceed the poverty line. This means our resources are stretched too thinly as a matter of financial survival, and there are many adjuncts who do not even have access to a proper office, which means they work out of coffee shops and cars.”

The anonymous adjunct professor from Indiana expressed a similar sentiment.

“I definitely don’t want to go down the road of ‘Adjunct professors, because of the way we’re handled, are not able to be effective teachers.’ I think some of us are more effective teachers than people who get paid a lot more than we do. Some of us aren’t for really good reasons which have to do with not having the resources. I mean if you’re working at three different colleges, how can you possibly be there?”

Ann Kottner, an adjunct professor and activist, agreed.

“The real problem with the adjunct market right now is that it cheats students of the really outstanding educations they should be getting,” she said. “They’re paying a lot of money for these educations and they’re not getting them. And it’s not because they have bad instructors, it’s because their instructors are not supported to do the kind of work they can do.”

The situation reached such a flashpoint that Kottner and several colleagues (some of which spoke to Salon for this article) penned a petition to the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. The petition calls for “an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty.” Ana Foryes Tamayo has a petition as well, this one to the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. They both have over 8,000 signatories.

When asked about the petition’s impact, Kottner said it was “just one tactic in the whole sheath of a rising adjunct response to contingency.” Other tools included unionization, which is difficult in many states. Kottner said the most powerful force was information. “I think our biggest weapon now is basically making the public aware of what their tuition dollars are not paying for, and that is professor salaries and professor security.”

When asked if there was any hope about the future, no consensus was reached among the adjuncts Salon spoke with. Some believed things would never change. Others thought the tide would turn if enough people knew how far the professoriat had fallen.

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/21/professors_on_food_stamps_the_shocking_true_story_of_academia_in_2014/?source=newsletter