Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is the worth of a teacher/scholar?

 

       One of my students was making a presentation on the two aspects of a commodity, its use and exchange-value, the two aspects of labor - physical and abstract or embodying an exchangeable social necessary labor-time - and commodity fetishism in the first volume of Marx’s Capital.  Though Marx does not say this, the “use” of a thing or a relationship can often have an ethical significance.  As he does say in discussing alienation, one can write a book because one has something to say – thus, Milton produced Paradise Lost as an activity of his own nature, much, Marx imagined, as a silkworm produces silk – or one can produce a hack text of political economy on commission from a publishing firm.  In this sense, even the cleverest people often respond to the enchantment of money.  For instance, Larry Summers was involved in overturning the Glass-Steagall amendment and transforming America into a financial speculation-driven economy – where the big profits were – rather than a productive economy.  If America now moves, with Obama, to a green-driven economy and restores its productivity, some real and decent aspect of use – even diminishing the threat to life on earth of climate change - will have again come to the fore.

 

        In chapter 7 of Democratic Individuality, I relate several aspects of Marx’s conception of alienation to Aristotle’s and ancient Greek eudaimonism.  For instance, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the defective forms of friendship are done for the money’s sake or for status (one might again think of Summers, whose ideas on dumping toxic waste off South Africa rather than Los Angeles – the World Bank memo he circulated suggested they don’t live long there, but unfortunately neglects the fact that our toxins do not discriminate by age, and often kill or maim children; as his outbursts of prejudice reveal, he sees the world through a narrowminded economic and status lens and  one might wonder whether he is interested in relationships on some deeper level); serious friendships are conducted on the basis of being independent, knowing oneself, having a kind of love of self, Aristotle suggests, as opposed to selfishness, and are concerned with the good of another.  Centuries later Montaigne wrote of his friendship for Etienne de la Boetie, “because it was he, because it was I.”  The latter view is even more sharply linked to modern conceptions of individuality (writing on friendship, philosophical or otherwise, is surprisingly rare).  In both cases, however, the idea of an alienated or fetishized friendship - the money or the status is valuable, the person drops out of sight - parallels Marx’s distinction between Milton and a hack.

 

      Marx’s idea has been centrally extended by Weber – his notion of formal rationalization suggests that in every sphere of life from war to bureaucracy, the laborers are deprived of their means of production which are centralized in the hands of others – and by Weber’s favorite student Georg Lukacs, who in 1924 wrote his famous essay on “reification” combining Marx and Weber, in History and Class Consciousness (Carl Schmitt was also a brilliant reactionary student of Weber’s, but not apparently one of Weber’s favorites).   But the thought about the two aspects of a commodity extends to many areas of life.  In an earlier time, individuals were often identified with their work.  Common names like Cooper or Smith have their origins in the trades; I was taught to drive in Pakistan as a teenager by “Khan Driver,” a lovely, gentle and humorous man whose being was hardly exhausted by his profession or name.  But under capitalism, the tendency to equate the value of an activity with money or some odd numerical rating (in education, IQ or SAT score) has become widely prevalent.  One might think of the examples of AIG and other Wall Street executives, scrambling to keep their immense incomes and bonuses up (what would be the worth of such people if it could not be measured in money?) even in a depression and having produced the collapse of the world economy?  Democratically speaking, others are not so charitable toward them since their bizarre activities are today glitteringly linked to direct harms to so many.

 

      At break, a Taiwanese woman in the class came up to discuss with me whether she could write a paper on commodity fetishism and promotion and scholarship in Taiwanese academia.  This seemed a remarkably creative thought, just the sort of the thing that makes a seminar and teaching really good for the individuals who participate in it.  She thought it might take some work to figure it all out (it will), but she produced a series of observations which she then shared with the rest of the class.

 

       When the Chinese revolution drove Chiang Kai-shek and the elite to Taiwan, Taiwan became a satellite of the American empire.  Today in Taiwan, academic political science seeks to measure itself by the supposed standards of American political science. Scholars are trained in America. When one comes up for tenure, the measure of success is publication or more importantly, citation in leading Americans journals.  I have had brilliant Taiwanese students (Hsiang-hsuan Lin, for example, who wrote a wonderful dissertation on John Rawls’s Law of Peoples) and know something of the difficulty of teaching in Chinese and writing in English.  When one is not speaking another language routinely, even deep fluency begins to fade in writing.  But she said it is not writing which is valued.  One might produce a great book on, say, the relation of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, or the suppression of the Tibetans by the Chinese government (perhaps the single worst aspect of Chinese Communism, starting with Mao) and extending far back into history, but would that be cited, given the concerns of American political science?  So writing and teaching she said are not “of use” in promotion; just the number of citations.

 

      This is of course a remarkable example of cultural imperialism.  There are many serious scholars in political science.  But the field itself has little theory and suppresses the most interesting theorists, say Aristotle, Marx and Freud, who have written on these matters.  Instead, it copies its methods from that of behavioral psychology, in particular IQ testing, which in turn, took a distorted version of a brilliant but inadequate philosophy of science, logical positivism, and plugged it in where it could.  Operationalism, for example, the doctrine that we can’t know anything about nonvisible entities but we can eliminate controversy by emphasizing measurement, has become a fascinating fetish in the social sciences.  IQ testing cannot define intelligence, and has no independent theory of intelligence.  Instead, it says circularly, intelligence is what IQ tests test.  What it really means is, IQ helps predict performance in schools.  But schools are highly class, gender and race stratified, so it is very doubtful that there is a serious component of measuring some natural individual quality called intelligence involved in these tests (the tests initially were designed by Binet to help students who had what we call learning disabilities; they were then transformed into something very useful for maintaining  highly inegalitarian social structures).  In political science, operationalism is the view, which I have discussed in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? that democracies do not go to war with one another (in a war, each side loses at least a thousand soldiers) so it is imagined that oligarchies with parliamentary forms are morally speaking peaceful.  This thought will not survive consideration of World War I where Germany had an elected Reichstag with a lot of socialists (the quantitative criterion of a democracy is that 10% of the eligible vote and Wilhelmine Germany certainly qualifies).  But the American regime has overthrown some 15 nonwhite democracies during and after the Cold War, including the elected regime of President Aristide in Haiti twice, and an attempt on Hugo Chavez in 2002.  Even the claim that America does not overturn white democracies, will probably not survive examination of the Greek civil war after World War II, where the US government intervened heavily on the side of the elite (since the people were allied with the Soviet Union, perhaps their leaders did not favor elections whereas perhaps those of the elite, once the people had been suppressed, did – but it is doubtful that one can make a case for American “democratic” intervention in Greece without some quite sophisticated argument).  In any case, operationalism is a misleading and dishonorable view in this as in many other aspects of quantitative political science.

 

      But starting with voting studies, quantitative political science was the rage in the United States.  A citations index is highly valued by some departments, and certainly played a role in tenure and promotion decisions.  The Taiwanese copy the fetishism of American political science, in which saying something intelligent in English about politics – with a lot of evidence – will not be valued compared to offering up silly pseudo-quantitative apologies for American expansion – Condoleeza Rice, George Bush and the neocons on the expansion of “democracy” at gun-point, for example.

 

     My student has a close friend who worked as a researcher in a Taiwanese university.  He wrote articles for a famous or she later qualified the term, notorious and successful professor.  This, too, is not so unusual a form of corruption in American academia.  In the old days, professors were famous for getting graduate assistants to do their research and then finding them jobs (this reputation trailed after even Seymour Martin Lipset, author of Political Man, at Harvard).  But the jobs ceased to be forthcoming even for those who were lucky to get  footnoted in articles they had written. Still, many of the trappings of the academic discipline – I use the term in analogy with Foucault - which trains young scholars to enable older scholars rather than to strike out on their own, or write about what they find interesting continues.  In Law Schools, however, it is well known that students write material for their professors; in a Harvard journal last year, a commentary on some of the “scholarship” and writing of Professor Alan Dershowitz was quite scathing about this.  Here is a more complete form of alienation or fetishism; the professor has an idea students should write about – so they engage in what, if they are lucky, is self-consciously alienated activity – and the students do the actual work.  The professor gains (parts) of publications, but the writing and often the mistakes, are not his own.  The numbers grow, the status increases, the fetishism of the Professorial commodity is more complete. Even in the natural sciences, some of these practices exist (the sociological form of publication in the two areas imitates each other to some extent; but the same form can give rise to novel insights into movement at the speed of light or crass and stupid – pseudoscientific - alleging of racial divisions in intelligence.  Thus, these activities differ in the social sciences and humanities, from activity in intellectually serious sciences like physics or chemistry or nonhuman biology.

 

     Some serious political scientists rely, however, on Karl Popper’s notion of coming up with and demonstrating empirically the worth of surprising conjectures, or in the words of his follower Imre Lakatos, discovering research programs which often yield  unexpected results.  Unfortunately, working with fairly conventional hypotheses in political science and doing statistical analyses, may or may not produce very much progress.  Realism in philosophy of science emphasizes the importance of contending theories in discovering those surprising empirical tests which may yield new insight (oxygen chemistry emerged against phlogiston chemistry, though Lavoisier’s ruminations on “dephlogisticated air”).  Not just any of the infinitely possible number of surprising hypotheses really has a chance of being true.  Still, Lakatos’s notion plays an important role in political science, where there are serious research programs.  But its weakness is in suppressing contending theories.  Lakatos himself disliked Marxism and claimed that Marxism lacks a serious research program.  In “What then?,” a long essay I wrote for a collection edited by M. Richard Zinman et al on The Idea of Progress, I show that Marx’s ideas on racism – “labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded” - are part of a progressive research paradigm (see Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: a Political Economic Analysis – Princeton, 1984 – which reveals statistically that wherever the divisions between blacks and whites are strongest in income and welfare, there white workers are also relatively worse off than whites elsewhere in the country, and the differential between the top 1% of the population and everybody else in income is at its greatest - and the very considerable literature now on elite use of eugenics and IQ testing, American sterilization of immigrants, laws against interracial marriage, and immigration laws, and Nazism; for citations, see Democratic Individuality, ch. 10). Unfortunately, those who have a “scientific” conception of political science, often even those who do good work themselves, look down on other conceptions, from what one might say, is the height of their “commodity.”  But a serious study of politics will develop, perhaps even a scientific one, only once serious challenges to the conventional views are allowed into the field, and answered (comparing the truth of Chalmers Johnson or Chomsky’s writings to mainstream political science arguments of foreign policy, policy oriented and otherwise, will leave one with some sadness about what calls itself a “science”).   If Taiwanese political science suffers from the harms of cultural imperialism, its master, American political science, appears in little better shape.

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