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Henry Heller’s The Capitalist University shows how higher education has served capitalism for over a hundred years, finds Orlando Hill


Henry Heller, The Capitalist University: The Transformation of Higher Education in the United States since 1945 (Pluto Press 2016), 252pp.

In these days of neoliberalism, what do people find most frustrating about working or studying in a university?I posted the question on social media, and the answers I got expressed the frustration students and those who work in higher education feel.

The greatest frustration for Luiz Felipe Cunha, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (FAU-UFRJ), is the fact that ‘the disassociation of humanities and social sciences from techno-scientific ones has resulted in the strict formation of politically disqualified labour’. Ana Albano Amora, a fellow professor of post-graduation at the same faculty, added that this ‘disqualification becomes an ideological tool. Thinking and criticizing are not necessary for the system and are seen as threatening with the possibility of reaction. We are entering into a true dystopia.’

According to Jack Hazeldine, a student at the University of Bristol and a Counterfire member, it is ‘the remoteness, indifference and callousness of university “management”; the “customer service” ideology imposed on staff; the conservative and consumerist mind set of much of the student body.’

The frustration with the contemporary malaise of neoliberalism in higher education is a world-wide phenomenon. Although Henry Heller’s book focuses on the history of higher education in the United States, it should be read by anyone who is concerned with the transformation of universities into factories of commodified learning.

Heller takes the reader through the history of American universities from the beginning of the twentieth century to today, showing the steadily growing influence of private corporations and the military, and how universities became an important element in what Gramsci called the ideological or non-coercive state apparatus. Universities serve the state in the pursuit and maintenance of its hegemony by creating an environment where one concept of reality is dominant and any form of critical scrutiny of the existing order is marginalised. According to Gramsci, the ruling class tries to create consent by persuasion and indoctrination. During the cold war, private foundations funded research in social sciences directed at winning the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism and shaping public opinion.

Knowledge and hegemony

How do you produce knowledge that sustains the hegemony of liberal capitalism as the apex of human development? After all, capitalism is a system full of contradictions and characterised by cyclical crisis. The first step is to compartmentalise knowledge and reinforce a hierarchical and undemocratic organisation with powerful administrators who resemble managers of corporations:

‘In other words, the dividing up of the disciplines into specialties under the control of academic departments helped to block the aspiration toward a holistic understanding of society and culture which loomed up through the rise of the working class and Marxism’ (p.32).

The first move in this direction happened with the division between economics and political science at the end of the nineteenth century. Economics became a supposedly exact science, explained through mathematical models, that dominated other social sciences. Economics was no longer a social science that took into consideration historical moments or class struggle. The instability of capitalism was denied. It was thought that ‘a quantitatively rigorous analysis of markets supplemented by government intervention could provide the means to bring the capitalist economy under control’ (p.57).

Any historical or class analysis was stripped away from the social sciences. The idea was that the complexity of modern society had made Marxism irrelevant and passé:

‘The fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution had been solved: the workers had achieved industrial and political citizenship; the conservatives had accepted the welfare state; and the democratic left had recognized that an increase in overall state power carries with it more dangers to freedom than inequality and poverty’ (p.35).

Heller makes an interesting point that this purging of Marxism from American universities occurred at a time when the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party had given up on revolutionary change and committed themselves to evolutionary change as a path to socialism. The policy of the popular front had disarmed American communists in the face of a sudden hardening with respect to the Soviet Union and labour unrest. The unwarranted assault on Marxism also deeply wounded American democracy and cultural life and cut off American intellectuals from the rest of the world, forcing them into ‘a kind of intellectual cocoon’ (p.36).

Even so, Heller recognises the importance of the increased funding in universities by the federal government. The increase in the number of higher-educational institutes after the Second World War resulted in highly skilled labour and research activities which greatly boosted the American economy.

The crisis of the 1960s

In the 1960s universities became a battle ground over the purpose of creating knowledge. Students who had been mute during McCarthyism suddenly abandoned their passivity and started to protest against the influence of corporations in universities. In late capitalism, the accumulation of knowledge is at the same time vital for constant innovation, and therefore for the accumulation of capital, and also constrained by it. Because of their strategic position in this accumulation of knowledge, those who work and study in universities hold significant political leverage. As Amora points out, universities have been a ‘place of resistance … against the capitalist ideological apparatus.’

Heller traces a parallel to the revolutions of 1848 and the struggle of academics against the onslaught of neoliberalism. Those who ‘supported the 1848 revolutions had aspirations to upward social mobility, but were destined to become fully proletarianized as part of a fully developed industrial capitalism that eventually engulfed them. They were resisting further proletarianization in a way that resembles the struggle of academics today to hold onto the remains of autonomy and professional status under the onslaught of neoliberal academic capitalism’ (p.99).

There is a contradiction in the spread of capitalism as a mode of production in universities. Since 1945, serving business interests has been a major objective for American universities. Previous to the neoliberal counter-revolution, universities were funded by governments. There was a broader goal of producing a better educated workforce. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was seen as a long-term investment which benefited businesses at no extra cost to them. The private sector will not make such long-term commitments. Paradoxically, the penetration of neoliberalism into American universities constrains their role in the process of accumulation of capital.

‘Education for the neoliberals is by no means a public right but rather a potentially profitable private investment’ (p.187). As capitalism advances, in its latest form (neoliberalism), into universities, it makes universities less useful for its own reproduction. Where once public funding supported an intellectual infrastructure, it increasingly no longer does so. In turning higher education into a profit making venture, neoliberalism removes a supporting mechanism for the maintenance of capitalism.

Orlando Hill

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.

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