Education or capital in the 21st century?

Are educational institutions the last ideological bastions resisting global capitalism?

Universities should not be hedge funds enslaving young graduates with debt, argue Davis and Zabala [AP]
Universities should not be hedge funds enslaving young graduates with debt, argue Davis and Zabala [AP]

In early 19th century new hope for humanity (indeed for the entire planet) emerged on the scene with an explosive force, matched only by that of the cosmic big bang. Only, this “bang” was humanity coming to terms with its own power. In the diremptive mind of the great German philosopher Georg W Hegel self-reflexive power was born: Humanity was not lost in the loss of the divine, but found freedom in conscious awareness of itself – a happy and terrifying notion that humanity controlled its own destiny.  

And then there was Karl Marx’s hope for communism, then Sigmund Freud’s subconscious, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Uberman and Thomas Kuhn‘s paradigm shift. It was as if the power of the idea of humanity’s self-consciousness – unmediated by any theological abstraction – was an idea too good and a bit dangerous. Perhaps it will be this idea that will launch a 21st century revolt.

After all, the power of critiquing the barbarism of industry, war, and business was left to university faculty, artists, thespians, journalists – who also happen to be more often than not carriers of Hegel’s idea. All these have become a marginal voice in this century. Some of them are naive enough to think that if one could only write another book, paint one more image, fill one more column, then the world would suddenly wake up and believe in its own ability to change the course of history in which principles like equality, community, and freedom would lead us into a future of happiness and peace.  

Although the 20th century certainly proved that power, greed, and evil were no match for the virtues of the left, the war between culture and capital has raged on. It is a conflict illustrated well by what Europe is going through presently, as Giorgio Agamben recently pointed out in his essay on the “Latin Empire”. Just as the technocrats must be voted out of the EU, so must the univocal logic of capital be dismissed from education.

In the past three decades, the university (the traditional locus of culture) has been bought out by corporations and ownership of global media outlets has been concentrated in the hands of a few, while visual and performing have suffered and declined. The logic of the 21st century has been nothing less than an increasing awareness of an emerging elite of 100 or so individuals who control more wealth than half the world’s population.

This logic can only be changed through transforming educational institutions into spaces where the virtues of sharing and working together are taught.

Educating to share

As Thomas Piketty explained in his groundbreaking Capitalism in the Twentieth-First Century:

“When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

Inside Story – Europe’s lost generation

One of the solutions, according to the French economist, might be a progressive global tax on capital or wealth. Although this solution would require a very high level of international cooperation, it does not mean it should not be pursued, at least from an educational point of view.

This is why it is not difficult to believe in the utility of subordination of higher education to social control and regulation. As Slavoj Zizek explained in his latest book:

“What they really want is simply the private use of reason, as I call it, following Kant, so that universities basically produce experts who will solve problems – problems, defined by society, of state and corporate business. But, for me, this is not thinking. What is ‘true’ thinking? Thinking is not solving problems. The first step in thinking is to ask these sorts of questions: ‘Is this really a problem?’ ‘Is this the right way to formulate the problem?’ ‘How did we arrive at this?’ This is the ability we need in thinking.”

In short, thinking does not solve problems, but rather creates the possibility to understand and change the problems we inherited and must confront.

This is a recipe for a revolt, the likes of which can hardly be imagined. Unless a new form of an old virtue called, sharing (a word nearly as toxic in the US as socialism) is quickly infused in the minds and hearts of many, this emerging revolt will unleash a storm of chaos. For the virtue of a shared commons has neither been taught nor reinforced by an educational system designed to protect the interest of a few at the cost of the many because, as Sarah Kendzior says, “college is a promise the economy does not keep” anymore.  

From the 1980s onward neoliberalism was so hell-bent on a view that the world is, in Hobbes’ words, “nasty, brutish and short” that it didn’t bother teaching the virtues of a shared humanity that could hold the world together when it was exposed that brutal economic practices cannot provide for basic human needs. In other words, not only is the capitalist outlook destroying basic means of survival (clean water, air, proper shelter, healthy food etc.), but it has also undermined our ability to work together for the sake of survival such that more and more we must rely on these unjust structures of power just to breathe. 

Capital has insidiously undercut the basic priorities of life for humanity from 1760 until today and the stakes are only going to get more and more desperate and spiral into more abusive forms of control turning our planet into framed slums for the overwhelming majority of humanity. One way to short-circuit this monopolistic logic is to create what Jack Halberstam calls “alternative knowledge zones” such as the EGS (European Graduate School) , GCAS (The Global Centre for Advance Studies) and many others, in which the virtues of the left such as sharing, working together, and distributing goods and services are learned and embodied.

This certainly is a better alternative to what many universities have become in the United States (and to some extent, also in some European nations), namely hedge funds enslaving the next generation of the working and middle classes with life-long debt to banks and corporations. 

It is time to invest in teaching the next generation that our survival depends on our own ability to work together and not one the bank accounts of 100 people. The power of working together is worth considering again especially because this possibility may not exist in the next generation. 

Creston Davis is the co-founder and director of GCAS and Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities – Skopje, and Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School. He is the coauthor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; coeditor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Theology and the Political: The New Debate; editor of John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? and author of Ghostly Icons. 

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.

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