For reasons neither simple nor interesting, I was rereading the other day Marx’s long polemic The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which supposedly explains the real and deep, as against the merely apparent and superficial, reasons for, and meaning of, the coup d’état in 1851 of Louis Napoleon. 

In this work of over a hundred pages, Marx displays all the assumed omniscience, disdain, vituperation, and hatred for anyone who did not share his opinion that his disciple Lenin was to perfect and, to use a favorite locution of the late Leonid Brezhnev, creatively develop (to read Lenin is to bathe in undiluted bile). Nevertheless, there was one passage in Marx’s screed that seemed to me to speak eloquently, with slight adaptation, to the modern world. 

In this passage, Marx explains the role and effect of taxation in the France of the time, in which the smallholding peasantry was still demographically predominant:

the smallholding is burdened by taxation [emphasis in original]. Taxation is the source of life for the bureaucracy, the army, the priests and the court, in short, it is the source of life for the whole executive apparatus. 

This much is virtually self-evident: could there even be an executive apparatus without taxation? 

Marx continues with a statement that would delight any believer in limited government. “Strong government,” he says, “and heavy taxes are identical.” (Strong government and bloated government are not quite the same thing, any more than are edema and muscular development of the leg, but let that pass for the moment.)  

Marx continues: 

By its very nature, small peasant property is suitable to serve as the foundation of an all-powerful and innumerable bureaucracy. 

This is because “it creates a uniform level of relationships and persons over the whole surface of the land,” and “Hence it also allows a uniformity of intervention from a supreme center into all points of this uniform mass. . . . it calls forth the direct interference of this state power and the interposition of its organs without mediation.”

One might have thought that this, whether true or not, would have given pause to radical egalitarians who, in the name of Marx, saw true freedom in equality of economic outcome, but I suppose that the predicted withering away of the state was always more real to them than the prospect of the bureaucratic dictatorship that was in the meantime necessary to bring it about. It was ever the temptation of intellectuals to prefer the impossibly perfect to the predictably awful, especially when (to employ for a moment Marxist epistemology) it was in their interest to do so. 

It is the following (with adaptation), however, that is so redolent of the contemporary world:

Finally, it produces an unemployed surplus population which can find neither room on the land nor in the towns, and which accordingly grasps at state office as providing a kind of respectable charity, thus provoking the creation of state posts. . . . [Louis Napoleon] has been forced to create, alongside the real classes of society, an artificial caste for which the maintenance of his regime is a question of self-preservation.  

Now of course, we do not have a smallholding peasantry any longer: what we have instead is an equivalent large and increasing class of college- and university-educated young people, most of whom are indebted (and one might say, enserfed) by the costs of their education and who act as “an unemployed surplus population which can find neither room on the land nor in the towns”—if by land and towns one means the productive part of the economy. This surplus population likewise grasps at state employment, again if one includes under that designation all those administrative positions called into being by regulations that serve little purpose other than to create such positions. The process is an accelerating one, and it would hardly be too much to say, as Marx did of Napoleon’s regime, that the maintenance of the artificial caste has become a question of self-preservation; though regime as a word for the current dispensation would, perhaps, be a little too conspiratorial, for it has developed without a Louis Napoleon to direct it, intend it, or bring it about by coup. Whether anyone intended it or not, however, what has developed cannot easily be altered. An unemployed surplus population of people with college degrees, irrespective of the true value of those degrees, would be dangerous indeed.       

It so happens that immediately before my re-reading of Marx’s text, I read a book about the discontents of academe, Dark Academia: How Universities Die, by Peter Fleming, a New Zealander who spent fifteen years as an academic in Britain and has now moved to Australia.1

I do not think that many would dissent from the view that there is something rotten in the state of academe. The phenomena are indisputable and almost undisputed. Explanations for them vary, however. Professor Fleming’s explanation is the triumph of what he calls neoliberalism, by which he means, or should mean, corporatism combined with a belief, or at least a practice, that monetary values are, or ought to be, the only values that count. This is not really liberalism of any kind, either social or economic. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx warns us against taking parallels with the past too literally, but if I had to find a historical parallel to name the current developments in universities, I would call them fascist. 

Certainly, there is a debased commercialism in universities (at least if what my academic friends tell me is true), such that students are no longer students but customers. Whether by means of debt or rich parents, they feel that the money that they have paid entitles them not to an education but to the end product of that education, a diploma, and by the same token, the educational establishment feels obliged to provide them with one. No one pays a fortune, after all, to fail an exam. For the college or university regime, grade inflation is, as Marx would put it, a question of self-preservation. Here is an interesting example of the dialectic at work: the thesis being the fee paid, the antithesis being the required standard, the synthesis being the degree or diploma.

Professor Fleming describes some of the pathologies of academe well, though he seems not to realize that they affect many, perhaps all other, walks of life and institutions equally: much of what he says about universities could be said of hospitals or nursing homes or large companies or charitable foundations or even the police. The elevation of procedure and information-gathering over the ostensible end of the institution on which they are imposed is now practically universal. The author calls this bureaucratic activity sludge work, undertaken in addition to or even instead of real work, such as teaching and research. The result is generalized exhaustion and declining productivity. For intelligent people to be frantically busy but horribly bored is one of the worst states of mind possible: no wonder that such a high percentage of the population is taking antidepressants (whether or not the antidepressants actually work).  

Administrators not only fail to relieve everyone of administrative tasks but add to them. There is an inexorable rise in their number; in many universities, they now outnumber academic staff. If this continues, universities will become like the Bolivian navy, all admirals and no ships. And while the life of teaching staff becomes ever more economically precarious, and tuition ever more expensive, a kind of nomenklatura of presidents, vice-chancellors, deans, and so forth makes off with what Marx would no doubt have called the surplus value. It is likely, moreover, that this nomenklatura would justify itself, if asked, with rationalizations that would delight a Marxist epistemologist. See how economic self-interest determines thought! As Marx put it in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Again, the author is excellent on the way in which, in the academic context, the attempt to measure output corrupts the whole intellectual enterprise of the academy. Whenever a central bureaucracy that is undisciplined by market forces—or indeed by anything other than its own careerist eye to the main chance—attempts to measure output, it calls forth organized lying. In the search for the truth of a situation, apparatchiks can easily outwit any nomenklatura, whose appetite for knowing the truth is in any case limited. Einstein is reputed to have said that not everything that is important can be measured, nor is everything that can be measured important—but the bureaucrats in the academy have decided that, on the contrary, everything that can be measured is important while anything that cannot be measured is unimportant.

Where Professor Fleming’s book is deficient is in its explanation of these baleful developments—according to him, the triumph of neoliberalism. Surely the destruction of the idea that tertiary education is, by its vocation, elitist, and the consequent expansion of such education has promoted its sausage-factory organization which turns universities and their academic staffs into the permanent object of Taylorist time-and-motion studies. It is not neoliberalism that has done this, but the kind of egalitarianism, emanating from intellectuals, that conflates equality before the law with equality of outcome, and that therefore reprehends elitism—with the exception of sports teams, of course, sport being too important for mere social engineering.   

In Britain, for example, the former prime minister and bureaucrat-in-chief Anthony (call me Tony, now Sir Tony) Blair set a goal for the country that fifty percent of the country’s children should attend university—irrespective of their educational or intellectual attainments or qualifications, and irrespective of the ability of universities to absorb and teach vast influxes of students. Standards throughout the educational system had been falling for years in any case, first to protect children from the dreadful trauma of knowing that they were not good enough, or had not worked hard enough, to pass exams, and second to deceive the public that the enormous sums spent on education had resulted in improving standards. 

The result has been a gross overproduction of graduates, the potentially unemployed surplus population of peasants de nos jours, the only solution to the problem being the mass bureaucratization of society; it has translated into indebted young people doing jobs that they could have done just as well at the age of sixteen (at least, if they were able to read and write properly, which now cannot be guaranteed even of Ph.D. candidates) and a society increasingly divided by caste rather than class. Elitism is like nature: you can throw it out with a pitchfork, but yet it will return.  

All this, I think, Marx would have seen, except, perhaps, for the iron law of elitism. He would also have seen and understood the role of wokeism in the political economy of universities, as Professor Fleming does not. I quote from the latter: 

Neoliberal universities present a fairly complete microcosm of the “white male” privilege dominating Western society as a whole, irrespective of their lush equality and diversity policies.

What a wonderful field for perpetual bureaucracy is the demand that the demography of the staff of an institution should exactly mirror the demography of the population of the society in which the institution is situated! Are not people divisible by an infinite number of characteristics? There is thus no end to the potential of the tinkering that the demand demands.

Marx would have seen through all this without any difficulty. He would have denounced it as the product of false consciousness, another example of how being—in this case, the necessity to find ever more jobs for ever greater numbers of uselessly educated persons—determines consciousness rather than the other way round. The alliance between the apparatchiks and nomenklatura called forth by the expansion of the universities in the name of equality is the functional equivalent of Napoleon III in our society, and, as Marx puts it with regard to the latter, “like a conjuror . . . he has to keep the eyes of the public fixed on himself, by means of constant surprises, that is to say by performing a coup d’état in miniature every day.” 

  1.   Dark Academia: How Universities Die, by Peter Fleming; Pluto Press, 216 pages, $20.

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