03.26.2011

Storm the Ivies!

A modest proposal.

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Went to boarding school in Massachusetts, and college at Yale and Harvard. I would’ve gone to the University of Texas for law school but there was one small issue: I was not accepted.

—Will Ferrell as George W. Bush, You’re Welcome, America

In 1920, just three years after a tiny handful of Bolsheviks captured the all-but-abandoned Winter Palace, the Soviets reenacted the less-than-mythic event in front of 100,000 spectators. Only this time, hundreds of soldiers — as opposed to the original two-dozen — valiantly rushed into the palace under the guidance of theatre director Nikolai Evreinov. Fireworks and canon shots went off at the moment of victory. A few years later, the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein depicted yet another reenactment of the Winter Palace capture in his 1927 film October: Ten Days That Shook the World, this time for an audience of millions.

The seizure of the French fortress-prison the Bastille Saint-Antoine was similarly propagandized. Just a few months after it was stormed — in which a mere seven prisoners were liberated — a local huckster named Pierre-François Palloy effectively took control of the Bastille’s ruins and began charging admission and selling off the stones as souvenirs before the whole thing was demolished a few months later. In 1840, the towering July Column was inaugurated on the site — now the Place de la Bastille — commemorating the 1830 revolution. 615 victims of the July Revolution were interred beneath the column and later, an additional 200 casualties of the 1848 revolution.

The great radicals of Russia and France knew what they were doing — they were selling a narrative and a ritual. In comic book lore, “the origin story” of the revolution. But what is our Winter Palace? We have, effectively, hundreds. Where is our Bastille? We have thousands. The enormity of the task ahead is overwhelming.

In 2011, the dominant tyrannical ideology of our time, neoliberal capitalism (and its supporting institutions) has achieved takeoff velocity with the power elite, with proponents unleashing an endgame of “reforms” from tuition hikes to union-busting legislation, regressive taxation to the privatization of public utilities and the “future winning” policies of charter schools and social-spending cuts. Resistance is beyond the reach of liberalism or electoral democracy. It will be revolutionary fervor that delivers the deathblow to neoliberalism.

What we need then is an arena from which to fight back and challenge this power, but it is neoliberalism itself that has robbed us of the spaces from which to strike: the manufacturing or assembly plants of “muscle jobs” have been pushed across the border or oceans, leaving few factories on the ground to occupy, defend, and reconstitute domestically. The “knowledge economy” has robbed us of our best weapons, and labor unions as a whole have been devastated over the past thirty years. The urban centers — once great concentrations of rainbow-coalition resistance — have been re-segregated and suburbanized into shop-scapes and condominium parks. Gone is the prewar Manhattan of pungent, close-quarter solidarity and with it the tradition of “joyous shitting communism,” as Céline described it.

The United States is now infested with well-guarded, well-fortified, tyrannical edifices of empire and capital — from banks and towering office buildings clustered in metropolitan cityscapes to the growing for-profit prisons and juvenile detention centers scattered out beyond the exurbs. Even my neighborhood in Brooklyn sits beneath the shadow of the towering Citigroup building in Queens, its name lit-up twenty-four hours a day with a piercing and all-seeing glow like the eye of Sauron, cowing the population into submission.

A juicy target, for sure. But as the handful of protesters at the 2009 G-20 summit in Pittsburgh could tell you, the armies of capital are eager to deploy weapons that would terrify Philip K. Dick. A show-of-force in the millions could certainly overcome such an arsenal and capture the Pentagon itself, but let’s face it — the American brain is rotten with media-saturated complacency at best and Fox News Kochery at worst. We, the American Left, are small in number, squeamish and merciful in sentiment. We must work with what we have. Therefore we must target neoliberalism’s least-fortified yet most potent power center: the Ivy League University, the soft pink belly of the twenty-first-century plutocracy.

“Neoliberalization was from the beginning a project to restore class power,” as David Harvey, perhaps the world’s most astute critic and scholar of neoliberal plunder, put it. Then what better place to strike than the very institutions which cement and propagate this power? If we’re to strangle the practitioners of neoliberalism, we must go looking in its crib when the young plutocrat’s brain is a confused mush, delicate and fragile with a cocktail of Adderall, sexual entitlement, and post-bacchanalic intestinal distress — or socially crippled with a daily regimen of Internet pornography and video game addiction.

Just a few years ago, liberals chortled at the corrupt and incompetent McCarthyite Monica Goodling for being a graduate of Pat Robertson’s law school Regent University. The Bush administration was indeed rife with Regent graduates. But just a few years later under Ivy meritocrat extraordinairre Barack Obama, liberals would take control and stuff the same agencies and departments with “serious” people — neoliberal Ivy Leaguers, mostly. The “serious” people are back in charge and look what we have to show for it.

Make no mistake: despite post-’68 claims of meritocracy and growing “diversity,” it is the explicit mission of elite universities — like the Ivy League and de facto members like Stanford, the University of Chicago, Georgetown, etc. — to institutionalize, and ensure continuation of, class privilege. Their goal is inseparable from neoliberalism’s. “The doctrines of egalitarianism forbid the convenience of a ruling elite present at birth. The product must be fabricated,” as Lewis Lapham wrote in a recent essay documenting the nation’s rule under “Achievtrons.” “After some trouble with the realignment of the educational objective during the excitements of the 1960s, the universities accepted their mission as way stations on the pilgrim road to enlightened selfishness. As opposed to the health and happiness of the American people, what is of interest is the wealth of the American corporation and the power of the American state, the syllabus geared to the arts and sciences of career management — how to brighten test scores, assemble the résumé, clear the luggage through the checkpoints of the law and business schools. The high fees charged by the brand-name institutions include surer access to the nomenklatura that writes the nation’s laws, operates its government, manages its money, and controls its news media.” Or, as Matt Taibbi put it recently, the top 80 percent of an Ivy League law school class goes to Wall Street and the related corporate defense firms. The bottom 20 percent joins the SEC. These are the skills the plutocracy values. This is the “pragmatic” education that we hear about from the Ivy MBA’ers, the same crowd that tells us how worthless the humanities are and lobbies to remove them from high school curriculums.

It’s this unique ability to institutionalize class power that the postwar plutocrats have exploited for at least forty years. They haven’t been exactly subtle about it either. While “Bohemian Grove,” Bilderberg, and Trilateral Commissions abound in the discourse of the contemporary right-wing conspiracy theorist, it’s worth pointing out that there is, in fact, a “secret” document, a Blueblood’s Rosetta stone, from which the American elites have used to plan and launch their attack on the people of the United States. But unlike the ridiculous cartoons of today’s Alex Joneses and other neo-skinhead paranoids, the document is neither “secret” nor all that colorful (lacks lizard people): the Powell Memo. The manifesto of the post-’68 counterrevolution and the spirit germ of neoliberalism’s unholy birth on these shores.

Written in 1971 by a top corporate lawyer just two months before Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court, Lewis Powell’s infamous memorandum laid out the blueprint for the elite’s backlash against the democratic gains of the 1960s. In the memo, Lewis Powell called on America’s corporations to fund a new series of think tanks to draw up pro-plutocrat propaganda to counter those “who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism [ . . . ] the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.” (He goes on to describe other such “horrors” against men of property and capital emanating from campuses, and even manages to quote, admiringly, “Dr. Milton Friedman of Chicago” and single-out Ralph Nader as “the single most effective antagonist of American business.”) It wasn’t the New Leftists though that worried Powell (whom he called “a small minority”) — but the “perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus” which he calls “the single most dynamic source” of the attack on the American enterprise system. His solution was clear — create a parallel “faculty” at various think tanks to monitor textbooks, to invest more time and corporate funds in “Graduate Schools of Business” as well as to assist in drawing up curriculums.

It was just a few years later that the most-assuredly non-elite but prestigious and tuition-free City University of New York began to charge tuition. And just a few years after that, the school ended their radical democratic policy of “open admissions.” Before that, CUNY had been open to all high school graduates, regardless of class rank or any test score. Unsurprisingly, after implementing tuition fees and closing “open admissions,” the school’s prestige dropped dramatically. The University of California system also began to charge steep fees (though still barred from calling it “tuition”) on their once free-and-open university system after Governor Reagan campaigned almost entirely on student-bashing.

So what this attack did in effect — along with the revenue-drops resulting from the anti-tax madness of the 1970s — was concentrate power in the crusty old campuses of the Ivies and their hefty endowments ($27.4 billion for Harvard, $14.4 billion for Princeton, and $16.7 billion for Yale). The “public universities” were no longer that public, nor prestigious — with ever-rising tuition, and funding concentrated in the business schools. After all, why give working class kids a debt-free higher education? Who knows what could happen with a weapon like that — social spending increases, democracy, the end of the permanent war economy, dogs and cats living together. Better to entrust privileges like higher education with the progeny of the upper classes.

Or, as Harvey argues: “In singling out the universities for particular attention, Powell pointed up an opportunity as well as an issue, for these were indeed centres of anti-corporate and anti-state sentiment [ . . . ] But many students were (and still are) affluent and privileged, or at least middle class, and in the US the values of individual freedom have long been celebrated (in music and popular culture) as primary. Neoliberal themes could here find fertile ground for propagation.”

The Ivies have always been wary of handing over higher education to the masses. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, while Yale, Harvard and Princeton were indoctrinating their respective student bodies with the Royalist “free trade” nonsense seeping over from across the Atlantic, congressional Republicans built the Land Grant Colleges and stocked them with a ‘protectionist’ administration and faculty. This strategy originated in the 1840s with Jonathan Baldwin Turner — a classical scholar, abolitionist and later, ardent anti-corporate activist who wanted to provide free education for America’s working classes. In effect though, the Land Grant colleges hewed closer to the model of the Republican legislators who finally implemented them — they were training mills for the industrial revolution and provided a convenient way for mid-nineteenth-century industries to offset R&D costs onto the public sector. That said, they provided an opportunity for socioeconomic advancement and did not burden students with a lifetime of debt — a far cry from the de facto working-class higher education model of 2011.

After all, what good is a skilled domestic labor force in a neoliberal economy? Very little, it turns out. Student loan serfdom is the norm in twenty-first-century USA In the neoliberal era, exorbitantly expensive for-profit universities have replaced the old land grant colleges as far a federally sanctioned and subsidized (to the tune of thirty billion a year) education model for the working classes. Matriculating a skilled workforce is a secondary aim, if that. Instead, the goal is to create a neo-feudal order in which graduates spend their lives in the service sector, paying off steep loans at 8 percent interest. Defaulting isn’t a problem for the plutocracy either — when a graduate defaults on a student loan, they cannot declare bankruptcy. Instead, they have their wages garnished indefinitely. As it stands, the default rate on student loans for for-profit colleges is around 25 percent. So instead of life spent as a “de facto” serf, the defaulting student is a serf.

For a particularly by-the-book demonstration of “the Powell method” par excellence, we now turn to Columbia University where just a few weeks ago, it was revealed that the school’s prestigious Teachers College — once the wellspring of progressive education thanks to ardent leftists like professors John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick (some relation, I hope) — had opened its doors to one of the nation’s most vile neoliberal thinktanks — the Peterson Institute for International Economics. If you aren’t familiar with the name, no doubt you’re familiar with their work. That’s “Peterson” as in billionaire Pete G. Peterson — former Nixon Treasury Sect., former CEO of the Blackstone group, and the man who’s led a tireless thirty-year quest to destroy social security with a series of debt-and-deficit-mongering “reports,” “studies” and outright propaganda including a feature-film entitled I.O.U.S.A. (Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars), paving the way for future neoliberal propaganda pieces like Waiting for Superman to reach the coastal and very-serious Thomas Friedman crowd. And it was Peterson whom Bill Clinton had tapped to help destroy social security in the 1990s before Monica and the blowjob heard round the world bought the country’s workers another few years of post-retirement dignity, forgoing cat-food dinners at least until the next Neoliberal Democratic presidency. And for what purpose is the Peterson Institute partnering with Teachers College? To help develop a financial curriculum for high school students across the USA — in return for a couple of million dollars worth of funding, of course. American children will finally learn a thing or two about their various “deficit-exploding” entitlements like public school and Head Start meals.

(A fitting turn of events for Columbia University: the same school that — at the turn of the century — gave William A. Dunning a platform from which to disseminate the doctrine of Lost Cause propaganda that is still with us today, and perhaps the myth most responsible for building the ground for the Southern Strategy that destroyed the economic populism of the Democratic Party, and turned the southern states into a fiercely anti-labor “Right to Work” voting bloc.)

Ivy League economics department websites today look something like a rogues gallery of neoliberal entrail-readers. If the Ivies themselves are high priests of neoliberal doctrine, then the economics departments are the “warrior monks” ready to be deployed. A quick visit to any department website is illuminating. Over at Harvard, we have Robert Barro, a media-trolling class warrior who needs no introduction. John Y. Campell, department chairman, paid propagandist for the financial sector and unwitting star/victim of Inside Job. Then onto the big daddies like Martin Feldstein, the great Grand Uncle of American neoliberalism — Reagan’s chief economic adviser, former board member of JPMorgan and current board member of the pharmaceutical Eli Lilly (a massive supply of Lilly’s Prozac being a necessary condition for Neoliberal conquest), and President Emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group with, as Harvey writes, an explicit mission:

. . . to construct serious technical and empirical studies and political-philosophical arguments broadly in support of neoliberal policies. Nearly half the financing for the highly respected NBER came from the leading companies in the Fortune 500 list. Closely integrated with the academic community, the NBER was to have a very significant impact on thinking in the economics departments and business schools of the major research universities. With abundant finance furnished by wealthy individuals (such as Joseph Coors, who later became a member of Reagan’s ‘kitchen cabinet’) and their foundations (for example Olin, Scaife, Smith Richardson, Pew Charitable trust), a flood of tracts and books, with Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia perhaps the most widely read and appreciated, emerged espousing neoliberal values.

And let’s not forget the particularly shameless Greg Mankiw, unrepentant architect of the Bush taxcuts, fellow at the far-right American Enterprise Institute, and, not surprisingly and perhaps most alarmingly, the author of several widely read economics textbooks. There’s Kenneth Rogoff, an IMF economist so gruesome that Joseph Stiglitz felt compelled to publicly ostracize him for his crimes. And then of course, there’s Lawrence Summers, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and the current director of Obama’s National Economic Council. It was Summers and other members of this very department, including Andrei Shleifer who just a few years earlier as part of the Harvard Institute for International Development, tore Russia apart piece by piece, only to finally abandon the carcass — today a frigid hell of billionaire mafiosa and bloodstained roadways.

Keep in mind, no matter how heinous the record, this is just one Ivy league economics department. Others currently shelter (or have recently birthed) plutocratic courtiers like Ben Bernanke (Princeton), Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia, Harvard), Harvey S. Rosen (Princeton). But it is Harvard that is the lodestar, the spirit germ of class war and the American Ancien Régime. The Original Gangsta. The other Ivies pale in comparison. Bill O’Reilly, seeking the cold kiss of the oligarchy after years of stagnation in the syndicated tabloid-TV trade, enrolled — at the age of 46 — in Harvard’s JFK School of Government. It was only then that he was fully and properly indoctrinated in the Ivy program of class war and imperial conquest — the two core tenets of neoliberalism — that he was ready to hit the big-time. Not long after graduating, O’Reilly began his current role as the jingoistic and “blue collar” mouthpiece of the plutocracy over at Fox News broadcast, cheering on the expansion of markets and empire in the name of the common man. I suppose we can call his show a “deep cover” operation.

It’s not that the Ivies have changed really. It’s just that they’re not even pretending anymore. They’ve simply returned to their original role — the perpetuation and protection of American plutocracy. In fact, this unholy alliance between corporate and Ivy power is written into American judicial precedent. In 1811, The New Hampshire state legislature put Dartmouth in its sights. Nationalization was imminent. The state wanted to dissolve the trustees and turn Dartmouth into a public institution — the rationale being that the college’s corporate charter had been granted by the unpopular King George III and was now worthless in the young republic. The backlash from the trustees was so severe that the indignant royalists took the state all the way to the US Supreme Court. Then, in an almost perfect example of the intertwined destinies of Ivy aristocracy and American corporate power, the case — Dartmouth College v. Woodward — set a legal precedent for the immortality of corporate charters. And it’s been this doctrine of immortal corporate-capitalist expansion and private and unimpeachable tyrannies that has been so good to the Ivy bluebloods ever since.

Today, Dartmouth is — appropriately enough — an excellent example of an unreconstructed Ivy and I applaud them for forgoing even the tiniest pretense post-’68 “liberalism.” Hair is worn short, shirts are tucked in, and Frat Power rules the social circuit. Two of our most prominent twenty-first-century class-warriors — Tim Geithner and Henry Paulson — spent their salad days up there.

The last shreds of democracy are slipping away, and we’re running out of time. It might seem overwhelming, but just remember, comrades: there are only eight Ivy League universities, only four of which being atrocious enough to warrant the greatest show of revolutionary manpower. They have grown slothful and arrogant since the student radicalization and occupations of the 1960s and 70s. There are numerous hedges, shrubberies, abstract sculpture gardens, and dusty library stacks ready to serve as cover. Campus police are a joke and could potentially be radicalized and converted on the spot. Harvard Yard could be taken in less than an hour. Remember: it only took two-dozen Bolsheviks to wrest control of the Winter Palace.

The capture of tyrannical structures has always invigorated the revolutionary lizard-brain and it’s no different today. Maybe it’s the promise of a reclaimed space in which to engender a more just society — the idea that even stone, steel and concrete is not fixed and can be reclaimed. And the power and the reach of the institution can be reappropriated for just causes. Or maybe it’s the promise of wrestling something diffuse and ephemeral and omnipresent (like capital) into a single container — pinning it down in one of its many manifestations before delivering the killing blow that could send a ripple of revolutionary vigor out through the world. The vestigial ornamentation of power and tyranny serve to remind us that yes, the world is not fixed and things can indeed change. The Ivy League universities are no exception.

So storm the Ivies, revolutionaries of North America. Nationalize them into submission. Kick away the American plutocracy’s favorite ladder and watch a thousand flowers bloom.