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An international, worldwide far-right attack on the universities

When the conservative fight back against the social democratic era following the Second World War began in earnest with the publication of the Powell Manifesto on August 23, 1971. The US Chamber of Commerce commissioned lawyer, Lewis Powell, to craft a strategy to restore the dominant position of corporate America, which had felt diminished by the gains made by workers and citizens from social democratic policies. The memo was published as the – Attack on American Free Enterprise System. The agenda spelt out by Powell in the memo was wide-ranging and was subsequently implemented with spectacular success. It formed the basis of the neoliberal thrust against the gains made by workers and citizens, in general during the full employment era, which was supplemented by the welfare state of varying coverage and generosity depending on which country we consider. The Powell memo aimed to ensure that corporate interests were dominant in public decision making. The blue print developed by Powell is continually recycled and developments during this pandemic are no different.

I analysed the Powell Manifesto in this blog post – The right-wing counter attack – 1971 (March 24, 2016).

I considered the recent application of the Powell agenda to higher education in Australia in this blog post – The Powell Memo Play in Australian higher education (June 23, 2020).

Further developments since I wrote that post indicate that the the conservative strategy is alive and well and actively seeking to purge the sort of free thinking that arises in some areas higher education – the sort of thinking they feel.

The Powell formula

Powell’s basic conjecture was that the American economic system was under an attack from socialism or some form of statism.

He talked about “the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic”.

It was the paranoia that was wheeled out by Republicans during the recent US election.

Powell claimed these “extremists” had attracted a “chorus” of “disquieting voices”:

… from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

He also implicated “much of the media” – which “accords unique publicity to these ‘attackers'”.

Relevant to today’s post, Powell noted that:

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

The plan he devised, not unsurprisingly, targetted the enemy ‘strongholds’ that his paranoia had managed to identify.

In terms of “what specifically should be done” to the public education system, Powell said that the:

… campus is the single most dynamic source. The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence — far out of proportion to their numbers — on their colleagues and in the academic world.

He targetted “Social science faculties” who “tend to be liberally oriented, even when leftists are not present”.

He reiterated the claim that universities were “graduating scores’ of bright young men … who despise the American political and economic system” and infiltrate “centers of real power and influence” (like the media, government departments, academia, etc).

He thus recommended that the US Chamber of Commerce:

1. Establish “highly qualified scholars in the social sciences” who can pump out pro-system material.

2. Influence promotion systems to ensure these high-profile, pro-corporate scholars rise to the top.

3. Organise regular speaking events to disseminate pro-corporate narratives.

4. These scholars and others should scrutinise what appears in textbooks to ensure critical material disappears. This would include influencing publishers in their decision-making processes.

5. Should demand “equal time on the college speaking circuit” to allow the Chamber’s message to be heard.

6. Demand a “Balancing of Faculties”, which would downplay the importance of social sciences and humanities.

7. Ensure these changes apply to the “increasingly influential graduate schools of business” and influence the curriculum to ensure they provide “essential training for the executives of the future”.

In terms of secondary schools, Powell recommended “action programs” of a similar nature – influential teacher appointments, the curriculum, and textbooks.

Fast track to modern day Brazil

There was an interesting article in the Boston Review (November 9, 2020) – Bolsonaro’s War Against Reason – which shows the Powell agenda is alive and well in modern day Brazil.

We learn that:

The Brazilian president’s offensive against universities threatens democracy and recalls the dark years of the country’s dictatorship.

Apparently, the President has altered the management of one of Brazil’s premier universities, without consultation, and installed one of his supporters.

The person was rejected by the normal universities processes governing such an appointment.

The article tells us that this is part of a wave of Bolsonaro attacks on Brazil’s higher education sector:

In more than two-thirds of the twenty-five cases where this has occurred, Bolsonaro has flaunted his authority and put his thumb on the scale, reversing the results of internal elections to nominate politically conservative rectors.

The management changes have been supplemented by:

1. Funding cuts that have compromised the solvency of the educational institutions.

2. A public relations propaganda campaign designed to undermine the reputation of the institutions.

And, unsurprisingly, university staff are now subjected to violent attacks in public spaces.

In this article from Inside HigherEd (May 6, 2019) – In Brazil, a Hostility to Academe – we learn that the funding cuts have been targetted against the humanities.

In particular, sociology and philosophy programs were first targetted and it was proposed shifting funding to the STEM courses.

This is a universal pattern.

The next intake of humanities students in Australia will find their fees much higher than previously as a result of changes I analysed in the blog post cited at the outset of this post.

In Brazil, the Government then announced “there would be 30 percent cuts to three major federal universities” because according to the public statement justifying the cuts, they were holding “ridiculous” events, which were anti-government:

The university must have a surplus of money to be making such a mess and organizing ridiculous events … Members of the Landless Workers’ Movement inside the campuses, naked people inside the campuses.

They then extended the cuts to all federal universities in Brazil as a strategy to undermine the changes that were made during the Lula da Silva regime.

Bolsonaro has regularly claimed that the higher education system is infested with “leftist indoctrination.

Commentators fell into the trap set by the government who claimed that they could fund more 10 day-care places for children from low-income families for every 1 university student and so hard choices had to be made.

Regular readers will identify the flaws in this logic.

First, the Brazilian government funds very little “K-12 education” in Brazil.

Second, an apparent “expert on Brazilian education” claimed that “There is a real situation of budget constraints”, which the government is playing on to justify the cuts.

The Brazilian government issues its own currency.

The education minister, who was previously an economics professor has a record of criticising universities for harbouring cultural Marxists.

In this article (Portuguese) – Novo ministro da Educação, Weintraub defende expurgo do ‘marxismo cultural’ (April 8, 2019) – called for a “purge of ‘cultural Marxism'” in the university system.

He wanted to “win over youth” through making presentations “more rock’n’roll” and purge the “monopoly of left-win ideas in universities”.

He considers ‘communism’ is a virus.

In this article (Portuguese) – Ministro da Educação diz que filmar professores em aula é direito dos alunos (April 28, 2019) – (Minister of Education says that filming teachers in class is the right of students) – the Minister said students should post videos of lectures to social media and he would analyse them (with his son!) to “find out if any irregularities were committed by educators”.

Of course, when they spew out the term ‘cultural Marxism’ they know it means nothing more than a signal. They point to “race theory or feminism” but really are targetting criticism in general.

They know if they can isolate some disciplines, they create an environment of fear that spreads through the university sector.

In Australia, as successive federal governments deployed a similar, though slightly more sophisticated attack on the university system, I have observed a growing and now widespread reluctance by academics to speak out publicly on issues that can been interpreted as being critical of government.

I recall one meeting where a cross institutional funding application was being discussed to attract federal funds to study “social inclusion”, which at the time was a major agenda of a Labor government.

I asked why the team was just accepting the framing that the Government was pushing – ‘inclusion’ – rather than the reality of the policy agenda which was to heighten ‘exclusion’.

I was told that we could not possibly include that angle in the project design as it would bite the hand that feeds.

I withdrew from the project team at that point. As it turns out they were unsuccessful in gaining the funding sought.

The Brazilian strategy is thus tried and will most likely suppress criticism coming out of the higher education system.

The obvious problem is that such cuts and strategies are designed to reduce the quality of democratic functioning. I have always been bemused by the intent of the Powell Memo, to suppress dialogue and discussion, given it originated from the so-called ‘land of the free’ and the self-proclaimed ‘the world’s greatest democracy’.

One second’s thought shows that claim is spurious.

1. The major parties work hard to stop the poor from voting in the US.

2. The voting system has a massive gerrymander.

3. The lobbying channel billions into the process thus buying votes and subsequent policy positions.

4. Outright lies are allowed and promoted by candidates and their media machines.

5. And all the rest of it.

This – Open Letter Regarding President Bolsonaro’s Recent Pronouncements on Defunding Philosophy and Sociology (April 30, 2019) – argues that the attacks on the social sciences and humanities in Brazil will undermine the quality of its “social institutions” and a “functioning democracy” must allow academics to contribute to public debates.

Critical thinking is developed in the targetted disciplines, which is exactly the point.

Conclusion

The Boston Review article provides much interesting historical information and more detailed understanding of what the Brazilian government is doing to curb criticism and free thinking in its higher education sector.

As one commentator cited by the Inside HigherEd article:

This is an international, worldwide far-right attack on the universities that is if anything more mainstream in the United States than in Brazil.

And Australia.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 19 Comments
    1. Powell was on the money with this one: “(Principled leftist intellectuals) are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence — far out of proportion to their numbers — on their colleagues and in the academic world.” The left, not only on the professional but on the personal level, has always been more interesting, more appealing, more compelling than the right. This remains the left’s hidden strength, though the number of principled leftists is currently in decline. Would you rather listen to a talk by or read a book by or have a beer with Bill Mitchell or Milton Friedman? Make no mistake–this is far from a trivial matter but rather has to do with the magnetic allure of truth and authenticity to the human spirit. It’s why the left, despite all apparent odds and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, cannot lose the future…unless there is none.

    2. The pattern which emerges with relentless clarity in this article of Bill’s has – starting with the Powell memorandum – many of the hallmarks of fascism in its true meaning. It’s not only the systematic restriction and channeling of what is permitted to be taught (that’s a characteristic of all authoritarian regimes alike) but the presence of that as an adjunct to the cult of “leadership” as embodied in one single deified individual – be it a Mussolini, a Hitler, a Stalin (or a Trump?) – together with the undeviating privileging of the business class’s interests over those of all other sections of society.

      Neither Brazil, USA or Australia is a case (yet) of a full-blown fascist regime but any of them (in that order) might just possibly evolve into one (as could Orban’s Hungary, while Duda’s Poland is starting to look eerily like Salazar’s Portugal in certain respects – and then there’s Putin’s Russia of course, perhaps the furthest of all along the road…).

      I’ve now sent for Jason Stanley’s book “How Fascism Works”, with the object of having any misconceptions about this crucial subject which I might be harbouring corrected.

    3. https://time.com/collection/great-reset/5900739/fix-economy-by-2023/

      Hi Bill

      Talking about far right attacks on our liberties, where do you stand on Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum and his ‘Great Reset’ solution as an exit from the ‘Covid Crises’. Fourth Industrial Revolution, ‘you’ll own no property and be happy’, UBI for non essential workers. What the heck?! And Mariana Mazzucata, an MMT sympathiser, seemingly fully on board with this frightening dystopian future. Where is this taking MMT? What is your position on this apparent fait accompli?

    4. I don’t know the history but my university professors are incredibly conservative for my standards (STEM).

      This article shows a different perspective and is honest criticism of the STEM focus. I think my professors are incredibly subservient.

      A society that doesn’t function well hurts STEM ultimately.

      I think STEM has an ego too, so instead of solidarity, they have superiority.

      I don’t believe we should speak out against government per se, since it just reflects the ruling class. Criticizing the ruling class may actually be the way to go. You can’t be accused of subverting government AND a lot of people are against inequality. Let’s see the reaction if we do that. I think people may actually be quite receptive.

    5. Any decades long program to do MMT is likely going to be too late.
      New reports out of the Arctic as reported by “Just Have a Think”, say that Methane is being released from the Arctic Ocean sea floor at 8 to 100 time faster than ever measured before.
      methane has more atoms n its molecule so it can absorb & reradiate more colors of light and so it is 100 to 28 times as powerful of a GHG as CO2 is.
      This a sign that this ‘tipping point’ has been passed, so methane will be released in ever growing amounts in the next many years.
      This is *very* bad.
      .

    6. @Steve_American: Yes, and what are the products formed when methane breaks down after a time due to the effect of sunlight, more CO2 and atmospheric water vapor, which is also an energy collector.
      There is enough methane trapped in the arctic and on the sea bottom in methane clathrate deposits, to produce an unstoppable positive feedback loop of heat gain.

      There are crazy geo engineering proposals to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the atmosphere, so we can continue business as usual, but the end result of employing any of these, is anyone’s guess as they come with huge risks.

    7. Make no mistake, the politics of this planet are governed by the wants of the corporate world and have been for a very long time.

      Examples of earlier serious attempts at installing blatantly authoritarian/ dictatorial governments as their puppets either by coup (read about “The Business Plot”, Smedley Butler) or through the manufacture of consent by political means (1930’s Nazism/ Fascism), probably failed only because of the existence of differences of opinion among vested groups as to the best way to approach the problem of gaining and holding power.

      The next step in the evolution of method was the virtually invisible inverted totalitarianism described by Sheldon Wolin. Here the competition, between these groups and alliances of groups for control, continues to drive politics using any political issues, either real, or simply manufactured in a pinch, to gain advantage over groups with opposing approaches.

      These groups are all united when it comes to advancing border less corporate control of the global economy yet divided on views as to how to get there and who ends up at the top of their hierarchical dung heap once it’s created.

      To save the planet and restore the common good for humanity this global gaming of the political field needs to be brought to a halt soon.

      The massive well funded campaigns of these groups have exploited every individuals fears making almost every neighbor appear a potential scapegoat for problems those groups themselves have caused, creating distraction from their own continued pursuit of selfish goals.

      Independent, organic, collective cultural evolution, and real education on campus (or elsewhere) is what fascists fear most. As the Nazi official of old, Joseph Goebbels said: “when I hear the word culture, I instinctively want to reach for my gun”. This exposes a major weakness.

      The resistance will have begun when the cultural revolution resumes because these groups can’t survive being widely seen for what they represent in the light of day by normal stable educated adults.

    8. I was pretty confused by this article, Bill. I’m fairly new here, so I may not be familiar with all of your thoughts on this subject, but it seems to me that the social “science” racial schools have little interest or support in mmt, and are usually just another arm of neoliberalism. It perplexes me that you would defend these ideas. Notice how time and time again, the left tends to win on the social front while losing on the economic front? Do you not realize that is by design? The mainstream “left” wing parties will always apologize for their economic failures by pointing to their woke bonefides and accomplishments. “Well, we didn’t get healthcare or workers protections, but we have the first black female appointed to x!” The economic left keeps falling for this, and it’s pathetic.

      This is the point where terms like “right wing” and “left wing” become irrelevant. I don’t consider the woke neoliberals that you are defending in these colleges to be much more left wing than the arch conservatives that are attacking them.

    9. @ gusphase

      Personally I think you make a good point. The “woke” brigade are IMO not one whit less of a threat to our liberties – and most especially to our freedom of speech – than the extreme Right.
      https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/11/11/the-mad-witch-hunting-of-greg-clarke/

      But two wrongs don’t make a right, do they.

      The concerted attack on our universities which – in conformity with the Powell memorandum’s explicit prescription – has been systematically mounted by neoliberal governments since the ‘eighties, for the express purpose of suppressing opposition to the neoliberal project, is bad in every way. Full stop.

      If the purpose of universities isn’t to develop people’s ability to think for themselves, then what *are* they for?

    10. @robertH

      I’m not defending Powell or any neoliberal attack. I just happen to disagree that creating group think centers based around “social science” that propagates in modern universities should be considered remotely the same thing as “developing people’s abilities to think for themselves.”

    11. Typo alert 4th paragraph. Should probably be:
      “free thinking that arises in some areas LIKE higher education – the sort of thinking they FEAR”

      The oligarchic right like most businessmen will always want more until all nations become like their idyll of Pinochet’s Chile either by design or through their collective ignorant greed. The fact that the last 40 years of the 50 year neoliberal era have been destructive for all but the top few percent and has been the PRIMARY reason China as well as the rest of East Asia have overtaken the old ‘West’ in all economic respects and that these elites are doubling down for more means that they have earned their fate.

      I would like to see the economic data of GDP per capita for the 90th decile for all OECD countries over the last 50 years or even better since WW2. It would help expose the lies of the neoliberal scum that we have elected time and time again.

      The economic disaster of especially the later stages of neoliberalism is appalling but the externalisation of environmental destruction with its worst manifestations of global warming, habitat loss and loss of biodiversity are even more critically urgent. We are already way behind schedule with tackling global warming and the loss of over 90% of the world’s warm water corals and their associated complex ecosystems is now locked in even if globally we meet the 350ppm Hansen trajectory or the IPCC 1.5C trajectory from here on. This is just one of many catastrophic environmental consequences that are now too late to stop even with rapid global GHG emission cuts and major levels of atmospheric CO2 extraction.

      Hansen’s relatively recent 350ppm by 2100/6% p.a. GHG emission reductions starting 2020/153PgC extraction trajectory is already one year late and global GHG emissions are still increasing factoring out the Corona pandemic slowdown.

      The fact that the global political process was systematically hijacked to deliver on the greed of the oligarchy is economic and political fascism but with usually a benign mask that to the ignorant may even feel free, maybe a little painful but basically normal.

      The oligarchy won in the last May 2019 Australian federal election, the December 2019 UK general election and in the November 2020 US Presidential elections the oligarchy always wins as both halves of the duopoly primarily serve various segments of the oligarchy.

      Even the oligarchy’s puppets sometimes deliver for citizens but the 0.1% are still running off with at least 90% of newly generated economic wealth. Many parts of the business world have become more enlightened especially regarding global warming but underlying greed and political hegemony remain dominant.

      Bernie Sanders got close however until the pandemic and a corrupt political process and mass media cut him off at the knees. Jeremy Corbyn was even more fatally damaged by the oligarchies commercial and state media as well as by the Blairist right of that sick party. It was similar in Australia but the appalling hard right LNP only just scraped through thanks mainly to Murdoch and the mining oligarchs in Queensland and to a lesser extent also nation wide. The ALP ran a mediocre campaign as well that included Chris Bowen’s franking credit tax and other pointless irritants.

      Personally I have had enough of the oligarchy deciding the party, composition and policy direction of governance and give just one more election cycle for genuinely enlightened governments to be elected (which does not include Biden’s, Pelosi’s and Schumer’s corporate Democrats) and if not Magna Carta should be invoked and the war against the oligarchic right can begin. The people alone get to decide their representatives in a democracy and the fundamental rights of citizens cannot be infringed by any self appointed rulers. There will be push back and casualties but less so than that which will be delivered by the oligarchic right’s current trajectory of greed and authoritarianism.

      This is not calling their bluff, no its bigger than that. This is the end for the oligarchic right and of the neoliberal era no matter the cost.

    12. @gusphase wrote: ” I don’t consider the woke neoliberals that you are defending in these colleges ….”

      What “woke neoliberals” do you consider Bill is defending?

      Bill is a professor of economics who exposes the errors of the Powell-Friedman neo-Keynesian neo-liberal monetarist economic orthodoxy.

      The terrible cases of political correctness, like the “mad witch hunting of Greg Clarke” in the UK (by characters on the Left), and the disgusting forced exile of Yasmin Abdel-Magied by the conservative Church of the Holy Anzacs in Australia (to which most of the Australian population probably belongs)… surely has nothing to do with universities?

    13. @ gusphase

      I didn’t read you as defending Powell – far from it.

      Also, this:-
      “I just happen to disagree that creating group think centers based around “social science” that propagates in modern universities should be considered remotely the same thing as “developing people’s abilities to think for themselves”
      does actually reflect my own sentiments, if I’m honest.

      However, I can’t claim to have kept abreast of the ways in which social science has been developing and so don’t really have a basis on which to form an *unbiased* opinion. In default of that I don’t feel justified in taking an unconditionally hostile position.

      Maybe you have the advantage of being better-informed than me.

    14. @ Neil Halliday
      “The terrible cases of political correctness…surely has nothing to do with universities?”

      I’m not so sure about that. It would be interesting to know what proportion of those who joined the witch-hunts against Greg Clarke and Jeremy Corbyn – thoroughly decent people both of them – were NOT university graduates. There’s no way of knowing of course.

      One might pose the question:- what (if anything) have our universities done towards combating the tendency rampant among recent generation(s) of students to be influenced (fatuously) by political correctness?

      Because – I suggest – this is very much a generational phenomenon.

      I don’t doubt that my own generation of students was guilty of just as many fatuities of its own, but at least bastardizing and “disinfecting” everyday native English in obedience to ridiculous shibboleths wasn’t among them. In that respect if in no other I suspect we were far better educated to become tolerant citizens of a pluralist democracy than – especially – our more recent successors.

      You’re right of course that the universities can’t be blamed for the ills of our society. I just wish I could be convinced that they were trying their best to do something to combat them instead of – as sometimes seems to be the case – making them worse.

    15. I had no idea who Greg Clarke was, but, whether by ignorance or by choice, repeatedly using discriminatory dog whistles which are commonly an issue in soccer, also for the people he was supposed to support, means he’s unfit for doing his former job.
      I don’t see the “but” there, or a serious comparison to not liking the special apartheid state.

    16. @ Paulo Marques
      “discriminatory dog whistles”.

      So the self-appointed arbiters (of whom you appear to be one) of what are today’s “discriminatory dog whistles” – as opposed to what were last month’s or last year’s – are fully justified in hounding people out of their jobs on spurious, irrelevant and/or manufactured grounds and without regard to any other criteria whatsoever? Witch-hunting doesn’t trouble you in the least? (It certainly troubled the alleged witches, as you may or may not know).

      I really do fear for the future of our increasingly polarised societies. You for your part appear to find that same prospect a congenial one.

      I wish you and those who think as you do well, and sincerely hope you won’t have cause when in the future you come to reflect on the choices you made to bitterly regret any of them.

    17. @robertH

      It troubles me, but let’s not pretend those are the majority, or even near it. As pointed out numerous times by Bill and others, it can be a distraction from the worker struggle. Nevertheless, don’t ignore the stories of those who are hounded by the same phrases constantly to make them feel lesser beings who feel even less demoralized and disenfranchised by everyone else who absorbs and repeats them without a second thought. And that, to some extent, is part of capitals strategy of having frightened powerless, and thus cheaper, workers.
      I do, indeed, bitterly regret words and choices I have made, but only because I now know better how much they impacted those who only sought a friend. It hurts and is partially why I don’t believe I’m that good of a person, I’m not saying this for sense of superiority, I don’t really know how that feels. And yes, dragging years old statements without considering change is even self-defeating. But most “canceled” people are wealthy capitalists who double down (and keep profiting) instead of listening and wearing someone else’s shoes for a little while. And no, I don’t think they should be harassed without an opportunity either, and plenty of other nuance besides.
      Just listen, really listen, it isn’t hard, other than the slap in the face for realizing there’s human hurt there that has no reason to exist other than our tribal views. And there is no fair solution, because not everyone saying the things is evil.

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