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Guest-Editorial: What ‘Use’ is the Liberal Ruse? Debating the ‘Idea’ of the University

By Debaditya Bhattacharya

Walter Benjamin, in his 1915 essay, “The Life of Students”, passionately rues the infiltration of the ‘vocational spirit’ into the university’s life of creative eros. The burden of proof conferred by demands of ‘utility’ and confirmed with the calculated welfarism of “socially relevant labour” makes for Benjamin’s charge against the independent student-associations (Freie Studentenschaften) in German universities of his time. He persuasively builds a case against the liberal imagination of political voluntarism as social ‘returns on investment’ made by the state, and maintains:

[T]he true sign of corruption is not the collusion of the university and the state (something that is by no means incompatible with honest barbarity), but the theory and guarantee of academic freedom, when in reality people assume with brutal complacence that the aim of study is to steer its disciples to a socially adapted individuality and service to the state. (Early Writings 1910-1917, 1996, p. 199)

The drive towards a “concept of duty” as the social-professional rationale of university education and its consequent alliance with what has severally been understood as ‘nation-building’ is what Benjamin alerts us to the dangers of. Not only is the construal of such a service-ethic as the primary ‘responsibility’ of university life utterly self-seeking in its bourgeois demonstrations of efficient citizenship, but it also goes on to configure ontologies of ‘value’ within a necessary moralism of ‘virtue’. In this, the university becomes a claimant for both public affect and moral priority through assured dividends on welfare spending. The liberal penchant worked into the constitution of the university, Benjamin discerningly hints, is the guise for its invasion by the vocational. Socially relevant labour is not the unique litmus of legitimacy designed by a neoliberal state, as we now tend to believe – but has been quite silently at work since the shaping up of the liberal ‘project’ of the university. Entrepreneurial vocationalism as debt-and-duty has held the promise of a historical destiny for the liberal-democratic university, and it is here that the “theory and guarantee of academic freedom” has failed its originary condition of ‘autonomy’.

What is especially significant about Benjamin’s critique of the relationship between university communities and the state is that it decisively pre-empts the neoliberal onslaught as not a break with the liberal past (as is most often presumed!), but merely a continuation of it. It suggests that while traditions of liberalism demanded a counterfeiting of the ethical in a purely ‘economic’ (though, disguised as ‘social’) contract between the individual and the state, the neoliberal order only substituted the state with a global market. To that extent, the state is only made to arbitrate between the self-investments of the individual and the claims of global capital. The university consequently no longer manufactures an ethic of social work as apprenticeship to national economy, but decisively prepares both human resource and infrastructural goods for free auctioning in a global flexible marketplace of ‘work’. Socially necessary labour is no longer patented by the state, but must be made globally relevant as credit-capital.

Nearly five decades of history in the Euro-Atlantic world bear out the truth in Benjamin’s prophecy with proximate symptoms of a ‘crisis’. Subsequently, the setting up of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 and its formulation of a General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) officialised what William Tabb calls a “World Take Over” of education as a potential tradable service with immense investment opportunities for global corporations. The GATS framework effectively made way for a multilateral import-export economy to substitute the essentially public character of knowledge-institutions across the world. The considerably low Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of higher education in India, accompanied by its being among the nations with lowest GDP rates of public spending in the sector, made it seem especially profitable for prospects of transnational trade through inclusion within the GATS arrangements. The Doha Round of WTO negotiations in 2001 saw India ‘offering’ up its higher education sector to corporate finance capital, pending ‘commitment’ and a consequent lowering of subsidies to deregulate public institutions while creating a ‘level playing field’ for global-international corporations.

With the recent electoral rise of the Hindu Right in India, the sustained assault on public universities in the name of their being ‘anti-national’ or ‘seditious’ spaces is an accurate instance of how transnational economic designs are executed under the guise of an aggressive cultural nationalism. It is no paradox that universities are being used as a site of manufacturing a certain hegemonic consensus, because that has historically been its function as part of a bourgeois public sphere. Insofar as they are made to foist an immanent fantasy of the ‘national’ as imaginative test of loyalty and precondition of citizenship, the calculated jingoism of Hindutva disavows the public good of higher education as ranged against the funding state and therefore better left to global forces of competition. The populist narratives played out by the public media around how such institutions contribute to a ‘waste’ of taxpayers’ money and must therefore be shut down, coupled with the government’s active attempts to scrap research fellowships or increase teaching workload or cut down teaching jobs in public institutions, explain the policy-underpinnings of the contemporary moment.

This issue of Cafe Dissensus is occasioned as much by the need to rethink the consecration of ‘nationalistic’ commonsense at the altar of transnational capital, as by the forms of resistance generated by such a structural collusion of interests. The twinning of ‘saffronization’ and ‘financialization’ in the imminent fortunes of the university are neither new nor unprecedented, and must of course produce in its wake the rage of a resolute defiance.

The surviving variety of opposition directed at the repressive neoliberal university has, however, for the most part, taken recourse to a nostalgia for its liberal past. The progressive intellectual response – couched in demands for freedom, ‘reasonableness’ and a return to the welfare model – is framed in a constitutional resort to rights-discourses and the tenets of liberal humanism. There is a consequent romanticization of the elite humanist quest for truth as an internal condition for democracy, and in the process liberalism is peddled as the political laboratory of social justice. The structural exclusions repeated by centuries of national-bourgeois hegemony are wished away through ‘apolitical’ fantasies of the welfarist state, and the university’s own legacy of class-solidarities is left untouched by the charge of historical injustice. Forms of resistance, in their easy preference for nostalgic essentialisms about a not-so-distant past, remain far from challenging status quoisms that have made the university live out its own dangers. To advocate a return to the aporias of liberal democracy as inherently suited to the valorous ideal of academic autonomy not only misses Benjamin’s caution about the co-implication of neoliberalism, but prescribes the disease for its own cure.

A politics of the university’s future must necessarily begin from a premise of self-critique. The traditions of liberal wisdom and economies of meritocratic access and social privilege that the ‘idea’ of the university has instituted in a relationship of narcissistic self-absorption must, by default, become the conditions of thinking its own political future. Public discourse about the university needs to exceed the enchantments of a self-image, especially when infrastructural networks of knowledge-dissemination have always been sites of reproducing relations of power – between the caste-elite male and the subaltern, the global-metropolitan and the suburban-rural, the exact sciences and philosophy, the intellectual and non-intellectual communities of labour. The task of progressive politics is to work the question of access into an awareness of the class, caste, and gendered nature of all levels of education, without mystifying the university as an achieved idea[l] of freedom.

Significantly, the history of the university has never been immune to questions of ‘use’. From the medieval instantiation of the universitas as a corporate body seeking to protect the interests of the ecclesiastical elite to the Kantian faculties of academic instruction securing the disinterested rationale of an Enlightenment modernity, institutions of ‘higher’ learning have always contributed to the making of a useful class of citizens and their material relations of production. It suits no purpose therefore to argue for a pristine chastity of the right to intellectual labour – because, that veers perilously close to what government reports and commissions insidiously urge for in ‘depoliticizing’ campus spaces. Nor does the postmodern exhilaration of a ‘secret surplus’ in the insurrectionary power of classroom-pedagogies go much further, in their singular disregard for the political economy of structural change. It remains for our universities to confront the fetish of ‘utility’ by neither playing unto the state’s drive towards a bureaucratized managerial order of ‘anti-politics’ nor its penchant for pedagogical reform and innovation.

Instead, it needs to be reiterated ad nauseam that the ‘use’ of the university is in emphatically politicizing the right to reason and intellectual labour, rather than insisting on its own singular appropriation of it. In this, the university is called upon to bear witness to its own liminalities as a structural precondition for social justice. The raptures of a self-possessed insiderism that the university’s call to freedom and autonomy has amounted to must give in to a parasitic alliance with the banal ‘outsides’ of reason – not just in polemical spectres, but in engaged political activism against the theoretical-liberal ‘idea of the university’. This does not, however, vindicate the vocational as a means of reconnecting the university with the realm of material practice, because the ‘Skill India’ programmes of cotemporary lore only serve to commodify the tactical contingencies of everyday practice into [abstract] socially necessary labour-time. In so doing, the drive towards vocationalisation normalises the history of social-intellectual deprivation as the very condition of possibility of economic mobility. The ‘welfare-reforms’ regime of the liberal university is therefore particularly suited to repeating the horrors of systemic inequity through its devious ploys of ‘democratic access’ and ‘employability’. A university without the political mission of interrogating its own ontologies – that is, a mission of radical self-transformation – is a university of no ‘use’, and is indeed a useless ‘idea’.

It is with this agony of self-questioning that the current issue hopes to have put together a public archive of resistance, radically questioning the “idea” of the university – not as the expression of an aspirational class-unconscious, but as the promise of a time of justice. We only hope to leave the reader in excruciating doubt.

And with it, a pledge for intimate solidarity, not to ‘save’ the idea of the university but to fight it towards a progressive future.

Photo: Ronny Sen

Debaditya Bhattacharya
teaches English literature in Bhagini Nivedita College, University of Calcutta. He works on continental philosophy and occasionally writes on issues of contemporary political interest. He is co-editor of Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurt (Sage, 2016).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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