Two great models of eloquence in the English language are The Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible usually called the King James Version. A memorable passage that appears in both volumes crossed my mind while thinking about a couple of recent works of social criticism. (It also happens that Princeton University Press recently brought out The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University, which a couple of readers have highly recommended.)
The text in question appears a couple of times in the New Testament as part of what's usually called "the Lord's Prayer." The Book of Common Prayer, the older of the two volumes, renders one line of the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The KJV rendering says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
To my ear, "trespasses" works better rhythmically, and it expresses the notion of "sin" or "offense" in a slightly more elegant manner. By contrast, "debt" or "debtor" expresses the same thought in a blunt and harsh way, and even conjures the old cartoon image of St. Peter recording good and evil deeds in a big ledger at the gates of heaven. Puzzled by the contrast, I consulted an extremely literal translation by J.N. Darby -- a Victorian Biblical scholar of uncompromising severity -- who suggests that "debt" is indeed what the original text says.
Around the time Darby was working on his translation, Friedrich Nietzsche fleshed out an argument about the interrelationship among guilt, debt, and memory. Bringing up an atheist philosopher pretty well guarantees someone is now offended. But The Genealogy of Morals spells out in bleak and somewhat lurid terms a point left implicit in the prayer: The debtor is at the mercy of the creditor, who has the right (or at least the power) to inflict suffering -- even bloody revenge -- when payment is not made.
Whatever else it may signify, the brutal connotations of "debt" make forgiveness sound much more demanding and consequential than "trespass" would imply. (Awkward recollection: Learning the prayer as a little kid, I pictured God being unhappy that people were ignoring a sign on His lawn.)
Homo economicus never spent all that much time on moral accounting. But at least the old bourgeois virtues included restraint and a residual belief that self-interest was justified insofar as it served a larger good. The issues that concern Andrew Ross in his new bookCreditocracy (discussed in last week's column) unfold in a world where debt itself is a kind of demigod, answerable to no higher power of any kind -- and certainly not to the state.
As the example of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages in the go-go '00s made clear, the alchemists of finance are able to create profitable investment opportunities out of the risk (i.e., the degree of likelihood) of non-repayment -- making possible the creation of enormous fortunes from loans that cannot be repaid, at least not in full. That is but one link in a complex chain of debt-creation. Should the speculative bubble burst, the job of preventing economic meltdown falls to the government (which already has its own deficits, of course) at whatever risk to allocations for education, infrastructure, etc.
Add to it an average household debt that, Ross notes, grew from 43 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 97 percent in 2008 -- across three decades of stagnating wages. Throughout that period, 60 percent of income gains went to the country's wealthiest 1 percent -- a trend that changed dramatically when the economic crisis hit. Since then, 95 percent of income gains have gone to that debt-creating (if not job-creating) sliver.
David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware, characterizes the situation with a simple image in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books):
"Imagine a casino in which you play with the house money and if you win you get to keep all the winnings to yourself, whereas if you lose, the house covers your bets. The literally astronomical public sums required to continue this arrangement for the minutest percentage of the population is the proximal cause of the squeeze on public resources. Schoolchildren, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly etc., must all sacrifice so elites no longer have to undergo the risks that are officially supposed to be inherent in their role as fearless capitalist risk-takers. ..." But genuine competition and risk are reserved "for small businesses and other little people like private and public sector employees."
Ross responds to the debt-driven status quo by challenging a whole series of moral reflexes that have traditionally accompanied debt: the feelings of obligation and culpability, of shame and implied weakness, that the prayer rendered in the King James translation take as a given. When access to socially necessary goods (particularly higher education) is restricted or undermined by an economy making debt all but inescapable for countless people, someone ought to feel guilty when students default on their loans -- just not the students themselves. The next step is to call for large-scale fiscal disobedience: a social movement of millions of people pledging to default on their student loans. On the far side of that and other radical confrontations with the debt machine, Ross conceives the possibility of morally sound, humanely responsible systems of finance, based on communitarian social forms. Not utopia, perhaps, but a long way from here.
Massive default is a strategy I find it easier to admire, or at least to daydream about, than to recommend. It is not impossible that a million people might make such a pledge. Carrying out the action is another matter -- and if only a fraction see it through, the result is bound to be martyrdom of an uninspiring and ineffectual kind. In any case, I have no student debt to default on in solidarity, and calling for others to do so would be a case of telling them, "Let's you and him go fight."
Like Creditocracy, David Blacker's book was written in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. But where Ross occasionally sounds like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- with his vision of a mutualist society of small producers, exchanging goods and services with a new form of money that doesn't promote inequality -- Blacker thinks along much more classically Marxist lines. The predatory forms of financial speculation that led to the crisis five years ago will not be regulated out of existence, nor are they deviations or tumors growing on a fundamentally healthy economy. The casino will keep rewarding the high rollers when they win and shaking the rest of society down when they lose. Such investment in manufacture as continues to be made will need workers with skills and the capacity to adapt to technological developments -- but ever fewer of them.
Most of the population will be an object for social control, rather than Schooling proper. At some level most of us sense this already, making the whole notion of "education as investment in the future" an ever more problematic principle. Blacker has written probably the gloomiest book I have read in years, but in some ways it seems like a practical one. He is not a survivalist. He thinks pedagogy still has a role, provided it's geared to understanding the dire probabilities and finding ways to respond to them. It helps that Blacker is a sharp and forceful writer, giving his analysis something of the vividness and urgency of an Old Testament prophet delivering warnings that nobody really wants to hear.
The golden age of unsolicited credit-card applications ended about five years ago. It must have been a relief at the post office. At least ten envelopes came each week -- often with non-functioning replica cards enclosed, to elicit the anticipatory thrill of fresh plastic in the recipient’s hot little hand.
For a while, I would open each envelope and carefully shred anything with my name on it, lest an identity thief go on a shopping spree in my name. But at some point I gave up, because there were just too many of them. Besides, any identity thief worth worrying about enjoyed better options than trash-diving for unopened mail.
Something started happening circa 2006 or ’07. More and more often, the very envelopes carried wording to the effect that approval for a new card was a formality, so act now! With the benefit of hindsight, this reads as a last surge of economic acceleration before the crash just ahead. But at the time, I figured that credit-card companies were growing desperate to grab our attention, since many of us were throwing the offers away without a second glance.
The two alternatives -- turbocharged consumerism on the one hand, the depleted willingness (or capacity) of consumers to take on more debt, on the other -- are not mutually exclusive. It was subprime mortgages rather than overextended credit cards that brought the go-go ’00s to an early end, but each was a manifestation of the system Andrew Ross writes about in Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books).
Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was active in Occupy Wall Street, and Creditocracy bears a few traces of the movement, both in its plainspoken and inclusive expressions of anger (this I like) and its redeployment of old anarco-syndicalist ideas (that, not so much).
One commonplace account of the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 is that it was the product of consumer hedonism at its most irresponsible. It was just deserts for people playing Xbox on jumbo flat-screen TVs in subprime-mortgaged houses they shouldn't be in. Whatever the limits of its explanatory power, this interpretation allows for a pleasing discharge of moralistic aggression. Hence its popularity. The most familiar argument opposing it places the blame, rather, on bankers, brokers, and other criminals “too big to jail.” It was they who were greedy and short-sighted, not average people.
Besides the more obvious similarities, what these explanations share is an implication that the disaster could have been avoided with some self-discipline and the understanding that hyperbolic discounting is a very bad habit.
Ross leans in the anti-plutocratic direction, but he proves ultimately less interested in the morality of anyone’s decisions than he is in the framework that permits, or demands, those decisions in the first place. The system he calls “creditocracy” turns out debt as fast and efficiently as Detroit once did automobiles, and just as profitably:
“Financiers seek to wrap debt around every possible asset and income stream,” he writes, “ensuring a flow of interest from each…. [T]he tipping point for a creditocracy occurs when ‘economic rents’ – from debt-leveraging, capital gains, manipulation of paper claims through derivatives and other forms of financial engineering – are no longer merely supplementary sources of income, but have become the most reliable and effective instrument for the amassing of wealth and influence.”
At that level of description, Ross has simply given a new name to what Rudolf Hilferding, writing a hundred years ago, called “finance capital.” But what Hilferding had in mind was the merger of banking and industrial capitalism – the marriage of big money and big factories, with monopoly presiding. Creditocracy, by contrast, “goes small,” insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of life. The relationship between creditor and debtor takes many different shapes, some more overt than others.
When you take out a student loan or a mortgage, your submission to the financial system is more or less deliberate, and in any event explicit. It runs deeper, and proves less purely voluntary, if you have to use credit cards in lieu of unemployment insurance. The credit relationship is much more efficiently disguised if it takes the form of an unpaid internship – the “exchange” of your time and skills for intangible and impossible-to-quantify credit” toward a future job, if you’re lucky.
And if that doesn’t pan out, you might end up working in one of the less desirable positions at Walmart or Taco Bell, among other corporations that banks have persuaded, Ross writes, “to pay their employees with prepaid debit cards that are only lightly regulated.” The banks then “charge the users fees to make ATM withdrawls and retail purchases, along with inactivity fees for using their cards. Almost all of these are minimum or subminimum wage employees, compelled to fork over a fee to enjoy their paycheck." (The practice was described in a New York Timesarticle a few months ago.)
In next week’s column, I’ll consider Ross’s analysis of how the impact of creditocracy on education amounts to a ruthless exploitation, not just of present-day society, but of the future. We’ll also take a look at the comparable argument in a new book called The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books) by David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware.
Until then, I’ll sign off by mentioning that someone has just sent me an application for a $40,000 line of credit. This must be evidence of that “recovery” one reads about. If so, we’re in real trouble.
As Scott Jaschik points out in his January 13, 2014 article, “The Third Rail,” the terrible stress our newly minted Ph.D.s in English, comp lit, and foreign languages confront when they begin the job search seems only to be escalating rather than abating. Understandably, then, many Modern Language Association convention sessions, as well as a growing body of publications, have been taking up a variety of proposals for addressing the job crisis. Jaschik mentions the session I chaired, “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Graduate Education,” and he carefully articulates the basic positions of the panelists as we were all in general agreement that shrinking the size of graduate programs in English would not be the best way to remedy the situation. But the reasons we hold those beliefs in favor of expansion rather than contraction seem to have slipped out of view. I would like to highlight them here.
Let me begin by stating the obvious nature of the suffering: When you defund public higher education, someone is going to have to pay, and it has been our colleagues forced to accept unethically precarious working conditions both during and after grad school, and students at all levels burdened with massively increasing educational debt. These are circumstances we must protest with all the solidarity we can muster. But all this misery, the sense of lives ruined, institutionalized failure, personal anguish — these horrors come not just from oversized grad programs, but from a much larger capitalist economy that is wreaking havoc on many workers and unemployed poor in and out of academia. As Marc Bousquet has explained, it is not a market; or, at least, it is not a “free market” in any real sense despite our common rhetorical reference to the horrors of the “job market.” It is a system we are caught in, and one orchestrated, it’s true, by our own institutional structures that have now been fine-tuned to serve the champions of privatization, defunding, and austerity. In this type of economic system, higher education has become a kind of laboratory for the production of a precarious, contingent, low-wage faculty. The economic inequality within the profession mirrors the economic inequality in the society. From any ethical perspective, it is a system that has gone terribly wrong.
What has been most missing from the discussion about graduate school size has been a concise understanding of why the market logic doesn’t work for English grad programs, and the main reason is because it is not an accurate description of how the system really works. If it were a case of supply and demand, it might make good ethical sense to reduce the overproduction of Ph.D.s to meet the lower demand for tenured professors. In short, if you could reduce the supply without altering demand, this equalizing would clearly make it easier for graduates to get tenured jobs for the simple reason that there would then be fewer Ph.Ds competing for the same number of jobs. But the system does not work that way. Rather, when you reduce supply by shrinking graduate programs, you also end up reducing demand (as I will explain in what follows): our system is so structured that we cannot reduce the one without reducing the other, and that’s a real ethical and political conundrum.
When you shrink graduate student enrollments (the supply side), you inevitably also shrink the size of graduate programs, which means, willy-nilly, that you decrease tenured faculty lines (the demand side) because they are the folks teaching in grad programs. Administrators would be happy to shrink our programs and eliminate some tenured lines through attrition and retirement because new, cheaper temp hires can easily fill in to teach the few undergraduate lower-division classes that some tenured faculty teach.
The gurus of supply and demand would like nothing better than for us graduate faculty to do our own regulating by cutting down of our own accord on producing so many new highly educated people schooled in the legacies of critique and dissent. We then serve the wishes of those seeking more power to hire and fire at will the most vulnerable among us who have no protections under a gutted system of tenure and diminished academic freedom. The system can play itself out under the contraction model, then, as a vicious cycle of reducing supply, which reduces demand for tenured faculty (while increasing the non-tenure-track share of the faculty), which calls for further reducing of supply. To believe that contracting the size of graduate programs can, in and of itself, improve the situation is a misattribution of cause and effect: The real cause of the job misery is the agenda for privatization and defunding public expenditures orchestrated by the global economic system that has been producing misery and suffering for millions of lives around the world as socioeconomic inequalities continue to magnify.
Now, having said all that, I also want to be very clear that there are strategic, local situations where reducing graduate student populations in order to expand funding and support for them, or in order to revise a program (hopefully without shrinking tenured faculty lines), can certainly be the most ethical thing to do. So I am speaking at a general level of overall tactics for the profession, and at that level, shrinking (without other forms of compensation) inevitably leads to weakening graduate education, not strengthening it through some mythical model of “right-sizing” to be achieved by a proposed matching of supply and demand.
But, of course, the pain is real, and it reaches fever pitch in the transitional moments of crisis when graduate students face the “market” for jobs. The wretched system we endure makes it impossible not to sympathize with graduate students who understandably often argue that we must reduce the supply of Ph.D.s to give them a better chance to get a job. Under these enormous tensions, the short-term, crisis-management model of supply and demand can especially seem like the only fair-minded option.
In those moments of anguish, which I myself witness every time one of my own students reaches this transition stage, our only ethical task is to support them and listen to them as best we can to help them navigate the transition. So I want to make sure that my remarks here are not intended to provide any specific advice other than the obvious need for support. Specific situations and contextual demands will have to be navigated with all the pragmatic skills and rhetorical resourcefulness possible. In contrast, then, to a focus on the crisis moment of the job search, I have framed my comments here in terms of a big picture narrative.
From the longer and larger perspective, what becomes most clear is that our system of having elite graduate faculty surrounded by masses of non-tenure-track teachers mostly fulfilling service functions of teaching lower-level humanities distribution courses and writing courses fuels that cycle of devolution. We need, then, to change the academic system over which we do have some control. Systemic changes can be difficult to even imagine, but it is by no means impossible as long as we understand that it will not happen in an overnight revolution. And the first step inevitably leads us to examine more critically the ethical and political work of both curricular revision and resource allocation. In short, it leads us to a careful analysis of the systemic class structure within the profession, bolstered as it is by procedures and policies, many of which we actually have some degree of professional autonomy to alter.
Of course, the resistance to institutional transformation remains overwhelming at times, and the struggle to mitigate our academic hierarchies and internal class stratifications is a long-term project, well beyond the scope of these comments. To even imagine such changes in our local institutional circumstances, we will have to make many arguments convincing our colleagues that a more collective and collaborative approach to teaching assignments will be beneficial for us all in the long run. And I have at least some evidence that something like what I have been suggesting can actually happen. Where I teach in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), our collective bargaining agreement affecting all 14 universities with a total enrollment of over 100,000 students has created an anomaly in U.S. higher education: more than 75 percent of all faculty on all campuses are tenure-track lines (the inverse of the national percentage average), and all faculty teach all levels of courses.
Much work remains to be done, and we too continuously struggle against state underfunding and the pressure to hire more temporary faculty. But the potential benefits of these efforts, I believe, would make our profession less stratified and more responsive to public needs for high quality education at all levels, so that, ultimately, the humanities will become a more vital part of the social fabric of everyday life for more citizens. That is a goal we should never abandon.
David B. Downing is director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Works and Days, and his most recent book (co-edited with Edward J. Carvalho) is Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era.