Which Barbarians at the Gates? from the Culture Wars to Market Orthodoxy in the North American Academy

By Kurasawa, Fuyuki | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Which Barbarians at the Gates? from the Culture Wars to Market Orthodoxy in the North American Academy


Kurasawa, Fuyuki, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


THE CULTURE WARS THAT RAGED in the North American academy for much of the 1990s seem but a distant memory now. Regardless of occasional attempts to rehash old grudges and revisit tired accusations, most academics have licked their wounds, buried their dead, and taken refuge in greener, fresher intellectual pastures. The frisson of scandal mongering has worn thin, leaving bitterness or mere indifference in its wake. However, to hastily dismiss or disregard the storm around political correctness as a tempest in a teapot would be mistaken, for I would contend that it can be understood, in retrospect, as an early symptom of the latest struggle over the restructuring of the university's relation to other institutions in contemporary society Indeed, while the cultural Right and Left alike were consumed by trench warfare, an insidious process infinitely more damaging to the academy than any bogey of political correctness was quietly gathering steam: the colonization of the university by the market, prompted by the w idespread acceptance of neo-liberal orthodoxy both inside and outside its hallowed halls of learning.

The right-wing assault on higher education over the past decade or so must therefore be recontextualized in light of the argument above. At best, this assault adds up to an unwelcome distraction from the actual threat brought about by the commodification of academic knowledge; at worst, it represents a deliberate effort to promote, or at least turn a deaf ear to, one form of intellectual conformism (neo-liberalism) under the guise of combating another (so-called political correctness). Yet despite--or perhaps precisely because of-the Right's rhetoric of "depoliticization" of the university, the inextricably and intensely political character of its own interventions is revealed. In this case, evoking the ideal of the ivory tower serves less to defend higher education from "outside intervention" per se than to prescribe the kind of outside intervention that should take place; the involvement of civil society groups is decried as politicizing and must consequently be stopped, while that of the market is condoned as supposedly apolitical. Yet today, it is precisely this latter process of commercial instrumentalization of the university that is undermining the laudable principles of academic freedom and independence. Strangely enough, the Right has little to say while the ivory is being sold to the highest bidder and major corporations sponsor the tower itself. (1)

Hence, this paper contends that, in order to grasp the socio-economic environment within which they have occurred, the links between the North American academy's two defining trends over the past decade (namely, the culture wars and commodification) need to be explored more explicitly than has hitherto been done. My intention is not to provide a detailed empirical description of these developments--something which has already been done elsewhere plentifully and with great skill (Aronowitz, 2000; Berube and Nelson, 1995; Brown, 2001; Currie and Newson, 1998a; Freitag, 1995; Hebert, 2001; Nelson, 1997; Newson, 1998; Richer and Weir, 1995; Slaughter and Leslie, 1997; Tudiver, 1999; Turk, 2000; Wilson, 1995)--but rather to propose a theoretically driven critique of some of the Right's main positions by identifying their underlying socio-political interests and effects. To study the mutual constitution of the economic, political, and socio-cultural spheres of social life, a cultural materialist perspective is ther eby employed; Habermas's (1987) institutional framework of analysis, usefully refined for our purposes by Cohen and Arato (1992), can be complemented by Bourdieu's (1977) vision of the social field as an arena of struggle for power between different groups. The university can accordingly be conceptualized as a social institution structured by (and structuring) the three principal institutional complexes of modern society, that is, the market, the state, and civil society. …

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