It Looks Like Revolution, But It’s Only Neoliberalism

The university professor in the middle of the authoritarian crusades of both the right and the left

Arriving at his classroom for a graduate course, a friend, who teaches in the humanities area of a large public university in São Paulo State, sensed an unusual rumble among the students. He asked them if everything was all right, and one of them said, “No. We’re staging a mutiny.” Other students explained the reason of the rebellion: the excessive amount of reading assigned to the class. My friend was surprised because the reading assignments were relatively light. Each week the students merely had to read and discuss two or three classmates’ proposals, each of them less than twenty-page long.

The professor asked if the students had a suggestion to solve the problem. They proposed that each student choose for him- or herself which projects they wished to read and with which classmates they wished to discuss them, in small self-organized groups. They would thus finish the semester earlier. Stunned, the professor said that he would think over the matter in order to negotiate a solution that would be satisfactory to all. “No, professor,” a student retorted. “You always want to negotiate. What we want is to break down hierarchies and question your power.” The professor took a deep breath, saying that he would write them later about the matter. He continued the class.

After consulting colleagues and a sleepless night, the professor responded to the students, saying that he would maintain the original dynamic of the course. Several students sent him long e-mails in protest, proclaiming his decision authoritarian and demanding that their wishes be respected. In a mixture of revolt and euphoria, they said they were fighting for the democratization of the university and against power structures.

In the next class, the professor pointed out to the students that their demands were unreasonable and explained the importance of the readings and intellectual dialogue to their education. He made participation in the rest of the class optional, and, to his surprise, none of the students left the class. The participants in the mutiny—a third of the class—apologized and thanked him for the course. Happy ending. 

Well, not really. I am relating this episode (without revealing any names so as not to expose the people involved) because, in my opinion, it exemplifies a more general phenomenon that has gained strength and is becoming ever more frequent in Brazilian and foreign universities. To describe it, I am going to borrow from the same friend an expression he used in his lecture to the rebels. Adapting a verse from a famous song by Brazilian musician Renato Russo (“It looks like cocaine, but it’s only sadness”), that professor remarked to his students about the mutiny, “It looks like revolution, but it’s only neoliberalism.” The first part of this analogy is, of course, purely metaphorical: it refers to the students’ political agitation. The second is metonymic, for neoliberalism is a source of sadness and anguish for anyone who values public education and progressive ideas.

This rebellion against a professor is an example of this neoliberal attitude on the part of the students. I am not referring to neoliberalism as a politico-economic ideology, but, rather, as a cultural form in which the market, the ethics of individualism, and the spirit of consumerism are turned into the cognitive and normative models for social life. Although the students presented their plan as democratic or even subversive, what they were in fact demanding was that the university be something like a supermarket or a restaurant, where consumers decide what to consume (which texts to read), how much to consume (how many texts to read), how long to consume (how many classes to take), and how to consume (how classes should be taught). Underlying the revolt was the idea that the professor has a function like that of a hotel manager or a tailor: to serve the customer and satisfy his or her desires. And the customer, as we know, is always right!

The episode that I narrated may have been particularly theatrical and pedagogic, but similar cases abound in universities in Brazil and abroad. In a Rio de Janeiro public institution in the area of health studies, a student demanded that the graduate program give the students guarantees (a typically mercantile term) that all would finish their doctoral program successfully. Carrying to the extreme the same supposition that the degree (note: the degree, not access to education) is a universal right, a history student in a public European university who did not write her doctoral dissertation sued the department where she studied, demanding the diploma or a financial compensation for the time she had invested (another term that is a neoliberal fetish). 

Another professor at a public university located in Central Brazil received an e-mail from a student announcing he had decided that it would be best for him not to write the final paper for the class—and asking that she give him a passing grade. A friend who teaches physical sciences at a university in the state of Minas Gerais received from her students a list of topics that they wanted to see covered in the lecture to be given by a visiting researcher. In the midst of the pandemic, a grad student—with a full fellowship—sent a last-minute message to his advisor, saying that he would not be participating in an online meeting of his research group because he was tired. 

Another colleague, in the area of communications, based in a large city in the Brazilian Northeast, was astonished when, in class, a grad student strongly criticized an important text that he had neither read nor intended to read since he had heard the author spoken ill of in a documentary (another neoliberal fetish: the domestic consumption of media information). When the professor reacted, saying that the student could not attack the text without having read it, she was accused of being authoritarian.

It appears that in the eyes of such demanding consumers, professors can also err in proposing more discussion. A student of political science questioned the discussion-based teaching methods of a professor and requested that she give more expository lectures. The student alleged that he was very unfocused and got lost listening to his colleagues. A student suggested to me that I modify the syllabus of a class because he found part of the bibliography “boring.” Brazilian graduate students are also often impolite:  not thanking their advisors for efforts that go beyond their responsibilities, not apologizing for their mistakes, and demanding meetings, certificates, and signatures with impractical deadlines, instead of asking for them well in advance and politely, as is expected in interactions with professors, colleagues, friends and . . . service providers.

I do not use these terms loosely. The privatization of the public denounced by Hannah Arendt decades ago has become so pervasive and omnipresent that, like the air we breathe or like the devil in the details, we don’t even perceive it. When the political collective is transformed into a group of individual consumers competing in the marketplace, we lose the very idea of the professor as a civil servant dedicated to the formation of instructed and skilled citizens. Even in public education and among those who speak in its name, the desire grows that education serve, in a neoliberal manner, that self-centered, opportunistic consumer who seeks to minimize costs and maximize benefits. Thus, more and more, the university professor is treated less as a public servant and more as a provider of services —a private servant.

The force of neoliberalism as a cultural phenomenon is revealed in the most progressive environments, among people identified (by themselves and by others) as leftists, who say they are fighting against social injustices. More surprising is that these people present their neoliberal fantasies as if they were emancipatory projects. From this follows the devastating assumption that the professor who does not accept the role of a private servant can only be an oppressor.

I suspect this is due, in part, to the distorted manner in which some students see the asymmetry inherent to education, imagining that faculty and students are social classes: on one side, the exploiting class; on the other, the exploited. They suppose that the professor possesses an essential superiority and that the position of student is both involuntary and permanent. They forget that no one is born a professor and that classroom asymmetry is contextual and temporary. The professor is merely someone with more experience and knowledge in a determined area, not a social actor who holds an inherent power or a greater general knowledge. By the way, many public university students with attitudes like those I have described here intend to follow a teaching career themselves, which makes their view of the professor as oppressor even more absurd.  

This misleading view is also probably due to the demographic profile of university faculty, especially in Brazil. Despite variations that can occur in different institutions and areas of knowledge, groups that are discriminated against and oppressed for reasons of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or social class are typically underrepresented among university professors. Since many students are affected by these sorts of discrimination, no wonder that some see their professors as privileged and endowed with great powers.

If this helps explain the view that the professor is an oppressor, it certainly does not justify it, for there are several problems with this idea. First, it ignores the inequality of social and institutional positions among professors, presupposing as it does that all of us come from dominant or privileged classes or are associated with them. Although some forms of hierarchization and discrimination may be easily visible and identifiable, others are not. There are, for example, many professors at elite universities who have encountered great economic difficulties in their youth, suffered prejudice and oppression throughout their lives. and, having studied in less prestigious universities (or even in more prestigious, but foreign, ones), are never fully accepted as peers by their colleagues, who believe to have better socio-academic pedigrees. And, given inequalities in salary, geographic origin, and social class among professors, many of us encounter real material difficulties, besides the lack of social prestige that characterizes the profession.

Moreover, identifying the professor with the oppressor and revolting against them often entails wastes of time and political energy. This is an attack upon persons who, most of the time, are allies of the students and fight for the same causes as they do–to begin with, for a more just, inclusive, and democratic public university. The mutiny that I described at the beginning of this text, for example, happened in 2017, when Brazilian democracy was deteriorating and authoritarianism was accelerating in the country. I am certain that the revolting students were just as preoccupied with the national situation as their professor was, but they preferred to use their time and energy fighting for petty “causes” like their supposed rights to study less and to decide what to read. There is something very wrong and dangerous about students transforming the lessening of academic rigor and quality of education into a political agenda.

Equally problematic is the deviation taken by the progressive political offensive when it begins to attack its allies. The most atrocious expression of this deviation is the proliferation of unfounded accusations of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia made against professors. All denunciations of this type should be taken seriously and investigated, for the struggle for a more just and inclusive university depends upon this. Knowing that prejudices and harassment are ubiquitous in academia, just as in other areas, I vehemently defend the political importance of these denunciations and everyone’s right to make them. 

However, the fact that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia are frequent in academia does not mean that all accusations of their occurrences are truthful. One could say the same of other professional environments, I suppose, but this phenomenon has specific contours in the case of the university. Although we rarely have the courage or interest to speak of this in public, it is no secret to academics in Brazil and abroad that some of these accusations are opportunistic actions made by persons motivated by objectives that are more immediate and less laudable, such as obtaining an undeserved grade, reducing the amount of coursework, and facilitating the receipt of a diploma. The manipulation of injustices, violence and exclusions for individual benefit is perhaps the most ferocious and perverse expression of cultural neoliberalism in public education.  

The refined perversity of this selfish manipulation is evident in many ways. To begin with, the professors most commonly accused are those in the most fragile situations professionally, in the initial stages of their careers, without immediate advantages to offer to their students, and those whose moral destruction brings no prejudice to their defamers. Other common targets of unfounded accusations are professors from social groups that are traditionally discriminated against. The prejudice of some individuals against their own oppressed group is a sad reality, but I want to emphasize that often the professors that are unjustly attacked and disrespected—by libel and slanders and also by other everyday acts—are those most devoid of power, both within and outside the university.

Other preferred victims are professors who are highly mobilized politically. A professor of post-colonial philosophy or contemporary history has a much greater chance of being attacked for a statement that some student considers inappropriate than does a professor of medieval philosophy or ancient history. Cases abound of feminist professors and scholars who are activists of LGBTQIA+ rights who are accused of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia for giving classes about texts seen as politically inappropriate or for committing slips of language liable to be punished by the ruthless and tireless vocabulary militia.  

Recently a faculty member of a respected public university in southeastern Brazil, specializing in Afro-Atlantic thought, was accused of being racist by a master’s student. She had failed his course for not attending classes, not presenting a required seminar, not writing a final paper, and not responding to repeated attempts to contact her. The opportunism of this libel is more evident once we take into account that the student only made the denunciation six months after failing the course, when recent antiracist protests broke out in the United States. Taking the cue from her, her defenders did not hesitate equate her failing grade to the brutal murder of George Floyd! When it was demonstrated that the accusations were false, another student—post-graduation and post-truth—defended the attacks by saying that, since the professor was a white man (openly gay and untenured, incidentally), it did not matter whether or not the accusations were true. Had the professor been less strong and determined, perhaps he would have stopped dedicating his teaching and research to racial matters, and, thanks to the neoliberalism of the left, the antiracist struggle would have lost an ally in an institution with great visibility. 

The opportunistic, individualistic use of extremely serious social issues damages the political struggle not only by feeding well-known, prejudiced conservative voices, but also by silencing allied voices and privatizing fundamental collective causes. Often the accusations are so egocentric that they presuppose that, if one individual is not benefitted in the manner s/he demands, this is proof of discrimination against all his or her category. Cases exist in which applicants who were denied admission in graduate programs that have affirmative action policies (as all graduate programs should have), has claimed that their non-admission is a symptom of prejudice—despite the fact that, obviously, another applicant of the same category got the slot (here is the problem of “friendly fire”: programs that do not practice affirmative action do not run the risk of this type of accusation and their racism goes unscathed). This is once again the self-centered “I” demanding consumer rights, hijacking and using as a disguise the collective “we” that demands just and correct social rights.  

This privatization is yet another expression of the power of cultural neoliberalism in Brazilian public education. As opposed to what some people believe, such privatization does not defend education: it negates the very idea of education. It is not by chance that many students (but not only them) believe that the uncontestable right to education equals a supposed universal right to a degree, the most valuable commodity coveted by university consumerism. I had the opportunity to read several student letters, addressed to professors and to institutions, which defended not only the students’ right to study, but, above all, their right to receive an academic diploma, independently of merit. Claims of this type, disguised as part of struggle for a democratic and equalitarian education, negate the supposition that some persons have certain specific knowledge that they can teach to other, generally younger, people, who do not yet have this knowledge—and in order to acquire this knowledge it is necessary to study. Such claims prevent the creation of enlightened citizens and corrupt the right to education into a right to good grades, approvals in exams, and degrees.

But the strength of cultural neoliberalism in education goes even further. As Professor Wilson Gomes, of the Federal University of Bahia, has observed, only the competitive logic of the market explains the proliferation of cruel, shallow, and unjust militant attacks upon politically engaged intellectuals. In his words, “For the attackers, these are chances to better their position in the epistemic market: whoever cancels and humiliates the most, accumulates the most capital” (Folha de São Paulo, 08/11/2020).

Gomes’ article does not refer only to aggressions against professors, but it is not by chance that it was written by a university professor in response to attacks suffered by a colleague. Among the various supposed errors of which this other professor was accused, was that of, despite being white (and Jewish, one should note), having dedicated decades of research and activism to the struggle against racism. Finally, as Gomes argues well, the logic of the market rarely rewards and stimulates attacks on retrograde and conservative people. Racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, anti-Semites and the like continue unscathed in their reputations and fortified in their positions of power, voice, and visibility. Punishing and silencing progressive intellectuals, the neoliberalism of the left gives more space, more vigor, and more leadership to neoliberalism stricto sensu which attacks public education and its professors in an equally atrocious form.

Unfortunately, we professors have also reacted to that problem in a typically neoliberal manner. On the one hand, we try to attribute each case of abuse, disrespect, privatization, libel, or slander to the particularities of certain situations and of certain individuals. On the other hand, fearing, with good reasons, to be punished in the academic market, we continue with the undeclared pact of silence about those questions. And we often give in and grant the privileges demanded by neoliberal subjects, either because we are afraid of eventual repercussions, or because of political self-deceptions. Thus, we end up contributing towards the privatization of education, in the broad, cultural sense, and, of course, towards the deterioration of teaching. 

As long as we do not understand that we are faced with a collective phenomenon—individualism is a collective phenomenon—and as long as we do not act politically–that is, by debating a political problem publicly–public education will continue to be under attack not only in a spectacular way, but also in everyday forms; not only by rightwing governments and ideologues, but also on the campuses, the streets and in the misnamed “social media.” 

Thus, especially in Brazilian public institutions, professors suffer today from two virulent neoliberal offenses. The right wing attacks us in an openly neoliberal mode, combatting in name of the marketplace all that our public education has won in the last few decades: social inclusion; the expansion of higher education; affirmative actions; greater research funding; sophisticated reflections about society. The left wing, using progressive camouflage to disguise its neoliberalism, transforms students into consumers; education, into the distribution of diplomas; academic rigor, into a form of oppression; civil servants, into private servants.

One side openly defends neoliberalism; the other sees itself as being revolutionary. But both act in a mercantile form and share the attack upon public education and critical thinking. By punishing the professors for teaching, thinking, and writing, both sides find in each other the best allies in their authoritarian, neoliberal crusades against freedom of thought and expression. Just as, in 1815, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Europeans joined their retrograde forces into one Holy Alliance against republican ideals, nowadays fanatics to the right and to the left unite religiously into an alliance–this time an undeclared one–to combat public education and university faculty.

Almost all of us who teach at public universities agree about the grave, evident dangers of authoritarian rightwing neoliberalism, and we do whatever we can to combat it. But to continue and strengthen that struggle, we must also break our vow of silence and acknowledge the equally authoritarian, equally violent, and equally neoliberal dangers that come from the other side—including from our own students.

It is as a step towards this acknowledgement and an ample, democratic debate that I write this article. I am only sorry that I have to sign it with a pseudonym. The reason for this is evident. In these times of neoliberal authoritarian, moralist, and narcissistic crusades, the kind of criticism I am doing here needs to use privacy as a shield and refuge. 

Benamê Kamu Almudras is the pseudonym of a Brazilian university professor. Translated by Linda Jerome (LinJerome@cs.com). 

Originally published as “Parece revolução, mas é só neoliberalismo,” Revista Piauí 172 (01/2021). Read the original article here: https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/materia/parece-revolucao-mas-e-so-neoliberalismo/

 

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