Thursday, August 07, 2008

CAPITALISM . COMMONS . CONTINGENT LABOR

Several weeks ago Divya Victor pointed me, by way of her blog, in the direction of Marc Bousquet's blog and his ancillary youtube interviews with Cary Nelson and other scholar-activists. Bousquet's How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press 2008) has been an extraordinary eye-opener for me—suggesting, as I'm sure most of us suspected, that the possibility of landing a tenure-track or simply full-time position with adequate healthcare and retirement benefits after completing a graduate-level program is indeed slim. Universities, liberal arts colleges and community colleges have become increasingly dependent on a rootless pool of contingent faculty—many of whom race through the course of a normal day from one college to the next to instruct a couple of classes here, a couple there, and maybe one or two elsewhere in order to cobble together a full time teaching schedule that might allow them to eat, pay rent and, if they have children, scratch up a couple shekels for daycare. Scholars who, as Cary Nelson points out, have been invested with at least enough authority to provide instruction to students at the college level are often forced, while working full time, to apply for public assistance (food stamps) and / or hold additional jobs in the retail and service industry.

Louis Proyect's review at The Unrepentent Marxist of Bousquet's book and Joe Berry's Reclaiming the Ivory Tower (a handbook for adjunct faculty interested in organizing) summarizes both books well for those contingent faculty that may not have the cash to shell out for either title. Discussing one of the more chilling chapters in How the University Works, Proyect writes:
... I never dreamed that things could have reached such a stage before reading Bousquet. In chapter two, he [Bousquet] discusses William Massy's "Virtual U," a "computer simulation of university management in game form" that was designed by a former Standford vice president with a $1 million grant from the Sloan Foundation.

Trevor Chan, who designed "Virtual U," also designed "Capitalism," another game that the Virtual U website described as "the best business simulation game ever created." According to PC Gamer magazine, "Capitalism" is "good enough to make a convert out of Karl Marx himself."
Proyect continues:
The players of this game treat faculty, students and staff (like me) as inputs into the maw of management. If you play the game right you can get maximum results from minimum input. In keeping with the mindset of the game's creator, there are no unions in the simulation.
Given the present situation, it's fairly clear what "maximum results for minimum input" means for faculty and students alike. If we turn to the simulation game's website we find that players managing the Virtual University are beholden not to students or those paying tuition fees but to the Board of Trustees. In ensuring the university is managed properly, the game's homepage tells us that players may be forced to make tough decisions:
As players move around the Virtual U campus, they gather information needed to make decisions such as decreasing faculty teaching time or increasing athletic scholarships.
These particular examples (the need to decide whether to decrease faculty teaching time or increase athletic scholarships) powerfully disclose the market-based logic that drives the game.

The information found on the homepage for Capitalism 3.0, the latest version of the game designed by Trevor Chan, is similarly chilling:

Our current version of capitalism—the corporate, globalized version 2.0—is rapidly squandering our shared inheritances. Now, Peter Barnes offers a solution: protect the commons by giving it property rights and strong institutional managers.

Barnes shows how capitalism—like a computer—is run by an operating system. Our current operating system gives too much power to profit-maximizing corporations that devour our commons and distribute most of their profit to a sliver of the population. And government—which in theory should defend our commons—is all too often a tool of those very corporations.

Barnes proposes a revised operating system—Capitalism 3.0—that protects the commons while preserving the many strengths of capitalism as we know it. His major innovation is the commons trust—a market-based entity with the power to limit use of scarce commons, charge rent, and pay dividends to everyone.

Capitalism 3.0 offers a practical alternative to our current flawed economic system. It points the way to a future in which we can retain capitalism's virtues while mitigating its vices.

While the first version of the game was apparently not as global in scope as the second version, this third version addresses current concerns around non-renewable natural resources and shared common spaces. According to the logic of the game, the solution to preserving non-renewable resources and creating a sustainable environment is of course privatization — that is, those who play the game are encouraged to protect the environment by giving it property rights and putting otherwise shared resources and spaces up for sale. What sort of convoluted logic is this? If we play both games properly, building a new university stadium for braindead meatheads and creating a landless lumpen prolefessorate might allow us to generate the revenue needed to lobby Washington so that water resources, including the rain that falls from the sky, can be privatized here as they were in Bolivia just a few years ago.