Explaining the paradox: why is the “information society” destroying universities and precarizing knowledge workers?

Bizarrely, the number of good white collar jobs seems to be shrinking as the knowledge economy grows.

Brian Holmes reports:

(excerpted with new subtitles)

“Check out “The Structure and Silence of the Cognitariat,” an article by a UC Santa Barbara professor named Christopher Newfield. It’s a great piece, clear, concise and packed full of pertinent things you probably don’t know (find it in the edu-factory journal).

Against the backdrop of the ongoing budget crisis of the University of California, he asks why knowledge societies like the US, Germany or France would chronically underfund their universities? Aren’t they the crucial institutions of cognitive capitalism, and maybe even of financially driven globalization? The seeming paradox is that while the old industrial corporations needed large numbers of college graduates to perform their management functions – a need most willingly fulfilled by the publics universities of the 50s and 60s – the New Economy flagships like Microsoft, with their pure brainpower products, have managed to severely restrict the numbers of salaried intellectual workers they employ, mainly by the use of temp contracts and outsourcing schemes. Similarly but more shockingly wheen you first find out about it, the universities themselves employ an average of 70% short-term contractuals and grad students to teach their undergraduate classes. If you want to see what direction the whole operation is headed, definitely watch the PBS Frontline reportage on “College, Inc.” which was still an eye-opener for me despite lots of reading on these subjects. There you see vocational business schools raking in big money for often fraudulent degrees. What you don’t hear a lot about anymore are real careers. Bizarrely, the number of good white collar jobs seems to be shrinking as the knowledge economy grows.

* Three different types of knowledge workers

Newfield finds the solution to the paradox in the practices of knowledge management that began to be employed in the 1990s, at the time when massive numbers of kids who had grown up with the intellectual technologies of computers and the Internet just started coming on the job market. He quotes a suit named Thomas A. Stewart who makes a distinction between three different categories of knowledge. The first and lowest forms of knowledge are “commodity skills” like typing quick and talking nicely on the phone – skills which are easily obtained, add no value to the firm, require no particular concern for the employee and should be outsourced from the get-go. Next are “leveraged skills” requiring a lot of advanced education (my old standby of translation would be one, but computer programming is the classic example). These kinds of skills (“leveraged,” I suppose, by all the borrowing the owner did to acquire them) do add some value to the firm, but they can still can be codified, routinized, maybe even partially robotized, and rapidly gotten out of the way just like the others. What that leaves are “proprietary skills,” i.e. “the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business.” These are the only kind that really matter, because they allow the firm to develop and own intellectual property, build a brand and cash in on some rare, secretly produced and closely guarded service. Now the hidden structure of the cognitariat leaps into view. The financial discipline of the firm requires it to make the distinction between the three types of knowledge, and to treat its employees accordingly. In the best of cases it can even practice “open innovation” which entails giving up entirely on in-house researchers or creatives and simply scanning the available knowledge resources, typically found in public universities, whose production can be creamed off at will for the price of a few small grants, maybe an endowed chair or a piece of fancy equipment. Under this scenario, the predatory strategy of the corporation is complete. Only the top researchers, managers and marketers will take home a real salary.

The new hierarchy of knowledge workers in the firm is bound up, in its turn, with much broader transformations. Christopher Newfield is also the author of an essential book entitled Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008). Briefly put, his thesis is that with the expanded educational entitlements of the post-WWII period, the US began developing an enlarged, fully multicultural middle class that was potentially hegemonic and that began to transform society in its own diverse and complex image. In this new formation (which is described in a lot of cultural studies work) working class traditions and more recent immigrant cultures begin to fuse into a democratic hybrid, sustained by the models of success and the possibilities of self-invention that arose in the public universities. A new kind of language and even a new common sense emerge, dubbed “PC” by its critics and symbolized, in literary terms, by a complex artifact like I, Rigoberta Menchu, the oral history of a Guatemalan peasant activist as told to a metropolitan researcher with a microphone and a publishing contract. The conservative Right bitterly hated this kind of leftist talk-literature. But there was a little more to the opposition than a question of taste. What we called the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, says Newfield, was in fact the spearhead of a concerted attack by older elites against this new, radically democratic class formation – an attack that culminated with the dominance of neoliberal and then neoconservative ideology, the skyrocketing inequality of our own time and now the massive expropriation of middle- and working-class savings in the infamous “financial crisis.” The book repeats this fascinating thesis maybe once too often, but it is a goldmine of precise economic and sociological information for anyone interested in contemporary managerial techniques and the politics of education in the USA.

* The three-tiered university system

Working from this perspective, Newfield now suggests that we have a three-tiered university system. First come the top twenty private schools like Harvard and Yale, or the Ivy League Plus, that educates around 1% of the society. Next, “a group of about 150 colleges and universities that are ‘selective’ and have good reputations outside their local area.” And finally, some 3,500 institutions of sort-of higher learning for the hoi polloi, offering degrees with no particular value on the job market. At this point the scholarly author gets uncharacteristically angry, plays another very jarring French chord and claims that our society now resembles nothing so much as the Ancien Régime with its “Three Estates,” or stratified social standings. The First Estate, corresponding to the old aristocrats, is the top 0.1% of Americans who are essentially the bankers and financiers whose activities are described so well by Albo, Gindin and Panitch – the ruling class if you don’t mind me sayin’. The Second Estate, corresponding to the clergy of olden times, are the top 1% who earn over $350,000 a year. These are the upper votaries of capital and the state, who speak “technical languages of law, management and finance that are largely indecipherable even to highly educated non-specialists, and maintain an invisible empire of ownership structures and lucrative transactions whose existence makes itself known only through occasional disasters like the 2008 financial meltdown.” Mon Dieu! The Third Estate – le Peuple – are the rest of us, crammed into the vast category of the powerless and the silent despite the huge differences between the top 20% who are still “middle class” and all the rest who do not just worry over the “fear of falling,” but rather, get the experience of being pushed off the cliff and feel the indignity of not being able to pay their rent or their mortgage in the richest country in the world.

What I’m trying to get at is that the budgetary crisis and the conditions of precarious living that afflict knowledge workers are tightly entangled with and also sharply cut off from the directive actions of the financial elites who just robbed the country and strengthened their own positions in the process. What’s happening in the US is a sweeping and carefully concerted operation, not to resolve any of the major social and ecological problems that are staring us in the face, but to assure a strict separation of the classes. The divide is not into the traditional Three Estates that make for great satire, but instead into at least five groups: the aristocratic super-rich; the high priesthood of technocrats and traders; the merchant class who sell their soul to placate their fear of falling; everyone else on the roller coaster down to the bottom; and finally, the new immigrants who believe they can climb this weird human ladder (at least until they get to the state of Arizona).

So here’s another paradox: quite a large number of us in the third and fourth and fifth estates are well educated, we can speak all the languages we need. Tell me, what explains the silence of the lambs?

Newfield doesn’t answer his own implicit question, except to say that in the advanced economies “the knowledge worker masses are still middle class on a world scale,” or in other words, they still have a long way to fall. Maybe, but an earthquake just happened and the cliff came a lot closer. What he criticizes in the theories of the Multitudes group is an excess of rosy optimism: the belief that an inherent contradiction of the knowledge economy would necessarily produce a revolt against its particularly well-constructed structure of injustice. Point well taken. With a fairly good grasp of the American scene I always felt exactly the same, and eventually I found myself on the political fault line that eventually split up the journal in two, right in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. Yet like my autonomist friends and like Newfield, I still think some kind of mobilization of educated workers is necessary, desirable and maybe the most passionately inspiring thing you can do today, if starting from where you are means figuring out what to make of your scientific, technical, or cultural skills and your university education. Amid the bewildering complexity of the predatory knowledge economy, what’s missing is an active egalitarian and ecological critique of the owning and managing classes, a critique that does not remain locked away in the university but reaches out to the rest of society. That’s what we can build in the wake of the budgetary crisis, now that the new lines of inclusion and exclusion have been drawn and the writing on the wall is legible to practically everyone. The least you can say is that it’s getting urgent – after the lies of the Bush era, Katrina, the bailouts and the foreclosures, the Copenhagen debacle, the BP disaster that’s directly attributable to the pressures of neoliberal financial management, etc etc etc. The question is how to do it, when the traditional centers of education are so deeply instrumentalized?

According to Newfield we need a two-track strategy, the first of which should reveal “the hidden subsidies through which the Third Estate and its institutions support the other two – in many case, the ways by which public universities support private industry.” He warns that this first strategy may set off an internal civil war among the top faculty in research universities, which I guess is supposed to indicate how difficult this track will be to follow. The other strategy is “to re-imagine and articulate the broad social and cultural missions that will flow from the other nine-tenths of knowledge workers… whose ideas about diversity, equality, justice, technology for use, sustainable development and so many others are essential to the indirect modes through which knowledge and education create social value beyond that which economics can measure.” That sounds easier, to the extent that it can be done not only or maybe not even primarily inside the universities, but in self-organized seminars, affinity groups, clubs, artists’ collectives, cultural scenes, hacker labs and so forth, where the diverse languages of society mingle and knowledge circulates, hybridizes, throws off its old skins and moults into new colors. But this time, let’s try to find a path between the dark black cynical pessimism of typical American critics and that rosy Multitudes stuff I mentioned just before. Something more than a snap of the fingers is needed to delegitimate an extended technocracy that holds all the cards of power in its many active hands. If you look around, you’ll see that the sites of self-organized education and action in American society are very few, very fragmented, and far too often lacking in the subtle kind of creative focus that can at once rise to the level of the problems that face us, and not get co-opted into the very jargons and structures they seek to challenge. As the public universities are downsized (or really, expropriated) under the disciplinary pressure of the current budget crisis, an entire social process is waiting to be invented.”

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