Monday, April 29, 2024


Fifty-four years ago Les Temps Modernes published an essay by André Gorz titled, "Destroy the University." I am posting it here adding occasional underlining for emphasis and commentary at the end. As I will explain in my comments, this piece is of interest to me because of its relevance to current student demonstrations but also because of Gorz's pioneering thought on ecological politics and on the future of work.

Destroy the University, by André Gorz

1. The university cannot function, and we must thus prevent it from functioning so that this impossibility is made manifest. No reform of any kind can render this institution viable. We must thus combat reforms, in their effects and in their conception, not because they are dangerous, but because they are illusory. The crisis of the institution of the university goes beyond (as we will show) the realm of the university and involves the social and technical division of labor as a whole. And so, this crisis must come to a head. 

The occasions and the ways of making it come to a head are subject to discussion. They are more or less good. But the discussion and the critique can only be carried out in a worthwhile fashion by those who recognize that the rejection of reformism is necessary, and its stakes global.

2. The open crisis in the university in France goes back to the beginning of the 1960’s, to the Fouchet Plan. When the majority of an age group strives to present itself for the baccalaureate and the majority of those with diplomas strive to enter the university, the mechanisms of social selection put in place by the bourgeoisie take a beating, its ideology and its institutions thrown into crisis.

The ideology of the academy is that of the equality of chances for social promotion though studies. This equality – and Bourdieu and Passeron have demonstrated this – has always been fictitious. Nevertheless, the mechanisms and criteria of academic selection in the past were sufficiently “objective” for their class and arbitrarys character to be masked; one was eliminated or chosen in function of a group of “aptitudes” and “competences” that were defined once and for all. Traditionally the left fought, not against class criteria of selection – which would have forced it to fight against selection itself and against the academic system as a whole – but for the right of everyone to enter the selection machine.

The contradictory character of this demand remained masked as long as the right was, in theory, recognized for all while, the practical possibility to use it was denied to the vast majority. From the moment when, with the assistance of the diffusion of knowledge, the majority strives to obtain the practical possibility to use a theoretical right, the contradiction is made clear; if the majority accedes to higher education the latter lose their selective character. The right to study and the right to social promotion can no longer go together; if, at best, everyone can in fact study, everyone cannot be promoted to privileged posts. The mechanisms of academic selection having been beaten down, society will either seek to put complementary mechanisms in place, or to restrict the right to study through administrative limitations.

3. These administrative limitations – numerous clausus, exams for university entry – are such delicate matters politically that the successive governments of the Fifth Republic have retreated before their application. In fact, the limitation ex ante of the number of students is the frank and brutal negation of a juridical principle and a social fiction, i.e., that the chance of social promotion through studies is equal for all and that the possibility to study is only limited by the aptitude for doing this.

Destroying this juridical fiction means exposing the illusory character of bourgeois freedoms, and above all means confronting, in the name of a technocratic rationality – study is expensive and it isn’t profitable when graduates can’t be “promoted” – the middle classes or those so-called, whose support the capitalist regime can only preserve by dangling before them the possibility of “social elevation” limited by merit alone. Numerus clausus, pre-selection, and entry exams for universities, by destroying the illusions of the meritocratic ideology, will raise up against the capitalist state the middle classes and will reveal their condition to them as a social fate; they are composed, not of potential bourgeois, which the chance of birth and fortune prevented from become real bourgeois, but of a riffraff of the needy and of subaltern workers fated to serve, and not equal, the bourgeoisie.

Politically – and this is the meaning of the Faure reform – the bourgeoisie must thus maintain the fiction of the chance of social promotion offered to all via the free access to studies. However, it is reality that takes on the task of putting the lie to this fiction; the access to studies is free, but the studies lead nowhere. The number of graduates devalorizes the diplomas. There are many called and few chosen: there are few posts. The numerical reduction that academic selection wasn’t able to carry out will be carried out by a selection at the point of hire.

While waiting for the “force of circumstances” to be understood, i.e., that parents point their children towards “good” professional school, which are yet to be created, giving them access to “good’ jobs rather than towards universities which they’ll leave jobless, the state keeps the universities open, but little by little removes the value (e.g. Vincennes) of the diplomas they grant. In short, they give the university enough rope so that in the end – they hope – it will hang itself. In the meanwhile, they send cops into the universities in order that, in setting them ablaze, their discredit might be established.

4. These contradictions in the bourgeois university are related to fundamental contradictions:

  • The market value that has until now been recognized in diplomas rested on their rarity and on the rarity of aptitude for study. If the latter becomes general the bonus attached to the diploma must logically disappear and, with it, the hierarchical division of tasks.
  • If the aptitude for study – consecrated or not by a diploma – tends to become generalized, it ceases to be able to serve as a criterion for selection: social stratification can no longer claim to be based on competency and merit. The right to studies and the right to promotion can no longer march hand in had.
  • If studies no longer assure promotion, it will result in either one thing or the other; either
  • they are considered a waste of time and a useless social charge, since they are profitable neither for those who do them nor for capitalist society; or
  • they are considered as a non-functional general education which society can, after all, afford the luxury of. But in this case the affirmation of the inalienable right to studies has as its corollary that these studies, which open onto no career, must present to those who enter them – and who later will become employees, workers, or whatever – an intrinsic interest.

It is at this point that the contradiction of the university becomes clear. Against the selection system, the student movement had affirmed the inalienable right to studies. The logic of this demand (which remained petite bourgeoise insofar as it was a defense of the possibility of promotion for all) had led it to anti-hierarchical and egalitarian positions: in order for everyone to have the right to study it was necessary that studies, ceasing to be a class privilege, should also cease to confer the right to an privilege whatsoever. It had to be accepted that those with higher degrees should work with their hands, which led to putting in question and refusing the social division of labor, the technical division of labor which bears its imprint, and every form of the hierarchization of tasks.

But it was impossible to stop there, for the moment we accept that studies don’t lead to a career, we must redefine the nature of studies, their content and their meaning; since they don’t confer a “useful culture” they must confer a “rebellious culture;” since they don’t correspond to a demand of society’s, they must respond to the demand of those who make it and who intend to destroy that society, abolish that division of labor.

But the university is by nature incapable of responding to this demand; it isn’t functional either in relation to the demands of capitalist economy or in relation to the demands of those who want to overthrow capitalism; it dispenses neither a “useful culture” nor a “rebellious culture” (which, by definition, is not dispensed); it dispenses a university culture, i.e., a knowledge separated from any productive or militant practice. In short, it is a place where one can pass one’s time in neither a useful nor an interesting fashion. No kind of reform can change this situation. It can thus not be a question of reforming the university, but rather of destroying it in order to destroy all at once the culture separated from the people it incarnates (that of the mandarins) and the social stratification of which it after all remains the instrument

5. Such are the facts that the university guerrilla brings to light: it shortens the agony of a moribund institution and reveals the hypocrisy of the corporations that defend it. Can it be said that the leftist students will not be able to either put something else in its place or change society so that that other thing becomes viable? It is obvious: students cannot, on their own, either produce another culture or make the revolution. What they can do, however, is prevent the heightened crisis of bourgeois institutions, of the division of labor and the selection of “elites” from being masked. This is what they are doing (and is what all the partisans of order – of this order or of another, every bit as authoritarian and hierarchical – reproach them for). Alone they cannot go any farther; the effective destruction and even the contesting (and not only ideological) of the division of labor cannot be carried out in the universities; it can only be carried out in the factories and enterprises; it supposes the critical analysis of a productive organization whose apparent technical rationality is at one and the same time the objectification and mask of a political rationality, of a technique of domination. It supposes a practical knowledge of the process of production and the practical enterprise in order to change it; in order to submit it to the “associated producers,” to replace the hierarchical division by the voluntary division of labor.

It is only from the starting point of this effective critique of the division of labor that, in its turn, the critique can become effective of the education which, directly (in technical and professional schools) or indirectly, forms the managers, the enforcers, and the losers of capitalist production. The destruction of the university and class education is thus not only the affair of the taught alone; it is above all the affair of the working class if the capitalist division of labor, of which the school is the matrix, is to be surpassed.

The crisis of the bourgeois university and the working class revolt against the despotism of the factory confer an immediate relevance on the question of this surpassing. And if the conjunction between these two aspects of the same crisis – that of the division of labor – doesn’t arrive at the effective joining of the students and workers and a reciprocal critique of the methods of education and domination, the fault doesn’t lie with the student movement; it lies with the traditional organizations of the working class movement, who are doing everything possible to lock the students in the university ghetto in order to better control the workers’ demands. If the necessary violence of the student struggle thus tends to wear itself out in symbolic insurrections on the university level alone, it is not due to a perverse taste for objectless violence; it is because violence alone is capable of smashing, if only temporarily, the encirclement of the university ghetto and of posing a problem whose existence the reformists of all stripes prefer to ignore. This problem – that of the crisis of bourgeois institutions and ideology and the division of labor – is a political problem par excellence. It isn’t enough that the political parties refuse any political meaning or expression to student violence for it to be simple vandalism; it is a matter of a violence both political and politically necessary, if not sufficient.

The Intersection of Political Ecology, Disposable Time, and Student Activism

André Gorz was an early critic of non-political "degrowth" and a proponent of a strand of political ecology that sought to develop a social ethic of self-limitation as a political project. I see the latter as radically different from the kind of moralistic appeals to reduce consumption because such appeals leave unanswered the question of whether such reduced consumption will be sufficient. What we all stop eating meat, ride bicycles to work, turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater and the world still goes to hell because all that ecological frugality was not enough

Gorz warned against a political approach that purports “to raise political practices and concepts to the level of scientifically proven necessities, thus denying their specifically political character.” He had in mind what he termed the “diamat” version, by which he meant what is often referred to as "classical" Marxism.

Gorz contrasted two possible approaches. The first, which he labeled “expertocracy,” was based on scientific study of the eco-system to determine the scientifically necessary techniques. Such an approach would seek to identify “the conditions and limits within which development of the industrial technosphere can be pursued without compromising the self-regenerating capacities of the ecosphere.”   The approach “does not involve a fundamental break with industrialism and its hegemony of instrumental reason.” Instead, the workings of the resulting regulatory regime would be aimed at making the system “more or less ‘eco-compatible’ independently of any volition on the part of the social actors.” 

The second approach, “Self-limitation as a social project,” is not without its difficulties. Gorz put those difficulties squarely on the table as he introduced the strategies. “In complex industrial societies,” he wrote, “it is impossible to obtain an eco-compatible restructuring of production and consumption simply by giving the workers the right to limit their effort voluntarily.” This is in part because there is no longer an “evident correlation between the volume of production and the hours worked,” and also because, “there exists no commonly accepted norm of sufficiency that could serve as a reference for self-limitation.”  But he insisted that these obstacles were not insurmountable. Political progress would require shifting self-limitation “from the level of individual choice to the level of a social project. The norm of sufficiency, deprived of its traditional mooring, has to be defined politically.” Gorz outlined how the redistribution of working time and a guarantee of sufficient income could help to reinvigorate a norm of sufficiency consistent with ecological protection.

Political ecology thus uses ecologically necessary changes to the mode of production and consumption as a lever for normatively desirable changes in the mode of life and in social relations. Defence of the living environment in the ecological sense, and the reconstitution of a life-world, condition and support one another. Both require life and the living environment to be withdrawn from the domination of economics; both require the growth of spheres of activity to which economic rationality does not apply. 

This all may seem idealistic wishful thinking, but Gorz reminded us that such mutuality between the life-world and the living environment “is as old as civilization.” Gorz went on to give examples of advocates of such mutuality:

From the anonymous Ricardoite whose 1821 pamphlet Marx so enjoyed quoting to Keynes and Leontieff, the leading theoreticians of modern economics have all held disposable time for activities ‘valued as an end in themselves’ (die sich als Selbstzweck gilt, in Marx’s term from the Grundrisse) to be ‘the true measure of wealth’.

Gorz's "anonymous Ricardoite" is now known to be Charles Wentworth Dilke and his 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, and its influence on Marx is something I have explored extensively both on EconoSpeak and in journal articles, The Ambivalence of Disposable Time and Leisure to Attend to Our Spiritual Business.

Gorz's thought on the future of work also centred on disposable time and explored policy initiatives that could enable substantial reductions in working time and the opening up of time for intrinsically rewarding activities. The most comprehensive presention of his thinking and proposals is in his Critique of Economic Reason.

Gorz's focus on disposable time and "activities that are valued as an end in themselves" bears on the question of the crisis of the university in interesting ways. First, it takes an enormous amount of "disposable time" to obtain a university degree and especially a graduate degree. Second, the ubiquitous stress on post-secondary education as providing credentials for obtaining prestige employment mitigates the likelyhood that university studies will be valued as an end in themselves. No doubt some students value some courses as ends in themselves but this is not so for many the students, much of the time. 

Tellingly, the ancient Greek word for leisure was "σχολή"  from which Latin  "Scholae" derives. The Greek notion of leisure was that it would be occupied in discussion, disputation, oratory -- the very things that university students are being arrested for doing without the permission of university administrators. 

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