Thursday, May 2, 2024

The University at War and the Iceberg Strategy

While looking for old sources discussing the "manpower channeling" policies of the U.S. Selective Service (draft) during the Vietnam war, I uncovered a treasure trove of 1960s essays on the military-industrial-academic complex. The first one that caught my eye was "The University and the Political Economy" by James O'Connor. O'Connor later wrote The Fiscal Crisis of the State and founded the journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism. "The University and the Political Economy" appeared in the 1969 first issue of Leviathan, which was a successor to Viet-Report, enlisting many of the latter journal's key personnel.

I had some difficulty finding a digitized copy online of the Leviathan issue but then it turned up on the old standby, JSTOR, which has a nice collection of alternative press literature. Also on JSTOR was the prospectus for Leviathan, chronicling its metamorphosis from Viet-Report to Leviathan. 

The last footnote in O'Connor's article cites The Iceberg Strategy: Universities and the Military Industrial Complex by none other than Martin Nicolaus, whose "Unknown Marx" I have cited several times over the last five months, most recently in "The Unknown Unknown Marx" as well as the cumbersomely titled, "Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic." which I cited in "Seeing the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns." O'Connor noted that Nicolaus's "Iceberg Strategy" shared his general point of view that "colleges and universities constitute four great departments of the U.S. ruling class," encompassing production, merchandising, state bureaucratic social control, and imperialist rule.

Martin Nicolaus was an associate editor of Viet-Report and on the editorial staff of Leviathan. His "Iceberg Strategy" was from a talk he gave in November 1967 at a conference on the university and the military at the University of Chicago.

Nicolaus described overt military research at universities as only the tip of an iceberg: 

In our discussions about the military and the universities, what are we aiming at and what are we trying to do? It seems to me that it's very clear that the military--the baby burners and the people who study how to burn babies -- are only the top of the educational iceberg. … If we don't see that the whole thing is oriented at the policy level toward specialization and destruction of individuals and induction of individuals into the industrial system, then it seems to me that our strategy is not going to get off the ground. …

The strategy we have now, of getting people to see the little peak of military research at the top of the iceberg and blasting that doesn't seem to me to be enough.

Nicolaus did not lay out a strategy for tackling the whole iceberg but clearly his essays on the unknown Marx and the new middle class were aimed at grappling with what was needed to know to develop such strategy.

The transition from Viet-Report to Leviathan arose as editors increasingly viewed the need for "a more sophisticated understanding of American imperialism as a product of specific economic and social arrangements" and "a more coherent theory of revolutionary social change." The first efforts in this direction were special issues in 1968 on "The University at War," edited by Mike Klare, and on "Colonialism and Liberation in America," edited by Beverley Leman. The editors of Viet-Report, and subsequently of Leviathan, were clearly following the iceberg strategy advocated by Martin Nicolaus.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on André Gorz's "Destroy the University," it takes an awful lot of disposable time to acquire a university degree and even more disposable time to finish graduate school. Marx anticipated such a situation when he observed in the Grundrisse that:

"...the creation of surplus labour on the one side corresponds to the creation of minus-labour, relative idleness (or not-productive labour at best), on the other. ... In relation to the whole of society, the creation of disposable time is then also creation of time for the production of science, art etc."

It was a idea that Marx thought "does not belong here" and he never subsequently developed systematically. But he did return to it briefly in Theories of Surplus Value where he speculated about an advance of productivity such that "whereas earlier two-thirds of the population were directly engaged in material production, now it is only one-third." If the output and work time were distributed equally, he mused, everyone would have more free time and time for "unproductive labour" that they chose. But that could never happen under capitalism. 

As Nicolaus explained, "[t]he contradiction resides in the fact that the distribution of disposable time cannot be equal so long as the capitalist system operates by appropriating surplus labor." Why? Because commodities, working time, and leisure are all created according to the imperative of capital accumulating surplus labour. If that imperative was abolished THERE WOULD BE NO CAPITAL. So capital has to continue to find ways of creating disposable time, transforming it into surplus labour, appropriating it, and then -- somehow against all limits, perils, barriers, fetters, and contradictions -- circulating the surplus in a way that again expands the production of surplus value.

So what might happen if only one-third of the population was directly engaged in material production?

—with the exception of the horde of flunkeys, the soldiers, sailors, police, lower officials and so on, mistresses, grooms, clowns and jugglers—these unproductive labourers will on the whole have a higher level of culture than the unproductive workers had previously, and in particular that ill-paid artists, musicians, lawyers, physicians, scholars, schoolmasters, inventors, etc., will also have increased in number.

This is not to say that these "unproductive workers" produce no use values. They may even produce larger quantities of use values than the so-called productive workers. It is only to say that they produce no surplus value for accumulation by capital. For a conclusion to that thought, we may return to Marx's "does not belong here" footnote:

Malthus therefore quite consistent when, along with surplus labour and surplus capital, he raises the demand for surplus idlers, consuming without producing, or the necessity of waste, luxury, lavish spending etc.

Marx's disdain is not for idleness or consumption per se but for consuming without working -- for the fact that some have to work more hours than necessary to ensure that others can spend lavishly on luxury and waste without working at all. A new wrinkle appears for university students when universities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. With the exception of the wealthy and a fortunate few, graduates will have to work more in their post-university careers to pay off student loans and to make up for the lost earnings of their student years. 

One can always rationalize longer hours with the excuse that the work is more intrinsically satisfying. This is plausible and possibly true in many cases. Is it true enough to offset the experience of graduates who didn't get the kind of job they expected and the income inequality between professionals and "unqualified" and precarious workers? This is a spurious question. The objective Marx gestured at was not higher incomes or more enjoyment. It was emancipation. Social and political emancipation. As Martin Hägglund argued in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, freedom is not an abstract absence of constraints on our actions but the presence of the possibility to do what needs to be done to fulfill our commitments to those we care about and to values we cherish. "...secular faith is the condition of freedom. ... We are free because we are able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time." Here is where I insert a plug for my Leisure to Attend to Our Spiritual Business in which I discuss Hägglund's book and disposable time at length.

Gorz's, O'Connor's, and Nicolaus's examinations of the university, as well as our own experiences, show that students are not free to ask themselves what they ought to do with their time. Those choices are made for them by admissions, course schedules, course outlines, assignments, majors, grades, degree requirements. This regimen is how their disposable time has been disposed of for them, not to serve God but to serve the economy, the state, and the administration. 


run75441 said...


A nice read. Thank you


Sandwichman said...

You are welcome. Thanks for reading.

run75441 said...


I was reading this again. This:

It was a idea that Marx thought "does not belong here" and he never subsequently developed systematically. But he did return to it briefly in Theories of Surplus Value where he speculated about an advance of productivity such that "whereas earlier two-thirds of the population were directly engaged in material production, now it is only one-third." If the output and work time were distributed equally, he mused, everyone would have more free time and time for "unproductive labour" that they chose. But that could never happen under capitalism.

is a mouth full. There is not reason the improvement in productivity can not be passed on to Labor in the form of benefits, less labor time, or menial time such as time off or an early retirement. Still there would be enough for greater improvements to throughput and the resulting funds.

Instead, the results go to a few

Sandwichman said...

I may have slightly overstated Marx's argument in my paraphrase. What he said was:

"Equally distributed, all [that is, the whole population] would have more time for unproductive labour and leisure. But in capitalist production everything seems and in fact is contradictory."

There have indeed been gains in free time passed on to workers, usually through legislation or collective bargaining. I can think of about a half a dozen exceptions. Still the amount of potential disposable time that has been turned into disposable time for the workers is miniscule compared to the potential.

Aside from the question of return on investment, I think the issue of free time poses a threat to the social domination of the employers. What happens to unquestioning obedience when work ceases to be the center of the workers' lives?