Old axes of inequality and new concerns

Education under neoliberalism – a contradictory mix of competition and austerity promoting vaulted excellence over grounded learning. Cornelia Klinger highlights awards ceremonies appropriating the names of famous historic achievers as prime example of capitalist commodification masking old and new sociopolitical inequality and injustice.

Based on Cornelia Klinger’s address at the IWM’s Inaugural Emma Goldman Award Ceremony on 13 February 2020.

Photo via Pikist

Over the four decades of my professional life in academia, I have developed a deep-seated aversion to grants, scholarships, fellowships, awards and the like. I perceive them as a symptom of a distortion and degradation that has befallen the cultural and educational system of Western societies over the decades of neoliberalism’s rise and fall.

Let me take a step back. Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ground-breaking idea of Bildung involved culture and nature, implying the vision of the unfolding of plant branches and leaves, a living human being’s limbs. In brief, from the outset of this specifically modern concept, culture and education were taken to be something organic – not a fad of nineteenth-century German Romanticism, but, as T.S. Eliot summarized, ‘something that must grow’.1 Growing is an interactive process. Yes, you can, you should do something about it. You prepare the soil, provide warmth and water, pray for sunshine and rain. But, then, you have to leave it alone and wait for the seed to take root, for the flower to flourish or not; there is an inevitable risk of failure in our human condition of nature and culture.

Recently, the motion and motives of education are being turned around from ‘planting’ to ‘digging’ for heavy-metal talent: mindcrafting and drilling for human capital as a resource instead of spending the public good(s), spreading warmth and pouring water on the next generation’s education even-handedly; extraction instead of insertion, driven by the greed for immediate returns instead of provisions. In short, taking instead of giving.

Actually, it is not only the award business that I scorn but also, more generally, the obsession with excellence, preferably in clusters – a contradiction in itself. It goes together with measuring the immeasurable, calculating the priceless, gauging the outstanding. This strategy is driven by a thrifty educational system bound down to the rigid austerity principle of the ministry of finance. Public institutions as well as private ‘donors’ are unleashing a relentless rat race of perpetual competition among promising candidates; I have watched generations of young scholars writing project proposals, vaunting future achievements, self-advertising, self-applauding in a system that turns humans into adorned oxen belly dancing on vanity fairs in vain.

Although the awards business traffics ‘futures’, the awards themselves are named after heroes and geniuses, idols and superstars of the past. In this respect, the cultural industry sets the trend, acclaiming heroes on their birth and death anniversaries. Jahres-Regenten, princes of the year, are sold as sweets, especially in music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may have been the first to suffer this fate with Mozartkugeln (Mozart balls) made in Salzburg. Not only does it not matter if it is the anniversary of a birth or a death that we commemorate but it also does not matter whether we are celebrating the winners or the losers of the past. The victims may even make more shining heroes than the victors.

Photo by Yike G. from Wikimedia Commons Yike G. / CC BY-SA

There is special ‘romanticism in defeat’. By way of example, let me recall an instance from my youth: a copy of the then still well-known Che Guevara poster in my girls school. We, a group of girls in the late 1960s, insisted on moving our paper idol annually from one classroom to the next in the course of our sour school career. We meant it as an act of resistance against the institution – our teachers complied, smilingly – but both sides, students and teachers, were ignorant of or ignoring what was going on in Bolivia, Cuba, Argentina, Chile. We were raving over a dream-world revolution while the real-life movement was violently being crushed by real world-powers.

Photo via Kaldari from Wikimedia Commons Kaldari / CC0

Branding Emma Goldman

‘I may be arrested, I may be tried and thrown into jail, but I never will be silent; I never will acquiesce or submit to authority, nor will I make peace with a system which degrades woman to a mere incubator and which fattens her on innocent victims. I now and here declare war upon this system’

Emma Goldman2

At this point the name Emma Goldman comes to mind for the first time. I still recall posters, buttons, t-shirts, coffee mugs and whatever else with scant quotations from her writings: ‘If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution’; ‘the right to self-expression, [is] everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.’

I cannot think of any other phrases to match the late-capitalist-neo-liberal ideology more perfectly than these. This regime does not suppress our dreams but wrings them from our hearts and drains all substance from them by turning them into commodities: sweets, posters, coffee mugs. It expropriates all kinds of visions and images, ideas and ideals, including those of revolutionary and liberation movements. This mystification by dint of aestheticization, through aesthetisizing and facializing a hero, the sell-out of a hero’s face in the capitalist marketplace occurred to Uncle Che Guevara.

And, of course, the overwhelming majority of faces that qualify for hero-culture, adulation and glorification are male faces (with ever more beards coming back recently). But, no, for me, it will not do that Emma Goldman is a woman instead of a man – I do not care whose sex or gender fits the pattern that I deeply despise.

Internal contest

At this point, it seems to me, I heard Emma Goldman knocking on the door of my mind. In the deep silence of my study, I heard her say, ‘Let me make two points’:

(1) Our (my and your) liberal, feminist sisters have criticised me for not supporting the campaign for women’s suffrage. But it seems ‘you’ would accept the reasons that I gave for my position. Don’t you agree with me that it is to no avail for women to tread the same path that men have taken under the conditions of the established socio-political system known to me and the hegemonic economy known to you? Comrade Che on a poster or me on a coffee mug amount to the same ‘go awry’.

(2) And would you go along with me one step further: capitalism cannot be revised, reformed, reworked, modified, corrected, improved or cured but must be done away with entirely?

Suddenly, I feel the 80 years that have gone by since Emma Goldman’s death in 1940 as a burden on my shoulders as the weight of history’s unredeemed hopes grows evermore heavy. Instead of an answer, I take refuge in turning the question around:

Ms Goldman, as far as I know, you were considered to be the most dangerous woman in America: you were a formidable orator who could agitate, enthuse and fire up the masses; your ideas covered a remarkably wide array of issues blending social and political emancipation with personal/individual/bodily liberation; you were intrepid and unwavering in your convictions. Given all that, why did you not succeed? Why has the overthrow that you ardently and bravely fought for – along with so many others – not taken place.

Ms Goldman, it is not about fighting a battle, fiercely. It is about winning the war, finally! We have seen countless riots, revolts, rebellions, insurrections, mutinies and protests rise up and recede, crashing down until the next wave started to build up again. It has been and still is obvious from the early days of industrialisation and urbanization onward that the expanding capitalist-cum-nationstate system / regime did not / could not / will not bring about equal freedom and free equality to mankind globally.

External deeds

Now, there is an almost audible silence in my room, resonating in my ears. I understand that I need to speak for myself and, if not for my generation, at least for my peers and companions. We, the post-1968 generation (in the West) witnessed two events:

(1) The fiasco of revolutionary activities by the international youth or student or protest movement. The most radical and audacious spearheads slid into terror, using violent acts against individual representatives of the established system. Such acts of comprehensible despair could and should have learnt the lesson of anarchism: assassinating a banker or an industrialist (Henry Clay Frick, Hans-Martin Schleyer or any other name) as an act of propaganda is to no avail, as it does not overthrow the hateful system; rather, it gives an excuse to executive powers to muffle opposition with legal means and all the more extreme violence, sending activists to prison or to hell or both.

(2) Instead of pointless attempts to ignite revolution, the surviving members of this generation took up the idea of ‘the long march through the institutions’ (Mao Zedong/ Rudi Dutschke). In the long run, this strategy did have an impact, not in the shape of a workers’ movement, but new movements of different colours appeared: social (peace, ecology), cultural (sexual liberation) and, last but not least, a new wave of the women’s movement, which, sitting on the fence between the social, political and cultural sides of movements, generated a new branch of theory – feminism.

Taking its departure from the shortcomings of male industrial worker movement theories (Marxism, Trotskyism and other narrow-minded, boring and flawed ‘isms’), feminist theory has flourished over the years into the mid-1990s. We started studying and not only turning the pages of old books (as Kafka’s New Advocate did) but soon enough and at astonishing speed we also began to fill libraries with our findings and new explorations. Women who read become dangerous very quickly! And if I may take pride in one accomplishment in particular: we discerned, differentiated but then also integrated diverse axes of socio-political inequality and injustice, tackling the nexus of race–class–gender on a global scale. That is to say, we broadened the scope of the theoretical understanding of the structures of power, of the regimes of domination and the patterns of violence.

But, before I could go into any more detail, I heard the voice of Emma Goldman in my ear, ‘Professor Klinger, with all due respect, did you – your generation of feminists, theorists – win the war?’ The short answer is clear: ‘No, ma’am!’ And before she may utter the question, ‘Why not?’, I will try to put it bluntly. We may have brought about change (small changes) in society. We gained access to careers and curricula. And at the same time, society altered us, bribed us with the credit they gave us.

Even if this exchange was once inevitable and fruitful, there is now a new concern: we are coping with hegemonic neoliberal late capitalism, a regime that not only exploits labour power during working hours from nine to five but is a techno-turbo-driven integrated system of augmented reality and artificial intelligence that also buys and sells our physical, psychical and intellectual life energy, extracts and excavates all kinds of resources, and turns them into commodities. And it barters not only with what we produce, the goods we have, but also what we ‘are’: it is a land grab, not only in the exterior world but also, much more importantly, in the interior spheres of our thoughts and ideas, visions and dreams. And while we are still trying to grapple with the problems that I indicated at the beginning of this speech, a new turn is taking place: after finance capitalism’s glitch in or around 2008, we have witnessed the return of state authoritarianism, blending populism, nationalism and other spectres of the past.

All things considered, we have made some but not irrevocable progress in understanding global societal inequality while losing much actual ground through the rampant growth of material inequalities that threaten power asymmetries, including overwhelming armouries all over the planet. And, on our long and patient march through libraries and academic career paths, we have lost the momentum of activism, the thrust of radicalism, the persuasive energy that you, dear Emma Goldman, possessed!

T.S. Eliot, Towards the Definition of Culture, London, Faber & Faber, 1948, p. 119.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940), a political activist and major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism, was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organization.

Published 29 June 2020
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by The Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) © Cornelia Klinger / The Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) / Eurozine



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