What is to be done when nothing is to be done?

Higher education is a prime target of illiberal state capture. The assault on scientific freedom is sometimes couched in the jargon of neoliberalism, at other times it uses the language of nationalism and religion. And increasingly, there are threats of actual violence against academics.

What can you do when you think nothing can be done? This question, raised at a recent conference organized by gender studies scholars at Columbia University, articulated a feeling familiar to most academics nowadays: that of powerlessness amidst the global transformation of higher education. Successful university courses are being closed by well-paid administrators; accredited gender studies programs are removed without explanation; and in one case, the most successful higher educational institution in the country (the CEU in Hungary) has been forced into exile.

If all this were not enough, there is another disturbing development, this time concerning academics’ physical safety itself. Throughout history, scientific work has been accompanied by daily threats: just think of Giordano Bruno or Spinoza. But nowadays we scholars like to think that we work in secure academic environments. Increasingly, this is no longer the case. When you are informed by the university administration that a bulletproof window is going to be installed in your office for your safety (as happened to an American colleague working on far-right movements in the US), you might be prompted to rethink the impact of your work. When (as happened to me) your university hires you a bodyguard after you receive a death threat that the police refuse to investigate, you have to ask: What can one do when teaching and research become a life-threatening occupation? Is there an alternative to securitization in response?


Formerly one might have hoped that academics locked within the ivory towers of science could keep at bay the populist powers of alternative scientific discourse. The weapons they had in this fight were the concept of excellence, high impact factors and indices against neoliberal reconstructing. It is now clear that this strategy is not only unsustainable, but also harmful. It is a self-deception that excuses inaction and gives a green light to two encroaching dangers.

The first is that, in ever more countries, the state is becoming captive to illiberalism. The connection between liberalism and academic work has been questioned. To think that this new mode of governance will not influence scientific life more widely, or that its questioning of the institutions, social relevance and thus state funding of knowledge will stop at borders (or only at your border), is an error. In many countries, the very foundations of science – freedom of expression and truth-seeking – are being criminalized or delegitimized by the state.

The second danger is that, while being apt at many things, our over bureaucratized neoliberal universities, with their impact factor obsession and conveyor belt-style teaching, are no longer capable of raising responsible, critical thinkers. In complying with that system, one contributes to its success. While more and more personal investment is needed, even at the price of burnout, the results are less and less meaningful.

The situation that we see today is not a temporary backlash, but a fundamentally new phenomenon launched for the sake of establishing a new order. It is a fight for socialization in the Gramscian sense, a nationalist-neoconservative response to the crisis of the global neoliberalism. This is a war waged in the field of science. Whether we want it to or not, we are all participants. The attack sometimes uses the established neoliberal jargon for measuring academic excellence, but it sometimes reaches back to terminology of the 19th century, promoting ‘the national interest’ and Christianity as the criterion of good science.

In countries where the state has been captured by illiberal forces, the whole university system is under attack. A fundamentally new relationship between the state and tax-paying citizens has emerged. In countries that went through neoliberalisation, states have been created that are strong for the strong and weak for the weak. Here, the state decides who are the worthy citizens, whom it serves. Higher education has been transformed in the process: the percentage of public institutions has decreased and access to higher education has again become a privilege, not a fundamental right.

The whole of Hungary’s higher education system was privatized within two weeks. In that short time, it lost its autonomy and freedom to decide what to teach and how. In parallel, faculty salaries were doubled and tripled, contributing to the normalisation of loss of academic autonomy and compliance with illiberal science policy.

The story of the CEU, a private university in Hungary forced to move to Vienna, Austria, raises the question whether only public universities can serve the public good. If the state is captured by a mafia, and operates as a mafia, a private university can serve as a beacon of academic freedom. That was why CEU had to leave.

Of course, this process is not only about Orbánisation. A paradigm change cannot be pinned to one person. Rather, the illiberal state has hijacked the neoliberal language of excellence, competitiveness, impact, outreach and indices, while its proxy female leaders talk about women’s rights.

In ‘illiberal pragmatism’, anything goes: if one argument does not work, another is applied that might be the exact opposite. Content does not matter. Intellectuals, scientists, and progressive politicians spend time and energy analysing and understanding a phenomenon that is impossible to analyse and understand. That impossible task contributes to exhaustion and depression among progressive forces.


So back to the question: what is to be done when nothing is to be done?

The resurgence of historical analogies shows there is real uncertainty about this transitional time we are living in. Some compare the US today with Weimar Germany, others argue that the fascists are back in power in Italy. I want to introduce another historical example: Germaine de Stäel, a historian and political theorist of the Enlightenment. She was committed to her country, to freedom, to patriotism and equality; and she condemned Napoleon for misappropriating these values and sending millions to die on the battlefield.

What did Madame de Stäel do when it seemed that nothing could be done? She wrote: ‘I can feel an almost physical joy when opposing an unjust power.’

The re-enchantment of the political fight beyond polling data and policy proposals is the first step. Strength can be derived from the individual, physical joy of fighting the good fight. And we need strength for our fight, because it will be a long one. But there is one thing we cannot avoid: fighting. Not fighting would mean losing our right to free science, the foundation of all scientific work.

How to get this physical joy from academic work? This would be the kind of education founded on rigorous intellectual enquiry, passion and volunteerism, all of which I myself received at the seminars of the Budapest flying university during communism. This is the tradition represented by the CEU, where I have been a professor for thirty-two years. This passionate and free approach to science necessarily conflicts with the hierarchical control of education that sees citizens as subjects to be kept under surveillance.

The freedom of science and passion of doing science together open the possibility of intellectual resistance. But this freedom is not self-evident. There are moments when you must fight for it, when the fight looks hopeless and you feel exhausted. What you really need then is ‘physical joy’. So, go ahead and fight the good fight. It is the only chance we have left.

Published 10 October 2023
Original in English
First published by Fronesis 78–79/2023 (Swedish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Fronesis © Andrea Petö / Fronesis / Eurozine



Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Our daily nation

Even though socialist internationalism was the official ideology in communist Hungary, popular media at the time was teaming with nationalist narratives, hidden in plain sight. What does this contradiction explain about today’s politics?

Cover for: Czech Republic: Velvet contradictions

The Czech Republic’s liberal government has taken up the Ukrainian cause as its own. But unless it starts offering solutions to a growing social crisis, labelling the opposition as Russia’s useful idiots may not be enough.