/ 9 October 2019

Are SA’s university professors a bunch of socialists?

More than an assessment of the academic value of leftist thought and theory
Alumni can play a pivotal role in their alma mater’s long-term success and sustainability, (Brian Snyder/Reuters)




No political philosophy, ideology or theory is beyond the scrutiny of intellectual critique. However, one expects such scrutiny to be fair, honest, thorough and open-minded.

Increasingly on social media, political publications and television, what is flaunted as fair debate or critical analysis is, on closer inspection, actually shallow entertainment or pot-stirring polemics. These don’t do much to deepen a person’s understanding of societal issues but rather provides nourishment for their prejudice or bias and narrows the horizons of political thought.

Think of the shouting matches between political commentators on CNN or Fox News, or the intellectual masturbation of some South African “thought leaders” on Twitter. Ivo Vegter’s recent opinion piece for the Daily Maverick, titled “Why socialism thrives nowhere, except at universities” (September 24), is an example of such unproductive engagement.

Vegter provides a critique of Marxism, socialism and critical theory, together with a rebuking of their supposed dominance at universities, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. Vegter’s central argument is that the supremacy of leftist thought in universities, at the foolish neglect of teaching the spectacular achievements of liberalism and capitalism, is “factually incorrect and morally dangerous”. This occurs, he argues, because university professors are isolated from the socioeconomic realities of the world, cosied in utopian fantasy by solitary life in ivory towers.

From there, he concludes that this strong left-wing bias in institutions of higher learning, instills in students an unjustified and irrational anger towards capitalism.

More than an assessment of the academic value of leftist thought and theory, Vegter is making a moral claim about which political ideology should have ascendance in universities. This isn’t a bad thing to do. Discussions about good or bad ideas within tertiary institutions are needed. But the burden of proof for those seeking to make the changes Vegter suggests is tremendously high.

Universities have their flaws, but they are crucial to the needs of a modern society. Beyond equipping people with specialised skills (and hopefully the chance of decent employment), they are the factories and storehouses of profound, enlightening and useful human knowledge attained over millennia of scholarship. Changes to curriculums can’t be based on thinly substantiated political positions.

So why do I think Vegter’s article was largely unproductive for debate? A glaring flaw in his arguments is the scarcity of empirical evidence to support them. Ironically, this is exactly what he accuses socialist scholarship of being devoid of — fact-based argument. When empirical evidence is given, its presentation is shallow, allowing facts to be moulded around arguments and not the other way around.

Take a look at a central claim that runs throughout his piece: the “strong left-wing tendency in academia”. The study cited by Vegter is one that was conducted in the United States, a country with its own particular cultural and political climate in tertiary institutions, distinct from our own.

Perhaps it could be shown how the “strong left-wing tendency” occurs in South Africa’s colleges. Vegter tries to do this but isn’t convincing because he provides one incident: an interaction between an associate professor of economics at the University of Stellenbosch and a group of journalism students.

Surely, one incident, at one university, subjectively experienced and not empirically analysed, can’t provide valuable insights on the political persuasions of thousands of academics across the country.

Weak evidence aside, I somewhat agree with Vegter’s observation. Various studies, mostly conducted in the US and United Kingdom, have shown a tendency for university professors to hold liberal and moderate rather than conservative political attitudes. Yet, Vegter’s article is not making claims about liberals. His concerns pivot around what can be broadly called socialist traditions of thought. Reading this, I thought: Since when are socialists liberals?

Vegter makes no effort to provide a definition and distinction between liberals and leftists.

The absence of diversity in South African electoral politics and, to a certain extent, in the media, provides the illusion that liberals and leftists are one and the same. A more detailed grasp of the political history would reveal that there are fundamental differences between these two landscapes of thought.

While liberals and leftists may share a disapproval or even fierce resentment of socioeconomic inequalities and unjustified hierarchies, the reasons they detest those problems — as well as their solutions to such issues — drastically diverge. Whereas liberals would propose affirmative action, the expansion of civil liberties, stronger regulation of predatory markets — in other words, a series of reforms to society — leftists have struggled historically to change the very structures of economic and political institutions.

Examples would be calls to radically redistribute wealth, demonetise the provision of public goods and services, establish worker-owned industries and obliterate private property, or abolish representative democracy in favour of decentralised local government directly run by members of a community. It may seem pedantic, but such a distinction is vital to understand contemporary politics. It’s the difference between politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; between post-colonial leaders like Nelson Mandela and Thomas Sankara.

One has to wonder, given the deficiency of data in Vegter’s article: where are the hordes of anarcho-syndicalist professors or Marxist-Leninist researchers sowing the seeds of revolution?

But let’s exercise some imagination and assume university faculties do indeed ferment with capitalist resentment, curating a hotbed of socialist insurrection. According to Vegter’s analysis, the popularity of Marxism is totally or largely exclusive to universities, and exists because the privilege of professors produces a kind of cognitive dissonance. This results in left-leaning professors being unable to confront the reality of Western liberalism’s tremendous successes.

This argument is not only ahistorical but also overstates the hegemony of Western liberalism, while drastically underplaying the ideology’s flaws.

This leads Vegter to attribute a lot of positive progressions in societies around the world — mainly material and social prosperity — to the implementation of what he calls “classical liberal values”. Is this reflective of history? Closer inspection provides a more complex picture.

A review of how civil liberties and rights have developed in the US displays that various episodes of mass protest, strikes and activism (sometimes led by socialists), won the precious freedoms Americans value today, in spite of opposition from capitalist interests. Such activism was coupled with a series of government interventions aimed at broadening freedom. The legislative victories won by the civil rights movement were not handed to black Americans by Wall Street.

Vegter fails to see this because he recognises a correlation between political and civil liberties in nations that embrace “economic freedom”. He then naively jumps to assume there is direct causation, without providing evidence as to how exactly capitalism increases happiness, uplifts marginalised communities or expands human rights.

Child labour laws, universal healthcare, universal suffrage (the right to vote), the 40-hour work week, women’s rights — these gains were not driven by or a result of free market policies. In fact, when classical liberalism thrived in the late 19th and early 20th century, across the US and Europe (referred to as the “gilded age”), one not only saw rapid wage increases and industrialisation but pervasive levels of poverty, inequality, worker exploitation and abuse. Such societal decay is the result of unfettered, unaccountable capitalism.

What about the supposed decrease in global levels of poverty? Surely, if poverty has drastically decreased and if one can identify free markets and private property as the cause for such improvements, the case for capitalism has been won?

Vegter’s claims regarding poverty are based on an annual report released by the World Bank in 2018. The report sets the poverty line $1.90 a day. This line is not a perfect indicator of where poverty begins and ends. Moreover, it has been fiercely contested by economists, journalists and academics precisely because it is arbitrary. Crucially, this line is not sensitive to how life in or out of poverty is about satisfaction of basic human needs.

As pointed out by anthropologist Jason Hickel, adopting the $1.90 line tells us that 700-million people live in poverty. Oddly, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation has found that 1.5-billion people are food insecure, 1.2-billion suffer from malnutrition and 815-million people “do not have enough calories to sustain even minimal human activity”. Surely people living a life free from poverty would not experience malnutrition or food insecurity?

If one were to consider a more humane poverty line, as suggested by academic Peter Edwards at $7.40 a day, a reduction in global poverty can be seen but it is not a decline that warrants joyous celebration. In 1981, 71% of the world’s population lived in poverty. Using the $7.40 metric, that number has fallen to 58% in 2013. In a world where 26 people own the same amount of wealth as the 3.8-billion who make up the poorest half of humanity, these tepid reductions in poverty are not great news.

The most severe indictment of capitalism is in how it has made the world better, but far from good enough. In other words, the world isn’t as good as it should and can be, because of capitalism.

Vegter neglects such considerations because they are inconvenient to a deceptive story he is trying to tell about Western liberalism.

Since the end of the Cold War, the principles of capitalism, in many parts of the developed and developing world, have taken the form of neoliberalism in terms of government policy and industrial or corporate practice. This type of laissez-faire economics centres the free market, advancing policies such as privatisation of social services or goods, austerity measures that cut government spending (often welfare), deregulation of financial markets and promotion of free trade at an international level.

What has this hybrid form of capitalism produced? Extensive deregulation has enhanced the freedom of corporations to pollute and poison the environment, thereby accelerating the existential threat of climate change. Free-trade treaties using “investor-state dispute settlements” have made a mockery of democracy through allowing offshore corporations to sue for the removal of social and environmental protections constructed by parliaments, in instances when they interfere with business. The privatisation of public services such as health, water and education has locked out the poor, working class and precarious middle class from affordable access to services essential to a human’s wellbeing.

The world is still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, which occurred because of the insatiable profit incentive, propelled by deregulation of financial markets. The outcome? Vast unemployment, millions of people evicted from their homes, properties foreclosed and countries around the world rattled by recession, as citizens plummeted into debt.

As Marxist theorists would aptly remind us, the material developments of society are fundamental in affecting social change. The reign of neoliberalism — in its disempowering of governments, inclination towards financial instability and social volatility — has made citizens fearful of the future and distrustful of the liberal status quo. Dissatisfied with neoliberalism, they turn to right-wing populists such as US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Western liberalism and the capitalist system on which it rests are in crisis. The myth of endless growth and progress peddled by Vegter and those who share his worldview, does not resonate with reality. No moral or rational leftist can ignore the failures of regimes in the 20th century that claimed to be socialist. But to understand this present moment of crisis, especially from a scholarly perspective, leftist thought it of immense utility. Of course, that doesn’t mean it should be central. Imagine a religious studies student having minimal engagement with Islamic or Christian traditions — it would dilute their knowledge.

Around the world, socialist movements at the grassroots level and within parliamentary politics, mostly outside of universities, are surging with a new vitality. Let us engage with these changes in good faith.

Andile Zulu is a writer and cultural critic and has a blog called Born Free Blues