DURING THE 1980S, as New Left scholars settled into comfortable, lucrative positions at the nation’s top universities – the same universities they had once denounced as part of the repressive "system" – they began to reassess many of their most cherished beliefs. Chief among these was the idea that they could bring about the much-sought-after Marxist revolution by forging an alliance with America’s working classes. When this "bottom up" approach failed to materialize, many were forced to reevaluate their methods and search for new and different alternatives. One alternative proved particularly alluring. Rather than focus their energies on the American proletariat (a dubious concept to begin with, at least in the European sense of the term), many favored a "top down" approach that would attempt to create an intellectual Marxist movement geared toward undermining and subverting society’s values and cultural institutions.
Accordingly they set their sights – and intellectual arsenal – on indoctrinating America’s middle and upper class college students. Embracing Gramscian notions of "hegemony" and the importance of superstructual change in bringing about societal transformations, these new "tenured Marxists," to use Roger Kimball’s term, endeavored to persuade a captive college audience of the power and truth of Marxism. The goal was to convince students that society’s prevalent cultural values were part of a "false consciousness" and to make Marxism the dominant intellectual ethos.
Unfortunately for many, they have largely succeeded. No longer is Marxism the domain of a small but dedicated cadre of New Left scholars, but it has permeated nearly the entire academy. In history, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and even literature departments, Marxism has become intellectually and unashamedly de rigueur. Indeed, Marxist assumptions are now so commonplace in academia that they form a new intellectual orthodoxy – just as the New Left scholars intended. Seemingly wherever one turns, one is bombarded by Marxist (and neo-Marxist) slogans.
A particularly pervasive theme of the modern academy is its animus toward capitalism. That capitalism is an inherently immoral and destructive system is a notion held with firm conviction and one that figures prominently in the curricula of so many humanities and social science departments. Whereas the Marxist alternative to the free market has proven a colossal disaster in practical economic terms (and cost the lives of countless millions), many academicians nonetheless blame capitalism for all the world’s ills. On college campuses, it is intellectually fashionable – indeed, hip – once more to denounce capitalism as a system of rapacious exploitation, a system harshly indifferent to social and moral concerns.
My own field of anthropology is particularly rife with Marxist anti-capitalist dogma. In an effort to illuminate just how deeply Marxist assumptions have penetrated academic curricula, I recently conducted an experiment. I combed through numerous anthropology courses from many of America’s major universities looking for anti-capitalist rhetoric, and – surprise! – it didn’t take long to find numerous examples. The following are just a few of the gems I came up with:
ANTHROPOLOGY 213: Anthropology of Consumption
As Marx put it in 1850, without production, no consumption; but, on the other hand, without consumption, no production; since production would then be without a purpose. For Marx, production, distribution, exchange and consumption formed a totality; however the transformative or constitutive moment, the phase on which social analysis should therefore focus, was production: That exchange and consumption cannot be predominant is self-evident. Marx’s near-contemporaries Balzac and Baudelaire saw things differently: their work portrayed the lust to consume as the driving force of history. But it was not till Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class of 1899 that consumption as a concept was fully integrated into social theory. In the current age of overflowing material abundance for many (including social theorists and their readers), and global flows of goods, images and signs, theories of consumption and desire have come to play a central role in shaping how intellectuals theorize, and how many people experience.
ANTHROPOLOGY 113: Culture and Consumption
We will examine how consuming goods relates us to others and places us in networks of power. Our case materials will stretch from prehistoric Europe to post-riot Los Angeles. On the level of micro-analysis, we will ask the following types of questions: How did sugar pies with a filling of live frogs help British aristocrats find a place in the new imperial order? Does Coca-Cola "Americanize" all who drink it? More broadly, our analysis of consumption addresses key theoretical questions: How important is materialism as a factor in cultural change? To what degree do social roles structure individual wants? Are popular consumer practices – or commodity riots –
an effective means of "everyday resistance" to capitalism at a personal or collective level? In exploring the diversity of global material practices and the creation of cultural identities, we will not only learn to analyze critically consumption, but also explore new possibilities for anthropology in the modern world.
ANTHROPOLOGY 235: Consumption: Images, Sites, Practices
Lectures and seminars will investigate how consumer society, both in its full-fledged or adolescent patterns, embodies a variety of forms and sites of shopping practices and relies on the over-arching presence of mass mediated marketing and advertisement. Post-socialist consuming desires will be studied as liberation from a particular image of modernity associated with the steaming factory or the rattling machine. The enchanted world of mass consumption reinforces social inequalities and segregation whereas political regimes legitimize themselves through promises for expanding consumption. It will be examined how consumption becomes constitutive of individual and collective identities and social communication: symbolic uses of goods are used not only reinforcing but challenging social boundaries as well.
ANTHROPOLOGY 333: Economic Anthropology
Explores capitalism and alternative forms of economic organization and challenges students to reconceptualize economy in order to appreciate non-monetized economic relations in gathering/hunting societies, chiefdoms, and peasant systems. This reconceptualization also informs a critical understanding of the sociocultural implications of the global economic system and its impact on the rest of the world.
Several of these descriptions are, of course, so poorly written that it is difficult upon first reading to figure out just what, in fact, the courses are offering. What is clear, however, is the thinly veiled vitriol directed at capitalism. Using such terms as "mass consumption," "global economic system," and "global material practices," the authors of these pieces stake out their hostility toward capitalism in obscurantist rhetoric. It seems to me that considerable ink (and trees) could have been spared had the authors simply stated their positions in clear, unambiguous prose. A much simpler course description would have been the following: "Capitalism sucks; it sucks big-time. I hate capitalism and by the time this course is over you’ll hate it, too. Please enroll." Much more succinct.
I hope you’ll indulge me in one last course description. This one in particular is illuminating.
ANTHROPOLOGY A201: Survey of Applied Anthropology
Today anthropologists representing every conceivable specialization find themselves in all sorts of contexts far-removed from the stereotypical anthropological environment: anthropologists now hone their craft in hospitals, governmental agencies, department stores, urban archaeology sites, Wall Street, classrooms, McDonalds, and any situation in which critical and systematic analysis of cultural context can impact the conditions that folks face everyday. This course examines anthropological practice in the contemporary world, focusing on how conventional anthropological theory and method can empower people to understand, critique, and even dismantle dominant sociohistorical conditions. We will examine the self-reflective and "engaged" perspective common to most applied anthropologists, probing how anthropologists who see themselves as part of contemporary social conditions can provide insights and intellectual tools that can provide various sorts of modest as well as quite radical self-empowerment. Because contemporary anthropology is itself so complex and practiced in an ever-more complex world, we will spend some of our energy simply defining what it means to "apply" anthropological insight. Rather than embrace the dictum that anthropologists should strive for "objectivity" and avoid "value judgments," we will accept that all anthropology is inherently politicized and must self-consciously confront very thorny ethical quandaries: the modern world of burgeoning multiculturalism, persistent state-supported socioeconomic exploitation, rapidly expanding multinational capitalism, and spiraling personal and social injustices makes it clear that anthropologists must aggressively dissect the worlds that we both study and live in. We will examine the practical side of applied anthropology as well, examining issues such as potential work contexts for anthropologists, the skills that are demanded of anthropologists today, and preparation for applied anthropological careers.
The instructor of this course makes no bones about his animus toward capitalism. In fact, he fairly celebrates it, asserting that it is the duty of anthropologists to eschew even a pretense of objectivity and, instead, use anthropological methods and theories to, as he puts it, "dismantle dominant sociohistorical conditions" – such as capitalism.
These course descriptions are reflective of just how deeply Marxist and radical assumptions have penetrated the academy. But they are, of course, only the tip of a Marxist iceberg that extends deeply into American academia. I could just as easily have combed through the course descriptions of, say, history or sociology and unearthed similar sentiments.
John McWhorter, the UC Berkeley linguist and author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, once glumly commented that the grievance-peddling Black establishment would cease using race as a political weapon when – and only when – the last grievance-peddler expired. Sadly, a similar sentiment could be said about the Marxist peddlers of the academy.