Universal university: does this sound familiar?


The feeding off of the Welfare-Warfare State

Substitute ‘liberal’ for ‘socialist,’ and substitute ‘America’ for the ‘UK’, and substitute ‘Democratic’ party for ‘Labour’ Party (or whatever centrist accommodation has been concocted) and the quotation below is a near perfect description of modern-day sociology —it comes from Alvin Gouldner’s (1970) ‘The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology’:

The liberal ideologies shared by most American sociologists were, prior to world war II, a source of enlightening awareness. Today, however, in the context of a burgeoning Welfare-Warfare State, these liberal ideologies serve instead to increase the centralized control of an ever-growing federal Administrative Class and of the master institutions on behalf of which it operates. Liberal sociologists have thus become the technical cadres of national governance. Here, in the post-World war II period, there has been a marriage of the sociologist’s liberalism and his career interests. Its eager offspring is the liberal technologue who produces information and theories that serve to bind the poor and the working class both to the state apparatus and to the political machinery of the Democratic Party, which at the same time, helping the national bureaucracy to unmask the inept, archaic local bureaucrats and to subject them to control from the national center.

Under the banner of sympathy for the underdog, the liberal technologues of sociology have become the market researchers of the Welfare State, and the agents of a new managerial society. While sometimes moved by a humane concern for the deprived and the deviant, the liberal technologues of sociology are creating, in effect, a new “ombudsman sociology” whose very criticism of middle-level welfare authorities and establishments serves as a kind of lightening rod for a social discontent, strengthening the centralized control of the higher authorities, and providing new instruments of social control for the master institutions. The liberal technologues in sociology present and experience themselves as men of good will who work with and for the Welfare State only because they want to relieve the distress of others within the limits of the “practicable”. They say nothing about the extent to which their accommodation to this state derives from the personal bounty it provides them.

It could be said that social science has stagnated into the teaching of ‘nothing’ today: but there is still a large group of people milking its potential for everything its worth.  The crisis of Alvin Gouldner’s (1970) work has come and went, the blindness it described is now taken as normality or even the good old days.  In this land the one eyed cynics are kings and that eye is always on the funding— not what is found about the society we have created for ourselves.

The above quotation and the themes of Gouldner’s book could be transposed to describe any university in the UK — but it won’t be.  This is the ‘nice people’ he was talking about, the supposed left-wing do-gooders who are doing well out of doing good. The people who do the funded moaning.  We are not allowed to point out that those busy acquiring large grants to criticize ‘neo-liberalism’, are also working it in how they run their departments.   They may mutter something about ‘practicality’ if questioned — its the way things are or we just have to go along with it. But if you run an even worse system of employment for your own career ends: are you really any different? If you become oblivious to the plight of those you keep below you, who serve you, what have you become?  How quickly did you race to the bottom? was it with remarkable ease? will it trouble your conscience if you don’t have one.

Education has become like the early days of battery chicken farming where the birds were fed the corpses of those who didn’t make it to be frozen and shrink-wrapped.  Do people who send their kids to universities even know how unqualified most people who actually ‘teach’ the kids are — how you can graduate knowing next to nothing about your subject, or indeed have no specific qualification relating to the subject, and then become used by your dept., ‘to teach it’ to the next load of paying customers on the conveyor belt; meanwhile those largely free from such activity —and who are already getting paid —work the system for the big research bucks.

Distorting economic interests — let’s get a huge grant to analyse them!

Gouldner was talking in the context of ‘methodological dualism’, the fantasy of the sociologist’s god-like invisibility, their wariness of the danger of ‘contamination’ affecting the research process’ and the even more tedious claim of  ‘objectivity’. Gouldner penetrates the real reason why people talk such sanctimonious gibberish:  so that we can just ignore the effects of the larger society and pretend that money has no effect ideologically or psychologically.

Indeed in such sociology ‘ideology’ is also stigmatized as a pathological object, as an irrational form of cognition, as a defective type of discourse, a false consciousness or simply as bad sociology. This opinion was one of the more interesting contributory factors in the formulation of the ‘end of ideology’ concept — whereby ideology was equated with the ‘non‑rational.’ But as Gouldner observes:

Nonetheless, sociology does not seriously acknowledge those different cognitive distortions that may result from other, “extrascientific,” involvements such as, say, class membership and privilege. The everyday life of normal sociology is contradictory, for there is no good reason why one should guard sociology against religious bias but not from distorting economic interests.[1]

Gouldner’s sociologists seem to only admit to being biased by ‘higher’ spiritual commitments. The problem he identifies is that not all that we might view as ideology can be said to be characterized as doctrinaire or dogmatic, or impassioned and dehumanizing, or the false and irrational to the same extent. Gouldner’s argument is that academic sociology and Marxism begin in a similar manner: each affirms that its aim is to extend the method of the exact sciences into a new area that requires it: the study of human relations accompanied by a searching for laws. The emulation of this paradigm means each also defines itself by specifying what it rejects, and by stigmatizing certain cognitive enterprises as negative paradigms:

Comteianism and positivistic sociology began by separating themselves from traditional religion and metaphysics. This is a paradoxical beginning, to say the least, for this beginning could not have been grounded in the very method of “observation” that positivism’s program proclaimed as the basis of its own authority. The separation of positivistic sociology from metaphysics then was a philosophical act, not a scientific one. It was, in Gaston Bachelard’s (and Louis Althusser’s) terms a coupure épistemologique, an epistemological break. Yet, as Jürgen Habermas has noted, positivism really had no epistemological argument against the beliefs it stigmatized, and none was given. They are taken as having a prima facie weakness that needed no demonstration.[2]

Gouldner’s call was for a Reflexive Sociology that recognized that the status quo exerts influence by its differential rewards —essentially, research funding, academic prestige, and income-earning opportunities — that it selectively provides for scholarly activities acceptable and useful to it. But he makes the assumption that most sociologists are honorable or somehow intrinsically well-intentioned. The tendency of ‘left-wing’ sociology is a more complete form of hypocrisy than the liberal one but it is still subject to the same pressures outlined by Gouldner:

The most fundamental control device of any stable social system is not its use of crude force, or even of other, nonviolent forms of punishment, but its continuing distribution of mundane rewards. It is not simply power that an hegemonic elite seeks and uses, but an authority that is rooted in the readiness of others to credit its good intentions, to cease contention when it has rendered its decision, to accept its conception of social reality, and to reject alteratives at variance with the status quo. The most effective strategy possessed by any stable social system and its hegemonic elites to induce such conformity is to make it worthwhile. What elites prefer is not craven expedience, but pious opportunism.

The conformity Gouldner believes this produces is an alignment with the basic principle of establishment politics. This is the acceptance of the image of social reality held by the hegemonic elite. This alignment is also a betrayal of the most fundamental objectives of any sociology. The dulling of the sociologist’s awareness is a surrender and abandoning of even the desire to know those social worlds that are and those that might be. Gouldner raises our awareness of a fundamental paradox:

…those who supply the greatest resources for the institutional development of sociology are precisely those who most distort its quest for knowledge.

This is not the peculiarity of any one type of established social system, but is common to them all. Sociology develops under certain social conditions whereby elites and institutions seek something in return for the support they provide sociology. The development of the type of sociology allowed then becomes dependent on forms of societal support that permit growth in only certain directions that circumscribe it and warp its character:

In short, every social system is bent upon crippling the very sociology to which it gives birth. A claim to “objectivity” made by a sociology that does not acknowledge this contradiction, and which lacks a concrete understanding of the manner in which its own hegemonic institutions and elites are a fundamental danger to it, is a tacit testimonial to the successful hegemony of that system over that sociology.

Society will exert its influence by offering research funds for that which is useful to the social system — effectively offering forms of rewards. The obvious failure to achieve that very objectivity to which the sociology so proudly pledges allegiance is simply ignored — even if the recipient is some kind of marxist the connection between base and superstructure will be ignored.

Pious opportunism: Soul-searching or soul-selling

For Gouldner these are not external dangers. They produce their most powerful effect when they become allied with the dispositions and career interests internal to sociologists themselves: sociology is most deeply distorted because and when the sociologist himself is a willing party to this. We have a choice between the seeming naivete of “soul-searching” or the genuine vulgarity of “soul-selling.” What of those who have gained the whole world here — the Anthony Giddens machine turns out another chunk of words on the third way. But what has arisen is that sociology is a playground for those who have no interest in the soul, those who can use their intelligence to exculpate anything that they do.

Gouldner wanted to confront the problem of a “value free” sociology from two directions: (1) to deny the possibility and question the worth of a value-free sociology and (2) to see the dangers, no less than the gains, of a value-committed sociology. And he tells us why in words that you will want to remember:

…for men may and do reject information discrepant with the things they value […] men’s highest values, no less than their basest impulses, may make liars of them.

If we accept the danger of a value commitment, we are preferring the risk of ending in distortion to beginning in it: a feature of this dogma of arid value-free sociology.

For Gouldner the type of theorists he describes partially become instruments of social control and play a sociologically repressive role. Similarly with the second coming attitude to the scientific revolution which of course is a historically limited liberation. He felt that the scientific revolution —under present social conditions —opened up not just the prospect of global self-destruction but, more generally, that science has become an instrument through which almost all contemporary industrial social systems maintain themselves. What made Nazi Germany uniquely dangerous and destructive was its effective mobilization of modern science and technology. Modern societies were using science (and pseudo science) as an instrument of domination, just as rulers of the past used institutional religion:

Despite this, however, the conventional Western view of science is still largely that of the Enlightenment, seeing it as a source of cultural liberation and human welfare that is marred only occasionally, marginally, accidentally.

In the context of a burgeoning Welfare/Warfare State the lucrative liberal ideologies shared by most ‘professional’ sociologists are less a source of enlightening awareness, but instead serve to increase the centralized control of an ever-growing Government Administrative Class and of the master institutions on behalf of which it operates. For Gouldner our Liberal sociologists and their socialistic friends have reduced themselves to the technical cadres of national governance. Here now we have a marriage of the sociologist’s ‘politics’ and his career interests and the costs of this are paid by voiceless others:

Its eager offspring is the liberal technologue who produces information and theories that serve to bind the poor and the working classes both to the state apparatus and to the political machinery of the […] Party, while, at the same time, helping the national bureaucracy to unmask the inept, archaic local bureaucrats and to subject them to control from the national center.

Under the banner of sympathy for the underdog, these sociologists become the market researchers of the Welfare State: the agents of a new managerial sociology, and will strut around full of their new-found status (i.e. not an underdog or blinded poor) as no longer prisoners but now trustees in the gulag.

This is as near as they will come to being moved by a humane concern — when there is funding available for studying the deprived and the deviant. For Gouldner what these ‘technologues of sociology’ create for themselves is an “ombudsman sociology:”

…whose very criticism of middle-level welfare authorities and establishments serves as a kind of lightning rod for social discontent, strengthening the centralized control of the highest authorities, and providing new instruments of social control for the master institutions. The liberal technologues in sociology present and experience themselves as men of good will who work with and for the Welfare State only because they want to relieve the distress of others within the limits of the “practicable.’

There will of course be no research into the extent to which this accommodation to this state derives from the personal bounty it provides them. If these sociologists today regard themselves as socialists, then the character of socialism has changed to encompass its polar opposite. No longer is it the conscientious faith of an embattled minority fighting a callous establishment: it is itself an establishment—a central part of the governing political apparatus. According to Gouldner:

It has a powerful press whose pages distort the truth just as systematically as does the conservative one. The liberal establishment of the Welfare State has its heroes whose virtue may not be slighted with impunity, and it has its myths whose distortions may not be challenged without reprisal. Like any establishment, the liberal establishment rewards the lies that sustain it and punishes the truths that embarrass it.

As a part of this establishment our sociologists are expected to defend the cause: they are expected to lie. This would appear to come naturally to them thanks perhaps to value-free neutrality. Once it has been established that they will lie (call it a sophisticated response or being an ‘expert’) they are then allowed to develop a career providing a service to, and with research funding supplied by the Welfare State.

The benefits of warfare welfare…

One of Gouldner’s more telling points is that it has become the essential role of the sociologist-as-liberal-technologue to foster an optimistic image of society as a system whose major problems are deemed altogether soluble within existent master institutions, if only enough technical skills and financial resources are appropriated by guess who. It is some distance beyond hypocrisy but this type of sociology is staffed by those professing variants of liberal ideology but who are allied with, and consultants to, and celebrants and dependents of, the Welfare State. Yet at the same time, many of them profess a (who knows possibly even genuine) distaste for state policy abroad. They accommodate to this anomalous condition by splitting their image of the State apparatus. It is conceived of it as being composed of two separate parts: a benign and humane Welfare State, on the one side, and a malign, imperialistic Warfare State, on the other hand. This enables the assumption that the Welfare State is not organically linked with the Warfare State, in one Welfare-Warfare State:

They are, therefore, prone to regard the Warfare State and its reactionary foreign policies as if these were isolated anachronisms, having no significant connection with the domestic reform policies of the Welfare State. Because they do this, these sociologists are unable to come to any serious understanding of the interrelation of domestic and foreign policy, of the manner in which both are interdependent, and of how both relate to the crisis in the society’s master institutions. Yet the sociological unity of the Warfare and Welfare State, the integration of foreign and domestic policies, is thoroughly visible on the political level, where both policy strands come together in the machinery of the Democratic Party.

For Gouldner the Democratic Party has been, par excellence, the unifying agent forging both the welfare and the warfare sides into a single coin. The model of the US system has now spread all over Europe. If we have regard to the Labour Party in the UK it too has been the party of active imperialistic adventures abroad, on the one side, and of welfare legislation, on the other. This alliance of the liberal technologue with the Welfare State through the Party system, therefore, cannot help but be an alliance with the Warfare State. So for Gouldner writing in a specific historical context: it is the liberal establishment and its political ideology that is most responsible for blunting the awareness of sociologists. The ideological distortion of sociology does not derive, in any appreciable measure, from conventionally conservative or reactionary:

The development of American sociology, the deepening of its awareness, therefore, is now primarily contingent upon dissociation from the Bismarckian policies that pass for liberalism today. The historical mission of a Reflexive Sociology is to foster a critical awareness of the character of contemporary liberalism, of its hold upon the university and upon American sociology, as well as of the dialectic between Welfare and Warfare policies, and of the liberal sociologist’s role as market researcher on the behalf of both. Reflexive Sociology premisses that the character of any sociology is affected by its political praxis and that further development of sociology now requires its liberation from the political praxis of liberalism.

A contemporary study

For the last few years I have been making a study of a Sociology Department in a university in the UK and below are some excerpts from the conclusion that relate to the work of Alvin Gouldner. The department I studied, which is now closed, was run in a small-minded clique ridden way, and had drifted into a state of dis-functionality that shocked and disgusted any of the post-graduate students who could compare it to the other institutions they had studied.

The response of the department to any observation or assessment that could be judged as a criticism (no matter how constructive or related to their entitlements) was to turn on whoever was saying it, deny it and then engage in a hate campaign or systematically ignore them and indulge themselves in petty vendettas. In one case this even extended into denying a student was ill (she was hospitalised). What was particularly galling about the department was that it professed to have ideals of social worth or investigative journalism, with some of the lecturers professing socialist principles (affiliations would be more accurate) but yet systematically traduce these values on a daily basis. Effectively it had turned into a form of battery chicken farming where the farmer eats all the chickens.

While most students were ignored and apathy and malevolence took over, a small group of macho bullies would milk the system for what they could get out of it: and that involved milking the students, or harvesting them or whatever euphemism  for exploitation one might care to use. Student writing was plagiarised or simply copied into books grandly exposing wrong doing; if any student had been offered to write in an academic journal which would count in the world of academic bingo, one of the bullies would get in touch and attach their name to the essay; applications for research funding would be made on the back of student work and the students were deliberately left feeling they would be dumped if the money came through; student’s PhD proposals would be cloned while they were in the middle of their work and if they protested the similarities would be ignored by a stream of obvious lies; a system of fraud was institutionalised in regard to anything to do with money with students being urged to forge expense claims and payment for teaching and marking simply ignored and/or incompetently dealt with; no form of student representation was in existence and no form of feedback was allowed; no facilities existed including basic items such as the provision of a computer and photocopying; when computers broke they were ‘fixed’ but didn’t work; work submitted for assessment would be untouched for over a year; internecine vendettas would spill out into lecturers poisoning the minds of students against their colleagues; long arguments would rage in the corridors between staff while students were forgotten and left to spectate; every tutor, apart from the ones who permanently hid, would ridicule the others in front of students so that the entire dept. had been portrayed as full of incompetents and then, united in their hatred of the students, gather together to present a rosy ‘official’ picture; levels of incompetence in teaching and lecturing which were the subject of formal (i.e. pointless) complaints were left to rot.

What was also remarkable was the lack of any connection to the outside world and this was coupled with an obsession with secrecy in relation to all staff meetings and matters relating to what took place in the dept., including even the number of PhD students some tutors had.  The dept. had no facilities for PhDs but wanted the money they brought in — so it expanded any way.  It did not even have a handbook outlining what the students were or were not entitled to, some tutors ran private businesses which they passed off as part of the dept in which most of the students were put to unpaid work.  Once it became absurdly obvious that the PhD students received either an abject minimum or no instruction, the dept. even refused to admit how many students some students had: one student even submitted an FOI request to the out rage of the staff.

Over a three-year period the dept, had been struggling to function and organizationally never really came to terms to this: no problems were recognized or admitted.  So things inevitably got worse each year: yet to compound this the dept. would re-organize those areas that did not need reorganizing — the analogy would be a kind of shuffling of the chairs on the Titanic that made the hole in the side bigger or the captain steering towards the nearest ice berg.  The mast basic elements of a shambolic first year course were reworked to the extent of confusing the other students who were either forced to teach for no payment (with the threat that this was a condition of their scholarship, thus the dept. could make two lots of money from them) or because they were desperate or felt sorry for the kids who had decided to study sociology.  So the same material, largely consisting of nonsense, would be issued but made incredibly complicated and counter-productive to run.  Thus those students (remember the students, all recently graduated with BAs were used to run the courses) who stayed on found themselves spending hours in unpaid work.  The dept. regarded the undergraduate students. not as youngsters in whom the flame of knowledge could be kindled, but as idiots who should be exploited for as much as the traffic would allow.  If any purpose could be discerned it was a move towards sitting the students in front of computers and hoping this would do the work of removing the need for any teaching.  But this drifted into hugely time consuming ‘projects’ where the students would more or less be given crayons and told to colour things in, or given a quizz, or play guessing games.  Those students who had arrived with an A-Level were repulsed.

The dept. made no effort to involve the under graduates with the post graduates to create some kind of human level, or process of education, to inculcate an atmosphere conducive to the exchange of ideas.  What the fear seemed to be here was that the undergraduates would find out what was going on, but it was apathy that contributed most here.  It probably never crossed the dept’s minds that this was in any way desired.

They seemed genuinely amazed and outraged that the initial essays they wrote often showed no understanding of sociology but felt this to disconnected to the fact that they had not been taught any.  The dept’s. bullies would go into violent rages when marking the essays of the undergraduates, the more frightening spectacles tended to come from the ones who expressed socialist beliefs; although they knew nothing about Marx, a fact that could be gleaned by listening to their lectures or speaking to them.

They seemed to believe that off-putting lectures which mangled and misinterpreted social theory (and they delivered the same material very year) together with their own membership of some quasi-socialist sect would produce a magic that would enable them to pass on knowledge, which they did not have, by some metaphysical means.  The Dept’s staff would openly boast of not preparing for any seminars, then deliver grossly incompetent performances.  This occurred each year and students would make formal complaints and then find themselves the subject of a formal complaint in retaliation.  No students knew what occurred when this process was engaged in: who was the complaint made to?  what would be the repercussions and so on, all this remained a mystery.

[1] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1976) ‘The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar, and Future of Ideology,’ p. 3, New York: Seabury Press.

[2] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1976) ‘The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar, and Future of Ideology,’ p. 5-6, New York: Seabury Press.

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