A Point Everyone Has Already Made

I try not to restate the trending applause lines that are cresting like giant waves through Twitter and similar online spaces, but there are reasons why some short sentiments find such a warm welcome at so many handles. In some sense, that’s how ideology both gets produced and gets powerful, through repetition of compact expressions that are synedoches for bigger, richer bodies of thought. Sometimes intellectuals are embarassed by those compactions, both because we prefer the full monty version of ideology and because so much intellectual and academic work still involves an essentially romantic narrative of individual originality, so who wants to get caught dead just parroting what looks like a cliche?

Let me parrot for one moment, anyway. David Cameron has said to his citizens: “And to the lawless minority, the criminals who’ve taken what they can get. I say: We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done.” And I say, “Good, at last, I’m glad he’s going to get tough on bankers, NewsCorp, and members of Parliament who’ve misused their expense accounts. Maybe we can follow suit here in the United States.”

It’s an oft-repeated sentiment for good reason, though if you unpack it, there are divergent larger arguments behind it (say, a classical liberal’s assumption that equality before the law is a precondition of liberal democracy or a marxian assumption that the ruling classes are always already ‘guilty’ in some sense).

It strikes me as a more powerful and empowering line of response, at any rate, than the equally common call to investigate the “underlying causes” of unrest. That forms an instant dyadic pair with “let’s get tough on crime, don’t make excuses”, a permanent edifice of public discourse that’s encrusted with more barnacles than a shipwreck.

It’s not just that the “social causes” trope so quickly mobilizes a powerful counter, it’s also that it can actually get in the way of genuinely understanding a particular episode of social violence or unrest, whether your goal is to formulate policy that addresses underlying causes or just a comprehension of the socioeconomic structures involved for its own sake. We ought by now to understand that mass violence is a quintessential case of emergence in a complex-system sense. It has many “underlying causes”, none of them separable from one another, but the moment you flash over into violence is a case of self-organized criticality. That moment doesn’t depend on any single variable, and you can’t deal with it variable by variable (including if you’re a Cameronesque law-and-order type who just wants to get the water cannons and military into the streets). The way that people on the left sometimes talk the talk of “underlying causes” not only unnecessarily cuts out the individual agency (and responsibility) of people committing violence, it acts as if unrest is an equation. Add poverty plus racism plus poor social services and then just a bit of heat and humidity and bingo, violence. Which is not at all what happens: by that reasoning, the really curious thing is not the riots which happen but the many more which don’t.

Any given episode of riot is brimming over with contingency. One is as near and present as one person throwing a brick through a window and as far away as an old lady shaking a shaming finger at a neighbor poised with a brick in his hand. Given the dire combination of circumstances in most 21st Century societies, it’s as safe to predict that there will be a riot next week, next year, next decade as it is to predict that the weather is going to change and the seasons will come. So yes, change that combination of circumstances and you’ll change the weather, but damn if there aren’t a lot of interacting elements to consider.

Observing, on the other hand, that the way we (or at least David Cameron and his ilk) talk about and act towards rioters and the way we talk about bankers is wildly inequitable? It has the virtue, first off, of being overpoweringly true. It also redirects all the strengths of law-and-order rhetoric right back on its would-be wielders. Yes, indeed, Prime Minister, you do have a problem with a lack of “stronger sense of morality and responsibility” in your country, a crisis of values. Why else would you and your fellow politicians have been so lethally indifferent to the immorality of your associates inside and outside of government? Why would financial executives in the UK, US and elsewhere have looted and rubbished the lives and futures of so many fellow citizens with little regard for the consequences? All the excuses we’ve heard on both sides of the Atlantic from plutocrats and officials would be hard to distinguish from interviews with rioters if we stripped away the pictures and a few contextual details: everyone else was doing it, insurance will take care of a victimless crime, it’s just a sweater/million-dollar bonus. Neighborhoods and communities are too big to fail, too, in their own way. And whether it’s a street in Tottenham or Wall Street, it is indeed “the law abiding people who play by the rules” who will have to use social media to figure out where to bring their brooms or tighten their belts. To be honest, if I’m going to have to do some kind of clean-up, I figure it might be easier to sweep streets and rebuild burned buildings than rescue a million mortgages and shotgun a horde of zombie banks that have the assets of whole countries in their gullets. Just sayin’.

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16 Responses to A Point Everyone Has Already Made

  1. NA says:

    Sir, I’ve never taken a class with you, but I’m quite a fan of the blog. I’m just so very pleased to hear that someone else was perturbed by both the usual reactions. I’m no fan of the way Cameron and his ilk are talking, but I’m also embarrassed by some left-wing responses. Some refer to rioters as “protesters.” That irks me. The rioters as a body don’t seem to have an articulated political agenda; calling them “protesters” is an obvious mischaracterization, both a clumsy, transparent piece of Orwellian labeling and a perhaps-unwitting attempt to domesticate into politics-as-usual what is far closer to a breach in the typical process. It’s also important to note that the rioters are destroying poor neighborhoods: if this is really class warfare, it’s fraught with friendly fire. (That’s one of the reasons that, even if this is a breach in the typical democratic procedure as mentioned above, it doesn’t seem like some kind of neo-Marxist truth-event a la Badiou. Not everything “counternormative” is useful.)
    But what bothers me to no end is something you get at: the double standard on both sides. It’s indeed frustrating that white-collar criminals get a slap on the wrist at most. Much like in financial markets, they (and non-criminal actors who happen to be in the right place doing the right things at the right time) get to enjoy the rewards without the risks, aside from the occasional Bernie Madoff spectacle-trial. But the double moral standard applied to rioters from the left bothers me too. That old “social conditions” line is too often used as a catch-all for blame. Rather obviously, Wall Street swindlers are just as much a product of prevailing social and economic relations. The issue we’ve got to work through is how people can be products of said conditions and remain nonetheless moral particles (if I may throw in a clumsy substitute for the maligned and misused word at issue, “agents.”). It strikes me as a particularly condescending attitude to hold only certain sorts of people ethically responsible for their actions – the exclusive ability to be assigned culpability and condemnation by well-bred liberals and pseudo-radicals is, perhaps, the last explicit and legitimate social privilege for the materially privileged, at least in certain circles.
    Please pardon overblown diction, pretension, etc. I’m 1.) a little low on sleep and 2.) a snot-nosed smarmy undergrad given to self-deprecation as a prophylactic against criticism. I hate saying anything of substance online, but, brought out of hiding by your excellent introduction to the post, I’ve lapsed.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Hey, overblown diction is the bee’s knees round these parts.

    But you’re singing my song on a point that I frequently harp on (including in classes, to my poor students) which is that for a very long time much qualitative social science has shown very little interest in elites or powerful social groups like soldiers or bureaucrats in the same terms that it takes an interest in many other social groups, e.g., as groups that have “cultures”, that are the products of social conditions, and so on. Lazy or simple versions of the social-conditions-produce-and-justify-practices ought to be just as forgiving of neoconservative bombing of Iraq. Admittedly, part of the reason that there are very few ethnographic studies of military or security force cultures of torture (for one example) is methodological: the powerful have very little interest in welcoming ethnographic inquiry into their habitus, even when that’s not strictly secret in some sense. But part of it is also the assumption by a lot of people on the left that the elite are already fully understood in this sense. Which I don’t really see: if I had to teach a class on the everyday cultural world of the most elite financial capitalists, I would have very few studies to put on the syllabus that would compare with what I can offer in a course on everyday life in rural southern Africa. I’d have to use memoirs, novels, and journalism, which is fine, but it’s still a notable gap. Unless what people mean by assuming that these worlds are already known to inquiry is because academics or leftists typically believe that they themselves are part of or known personally about such elite social contexts or that the self-representations of elites in the public sphere are accurate or useful guides to their everyday practices.

  3. VL says:

    There’s a brilliant little piece skewering the hypocrisy of Cameron’s “tough on crime” stance with the rioters:


    I mention this because it shows (follow the links) that not only do Cameron and his ilk fail to display any compunctions about the unethical behavior of bankers and other corporate powers, they also have no compunctions about violent and destructive acts they themselves committed in their salad days. I.e., members of the dominant class get away with high crimes AND lower-rent shenanigans.

  4. asdf says:

    Hang Goldman Sachs, by all means. But the next group of financial criminals are in academia.

    Professor Burke, can you justify charging $250,000+ for a Swarthmore education and driving your students into debt? Do you realize how much of the plush livelihood and lifestyle of the faculty lounge is subsidized by former students — the students whose parents’ life savings you stole with evanescent promises that education = employability?

    You and yours are no less guilty for selling a false bill of goods.

    And when the tuition bubble pops, the time will come when a professor is thought of in the same vein as a bankster, and for similar reasons.

  5. asdf says:

    $55,530 Total Education Expenses for 2011-12

    “Discounts” are handed out selectively. Your administration — and you are guilty because they pay your salary, and have not protested this — squeezes every last penny out of those who can pay, in much the same way a mortgage broker starts with an enormous unpayable bill and then “negotiates” it down to a monthly payment which will just keep you barely afloat. Can’t kill the golden goose after all.

    What say you to your culpability in this system of debt slavery? And make no mistake, it is debt slavery, the kind of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, the kind of debt that keeps young men and women from starting families or moving or buying a house, the kind of debt that has recently just outpaced credit card debt ($1 trillion outstanding).

    Do you have any guilt at all for the role you and yours have played? Have you ever told the administrators that perhaps yet another fitness center, another billet, another new building might be a bit of excess, of *greed* as it were? In all thy getting, did you ever once stop to think about whether it was just and fair to raise the price of a single year’s tuition well beyond the average annual income in these fair United States?

    You charge extortionary prices, sir, and the whirlwind is coming. Another pyramid of debt is soon to collapse, and with it the entire edifice of American higher education and the sinecure of lifetime tenure.

  6. NA says:

    I hate internet arguments, but I just feel the need to come to Prof. Burke’s defense.
    What do you want him to do? Quit? I don’t see what good that would do. (You also claim that he’s never protested educational inequity, an ad ignorantium I find a little implausible.) And let’s also note that Swarthmore, like many schools, is trying to move away from the student debt you mentioned towards grant aid. I’ve been working in college financial aid offices this summer (one a community college), and I can tell you that what really keeps the directors up at night is the thought of students burdened with debt they can’t pay. Swarthmore, because it has a great deal of money in its endowment, has been able to move away from putting students in debt. That’s part of why Princeton Review ranked Swarthmore #1 for student satisfaction with financial aid packages, and #1 among private colleges for “value” 3 years running. Yes, they do “squeeze every last penny out of those who can pay” – so they can use that money to provide a free or discounted education to those who can’t. This, by the way, is coming from somebody whose family can barely pay and does so without complaint so that others can benefit. You might protest that college doesn’t spend all its money on financial aid. That’s true. The market system forces them also to spend on amenities – things that attract and retain students, particularly wealthy students, whose full-tuition money and donations can be used to pay financial aid for others. Administrators tend to be good people doing what they can in a grossly unequal setup. It’s easy to take shots from the sideline.
    If you want to criticize the prevailing system, be my guest. I’d recommend the first chapter (if memory serves) of Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” for a discussion of the dialectic process, including some meditations on individual culpability. But I’m just rather ticked off by the way you’re going after Professor Burke for a system that’s not his fault. And if you want to do that, at least have some more Eagletonian panache – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/06/ac-graylings-new-private-univerity-is-odious.

  7. asdf says:

    NA: A modern professor is no less a criminal than the modern banker. At the very least, the Madoffs of the world make no false representations about their higher intentions. They are and were out to make a buck.

    Professor Burke and his colleagues “have looted and rubbished the lives and futures of so many fellow citizens with little regard for the consequences”. Student loan debt is no joke, and the sums involved are just as substantial as the mortgage industry.

    What we want to see is some introspection, some admission of fault, some admission that guaranteed lifetime employment on the backs of the middle class is as grotesque in these times as yachts and croquet.

  8. Timothy Burke says:


    A couple of things. First, blogs are not just publications, they’re social venues. It’s worth figuring out what the local scene is like, both so you don’t show up to a dinner party expecting it to be a bar fight and so you get a sense of what discussion of your favorite points has been like in the past. I’m a professor, so forgive me the assigned reading, you might find that I’m fairly congenially inclined to some of your points:


    And that’s just some fairly recent posts. These are old themes here, and the issues that you express such strong feelings about are issues that worry me too, if less stridently and intolerantly.


    Second, let’s get something clear here. When I talk about bankers, executives and politicians above, I have a pretty specific set of them in mind, which I should think is clear enough if you’ve been alive and paying attention in the last five years. The individuals who deserve comparison with rioters and looters are the people in those categories who have broken the law, behaved unethically with the resources and power trusted to them to such an extraordinary extent that they have caused massive damage to whole communities or society as a whole, including many people who never once entered into any relationship or contract that rendered them exposed to such danger, or those who have betrayed a public trust through grossly cynical and self-serving behavior.

    This is not all, most or even a lot of bankers or executives. Maybe it’s most politicians, I suppose. You mention usurious mortgages put together by calculating bankers looking to keep their customers one step out of poverty. As I look out the window of my house, I see a lot of moderately priced suburban homes ($275,000 to 325,000 or so hereabouts) owned by professionals, small business owners, middle managers, and retirees, all of them purchased with reasonable mortgages. The bankers who arranged those mortgages have nothing to apologize for. We need them.

    As we need all sorts of professionals who provide services: lawyers, doctors, architects, psychiatrists, plumbers, you name it. Teachers and professors too. The question of what such services should cost is always a tricky one. We trust to markets to set a price no higher than what people will pay, but at least some of these services are hard to forego if the price is too high. When that is most potently the case, as with medicine, some kind of social, governmental constraints may be in order. Higher education wasn’t that important fifty years ago, but perhaps now it is.

    On the other hand, that’s why we and most other countries built public university systems in the first place: to insure that there were fairly priced and accessible institutions of higher learning. The cost of higher education has gone up, and the reasons are complex. (Faculty aren’t as big a part of it as you think, but they’re certainly one contributor.) But our collective support for keeping the price down has also eroded, along with many other public goods. Anyone as angry as you are about what’s happened with the pricing of higher education might want to direct the lion’s share of anger at your state legislators first.

    You might also want to consider what kinds of institutions you’re angry at. What’s the higher ed equivalent of a subprime mortgage lender or someone selling complex financial instruments designed to pass risks on to an unconsenting public? I’d nominate for-profit higher education, much of which takes a huge amount of public money to subsidize extremely low-value educational services that are sold to vulnerable and desperate customers. Maybe you have something else in mind, but if you don’t have anything specific, just “ARGLEBARGLE I HATE PROFESSORS” then you’re the same as a guy who wants all plumbers or all doctors or all bankers wiped out. Which is not where I’m coming from and not really much help unless it’s some small subset of a general nihilism that you’re selling.

    As for highly selective private institutions like Swarthmore or the Ivy League? Look, I have no beef with the existence of luxury goods or consumer capitalism either. All of what I’m preaching comes straight from the pews in the church of liberalism. As I look at my 15-year old Saturn with the plastic interior molding falling off, I’m reminded that I’m unlikely to ever own a Mercedes-Benz (I have to say you have some odd ideas about how much professors make) but I don’t grit my teeth in fury every time I pass a Benz dealership.

    Selective private colleges and universities educate a miniscule fraction of the students enrolled in higher education in the United States. They draw more attention, favorable and unfavorable, than they proportionately deserve. Much of the time, public discourse about the academy, professors, faculty, curricula, you name it, is focused on this teeny handful of institutions. Now that is partly because the graduates of these institutions do in fact have magnified social and economic influence, and partly because these institutions train a substantial proportion of academic doctorates. But if you’re concerned with higher education overall, and its role in American society, you’d be much better off starting the conversation with your focus on public institutions and community colleges–and particularly in the latter case, there is a great deal good to be said, and much of your fury is misplaced.

    There is no doubt, in any event, that selective private colleges and universities are a luxury service. They choose for reasons of their own, ethical and otherwise, to offer those services on a discounted rate to some families. There isn’t any obligation or need to attend such an institution, though I think most of them do a pretty fair job of returning both tangible (employability!) benefits and intangible ones to the students who do attend. I think many of them could do better, and live up to a whole slew of public obligations more forthrightly. But neither is Harvard stalking the middle-classes of Miami, Wichita and Pasadena with the equivalent of subprime mortgages.

  9. asdf says:

    > neither is Harvard stalking the middle-classes of Miami, Wichita and Pasadena with the equivalent of subprime mortgages.



    Thus, over the past third of a century, all of the net job growth in America has been generated by positions that require at least some post-secondary education….The message is clear: in 21st century America, education beyond high school is the passport to the American Dream.

    and yet

    In short, the majority of students who go on to college fail to earn a degree on time, and many of those never successfully complete their degree. As a result, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States now has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

    This seems extraordinarily structurally similar to subprime: lure in people who can’t afford it, offering false hopes of a high ROI (whether through appreciation of land or higher paying careers). Many of them can’t make it through and drop out or lose their house. But the lender/college runs all the way to the bank.

    Are you denying that Harvard and higher ed in general have been pushing “College for All” for the last forty years? Or are you defending this all-out campaign to market false hopes to every young American?

  10. 1. “College for All” wasn’t something that grew out of higher education in the first place. It was rather like “houses for all in suburbs”, which wasn’t simply or primarily a consequence of marketing by the construction industry. The notion that college was for most Americans grew out of post-1945 economic growth, the GI Bill and the general ideology of “the affluent society”.

    2. The reason post-secondary education is now viewed as crucial as much or more to do with the actually existing job market as it has to do with anything that higher education in general is arguing, in two respects. First, the disappearance of unskilled and semi-skilled manufacturing labor wiped out a huge range of jobs for which no higher education was needed or sought. The post-manufacturing economy that we have in its place, whether you like it or not, requires higher aggregate levels of education, training and knowledge. Second, particularly at the moment, the competition for skilled positions, both professional and otherwise, is now exceptionally intense. When an employer is hiring in many cases, they’ve got a huge number of fairly indistinguishable applications, and they’re forced to look for heuristics that will let them sort through their applicant pools. Again, like it or not, educational credentials are one of the obvious credentials to use, and they’d be used whether or not higher education suggested they be used.

    3. You don’t seem to have grasped even the most basic points I was trying to make about highly selective private universities and colleges. The statistics you cite don’t apply to Harvard et al (high dropout rates) but to a very different type and range of educational institutions. The data on ROI for Harvard and its peer institutions is actually pretty damn good. I don’t disagree with you that there’s a big problem here with higher education in general, but like a lot of folks setting off on a jeremiad, you’re focusing on the wrong targets. You can criticize selective privates for a lot of things–their intrinsic elitism, their overly narrow vision of the public good, their general stodginess in curricular approaches, the pretentions of the methods they use to select their students. But the issues you raise involve problems that are vested elsewhere.

    I might also point out that you can’t have it both ways. Either you want most Americans to make it through college because you think it is valuable, and you’re furious at the average university for countenancing high dropout rates in combination with high tuitions (at which point you need to ask: what is it that you think would be valuable IF that problem could be addressed) or you think most Americans shouldn’t be in college under any circumstances. At which point I think you can move on past Go, collect $200 and start looking at a different challenge on the game board, namely, what’s your vision of the 21st Century American economy in which no advanced or post-secondary education or training will be needed by most workers?

  11. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I have been hanging around this blog for years now, and I have been working on these problems longer than many of y’all have even been aware of them. And in my working life I have worked with many of the elites who were castigated here. They deserve it, generally, but Professor Burke does not.

    Having said that, I want to ask if anyone else has detected a change in Burke’s rhetoric. I think that he is approaching crusader status.

  12. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I don’t want our children to go college for four years after high school–that is, if college is defined to be what it is today. I want our children to get more education after high school because their brains are still developing. And I want them to get an education that is based on their needs at the time. Colleges seem to be far removed from the needs of the students.

  13. G. Weaire says:

    Not to stir this up, but I’m fascinated by asdf’s vision of the “faculty lounge” as symbol of the ultimate luxury. I’m imagining something furnished with splendidly comfortable leather armchairs, filled with servants to wait upon one’s every whim, which is likely to include selecting from among an excellent list of brandies.

    Is that what it’s like at Swarthmore? Because, usually, the faculty lounge isn’t like that at all.

  14. We don’t have a faculty lounge.

    There was a lounge built in a new classroom and office building in the late 1990s. Basically a few couches and chairs and some subscriptions to several periodicals, behind the coffee bar on the ground floor. It wasn’t used much (students tended to sneak in there at night for meetings and studying) and so it was converted to offices a few years ago. There’s some wish for a better designed social space that might be used more among the faculty to help promote conversation and connection between different departments, and that might come up in our current planning. But yeah, luxury doesn’t quite seem the watchword here or just about anywhere I’ve visited. Johns Hopkins used to have a ghastly faculty lounge/restaurant with waiters in formal dress, but I think almost none of the faculty used it or liked it.

  15. asdf says:

    > usually, the faculty lounge isn’t like that at all.

    Do tenured professors have higher income, job security, daily freedom, political influence, and social status than the overwhelming majority of people in the United States?

    And would this lifestyle be at all sustainable if you did not charge the obscene price of $250,000 for each student?

    Academia has much to answer for, much to answer for. You have absolutely no idea how angry young people are at you. Their rage is, as yet, unfocused; they don’t know why they are poor and jobless. We shall wait for the Waiting for Superman of higher ed; that wait shan’t be long.

    The banksters violated us from afar, you violated us up close and personal. You shamed us into going to college, took our money, saddled us with endless debt, and promised us a good job at the end of the rainbow with a wink-wink nudge-nudge.

    That job isn’t here. The debt is here. Did I mention that the job isn’t here, but the debt payments are here?

    Are you doing anything about that? Are you going to petition the administration for debt forgiveness and give up your salaries and grants and job security to the starry eyed young people you deceived so brazenly? No.

    You have raped the middle class and taken years of savings from countless families. $500,000 to put two children through school is fifteen years of after-tax income for the average American. No one expects you, or Leiter, or DeLong, or the various Crooked Timber writers to actually turn the lens inward and realize how terribly you have wronged us. What is more likely is some sort of nervous joke about how the faculty lounge chairs aren’t gold plated.

    But it is stunning how totally oblivious some in academia are, railing on about the banks without the slightest hint of recognition that their entire world depends utterly on the same kind of usurious debt slavery.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    And we’re back to square one. I’m trying to figure out: are you someone who sold subprime mortgages or some such who’s playing the game of “But that other car was speeding too, officer, why am I getting a ticket?” Or someone who is angry about having to pay for their children’s college education (or someone angry about having paid). In the former case, I think there’s not much left to say. In the latter case, there might be. But not if you’re just going to rant and not bother with engaging the conversation. It’s clear you didn’t bother looking at the suggested links, for one.

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