Subtraction Stew

If the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing people he didn’t exist, the greatest trick of a certain kind of neoliberalism has been to convince people that in all circumstances and times we live in the shadow of austerity. Because once we accept that at all times budgets are parlous, resources are shrinking, and crisis lurks in every dark corner, austerity doesn’t have to be done to us any longer. We do it to ourselves: we create scarcity.

There are many institutions which really experience austerity and experience it as something external, something that’s done to them, something which does overt damage to programs and hidden damage to people. Sometimes the damage of austerity is inevitable and necessary. Faculty and students can protest, but if a university suddenly loses a large portion of its revenues, as some have in recent years, cuts will have to follow. If a university slowly loses students or public funds or has poorly-performing investments, that means cuts too, though at a slow enough pace that’s more like adaptation and less like the sudden shock of austerity.

The problem at many institutions, however, is that there isn’t enough information available to most employees, to most students, to most of the public, to know whether the cry of austerity is at all justified, and even less to know whether what’s being cut is what ought to be cut. Any leadership that claims austerity should also accept an extraordinary burden to demonstrate that the call is legitimate.

This is also where the frequent complaint against corporatization in academia has some of its most potently legitimate bite to it. Austerity in higher education is often justified in language remarkably similar to the way that corporations speak about layoffs and economizing.

It’s hard enough even for corporations to clearly understand where they’re actually making money and where they’re losing it, whether that’s a whole office or down to the level of individual workers. There are a host of ways for people who know how to manipulate information and to play office politics to pin the blame for losses on the wrong people or the wrong project. Business history is also full of executives who didn’t understand that a project which seemed to be losing money was really the key to long-term profits. But at least companies mostly have a single metric for deciding where the axe falls: are you making money or are you losing it?

That metric is self-evidently wrong for any non-profit organization, whether it’s a university, a hospital or a community group. All of those groups are provisioning goods that can’t be valued as profit and loss. They still must care about the sustainability of what they’re doing: they cannot spend more money than they have coming in the door. But in an austerity situation, where there is a sudden shortfall in revenues, a university can’t simply ask who isn’t making enough money and get rid of them.

It’s not just that this strategy contradicts the stated objectives of almost all educational institutions. It’s also that it is remarkably difficult to clearly and consistently demonstrate that some departments in a university are less valued or needed by students. It is completely fair to ask whether at some point employing expensive, highly-trained faculty to teach a miniscule handful of students is sustainable. But that can’t be the only measure of sustainability in an institution whose mission is not limited to the production of profit. More importantly, I’m not sure I can think of an institution that has imposed austerity where the accounting of sustainability has been remotely transparent and consistent. The judgment about what students or communities no longer need or want never seems to come from open scrutiny of the entire range of a university’s activities, both teaching and administrative. Nor does it ever seem to employ any real depth of thought or imagination.

Austerity always comes down the way a lion comes down on a herd of antelope: it catches whatever it can catch and then finds a post-facto logic for its kills.


But the hidden injuries of austerity, as Matt Reed put it, afflict even institutions that haven’t had to go through any of that. Neoliberalism has made everyone think that they don’t have enough to go around, that we’re all struggling with scarcity. So even universities and colleges that are the equivalent of the 1% in their budgets and revenues spend right up to the limits of what they can afford, and then rather than feel happiness at their good fortune, complain of what lies just beyond the boundaries of their budgets.

I heard Eldar Shafir on Radio Times a while back. He’s a psychologist who has co-authored a recent study of the impacts of scarcity on human behavior. I was a bit skeptical about some of his arguments about how the experience of scarcity reinforces or causes poverty, but when Shafir changed gears to talk about how otherwise well-off people talk themselves into thinking they’re experiencing scarcity and how a belief in scarcity changes behaviors, I thought he was really on to something.

That kind of scarcity-thinking is a close cousin to desire, defining aspiration always by lack and absence. It happens at Swarthmore, it happens at other wealthy private colleges and universities. Faculty don’t take stock of the facilities they use every day, the small size of their classes, the excellence of their students, the generous support for their research, or the richness of the intellectual environment around them. Once they’re thinking scarcity, they only see the specialists they don’t have in their departments, the requests that they haven’t had answered, the research they didn’t get to do. More importantly, scarcity-thought paves the road to the war of all against all, to zero-sum thinking, that whatever another department or unit or person gets must be a pre-emptive insult against one’s own aspirations and desires. Imagining scarcity atomizes and isolates, it embitters and diminishes. It becomes impossible under the sign of scarcity to take pleasure in growth or enrichment of resources elsewhere within the same institution. Everyone imagines in loneliness that they are on the downward spiral to deprivation.

Where scarcity-thought takes hold, it also leads people to lose any sense of proportional relation between what they have and what others in other situations have. Scarcity convinces itself that it is experiencing austerity, and mimicks even its historical imagination. (Because austerity, whether genuinely necessary or a lie, is stuck with telling the story of the Golden Age, is condemned to look backward full of regret and envy.) It’s not that different than what happens very wealthy people set their sights on someone wealthier still and see the gap between themselves and those others as illuminating the limitations of their own situation.

And I really think scarcity is something that’s been done to us all, not that we have arrived at independently. Neoliberalism tells the story of universal scarcity in part to explain why we can expect so much less of government, so much less of public institutions, so much less even of corporations. Because apparently no matter how much wealthier we get, we always have less and less. Subtraction stew indeed: every bowl you eat makes you hungrier than you were before.

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1 Response to Subtraction Stew

  1. CarlD says:

    I had a thought like this during the whole Ann-Marie Slaughter kertwang about ‘having it all’, which is obviously utopian, if only because some desires are mutually contradictory; yet is presented straight-faced as a legitimate standard against which to measure a just and fulfilled life. Which leads me to wonder if there isn’t a kind of dialectic at work here between having it all and its inevitable frustration. On this view psychological plenty and austerity would be in perpetual tension, really without much need for reference to any material facts of the matter (or rather, those facts interpretively recruitable as needed). This is starting to sound like Marcuse, so I’ll just put the thought down and slowly back away.

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