In the farcical, technocratic future society of Vonnegut’s Player Piano, you have to have at least a bachelor’s degree to do even the most menial service jobs — of which there aren’t a lot left. The great majority of jobs have been automated out of existence, and the ranks of the still employed are dominated by high-IQ, doctorate-wielding managers and engineers who run the society. The unemployable, degreeless majority either go into the armed forces, tens of millions strong, which police America’s post-WWIII global empire, or join a massive public works project called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (“Reeks and Wrecks”). My favorite character in the book is an elderly farm caretaker, who mocks the meritocracy’s reverence for credentials: “I have a PhD in shit. I did my postgrad work in cow shit, pig shit and chicken shit.” Hillary Clinton’s higher education policy proposals are the perfect next step on the century-long road to building such a society in real life.
Her $350 billion plan, which aims to make college affordable, would give grants in aid to states that guarantee “no-loan” tuition at public universities and community colleges.
The problem is that federal higher education policy, and the higher education system itself, have since the beginning been mainly about subsidizing the reproduction of the scientific-technical labor that big business needs. As recounted by David Noble in America By Design, this symbiotic relationship between higher education and state goes back to the state land grant colleges and was dramatically escalated by many orders of magnitude under the post-WWII G.I. Bill. The intensifying relationship between the federal government, higher education and corporate employers, (and the accompanying increase in federal aid to education) is a leading example of the phenomenon James O’Connor described in Fiscal Crisis of the State as the profitability of capitalism depending on the ability of capitalists to externalize a growing share of their input and operating costs on society at large.
And from the beginning, there’s been a dynamic at play in this complex of interlocking institutions where federal money has meant both drastic inflation in the credentials required for various kinds of employment (often largely unrelated to the actual requirements of the jobs themselves), and even more drastic inflation in the overhead costs, relative size and salaries of administration, and waste on new buildings.
The ratio of administrators to students and faculty, and the pay of senior administrators, have increased several hundred percent in real terms in the past few decades. And the growth in college tuition has been comparable to that in healthcare costs. Meanwhile, these million-dollar-salaried presidents, chancellors and deans have shifted about three-quarters of their teaching positions to adjunct faculty with sub-living wages, no benefits and no security.
And at an institutional level, the Human Resources-Education complex has created a society in which college education is mandatory for a growing share of livelihoods — one of many entry barriers the corporate state erects. These barriers enable a class of gatekeeping institutions to collect tribute from us in return for allowing us to transform our skills and effort into comfortable subsistence, and making it impossible for self-directed, cooperative labor to work without bosses.
This is all especially true of contemporary Democrats, who represent the wing of organized capital that sees its hope for the future in what’s variously called “progressive” or “cognitive” or “green capitalism.” All these models envision technological progress — heavily subsidized by the state and enclosed by big business through intellectual “property” law — as the main source of profit.
Clinton proposes tying some of the aid to state polices to lower university costs, but we can imagine how that will pan out. At least Bernie Sanders’s plan, for all its likelihood of getting passed, has some teeth; it would flat out prohibit federal grant money from going toward administrative salaries or non-academic buildings.
What we need to do is attack the root cause of high college costs (that is, creeping managerialism and corporate accounting methods that treat high overhead as a book asset), and break the unholy alliance between human resources departments and universities.
Although big business needs to enclose the new technologies of abundance as a source of profit for themselves if they are to survive, the technologies themselves render them obsolete.
Both human resource departments and the traditional credentialing routes by which human raw material is channeled to corporate employers are becoming irrelevant. Affordable technologies of small-scale production, at the neighborhood shop level, are rendering giant corporations technically obsolete for most forms of production. They depend on artificial scarcities and artificial property rights, like intellectual “property,” to retain their control over production in which they serve no useful function. When most production is carried out in cooperative garage shops or P2P networks, credentialing will be an ad hoc matter to be worked out between the shops and prospective members dealing with each other as equals. Insofar as brick-and-mortar universities continue to serve a function, as opposed to modular, stackable, open-source credentialing, why not eliminate all the high-salaried managers and go back to the medieval model of self-governing universities run by their faculties and/or students — stakeholder cooperatives, to use a contemporary phrase?
The state, by its very nature, is the political means to wealth. It exists to enable the economically privileged classes to extract surplus labor from the rest of us. So long as the state is the instrument by which corporate capitalists run the economy in their own interest, any apparent benefit to students will be a side-effect of the higher education system’s real purpose.