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Issue #1923      July 13, 2020

The humanities fees hike, neoliberal ideology, and plagues

“The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name.”

In 1967, Noam Chomsky wrote American Power – and the New Mandarins, a devastatingly accurate dissection of American imperial ruthlessness. It was, and still is, a devastating critique of American intellectuals: his “new mandarins” being those who, through their silence, remain subservient to those in power. He goes on to say “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

Chomsky, whilst directing his thoughts to both Nazi “rationality” and the myth of America’s perceived role as God’s representative on Earth, explored the rise of the new “mandarins” and what has, in fact, created them. His book, written during the rabid anti-communist ideology of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, questions the moral rectitude behind the use of America’s superior technology to lay waste both North Korea and Vietnam. He spoke of the militarisation of his country – even worse in 2020 – and hoped:

“that the struggle against racism and exploitation at home can be linked with the struggle to remove the heavy Yankee boot from the necks of oppressed people throughout the world.”

Chomsky implied that his “new mandarins” of the 1960s were unprepared for any intellectual interpretation and were incapable of focusing with any rational commitment to the end result. Their view of life is purely one of expediency, which he blamed on the swing in colleges from a training in classical studies to one that emphasised political and economic values. He implied that such emphasis produces a “peculiar congeniality” towards war.

This critique is particularly apt in 2020 after the Australian Liberal government’s announcement of a doubling in fees for degrees in the humanities, whilst reducing fees in science subjects in order to “incentivise students to make more ‘job-relevant’ decisions about their education.” Morrison’s marauders have seen this as an ideal opportunity, whilst we’re distracted by the pandemic, to re-shape our universities towards an American model under which the humanities have declined – not seen as worthy as STEM fields; that is, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In order not to produce “mandarins,” we need the humanities in order to communicate in this increasingly complicated world. Foreign languages are crucial as are philosophy and ethics which ask the important questions keeping us from crossing moral lines in politics, science, and life generally. Law and politics change outdated laws. The humanities help sustain democracy and teach us to be informed citizens. All this enhances dealings with other countries and, combined with the skills in logic and critical reasoning offered by the humanities, we’re able to make more intelligent and thoughtful economic decisions. It has been proved that the humanities have benefits providing values that are equal to the STEM fields of knowledge: they are vital in understanding human cultures, ethics (currently in short supply in Canberra) and critical thinking.

And what an amazing sense of timing, when COVID-19 has knocked the stuffing out of most of our universities, with their over-reliance on the income provided by international students! It is one of the most ill-considered, anti-intellectual government “initiatives” and goes a long way to producing more fact-driven, “mandarins” whose creative intelligence is formed solely toward the solution of political and industrial problems. It would appear that the culture of the Coalition cabinet is one that creates its own economic reality – a reality that even dispenses with Adam Smith’s laws of supply and demand. With this in mind, perhaps our politicians need to go back to school.

Now, over fifty years after Chomsky’s ruminations, Australia is rapidly becoming another American State: our country having been formed by the same old colonial ethics and ideologies of superiority and exploitation. We follow blindly the anti-Chinese rhetoric, cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Post-pandemic might be a good time for reflection about the kind of country in which we find ourselves and the kind of society we wish to create. This threat to humanity has disrupted the way we think, and caused many to question their priorities: maybe showing us the error of our ways? We work for a pittance, mortgaged up to the eyeballs whilst seeing a privileged few making millions and often destroying the earth doing so.

The diabolic fires in the Eastern states concentrated our minds on the inevitability of even worse future catastrophes exacerbated by climate change. In the fires’ aftermath people were, quite rightly, enraged by government inaction and denial. Why weren’t the intellectuals, scientists, environmentalists, ecologists, etc., dominating the news, hammering at the doors of parliament demanding instant action and effective environmental legislation from our fossil fuel-loving politicians?

Unfortunately, that rage has been quelled by COVID-19, which has seen the populace subjected (for the benefit of all) to what, in normal circumstances would be unconscionable limitations on civil liberties. The sudden spectre of a life-threatening virus immediately relegated the threat of climate change catastrophes in the next 20-30 years to the back of the bus. Although I dare say that for those now freezing in tents and/or caravans, and affected mentally by the hellish conflagrations of the summer of 2019, climate change is still very much on their minds. It’s imperative now to put it back on the political agenda.

Then came the murder of African-American, George Floyd. Overt racism has been constant over the centuries in America, but the filming of the contempt for a black man’s life shown by a white policeman – and watched by three other white policemen who should be upholding the law – opened the floodgates of a rage which has long simmered below the surface.

For Australians, the triumvirate of fire, virus and racism has united us to look in depth at our priorities and at what kind of society we want. So, in this post-pandemic society, what is really important to us? Suddenly, we’re questioning the direction in which capitalism has taken us.

Morrison’s largesse to protect the bedrock of our society has made us realise how that society has been structured – politically, culturally, economically, and racially – to subordinate the majority while privileging the elite few. This has been particularly successful in the way the race “card” has been used to divide the working class. Racism is a historically specific ideology that has evolved as a constituent element within capitalism: another facet of its “divide and rule” philosophy. In Capital Marx wrote (in relation to slavery), that “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Reverting once more to Chomsky’s book, there’s a reference to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s observation on American society – equally relevant in contemporary Australia – that we have moved perceptibly towards the state of “a society maimed through the systematic corruption of its intelligence” which warrants vigilance from the intellectual community about the growing threat to its integrity. There has been a gradual erosion of integrity and critique amongst intellectuals concerning the undemocratic policy-making of governments globally, and locally as shown by this latest assault on university education.

Prior to COVID-19 came promises of a better future if only those dispossessed would have patience – heard that before as the “meek will inherit the earth”? The inequality will disappear – remember Hawke’s promise that “By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty” which still rings in our ears? And our apathetic, obedient majority, with its mind and conscience still dulled by a surfeit of commodities and a new version of Matthew 5:5.

So, what should we expect from our government? Australians have now realised that car pollution caused by travelling to work is unnecessary when they could work from home. The reduced air pollution caused by flying and millions of cars could not be ignored. The damage we all do to the environment became painfully apparent and many have begun to re-think lifestyles. What is needed now is to convince our political representatives – our “mandarins” – that drastic changes are necessary.

Something about ideology?

Next article – REPORT: BLM rally in boorloo (Perth)

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