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Why are you singling out my posts on Israel/Palestine?

22 Nov

Whenever I post about Israel/Palestine, I get insinuations and complaints about how I’m not posting about other struggles around the world. But when I post about a labor conflict—say, at the University of Oregon—no one asks or speculates about why I’m not also posting about labor conflicts in Tibet. So today I’m starting a new meme: Why are you singling out my posts on Israel/Palestine?

In Response to Pending Grad Strike at U. Oregon, Administration Urges Faculty to Make Exams Multiple Choice or Allow Students Not to Take Them

21 Nov

Graduate students at the University of Oregon are about to go on strike. A year ago, I talked on this blog about the faculty union’s effort to negotiate a fair contract. Because so many folks here and elsewhere put pressure on the administration, we helped get the faculty a good contract. Now we need to do stand in solidarity with the grad students. Joe Lowndes, who’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, wrote this guest post on the negotiations and impending strike. Read what he’s got to say—the administration really is urging full-time faculty to turn essay-based, lengthy final exams into multiple choice Scantron tests or simply to allow undergrads to forgo taking the exam altogether—and then make sure to write the folks he says to write and sign the petition he suggests we sign.

* * * * *

After a year of failed negotiations, graduate employees at the University of Oregon are about to go out on strike.

The major point of contention is a demand by the graduate union—Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation—for two weeks paid leave for illness or childbirth.

This is an important struggle for graduate students, who carry an enormous teaching, grading and research load at the university. It is also an important struggle for the faculty, which the university seeks to press into service as strikebreakers. What we are seeing here is the kind of anti-labor tactics at which institutions of higher education across the US are becoming adept. At the same time we are seeing powerful solidarity between grad students, faculty and classified staff.

The GTFF demands are modest. Indeed, Eugene, where the University of Oregon is located, is mandating sick leave benefits for all workers across the city. But because university employees are exempted, the GTFF must bargain for them.

(An irony at the heart of this labor dispute is that the interim university president, Scott Coltrane, is a sociologist whose work is focused on family leave. He has been featured in The Atlantic, on NPR and was even at the White House last June to speak about the importance of parental leave policies. Such are the corporate institutional imperatives of universities today that his administration feels compelled to oppose such policies for graduate employees. )

Late last month a secret memorandum from senior administrators was circulated to deans and directors outlining a plan to break the strike by hiring scab labor and weakening academic standards for undergraduate education. Here are a few excerpts.

For the faculty who have a union the administration recommends they be conscripted as scabs like so:

It is generally understood that supervisors [i.e., chairs] can approach represented faculty [i.e., in the bargaining unit] and engage them in a dialogue about assisting for the duration of the strike. This assistance may include, but is not limited to: teaching, grading, or participating in the hiring of replacement workers.

Keep in mind that many of these full-timers who are to be “engaged in a dialogue” are not tenured.

For faculty who are not in the bargaining unit there’s this:

Similar to represented faculty, we will be seeking volunteers from among our unrepresented faculty ranks for coverage of work previously assigned to GTFs. Unlike represented faculty, there is no ambiguity as to whether departments can explicitly assign the work should the need arise. Again, every effort should be made to find volunteers to cover the work.
Volunteers who will be assigned work. Nice.
And because we’re heading into the end of the semester, what does the administration plan for final exams?
For a strike occurring on or after finals week, departments should have a plan in place for covering finals and grading that is performed by GTFs.
1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.
2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.
3. Provide students with the following options:
a. For go the final and take the grade they had going into the final
b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded

The Administration is lining up whatever labor it can find and has posted a pay scale for anyone who wants to scab. Seemingly willing to break the strike at any cost, the university is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.

Fortunately, the administration’s designs have been met with enormous pushback.

First, a powerful resolution was passed by the University Senate titled “Opposition to Efforts by Academic Affairs to Dilute and Degrade Academic Standards in the Event of a Graduate Teaching Fellows Strike.”

Next, twelve department heads and program directors issued a public letter to senior administrators refusing to engage in strikebreaking activities on practical, pedagogical, and moral grounds, threatening to resign their administrative positions if forced to do so.

The graduate students have a number of allies on campus, including steadfast support from our faculty and classified staff unions that are standing steadfast with them. Nevertheless, this is going to be a hard fight for the graduate students, and they will of course bear the brunt of the strike when it happens.

The strike could yet be avoided if the university administration were to offer meaningful concessions. And for that they need more pressure.

You can help by emailing President Scott Coltrane at and Provost Francis Bronet at and urging them to settle with the GTFF.

You can also sign this petition:

We—the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Oregon and the community at large—express our strong support for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (the GTFF) in their current contractual negotiations with the University.

In light of the invaluable contribution GTFs make to the instruction and research missions of the University, we feel GTFs have earned a contract that provides them with fair compensation, respectful treatment, and the basic securities provided to other campus employee groups.

We demand that the University take seriously the GTFF’s bargaining proposals— a minimum wage that actually meets living expenses for graduate students in Eugene and paid parental and sick leave.

We stand beside the GTFF and call upon the University administration to take concrete and immediate steps, at the bargaining table and beyond, to provide GTFs with the fair wages, equitable benefits, and respectful working conditions they deserve.

Steven Salaita at Brooklyn College

20 Nov

Steven Salaita and Katherine Franke spoke at Brooklyn College tonight; I moderated the discussion. Three quick comments.

First, the event happened. We had an actual conversation about Israel/Palestine, BDS, Zionism, nationalism, academic freedom, civility. Students offered opposing views, tough questions were posed, thoughtful answers were proffered, multiple voices were heard, there was argument, there was reason, there was frustration, there was difficulty, there was dialogue, there was speechifying, there was back-and-forth. There was a college.

Going into the event, the usual voices mobilized against it. Politicians tried to shut it down. Alan Dershowitz complained he wasn’t invited. I told him to calm down: “In all the years that Professor Dershowitz was a professor at Harvard Law School, he and his colleagues never once invited me to speak, so I’m not exactly clear what all the fuss is about.” Outsiders called the political science department to shout at us.

But there was a difference this time: it was all fairly muted. At no point did any of us think that the administration would cancel the event. We’ve turned that corner. Even the usual suspects seem to be getting tired of their schtick. And the reason is that the event did what it was supposed to do: it created a space for conversation. Maybe we’re moving on?

Which brings me to my second point. All of us at Brooklyn College, and in the larger community, owe a debt of gratitude to the Students for Justice in Palestine. This is now the fourth or fifth (probably more) major event of its kind that they have put on at Brooklyn College since the BDS affair. And each time, they’ve managed to offer members of the College—on all sides of the Israel/Palestine issue—and the community a chance to have a thoughtful discussion. Whatever your position is on this issue, there should be little disagreement that SJP has enriched the College. Not because they advocate for justice in Palestine—though they do that, too—but because they have provided us all with a space to stretch our minds.

Which brings me to my final point. Though I was obviously sympathetic to Steven Salaita going into this event, I came out of it extraordinarily impressed by him. Not merely his character—he’s as haimish as can be—but his intellect. He has an extraordinarily agile mind. Within minutes he can move you from Cotton Mather to Franz Fanon, and throughout the ride, you know exactly where you are. You can see why he’s such a good teacher and why his students love him so much: not because he tells you what you know, but because he takes you somewhere you’ve not been. He had a brilliant riff about how it’s an old trope in colonial discourse that the native corrupts the colonizer, that it’s the native that turns the colonizer from someone who’s as pure as the driven snow into the foulest heart. And suddenly Salaita leaped to Spielberg’s Munich, and showed how it illustrated that exact principle.

This is the man the University of Illinois fired. Because, they claimed, he would be a toxin in the classroom. They have no idea what they’ve squandered.

Israel, Palestine, and the “Myth and Symbol” of American Studies

13 Nov

Lisa Duggan, president of the American Studies Association, has an excellent oped in the Los Angeles Times on the organization’s recent convention in Los Angeles and how the ASA has fared, academically and politically, in the year since it announced its boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Lisa’s oped reminds me of a point that’s been bothering me for some time.

One of the frequent criticisms that opponents of the ASA boycott make is this: What in the world is an American Studies organization doing concerning itself with the affairs of another country? As one American Studies scholar (to whom Lisa is in part responding) put it in the LA Times:

Ostensibly devoted to the study of all things American, the 5,000-member academic cohort has ventured outside its natural borders and into the crossfire of Israeli-Palestinian politics by voting to bestow pariah status on Israel.

Other similarly inclined critics of the ASA—many of them of an older generation of scholars—often add to this claim a lament for the good old days of American Studies when scholars like Richard Slotkin (who also opposes the ASA boycott of Israel) penned learned and literate trilogies about the long and terrible career of American violence.

But here’s what seems so strange about this claim.

My sense of American Studies—admittedly from outside the field—is that it always has derived a great deal of its animating energy and intellectual purpose from the international arena (otherwise known as other countries). As Lisa’s interlocutor himself acknowledges, the early years of American Studies were shaped by the imperatives of the Cold War, and then in the 1960s and 1970s the field was reshaped by the Vietnam War, producing such canonical works as…Richard Slotkin’s learned and literate trilogy about the long and terrible career of American violence.

In order to reconcile this past of the discipline with the complaints of its contemporary critics, you have to make one of two assumptions: either that the field has another, completely different past or that Israel is not part of the foreign policy of the United States. Either way, you’re living in a fantasy land.

Once upon a time American Studies’s elders took apart the “myth and symbol” of America; now they’ve turned their field into one.

The Labor Theory of Value at the University of Illinois

13 Nov

In case you were wondering why conservatives worked so hard, historically, to scrap the labor theory of value…

Robert Easter, the president of the University of Illinois who helped do in Steven Salaita, was just given an outgoing bonus by the Board of Trustees, who did do in Steven Salaita, of $180,000. Which will bring his final year of salary to $658,558.

Just cause.

David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin

13 Nov

In my course this semester at the Graduate Center, “The Political Theory of Capitalism,” we’ve been exploring how some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory: consent, obedience, rule, law, and so forth.

Through economic thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Schumpeter, Jevons, and the like, we try and read political economy as the distinctively modern idiom of political theory. In the same way that religion provided a distinctive language and vocabulary for political thought after Rome and before the Renaissance, might not economics provide modern political theory with its own distinctive idiom and form? In other words, our interest in the political moment of economic discourse is not when the state intervenes or intrudes; it’s when economic discourse seems to be most innocent of politics. That’s when we find the most resonant and pregnant political possibilities.

I’ll give you an example.

For the last several weeks we’ve been reading and talking about Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which I have to admit, damn near killed me. Turns out it’s really hard to teach a text you don’t understand.

But one of the more interesting—and, at least to me, semi-intelligible—arguments in Ricardo is his account of rent. (I don’t think the problem is Ricardo; it’s me.) For it’s there, in his chapter on rent, that he introduces the idea of the margin. I could be wrong, but I don’t see anything like a notion of the margin in other parts of the book. It’s all in his chapter on rent. (Ricardo experts or intellectual historians: is that right? Are there other places in Ricardo’s texts where he talks about the margin? Were there other theorists prior to Ricardo who talked about it?)

Now that in and of itself is interesting: Is there something to be gleaned from or learned about the idea of the margin from the fact that it arose, for Ricardo, in the context of a discourse on rent?

Anyway, here are three places in his chapter on rent where he talks about the idea of the margin:

The reason then, why raw produce rises in comparative value, is because more labour is employed in the production of the last portion obtained, and not because a rent is paid to the landlord.

Raw material enters into the composition of most commodities, but the value of that raw material, as well as corn, is regulated by the productiveness of the portion of capital last employed on the land, and paying no rent; and therefore rent is not a component part of the price of commodities.

It follows from the same principles, that any circumstances in the society which should make it unnecessary to employ the same amount of capital on the land, and which should therefore make the portion last employed more productive, would lower rent.

Ricardo’s basic idea of rent is that it arises from the differential in the quality of two tracts of land. So we start with land that is lush and fertile and easily farmed. At some point the population will require more food and more land will have to be put into play. So we move to the next piece of land, which is slightly less fertile and lush. At that point, the first piece of land generates a rent: the farmer and/or capitalist who use it will be willing to pay slightly extra in order not to have to use the slightly less fertile lend. And then we move to the third piece of land. And so on.

Ricardo’s basic intuition is that rent arises from difference:

If all land had the same properties, if it were unlimited in quantity, and uniform in quality, no charge could be made for its use, unless where it possessed peculiar advantages of situation. It is only, then, because land is not unlimited in quantity and uniform in quality, and because in the progress of population, land of an inferior quality, or less advantageously situated, is called into cultivation, that rent is ever paid for the use of it. When in the progress of society, land of the second degree of fertility is taken into cultivation, rent immediately commences on that of the first quality, and the amount of that rent will depend on the difference in the quality of these two portions of land.

At some point, we reach a final piece of land, beyond which it simply does not pay to work it at all. That final piece of land generates no rent; all it can afford is a wage to the laborer and a profit to labor’s employer. The tract of land just before that one generates a very little bit of rent. The one before that a little bit more. And so on back to the best land.

That last piece of really crappy land—with its concomitant last exertion of labor or last expenditure of capital—sets the value for the class of commodities that are produced on all the lands. For it is there, on that worst land, that the most labor will have to be expended in order to generate the commodity (the amount of labor required to produce the commodity determines the value of the commodity).

The exchangeable value of all commodities, whether they be manufactured, or the produce of the mines, or the produce of land, is always regulated, not by the less quantity of labour that will suffice for their production under circumstances highly favorable, and exclusively enjoyed by those who have peculiar facilities of production; but by the greater quantity of labour necessarily bestowed on their production by those who have no such facilities; by those who continue to produce them under the most unfavorable circumstances; meaning—by the most unfavorable circumstances, the most unfavorable under which the quantity of produce required, renders it necessary to carry on the production.

And while that last bit of land generates no rent—for all the value of the commodities sold is devoted to the wages of labor and the profit of the capitalist—every infinitesimal differential above that last bit of land will generate a rent. And though that last bit of land doesn’t generate a rent, the value of the rents on the better lands will be set by the value of the commodities produced on that last bit of land. The value of the commodities on that last bit will be high—”with every worse quality [of land] employed, the value of the commodities in the manufacture of which they were used, would rise, because equal quantities of labour would be less productive”—so the more productive labor working the better land will produce more commodities, so that better land will fetch a high rent.

Anyway, that’s the little bit of economics I could figure out (and I probably didn’t even get that right.)

But here’s the interesting part for me, as a political theorist.

In political theory, the great political moment, the highest mode of political action, is the founding of a new polity. Read Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Arendt: the founding moment is when all the basic laws, institutions, customs and mores of the polity are set out. It’s a moment of great drama and great art (that’s why Aeschylus mined it to such tremendous effect in the last play of the trilogy The Oresteia).

For political theorists of this vein, the further away you move from the founding moment—the further in time and place—the more loss, decay, corruption you will see. There is simply a fact of entropy that sets in, once the fervor and fever of that founding moment is lost. Machiavelli’s great obsession with Rome has much to do with the distance in time and space that the republic/empire travels from its founding as a small city.

The art of politics, then, is to steal back from time (and space) what it takes from the polity as it was founded, to deprive age of its ravages, to find a way to repeat the intensity, the engagement, the connection and commitment, of that founding moment. Whether through education, laws, festivals, rites, wars, what have you.

It struck me in reading Ricardo just how much the marginal theory of rent turns that idea of a founding moment on its head. Where the western theoretical tradition begins with a moment in time and place, and sees a threat in any movement away from that time and place, Ricardo’s theory of the margin begins at the opposite end of that process, with the last tract of land, which is furthest removed from the original tract in both time and space. And where the founding tradition of political theory sees the founding as the source of value from which all politics and morals emanate and decay—the founding is the pacesetter of values—the marginal theory of rent sees the outer limits of decay and decadence as the source of value: of the labor on that outer tract of land that is required for the production of the commodity, of the value of the commodity itself, and of the rent that commodity will generate on the inner tracts of land.

Ricardo himself seems to have had some intuition of how strange this all is. Not from a political theory perspective (though his comments are quite generative on that score) but from a more general cultural and sociological perspective:

Nothing is more common than to hear of the advantages which the land possesses over every other source of useful produce, on account of the surplus which it yields in the form of rent. Yet when land is most abundant, when most productive, and most fertile, it yields no rent; and it is only when its powers decay, and less is yielded in return for labour, that a share of the original produce of the more fertile portions is set apart for rent. It is singular that this quality in the land, which should have been noticed as an imperfection, compared with the natural agents by which manufacturers are assisted, should have been pointed out as constituting its peculiar pre-eminence.

Rent arises from decay, from the distance traveled from that founding tract of land.

And here’s where the fact that the marginal theory arises in the context of an account of rent, of money paid to a semi-aristocratic landlord, might matter. For in classical political theory of the kind we’ve been examining here, the supreme political actor is often assumed to be some sort of propertied worthy, a member of the landed gentry (that was part of the Country tradition of Bolingbroke’s circle in 18th century England) or such. His landed independence frees from him the imperatives of fear and favor, makes him a creature of civic virtue. It is a precondition of his agency.

But in Ricardo’s hands, the landlord is completely without agency. He’s more than a parasite; he’s utterly passive. Not only do his rents derive from the activities of others, but they go up in response to the imperatives of population growth that compel the harvesting of new and less fertile lands. He doesn’t act at all; he merely presides over and profits from the expansions and exertions of others.

And where the landed gentry of the political tradition are expected to attend to the maintenance and the upkeep of the polity, the preservation of its founding fervor, the landlords of Ricardo have a vested interest in the decay and demise of the lands and labors surrounding them. For that decay and demise provide the raw ingredients of difference that serve as the source of their rents.

Without multiplying instances, I hope enough has been said to show, that whatever diminishes the inequality in the produce obtained from successive portions of capital employed on the same or on new land, tends to lower rent; and that whatever increases that inequality, necessarily produces an opposite effect, and tends to raise it.

…it is obvious that the landlord is doubly benefited by difficulty of production. First, he obtains a greater share, and secondly the commodity in which he is paid is of greater value.

If what I’m saying about Ricardo’s theory of rent (and the significance of the margin for that theory) is true, the question becomes: to what extent can we read the entire tradition of marginal economics, which comes later and moves significantly beyond the category of rent, in a similar light, as standing the basic categories and concepts of political foundings on their head?

Update (November 13, 11:45 pm)

Several folks have asked me to post a copy of the syllabus. Which I thought I had a while back, but turns out the link is dead. So here it is now.

A Palestinian Exception…at Brooklyn College

11 Nov

Next week, I’m proud to announce, the political science department at Brooklyn College, of which I am chair, will be co-sponsoring two events.

The first, which is being put on by the Wolfe Institute of the Humanities at Brooklyn College, is a talk by Nation columnist, poet, and essayist Katha Pollitt. Katha has just published a book called Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and that is the title of the talk she will be giving next Tuesday, November 18, at 2:25 (yes, 2:25), in Woody Tanger Auditorium at Brooklyn College.

The second, which is being put on by the Students for Justice in Palestine at Brooklyn College, is a conversation between Steven Salaita, who needs no introduction on this blog, and Columbia Law Professor Katharine Franke, who was so instrumental in his defense this past summer. I will be moderating the conversation. It will be held next Thursday, November 20, at 5:30 in the Gold Room of the Student Center at Brooklyn College. You have to register in advance for the event. Please do so now. While the seats for non-BC students are now full, there is a waiting list, and it’s often not hard to get off the waiting list, since not everyone shows up. The students are also negotiating with the administration to get more seats for members of the community. So sign up for the wait list and keep checking back in.

Now all this talk of registration and wait lists and such should instantly alert you to the strange way that a student event around Palestine is treated at Brooklyn College. In Katha’s case, anyone from the college or community can just show up; in the Salaita case, you have to register in advance, and if history is any guide, pass through an elaborate set of security checkpoints just to get in.

In fairness to Brooklyn College, I’m told that this is how all student events are treated. But if we’re honest for a second, it’s fairly clear that all these procedures were created in the wake of the BDS controversy of February 2013. And they’ve proven to be especially onerous for the Students for Justice in Palestine. I myself had to intervene in this case—as a member of the faculty—with a high-level official in the administration in order to move the process along; it’s that cumbersome and difficult.

What’s more, during the week of November 17, Steven Salaita will be speaking at eight colleges and universities in the area: Rutgers Newark, Rutgers New Brunswick, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, the New School, the College of Staten Island (CUNY), and Brooklyn College. Only at Brooklyn College will attendees have to go through this baroque set of checkpoints and procedures. How ironic that private universities like NYU and Princeton and Columbia are more welcoming of the public than Brooklyn College.

While I’m excited that our department is co-sponsoring both events, I would be less than honest if I didn’t express a certain disappointment with my colleagues in other departments. The only departments co-sponsoring both events are the departments of sociology, political science, and secondary education, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project. Many others were asked to co-sponsor the Salaita event, but they refused.

Now, I should make clear that every department is entitled to co-sponsor or organize whatever events it chooses to co-sponsor. My department has an especially tolerant policy of co-sponsorship; not all departments do. And just as I objected when political science was lambasted for co-sponsoring the BDS event, I would not want departments to be pilloried for refusing to co-sponsor the Salaita event. It’s their right to decide; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But while acknowledging and affirming that right, I can’t help noticing that some departments are perfectly happy to co-sponsor the Katha Pollitt talk, but won’t get near the Salaita event with a ten-foot pole. And while these departments invoke two arguments for steering clear of a Salaita-type event—the event is “one-sided,” and its content has nothing to do with the particular mission of the department—they seem willing to dispense with these arguments when it comes to Katha Pollitt’s talk. Even though abortion rights has nothing to do with the missions of some of these department, and her talk is so one-sided that it’s called “pro.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to my liberal colleagues at Brooklyn College that were they a professor in Alabama or Mississippi, they would have to be just as careful around a talk by Katha Pollitt as they are at Brooklyn College around an event focused on Palestinians. Abortion is a no-brainer here; there it’s as controversial as Israel/Palestine is here. It’s the mere happenstance of living in New York that leads them to push in one instance, and pull in another.

And here’s why that’s a problem. A university is not supposed to reflect the conventional wisdom of its environs. It’s supposed to challenge that conventional wisdom. It’s all too easy in progressive (except for Palestine) Brooklyn to co-sponsor a talk in defense of abortion rights. But the real guts of academic freedom is to defend it when it matters, when it’s most on the edge, pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Not because edginess is a value unto itself, but because it’s often at the edges where a society’s deepest, most difficult, issues lie, where its deepest and most difficult issues are repressed. The job of the heresy hunters is to keep those issues at the edge, repressed; the job of intellectuals and academics (or so we like to tell ourselves) is to force them into the center, into the light.

In the past at Brooklyn College, our problem has been donors and alums and politicians. And that’s the way we on the faculty like it: they’re easy targets. But that’s not the case this time around. The administration has worked hard on behalf of the students; the donors and alums and politicians have been silent. The only thing standing in the way of a robust conversation is…us.

Update (November 12, 10:30 AM)

The philosophy department voted yesterday to co-sponsor the Salaita event! Good news. When we had the BDS event at Brooklyn College, my department was the only co-sponsor. Now four departments are co-sponsoring. Slow boring of hard boards.


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