Private Goods, from Florence Nightingale to Wendy Brown

Yesterday, Berkeley political theorist Wendy Brown gave a once-in-a-lifetime talk at the Graduate Center—the kind that reminds you what it means to be a political theorist—about the way in which financialization—not just privatization or corporatization—had transformed the academy. Through a deft re-reading of Max Weber’s two vocation lectures, Brown showed how much the contemporary university’s frenzied quest for rankings and ratings has come to mirror Wall Street’s obsession with shareholder value.

In the course of her talk, Brown briefly dilated on the suspicion of public goods in today’s academy. She referenced one university leader saying, with no apparent irony, that the problem with state funding is that it comes with strings attached. The unsaid implication, of course, is that private funding is somehow free of those constraints, a comment that Brown used to open a window onto our contemporary infatuation, even in the academy, with the world of private money and private funding.

So it was with a weird sense of dissonance that, after I got home from Brown’s talk, I stumbled upon this passage from Lytton Strachey’s infamous essay on Florence Nightingale in his Eminent Victorians. Strachey is talking about Nightingale’s expedition to the Crimean War in 1854, where she takes over the nursing care in a hospital for Britain’s wounded in the outskirts of Istanbul. The conditions in the hospital are atrocious, but Nightingale takes to remedying that with a sense of Napoleonic purpose. So skilled and effective is she that a Mr. Macdonald, the administrator of a private charity for the wounded funded by the London Times, makes sure that all of his fund’s monies go directly under her control.

Most observers are ecstatic. The response of the British government, Strachey notes archly, “was different.”

What! Was the public service to admit, by accepting outside charity, that it was unable to discharge its own duties without the assistance of private and irregular benevolence? Never! And accordingly when Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, our Ambassador at Constantinople, was asked by Mr. Macdonald to indicate how the Times Fund could best be employed, he answered that there was indeed one object to which it might very well be devoted—the building of an English Protestant Church at Pera.

Autres temps, autres mœurs.



  1. Larry Houghteling October 22, 2016 at 2:42 pm | #

    Yes, but it’s well known that the Pera ‘Piskies took over the world. So who are you to grouse?

  2. Rosalind Petchesky October 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm | #

    Wendy’s talk was indeed hugely illuminating. It put what we all have ominously perceived to be strange, creepy transformations of the academy into a comprehensive framework and made financialization very clear. it made us think, as all great intellectuals do, about how the proliferation of ratings, rankings, numerical measurements we expérience at every level of university life signify a new form of value and the complete disappearance of what Weber meant by either a scientific or a political “vocation.” I was stunned to come and find, not Lytton Strachey, but the NY Times business section that very day illustrating Wendy’s talk with a front-page article by James B. Stewart called “More College Rankings, More Confusing Results” (confusing for prospective students and their parents). It included a photograph of the Clarement McKenna College Kravis Center that immediately caught my eye (since i went to Sunday school in Oklahoma with Henry Kravis, the undoubted benefactor). But more important, it quoted an official of PayScale–one of the top college rating companies that provides data about graduates’ future earnings that factor prominently in national ratings: “In choosing college, you need to make a smart financial décision. What’s the likely return on your investment?” And Wendy showed how this kind of financial valuation affects not only administration policies and prospective students’ choices but also the very content of what we teach, our research and writing, and the entire ethos of our institutions of “learning”–indeed, the nature of learning itself. Awesome, awful..

  3. John Maher October 22, 2016 at 3:51 pm | #

    In the otherwise excellent blogwelt of Corey Robin I ask, how is this any way news that Unis consider value in terms of capitalist standard and measure and ‘rank’ themselves according by same

  4. jonnybutter October 22, 2016 at 6:39 pm | #

    Of course financialization is bound to be worse in the long run, because it’s so dipshittedly, dumassedly arbitrary. I have real hope for the eventual dethroning of capitalism because it (esp this neoliberal literalism we’re in) actually *does* what reactionaries have long claimed Science (e.g. Darwin) did: remove mind (or soul) from the world; work out a money-value for what we used to call ‘priceless’. It’s the ultimate vulgarity, and I don’t think it will be only socialists who rise up and object.

    Financialization is like having a Gold Standard for values. No real need for judgement – just ‘analysis’; plug the numbers in and out pops the only correct data: Yale is xx% better than Brown.

    I may not get to see it, but I would bet some major pushback is coming. I think the coalition against Total Financialization of Everything is going to be too big to drown. I hope so anyway.

    Wish I could have heard this talk.

  5. RickM October 22, 2016 at 8:50 pm | #

    Highly recommended: “Undoing the Demos” by Wendy Brown (Zone Books, 2015). Of the half-dozen books on neoliberalism I’ve read, this is probably the best. Yes, Professor Brown was preaching to this choir member, but I’ve used much of her argument with my friends from way back, those with whom I parted company when I was the only vote for the SWP in high school election in 1972 (yeah, silly, but I was 17 and Eugene V. Debs was long dead). When I can get them to actually listen, I make some headway. Next project is subverting them with “The Reactionary Mind”, which will be a tougher nut to crack. But worth the trouble.

  6. Roquentin October 23, 2016 at 5:42 pm | #

    Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness talks about this a lot when discussing the old notion of reification. The pull behind it was to make everything calculable and quantifiable so it can be used in the system of exchange. Lukacs rightly identified that this obsession with making everything quantifiable so it could conceptualized in terms favorable to exchange and finance as endemic to capitalism itself and the paramount bourgeois concern. Beyond that, the whole thing hinges on the same old Marxist dichotomy between exchange value and use value. A degree becomes a commodity, good only for what you can exchange it for on the job market.

    Second, I generally reject this idea of a public vs private division/dialectic because it starts the entire conversation down the wrong path. Even conceptualizing society in terms of public and private already imports the logic of neoliberalism and capitalism itself. There would be no private property if it were not guaranteed by the repression and violence which the state wields (the largest parts of the budget are the police, prisons, and military) and the state uses the machinery and logic of finance to organize itself. The two are not separate and reinforce eachother. It takes a very narrow and peculiar definition of the state for all the libertarian arguments to have any traction. Neoliberal ideology more or less project and externalizes all aspects of capitalism it doesn’t like onto “the state” and then argues for its destruction. Without the constant guarantees of brutal and violent repression, capitalism couldn’t function from one day to the next.

    The entire way the political discussion is conceptualized is part of the problem, and if you play on the court with their referees you’re guaranteed to lose every time.

  7. Jocelyn Atkins October 24, 2016 at 9:56 am | #

    Where can we find this lecture online?

    • Chris G November 24, 2016 at 6:50 pm | #

      I’ll second that request. Even a transcript would be appreciated.

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