The Foucault-Marx debate and the crisis of elite higher education

Daniel Avatar

Incidentally, I seem to have started the latest Foucault-Marx debates on twitter. It all stems from the contradictions of elite higher private education in America. The issue that frustrated those who are part of top tiered programs is the idea that they are part of a habitus that is tied into a class project that is incoherent to itself and that moreover, elite higher education is not a uniformly pro-Marxist space.

But why would this spark such ire? Why is this not self-evident? It should be. If I was a student in an elite university I would be more than content to dissociate from its class project, which is absolutely ideological, and not insist that it conforms to a space where radical ideas can be developed unimpeded.

No, the truth is that is not the case at all and it should be recognized as such. That is why, beneath this debate lies the question of elite higher education itself and the ways it has developed a worldview that is anti-solidaristic and de-tethered from political struggle. The Foucault-Marx debate, as it appears on social media centers not on two competing perspectives on the world developed from these thinkers. That’s a substantive debate worth having. It is also a misnomer to think that the real heart of the debate is about the legacy of the cultural turn in Marxist study.

The debate rather flares up as an issue revolving around a conception of social wrong and suffering, it flares up around a persecutory notion of what the proletariat is or is not. In one response to the debate a professor tweeted that anti-Foucault sentiment on the left is a result of repressed homophobia. The debate at that point spirals into a hyper-politics which has lost all ground and ended up in character assassinations based on straw men depictions of the other. That this split is even taken to represent some natural division that has a coherent stake in real ideological struggle is absurd. I would accept that this split is a sign of a class conflict between a middle class ideological project built on an aggressive denial of working-class experience, but even that is not directly discernable from the way the debate plays out.

By extension, the heart of the debate is also centered on the presence of the intellectual in today’s time and the function of ideology within elite universities. The elite universities foment radical positions which are actually developed out of a hostility towards the wrong targets and which have an in-built hostility that is borne from a more everyday class conflict experience. Distilled in today’s Foucault-Marx debate is not the issue of class vs. culture, it is the issue of the crisis of elite education and the pervasive lack of compelling accounts of political and cultural politics that come out of elite universities these days.

In my own experience with UC Berkeley, I have witnessed the effects of how political conflict and power is understood first hand. At issue is a misplaced and nonsensical worldview that is borne from a middle class experience. I have only set foot on the campus once for an event where I was giving a speech. You can learn about what happened by watching my recent appearance on This is Revolution (the video is timed to the story).

My sense is that what this all means is that more pressure needs to be made on elite education. My view is that it is an untenable system riddled with contradictions that have to be acknowledged. I do not think that these conditions are developing compelling intellectual voices and in many ways I am grateful that I have never been a part of them. This is not to say that I don’t advise working with elite universities depending on the situation. But it is to say that I think these contradictions and hypocrisies are very real and should be identified and continue to be discussed.

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