16 September 2011

One Possible Future: Star Trek and the Global Economy

I’m going to preface today’s entry with a few statements. Firstly, I confess that I frequently worry about how little money I make each month. Though this, in and of itself, does not negate the argument I am going to put forward, it is best to acknowledge that my personal situation has something to do with how I view the state of things world wide. On a related note, a big reason why I am writing this entry today is because I would like to work the anxiety and pessimism I am currently feeling out of my system so that I can get back to writing my dissertation.

Okay. Deep Breath.

As the title to this entry hints, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the economic situation‑not just in my country, but also world wide‑and what that means for the future. By economic situation, I do not only mean a lack of jobs, though that is certainly a big part of it. To speak about my personal situation, the job outlook has been bleak for decades, and I have little reason to believe that things will improve in the foreseeable future. If I can find a teaching job when I graduate, I will likely be forced to teach 4 or 5 classes a term. There is a good chance I will have to accept an adjuncting position at a community college with a salary that is not commensurate with the amount of work and energy I will have to put into teaching. Let me be clear. By describing this kind of job prospect, I do not wish to suggest that teaching at a community college is beneath me and/or a refuge for substandard teachers. Rather, I want to call attention to just how little monetary value is attached to teaching in the humanities at present. This is especially true at the community college level, which has been marginalized by the four‑year university system for decades, despite that many four‑year colleges within state systems around the country are facing enormous pressure to reduce expenses (i.e., to fire instructors) and are essentially operating under the same stressful conditions that community colleges with more modest budgets have always had to deal with. The argument I have often heard for this state of affairs is that there is a far greater supply of educators in the humanities than there is a demand for them. My answer to this argument is hardly new, but little has happened to change the way things stand.

In the first place, despite the argument that four year universities have been churning out more PhDs than ever, they continue to bring in more new graduate students rather than fewer. The reason is straightforward but no less insidious. Four‑year universities rely on new PhD students to teach lower level classes, for much less than it would cost the university to hire fully qualified instructors and/or professors. In a sense, graduate student teachers amount to slave labor, since the reward is not the paltry stipend the graduate student receives in exchange for teaching (an amount which most graduate students cannot reasonably live on) but the degree which is supposed to lead to job prospects (which are virtually non‑existent) upon graduation. In short, the system is designed to create a far greater supply of educators than are perceived to be needed. At the same time, however, educators in the humanities are facing higher enrollments in their courses‑at my university I saw enrollment in composition courses shoot up from 18 to 20 students to 26 in a very short period of time‑which indicates that more instructors are, in fact, needed. Lastly, accredited universities like mine require every undergraduate to take composition courses that are largely taught by graduate students and instructors (but also increasingly by tenured faculty).

The rhetoric of the challenges the humanities departments are facing and the reality of how humanities departments are valued tell two very different stories. The false story is that humanities departments must accept the kinds of austerity measures that are now threatening the entire planet. The real story is that universities, like the corporations and financial markets that have put the economic health of the planet in jeopardy, are increasingly driven by profit or the exchange value that receiving a degree offers rather than by the educational value of same. As such, the humanities are increasingly not seen as profitable and, by this logic, are not as valuable as other departments to the economic health of any given university. I will put this situation as vividly as I can in marketing terms: when a university brands itself today, it probably does not brand itself as one that offers a great education in the liberal arts. Rather, it likely does so as a university that such and such famous persons attended, that is home to this or that college sports franchise, or that specializes in medical or scientific research or business or something other than the liberal arts. My university brands itself all three of these ways, in fact, and it is hard to blame our current Chancellor for doing so even while I think this approach is problematic. And although these kinds of brands (as opposed to branding the humanities) often generate a good deal of profit for the university, they too are only worth as much the university exploits them (e.g., by reducing labor costs and hiking tuition rates and other fees as well as by exploiting student athletes, many of whom will not find work in the professional sports world), as much as corporations are willing to invest in them (e.g., in research that will lead to ‘breakthroughs’ which the corporation then markets), and as much as consumers are willing to pay (not just sports apparel and paraphernelia but also tuition, the cost of books, food, and so on). In short, branding is geared towards a university’s exchange value rather than its educational value.

I must also face the real possibility that I will be seeking work outside academia upon graduation, since such little monetary value is placed on my area of expertise.

Of course, the kind of capitalization I am describing, one that exploits not just material goods but also cultural information and knowledge, is hardly limited to what is going on in the American University system. A perfunctory glance at the ‘booming’ technology industry shows the direction in which humanity is heading. To be sure, some of the technological advances that man has come up with in the last fifty years have undoubtedly made life easier for people in the West and increasingly in the East as well as other parts of the globe (by this fact I do not wish to imply that bringing such technological advancements to the third world so that the industrialized world can profit from it is a good thing). But there is little doubt that those who have seen the greatest improvements in their quality of life are those who have been able to successfully market and exploit technology. The iPod, to name one technological marvel, is truly a powerful and ingenious piece of machinery that has given people all over the planet nearly instantaneous access to information in the form of music. But we should not fool ourselves that the iPod was designed with only this purpose in mind, or that this was even its primary purpose. Rather, it was invented and later refined through networks like the iTunes portral (which itself very successfully though not exclusively controls what iPod owners can consume and at what price) with the express purpose of making Apple (and Steve Jobs in particular) immeasurably wealthy by exploiting both the West’s consumption of music and, much more insidiously, the cheap labor markets of the East who manufacture these devices for the benefit of the West. In addition, the controlled exploitation of information through linking technologies like the iPod and the internet has in many ways served to further divide the diverse cultures of the globe rather than bring them closer together. In much the same way that ‘history’ is seen as transparent by those who are in the position to write it, the ‘real‑time’ transfer of music is seen as a seamless process by supressing not just the artistic production value that went into creating any given musical track (transmitted as a digital copy of an ‘original’) but also the the value of the physical labor that went into putting the piece of machinery together.

The iPad, of course, takes this strategy several steps further by simultaneously controlling how we access visual data (video as well as text), audio data (music, voicemail and the like), and telecommunications. To be fair, Apple is hardly the only corporation interested in controlling information in ‘real time.’ Witness Microsoft’s latest build of the Windows OS, which is aimed at the computer tablet market. It does not seem like an accident that the feature of the new OS that has garned the most attention thus far, bearing in mind that Microsoft has encouraged this attention, is its purported 8‑second boot time. The faster we can access information, it seems, the more transparent and more beneficial technology appears. We should also consider the amount of patent litigation that corporations like Apple have brought to bear on information markets. Google has felt the pressure Apple is exerting through its litigation strategy and has been buying companies in an effort to shore up its patent portfolio, despite that Apple’s primary target in its patent war has been Android. Nor does the race to control ‘real time’ access to information not stop even here. A recent blog post at GinandTacos.com very persuasively argues that Accuweather is attempting to control access to up to the minute weather reports purely for financial gain. Accuweather’s lobbying the US government over who should control weather reports is a perfect example of the lack of transparency, considering that Accuweather relies on the National Weather Service to make its reports in the first place.

My point to these lengthy digressions, I hope, is becoming clear. Capitalism has insuated itself into nearly every aspect of life as we know it. I will freely admit (and I hope that this is the case) that I could just be overly paranoid from thinking about this too much over the last few days, but I feel as though we are quickly approaching a point of no return, though what direction humanity will go in remains unclear. But I am thinking, for instance, about the recent debt ceiling crisis in the US (only staved off for approximately 18 months by some estimates), itself the symptom of a much bigger problem that has much to do with capitalism, and the impending debt crisis in Europe via the fear that Greece is going to default on its debt. I state the situation with Greece this way for a reason. It is abundantly clear to me (and I’m sure to many others) that what is driving this crisis is not simply government nor the majority of people of this world who are only trying to make ends meet, although the people and their governments must necessarily participate in capitalism. But Statements about Greece ‘spending beyond its means’ by the media, which parrot what financial markets are saying about the situation, completely miss the point. So, too, do statements that Greece must enact further austerity measures‑it has already done so once and been bailed out once, with no appreciable effect-if its government hopes to continue to operate. Such measures will only hurt those who are already barely scraping by and will do nothing to strengthen Greece’s economy, since all economies depend on‑and have always depended on‑the ability of the masses to consume goods. And I’ll add here that the example of what is happening in Greece should warn the US that austerity measures are not the answer, but this has not been the case. The problem, rather, is the same fundamental problem that has existed since capitalism became a driving force in the course of human history, the impulse to accumulate wealth. By this, I do not only mean that the financial markets, which are largely based on greed and, as the case with Greece makes clear, fear, are to blame, though finanicial speculators are certainly some of the biggest abusers of the system, since the purpose of financial policy is obstensibly to regulate and safeguard the citzenry’s money, a task which has been largely disregarded and/or abused. But more importantly, I mean that we must change our impulse to accumulate wealth and posessions. The result of not doing so has been a history filled with not only physical violence (the actual battles for land and resources via the sword or less direct but no less violent means) but also with mental anguish and anxiety for both the have‑nots and the haves (who must always worry that they will lose what they have accumulated, whether they have done so through ethical or unscrupulous means). Indeed, I would argue that capitalism thrives on the threat of loss, whether that is the physical loss of goods, the loss of cultural information, or any variation of loss we can think of. And the threat of loss that captalism exerts on its participants is largely responsible for the divide that exists between individual people and whole cultures. To return to my own example, the ‘reality’ is that I will be competing with hundreds if not thousands of people for the same position(s) I apply to. I emphasize reality here because the mindset among educators is no longer only about educating the future (if that was ever truly the mindset; I honestly don’t know). Rather, it is just as much about earning some kind of living wage if not more so. This ‘spirit’ of competition that capitalism instills in us can only drive a wedge among educators rather than bring them together in common cause. And I lump myself in with this mindset, since I have written above that my chief worry in looking for a job upon graduation is being able to provide for myself. Much the same can be said at the national level. In the US, the recent debt ceiling crisis was clearly the latest in an endless string of fights over who gets to control the government, a fight that capitalism resoundingly won and which has done nothing to bring the two major parties in the US any closer together. In Europe, financial pundits are not saying much about what is best for the people of Greece if its government defaults. Instead, they are discussing what would happen if the other members of the EU turn their back on Greece or if Greece decides to abandon the Euro and go it alone. If this mindset is ever going to change, something fundamental about what drives humanity to do what it does first needs to change.

I am reminded of a few scenes from Star Trek the Next Generation that discuss what humanity could be like in a future that has shifted from a capitalist based system to a human based system. In this universe, there is no poverty. There is not even money, whether by this we mean physical currency or digital records of currency. One scene from the movie First Contact involves the Enterprise’s Captain Jean‑Luc Picard explaining that the accumulation of wealth is no longer the driving force in people’s lives. Instead, humanity has put aside its differences and begun to work solely for its betterment. Scenes like this sound utopian and more than a little bit hokey. They are also misleading, since this view of humanity is also used to show its superiority to alien species like the Ferengi (the ultimate capitalists with their ‘rules of acquisition’) still engaged in the kind of commerce that we engage in today. Yet Star Trek does posit a possible future that on its face would solve much of the economic and social issues that capitalism has created‑that it needs to create‑which are driving humanity to the edge of financial ruin. I personally don’t have much hope that humanity is going to make the kind of shift away from capitalism that is needed anytime soon. It certainly isn’t going to do so on on its own. In the Star Trek universe, it takes a nuclear war that kills the majority of the population plus first contact with a (luckily) benevolant alien race for humanity to finally get it together. I can’t help but think that violence is going to be part of the ‘solution’ if our ancient history and the recent riots in Greece, Egypt and England are any indication. In any event, I think something must happen relatively soon if we are ever going to affect change. Michael Moore has recently put the situation the US currently finds itself in succinctly: “If we don’t change, we’re doomed.”

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