Academia and the Internet: Rising From the Stalinist Ashes Like the University of Phoenix

Dr. Gelernter, I think your account of Western academia’s failure and mine are different angles on the same story.

(Bear with us, folks, this will get back to Internet liberation; at the end of this rant I’ll explain how the Internet may turn out to be the lever to force constructive change in academia.)

In fact, it was partly your musings on the post-WWII failure of nerve by the U.S.’s WASP elite that started me doing the thinking and research that led to my current understanding of Stalin’s meme war. You’ve fluttered some dovecotes by observing that the replacement of WASPs by Jewish intellectuals was a leading indicator of some major negative trends in postwar American culture; what you didn’t note (an omission which surprised me) was that the real wreckers in the new elite weren’t a random selection of Jews, they were red-blanket babies from the same Ashkenazic family dynasties of the Old Left that had produced the Rosenbergs. These were Stalin’s most willing tools.

(I’m sure Dr. Gelernter knows better than to conclude from the previous paragraph that I’m anti-Semitic, but third parties reading this should know that I believe Jews found their way to central roles in Communism for the same reason they have been disproportionately important in every other reform, revolutionary movement, and conspiracy of the last three centuries; to wit, on average they’re a standard deviation brighter than Gentiles. Talent will out, even if it does so in horrible ways. It’s hardly the Jews’ fault that Gentiles are, comparatively and Gaussianly speaking, dumber.)

As you say, vapid leftism was already a common problem among intellectuals before 1920; which is just to notice that Stalin’s seduction of the Western intelligentsia built on earlier exertions by the Fabian Society and organizations going back to the First International in the 1860s.

What changed under the Soviets is that Gramscian seduction of the intelligentsia became not merely an instrument of old-fashioned Marxist evangelism but a conscious and principal weapon for corrupting and destroying Western institutions, one that actually substituted for warfare by other means. No secret was made of this; it’s right there in Party doctrine. CPUSA even went so far as to tell members to promote non-representational art so that public spaces would become ugly. (No, I’m not joking.)

One index of the difference this shift made is this: before it, Marxists (led by Marx himself) actually promoted the development of industrial capitalism in the Third World because in theory it is a necessary precondition for the next stage of the dialectic. After it, “world system” economics a la Baran opposed Third World capitalism in order to damage the economic network of the “main adversary,” the U.S.

We know much more today about Stalin’s meme war than we did before the Soviet Union fell, because some of the immediate successors of the original architects of the program are still alive and are talking. Koch’s book is good on the subject; so is Denial: Historians, Communism, & Espionage by Haynes and Klehr. These revelations have unsettling consequences even for lifelong anti-Communists like myself; I’m still trying to get over the shock of learning that Dorothy Parker was a Stalinist agent of influence!

I’m not a conservative, have never been a conservative, and don’t ever expect to become a conservative. So it spooks me how accurate all those old-time McCarthyite rants about Communist subversion turned out to be now that we have the Venona transcripts and ex-KGB generals telling all to historians. Back in the ’60s and ’70s I thought I was as hard-core anti totalitarian as an American boy could be, but even I bought some of the obscuring smoke that the anti-anticommunist “liberals” were peddling. For you, a self-described “conservative Republican”, accepting the full magnitude and insidious character of the meme war should be easier.

One of the things we’ve learned from ex-Soviet informants is that academia, the press, and the entertainment industry were regarded not merely as high-value targets, but targets which by around 1980 they believed they had largely succeeded in subverting or neutralizing. They had good reason for this belief—our humiliating retreat from Vietnam, brought about by adroit and successful manipulation of domestic U.S. politics conducted through American proxies.

So: we know the Soviets aimed to apply Gramscian subversion as a war weapon against the West, we know they believed themselves to have succeeded in significant ways, and the dominant cultures of the entertainment industry, the press, and academia behave today precisely as we would expect if they had succeeded in those ways (that is, they sneer at traditional values and patriotism and exhibit pervasive left-wing and anti-American bias). Still think my analysis of academia’s decline is so wrong?

Getting back to the thread topic, otherwise intelligent people like Jaron Lanier still screw up their thinking about technology and capitalism by obsessing about “unfairness to the poor” in exactly the same wrongheaded ways the KGB found so useful in 1950, even though today’s “poor” are overweight from having too much to eat and own cars and air-conditioners and cellphones. Few things are more pathetic than Marxist cant that doesn’t know itself to be Marxist cant, but we hear it constantly—and that is Stalin’s victory, toxic memes successfully poisoning our discourse long after the despotism that spawned them has died.

(To be evenhanded, I should say that I find conservatives far from blameless in all this. Some of them got that there was a memetic war going on, but almost all settled for being peevish reactionary critics in a permanent defensive crouch. Far too many cuddled up to racists and religious absolutists. That’s how conservatism lost the young, and deserved to, until the Left became so absurd that the kids started to see through the bullshit on their own.)

On the other hand, I concede you have a point about the market value of a Harvard education. I don’t think that point generalizes outside of the Ivy League, though—about all an English degree from a second- or third-rate school qualifies anybody for these days is a job as a barista at Starbucks.

You should, therefore, consider the possibility that humanities faculty at second- or third-rate schools are in fact getting paid what their teaching is worth. It’s the Harvard/Yale/Princeton case (golden-ticket degree, but the junior professors still eat crap) that needs explaining. And I think that one is simple—there’s a surplus of would-be academics, so universities act as price seekers and wages even at the elite schools get pounded down to the same levels as those at East Nowhere U.

You say:

The solution is obvious: a free market in education; a market controlled by the producers (namely the profs) & not the institutions.

I agree completely. We programmers are seizing control of our craft back from management (nod at the ironic parallel with Marxism in passing); why shouldn’t educators do likewise?

Actually, there are good reasons why, up to now, educators have been unable to do that. And this is where the Internet comes back into the conversation. Because the thing that pinned programmers to big ugly stupid secretive management structures is the same thing that gives big ugly stupid educational institutions the whip hand over junior professors—the fixed-capital costs of the tools of the trade.

The open-source movement wasn’t possible when programming required a million-dollar mainframe. Million-dollar mainframes require big capital concentrations, which require lots of managers to run ‘em. When the PC and the Internet arrived, computation and communication costs plummeted towards zero. The need for big capital concentrations to support software development almost (though not entirely) vanished. An increase in the relative power of programmers followed as the night the day.

University campuses, school buildings, laboratories—these are academia’s equivalent of the million-dollar mainframe. We probably can’t disaggregate campuses entirely (time-shares in a cyclotron, anyone?) but to the extent the Internet helps us break apart these institutional lumps and make a more fluid market, the actual human producers will regain power over their craft.

I think adult-education schools like the University of Phoenix are leading the way here—finding creative ways to use technology and distance learning, renting space and changing curricula in rapid response to customer demand. The explosion in homeschooling at the K-12 level is worth notice, too.

Under market pressure, I think we can expect valuable education to get divorced from valueless political cant pretty rapidly. Simply ending the cross-subsidization of vacuous victim-studies departments by business and engineering schools would be a huge improvement.

But you’re not going to get to your free market in education by conceding the authoritarian/statist case that “we need to spare a little attention for [the market’s] failures too.” That, Dr. Gelernter, is called “abandoning the moral high ground to the enemy”. It’s Stalin’s toxic memes messing with your head. And it’s a mistake I respectfully submit you should know better than to make.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”