Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The corporatization virus

Someone posted to our faculty discussion list this article about the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic, with her $7 million in compensation and her imperious manner.

A colleague observed that, “It's all too familiar. The corporatization of American Higher Education is, of course, only one part of the corporatization of everything, including -- perhaps most shamefully -- American politics.”

I agree, and I worry that part of why this “corporatization of everything” is happening is that, from the perspective of social evolution, corporatization has high “fitness.”

Corporatization has a built-in advantage over its opponents, which is that it can pay its foot-soldiers well. In an environment where money is not just treated as a useful tool, but celebrated as a marker of success and even virtue, that’s a really powerful advantage.

Note that when I say that corporatization is “fit”, I don’t mean that it’s “good.” In biological terms, a thing is “fit” if it survives better than other things, but that says nothing about whether it’s good. The very concepts of “good” and “bad” make no sense in an ecosystem, which simply is—or isn’t.

A thing may be so good at outcompeting everything else that it ends up destroying the basis of its own existence. But the thing itself is neither good nor bad; until it undermines itself, it’s simply fit.

In human economies, fitness is similarly just about a thing thriving relative to others, but unlike in ecosystems, we do have notions of “good” and “bad.” And while I agree with my colleague that the results of corporatization are generally bad, that’s hardly an uncontested position.

One of the cleverest tools of the corporatization virus is that it reaches into our psyches and changes the very standards by which we decide whether a thing is good. We’ve come to equate “profitable” with “good,” and the more we do that, the more we relinquish our ability to think about what we really want.

It’s like a tree that changes the chemistry in the ground around it so that nothing else can grow.


  1. Hi Karl, many thanks for taking these thoughts out of the mostly private college listserv and out into the semi-public world of the blog.

    While I am mostly in agreement, I do have some issues with the way corporatization is equated to be a fit virus and with parallels to fitness in evolution--the advantage of which can only be countered because we humans have moral notions of good or bad.

    First, the belief in one measure of efficiency as the only standard is itself a belief, and is in some senses a pre-condition (as well as an outcome, as you say) for the spread of corporatization. It is a belief in a particular type of efficiency that has supplanted other possible beliefs, such as efficiency in the delivery of public services.

    But perhaps more importantly, I would contest the notion that corporatization's efficiency advantage is because "it can pay its foot-soldiers well" (although granted, I'm not sure *who* you mean by foot-soldiers?!). Specifically with regard to the corporatization of the university and adjunct salaries, for example, it seems obvious that adjuncts are motivated by a number of different reasons. For some, it is need of money. For others, it is the dream of the academic job or the big novel or the professional musician. For still others, it is an end-of-career "giving back" which is at once noble and rather deflating to the wage-market prospects of adjuncts as a whole. All this to say that one of the key aspects of capitalist corporatization is not necessarily its absolute efficiency or competitive advantage, but that the system continues to rely on the beliefs and ideals of an array of variously motivated "foot-soldiers."

    I've tried to further explore these aspects of my times in a prior post, Advertising Missionaries, Fragmented Globality: Irony, Paradox, Uncertainty.

    1. Hi Jason,

      Thanks for the comments.

      By "foot-soldiers" I was thinking not of the adjuncts, but of anyone who benefits enough from corporatization to stand up in its defense. That ranges from the talking heads on CNBC et al. who normalize corporatist views and marginalize alternatives, to attorneys who craft much more tangible legal structures and regulatory decisions that favor corporatization.

      That's an interesting point about the varied motives of adjunct faculty.

      But I wouldn't say that the ability to pay foot-soldiers more is an *efficiency* advantage. As you note in the post that you link to, "efficiency" is a potentially loaded term. But it does seem to me that the ability to pay well is a *survival* advantage.

      And as I tried to get at in the OP, corporatization doesn't just rely on people's beliefs and ideals; it helps shape them.

    2. Hi Karl, thank you for the follow-up. I definitely agree that practices shape beliefs, no question. And I guess I think of the people you name more as corporals or lieutenants than as foot-soldiers. :-)