Capitalist Abuse in Academia: You are not a Commodity
by Dr. Samantha Gold –
What’s worse: intentionally harming a person or harming a person unintentionally because you don’t even think of him or her as a person that can be harmed? Capitalist abuse is the treatment of human beings as commodities to be bought and sold, according to the rules of supply and demand. Commodities are not things that can be harmed.
If the supply of labour is much greater than demand, labourers can be paid a pittance and worked to death. (Foxconn workers are literally jumping off the tops of buildings!) Tim Cook, the CEO for Apple Incorporated (and one of our Great Plutocratic Leaders), said he is against discriminating against people just because they’re gay. Maybe he was just referring to gay multi-millionaires like himself? One thing is certain, though. Cook cannot rationally believe that gay workers have the right not to be discriminated against, because he doesn’t believe they have the right to humane work conditions. If you don’t have a right to a job that won’t cause you to fucking kill yourself, you certainly don’t have the right to, say, marry your same-sex partner. Duh! It’s no different for Westerners. Cook would fire an American in a second if he could find a desperate Asian to abuse and increase Apple’s profits. So, he certainly can’t rationally believe that gay Americans shouldn’t be discriminated against.
I’ve been picking on our Plutocratic Leader, The Great Tim Cook, but he’s not alone in the view that people are commodities to be bought and sold. As I said, it’s a capitalist phenomenon. All our Great Leaders ascribe to it. Thus, over the last two decades we’ve seen millions upon millions of westerners fired from their jobs for no other reason than destitute Asians will work for far less and for far longer and for far less benefits. This is considered morally acceptable, because it maximizes capital. If anyone attempts to question these practices, the same old arguments used to justify slavery are used to shut you up.
‘But if we stopped abusing Chinese labour, all these Chinese would be unemployed! They would starve or be homeless. At least we give them work and a roof over their heads!’
This is the exact shit slave owners would say. Their intentions weren’t good. Their arguments were excuses to continue abusive practices. Haven’t we moved on from this bullshit?
The outsourcing of jobs has destroyed western economies, which now depend on increasing debt, money printing, and zero interest rates. Many European countries, especially Greece and Spain, have staggeringly bad unemployment rates (23 and 26% respectively). French unemployment has been increasing and is now over 10%.
The US unemployment rate is officially around 5.5% down from around 10%, but if you factor back into this number the 5% drop in the labour force, unemployment remains around 10%. Counting long-term discouraged workers, which are officially factored out, unemployment in the US is about 23%. None of these numbers give a particularly good picture of how bad things really are, because the quality of jobs is not factored into these numbers. Only 44% of Americans have a job where they work at least 30 hours a week and receive a regular paycheck. An issue with job quality exists in the UK too. Although the unemployment number has been falling, underemployment has been rising. Wage growth is thus a serious problem for the West.
These fucked up economic conditions create an environment in which people are ripe for abuse. The worse things get, the more unregulated capitalism will abuse people. A particularly powerful and stunning example of the capitalist abuse of people in the West is found, surprisingly, in higher education. Budget cuts in America, the UK, and other countries together with more and more people staying in school, not knowing what the fuck else to do, has resulted in the supply/demand curve shifting in favour of universities and against academics. The number of graduating PhD’s compared to the number of jobs for them is staggeringly bad. 1 in 3 recent PhD graduates don’t have a job. In the humanities this is even worse, where in my experience good jobs will have 200-600 applicants or more.
Capitalist abuse in academia
Fake Jobs. This is an atrocious abuse of human beings in academia (that goes unrecognised) whereby jobs are posted online even though it has already basically been decided who they will be given to. This behaviour is deceitful and wrong. It fucks with people’s time and hopes. It’s only because people are viewed as commodities in a market where supply far exceeds demand that this happens. If demand were low, universities that fucked with people in this way would not get applications. If people were not viewed as commodities, universities that currently fuck with people would realize that fucking with people is wrong. True, this behaviour is often a result of hiring committees skirting laws designed to combat cronyism. These laws wind up forcing departments to post jobs online, but this doesn’t stop the departments from being able to skew things so the internal candidate gets the job.
The preferential treatment of people you know is a human fault. Fucking with people you don’t know is the natural result of a system that doesn’t treat labourers as human beings. And quite a lot of this immoral and deceitful behaviour occurs because cronyism is such a big problem in academia.
I will look at two methods that I have witnessed used to create fake jobs. The first strategy is to email all the candidates ambiguous instructions where the disambiguation under which they will be judged is not the natural one. Only the internal candidate the department prefers will be given the real instructions. For example, the department might tell all candidates ‘present a 45-minute presentation on your thesis research tailored to undergraduates.’ This has two interpretations. The first is that the instructions are to present your thesis research dumbed-down as much as possible for undergraduates. The second interpretation is that you are being asked to present on any topic relevant to your thesis research at an undergraduate level. These are two very different tasks.
The natural reading of ‘on your research’ will lead external candidates to act on the instructions under the first interpretation. They will struggle to dumb-down their entire thesis sufficiently to explain it to undergraduates in a 45-minute period. The internal candidate, though, will be told the real instructions, which are hidden in the unnatural disambiguation. Thus, the selection committee can claim after the interview that the internal candidate did a better job at the interview than the external candidates. Well, no shit! The internal was given the real instructions. This method of fucking with people is especially effective and malicious, as it not only guarantees that external candidates will not look competitive but also almost certainly guarantees that they will waste tons of time struggling to complete a task much more difficult than necessary.
The second strategy is to design the job ad in such a way that almost no one is going to meet all the criteria but the preferred internal candidate. This has an advantage over the strategy discussed above, as it allows the department to not only disadvantage external candidates but also other internal candidates. For example, say the preferred internal candidate has a lot of experience giving talks outside of The Academy. As most other candidates are likely to have focused their time on more traditional ways of building a CV—giving conference presentations, trying to publish papers, teaching a range of subjects, etc—it is unlikely that many other candidates will have this experience. Thus, the department need only add ‘giving talks to non-academics’ to the desirable or essential criteria for the job. People are best fucked over if it is only added to the desirable criteria, as then external candidates prepare to interview for fake jobs! But adding it as an essential criterion is safer. The department can interview just the preferred candidate for the job and claim no one else was qualified. This way of fucking with people is especially effective in the humanities where the number of jobs to jobseekers is 1 in 200-600, from my experience.
Publishing. Academics are paid for their articles indirectly by the salaries they receive to do research. This system used to work without too much exploitation, but the highly competitive nature of The Academy today is such that young academics must publish multiple articles to stand any chance of attaining a permanent job. The extent of this competitiveness is so great that more articles are published now than could ever be read. 82% of humanities articles are never cited! That means for the vast majority of articles published in the humanities, there is no evidence anyone has even read them! In the natural and social sciences the citation rate is better but still about a third are never cited. Non-permanent jobs —unless you’re lucky enough to have one of the few postdocs around— are teaching jobs, where you are paid to teach, not write research articles. So, many young academics are forced into a situation where they must do unpaid work for many years writing articles that many wont read with the slender hope that this will one day result in real employment. Although this is really just an idiotic use of slave labour, The Academy regards it as the natural result of a competitive job market where commodities compete for positions. Meanwhile, the publishers love the free labour from which they profit handsomely.
Many get into The Academy, because they love their subject. Publishing destroys this love for many people. Being forced to do unpaid work is bad enough, but in addition to this exploitation, young academics are subjected to an unjust and excruciatingly slow lottery of almost universal rejection. Journals send articles out for review. Often your reviewer or reviewers will be graduate students or early career academics, perhaps an unemployed recent PhD graduate. Reviewers, just like the authors, are not paid for their work. So, they will not rush to do it. In many disciplines it takes months to hear back. In the top journals in philosophy you can expect to wait a year or more. Reviewers cannot agree on anything. It is not uncommon to have one referee rate your manuscript highly and another rate it poorly. In fact, in my experience, reviewers are not even consistent with themselves over time. And rejection is almost guaranteed. It is falsely believed that the higher the rejection rate, the better the journal. Thus, journals attempt to maintain high rejection rates. Rejection rates in the humanities can approach 90% to even 95% for the top journals. What I have described is for many people a form of exploitation that leads to serious psychological turmoil. But, of course, commodities can’t be exploited or harmed. So, nothing is done.
Adjuncts. This is the area of academic abuse talked about most. Adjuncts are highly qualified human beings who are often paid poverty wages to teach university students whose tuitions are ever increasing. Not only are they paid shit but also they are generally treated as if they are less than human (like the Chinese who build our iPhones). For example, adjuncts have no job security. Their incomes can change semester by semester, and there is no expectation of continued employment. In some ways, adjuncts are treated worse than slaves. Slaves are (usually) valued by their owners. So, a slave, assuming he performs well, can expect a roof over his head and food. As any idiot can see from the figure below, universities have been increasing adjunct faculty for decades.
See the line with the little circles in it? That line measures exploitation. This exploitation, like that of writing for journals unpaid, is justified by a worldview whereby human beings are commodities, the value of which is determined by supply and demand. The Supply of PhDs far outstretches the demand, so the desperation of these people to find work allows universities to treat them like trash.
In the US, the average salary for an adjunct professor who probably has a PhD and 5-7 years of graduate education is $20-25 thousand (US median income is around $52,000). Many adjuncts make significantly less than this. Either way, an adjunct ‘job’ won’t include an office or health insurance, and most certainly won’t include any expectation of future employment. Adjuncts have no job security. Further, adjuncts are often required to attend mandatory unpaid meetings and do other unpaid work—even Apple banned unpaid meetings for its Foxconn workers! If the adjunct complains, they’ll be replaced. You are a commodity, not a human being and don’t you forget it!
A related phenomenon, which I will include here under ‘adjuncts,’ is the exploitation of PhD students. PhD students need teaching experience and money. So, universities take advantage of this to have PhD students teach their classes for minimum wage. And just because the university is paying the PhD student a fraction of what the faculty are paid doesn’t mean the student is expected to perform worse. No student will complain about this exploitation, because in such a highly competitive job market you’ve got to just take it up the ass or be unemployed. In fact, any complaint would be met with wide-eyed wonder and confusion. Now, according to the chart above, the percent of graduate student employees has been more or less steady, but that doesn’t mean the abuse of these people has been. In my experience, graduate students are not paid fairly. This would seem to be in line with the general trends.
Of course, universities don’t want to explicitly admit that they pay their PhD students minimum wage to teach students paying huge and ever increasing tuition fees. (Can I have a burger and fries with that degree?) So, they are going to fuck with you. Officially, you will be paid some halfway respectable amount. However, the actual amount of work you will be expected to do off the record is likely to be two to three times what you’re paid to do. This might include responding to student emails unpaid, meeting with students unpaid, attending unpaid mandatory meetings, and so on. You will be told explicitly not to do more work than you’re paid to do, but if you actually follow this advice you can expect more mandatory unpaid meetings where you will be disciplined. This kind of abuse is especially bad in the UK where TAs are often paid by the hour, because they can design it such that the maximum hours you can claim is far less than the hours required to do the job!
Don’t be a yes-man or yes-woman
In a capitalist system, those not part of the plutocracy who ‘made it’ are almost guaranteed to be professional yes-men and women. You are a commodity that can be replaced if you don’t do as you’re told. There are two kinds of yes-men and women: Machiavellian ones and cowardly ones. The difference between them is that the former enjoys always submitting to get ahead and the latter does it out of fear of being sacked or reprimanded.
Academics like to believe they are somehow outside of the capitalist system— that in The Academy, people get ahead based only on intellectual ability! This is ridiculous. The more competitive a field is in a capitalist system, the more exploitation will occur. The academic job market is extremely competitive, especially in the humanities. Hence, we see all the exploitation discussed above, everything from fake jobs to adjuncts. Those academics who ‘made it’ were the ones who lubed up and bent over whenever requested and kept their mouths shut, whether they enjoyed it or not. Intellectual ability alone is not sufficient to succeed, as amongst other things one must be a yes-man or woman. (One must also have good connections but that’s another story).
So, while it used to be that universities were filled with hardcore left-wingers, communists, and other eccentric folk, today the ivory tower is filled with boring people who only take on acceptable issues. These are issues that capital doesn’t care about like identity politics. I am not saying there aren’t important issues to address in identity politics; just that there are other more important issues. It’s true, for instance, that gays have historically been disadvantaged in society (along with other minority groups), but people in 2015 mainly champion gay marriage. The plutocracy doesn’t care about gay marriage. What’s it got to do with their money? Similarly, women’s rights are largely irrelevant to the plutocracy, as long as women are not given any rights not to be exploited by the capitalist system. The plutocracy takes advantage of people’s focus on identity politics to fast track secret bills like the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which allows corporations to sue governments for laws that negatively affect their profits—that’s right folks, no more environmental and consumer protection laws! As of June 2015, Obama has been given the fast track authority he wanted. It’s all down hill form here!
Being a professional yes-man or woman is morally wrong. Yes, in a world of yes-men and women, not just in The Academy but everywhere, this claim will sound astonishing. In another world, a proper world that viewed human beings as having intrinsic value, it would be a trivial claim. We would say ‘of course, people should stand up for themselves!’ I only hope I am not too late! I only hope that there is some thread of moral insight left in people that has not been cut out by an exploitative and abusive capitalist system. Let’s check. Suppose, you’re working for some company, and your superior says, ‘suck my dick!’ How should you respond? A. Suck his dick. B. Tell your boss to fuck himself. If you answered B, then you can keep reading. If you answered A, then you’re a lost soul and can’t be helped.
Why is it that B is what you should do? One reason is that you should not subject yourself to abuse. We generally believe that we should not abuse ourselves. Smoking is wrong, regular heavy drinking is wrong, self-cutting is wrong, over use of dangerous drugs is wrong, allowing yourself to get vastly overweight is wrong, and so on. (I don’t think any of these things should be criminalized, but that’s a different story.) If you think these things are wrong, you should think that letting others abuse you is also wrong, even if you get something out of it or enjoy it. It’s true that the things I listed above are used by people to abuse their bodies, whereas giving head for a job is more a way of abusing your self-respect and overall psychological well being, but this difference can’t be morally relevant. Harming your mind can have just as bad consequences for your well being as harming your body.
But there’s yet another reason B is the right thing to do. By allowing yourself to be abused, you are reinforcing bad behaviour, and increasing the chances of others being abused too. Behaviour that increases the chances of others being abused is wrong. Pretend there is some innocent man tied up and a red button that if pushed increases the chances that he will be given an excruciating electric shock.
I think it’s pretty fucking obvious that you’d have to be a complete and utter sack of shit to push the button! Right? Sucking your boss’s dick is like pushing the button. It increases the chances that your fuck-head of a boss will exploit people, because you just reinforced his horrible fucking behaviour. This is basic psychological shit! Don’t reinforce bad behaviour. I used an example of sexual abuse (forced dick sucking) for a reason. Today, we can more readily see sexual abuse as abuse than we can other forms of abuse more intrinsically linked with unregulated capitalism. However, I hope that now that we’ve come this far we can recognise these other forms of abuse. Sexual abuse is just one of the many ways that people are abused in our society. Tricking people into interviewing for fake jobs is abuse, coercing people to write articles unpaid is abuse, taking advantage of desperate people by paying them shit wages far below the value of their labour is abuse… These are all examples of harmfully misusing people by treating them as commodities. Once people realize these are examples of abuse, it becomes clear that it is wrong to be a yes-man or woman. If you’re just doing whatever you’re told and accepting abuse, you’re behaving baldy. You are abusing your mind like heroin addicts and alcoholics abuse their bodies, and you are increasing the chances of others being abused and the overall shittiness of the world.
Of course, many will not be in a position in which they can afford to stand up to abuse. If they question their superior, they’ll be on the street begging for food in a week. And even if you’re respected in your field, you can’t assume that your job is secure. Being insecure is exactly where the system wants you. That’s why there are endless advertisements to brainwash you into wasting money on shit you don’t need. ‘But I must have the latest and greatest iPhone and this season’s designer shoes!’ SHUT THE FUCK UP AND LISTEN ASSHOLE! If you waste all your money on shit not only are you directly giving money to the plutocracy but also you’re putting yourself in a position where you have little choice but to do what you’re told. Thus, The Leaders (not the president or the PM, but the real rulers) have designed a system that works for them twice over. They’ve got the rat building its own cage. Every shirt, pair of shoes, or iPhone you buy further reinforces its walls.
There is already good reason to limit your spending. Every unit of made up fiat currency you spend further reinforces a system that abuses foreign labour to such an extent that the workers are fucking killing themselves! If you buy something made by this system that you don’t need, you are unnecessarily participating in the abuse of fellow human beings. Remember the red button? Don’t fucking push it for an iPhone or a new pair of shoes!
If you do, you’re an asshole! That’s just basic ethics. Not only should you not push the button for an iPhone but you should also attempt to avoid situations in which you won’t have a choice but to push it. If you knowingly put yourself in a position where you must push the red button, you can’t plead coercion! For spend thrifts, this might include not going to the mall! There are other things you can do to avoid spending money. For example, you can have your bank automatically transfer some percentage of your paycheck to a savings account.
If you’re broke and in debt, you cannot afford to stand up to abuse. To knowingly put yourself in a position where you cannot afford to do the right thing and stand up to abuse is wrong. This might mean avoiding certain fields entirely. It might be wrong to be a graduate student in the humanities, for example, because your earning ability is so poor that you are most certainly going to abuse yourself and contribute to the abuse of others. We should choose fields where we can make enough money to be self-sufficient people who can say ‘no’ to an abusive system. To knowingly select a field where you will be forced to abuse yourself and contribute to the abuse of others is like knowingly putting yourself into a position where you are going to be forced to push the shock button. You can’t plead coercion if you put yourself knowingly into the coercive situation.
‘You’re victim blaming!’ This is one of those no-think retorts that people make. Think about it for a minute, if you can. Sometimes the victim is blameworthy. If you take a group of children on a safari without proper lethal protection and a lion eats you and the children, then you, the victim, are blameworthy for the deaths of the children. Duh! When it comes to capitalist abuse of labour, we are not blameworthy to the same degree as the idiot with the lions. But we are certainly blameworthy to some degree and some more than others. If you knowingly put yourself in a position where you cannot afford to stand up to abuse, you are blameworthy for abusing yourself and making the world a worse place. Probably, ‘knowingly’ is too strong a condition. Really, it’s something like ‘easily knowable.’ If (1) you put yourself into a position where you cannot afford to stand up to abuse and (2) the condition that leads to this result is easily knowable, then you, the victim, are blameworthy. Of course, the fucking abusers are also blameworthy! Ultimately, we want the abusers to stop, but we can’t do this by continuously reinforcing them.
I recognize that it’s not practically possible for many people, especially in this economy, to secure themselves a position in which they can stand up to all forms of abuse. There is just so much abuse out there that if you stood up to it all, you’d be unemployable. Ought implies Can. This means that if you ought to do something, then it must be possible for you to do it. So, morality can only require you to stand up to abuse to the extent that it’s possible. This isn’t an excuse not to try. If we all saved more and spent less, we could afford to pick a few worthwhile battles. If we did this, then most of us would meet our moral obligations. The world would thus be a better place and far less people would be abused. The more money you have, the more you are morally required to stand up to abuse. It is clear, though, that wanting to buy things you don’t need cannot be your excuse for why it’s not possible for you to stand up to abuse. Being able to buy food and some basic and sanitary shelter, though, is.
As I said, the more money you have, the more you are required to stand up to abuse. So, it follows that the different socio-economic classes have different obligations. If you have a lot of money, then you should use the security this provides you to stand up to exploitation and fight for the rights of others. Basically, if you’re in a position where you can stand up to abuse, then you should. If you’re not in a position where you can stand up to abuse, then you should try to obtain a position in which you can. If you know that a certain field is abusive, you should avoid it, even if you like the subject. All in all, we should work to punish exploitative and abusive systems by standing up to them and/or not participating in them. The more money you have, the better position you are to do these things. Of course, no one is obligated to sacrifice all of their life’s goals in an effort to end abuse, but generally speaking, it’s true that the more you can do about it, the more you should.
Exploitation and other abuses are the norm in western workplaces. Such abuses are just extensions of the capitalist system that abuses desperate foreign workers. The system does not intend to abuse anyone, as it does not consider people to be things that can be harmed. It’s a system that views people as meat, as commodities to be bought and sold according to supply and demand. Although we would all recognize sexual abuse as abuse, few seem aware that other abuses more intrinsically connected with unregulated capitalism are also abuses. Clearly they are. Academia is a great example of these abuses. Fake jobs, unpaid publishing, and adjuncts are all examples of capitalist abuse. We have a moral obligation to stand up to these abuses and others to the extent possible. This means we must endeavor to put ourselves in a position to do so. This in turn means not wasting money on shit we don’t need.
I am not talking about a proletariat revolution. I’m not saying we need to get rid of capitalism and move to a communist society. I’m talking about going back to some basic fucking ethics. Capitalist systems have a tendency to abuse people in certain ways. We as a society have come to see these abuses as normal, even acceptable, and so are unable to recognize these acts for what they are, outright abuse. We must come to recognize these acts for what they are and then stand up to them. Something I haven’t talked about, but which is an obvious extension of what I’ve been saying, is that standing up to capitalist abuses extends to demanding that politicians deal with the problem. When voting we need to be aware of these abuses and support politicians who are prepared to regulate businesses to reduce them, even if it means cutting into corporate profits. This might entail protest voting, which I wholly advocate, or not voting at all, if there is no one worth voting for. Regardless, until we recognize abuse for abuse and get mad about it, nothing will change. So, get fucking angry! You should be angry! Anger is the proper moral response to being abused.
 Samantha Gold is not Samantha Gold’s real name. She has to use a pseudonym so as to avoid other academics fucking with her career. It is only by using a pseudonym that this piece could be written.