Academic freedom – a technique of domination Ruthless Criticism

Translated from a text by Freerk Huisken, 1999

Academic freedom – a technique of domination

or: How knowledge is functionalized for the powers of state and money

Every freedom, whether it relates to free speech, freedom of religion, or academic freedom, are – as we have learned – precious goods and jewels of democracy. Those who can’t see any reason to defend democracy in light of unemployment, austerity policies, environmental destruction, or war fall back on these freedoms. The fact that they didn’t exist under fascism is the last gasp attempt to salvage it. This strained comparison alone shows that the unqualified praise of freedom is quite misguided. Not only because it ends up only being a relative praise anyway – it is supposed to speak in favor of democracy that it differs from fascism! – but above all because it takes its measure from state permission. However, the fact that the democratic state has reasons for granting its citizens something that a fascist state does not, or only allows to a limited extent, must be examined before singing hallelujah. The best way to find out what these reasons are is to look at the flip side of the freedoms granted to private actions. Anyone who says: “You may do this and that!” always says at the same time: “But you may not do this and that!” The state’s definition of freedom and civil rights at the same time establishes what counts as an abuse and is prohibited. State permission thus specifies the scope of the citizens’ functional action. For example, protectors of free speech declare: ‘You may freely express your opinion! But I am not so ready to let you to ensure your opinion is recognized in practice. I decide which of your opinions will be taken into account and which will not! Those not taken into account shouldn’t worry, but be glad they have been included at all ....’ In this way, the citizen is called on as a critical democrat, is allowed to get involved in politics and at the same time committed to constructive, i.e. state complying criticism – which he can then be very proud of.

1. The principle of academic freedom

Universities are state institutions. The state is responsible for them and pays for material and personnel costs. It guarantees university teachers a care-free livelihood. In this way, they can – and are supposed to – produce and impart knowledge without having to constantly grapple with money worries like the majority of the population. That is their privilege. In other words, they do not have to serve the funding agency with the content of their (intellectual) work. It does not blackmail them with money problems so that they think and research in a way that pleases it, as was the case under feudal rule. The state frees scientists not only from the hardships of gainful employment, but also from state directives on thinking. It does not prescribe the content or even the result of research, but leaves both to the professorial brains, declaring them alone responsible for it. Scientists should follow their research interests and the logic of thinking, advance their research and thus develop knowledge in general and do this – initially – without any specific connection to its application that the state may desire. This first very abstract state assignment, which is included in academic freedom, is to increase knowledge. It refers to the fact that the “modern state” uses knowledge as a means of its power. It is only because it is interested in real knowledge that it frees the scientific process from all the temporal, material and other constraints that characterize working life. By the way, new scientific findings can’t be produced under orders, time dictates or financial pressure – that’s in the nature of the thing.

If a kind of fence is erected around science with a state guarantee of freedom, then this conversely means that outside this sphere of the mind, i.e. in politics and economics, it is not the systematically produced knowledge that determines people’s purposes. The status of being set free by the state to systematically reflect on nature and society gives it no role in shaping them, i.e. the sciences are not entrusted with setting practical purposes along with theoretical reflection on social issues. Economy and family, justice and culture, school and television are not regulated by insights, i.e. after every argument has been clarified, but rather apart from science, by interests that do not have to submit to scientific scrutiny because they are known to be endowed with power. Thus both spheres of society, state and financial power, report an increasing need for scientific knowledge, but only as a means to aims which they have set. It is well known that no party can be dissuaded from its political concerns by mentioning the latest findings or a few good arguments. Science certainly may and should advise state agencies, i.e. provide arguments that suit their politically decided interests; which is why, as is well known, every party seeks and also finds scientists who then support its political concerns – not by objectively examining them, but rather by supporting them. However, the producers of knowledge are excluded from getting nvolved in politically determining goals and from criticism aimed at making practical changes.

Precisely because science is free from any particular, state-defined determination of aims, it fulfills its task as a general intellectual service provider in producing knowledge that is then available for purposes and concerns that are themselves removed from scientific reflection. In this way, it creates a pool of knowledge from which the state and the capitalist economy can help themselves according to their interests. They examine the results in their own institutions and apply what is useful to them, but do not allow science to dictate their purposes. So by establishing the freedom of science, the state institutionalizes its – necessarily – affirmative function.

Within science (and its ethics), this abstention from getting involved in causes is regarded as amost a proof of virtue and has the character of a prescription: science must be value-free if it wants to be recognized, it says. And what is meant by this value-free postulate is nothing other than the prohibition on breaking free of functionalization in the state intellectual ghetto and wanting to determine social circumstances on the basis of scientific knowledge. These are none of the scientist’s business; and consequently it is considered an abuse of academic freedom if researchers call for getting involved – especially, of course, if they also insist on giving unwanted advice. Research must be free of any interference in social life, i.e. value-free, according to the instructions formulated by the academic freedom granted by the state.

A science that should be of service to any state-recognized interest must therefore – especially in the humanities – be written in a pluralistic manner. For every body of thought derives its validity not from its coherence, but from its potential usefulness to practical or ideological purposes. Pluralism is therefore not a value in intellectual life, but a functional requirement of its servile position – which clearly marks the limits of pluralism. Academic freedom in the humanities thus necessarily includes indifference to the truthfulness of ideas. In other words, where the state’s assignment to academia is entirely abstract and without any substantive guidelines, and is aimed solely at the development of knowledge, every thought can therefore claim the same validity. Where every scientist is supposed to follow only his subjective thoughts, his result counts as valid regardless of its truthfulness, just like the thoughts of a colleague who has scientifically approached the same subject and has reached completely different or even opposite results. And such a thing is considered a mark of quality in science!

2. The limits of academic freedom

… which are included in the freedom granted and established by the state, are thus obvious. There are two abuses of freedom that bother state administrators of intellectual production. Anyone who, as an academic, opposes pluralism, who insists on the truth of his findings – as long as they have not been refuted – and who therefore does not subscribe to the principle of indifference to the content of what they and others think, is convicted of dogmatism and – in the most harmless case – does not need to be taken seriously. And if an academic combines this with the claim that very specific practical consequences follow from his findings and that these must be asserted against the prevailing reality, especially since the latter only has the “bad argument” of ruthless interests endowed with power on its side, and is therefore calling into question valid social purposes, has violated the value-free postulate or even the ethical canon of bourgeois intellectual life which has recently been equipped with disciplinary means. The scope of what can be included in a permisive pluralism or is still tolerated within it is either narrower or wider depending on the political climate. And whether “academic radicals” are banned from their professions, given warnings or otherwise deprived of any effect, this also depends on how annoying the unauthorized involvement of academics in causes that are practically none of their business is considered to be, even though they have to deal with them theoretically all the time.

Conversely, anyone who considers the disciplining of academics to be an abuse of freedom and sees the end of academic freedom in today’s contract research, the dictates of third-party funding or in chairs sponsored by large corporations is completely wrong. He turns the relationship upside down and considers the freedom granted by university life to be the state’s service to knowledge and its representatives. Those who denounce the fact that science is increasingly being usurped by non-scientific interests are certainly correct in their observation about the instrumentalization of intellectual life. They are wrong, however, in considering this to be a new trend, in linking it to the current status of contract research and in contrasting it with older customs. The instrumentalization of the results of science for money and state power is precisely what the state’s establishment of this separate university sphere is all about. The intention is not at all to prevent the beneficiaries from gaining access to knowledge production. On the contrary, this is how knowledge is excluded from involvement in social purposes. Anyone who is bothered by this direct access, for example in the form of research contracts, has missed the joke in the form and purpose of capitalist knowledge production. He thinks the relationship between science and capitalist society would be pretty much okay if the clients withdraw from the alma mater and consequently only begin testing the usefulness of research in their own institutions after it has been completed. If the purposes to which knowledge is made subservient in one way or another were not so intrusively present inside the university, he would be able to hold on to the beautiful appearance of a free, completely independent intellectual life committed to rather charitable purposes!

The fact that potential users – companies, industries, state agencies – are increasingly asserting their interest in exploitable knowledge in a very concrete and financially powerful way in the very place it is produced is highly congenial with the austerity policies of education authorities and represents an incentive for costly research, but is not based on it. This practice of putting science in the service of concrete political and economic purposes through direct access to its sources can be explained on the one hand by the fact that technological knowledge is increasingly becoming a decisive means of competition between capitalist corporations for world market shares and of nation states for resources that enhance their sovereignty. On the other hand, the functionalization of state research institutions through contract research only takes on this new dimension because the relationship between basic research and directly applicable technological research has generally shifted in favour of the latter. There is more and more reliable knowledge in the natural sciences and consequently research is concentrating less on “blank areas” and more on issues of application.

Conclusion: defending academic freedom is a matter for the state. There is no good reason to take up this issue. For there is no place in it for efforts to gain a correct understanding of society, its practical implementation and the rational application of natural science. Anyone who is annoyed by the ideologies of the social sciences, who considers its pluralism to be an intellectual obscenity and who objects to the fact that all kinds of destructive works are being advanced today by means of a correct knowledge of nature, can’t avoid criticizing the freedom of science established by the state.