Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 22, 2015

Ivory Tower; The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Recently I watched a couple of documentaries on DVD that were sent to me by publicists in conjunction with NYFCO’s yearly awards meeting. They cover topics that should be of keen interest to my readers. “Ivory Tower” is an examination of the crisis in higher education focusing on the economic trends that are driving it while “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” looks at the human tragedy behind and political significance of Obama’s Justice Department’s vendetta against one of the more important figures on the left. Fortunately for my readers both documentaries can be seen for free on the Internet, something that Aaron Swartz’s soul would smile upon.

Although “Ivory Tower” aspires toward PBS type balance, there is little doubt that director Andrew Rossi views the current situation as inimical to the health of the republic and to democracy. On the film’s very useful website, you can find the following:

Through profiles at Arizona State, Cooper Union, and San Jose State —among several others—IVORY TOWER reveals how colleges in the United States, long regarded as leaders in higher education, came to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning.

In order to understand how far removed the “business model” university is from past practices, the film provides useful historical background. It would seem that in years past, the American bourgeoisie was far more capable of thinking in long-term social terms than the short-term, profits above all way of doing things.

The Morrill Land-Grant Acts were passed in 1862 during the devastating Civil War, thus proving that guns and butter were not mutually exclusive, at least in a period when capitalism had not entered its decadent old age. This legislation created the basis for the flagship state universities that were clearly geared to the needs of an educated middle class and skilled working class that could serve the needs of a rapidly expanding corporate America.

Next in line was the GI Bill that allowed WWII veterans to go to school for free. Some of the recipients have been rightwing ideologues who like Ayn Rand who drew from Social Security knew a good thing when they saw it: Robert Dole, Clint Eastwood and William Renquist.

As the closing act in a long period of government support for the social underpinnings of capitalist expansion, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Higher Education Act of 1965 that was designed to make a college degree possible to just about every qualified applicant through the Pell Grant. The film makes clear that the funding that at one time could cover 110 percent of college costs now covers less than half, mainly because Republicans and Democrats alike have acceded to Grover Norquist’s goal of “starving the beast”.

For colleges to successfully follow a “business model”, it is necessary to produce a commodity that will attract the typical consumer. This explains how a school like Arizona State, a typical land-grant college, has morphed into a kind of country club with lavish health clubs and well-publicized poolside drinking parties.

The film also answers a question I have always had about the tendency of places I have taught at (NYU), worked at (Columbia) and received degrees (Bard and the New School) to grow like topsy. The film makes clear that expansion is designed to burnish the reputation of colleges even if it is at the expense of the long-term economic viability of the institution.

Of course, if expansion covers a school’s finances in red ink, there is always a solution—raise tuition fees or in the case of Cooper Union, to charge for tuition and other fees for the first time in the institution’s history. The film features interviews with the students who rose up against the administration and board of trustees as well as the feckless president of the college who is incapable of answering an interviewer’s question about the school’s huge losses in hedge fund investments in an able manner. If for no other reason, this would prompt a board of trustees to fire him. Since the board is made up of lawyers, investment bankers and the usual cast of scoundrels, that is not likely to happen.

“Ivory Tower” can be seen here:

Additionally, I urge you to read Lance Kirby’s essay at the bottom of this post that hones in on the problem of failing student scholarship. Richard Arum, the co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that Lance alludes to in his essay is interviewed in the film.

* * * *

Aaron Swartz committed suicide just two years ago on January 11, 2013. At the time there were some in the mainstream media who claimed that it was depression rather than government persecution that was at fault. This was a disgusting lie that “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” demolishes. Considering the lengthy prison term that awaited him, it was understandable that he would kill himself even if his lawyer, who was just one of many thoughtful people close to Swartz interviewed in the documentary, feels that he might have been found innocent. Perhaps it was just a desire to be free of the intense pressure of an out-of-control Justice Department that explains his decision.

Although I followed the Aaron Swartz story carefully at the time, there is an abundance of eye-opening material that was new to me, starting with how much of a prodigy he was. From an early age, he was fascinated with computers and created his own version of Wikipedia when he was in grade school.

Early on, he became consumed with the problem of copyrighting in an age of universal electronic communications and joined the Creative Commons organization alongside Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig at the age of 15. Lessig is heard throughout the film, including at the very end when he breaks down in tears about the martyrdom of Aaron Swartz.

Despite the impression some may have of an awkward, geeky prodigy failing to fit in except in front of a computer, Swartz had a very normal social life, including relationships with two very attractive and intelligent women who are interviewed throughout.

Not only was his personal life fulfilling, he had embarked on a whole new project to connect his belief in the universal access to digitized information with the need to change society as a whole. He formed an organization called Demand Progress that defended Edward Snowden.

Like Snowden, Swartz was a high-profile target of the Obama White House. Stephen Heymann, the Justice Department lawyer heading up the prosecution/persecution of Swartz who refused to be interviewed for the film, had the audacity to openly admit to Swartz’s defense lawyer and family that the government sought to “make an example” out of him.

While nobody would expect anything much different from the Obama administration, the most appalling behavior was that of MIT, an elite institution supposedly committed to human rights, democracy and all the other usual good things. MIT took the position that it was basically independent of any investigation of Swartz, who had been downloading JSTOR articles across the university’s network. That independence served the prosecution even if it was calculated to protect the reputation of the school. For its part, JSTOR claimed that it had no interest in seeing Swartz prosecuted and refused to press charges.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a deeply moving and highly informative documentary that can be seen in its entirety here:

The Organic Capitalist or Selling Out
by Lancelot Kirby

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture, or Hegemony, of a society that is influenced by the ruling class as an effective tool for social control.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the larger culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be clarified and brought out into the open.

At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the hegemonic propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education its self, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for affordability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent’s, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital’s tree. In essence it is little more than vocational training with the pretension of a university degree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even noticed to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual for a large segment of the population, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attainedall that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as a somewhat disinterested observer critiquing what he or she has seen. With increasing popularity however, they reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital’s interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee’s expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet it can be overcome. With an improved standard of education and a higher education put within the grasp of even the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the simple moral backbone to resist its temptations and see through its lies, such scenarios need not be an inevitability.


  1. What they did to Aaron Swartz strikes me as a shot across the bow of the elite.

    “Don’t you even THINK of using your brain to do anything but serve the corporate elite.”

    I wrote a review of The Internet’s own boy a few months ago.

    (It just brings home what a travesty it was).

    “Genius computer hackers, quite simply, are not supposed to be progressive humanists. When the Wall Street banker yells “get a job” at the leftist protester, he does so smugly secure in the knowledge that most of the best minds work for him. Filthy lucre has its appeal. But Swartz was not interested in money. He was interested, to use his own phrasing, “in making the world a better place,” in keeping the Internet a free, open, and democratic institution that served the public. ”


    Comment by srogouski — January 22, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

  2. As the survivor of an expensive education–much of it paid for by institutions and governments, as my family could never have afforded it unaided–I feel I have some idea what a “best mind” might be like in spite of the fact that I ain’t it.

    I live in a part of Washington, D.C. populated by snarky and abusive young bourgeois assholes, all of whom regard “professional” as the highest compliment that can be paid to a human being and all of whom seems to think they’re “Geniuthes.”

    As far as I can tell they’re all fucked in the head, most of them even worse than me. “Insufferable” is the word that springs to mind. “Delusional” is another. IMHO, Uwe Boll should make a movie in which they all get shot or blown to bits. (Not for real, of course) They’d writhe like snails in salt at the thought that anyone would dare.

    Maybe the really bright ones are automating hedge fund trades on Wall Street and not consulting in infamously medocre D.C. But I suspect that most of the Wall Street “geniuses” are also asswipes, “neuroscience” or no. The American higher educational system is cranking this human junk out by the metric ton. For whatever reason, the Aaron Swartzes are far between and mostly too fragile to live. Hegemony indeed.

    And while I don’t believe that “the crisis of capitalism” is going to just bring the temple down without a Samson, it certainly appears that these people really aren’t as good at their bourgeois jobs as the bourgeoisie used to be. They’re too brittle emotionally, too lazy, too undisciplined, and too weak in reading comprehension, writing, and general background to be the strong performers that many of their predecessors were a few generations back.

    I almost feel that with a night school, a few computers, and the equivalent of a library of Little Blue Books, a consortium of gifted teachers could educate working-class people in a few weeks or months to know more and think better and more to the point than the whole boiling of yuppie scum college grads.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 23, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

  3. Look, I’m dealing with physical problems that, among other things, limit me to very short spurts of typing. After 20 years of – well, it’s a long story – I finally got a diagnosis a month ago, which took all of 2 seconds, and which has been confirmed, so I’m going to get it fixed, after which I will be facing a long recovery. And that’s about all I’m going to say about it because I’ve encountered too many people who’s incapacity to understand what I’ve been dealing with is proportional to their confidence that whatever I tell them is enough for them to understand it better than I do, whereupon they reach deep into their assholes and start hucking shit at me. None of which refers to anybody here.

    Comment by godoggo — January 23, 2015 @ 9:55 pm

  4. Godoggo: it’s 3:30 a.m. And I’m beat, but I’m going to take the time to tell you I’m sorry about your illness. I’ve been ill for twenty years too and have to endure most people thinking I’m faking or just a big baby. You’re not alone… As for the current topic of higher education, the best education I have gotten was the Bible from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Saved me from making BIG mistakes in my life and it was free. I’m also really sorry to hear about Aaron Swartz’s death. I only learned about it from reading movie reviews tonight. There are forces that keep people like him down, unfortunately…check out jw.org. Good night. Please see my favorite scripture Daniel 2:44. It’s the solution we need, it’s just not easy to wait for it.

    Comment by Reba — January 25, 2015 @ 8:49 am

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