Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber 
by Wendy Brown.
Harvard, 132 pp., £19.95, April, 978 0 674 27938 4
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Thereare two broad narratives about what has happened to universities in the English-speaking world over the past forty years. They are very different from each other, yet both have some plausibility. The first runs roughly as follows. The rise of the New Right in the 1980s introduced a policy agenda for universities aimed at injecting enterprise and competition into a sector that had previously seen itself as somewhat insulated from the market. Measures such as the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act in the United States encouraged scientists and universities to treat their research as a private good, yielding financial returns on investment. In the UK, the Thatcher government’s deployment of the Research Assessment Exercise in 1986 (later the Research Excellence Framework) introduced a research scoring system in an effort to awaken the competitive instincts of universities and their managers.

The influence of ‘new growth theory’ on the policy agendas of the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK in the 1990s, when both parties were seeking to refashion themselves for a post-socialist age, placed universities firmly within the purview of economic policymaking. Universities would be tasked with building the ‘human capital’ that would generate productivity gains for the economy at large. They would also be at the centre of regional ‘clusters’ of innovation and enterprise, as their research was spun out into start-ups.

Meanwhile, the increasing prominence of national and international university league tables, often managed by the business press, further heightened competition between institutions, and anxiety at the prospect of failure. Salaries for senior managers began to escalate as universities were reconceived as a highly profitable export industry; new postgraduate courses were dreamed up, along with debt-fuelled construction projects to house the students who would ‘consume’ them.

Since the inception of the RAE, the UK has become a world leader in the intrusive government auditing of universities, all of it justified as being in the cause of promoting ‘excellence’ – in other words, separating the wheat from the chaff. Since 2014 the REF has also required departments to produce evidence of their ‘impact’ beyond the academy, and research councils have begun to demand that applicants for funding set out their ‘pathways to impact’.* ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’, a 2016 government White Paper, rehearsed the usual clichés about the importance to the economy of research and tuition, but its true purpose was the construction of a genuinely competitive market in higher education, with new ‘providers’ entering and existing ones exiting. An Office for Students was set up, along the same lines as any other market regulator, with a Teaching Excellence Framework to grade universities on the basis of such criteria as student satisfaction and graduate employment rates. A Knowledge Exchange Framework has now been added, to gauge how successfully universities work in partnership with businesses, government and civil society.

Since 2008, economists’ and politicians’ view of higher education has grown steadily more disapproving. In contrast to the boom years of the 1990s, when it seemed a virtuous circle might be established between generous public investment in universities and economic growth, the suspicion now is that individual academics aren’t sufficiently focused on preparing their students for the labour market and that young people are being duped into studying subjects that won’t deliver ‘good outcomes’ in the form of future earnings. Rishi Sunak’s recent pledge to ‘crack down on rip-off university courses’ (defined as those whose graduates haven’t entered a graduate-level job or postgraduate study within fifteen months of completing their degree), by limiting the number of students that such courses are permitted to recruit, was the reductio ad absurdum of the marketisation agenda.

For those of us who work in higher education, much of this has felt both suffocating and nonsensical. More and more of our energies are diverted to competing for funds, taking part in marketing exercises or learning to speak the language of ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’. The full cost of carrying out the 2021 REF has been estimated at a scarcely credible £471 million, almost double the cost of its predecessor in 2014. With no apparent irony, the government’s Post-18 Education and Funding Review (the Augar Review), issued in 2019, urged ‘universities to maintain a sense of proportion in their marketing strategies and budgets’, and worried that the pursuit of student numbers and student satisfaction might be linked to grade inflation. The ‘impact’ agenda has driven some deeply silly behaviour. A friend who works at a policymaking body told me about one unfortunate academic who called him up, hoping to host a joint seminar to be retrofitted as evidence of ‘impact’. When my friend declined, the academic asked meekly: ‘Would you at least be willing to sign a letter confirming that we’ve had this conversation?’

The combined effect of the various assessments – REF, TEF, KEF – and pressure from university managers to win grants, where the success rate can be as low as 5 per cent, and to publish in journals where the acceptance rate is not much higher, hasn’t been good for the vocational commitment (or the mental health) of academics in the UK. Similar auditing exercises have been developed in Australia and New Zealand, influenced by the British model. Academic employment practices in all three countries have grown steadily uglier, with the rise of fixed-term teaching contracts for academics at the beginning of their careers and more extensive use of metrics to govern those lucky enough to get permanent jobs. American universities, which have always been more open to private money and market forces, have at least been saved the more cack-handed policy efforts to marketise by design.

The second story about universities is the one that may be more familiar to those who have looked on from a distance. Across the Western world in the 1960s, campuses were crucibles of politicisation and left-wing organisation, shaping the ‘new social movements’ that followed in subsequent decades. But a political danger lurked here: the majority of people didn’t go to university, didn’t benefit from the cultural and economic privileges they confer, and often didn’t share many of the values that graduates tend to hold. This political schism emerged far earlier in the US than in Europe, but by the time of the ‘populist’ upheavals of the 2010s, it was abundantly clear that one’s relationship to universities was strongly correlated with voting behaviour and attitudes to issues such as immigration and gender equality. In the UK, where the rate of participation in higher education has risen from 5 per cent in 1960, to 15 per cent in 1990, to around 50 per cent today, this has been mirrored by intergenerational differences of opinion. What were once social democratic parties now rely largely on the votes of what Thomas Piketty has called the ‘Brahmin left’: the liberal-minded yet privileged section of society, whose one shared experience is higher education.

In recent years, as liberalism has faltered, universities have been dragged into political conflicts to which they are ill-suited. Conservative parties and campaigns have a clear incentive to appeal to non-graduates, who are in a majority and of a higher average age, and therefore more likely to vote. To this end, all manner of phoney ‘culture war’ issues have been manufactured, and ‘woke’ university lecturers blamed for the moral and cultural degradation of the nation. Paranoid references to ‘cultural Marxism’ have been a mainstay of the American far right for decades, but the phrase now crops up in the speeches of more mainstream conservative politicians, while ‘critical race theory’ is presented as a university-led conspiracy against white people that is now infecting schools and public services. Reactionary intellectuals such as Douglas Murray have identified Black feminist theories of ‘intersectionality’ as the root of the West’s current malaises. This rhetoric is far from harmless, as attested by the censorship of gender studies by Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary, and similar efforts by Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida.

This politicisation of universities by the right is a mixture of cynical electoral strategy and base resentment. But it wouldn’t succeed to the extent that it does if it were based in illusion. Anyone with a passing knowledge of literary studies, sociology and Continental philosophy curriculums since the 1980s will be aware that, under the influence of Gramsci and French ‘theory’, students are encouraged to view culture, texts and identities as politically constituted. They are invited to consider what is omitted from, or silenced in, established histories and narratives. This isn’t to say that these disciplines are a ‘threat’, less still a ‘conspiracy’, but it doesn’t help the left to pretend that the relationship of scholarly knowledge to politics hasn’t changed since the 1980s. Many universities today are political spaces, not in the way they were in the 1960s, but in terms of the micro-politics of knowledge production. Different ways of thinking about ‘power’ and ‘violence’ have emanated outwards from universities.

Nor does it help the left to assume that the analysis that succeeds in the seminar room, one that helps to illuminate the occlusions and violence which have shaped histories and identities, can be transported to the public sphere without any adaptation. As Wendy Brown writes in Nihilistic Times:

Just as nothing is more corrosive to serious intellectual work than being governed by a political programme (whether that of states, corporations, or a revolutionary movement), nothing is more inapt to a political campaign than the unending reflexivity, critique and self-correction required of scholarly inquiry.

Twitter has been disastrous in this regard, hurling the authors of critical academic discourses into the same arena as op-ed writers, politicians and members of the general public, without any mediators or translators to help these different communities understand one another. Even the most committed poststructuralist surely realises that most people do not think of ‘nature’, say, as a Eurocentric construct, and that to talk as if this were common sense is alienating and potentially patronising. Yet on social media some academics find it simply too tempting not to flaunt their esoteric knowledge for clout. This is a gift to reactionaries.

Taking these two stories together, it appears that universities have been swamped by economics and politics at the same time. Most academics (especially those outside the humanities and social sciences) would credit the first story with far more descriptive accuracy than the second – they would cite evidence of workloads, job insecurity, the endless measurement of outcomes and more. But anyone whose primary contact with universities is via the conservative press (let alone Fox News or GB News), as well as academics who have been on the receiving end of conservative attacks on their discipline, would probably say that the problem was too much politicisation. But what if both stories have some truth to them? And what if they are related?

In both economic and political respects, universities have suffered the effects of what Brown calls ‘nihilistic boundary breakdown’, whereby different spheres of society invade one another for no good reason. Arguably, there is both too much marketisation and too much politicisation of academia going on right now, but the relationships between these processes are difficult to unpick. What has become clear in the UK, now that Conservative politicians are targeting ‘low value’ degrees, is that the marketisation agenda has finally merged with a political campaign against the critical humanities. It’s just as clear, at least to anyone who has seen it up close, that the fondness for Foucault in British social science (including, until recent purges, in business schools) is partly a consequence of the relentless observation and quantification of British academics.

Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber is a revised and expanded version of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values that Wendy Brown gave at Yale in 2019. As she acknowledges, Weber is, on the face of it, a surprising choice of ally for a radical political thinker who has done so much to scrutinise and oppose political orthodoxies. Weber is typically dismissed on the left as a conservative defender of bourgeois liberalism and a critic of socialism. In recent years, Brown has been best known for her critical analysis of neoliberal rationality and the way it has weakened resources for political action; recent scholarship, meanwhile, has highlighted significant continuities between Weber’s thought and that of early neoliberals such as Ludwig von Mises. Brown isn’t a sociologist, but her work is unquestionably animated by what C. Wright Mills called the ‘sociological imagination’, which connects ‘private troubles’ to ‘public issues’. Although Weber was one of the founding fathers of sociology, he has become unfashionable among sociologists because of his insistence on a rigid distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, and his refusal to let politics or ethical reasoning intrude into scholarship.

So why Weber? The texts Brown focuses on are the two famous lectures given in Munich in 1917 and 1919, ‘Science as a Vocation’ and ‘Politics as a Vocation’, which Nihilistic Times reads in reverse order. Here Brown finds Weber responding to ‘crises of political and academic life bearing certain parallels to our own, including a crisis of liberalism’. In a time of war, demagoguery and bureaucratisation, and when the ‘death of God’ had become a given, Weber sought to reorient politics and scholarship through a dogged commitment to what distinguished each of them. As Brown admits, some of this made for dry and disappointing reading (‘Science as a Vocation’ is ‘one long depressive sigh about what scholarship is and requires, even apart from its miserable contemporary conditions’). But what she finds most valuable in Weber’s ethos, not least in its implications both for the left and for the academy, is the willingness to face uncomfortable truths without lapsing into wishful thinking or despair.

Weber insists that everything remain in its rightful place. Politicians should stick to politics, and scientists to science. Religion should vacate public life, except as an inner psychological ‘vocation’ through which individuals commit to their life course. The tragedy of modernity, as recognised most acutely by Nietzsche, is that modern knowledge can tell us a great deal about how the world works (facts), but nothing whatever about what we should do about it (values). This, Weber argued, is just the way it is, and to deny the split between facts and values (in the form of mysticism, say, or Marxism) only makes things worse. Modern society is therefore suffused by nihilism, in the sense that values no longer have any stable or consensual foundation, while scholars have nothing helpful to say about them, other than to study them sociologically.

In these circumstances, both science and politics carry a heavy burden. Once values come to be regarded as non-objective cultural artefacts, politics becomes a never-ending battle to assert one set of values over others. In spite of this, or because of it, values must be defended to keep nihilism at bay, and the responsibility for doing this falls especially to politicians, and political leaders in particular. Weber’s central injunction to scholars, meanwhile, is to stay in their lane and avoid the temptation to issue edicts on morality or politics. Both scientists and politicians must take ‘responsibility’ for their own sphere of activity, and ensure that there remains, as Brown puts it, a ‘moat between academic and political life’.

As Brown makes plain, this is a strange and paradoxical approach to the problem of nihilism. If nihilism stems from the shrivelling of religious authority and a divide between facts and values, then as Weber sees it, the conditions for nihilism will remain. In that case, ‘responsible’ actors must continue to tackle its worst symptoms, in both political and scholarly arenas, without ever promising to eradicate its root causes. To act as if nihilism isn’t a problem – for instance, by issuing academic prophecies, or claiming to be doing the work of God – is to perpetuate its worst effects, whereby the boundaries between politics, religion, scholarship and bureaucracy are tossed aside, and everything becomes dictated by affect and the threat of violence. It’s this diagnosis of nihilism, and its resonance with contemporary crises of liberal democracy, that interests Brown in Weber.

Brown had already engaged with the concept of nihilism in In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019), where she had Trumpism and adjacent political movements in mind. That book, in turn, built on Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015). What Brown has been trying to puzzle out, along with many other leftist observers of US politics in the 21st century, is how a neoliberal regime rooted in ubiquitous privatisation and economisation could have yielded the illiberal excesses of Trumpism, whose violent rhetoric and ethno-nationalism appeared so at odds with the cold calculations of the global market. How is it possible that economics and politics burst their banks like this, and both at the same time?

Undoing the Demos was heavily influenced by Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism, which he gave in Paris in 1978-79 after studying the German ordoliberals (Walter Eucken, Franz Böhm, Wilhelm Röpke) and the Chicago School (Gary Becker especially). The lectures appeared in English in 2008, since when they have become a reference point for sociologists and historians in the Anglosphere working on the history of free-market ideas. Foucault grasped early on that, under the influence of Becker, neoliberal thought offered a whole new vision of economic agency, contained in the idea of ‘human capital’: individuals could make investments in themselves by such means as higher education, in the hope of reaping future financial returns. This is the logic that would later be used to justify the marketisation of universities in the UK, on the basis that, from the student’s perspective, tuition fees constitute a financial investment. Under neoliberalism, all life (including matters of career, family and identity) becomes a series of personal business strategies and bets.

Brown recognised, following Foucault, that many of the neoliberal intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s, horrified by fascism, advocated markets as a defence against politics. Yet they continued to look to the state to implement their projects as forcefully as possible, and eventually got what they wanted, starting in Chile in the 1970s, then the UK and the US in the 1980s. Expanding the reach of economics and markets into otherwise ‘non-economic’ domains of life is the signal ambition of neoliberalism, and distinguishes it from the Enlightenment liberalism in which ‘market’, ‘state’ and ‘society’ are imagined, as Weber would have appreciated, as three separate spheres of existence. Undoing the Demos examines techniques of economisation in such fields as government (where managerial measures of ‘good governance’ and ‘best practice’ are used to obviate political deliberation), the courts (where the distinction between market freedom and civil rights is strategically dissolved) and universities.

In this process the spaces of democratic politics are gradually eliminated or vacated. Such concepts as ‘citizenship’, ‘education’ and ‘democracy’ lose their purchase on the public imagination, or no longer describe the forms of freedom available to people. ‘Freedom’ is reduced to a set of calculations and consumer choices. When the logic of finance capital saturates everything, individuals are expected to put up with whatever outcomes it generates, no matter how harsh or unfair. In this way, ‘a political rationality originally born in opposition to fascism turn[s] out to mirror certain aspects of it, albeit through powers that are faceless and invisible-handed and absent an authoritarian state. This is not to say that neoliberalism is fascism or that we live in fascist times.’ So it appeared when Undoing the Demos was published in 2015.

In the years that followed, new connections were spotted between the neoliberal commitment to markets and certain menacing moral and cultural strands of mid-20th-century conservatism. Melinda Cooper’s Family Values (2017) drew attention to the alliances forged, post-1968, between economists wanting to shrink the size of the state and neoconservatives hoping to rescue the patriarchal family. Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists (2018) questioned whether the neoliberals of the 1930s and 1940s were really immune to nationalism and racism. And Jessica Whyte’s The Morals of the Market (2019) presented neoliberals as waging a cultural battle to defend European ‘civilisation’ and Enlightenment values.

We know what else happened after 2015 in American and European politics. But how did Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Salvini et al relate to neoliberal orthodoxy? The analysis shared by many of the protagonists themselves was that there had been a popular reaction against faceless ‘elites’ and ‘globalists’ (Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’), who lacked any sense of solidarity or national community. Closer empirical investigation of the way these electoral breakthroughs occurred and were financed, and of the policies that followed (especially under Trump), scotched this notion. In their recent book Alt-Finance, Marlène Benquet and Théo Bourgeron examine the Brexit referendum as a clash between two sets of economic interests, ‘first wave’ finance (investment banks and industry, which backed Remain) and ‘second wave’ finance (hedge funds and private equity, which backed Leave). It is this ‘second wave’, which actively seeks and exploits political disruption and regulatory fragmentation, that has been allied to nationalist electoral campaigns. Trump, for example, was backed by billionaire venture capitalists such as Peter Thiel and Robert Mercer; Le Pen notoriously received support from a Russian bank with close links to the Kremlin. But questions remained as to how the world described in Undoing the Demos, governed by managers and number-crunchers, related to the one that emerged soon after the book’s publication.

Trump was plainly not the kind of leader that Milton Friedman or Gary Becker would have hoped for. His reckless political rhetoric, his narcissism and his flirtation with the extreme right made for instability of a kind that neoliberals have always sought to prevent. Yet his success didn’t come out of the blue. ‘If neoliberalism is conceived only as a political rationality featuring the ubiquity of markets and homo economicus’ – as Brown admits she herself had understood it in Undoing the Demos – ‘we cannot grasp the affective investments in privileges of whiteness and First World existence in the nation and national culture or in traditional morality.’ Brown seizes on the concept of nihilism as a way of comprehending the relationship between the cold economisation she described in Undoing the Demos and the hateful manic energy that engulfed American democracy soon after.

The reduction of everything to monetary value and financial logic ‘added force to the nihilism of the age and also quickened it’. But there are nuances in the way nihilism manifests itself. Moral values may lose their foundation, becoming little more than personal preferences or branding exercises, but this does not mean that moral rhetoric disappears. Brown, drawing on Nietzsche, stresses that once values have come to appear baseless and arbitrary, there is no limit to their application, or to the violence that can be exercised in their name. The American right is awash with moral and Christian rhetoric, but it is also awash with money and with rage, much of it aimed at the prominent social movements of the past half-century. Nihilism is double-pronged: forces of rationalisation and economisation empty the world of meaning, which creates space for the darkest psychic and political forces to express themselves, regardless of consequence. No neoliberalism, no Trump.

Whathope does Weber offer, under these circumstances? Perhaps hope is the wrong thing to hope for. As he warned in ‘Politics as a Vocation’, ‘not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.’ Weber is unable – and perhaps more important, unwilling – to offer any reason why it is better for a scholar or politician to behave with ‘responsibility’ than to lie, cheat, enrich themselves, feed their ego and laugh as they do so. That’s the problem of nihilism. Unless someone hears the inner ‘call’ of a scientific or political vocation, Weber’s lessons may be worthless. Certainly they are unlikely to persuade anyone intent on dissolving all boundaries between knowledge, power and the market: the demagogues, grifters, trolls and narcissists who seem to be in the ascendant.

Nihilistic Times isn’t a manifesto that sets out what should be done. It doesn’t offer a new moral paradigm or an ideology to inspire or justify political or scholarly work, though it does provide plenty of reasons to remain resolute, whatever degree of hopelessness might have gripped its readers. In common with most of Weber’s leftist critics, Brown does not accept a blanket distinction between facts and values, pointing out that such a distinction looks dated in light of subsequent work in sociology and cultural studies on the historical entanglement of expertise and moral worldviews. Brown is ambivalent about the depth of the ‘moat’ Weber wishes to dig between scholarship and politics, though she certainly wants us to understand how catastrophic it would be if there were no boundary between them: ‘Demands that a curriculum comport with any political programme – right or left, secular or religious – ought to be rebuffed with discussion about how such conflation corrupts both spheres.’

But Brown does have some guidance to offer. First, she asks what the left might make of Weber’s view of politics, in which charismatic leaders strive to rescue humanity from nihilism, constrained all the while by a private sense of responsibility. The left could certainly use a realistic theory of leadership and charisma, which would recognise their importance in organising and public persuasion while remaining alert to the risk (heightened greatly by the internet) that activism can become a vanity project. What Weber understood, as many defences of populism do not, is that good leadership combines passion with reason, with neither one sacrificed for the other. The left must speak not only to people’s desires or to their rational interests, but to both at the same time. That said, Brown wonders whether there isn’t a case for going beyond a reliance on the charisma of the solitary leader to consider whether people’s desires might be ‘educated’ through more decentralised means, and become better aligned with what might realistically benefit them.

Weber’s take on scholarship is a more bitter pill to swallow, especially in the neoliberal university, where the alternative to politically motivated teaching and research is often the unrelenting grind of audit and administration. Yet, in a sense, Brown’s demand is that the university rediscover its independence from both politics and economics, so that the question of what the university is for rests with scholars, not demagogues, technocrats or managers. To align an academic programme with a political movement is no more helpful in this respect than to reduce it to its market outcomes. Brown doesn’t go so far as to tell academics to stay away from politics, but she does urge them to think seriously about what they can offer their young students, in whom nihilism is a very understandable impulse. It is in the unique context of the public university that values can be examined historically and theoretically, as fragile and precious resources, without which we stand no hope of confronting the crises of the present. Academic freedom needs defending, against both the state and the market, but so does academic responsibility: to recognise what the university can still uniquely do, which money and power alone cannot.

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