Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Why capitalism cannot afford to support the human sciences

Ever wondered why capitalism does not (in fact, cannot afford to) tolerate and support the human sciences – in other words, the humanities and social sciences? There is a reason for this. The short answer is that they cultivate critical thinking and practice, which capitalism, in its current attempt to consolidate its global power, naturally experiences as an obstacle. Just how successful it has been in its campaign to cast suspicion on the human sciences – as standing in the way of “progress”, as being unprofitable, and so on – is reflected in the ever-diminishing role that the human sciences seem to play at universities, and the diminished funding that scholars, intellectuals or social scientists working in this field attract.

The long answer cannot be provided in a mere blog post, but I shall try to evoke what it amounts to. First I want to draw your attention to a paradox, visible and audible everywhere in the world. Its paradoxical status is only perceptible, of course, if one keeps firmly in mind that neoliberal capitalism, in its quest for power, does not brook any opposition, or criticism – if you don’t believe me, just go to YouTube and find some of the instances where apologists for capital try their best to demolish one of their most outspoken critics, Naomi Klein. Add to this that criticism is born of the ability to think, and moreover, to think and act creatively, not motivated by the desire for financial profit, even if this does sometimes spring from the fruits of one’s creativity. Again, if you don’t believe me, trace the history of Michelangelo’s, Galileo’s, Newton’s, Descartes’s, Kant’s, Beethoven’s, Virginia Woolf’s, James Joyce’s, or Philip Glass’s creative work (to mention only a handful of creative individuals) – financial profit had nothing to do with it. (Perhaps, if you don’t understand this, you should read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.)

Hence, what is the paradox? Simply this: that in its systematic subversion of the standing and importance of the human sciences, capitalism nevertheless does so against the backdrop of an implicit, but not acknowledged, admission of the indispensable contribution of these sciences to the history of the creative arts, without which capitalism cannot do. Why? Because most of the advertising (or other forms of justification) that is the life-blood of capital depends upon this backdrop of creative culture – the Louvre in Paris, Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona, or a host of other impressive architecture, art or other cultural creations the world over, against which some or other product, in the hands of “celebrities”, features. In short, the very thing that capitalism constantly presupposes – creative culture – is inimical to its quest for total power.

How so, you may wonder. In the history of the world, novelty has always resulted from imaginative thinking, which is simultaneously critical thinking, because to imagine something that is different from what already exists is “critical” in the sense derived from the ancient Greek, “krinein”, which means “to separate, sift or decide”. Hence, imaginative invention generates something new, which is only perceptible in the light of what already exists conventionally, and therefore includes a critical moment of “decision” with regard to what is novel.

You would probably counter, correctly, that there are daily examples of such “creative, critical” inventions in capitalist culture. Sure, but don’t be fooled – the creatively critical energy that goes into the shooting of an advertisement, or even the improvement of a cell phone, ultimately serves to reinforce capital itself. It is not truly, authentically, novel if by this we mean introducing a paradigmatically new way of life. It is what one might call “spurious lateral thinking”, a mere rearrangement of the deckchairs on the ship of capital – not a move in the direction of finding a better substitute for the ship. True “lateral thinking” would consist in coming up with an alternative to capitalism itself – that vastly misunderstood economic system that poisons social as well as natural ecologies fatally. (If you doubt this, ask yourself what capital encourages: a sense of community or of individual financial wealth, an ethic of care for the natural environment or economic growth that increasingly encroaches lethally on this environment.)

There you have it – capitalism, particularly in its present corporatist embodiment at universities, which used to be relatively independent centres of thinking, teaching and scientific experimentation (not the kind funded by corporations or the military), encourages and funds only those disciplines that, in turn, help to strengthen its own position (physics, information technology, law, management science, etc.). Any discipline that harbours the potential of exposing the fact that the emperor of capital is wearing no clothes, runs the risk of being systematically undermined, and the easiest way of doing this is to create the circumstances where such a discipline is incrementally perceived as being a drain on the institution’s funding, or as not attracting sufficient student numbers to make it “viable” in the long run.

In this respect capitalism’s chief armament – capital, instantiated as money – has proved to be infinitely more effective than political repression (as Deleuze so presciently indicated in his seminal essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, in October 59, 1992). I remember that, when I was an undergraduate student in the 1960s in apartheid South Africa, I was astonished that we were free to study Marx and the neo-Marxists, or (for that matter) any thinkers who might equip us with the intellectual means to criticise and eventually act against apartheid as a racial oligarchy. One might have expected the apartheid authorities to place a ban on such “subversive” material. (Yet, incongruously, they banned D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover – which is perhaps not that incongruous if one considers the subversive power of non-commercialised sex; think of Homer’s The Iliad.) Capitalist culture practises what the neo-Marxists called “repressive tolerance” – all books and other sources of knowledge, reflection and criticism are tolerated, but as we have increasingly seen under neoliberalism, their effectivity is neutralised by diminishing, and eventually cutting off what is today the indispensable source of survival: funding.

Perhaps it is becoming clearer what I mean by claiming that the human sciences are anathema to capitalism, except maybe that they are “sciences”, and as such not in the same boat as creative arts like literature, art, architecture and cinema, where one might expect true criticism of the system – if and when it does arise – to be far more effective than in intellectual tomes like Marx’s Capital, or Hardt and Negri’s Empire. Yes and no. Many individuals have reached the point of realising that the economic system, whose end the majority of people cannot imagine – they would rather imagine the end of life on the planet, as Žižek wryly observes in Living in the End Times – is suffocating societies economically, and nature through endless economic growth, with its concomitant side-effects such as global warming. They arrive at this insight through their acquaintance with books like these, although others do so by being galvanised into enlightenment through their experience of a great artwork, like Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 roman noir, American Psycho, or James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar (an eco-political film, if ever there was one), or Sidney Lumet’s classic, prescient film, Network, of 1976 (see ).

The point is this: without the human sciences, which comprise all those disciplines that encourage creative and critical thinking (AND practice), such critiques of the present dominant economic system (or ANY economic system that has become more of a liability than an asset to humanity, such as communism at an earlier stage in history) is far less likely to emerge. And many of those people in the world, who are in positions of decision-making concerning the future of the human sciences, know this. Naturally, they would hate to lose their positions of power and privilege; hence their myopic decisions to reinforce the systemic status quo (which, inversely, encourage their decisions) – decisions which simultaneously serve to hamstring the human sciences, and hence humanity’s creative criticism, which has the potential to envision a better future for all living beings.

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