Giving Voice to Radical Democracy

A speech given by David Kristjanson-Gural at the annual Norman Thomas dinner, November 22nd, 2008 in Lewisburg, PA.

It is good to be here.  I find this evening one of the most heartening of the year and I thank Charles Sackrey for his tireless efforts and each of you for coming tonight.  I’d like to address the topic of how we embody the principles of social democracy in our daily lives by describing my work teaching political economy; the impact it has on my students and also on my experience as a worker at Bucknell.  I want to conclude by extending an invitation to you all to join a new project to further the work I am about to describe.

I am in the fortunate position of being paid to do political work in the service of social democracy.  I recognize that we are discouraged from thinking of our work as Bucknell professors as political work but teaching political economy can’t help but be, well, political.  It is true that I don’t try to persuade my students to change their political beliefs.  In what sense then is the work that I do political?

In my work I get to encourage students to think critically about how our economic system is organized.  I use Marx’s concept of class, the idea that in any society work must be organized in such a way as to both reproduce the workers and to provide a surplus, a fund from which to pay for a whole host of activities not directly associated with maintaining the workers themselves but which are needed to maintain an support the class system.  In the U.S. for example manufacturing workers produce on average 4 or 5 times more value during the working day than they receive in wages.  That value is collected by boards of directors and used to pay for a whole array of expenses associated with keeping companies afloat – rent, interest, taxes management salaries, advertising, pr, lobbying and dividends are just a few examples.  Marx identified a basic class conflict within capitalism – workers are excluded from participating in the decisions concerning how work is organized and how the surplus they produce is utilized.  He called this exclusion “alienation” and he argued that workers must be included in these decisions in order to be free.  He also noted that depriving workers of participating in decisions concerning the surplus they have produced is a form of social theft – a type of “taxation without representation”.

Class conflict over the surplus affects us all very personally because the more surplus each worker produces, the better the chances each company has of survival.  Think of it this way, if you produce the value of your daily wage in two hours, the remainder of the workday is devoted to creating surplus for the company.  The longer the work day, or work year, the more surplus the company has at its disposal.  Alternatively, if you are made to work harder or otherwise more productively, you earn your daily wage in less time and more time again is available to produce surplus. Working harder, working longer, does any of this sound familiar? Salaried workers, middle class professionals, are not immune from this struggle and I will return in a moment to consider the implications of class struggle at Bucknell.

A great number of insights follow from this basic starting point, insights that directly confront many of my students’ basic presuppositions about capitalism.  Isn’t the heart of liberal arts education exactly this: to provide alternative perspectives from which to make sense of our social experience and to challenge students to examine critically those viewpoints in order to make up their own minds what to believe?

So here is the sense in which I believe the work to be political.  When I examine our society as a class system I find that some of the most important uses to which our social surplus is put is to mystify us – to get us to stop thinking or to ensure we think in very limited and circumscribed ways because our critical examination of capitalism is frankly dangerous.  To maintain the legitimacy of this system we first of all need to be convinced that we are being treated fairly or, failing that, that there is a sensible justification for the unfairness.  We need to be convinced not to question a whole host of propositions “that competition leads to better performance; that market exchanges are voluntary and benefit all; that increased consumption leads to greater happiness; that cooperation is inefficient; that if rewards go primarily to the wealthy ultimately we will all benefit. I could go on.

From a class perspective it is clear then that the work of teaching political economy is primarily directed to interrupting these important cultural conditions of our economy: we are interrupting the production of an ideology that is vital for the reproduction of capitalism.

This is the sense in which the work we do is political.  We are not as conservative critics would have you believe, trying to brainwash students, to get them over to our side by feeding them biased information and bullying them into towing a line.  To the contrary we are trying to unbrainwash them, to get them thinking, questioning.  This is an act of great service to all students no matter where they eventually come down.  In providing this service I see, each year, a handful of students who come to accept the ideas underpinning social democratic vision; another larger group who have a great deal more respect for these ideas than they had when I met them but who remain skeptical or unconvinced; a group who offer reasoned opposition to these ideas and a few who are simply and unfortunately impervious to reason.

But I am encouraged because I am not alone in this effort.  My own efforts may be modest, but put together with the work of others in this room, and in colleges and universities across the country I know what we what we do matters.  Together we affect the way a small but significant proportion of the population view capitalism and we inform their actions.  We do this both in the classroom and by producing a body of writing that serves to develop, elaborate and defend the ideas underpinning a social democratic vision.  So teaching political economy fulfils an important political objective, but not by violating the principles of liberal arts education, rather by embracing them.  It is an important political work and it needs to be strengthened and broadened and carried out into the community and into the new public spaces created by emerging technology.

Before I say more about how I think we can do that I want to say a word about living the values of social democracy at Bucknell itself.  On the one hand, Bucknell is committed to a democratic model and as a professor I have the opportunity to participate in a range of decisions affecting our work.  However, from a class perspective Bucknell is similar to any other capitalist company, as professors we produce more value each day than we receive in the form of wages.  This value is appropriated by the board of trustees in the form of tuition and allocated to a series of activities necessary to reproduce Bucknell as a viable institution.  The support workers we work with have very little say in how their work is organized or how the surplus we produce is distributed.  These conditions, alienation from work and from each other, and class conflict over the degree of exploitation we face form an unspoken backdrop to our otherwise laudable aims.

As professors, we are exploited, since we are largely excluded from participation in the decisions concerning the uses to which the surplus which we have created is put.  At the same time we consider ourselves middle class professionals, we have considerable control over our work, we do participate on committees that help to shape policies.  Left out of the formation of our cultural identity as Bucknell professors however is any mention of this Marxian concept of class.  Missing this concept our discussions of our workloads become arguments among ourselves about whether each of us is doing enough, sometimes about whether the rewards offered for various types of work give us the proper incentive to serve our students, sometimes that the bar for tenure is too low or too high.  Sometimes we complain that the University’s revenues could be better spent, on academics as opposed to buildings or sports facilities or administrative salaries.  We do not however, consider extent to which conflict over the collective surplus we produce has led us, often at the behest of the concept of professionalism, simply to overwork.  We don’t consider the possibility that the work we have done entitles us to a say over where the University’s revenues are spent.  Class is not in our vocabulary and, to this extent, we are dumb on matters that affect us personally, persistently and profoundly.

To really embrace the vision of social democracy how would things be different?  Imagine a board of trustees at Bucknell comprised of professors, support staff, administrators, and students.  Problems and conflicts would abound.  We would, however, be engaged in social democracy, we would engage in broader discussions concerning how work is organized and shared, how much is expected and how it is rewarded.

I think you can see why it is difficult to promote the values of social democracy at Bucknell as a worker.  Even raising the problem of overwork and exploitation is difficult because it contradicts the dominant way we constitute our identities as “middle class professions” rather than as workers.  But overwork is endemic and it can be disabling.  It disables us as parents and spouses, as members of our community, as daughters and sons to our aging parents, as citizens.  At a deeper level, when we and those we work along side are excluded from decisions concerning our work and how to use the surplus we have collectively created we are absolved from responsibility for the consequences of our actions.  Our humanity is devalued and we become alienated from our work, ourselves and each other.

I want us to begin to have discussions about class at Bucknell, at other workplaces and here in the broader community.  Discussions about what it would mean fully to embrace the ideals of radical democracy, not at a limited sanitized scale but in every aspect of our lives.  I am not insisting on one version of democracy, I am certainly not trying to brainwash anyone, I do want to insist we engage with it, interrogate it, think together about how and where and when and why and yes ,whether, we can and should take it on.

Until recently it has been hard to have these conversations in part because of the continuous upward pressure on our time.   But we have also not had access to effective means of communication.  New technology is allowing us unprecedented access to public spaces, spaces we need to meet, deliberate and organize. We have also been confronting a dominant story that individual self-interest and unregulated markets will lead to the greatest social good.  That dominant story is now mortally wounded and its demise makes room for new narratives, narratives that insist on the importance of our connection, our cooperation and our collective activity to reverse the harm that these decades of conservative thinking have wrought.  A crisis is a moment of danger, but also a moment of opportunity. I am inviting all of you to seize that opportunity by participating in a ongoing dialogue and debate, a conversation we have begun tonight about how we can promote the ideals of social democracy in our daily lives.

A group of us has begun meeting weekly with the goal of disseminating views that promote radical democratic change.  Our work will be published at and you will be able to respond, react, rejoice or denounce the ideas and proposals there.  We are also thinking together about how most effectively to disseminate these views to traditional existing media, the local papers and popular journals and perhaps to extend our reach into other forms of media.

I think some of the most damaging effects of our current system have to do with the unrecognized effects of class conflict and that to begin to move to more sustainable, more humane territory we need to address them.  To do this all need to do is to come together, to think together and out loud about what else is possible and how we can make it come to be.  And then begin to act.  I recognize that we are not used to feeling empowered but we cannot now afford to remain complacent – the stakes are simply too high.  I believe that if we try we will prevail.

I have spoken long enough but let me end with this image from, of all places, the pages of Henry V. With apologies to the bard:

This story shall we spread to everyone;
And the birth of Norman Thomas shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of sisters and of brothers;
For she to-day that sheds her ink with me
Shall be my sister; be she ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle her condition;
And gentle folk in Lewisburg now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their lives as cheap whiles any speaks
That gave voice with us upon the day of Normans’ birth.

I hope you will consider joining us.


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