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Discarding Simmel: Public Property, Neoliberalism, and Potlatch Capitalism

Every year the university library at Cortland distributes lists of journals that it proposes to dispense with due to budget constraints and the department of sociology/anthropology advocates for their preservation. The titles they wish to eradicate run the gamut from ASA ‘flagship’ publications down to niche periodicals. This is the same library that, when I arrived in 2005, was in the process of discarding thousands of books and the same library that, when I submitted a book requisition form, rejected it on the basis that the budget for books in 2008 was exactly nil. The book disposal project is especially noteworthy in hindsight.


Normally, when you find some “free books” offered up in your university library you expect to find a smattering of dog-eared sci-fi classics and a maybe a dozen old biology or geology textbooks. At our university, by contrast, the 2005 giveaway was a bonanza of consternation – the works of George Herbert Mead, a pristine five-volume edition of The Spectator, many collected works by various authors, multi-volume intellectual histories, and, among gems too numerous to mention, Georg Simmel’s Schopenhauer und Nietzsche (1920). This particular copy was, as far as I can tell, once owned by a Dr. Naftali Herzel Landa, passed through Harpur College before finding its way to Cortland where it was finally discarded in a bonfire of neoliberal austerity. If you like your institutions ‘lean and mean’ Cortland is your kind of place.

One should resist the temptation to applaud the book giveaway based on an interpretation that locates a hidden dimension of devaluation in this gesture: these materials lack value, they are not being used, and, if you want them, they’re yours for the taking. True, waste, throwing stuff out without regard for potential value or use, represents a hidden escape route from the semi-closed circuits of production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation. However, these books were, while admittedly ‘worthless’ (not serving as material carriers of value) and underutilized, they were nonetheless useable for generations to come within the public sphere, rather than locked up in private collections or reentering circuits of exchange. Indeed, a library is only a space of potential liberation and freedom to the extent that it is filled with ‘waste.’ Did Cortland simply run out of space and simply clear out the ‘dead wood’?

I was not privy to the decision to discard the library’s holdings but in the era of austerity the zealous destruction of collective resources is a form of signaling where the old mentality of value martyrdom (Marx, [1859] 1970) is displaced by the fanatical destruction of an entire social order (Hegel, [1821] 1991) as a means to raise value from the dead (see also Soederberg, 2008). As Chris Hedges puts it, “We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy” (quoted in Grioux, 2013). In short, there is money to be made in the systematic destruction of social systems (both internally and externally). When we view this form of mass destructiveness from the standpoint of the ritual sublimation of goods into authority, we discover something new about neoliberal austerity.

Potlatch Capitalism

We can identify two circuits of virtual capital: (a) the European style of professional, bank-driven investment in debt on public markets with a balance sheet orientation to accounting and (b) the American style of amateur, complex, speculation in equities on private markets with an income statement orientation to accounting (Krier, 2008: 135). Symbiotically entangled within these circuits, its heart of darkness if you will, is an ideology and practice known as ‘speculative management’ (Krier, 2005) that is of interest not only to political economy but also to the critical sociology of institutional analyses. Speculative management involves the destruction of capital, fixed and fluid, in order to raise prices even as the firm is ultimately ruined. What interests us, here, in the overarching logic of neoliberal austerity is the use of a conflagration as a form of signaling within the nebula of the symbolic economy, transforming material stuff into a form of authority, prestige, and distinctiveness.

Mid-level state schools operate between prestige and mass education, as Donoghue says:

“The institutions at the opposite ends of the higher education spectrum – the for-profits and the elite universities – will occupy the key positions in the future, for each will exert tremendous influence on all the colleges in between the extremes. Each of the schools in between will be pushed to define itself either as a proving ground for the business community or as a place where students can acquire prestige marker, an index of their social status (2008: 93).”

It seems that a third way has been charted by schools unwilling or unable to compete at the extreme ends of the elite-mill spectrum, by turning to ‘student life’ and effervescent experiences such that the ‘return on investment’ is reduced to T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing school emblems qua tourist souvenirs and mementos from a more enjoyable time and place before life was reduced to a random string of pointless jobs. Of course, all this enjoyment comes at the price of tuition hikes; more debt; hits to non-spectacle infrastructure budgets; increasing reliance on low-wage adjuncts; the decimation of tenure lines and retrenchment; administrative bloat; weak collective bargaining (see Upchurch and Mathers, 2012); public-private synergies (i.e., the corporatization of the university); wage stagnation; nearly infinite opportunities for unpaid labor; growing class sizes; massive online McEducation nonsense; and deregulated growth and/or entropy, etc.

Speculative management at the level of for-profit firms, the spirit of potlatch, extends into the non-profit sphere as potlatch administration where the conflagration can be read from the Hegelian angle as the “burnt offering” for a new spirit. The university is burnt down and resurrected as a metaphorical ‘Pauline body’ exhibiting “wounds and all” (Ehrman, 2014: 182) simultaneously made up of a finer, ethereal and enigmatic substance worthy of everlasting life in the spectacle economy. Insofar as Cortland and its library can survive in this new era, it must signal its commitment to the new imaginary by getting lean and mean (taken to an extreme it might be reduced to an emaciated figure of meaningless suffering, existing as nothing more than an online interlibrary loan portal) and shifting its focus from information to ‘life, immortal student life’ and caffeine dispensation. Ironically, the Nazis were deprived of the opportunity to toss Simmel’s Schopenhauer und Nietzsche into their antisemitic bonfires back in the 1930s but where the Nazis failed our neoliberal institution succeeded in getting Simmel out of circulation.



Donoghue F (2008) The Last Professors. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

Ehrman BD (2014) How Jesus Became God. New York, NY: Harper.

Fletcher N (2005) Charlemagne’s Tablecloth. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Giroux HA (2013) Beyond savage politics and dystopian nightmares. Truthout, 25 September. Available (consulted 23 April, 2014) at: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/19025-beyond-savage-politics-and-dystopian-nightmares.html

Goux, J (1990) General economics and postmodern capitalism. Yale French Studies 78: 206-224

Hegel GWF ([1821] 1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H Nisbet. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Krier D (2005) Speculative Management. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Krier D (2008) Critical institutionalism and finance globalization. New York Journal of Sociology 1(1): 130-186. Available. (consulted 4 April, 2014) at http://facultyweb.cortland.edu/tnyjs/2008_files/05%20KRIER%20NYJS%202008.pdf

Marx K ([1859] 1970) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Translated by SW Ryazanskaya. New York, NY: International Publishers.

Soederberg S (2008) A critique of the diagnosis and cure for ‘Enronitis’: The Sarbanes-Oxley Act and neoliberal governance of corporate America. Critical Sociology 34(5): 657-680.

Upchurch M and Mathers A (2012) Neoliberal globalization and trade unionism: toward radical political unionism?” Critical Sociology 38(2): 265-280.

Zizek, S (2013) Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Directed by Fiennes S. Zeitgesit Films.


For correspondence:

Mark P. Worrell, Sociology/Anthropology, SUNY Cortland, Box 2000, Cortland, NY, 3045, USA.

Email: mark.worrell@cortland.edu


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