Liberalism without Accountability

SPOTLIGHT, 13 May 2024

Gareth Fearn | London Review of Books - TRANSCEND Media Service

2 May 2024 – Witnessing the scores of militarised police being deployed to round up student protesters, many people in the United States and across the world may be wondering what the difference is between supposedly progressive, liberal government and authoritarian, reactionary leaders like Donald Trump. The latter are certainly worse, but liberalism’s failures mean that the threat of authoritarianism is a less terrifying spectre than it ought to be.

Universities exemplify the crisis of liberalism. US universities, especially Ivy League institutions, rely heavily on large private donations and the profits from investing their endowments in hedge funds. Fees continue to rise to astonishing levels (nearly $90,000 a year all in at Columbia, though many students get financial assistance), even though universities and the financiers who run the funds make billions, while graduate incomes decline because of economic stagnation. The Biden administration has essentially acknowledged this, writing off more than $146 billion of student debt, though without challenging the hedge-fund model of the university system.

As the protesters rightly identify, universities have significant investments in arms and other companies that profit from the genocide in Gaza. Universities are hardly unique in this: many pension funds operate in a similar way, spreading risk by tracking groups of firms (for example the Dow Jones or the FTSE 100). Following these patterns of financialisation, it is difficult (but not impossible) to avoid investments in arms companies, oil and gas firms etc. It is even more difficult if you want to maximise your returns.

Many of the universities’ most generous billionaire donors openly support the Israeli government’s actions and buy into the idea that university students are dangerous radicals suppressing the free speech of others by expressing their own views. At the same time, right-wing politicians are attacking universities along similar lines, forcing some university presidents out of their jobs for their supposed tolerance of alleged antisemitism while others submit to congressional demands to restrict academic freedom.

This is a toxic combination: universities reliant on investment portfolios in a system where mega-profits are made by companies that threaten and destroy human life, influenced by an increasingly radicalised class of billionaires, teaching students whose degrees won’t earn them enough to pay off their loans, managed by supine administrators threatened by (or willingly collaborating with) a reactionary right, who have decided that young people’s minds are being turned against capitalism not by their own lived experience of austerity and racialised police violence but by ‘woke Marxist professors’. This situation has now met with a live-streamed genocide which is supported, and brazenly lied about, by political leaders and commentators who claim to stand for truth and justice. Students, like much of the public, cannot square the reality of what they see with the world as constructed by politicians and the media.

Under such circumstances, pitching tents, raising placards and demanding divestment are really quite mild-mannered responses. That they have been met, in many US universities, with militarised policing reflects the fragility of liberalism – in the face of the growing hegemony of the conservative right as well as its own inability to offer a future even to Ivy League college students, let alone the less privileged.

There is a refusal by liberals to accept accountability for the world they have created, through their support for wars in the Middle East, their acceptance of growing inequality and poverty, cuts to public services, glacial action on climate change and failure to create secure and meaningful jobs.

This could be a moment for significant reform, but it would require a challenge to at least some sections of capital. Changing university funding models means taking on Wall Street. Arms companies rely on US defence spending and its military interventions or proxy wars. Action on climate change means losses for fossil fuel companies, whose owners often fund the conservative right.

Liberals in the US and across Europe have decided they do not want to take on this challenge. Their latest wheeze is to de-risk investment in the hope that it will revitalise stagnating economies, while doing what they can to see off any challenge from the more progressive left. That means heavily policing and demonising protests, working with the right to undermine candidates and parties that do seek to challenge capital (and the status of liberal parties), and more generally polluting the political sphere with bullshit to blur the lines of accountability – as when the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, insinuated that the protests at Columbia were instigated by ‘external actors’, or a Princeton administrator allegedly fabricated stories about threats made to staff.

Liberalism has two core components: the protection of property rights and a notion of negative freedom grounded in human rights and political checks and balances. What we are now seeing in the US (and the UK, and elsewhere in Europe) is the defence of the former at the expense of the latter. Political leaders and university managers are undermining not only free expression but the role of the academy in holding political decisions to account. Large sections of the news media are engaged in holding the public to account rather than politicians. And, perhaps most fundamentally, the ballot box offers a choice only between the degree of authoritarianism and economic dysfunction available to voters. If this situation persists, not only in the US but across the world, then occupying a university building will seem like a picnic when compared with what may be coming down the road.


Gareth Fearn is a researcher at UCL on the politics and planning of energy in the UK.

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