Friday, April 6, 2012

Fraternities and the Capitalist State

Many readers will have seen this article in Rolling Stone, detailing the horrors of the fraternity system in general, and at elite ruling-class feeder institutions like Dartmouth in particular. The article raises a lot of questions about fraternities as institutions–their role in consolidating gender oppression and facilitating rape, their hard-nosed conservatism, their brutal treatment of members, the nihilism and anti-intellectualism that they encourage and promote, etc. etc.. And, of course, the lurid details in the article about the culture of hazing in the Greek system is repulsive. But another striking element in the article is the role that fraternities play in grooming the ruling class. Here is a representative quotation from the article:
Nestled on a picturesque campus in tiny Hanover, New Hampshire, [Darmouth] has produced a long list of celebrated alumni – among them two Treasury secretaries (Timothy Geithner, '83, and Henry Paulson Jr., '68), a Labor secretary (Robert Reich, '68) and a hefty sampling of the one percent (including the CEOs of GE, eBay and Freddie Mac, and the former chairman of the Carlyle Group). Many of these titans of industry are products of the fraternity culture: Billionaire hedge-fund manager Stephen Mandel, who chairs Dartmouth's board of trustees, was a brother in Psi Upsilon, the oldest fraternity on campus. Jeffery Immelt, the CEO of GE, was a Phi Delt, as were a number of other prominent trustees, among them Morgan Stanley senior adviser R. Bradford Evans, billionaire oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and venture capitalist William W. Helman IV. Hank Paulson belonged to Lohse's fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, or SAE.
Reading this article alongside Marxist work on the nature of the State is worth doing. For example, in What Does the Ruling Class Do When it Rules? Göran Therborn argues that:
The qualities required of the personnel of the capitalist state have always been of a special kind, as can be seen from the filtering processes of education, selection and training... experience of manual labor has never played any role in recruitment; only certain intellectual talents of an openly elitist character have entered into the selection procedure. For example, it was in order to deepen this exclusivist basis that the teaching of Latin and Greek was reintroduced or given renewed emphasis in 19th century secondary schools... The influence of this educational system over the patterning of careers is asserted by the informal criteria of entry into the state machine; by the operation of 'good old boys networks'... The training of state personnel has focused on the systematic inculcation of one particular leadership quality. This is not the capacity to weld together a collective organizational team, but the ability to exercise authority over and ensure the respect of subordinate members of the staff. Boarding schools and the student fraternities of elite universities are devoted to the development of self-discipline and self-confidence in such leadership cadres."
For many academics, it is easy to forget that the university is one institution lodged within a much bigger system–capitalism. It is not a fully autonomous, self-standing entity where only the unforced force of the better argument reigns. Recognizing the university as, in part, an institution that facilitates the reproduction of capitalist social relations is key. This is especially true when universities attempt to brush against the grain of power, e.g. when they attempt to do away with the Greek systems. With so much social power–and wealth–concentrated in the Greek system, it is almost impossible for some universities to do away with them (or even reform them substantially) given the threat of backlash from moneyed alumni tied to fraternities and sororities. My sense is that it would take a movement to successfully defeat the Greek system on the campuses of big universities. Moreover, defeating fraternities would also require a certain high-profile crisis that could be seized on to turn public opinion against them. This, of course, would have to be combined with a critique–one that highlights the racism, sexism, and, of course, their class power–of the role that they play in society writ large.


Anonymous said...

"For many academics, it is easy to forget that the university is one institution lodged within a much bigger system–capitalism."

Those of us who work for those academics, however, have no trouble remembering this...

t said...

Yes, this is definitely true. Many academics are blissfully ignorant of all the labor on which their own research projects depend. Given their structural location, it is tempting to adopt idealist perspectives in which nothing matters but the force of the better argument in the realm of ideas. But, of course, their whole world depends on material conditions, which fall out of the picture entirely when one adopts the pure idealist perspective.

The extent to which academics are aware of this problem varies considerably, I think, but the problem persists even among many self-avowed "progressive" professors. Unfortunately, many academics only take note of the relationship between capitalism and the university when their own academic lifeworld comes under attack (e.g. when austerity programs recommend cutting their department out of the university or the like).

The struggles and upheavals of the 60s certainly brought to light the ways in which the university is obliged to play certain social functions in the system. My sense is that the recent surge in struggle is producing a similar radicalization coalescing around the student loan industry and the influence of the 1% in education policy.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like someone got picked on a lot in college by frat guys. I can see the resentment and psychological scars dripping off the computer screen. If, as I suspect, you wrote this blog post from an Occupy camp, put down your bongo drums and look around you: Women are getting raped at Occupy camps, there's major class divisions between the OWS leadership and rank-and-file members, and the majority of you commies are middle and upper class white kids. Throw in the filthy living conditions and tell me, how's this any different from frats? See a psychiatrist, work through your issues, quit hating, and go get a job. Who knows, maybe a former Dartmouth frat bro will hire you.

Anonymous said...

...oh yeah, and the rampant drinking and drug use at Occupy camps put even the Deltas of Animal House to shame. OWS essentially is a frat for losers who couldn't get into a real frat.

t said...

@Anonymous 2:11pm: Hah. You'll have noticed that I don't much care what you and your lot think. But you're different. You're so threatened by the airing of the dirty laundry of an illegitimate social institution that you're obliged to comment on a left wing blog with talk of bongo drums, "get a job you hippie" and other trite little phrases. That speaks volumes.

I've got news for you, though. You're not on the lawn of your insulated frat universe. You're in the real world. And these days, quasi-feudal institutions like fraternities aren't looking so good to the majority of society. I'm sure that doesn't make you feel good. But I can't say that I care.

The evidence is out there for everyone to see. We can't expect the beneficiaries of the fraternity system to be forthcoming and honest about it. In fact, it's never advisable to expect the beneficiaries of some exclusive practice to be honest about it. We don't consult kings when we want to know whether monarchy is just. And we don't consult the 1% when we want to know whether its scaffolding deserves to exist.

Anonymous said...

@t: I laughed so hard reading your response that I ended up spitting my Remy Martin Louis XIII all over my humidor of Gran Habano Corojos.

You're quoting Marx, talking about feudal institutions and monarchies, and can't write a paragraph without bleating the "1 percent" incarnation of the "four legs good, two legs bad" cliche - and you're calling me trite? Your worldview is based on the 19th century Utopian hallucinations of a bitter and frustrated indigent and you think that you're living in the real world? And after half a year of filth, rape, and violence within the insulated universe of Occupy camps showed American society exactly what sort of human waste you commies are - you actually think that the majority of society sympathizes with you and your lot?

The real world is filled with folks like the Dartmouth frat brothers you envy - guys who were more motivated to succeed and less misanthropic than you. That's why Dartmouth frat bro Jeff Immelt is Obama's economic adviser while you sit in your tent and write hackneyed blog posts bitching about it.

You need to get off the reefer and embrace some self-awareness, buddy. And seriously, get a job.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 10:50:

Who do you think you're kidding? You're scared shitless. You know that the majority of society--which isn't welcome in your stupid infantile club of assholes--resents your shit. You don't give a shit about the 99% and they don't give a shit about you. You spend your time jerking off the rich and powerful. That's fine. But when the rest of us get sick you of your shit, you kind of have to eat it. You have to face the fact that you're all alone. The rest of us aren't with you. You don't don't know fuck all about foreclosures, layoffs, or any of it.

Anonymous said...

Fraternities are rape factories. Abolish all of them.

Anonymous said...

Occupy camps are rape factories:

Abolish all of them.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 12:32:

Jerk off to fantasies of making the 1% eat it all you want, commie. The days of gulags are over and you wouldn't have the balls or the belief in the 2nd Amendment to pull off the purge of which you dream.

I hope to be "the 1%" some day and I'm definitely not all alone in that hope. I and others like me have the motivation, the education, and yes, the power that comes from social skills and connections. How does it feel to see Mr. Hopenchange surround himself with 1%-ers while you sit in a tent like a bum and whine about inequality? If he fooled you into voting for him, do you really think you have any hope of effecting the change you want?

Face it, we're smarter, braver, and more motivated than the true 1% minority among the citizens of this great country: YOU, the lazy spoiled indigents of OWS that all of America has been laughing at since last fall. And that's why we'll continue running the country while you continue wallowing in your own filth like the Animal Farm pigs that you are.

Anonymous said...

mr anonymous capitalist toe-sucker; you are an idiot. blogger please ban these freeper morons. i come here to read intelligent marxist analysis, not the ravings of some mccarthyite loon who still uses 'commie' as an insult.

Anonymous said...

From your intellectual better:

S said...

This is a little one-sided, in that it reduces fraternities to the stereotype of white, rich, male enclaves, when increasingly on most campuses, fraternities are the one place where aspirant minorities find much needed social support. The Greek system is as contradictory as any religious institution, in that they are institutions of power and oppression but also bulwarks against alienation (in whatever perverse form that one can find under capitalism) ... so it is important to understand why and how people join them. Gay fraternities, black fraternities, and Latino fraternities are not the same as the ones at Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard. You can't simply reduce all fraternities to the ones at the Ivies, just as not all churches are synonymous with the Vatican.