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  • The Proliferation of Rights-Based Capitalist Violence and Pedagogies of Collective Action
  • Jodi Melamed (bio)

In her 2017 presidential address, Kandice Chuh addresses the suppression of dissenting scholars and the accelerated undermining of education in the Trump era with an intellectual boldness and along lines that I have come to associate with the scholarship of many ASA-affiliated thinkers. She does not defend academic freedom; rather, she analyzes how the defense of academic freedom often strengthens a culture of "protest nationalism," in which expressions of dissent reinforce and align with the rationalities of the nation-state. She launches a full-throttle critique of "the structured embrace of academic freedom in a liberal key." For Chuh, the true problem of academic freedom is not what scholars may or may not say but "the interested material power behind the very conception of the autonomous rights-bearing citizen iterated by academic freedom and that marks its liberal-nationalist grounds."

Her second act challenges ASA members to deliberate a role for ourselves as an "us," associating in the association, in the historical present. Casting the pedagogical as where we do dissent, and dissent itself as a "point of departure," Chuh asks us to think carefully about "the work of associating" and pointedly asks, "What will we have wanted the ASA to have been and done some decades hence?" Implying a contrast with the AAUP ("through associating, the AAUP professionalized the activities of teaching and research"), Chuh lets us know that she expects our together work to be informed by the approaches to vitalizing collective existence ASA constituencies have learned from social movements and interdisciplinary frameworks attuned to the disavowed violences of freedom in racial and colonial capitalist modernity.

In my response, inspired by Chuh's critique of academic freedom, I examine the proliferation and intensification of rights-based capitalist violence under the Trump administration and its connection to the assault on universities, public education, and critical thinking more generally. In a nutshell, I argue that we are experiencing a partial remaking of rights under the combined pressure of the ultracapitalist radical Right, a block that leads today for extractive, financial, [End Page 179] and corporate global capitalism, and the political resurgence of a libertarian-leaning ethno-nationalism, which we can think of as a highly individualistic (neoliberalized), lightly veiled version of white supremacy. These forces come together around relatively new articulations of "rights," which grow out of relatively old twentieth-century libertarian notions of economic liberty, and are routed through the First Amendment, antidiscrimination claims, and civil rights redone as libertarian counterrights. They amount to this: the "right" to be unencumbered by concern for the well being of others and the planet. They come into play as tactics for coded attacks on democratic government itself, which for plutocratic libertarians represents majoritarian coercion of minority elites through taxation and other constraints on economic liberty. More antisocial even than everyday neoliberal rationality (for which markets and exchange remain minimally social), radical right and libertarian appropriations of liberal rights abstractions are radically individualistic and property supremacist; they argue for the unbridled "right" of entrepreneurs to accumulate capital in any manner, without limits, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. They include the "free speech" rights of Citizens United, which secured impunity for money to influence the state apparatus as a core exercise of First Amendment rights, and the "free speech" rights of radical right propagandists to speak on college campuses and to be protected from protest and criticism. They include state-level "antidiscrimination" measures, such as the many antiboycott bills that forbid states from contracting with businesses and individuals who support a boycott of Israel (using discrimination against Israel to abrogate boycotters' First Amendment rights and to block organized labor from taking up the issue).1 Individual rights arguments are also forwarded to protect "the taxpayer" from being forced to pay for the government to provide services to other people, including, increasingly, public education. Finally, there is the "right not to have rights laws," including "right to work" laws and state laws forbidding municipalities from passing living wage, antidiscrimination, and voter protection ordinances.2

For these appropriations of liberal rights abstractions to do their work as well...


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pp. 179-187
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