Reconstruction 10.3 (2010)
Return to Contents»Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry / Mark Nowak
<1> When I use the term the American MFA industry, I am referring to the multimillion-dollar conglomeration of state and private enterprises within the neoliberal language industry that has developed in continuum with the crisis of global capitalism over the past four decades. During this time, the American MFA industry has expanded into a vast network of loosely interconnected programs (housed at universities and colleges), creative writing faculties, journals (many produced by pro bono labor of student workers), graduate students, and pools of potential applicants. Constituent industries (the Modem Language Association-MLA, the Associated Writing Programs-AWP, Poets & Writers Magazine, the series of annual Writer's Market directories, etc.) sustain, in part, the system's reproduction. Publishing houses (large- and small press, for profit and not-for-profit), bookstores and book distributors (corporate, independent, and on-line), journals (academically affiliated and non-affiliated), writer's retreats, contests, and grants also maintain the industry's reproduction and expansion.
<2> This theorization of the American MFA industry attempts to reconfigure the work of Adorno and Horkheimer ("the culture industry") and Charles Bernstein ("official verse culture") by examining an industry and culture at all stages of production, exchange, consumption, and reproduction. Moreover, this theorization is invested in extending preliminary comments on the condition of the industry's working- or popular classes. Additionally, not content to merely interpret the landscape of the American MFA industry, this theorization attempts to engage these interpretations as tactics for social movement and cultural adjustment.
<3> It is difficult to estimate the current workforce of the American MFA industry. A recent article in the industry's chief trade journal, Poets & Writers magazine, cites over three hundred MA, MFA, and post-MFA Certificate in Creative Writing programs in North America (almost exclusively, it must be said, in the United States). [Note: the paid circulation of Poets & Writers magazine as of June 2005 was 61,000.] The website of the Associated Writing Program (AWP) claims to support "over 25,000 writers at over 400 member colleges & universities & 86 writers' conferences & centers." An article by AWP Executive Director David Fenza (posted on AWP's website) outlines the industry's staggering recent growth: in the four-year period between 1998 and 2002, the number of BFA, MFA, and PhD programs in creative writing nearly doubled, from 124 to 210. The industry's estimated workforce would increase dramatically if figures were to include even one branch of the constituent industries: Barnes & Noble bookstores, for example, employ more than 40,000 full- and part-time workers in close to a thousand stores; Borders and Waldenbooks employ more than 32,000 full- and part-time workers in over 1,200 stores. As of 2002 (the year of the most recent American Library Association data), academic, public, and school libraries in the United States alone employ 397,691 librarians and other paid staff [This figure does not include workers employed in special libraries (e.g., those serving businesses, scientific agencies, hospitals, law firms, non-profit organizations, etc.)] Thus, a language industry (in one configuration) composed solely of creative writing instructors at U.S. colleges and universities, workers at Borders and Barnes & Noble, and paid U.S. library staff would constitute a social formation of more than half-a-million workers in the neoliberal language industry.
<4> The relations of production within the American MFA industry, as well as the larger neoliberal language industry outlined above, replicate the sharp divisions and stratifications present in the relations of production in the global economy. An elite and highly paid minority who control the practices and processes of the industry reap the bulk of the economic (and socio-cultural) benefits while a vast popular- or working-class majority struggles on temporary (part-time, adjunct, or annual) service contracts, substandard wages or graduate "stipends," unavailable or unaffordable healthcare, and related symptoms common to the larger processes and practices of neoliberalization.
<5> Neoliberalization—or what Samir Amin has recently termed, in the American context, "the liberal virus"—infects the American MFA industry and the larger neoliberal language industry in epidemic proportions. It should not surprise us that an industry that developed, matured, and continues to expand in continuum with the reconfiguration of global capitalism under Bretton Woods institutions (the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the International Monetary Fund) replicates many of the strategies central to global capitalism's reconfiguration. In a key article of the late 1990s, "The essence of neoliberalism," Pierre Bourdieu argues that at the millennial turn we are witnessing a shift from the economic project of neoliberalization (deregulation, currency devaluations, privatization of state-owned industries, etcetera) to a more threatening and all-encompassing political project of neoliberalization whose goal is nothing less than the methodological elimination and destruction of even the possibility of collective action.
<6> The American MFA industry participates in this political project of neoliberalization. As an industry its objectives include the market socialization of the contemporary "poet & writer" and the neoliberalization of its relations of production. Through its rapid expansion in the late 20th century it has produced a largely under- or unemployed workforce of "poets & writers" in free market competition for jobs (advertised through the MLA job information list, the AWP job list, and the Chronicle for Higher Education career network) and publication opportunities (advertised through Poets & Writers magazine, The Poet's Market, and similar trade directories). Kirsten Hilgeford's detailed analysis of the moribund supply and demand figures in the American MFA industry in 2003-2004 revealed a glut of annual creative writing graduates (2,000-3,000) competing for tenure track positions in creative writing that had actually sharply decreased from 103 in 2002-2003 to 65 in 2003-2004. As a consequence of the industry's overproduction of graduates, an advertisement for a single one of these positions will regularly elicit hundreds of applicants. Likewise, many publishers now regularly fund books and journals through contests that charge exorbitant "service fees" for merely reading (aka, "servicing") a submission. Largely non-unionized service workers at Kinko's, OfficeMax, and Staples assist largely non-unionized creative writers in the preparation of these job applications and manuscript submissions. In many ways, this picture is akin to the situation in the larger American economy that is the result of the neoliberal policies of deindustrialization, privatization, welfare "reform," and similar strategies of the corporate North. As Samir Amin contends, this type of market socialization in the modern world "is founded upon the expansion of the capitalist market relations which gradually master all aspects of social life and suppress, or at least largely dominate, all other forms of solidarity..."
<7> These strategies of the economic and political projects of neoliberalization—or what Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez terms "savage neoliberalism"—have become untenable. Thus, at the current historical juncture, the American MFA industry as well as its constituent industries must be impeded through cultural adjustment tactics and collective interventions. These tactics and interventions must be based upon a thorough understanding of historical, international popular struggles against the ruling elite within and beyond the boundaries of the neoliberal language industry.
<8> "I want to read, and make, poems that are out there on the edge of meaning yet can mean something to the collective. I don't believe it's only the isolated visionary who goes to the edge of meaning; I think the collective needs to go there too..." —Adrienne Rich
<9> A new social formation for the collective cultural worker must replace the stereotypes of the hermetic, visionary artist (the product of early capitalism) and the market-socialized neoliberal artist (the product of late capitalism and the American MFA industry). One question at hand is whether the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer. If it is not (as I am arguing here), then delinking the writers' workshop from its academic institutional framework becomes a more imperative cultural adjustment than attempts to reform the industry from within its academic institutional framework. Collectively run, non-academic radical writers' workshops such as John Reed Clubs, established in part by the Communist Party of the United States in 1929, offer an early model for one potential cultural adjustment to the current writers' workshop model. Established as writers' clubs by the journal New Masses, the John Reed Clubs became arenas for radical language workers across the United States. Poems such as Tillie Olsen's "I Want You Women Up North to Know" , perhaps the earliest example of documentary anti-sweatshop literature, were published in journals such as the West Coast John Reed Club's Partisan. Several years later, a manual penned by Meridel Le Sueur for the Minnesota Works Progress Administration, Worker Writers , was used extensively in non-academic, radical writers' workshops (a note on the inside cover, "What to do with this book," suggests that people "order copies for your union shop..."). Fifty years later, the Ministry of Culture, under the direction of Ernesto Cardenal, established site-specific Talleres de Poesia (Poetry Workshops) for factory and agricultural workers, police officers, street vendors, the unemployed, soldiers, and other Nicaraguans following the victory of the Sandinista revolution over the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Modeled on transparency, collectivity, and participatory democracy (i.e., guiding categories for transforming neoliberalism) and aiming to decentralize and democratize cultural production, the Talleres de Poesia remain one of the most radical interventions in the history of the writers' workshop.
<10> The small Marxist organizations, of C.L.R. James, theorized in Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organizing and Facing Reality (co-authored with Grace C. Lee [Boggs] and Pierre Chaulieu), offer a second model for radical social formations through which collective cultural workers can engage in cultural adjustment tactics and interventions. James participated in a number of these organizations, "consisting of a fusion of workers and intellectuals," including the Johnson-Forest Tendency (formed by James, Grace Lee, and Raya Dunayevskaya during their major break with Trotskyism at the 1941 convention of the Workers' Party), Committees of Correspondence (following Dunayevskaya's break with James and Lee to form News & Letters), and Facing Reality (predominantly under the direction of James and Martin Glaberman). James argues that the task of these organizations should be "to recognize and record" the facts of a new (already existing, socialist) society in the everyday acts of working people the world over: "The Marxist organization which understands that its function is to learn and not to teach, will find (after great efforts) that outside of production as well as in it, the new society every day, every hour, establishes itself with a massiveness, a solidity, and an infinite variety, which challenges the official structure of society at every turn." He urges organizations to publish the evidence they "recognize and record" in newspapers, journals, and pamphlets that are to be popularly distributed. Readers today might turn to the Labour Start website for a contemporary electronic version of the "recognize and record" tactic <http://www.labourstart.org>. The Bolivarian Circles of the Chavez governement also provide a contemporary example of state-sanctioned small Marxist organizations that are attempting to recognize and record the new society in Venezuela.
<11> As the objectives of the neoliberal economic and political projects have been to privatize, reduce, and eliminate permanent, living wage employment in favor of temporary contracts, low-wage labor, part-time or self-employment, and related strategies of disemployment, the radical intervention and production tactics of contemporary resistance movements among South American unemployed and popular classes also serve as particularly significant models of intervention tactics in the current climate. For the past two decades in Brazil, for example, the Movimento dos Trahalbadores Rurais Sem Terra (the landless workers' movement) has been engaged in mass occupations of unused farmland. The MST educates unemployed farmers of their right to land (a clause in the Brazilian constitution that the government rarely applies), and, after months of planning, groups of families, organized into committees, take possession of an agreed upon tract during the night (to avoid police, military, and government repercussions) and establish a settlement there (the tactics are detailed in Stedile, 82-84). The MST's largest occupationist intervention—Fazenda Giacometti, in Parana (1996), which covered three municipalities and nearly 200,000 acres—was documented by Sebastiao Salgado in Terra: Struggle for the Landless. In Argentina, the response to the effects of neoliberalization and globalization (currency devaluation, factory closures, etc.) has included the employment of occupationist tactics at several hundred shuttered factories including Bruckman (a suit factory), IMPA: La Ciudad Cultural (an aluminum factory cum cultural centre), and, most notably, Zanon (a ceramics plant). At Zanon (renamed FaSinPat, "Factory without Bosses"), workers are engaged not only in an occupation, but, in the words of one worker, "a battle against individualism, against everything that those above impose upon us. Here inside the factory we are fighting for a new human being." [Note: When I visited Zanon in the summer of 2004, the information office displayed the presence of cultural workers at the plant; in addition to posters of Fidel and Subcomandante Marcos, the office wall included a poster from local cultural workers who had staged a performance of Bertolt Brecht's The Mother inside Zanon. Likewise, at IMPA, industrial workers and cultural workers were sharing the space inside the occupied aluminum factory, which in addition to producing tubes for hair coloring and tooth paste also housed a small theatre, a print shop and studio, and a people's lending library.]
<12> These models (non-academic radical writers workshops, "small Marxist organizations, "Bolivarian Circles, and the radical occupation and production tactics of South American resistance movements) provided a framework through which one small left-labor organization, the URWW (Union of Radical Workers and Writers), theorized and initiated a social movement network that collectively engaged in cultural adjustment tactics and collective interventions in response to a particular struggle in Minnesota. The history of the URWW can be traced to the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly's annual Labor Day Festival (2002), where Jason Evans and Holly Krig, workers from Borders bookstore in Minneapolis, announced the inception of an organizing drive at their store. As chair of the Political Issues Committee of the National Writers' Union (NWU) local at the time, I immediately drafted and had passed a resolution in support of the Borders workers' organizing drive. Over the coming months, a collective composed of Jason, Holly, NWU activist and writer Sun Yung Shin, and myself began meeting regularly to discuss tactics to help organize and unionize the bookstore. We read tracts from historical, international Marxist activists and theorists and discussed how best to apply these lessons in our current struggle; we organized interventions to inform consumers of the anti-labor practices and policies of Borders, Inc. Among our varied activities, several stand out: a worker-driven "Teacher Appreciation Week" boycott (during which in-store sales dropped 50%), a "Buy-In" in support of workers' contract talks (where sales rose 60%), and an informational picket on Hennepin Avenue in front of the store on the day after Thanksgiving shopping day, supported by members of local left-labor and cultural groups including the Northland Poster Collective, Speak Out Sisters, the Minnesota-Dakotas Communist Party, and rank-and file activists from the Teamsters, UFCW, and various other regional unions. These tactics and interventions clearly displayed to Borders' management that workers could effect sizeable control over regular Borders customers' purchasing habits; that a growing consortium of political organizations were joining forces to pressure the store through informational pickets (i.e., bad publicity); and that support for the unionization of the store was large, vocal, and growing.
<13> The URWW's cultural adjustment tactics and collective interventions resulted in two significant public articulations in 2004. After months of planning, URWW hosted what we believe to be the first conference of its kind, Resist Retail Nihilism: A Bookstore Workers Organizing Forum, at the Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 7200 on January 17, 2004 [the date was chosen to coincide with the World Social Forum in Mumbai]. Conference participants included bookstore workers from the Minneapolis Borders store, the CWA-unionized Resource Center of the Americas bookstore, the two Twin Cities anarchist bookstores (Arise and MayDay), workers from the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, the organizer of the Philadelphia, PA., Borders store #21 (through the I.W.W. in 1996), worker-writers from local unions (Teamsters Local 1145, UAW local 879, CWA local 7200), a librarian from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, several lead organizers from UFCW 789, academic organizers and labor historians, and local writers and anti-globalization activists. We were also in continual correspondence with workers at the original Borders store #1) in Ann Arbor, MI., who were unable to attend due to the economic after-effects of a 54-day strike at their store that ended just two weeks before Resist Retail Nihilism. [Note: one failure of the forum, it should be noted, was our inability to connect more deeply with workers from several chain bookstores in the Twin Cities who URWW members contacted through store visits and fliers; this failure is being addressed through new tactics being developed by the URWW network.] The second significant public outcome was the ratification of the Minneapolis Borders workers' first union contract on November 14, 2004. The struggle and its result marked, in the words of one Twin Cities' newspaper article, "a template for future organizing."
<14> The unionization of one bookstore in the corporate North serves as merely a minute step toward the URWW's larger objective of contesting (and eventually reclaiming) the privatized commons of the neoliberal language industry as well as radicalizing workers of the word. Public democratic spaces (represented in an earlier era, if at times problematically, by the public library) have been replaced in the era of neoliberalism and globalization by the faux democratic spaces of big-box book retailers. Since the mid-1990s, for example, Barnes & Noble bookstores have been employing Community Relations Managers whose sole responsibility is the formation and implementation of in-store and community outreach programs. In addition to managing author appearances and school outreach programs, CRMs monitor the store's military history and celebrity cookbook bookclubs, Swedish and Swahili language nights, writers' circles, and whatever other market-driven groups might draw in consumers of coffee and textualized commodities. What would happen, however, if a club on unionizing bookstore workers were to be proposed at the local Barnes & Noble? The democratic rights of free speech and free association, of course, are largely moot in such circumstances. And as a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision clearly articulated (in a case involving fur protestors at the Mall of America), "Property [does not] lose its private character merely because the public is generally invited to use it. While the public is invited to many privately owned places to shop, dine, or be entertained, the invitation creates only a license which may be revoked."
<15> The URWW, an autonomous network of writers and workers, is addressing this licensing (i.e., privatization) of the commons through occupations of the faux public spaces of the neoliberal language industry in order to radicalize workers, writers, consumers, and ourselves. Our occupationist tactics—drawn, in part, from the UK Levelers, the Brazilian MST, the FaSinPat of Zanon—are comprised of singular and plural practices. The URWW encourages the first person singular (the individual, the "I") to engage in temporary autonomous interventions in the faux public spaces of neoliberal language industries of the corporate North. We grant fair-use reproduction privileges for our "bookstore drop" fliers to individuals interested in engaging in TAIs in big-box booksellers (Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.). We encourage individuals to reproduce these fliers (downloadable from the URWW website) and distribute them at local bookstores (giving copies to bookstore workers, inserting copies in books or placing copies on bookshelves, leaving copies near staff areas or on employee bulletin boards or in rest rooms, etcetera). TAIs inform employees, consumers, and bookstore management and ownership that the URWW and its supporters are currently educating and organizing bookstore workers and consumers on the anti-democratic policies and practices of the neoliberal language industries of the corporate North. The URWW also encourages the first person plural (the collective, the "we") to engage in temporary collective occupations of the faux public spaces of the neoliberal language industries of the corporate North. The URWW and its allies seek to establish regular (bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly) domain within one section of the common areas of big-box book retailers. Groups meet at the faux public cafes of Borders or Barnes & Noble stores to engage in radical writers workshops of group members' writings (John Reed Clubs and the Talleres de Poesia of the Sandinistas can serve as historical examples), discuss left-labor strategies and tactics for organizing, address local or global issues in the neoliberal language industries (i.e., the USA PATRIOT Act), or discuss tactics for expanding the struggle to impede and revise these industries. Following group discussions, participants are encouraged to distribute fliers to bookstore workers, customers, etc. [Note: participants in TAIs or TCOs are asked to send an email detailing their intervention/occupation to the URWW email@example.com and to include the following information: date, time, location and name of store, number of participants for TCOs, topics and details of discussion (for TCOs), number of fliers distributed/ dropped, commentary from (or dialogue with) those receiving ,fliers (if any), etc. These reports will be made available (anonymously) through the URWW website and/or our "First Person Plural" publications.]
<16> The URWW has also developed a series of in-store tactics bookstore workers can employ to exert a modicum of control over store profits. These tactics run the gamut of Luddite practices including de-stickering (removing stickers, replacing with `generic' special order stickers, exchanging book stickers [i.e., exchange stickers on Harry Potter and The Prison Notebooks]), mis-shelving (placing best sellers or `paid' books in sections less browsed, alphabetizing books by author's first name or book title, etc.), receiving (forgetting to inventory new shipments, losing paperwork, double receiving invoices), returning (returning books not scheduled and in high demand, destickering a scheduled book return and misshelving it, forgetting to scan period books while boxing returns, stripping high demand magazines and paperbacks), backrooming (backrooming high demand books, backrooming single copies of less demand books), and checking out (charging for merchandise minus one item, giving senior-teacher-corporate discount to people not in these groups, claiming credit/debit card declined). Writers and other activists, in conjunction with bookstore workers, can also organize collective interventions in stores: groups of individuals can form purchase-return loops at checkout lines during busy shopping periods, individuals can "edit" store stock by phoning in orders to stores outside their locale for books not normally stocked by the chains, individuals or groups can reshelve books to give prominent placement (usually reserved for large presses paying for these prime locations) to small press titles, radical political texts, etc. One sector of the network proposed that a collective of individuals (say, 50 or more) simply walk into a chain store, grab an armful of books, and proceed past the check out line and out the door. "Steal This Book" tactics aside, these and related cultural adjustment tactics and collective interventions, if engaged on a mass scale, put the neoliberal language industry at notice that an organized mass is currently engaged in, as we write in the URWW mission statement, "establishing public platforms and virtual networks for the democratic struggle to work in the first person plural."
<17> URWW extends its reach as a network through the expansion of our cyber-community, meet-ups, and collaborative programming with other left-labor groups. Our Tribe.net site http://urww.tribe.net, launched in early 2005, hosts nearly 300 subscribers (as of August, 2005). Through the tribe site, we organize and host meet-ups and temporary collective interventions in the cafes of big box booksellers (our most recent assembly occurred on June 11, 2005, at the Borders on Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles). In the summer of 2004 we collaborated with several Minnesota unions to organize and host "One Day in July," a street festival in downtown Minneapolis celebrating the 70th anniversary of the 1934 Minnesota Teamsters' Strike. And at the time of this writing, we are currently co-assembling "H20," a symposium on the 20th anniversary of the P-9 strike against the union busting practices of Hormel. Invited speakers include veterans of the strike, the Austin United Support Group, and the Twin Cities Local P-9 Support Committee as well as today's activists in local packinghouses, the Centro Campesino, the mechanics' struggle at Northwest Airlines, and immigrant workers rights, among others. As labor historian and original Twin Cities' Local P-9 Support Committee member Peter Rachleff writes in our collectives press release for the event, "Hormel workers sought to resist this shift in climate and policy, insisting that workers employed at a profitable company should not be expected to give concessions and givebacks on wages, benefits, and work rules. Their struggle inspired hundreds of thousands of workers to visit Austin, walk their picket lines, contribute to their support, and boycott Hormel products. Future labor historians and labor activists will look back to the Hormel strike as a critical chapter in the movement's overall history." The H2O event will "recognize and record" these workers' historic struggle while seeking to articulate this history to the critical situation of the American working- and popular classes today.
<18> URWW additionally serves as clearing-house for open source unionism, runs a .PDF publication series ("First Person Plural") for narratives of workplace organizing, archives materials from bookstore organizing drives, and engages in related cultural adjustment tactics. We believe that reclaiming the commons, democratizing and unionizing (or, shutting down) the corporate bookstores we have been left with by neoliberalism and globalization, understanding and practicing cultural adjustment tactics and collective interventions, and radicalizing and de-institutionalizing the writers' workshop have become more crucial "economies of creative effort" (Shklovsky) for contemporary writers than the typical offerings of the American MFA industry and the policies and practices of its constituent industries. In place of workshops and mandatory course offerings that educate the next generation of writers in the craft of market socialization politics and practices, in place of the faux democratic spaces and clubs of the non-unionized retail bookstore giants of the corporate North, in place of under-funded public libraries and government surveillance of patron records, in place of underpaid adjunct instructors and service workers, in place of these and other policies and practices of neoliberalization and the neoliberal language industry, we believe that an alternative ideology and praxis are possible, where to be engaged in "book work"—as a writer, a librarian, an editor, a bookstore worker, a reader, a book designer, a teacher—does not have to equate with the policies and practices of neoliberalization and the climate of the corporate North.
<19> C.L.R. James argued that it was "not merely two methods of production but two conceptions of society as a whole [that] are in conflict." In the field of contemporary literary studies within the institutions of the neoliberal North, however, exegeses of conflicting methods of literary production (i.e., L=A=G=U=A=G=E poetry, elliptical poetry, "official verse culture") saturate the pages of scholarly and independent publications while conceptions of, tactics toward, and interventions into "a new society" remain largely unaddressed. James' critique of earlier vanguard organizations that "substituted political theory and an internal political life for the human responses and sensitivities... to ordinary people" could equally be leveled against many of even the most Marxist literary practitioners and their avant-garde (or academic) publishers today.
<20> In place of a solely literary textual praxis grounded in Marxism or related ideologies (what I like to call "a Marxism from the neck up"), this essay argues for a radical restructuring of the social formations produced by, and the product of, cultural workers in the age of neoliberalism and late capitalism. Delinking the writers' workshop from its bureaucratic, institutional framework while providing it with a Marxist base (one could look to the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver or the San Diego Factory School as contemporary models employing these tactics) needs to be complemented by an equally radical second step: rearticulating the independent writers' workshop/"small Marxist organization" to the rank and file, to everyday people, to our neighbors and grocery store check-out clerks and fast food workers and telemarketers—i.e., to the popular- and working classes who each and every day, as James reminds us, "challenge the official structure of society at every turn." Through this rearticulation to the struggles of the popular- and working classes, writers will more avidly and forcefully "recognize and record" the seeds of the new society in the struggles of the current neoliberal one.
<21> Yes, another word is always possible; yet another world is possible, too.
Article originally published by Palm Press.
The included images are scanned from the publication, where you can find high-resolution versions.
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