An Interview with Steven Salaita on his Recent Keynote Speech
Former Virginia Tech professor Steven Salaita recently gave the Keynote Speech for the Virginia Tech Graduate and Professional Student Senate Symposium in the face of protest from zionists on campus and from afar.
Salaita first drew ire across Virginia Tech and the country when he published an essay criticizing the default nationalist/militarist mindset of Americans and how deeply entrenched it is in popular culture, mass media, and from all authorities. The following is an interview between The Virginia Worker and Salaita regarding recent events
VW: Mr Salaita, we first want to thank you for your time to conduct this interview and we’re happy we finally have been able to connect as longtime followers and supporters since you took that principled stand with your essay back in 2013.
As you highlight in your recent keynote speech, the reality of capitalist education is completely at odds with vague ideals professed by these institutions, largely for the sake of good PR.
Your speech and 2013 essay really break down how these institutions function more to indoctrinate people with imperialist ideology and reward lackeys in these institutions rather than the pursuit of truth and progress for the benefit of humanity. Was this always your impression? Or did it emerge after entering academia?
Dr Salaita: Thank you for inviting me into conversation. You describe the PR mandate really well and, looking back, I think it was always my impression, vaguely at least. There was a sense from an early age that institutional cultures were chock full of bullshit.
A lot of kids sniff it out before even getting to middle school. It’s a fascinating thing to witness. It wasn’t until much later, after having worked on a college campus, that I was able to apply a language to the impression.
VW: You grew up near Virginia Tech by the border of Virginia and West Virginia, with your family attending Virginia Tech and you yourself attending Radford University prior to.
You must be very familiar with how local workers view these institutions. Would you say the animosity between local workers and academia is deserved? Why does this contradiction exist?
Dr Salaita: I think it’s deserved, yes. Why wouldn’t workers have animosity for bourgeois institutions? Especially institutions that do everything under the sun to decrease the value of their labor while rewarding an ever-growing administrative class with exorbitant salaries?
The contradiction exists primarily because the university’s labor practices are at odds with its ideological pronouncements.
VW: While you were under fire for your 2013 essay you said no tenured faculty came to your support. There is a leftist scene at Virginia Tech which includes tenured professors. They have organizations, they hold symbolic protests, many even will say they are socialists behind closed doors, so why have these leftist academics been so impotent and unwilling to wage the fightback?
Dr Salaita: I tried to specify no tenured professors in my department. There was one, actually, but he left Virginia Tech shortly thereafter. The English Department has no shortage of influential faculty with supposedly good politics. They sat it out. A handful of faculty from other departments were extremely supportive and to this day I’m grateful.
I’ve thought a lot about why people were so reticent. Maybe they just disliked me? Beyond the normal squabbles over turf or whatever, I never got that impression, though. I had a solid relationship with my colleagues. I was aloof but never hostile, never impolite.
I suppose that even though some departmental colleagues certainly empathized with my situation, they also knew what type of institution employed them. It was a simple cost-benefit decision–and there was no material benefit to taking up for someone the institution had targeted for recrimination.
VW: The visibility of Bernie Sanders and the DSA have led many to hope that we are seeing a revival of socialism. In actuality, much of this enthusiasm has been funneled to support liberal imperialists.
A lot of your commentary has focused on how opportunist this tendency has been both in regards to anti-imperialism and worker internationalism with most of its base coming from academia. Do you think there is a material basis for academia – students included – to promote this opportunism?
Dr Salaita: If I understand the question correctly, then yes. Academia is tailor-made for social-democratic hedging. Also: there’s a strong media industry for social-democratic thought (or propaganda, if you want to be less generous with the terminology).
It’s not Fox News or MSNBC, but there’s a decent living to be made in podcasting and the lecture circuit if you’re lucky, or industrious. And of course you can’t quantify the benefits that derive from showing yourself to be “reasonable” to an academic audience.
It increases the chance of getting a fellowship or a grad school slot or a job. Few things are more damning than sitting out electoralism. Much worse if you openly reject it. A great many leftist professors consider voting to be sacred even if they don’t know or admit it. It shows in their behavior.
VW: Many of our members grew up around these colleges like Virginia Tech, but our proximity to the campuses were at best tied to our role as staff rather than the beneficiaries of education and those resources.
The student bodies largely are coming from the wealthiest areas of Virginia (DC suburbs) yet some act as if they are militant revolutionaries. But if we fast forward ten years from now many of these students will assume managerial roles maintaining the very systems they nominally struggled against as students all the while the local working families who facilitated their education fare no better despite the radical chic of the students and faculty.
This feels like a universal dynamic across all colleges and the working communities they exploit. How do you see this dynamic being broken so workers can actually have power and say on the colleges they build and operate?
Dr Salaita: You said it better than I ever could! The dynamic you describe is very difficult to sort, in part because white-collar employees (to use a quaint term) won’t voluntarily include the real workers in organizing efforts.
Sometimes this isn’t because of malice or insensitivity. They simply don’t see the groundskeepers, kitchen and maintenance staff, physical plant folks, and so forth. Those workers don’t enter into the calculation. So those demographics should keep organizing, but I’d suggest deploying some of the language that instructional faculty use: academic freedom, precarity, workload (as a variation of course-load).
This vocabulary has currency in that particular workplace. And it’s accurate. Because those jobs are often precarious, right? The vocabulary speaks to contractual relations heavily favoring the employer.
And because restrictions on political speech allow management to exercise control over employees. Of course the bus driver has an opinion. Why shouldn’t she? And why shouldn’t that opinion be protected?
You can say that workers are wasting their time trying to be noticed by faculty and researchers and I wouldn’t argue with you. But I don’t think it’s a waste of time to see if you can force them to account for you.
VW: You mention unions as a path forward for workers, in relation to the colleges it seems these unions once again tend to gravitate to the white collar workers while skirting the blue collar workers.
Recent attempts by the business unions – like the Communication Workers of America and its front Campus Workers United – have shown this tends to be the stratum they want to recruit over the blue collar workers running the dining halls, the housekeeping services, the construction of buildings, etc.
Does this not reveal how deeply entrenched liberalism and opportunism are among the organizations that are supposed to represent worker interests?
Dr Salaita: I sort of addressed this in the previous response, but let’s build on it for a second. It does reveal an entrenched liberalism and opportunism, yes, but, despite finite energy and resources, it’s worth trying to get the white-collar workers to account for you.
Not acknowledge you, per se, but actually account for you–meaning that you’re a presence they can’t simply brush aside. The onus is on people on the white collar side.
I’ll tell you, though: I’ve listened to a lot of labor analysis over the years and I rarely hear faculty discuss the workers you have in mind. So it’s a serious challenge. Blue-collar workers have a lot in common with adjuncts and contract faculty. I think that’s a good place to start.
VW: Going back to the norm of symbolic gestures as part of campus politics, how much utility is there in passing various resolutions or staging protests if nothing materially changes from them?
For instance it’s been a common feature of campus politics to offer superficial support for environmentalism or opposition to war, but these postures seldom translate to real gains.
Virginia Tech is right beside a crucial munitions plant in the US imperialist supply chain yet there never has been an effort by faculty and students to struggle against the Radford Arsenal despite being something they could do that would have a material impact on US imperialism and show a genuine anti-imperialist commitment with workers of the world.
Instead the focus has been on its local environmental impact as if green production of military weapons is the goal. Not to mention Virginia Tech itself is very intertwined with war corporations and the US military.
Students and faculty could struggle to end Virginia Tech’s complicity in research and development for the benefit of US imperialism. Why is there such a divide between the radical rhetoric of students and faculty and the lack of any material changes for workers here and abroad?
Dr Salaita: A part of me wants to be cynical about these efforts because, as you describe, what usually happens–with fossil fuel divestment or BDS and so forth–is that the students catch a lot of shit and really struggle to get something passed, only for the university to promptly ignore the resolution.
I don’t think those kinds of resolutions are purely symbolic. Depending on the situation, they can actually have some sort of legal standing. But to really work in the way organizers want them to, those resolutions need a corresponding social power that simply doesn’t exist for students. At the same time, you have to start somewhere and you never know where a movement will take you.
I see them as useful tools for community education and network-building. Also, it’s a different kind of learning for students, some good, some bad. Some students learn about opportunism and other students learn how to be opportunists. As you suggest, though, without a strong class analysis these efforts are probably doomed to symbolism in the end.
VW: Historically academia has played a crucial role in the development of revolutionary workers movements across the globe.
The intellectual labor which academia specializes in is an important weapon in building out revolutionary movements, yet the divide between academia and the working class seems greater now than ever before with academia substituting itself for the working class as the revolutionary subject.
Would you say there is a correlation between this current situation, the rise of post-modernist thought, and the decline of marxism among academics?
Dr Salaita: Not necessarily. This one is tricky. There’s actually a decent amount of solidly political postmodernist thought and a lot of self-identified Marxist professors are world-class bootlickers.
I’d be careful not to ascribe any specific outcome to any particular school of thought. These categories aren’t so ideologically distinct in reality, despite how we talk about them.
If you’re using “postmodernism” as a catch-all for apolitical babbling or revolutionary posturing through inaccessible language, then, yeah. But that’s a problem across the spectrum. Again, I go back to a simple point: it rarely occurs to faculty to even think about the workers who actually keep any campus running.
VW: There still is a lot of holdover rhetoric from the former predominance of marxism at colleges, it’s not too uncommon to hear references to imperialism, or critiques of capitalism, but you never hear what alternative is being proposed.
The word communism seems too risque to use and advocate as an alternative, as if academia has lost faith that another world is really possible, that workers could actually take state power, and smash the capitalist state. Why do you think that is?
Dr Salaita: You can be a “leftist” of all types on campus, but being a “communist” is still verboten. Anti-communism is so ingrained in academic culture that it’s difficult to imagine the managerial class ever making room for it.
Without anti-communism, the modern university would lose much of its identity. Besides, many of the self-described “leftists” don’t actually support the outcomes desired by communism. They’re just old-fashioned liberals or progressives or whatever.
VW: Along with the decline of marxism in academia, and the rise of post modernism we see the rhetoric shift (which is supported by the college higher ups) to pander to crude forms of identitarianism.
Colleges must emphasize gender, race, sexuality, etc, but class is always excluded from these categories. At best we hear of “classism” as if it is just one form of discrimination among others, rather than the matrix through which all other social identities are determined and shaped.
What do you think the strategic value is in colleges (along with other woke corporations) to pander to these identities while fundamentally doing nothing to change the material reality for the vast majority of us as workers across all identities? Is it really progress if those dronebombing you are BIPOC or trans? That your boss who exploits you is a woman? Etc
Dr Salaita: Corporations and universities (if there’s any meaningful difference anymore) have always been adept at appropriating these things as celebration of “diversity.”
In the Global South, there’s a lot of terrific analysis of race and gender in relation to class, or the inverse. If somebody wants to take up study of racism or sexual violence and so forth, more power to them.
But if you find that the work you’re doing slots easily into corporate pamphleteering, then it’s time to think very carefully about why centers of power find value in your work. Put class in there and suddenly it’s not so amenable.
VW: It seems this rhetorical shift in academia has further ideologically-armed capitalist states across the West. For instance your criticism of the Israeli state can now be labeled “antisemitic” for challenging the “lived experience” of zionist Israelis. Do you think it was intentional to attack marxism in academia while propping up capitalist multiculturalism? Or moreso co-opting something that emerged organically?
Dr Salaita: By this point, my ears shut down when I hear “lived experience.”
It’s not that people haven’t been through experiences that are deeply important to how they understand the world. It’s more that the term has developed a specific connotation and is almost always used to rationalize some kind of imperialist policy.
It also tells us nothing of social realities. We all have lived experiences, but they’re mediated through very complicated social processes. Experience is a collective phenomenon. It’s never so simple as one person having an individual reading of history.
VW: Do you think a revolutionary workers party is needed at this point?
Dr Salaita: Yes, but I’m probably not the right person to ask. I’m deeply skeptical of party formations in the United States, based on my “lived experience.”
VW: How does academia orientate to a revolutionary workers position? Does this mean engaging in “revolutionary suicide” against their career prospects to enter the professional-managerial class?
Dr Salaita: ”Revolutionary suicide” might be too strong a description in some cases, and apt in others.
The reason I say it may be too strong is that not many people go into the industry with the idea of sparking a revolution–at least not the kind of revolution we’re talking about.
But, generally, yes, if you’re serious about structural change then it’s likely that something has to give: either your career aspirations or the revolutionary sentiment.
VW: Do you think socialism is possible through national liberation? Or does this only lead to neocolonialism like so many former colonies that now have their formal independence, a national bourgeoisie which exploits their workers, and are integrated into the world imperialist system?
Dr Salaita: As a staunch supporter of Palestinian liberation, I have to believe it to be true. I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the most vibrant sites of socialist thought and practice exist in places that went through or are currently undertaking a national liberation movement.
But just as the USA puts its fingers into every legitimate socialist movement in the world in order to ensure their demise, often in brutal ways (think Indonesia or Cuba), neocolonialism feels almost inevitable.
That’s why fighters for national liberation can never be caught sleeping. I truly believe that the experiment can work, though, and look forward to seeing it happen during my lifetime.
VW: Is a socialist state the answer for Palestinians and Israelis, as some Palestinian/Israeli socialists have argued, such as Matzpan?
Dr Salaita: In order to work, it has to at least have strong elements of socialism or communism. Otherwise we’ll just end up with a slightly larger ruling class.
Already there’s a well-entrenched Palestinian comprador class. So all ruling formations need to be eliminated. And if a functional system emerges, the North American left needs to align with that system, which it hasn’t yet proved ready to do.
VW: Any further comments?
Dr Salaita: Grateful for the opportunity to be in conversation and thrilled to see that a workers’ movement is still alive in Southern Appalachia, which has such a rich history of labor organizing.