Brave New Transformation

The replacement of Julius Nyang’oro, the disgraced chairman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s African and African American Studies department, by the department’s number two administrator, Eunice Sahle, was heralded as a great solution to the academic corruption that was uncovered as part of an investigation into the school’s football scandal.

Sahle was lauded for her strict adherence to academic and ethical standards. Indeed, under her direction, there is little chance that the same outlandish academic misconduct that occurred under Nyang’oro, including no-show classes, passing grades for little or no work, and a general absence of standards, will continue.

Yet, in this case, the cure may be worse than the disease. Students may be better off learning nothing in no-show classes with Nyang’oro than studying diligently under Sahle. Certainly some ideas are more injurious to both student and society than ignorance, and Sahle’s ideas seem to belong in that poisonous category: full of grudges, resentment, and antipathy toward our society, the stuff of collectivism and the victimhood culture that often crushes the productive spirits of those who adhere to it.

Her ideas are readily available to anybody who wants to know, through her writing. It seems that no one from the school, the Board of Governors, the system administration, or the media thought to look into her writing. Or cared to. Apparently academia has become intellectually lax that the actual ideas one holds are of little concern.

Her 2010 book, World Orders, Development, and Transformation, provides great insight into Sahle’s worldview and intent. The book covers many topics, but is roughly centered on Third World economic development. It is long on rhetoric, anecdotal descriptions, and quotations from leading leftists, and short on empirical evidence; for instance, she avoids discussion of the remarkable increase in world living standards and life spans in the last couple of centuries— including the poorest countries and especially since World War II.  Such an omission in a serious discussion of global economic development suggests that the author ignores reality when it fails to suit his or her rhetorical purposes, or is so far blinded by ideology that he or she is unaware of mankind’s great leap forward in the last 200 years.

In one alarming admission, she states that she writes “from a neo-Gramscian perspective.” Antonio Gramsci was a founder of the Italian Communist Party in the early 20th century. One of his central ideas was the process of “hegemony,” in which proponents of an established worldview perpetuate control without overt political rule by controlling its institutions.

From that perspective, he also noted that, in order for communism to take over in a Christian, capitalist world, it had to first undermine the existing hegemony. To do so, it would have to politically subvert nations by secretively and gradually gaining control over their culture and institutions. Eventually, the world would be reordered along egalitarian lines, with the foundations of freedom destroyed in the process.

This became known as the  “long march through the culture” (the actual phrase was coined by German revolutionary and Gramsci admirer Rudi Dutschke in the 1960s).

To neo-Gramscians like Sahle, the existing world hegemony is “neo-liberal” capitalism (neo-liberal is a term used to describe free-market ideas descended from 18th and 19th century classical liberalism, not the American liberalism of today indicating a belief in a powerful central government). In Sahle’s view, instruments of this hegemony include the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund, and non-government aid, health, and education organizations.

There is another powerful influence on Sahle’s worldview that takes the concept of neo-liberal world hegemony much further into the emotional realm of racial animosities: the “coloniality of power” theories of Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano. In these theories, the world’s powerful nations and corporations do not promote capitalism and Western-style liberal democracy merely for economic and security purposes. Rather, they are seeking to secretively maintain the old system of colonialism under a new, less obvious guise. This includes perpetuating the concept of the racial superiority of Europeans; Sahle cites anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, who says that racism is used to “serve new cultural, political, and economic projects.” 

According to Sahle, this newer form of colonialism is enabled by an “asymmetry of power” in which the developed Northern countries use their historical advantages of wealth, knowledge, common goals, and technical superiority to impose their will on the undeveloped South. Capitalism, world trade, global institutions, intellectual life, and even the process of modernization intended to benefit the Third World all serve to preserve this asymmetry. The United Nations and other specialized agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund “emerged since the United States had to avoid conventional forms of imperialism,” wrote Sahle in World Orders.

In Sahle’s view, historical inequities must be addressed before two nations can conduct their affairs on equal footing. Until that time, the more-developed countries negotiate from positions of greater strength when dealing with the less-developed nations—and are taking advantage of them unfairly.

In such a perspective, countries do not become wealthy because their citizens have high skill levels, but because they gain from a “racialized international division of labour.” Indeed, she cites Quijano, who sees racism as “central to the rise of the world capitalist system.”

This is grudge politics, an incitement to divide people. If Sahle sees the existing order as a nefarious force, and she adheres to the Gramscian philosophy of subverting capitalism by a “long march” through its institutions, then it is logical to assume that she will encourage students to adopt her grudges and ideology. 

She need not do it directly, either. In her book, she employs a common device used by those who wish to dupe the gullible:  she critiques the existing system, with its many capitalist elements, as if the only alternative were perfection, but never presents any sort of alternative vision other than some vague call for transformation “of the core features of the prevailing neo-liberal and securitizing world order.” In this way, the existing order appears to be woefully lacking or even malicious, when it fact it may be superior to any other order that has ever existed.

The theoretical “transformation,” on the other hand, cannot be criticized, since none of its specifics are known.

One example of this rhetorical device is her discussion of China and its relationship to Africa. She does not mention the stagnation and devastation wrought by China’s Maoist communist regime. Before China’s liberalization in the late 1970s, it suffered from agricultural famines, cultural nihilism, and the deaths of millions in political re-education camps.

All Sahle tells us about that period is that industrial production rose rapidly and that internal politics forced the change to a new openness. Once China liberalized and fully engaged with the “capitalist world order,” however, it became her target for harsh criticism for its nationalism and exploitation of Africa.

Despite Sahle’s reticence about exactly what form she hopes the transformation will take, it is still possible to glean from World Orders, Development, and Transformation her vision of how the world should be. For one thing, along with Gramsci and Quijano, many of her direct sources form a Who’s Who of the anti-capitalist, anti-Western left: Franz Fanon, Michele Foucalt, David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein, Howard Zinn, and many others.

Perhaps most telling of Sahle’s political inclinations is her championing the World Social Forum (WSF). It is an annual event bringing together many of the world’s most radical elements. According to John Hammond, a Hunter College professor who chronicles the worldwide left (and is sympathetic to its causes and methods):

The WSF was originally conceived as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum, the conclave of the international capitalist class, which has met annually since 1970, usually in Davos, Switzerland. (WSF meetings are timed to coincide with those of the WEF.) The WSF has brought together two main currents of activity: the direct action movement against globalization that has called massive demonstrations against international summit meetings, and the emergent worldwide civil society, embodied mainly in the nongovernmental organizations that have mushroomed throughout the world since the 1980s.

In other words, the WSF has been a key organizing force behind the protests and riots that have sought to intimidate and disrupt World Trade Organization meetings.  (The WSF is not against “globalization,” as Hammond claims—it is by definition an organization that favors further global cooperation—but against global capitalism). It also forms, pressures, and infiltrates nongovernmental organizations that increasingly play a role in world affairs—working within the system for socialist transformation.

Sahle said she sees the WSF having “the potential of laying the foundation for the rise of a planetary counter-hegemony.” That is to say, initiating long marches through the institutions of every free country in the world.

And no institution is more favored by subversives as a launching pad for their ideas than the university: other than Gramsci, who was a Communist Party functionary and prison intellectual rather than an academic, the leading promoters of achieving socialism through gradual efforts, especially the Frankfurt School in Germany and the United States, and the Fabian Society in England, have historically achieved their greatest influence in universities.

And Eunice Sahle is their kindred spirit. Her call to transform our existing free, prosperous, capitalist society, with her selective use of facts and thinkers, must be viewed as a push for collectivism and group politics. Far better that we allow the young to remain ignorant than to grant her a means of indoctrination

The real problem, however, is not Sahle, but that nobody in authority or positions of influence even bothers to even consider that her beliefs might be unhealthy for our society. UNC’s top administrators, key faculty members, and the state’s politicians and media aided and applauded her promotion into a position of greater influence. This is not how people who are intent on remaining free behave.