"Rockefeller Center (2006)" by Mr Bullitt - Photo taken by Mr Bullitt from Sweden. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
The other day, while I was seeking the way out of the Rockefeller Center basement, with growing desperation, admiring the crowds enjoying the legendary Rockefeller family hospitality, I wondered why the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris and the International Congress of Mathematicians aren’t called the Institut John D. Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Congress of Mathematicians, respectively. After all, both were built in large part with Rockefeller money. If stadiums and concert halls and museums can be named after wealthy philanthropists, why not the lecture halls, the mathematical institutes, the conference centers where we pursue our problematic vocation? When our research is financed by private sources, why are our theorems not branded with the names of our benefactors?
If it’s only recently that branding as an adjunct to marketing has become ubiquitous— though not yet in mathematics — it’s because the transition from liberalism to neoliberalism is still underway, not yet complete. This is what I conclude from reading Wendy Brown’s deep and deeply depressing Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. In Brown’s view, a revision and critical reading of Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics lectures,
Neoliberalism… is best understood not as economic policy, but as a governing rationality that disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life and construes the human itself exclusively as homo oeconomicus.
Capital investment and appreciation becomes the sole legitimate goal, competition becomes the primary value, and public goods become an anachronism. The result is that it is increasingly
…difficult to explain why universities, libraries, parks and natural reserves, city services and elementary schools, even roads and sidewalks, are or should be publicly accessible and publicly provisioned. Why should the public fund and administer them? Why should everyone have free access to them? Why shouldn’t their cost be borne only by those who “consume” them?
This brings us directly back to the question: who should pay for mathematics? Only those who “consume” it? Brown teaches at a public university and is mainly concerned with the liberal arts, but everything she says about the “leading line of defense” — in other words, the “apologies” — required of the humanities and social sciences is equally valid for pure mathematics.
…the market value of knowledge — its income-enhancing prospects for individuals and industry alike—is now understood as both its driving purpose and leading line of defense. Even when the humanities and interpretive social sciences are accounted as building the analytic thinkers needed by the professions or as building the mind and hence securing a more gratifying life for the individual, they align with the neoliberal notion of building human capital. In neither defense are the liberal arts depicted as representing, theorizing, interpreting, creating, or protecting the world. They are not conceived as binding, developing, or renewing us as a people, alerting us to dangers, or providing frames, figures, theories, and allegories … Above all, they are not conceived as providing the various capacities required for democratic citizenship. Rather, they are conceived as something for individuals to imbibe like chocolate, practice like yoga, or utilize like engineering. … Even [neoliberalization’s] critics cannot see the ways in which we have lost a recognition of ourselves as held together by literatures, images, religions, histories, myths, ideas, forms of reason, grammars, figures, and languages. Instead, we are presumed to be held together by technologies and capital flows. That presumption, of course, is at risk of becoming true, at which point humanity will have entered its darkest chapter ever.
The situation may not yet be so desperate in mathematics. In some countries, at least. Over the past five years I have been struck by the number of highly qualified Italians hired by French mathematics departments. Just last week I was told that young Spanish mathematicians will have to wait 5 or 10 years for positions to open up in their country, which perhaps should have allied with a successful brand and held a Facebook Congress of Mathematicians instead of an International Congress in 2006.
And worries like those mentioned here are commonplace (even in reviews of this book). But what I really want to know is: Why we’re seeing none of the impassioned rhetoric on display in the quoted passage from Undoing the Demos, and in all the texts about the importation of business models in higher education. Even I felt, and continue to feel, the need to use uncomfortably and inappropriately moderate language. Is it because mathematicians, unlike social scientists, are expected to adhere to a form of expression so rigorous that it can be verified for correctness by a proof-assistant? Or am I simply afraid that if I just came out and said what I think without going through endless detours and qualifications, then no one would take the book seriously? Even a book whose title promises no apologies?