Questioning Foundations: An Interview with Denis Rancourt

Until recently Denis Rancourt was a tenured physics professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada; however, as a direct result of his commitment to activist teaching at his university, on December 10, 2008, he was being placed under administrative suspension and banned from campus, with the Dean of the Faculty of Science recommending that he be fired. This controversial decision has resulted in an ongoing battle to repeal this decision. This interview was carried out by email in June 2010. A list of Rancourt’s essays on societal topics are here.

Michael Barker:  Could you explain what you see as the main differences between hard and soft power?

Denis Rancourt: Hard power is direct hierarchical control over our lives, such as via our jobs at work and via school as students. Hard power is the master’s hand in controlling our access to work and in controlling what our work will be. Hard power is hierarchical and undemocratic. Hard power is the main force in our lives as individuals.

Soft power is all the side-door things we can do with our spare time, participating in culture and interpretation, creating political alliances and resisting at work and at school, practicing sabotage, offering support to targeted colleagues, and so on.

That is the most useful distinction between “soft power” and “hard power” that I can make. It’s about the individual’s authentic rebellion via a Freirian praxis of resistance in which solidarity is a coalescence of individual fighters seeking liberation.

MB:  I tend to think that most writers have neglected emphasizing the importance of soft power, most specifically that of philanthropy, in legitimizing and extending capitalist relations.  What are your thoughts on this matter?

DR: There are two main classes of slaves. Those that need only be obedient and are controlled by direct force and harsh physical conditions, by a constant fear of loss of economic subsistence; and those (the managers, professionals and service intellectuals) who, beyond obedience, need to be indoctrinated, need to adopt and project the dominant ideology of their profession and of the system of exploitation.

The “soft power” of foundations and government grants is just one perfected form of control in which the indoctrinated slave must show that he/she understands the grantor’s intentions and that he/she “authentically” has the same noble intentions. This is brilliantly explained in Jeff Schmidt’s book “Disciplined Minds,” a book that more professional workers and intellectuals need to read. Schmidt points out that if one million dollars worth of funding is made available to do blah, then one million dollars worth of blah will get done. And the doer will be happy to have “freely” done blah.

MB: As a result of publishing your own work, what sort of opposition or support have you obtained from elite knowledge producing networks?

DR: I published more than 100 scientific articles in leading scientific journals. This had the effect of padding my CV, assuring promotions and continued grant support, providing invited and keynote talks at specialized conferences to further pad my CV, assuring me a high rank in the academic pecking order, and wasting a large chunk of my life.

I also write social science essays as part of my liberation and to help me reflect about my liberation. As far as I can tell, this has had no impact in generating liberation in others. It has helped me discover and organize my interpretations about the world, and it has helped me in my discussions with activists, but as a product out there in the mental environment it has probably had a negative impact because it mostly serves the castrated intellectualizations of neutralized-by-design thought activists. (See my essay “Against Chomsky”.)

I’m also looking for ways to use language to jolt readers into discomfort in the hope that this might catalyze a reaction out of the norm, that it might cause readers to glimpse at what rebellion might look like. A recent example of this ends with “Fucking Jesus” and is  posted here.

In addition, I run a blog that directly exposes and critiques administrative malfeasance of my former employer, the University of Ottawa, the “U of O Watch” blog. My published writings here have contributed to causing an “elite knowledge producing” institution, my employer, to fire me. This writing does have an impact via what I have called “image leverage.” As seen in access to information documents, the upper administration reads and discusses every post. The executives change their behaviours and their institutional plans in response to the blog. It keeps them on their toes and corrects some of the more flagrant abuses of authority and nepotism.

MB:  When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations? What were your initial reactions to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former “big three,” the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations.

DR:  My first encounters with these critiques were via Jeff Schmidt’s 2000 book and the 2002 essay by Andrea del Moral “The revolution will not be funded.”

My immediate reactions were that these critiques sounded true. I believed these analyses.

MB: Following on from the last question, could you briefly explain what you think about the academic/activist literature that is critical of liberal philanthropy?

DR: Useful as an aid to reflection for those practicing a praxis of liberation. Useless and probably harmful otherwise?

It’s like most heavy metals (such as iron and arsenic): They are both essential nutrients (if too little) and toxic (if too much). Iron deficiency versus iron overload disease…

MB: Following on from this, could you please explain in what respect you see critiques of liberal philanthropy to be “useless and probably harmful”?

DR: I mean that virtually all progressive or radical or liberal or other intellectuals are primarily intellectuals who have in practice divorced commentary and analysis from reform via direct challenges to the system at the point of their strongest connection to the system, at work. The point at which the individual has the most leverage in changing the system, in actually changing the system, is the point at which the system has the most power over the individual, the point of the individual’s strongest connection to the economy, at work (university, think tank, law office, etc.).

To refuse to challenge one’s employer, to refuse to fight one’s own oppression, and to mask this refusal with rationalizations and intellectualizations is to do more harm than good. To pretend that the world is somehow changed by “good” ideas, to want to participate in the reflection without significantly participating in the action, is to contribute to hiding the truth about societal change: That change results from directly fighting one’s own oppression and that opposing power in this way has real consequences beyond a difficulty to publish or negative reviews.

Virtually all intellectuals write for other intellectuals in a musical chairs game of ideas that is disconnected from oppression’s realities.

For example, if I come to understand the instrument of my own oppression that are liberal foundations, then I might fight this by publicly ridiculing the foundation’s work, by publicly and institutionally challenging my colleagues’ use of foundation funds, by publicly campaigning to exclude foundation funding from my campus, by publicly campaigning to change promotional criteria based of research funding, by publicly challenging my own denial of promotion, etc. These real actions and others will put me in conflict with my colleagues in which my leverage is applied against their influence to preserve the system. This will have some influence where writing a theoretical paper about foundations would not. Worse, writing that paper alleviates one’s guilt of not actually doing anything and creates the illusion with one’s self-selected readers that “we” are collectively doing something about the problem, that somehow our common opinion will have an influence.

MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

DR: A slave does not bite the hand that feeds him/her. Most radical intellectuals are tied within certain bounds. For example, note the radical intellectual’s aversion to “conspiracy theories.” Radical professors play the important role of co-opting activist students and delegitimizing threatening observers.

MB: These are very interesting points, could you expand upon your thoughts on these matters?

DR: Criticism of liberal foundations is akin to criticism of tenure. Most academics that benefit from, or have ties with, colleagues that benefit from these instruments of indoctrination do not feel it would be a strategically clever move, in terms of the class ties that provide them the security of their class privilege, to critique these instruments.

Service intellectuals instinctively know the bounds of discourse, beyond which the full fury of power’s opinion mill and influence will be aimed against the heretic. What happened to Ward Churchill was flexing of ideological muscle well within those bounds. Imagine if Churchill had suggested that 911 was a “black op” and focussed his research on this possibility. Indeed, what was done to Churchill effectively reduces the possibility that the black op research option can be considered among academic researchers.

There are exceptions that push the limits and that may not be publicly executed for fear of further exposure. For these individuals they are simply removed from influential posts and relegated to academic oblivion. I am thinking of William K. Black (e.g., “Exposing the Banksters: The Bill Black Mystery…?”).

Regarding radical professors, it is clear that they serve to co-opt activist students away from activism and reform and towards ideas and radical writing. They bring activist students into the fold of radical intellectuals and take them on as graduate students. The language is classic: The pen is mightier than the sword, a great idea can change the world, good analysis will take us out of darkness… But the radical professor’s example and stance are even more powerful than the contrived rationalizations: A complete separation of thought and action, without ever challenging local structures of oppression, accompanied by a position of privilege and high class status, under the guilt-alleviating and self-congratulatory cover of radical analysis.

MB: How would you describe the general impact of liberal foundations on the evolution of research within universities and on intellectuals more generally?

DR: The maintenance of the hierarchical structures that control our lives depends on a “vast tapestry of lies upon which we feed” (Harold Pinter, Nobel Lecture, 2005). The main institutions that embed us into the hierarchy, such as schools, universities, and mass media and entertainment corporations, have a primary function to create and maintain this tapestry. This includes establishment scientists and all service intellectuals in charge of “interpreting” reality. In fact, the scientists and “experts” define reality in order to bring it into conformation with the always-adapting dominant mental tapestry of the moment. They also invent and build new branches of the tapestry that serve specific power groups by providing new avenues of exploitation.

If we accept this, then it follows that all systemic instruments (such as liberal foundations) that enable service intellectuals are part of the same program.

MB: Can you describe how liberal foundations and/or individual liberal philanthropists have influenced your own work, and if so how?

DR: Given Canadian academic science granting councils and the exigencies of the tenure track, I ended up doing nuclear spectroscopy of metallic alloys and organic compounds and then in my environmental science phase quantitative analysis of lake and ocean muds rather than the cosmology that got me into physics in the first place and the educational activism that eventually got me into life.

These days I continue to (freely) collaborate with leading soil scientists because I believe I can learn useful things that will allow me to critique mainstream assertions about soil depletion as part of my critique of the environmental science establishment. Also because I bring a unique and much appreciated technical expertise that is helpful in solving the scientific puzzle of soils; something that is intellectually satisfying at times.

Once a US philanthropic science agency that was doing the rounds flirted with me about my work on the Invar problem of physics and meteoritics. I got a sense that they were interested in being able to say that they “seeded genius,” as a way to prop themselves up and maintain their “track record.” They had no way to recognize value other than what their “trusted advisor scientists” told them, all based on superficial (read relevant) impressions of course.

MB: Do you think anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilize liberal foundation funding to develop an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

DR:  No I do not. I am not an “anti-capitalist activist”. I am an individualist anarchist and I feel much more affinity to individualist libertarians than to anything right or left. I believe that the capitalism of Adam Smith is more consistent (but not consistent) with human freedom than the communism of Marx. I don’t believe that the anarchic ideal can be achieved via socialism or communism (or capitalism). And I believe that what we have now is closer to fascism than anything else.

I believe that the essential ingredient that is missing from our First World middle-class activism is individual rebellion in which individuals fight their own oppressions via a Freirian praxis of liberation. To take an analogy from physics, the essential element for a critical mass is the radioactive isotope. Without it, there can be no critical mass. A majority opinion is just that, nothing more.

Michael Barker is an independent researcher based in the UK. Read other articles by Michael, or visit Michael's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 17th, 2010 at 10:26am #

    Denis Rancourt sees it as i do. He also sees two kinds of slaves: academic and others who are simply very obedient. To me, that’s a novelty. I wld, tho, say that both classes of serfs [i don't want to use the word "slave"] are indoctrinated and mostly in childhood.

    He’s right also ab spurning the validity of saying that the word is mightier than sword.
    No, it is not. And if the a teaching wld be desirable and of neccesity true, the messsenger wld be silenced or her message wld never be allowed to appear in media, let alone in schhol.
    The best piece that DV has published to date. It suits me to a T. tnx

  2. diane said on June 17th, 2010 at 3:58pm #

    Global Research has recently published an article by Denis Rancourt “some big lies of science” which in my opinion is a must read, he is a breath of fresh air, challenging the most established of progressive left gatekeeper notions.
    As a political activist in the 1970’s, in retrospect I feel that 1979 was a pivitol year when many of us involved in ground based political activity moved toward security by taking on academic or public sector management positions. Frankly I’m not sure why it happened and I think it would be a fruitful period of reseach for some left intellectual :-)
    An old friend told me in the 1980’s when the writing was clearly on the wall “disappear, the class in a forest, you can hide there, until this wave plays itself out”
    The struggle is no longer mine, but that of a younger generation, all I can do is support their efforts, or as Bob said
    “please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand”
    Diane

  3. hayate said on June 17th, 2010 at 6:10pm #

    This guy is interesting. I also just found out about him through that article at Global Research and have been reading various things he has posted at his site in my free time since.