The death of autonomous theory

Image: Mitchell Luo


Reflections on the commodification of knowledge

If a contest was held between the most uncomfortable phrases for (good) academics, “in practice, the theory is different” would be a great candidate for the winner. And what frustrates a primary school teacher more than the question that cuts the flow of ethereal abstraction and throws the discussion back to the firm ground of everyday life: “and what do I do with this for my life?” . It is symptomatic that the victim of this type of nonsense is probably the professor of mathematics, physics, philosophy or sociology.

In the following lines, I will try, briefly and succinctly, to show why and why such expressions are not mere provocations directed at any particular scholar, but rather a portrait of a perverse mercantile logic that affects teaching, especially at secondary and higher levels, and which exercises a pernicious ideological function.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the apparent “Fukuyamic” consensus was formed that history had come to an end. It was said that the victory of liberal representative democracy was now final because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was already announced in what was said about the collapse of metanarratives (or metanarratives; cf. LYOTARD, 2020, p. 69 et seq.), whether in an apologetic or descriptive manner. The difference between the currents is usually clear, although the discursive style of some authors ends up blurring our vision: the first, from the apologetic current, defend that the discredit to the narratives is due to their internal contradictions and that the lack of options to capitalism is consequence of this being, in fact, the best possible mode of production. The latter, among whom I am included, perceive “capitalist realism” (cf. critical use of the term in FISHER, 2009) from a semiotic point of view, as an ideology that intersubjectively sustains the system, without capitalism corresponding to a necessary economic reality.

With the preponderance of this realism, critical knowledge is relegated to the background. "Why fight an invincible system?" Let's join him! — In this sense, theoretical studies in philosophy, sociology, history, which traditionally present criticism of the social order, are no longer worthwhile. From this point of view, it is much better to study what “makes money” than “discussing the sex of angels and going hungry”. Here lies what is customarily called substitution, or better said, subordination from science to technique, the latter being understood as a method of obtaining often material results (LYOTARD, 2020, p. 88 et seq.).

This is why the concept, once a way of seeing the world through philosophical or aesthetic lenses, degenerates into a sales model. Now, who “creates” the concept, it is no longer the theorist who applies it to describe or analyze a given phenomenon or factual situation, but the professional of marketing, which creates new forms of demand from the formation of an idea of ​​consumption, shamefully transforming the concept of an intellectual resource into an instrument of commerce (DELEUZE; GUATTARI, 2010, p. 17).

In this context, the former emancipatory ideal of the university gives way to legitimation through performance. No more knowing but to produce[I]. Not beating the system, but winning No. e by the system. Colleges become something like “higher technical courses” and abandon completely or, at least, significantly, the ideal of training experts in the subjects studied in favor of training good professionals. Concretely speaking, lawyers give way to lawyers; economists, engineers or administrators to financial advisers; philosophers, sociologists and historians become lecturers who require a year's notice to schedule an appointment or do auditorium programs for entertainment[ii].

The reader might get irritated: — well, do you mean to say that a college should not train good professionals? What rubbish I've just read! — To this reader, I beg you to grant me a few more lines.

It is evident that excellent lawyers should come out of an excellent law school, and so on. The criticism here consists precisely in the fact that, more and more, training good professionals, who manage to make a lot of money, becomes the sole motto of higher education in the West. Professional competence is no longer a natural result of a top-notch academic education, but rather its own meaning and sense. And this contamination of teaching by market logic is not restricted to university education.

The phenomenon described above, which I call commodification of knowledge, permeates even basic education. Colleges are increasingly evaluated by the classification they achieve in the ranking of the National High School Examination (ENEM) and by the number of students on the list of approved entrance exams at renowned universities. For young people who fail to pass at seventeen, which is sometimes seen as a great failure and turns into a family drama, there is an extremely heated market: preparatory courses. In this context, the entrance exam is gamified and dramatized, turning into a mise-en-scène competitive: students fight for the best positions in simulations and, on the day of the entrance exam, wear T-shirts with sayings such as “your vacancy is mine” or “I am one less vacancy for you”. O gran finale it's approval day: lots of joy, ink, posts on social networks and the expectation of money in the pockets of the course owners, who know that each student is one less place for the competitor. The most popular courses? As a rule, medicine, engineering and law, all with excellent income prospects for students who graduated from large universities — almost all of them public, that is, with resources from the treasury[iii].

Based on this public funding for higher education, many raise the banner of privatizing universities. If the courses now only serve to enrich the students, why don't they pay for them themselves? More than going wrong in practice, leading to priceless indebtedness for students and making teaching even more elite (GIL, 2020), such an idea is, in the discourse, the final surrender of education to commodification. Deprived of public funding, universities would lose their financial autonomy in relation to private institutions and would depend, above all, on the interest of funders and payment from students. Instead of an institution of knowledge, the university would ultimately be instrumentalized in favor of the interest of private institutions and the expectation of future income of students who would only be willing to pay if they already came from a wealthy family and/or saw good potential in the course. of recipe.

To conclude our discussion, let us ask:What the hell we fighting for?/Just surrender and it won't hurt at all[iv]". What's wrong with all this? Now, the result of the perverse game described so far, in conjunction with other factors, is a collective cognitive degeneration and the perpetuation of the neoliberal discourse apologetic to capitalism, sometimes seen as the only option, sometimes as the best option, sometimes as both. With the preponderance of such an ideology, great power of persuasion is generated for politicians like Paulo Guedes, who wave to the market in ultra-liberal technocratic sayings, placed as the pinnacle of economic knowledge. Those domiciled in Faria Lima and the like, as well as many deluded proletarians, squeeze the numbers of such politicians in the conviction that it will be convenient for them. While the first group is right in their analysis, for the latter, a little bit of class consciousness can be of enormous value. The educator's role in the process of developing such a capacity can hardly be contested in theory, but it is in doubt as more and more theory is subjugated by the market.

More than defending our research scholarships, as some comments on the List of Productives imply, the role of the academy is precisely to demonstrate how theory and practice do not walk in separate and incommunicable ways, but rather that the former does not owe satisfaction to the latter. Practice is only another theory if theory does not adequately describe reality, or if, when transplanted into practice, it is distorted to serve vested interests. To the pedantic student who asks what he does with what he studies for a living, let us answer that the first step to truly understanding a subject is not to condition learning to the expectation of gain.

*Alexandre de Lima Castro Tranjan is a law student at the University of São Paulo (USP).


DELEUZE, Gilles and GUATTARI, Felix. What is philosophy? Translated by Bento Prado Jr. and Alberto Alonso Muñoz. 3rd edition. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2010.

FISHER, Mark. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? United Kingdom: Zero Books, 2009.

GILL, Tamara. 'It's a ticking time bomb': why more and more college students have to pay off ever-increasing debts after graduating in the US. BBC News World, June 28, 2020. Available at>.

LYOTARD, Jean-Francois. The postmodern condition. Translation by Ricardo Corrêa Barbosa. 19th edition. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2020.


[I] Very symptomatic, in this sense, was the creation of the infamous “List of Productives”, which followed as a standard the international prestige, measured in the number of citations, of the articles published by each academic. Such a list, however questionable in principle and distorted in method, was acclaimed for following the imperative of transparency for the evaluation of science.

[ii] These last three, perhaps not so much because of their training, but because of their seduction by the god of money.

[iii] In São Paulo, more specifically with the State ICMS, in the case of the three large public universities in the State (USP, Unicamp and UNESP).

[iv] song excerpt Hammer two falls. Queen, written by guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May and released on the album TheWorks. More than illustrating what I mean in this passage, the message of the song's lyrics is precisely related to the context of the last decade of the Cold War and the kind of nihilism that permeated that historical moment. In order to try to preserve, even partially, the meaning, the meter and the rhyme, I freely translate the passage as “why the devil should we fight? Just surrender it won't hurt."

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