The Koch brothers' pay-to-play academic scheme
Charles Koch and the Marxist reason for buying economist departments
Recently revealed documents demonstrate that the Charles Koch Foundation has purchased influence over the hiring and firing of faculty at George Mason University. These came out due to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a former student, and detail how in return for millions in donations, the foundation would get two out of five seats on boards overseeing decisions of hiring and firing professors. University President Angel Cabrera, who had previously insisted that "academic freedom is never for sale. Period," now had to shamefacedly admit that the arrangements "fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet."
There is a lot that is noteworthy in this development. But one particularly striking aspect of this pay-to-play academic scheme is how closely it follows the most simplistic Marxist conception of ruling class ideology.
In The German Ideology, Marx outlined the concept of "base and superstructure" to explain how people came by their views. In brief, he argued that all culture (the superstructure) was produced and shaped by economic structure of society (the base), and served the purpose of legitimizing the social relations of that structure. Whenever a new dominant class arises — the bourgeois of the French Revolution who overturned the previous monarchy, for instance — they create a new dominant ideology to explain and justify their control over the new economic structure.
There are some immediate problems with this idea, especially in its strong form. For one, it would seem to rule out the possibility of Marx himself — or anyone for that matter — being able to articulate any ideas through logic and argument. If all culture is simply popped out as a result of whatever is happening with the economic system, then any sort of reason-based appeal is ruled out by definition. (Marx did later develop some less dogmatic thoughts on this idea, and the Italian Marxian thinker Antonio Gramsci would later outline a much more sophisticated and convincing perspective on the ideology question while he was locked up in a fascist prison.)
Nevertheless, there is certainly something to the idea that economic dominance has an effect on political ideology. Weak formulations of it — that, say, politicians are inordinately influenced by their donors — have been demonstrated with empirical research. But nowhere is the Marxist picture of ideology more clearly expressed than by the actions of the Koch brothers.
The Kochs, after all, aren't just spending money on lobbying to get legal loopholes narrowly beneficial to themselves. They are pushing hardcore libertarianism, a whole framework of political economy which (not coincidentally) says it is just fine and dandy for one person to own limitless piles of wealth — and to subject that wealth to steep taxation would be a gross miscarriage of justice. It's not enough for them to simply possess that wealth and exploit the power thus gained to accumulate even more — no, they've got to convince everyone that they are morally entitled to do it. As Thomas Frank once wrote, "Libertarianism is a politics born to be subsidized."
The irony that Charles Koch was pulling this operation behind closed doors at a public university is not remotely a coincidence. Libertarianism presents itself as being the most hardcore pro-freedom political doctrine, which might lead one to expect such political influence operations to be conducted in the open, so they might be subject to rational debate, and with a private entity. That Koch didn't create his own private school, and instead piggybacked on the academic legitimacy of a state-created institution while secretly bribing school authorities to gain influence over the faculty, just reveals the game here. (This isn't the first time he has done so, either. A similar operation was discovered at Florida State University in 2014, and it's a safe bet there are at least a few more among the 240 schools that got Charles Koch donations in 2016.)
What libertarianism often amounts to in practice — particularly in its most curdled, purchased-by-Charles Koch form — is the extensive and cynical use of state power to protect the money, status, and prerogatives of the ultra-rich. (That's presumably extra important for someone with an inherited business heavily based on oil, a naturally occurring substance which he did nothing personally to create or even find.) Therefore, one major objective is to put property "beyond the reach of democracy," which is why one of Koch's major heroes, Friedrich von Hayek, supported the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Better a capitalist autocrat than a socialist democrat.
Again, the strong form of Marx's argument about ideology is certainly not true, and likewise neither is the modern state entirely a "committee for managing the common affairs" of the business class, even if it may do a great deal for them. But that doesn't change the fact that the Koch brothers have spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars trying to make it so.