Free Speech and Koch Money, by Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola

Linsey McGoey applauds a bold account of the ‘dark money’ fuelling the culture wars on campus

November 11, 2021
Stand for Koch Off Campus petition at University of Arizona, as Koch family funds are seen as backing conservative culture wars on campus
Source: Alamy

University campuses have long been battlegrounds of ideas, but lately we have seen a sharpened weapon: the claim that one’s rivals are suppressing the right to free speech.

Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola’s Free Speech and Koch Money is an essential analysis of the amped-up culture wars over free speech. It offers a history of conservative philanthropic networks orbiting around the Koch family, who fund right-wing student groups as part of a larger effort to reverse “collectivist” inroads made by centrists and leftists.

By now, many aspects of the “Kochtopus” are well-known to observers of the “dark money” that underpins electoral, judicial and legislative campaigns. That is the nickname given to the American oil dynasty whose wealth is rooted in the fortune of Fred Koch, the founder of a refinery that became Koch Industries, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate later headed by two of Fred’s sons, Charles and David Koch.

The younger son David died in 2019. Charles Koch, at 85, is still feisty as co-owner, CEO and chairman of Koch Industries, a role he’s been in since 1967. He also finds time for exhaustive lobbying and philanthropic work, gifting gargantuan grants to conservative and libertarian causes and thinktanks that have proved successful in repealing environmental and worker protections and voting rights over recent decades.

Hence, “Kochtopus” – a term capturing the fact that the family’s lavish philanthropic work has spawned a billion-dollar arsenal fighting to suppress the rights and livelihoods of poorer people in America and across the world. For leftists today, the “vampire-like” nature of the capitalist famously identified by Marx, sucking the lifeblood of workers, has a face, and that face belongs to Charles Koch.

But the term “Kochtopus” has a longer heritage than many people today might realise, and is not the sole preserve of the left – that’s one of the valuable points of this nuanced study of ideological splits on the political right. Wilson and Kamola report that Murray Rothbard, for example, used the term during a breach with the Kochs in the late 1970s over the direction of the Cato Institute, which he had co-founded with Charles Koch. Rothbard took issue with “the Donor”, as he referred to Koch, micromanaging his work and acting like a sort of autocrat, which Rothbard thought undermined his own anarcho-libertarian vision of freedom from all coercive authority.

The end result isn’t surprising. Rothbard was kicked out of the Cato Institute. He had challenged the power of richer men, and, as typically happens in “the land of the free”, the richer men prevailed.

Scholarly attention to this age-old problem – the fact that paying the piper enables people with deep pockets to call the tune – has been revitalised in recent years across the social sciences as Big Man philanthropy from donors such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros has become a hot political topic. But so far, a lot of the academic focus has centred on the explicit goals of donors: Gates’ claimed intention to improve education in the US at the primary and secondary level, for example, and how the results have often fallen short of initial hopes.

This book, by contrast, looks at the surreptitious money flowing through university campuses, all of it geared to overturning what funders see as leftist biases in teaching and policymaking.

As Wilson and Kamola describe, such funders regard campuses as breeding grounds for future conservative thought leaders, politicians, right-wing pundits and DC lobbyists. They spend big to achieve big “deliverables” when it comes to “developing a ‘pipeline of students’” committed to conservative causes, wording that’s not Wilson and Kamola’s, but taken directly from a funding proposal submitted by a faculty member at Western Carolina University to the Kochs. When academics at the university voted against establishing a Koch-funded Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, the university trustees overruled them and approved it.

This isn’t unusual in itself: the use of Koch money to seed libertarian research at universities is well documented by writers such as Jane Mayer and Kim Phillips-Fein. What Wilson and Kamola add is a timely focus on a new tool, the provocateur speaker who is invited to campus by well-funded conservative student groups, who then feign shock and outrage when the provocateur attracts a by-now familiar reaction: a storm of student protests. The speaker gets exactly what they wanted: the oxymoronic fame of being spectacularly “cancelled”.

It’s an open secret that for celebrity scholar-pundits across the political spectrum – Jordan Peterson, Ann Coulter, Charles Murray, Slavoj Žižek – no publicity is bad publicity. They want to be reviled, because it’s better press. If any group comes off looking bad as a result of the highly publicised campus free speech wars, it’s not the speaker who books a media tour on the back of it, it’s the students. They appear intolerant: either too fragile to listen to ideas they don’t like or, paradoxically, all-powerful – magically capable of eviscerating the lives of more powerful men and women with a simple wave of their placards. Neither perception is true, but the publicity surrounding speaker protests suggests otherwise, exaggerating both the sensitivity and the efficacy of campus protests today.

If this seems surprising – if a reader is certain that I’m wrong, and that all university students today are snowflakes who find their lectures too traumatic to endure and spend much of their time forming human barricades around any approaching guest speaker – it’s because the Kochtopus has achieved its goals and is functioning exactly as intended. The aim is to manufacture and stoke campus culture wars, fuelling public support for a range of right-wing aims such as mandates against teaching critical race theory and severely punishing students who engage in protests on campus. Ironically, funders are often pro-free speech but anti-education, as if “teaching” is a special type of speech they can’t abide.

That, at any rate, is what Wilson and Kamola argue – that the free speech wars are financially lubricated by the Koch machine to fuel the impression of left-wing intolerance among students and faculty, thus rationalising donor influence on hiring boards to “balance” the bias on campuses.

It’s a convincing thesis. As the authors put it compellingly, the culture wars are rooted in an “anti-democratic power grab organized by a brilliantly conceptualized, deeply integrated and well-funded partisan operation”. Following this conclusion, they add an appendix on “When and How to Protest a Speaker” with tips for, in essence, safer, better, louder speaker protests. I groaned. The appendix is like counselling a school of fish about the exact size, shape and dangers of the fish hook and then saying: now leap up.

To lay my own cards on the table, I’m no fan of no platforming. I think it helps to cultivate solipsistic, insular protest movements that tend to alienate rather than enrol wider communities.

My own response to the craven provocateurs is simple – perhaps too simple, but it’s better than throwing oneself again and again on the fish hook. Don’t respond. Better to ignore the bastards when they come fishing across university campuses.

Remember the line that Howard Roark offers his enemy in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) when pressed about what he really thought of him? Roark replies with majestic indifference: “But I don’t think of you.”

That’s how to beat Peterson or Murray or Coulter. By acting as if they don’t matter, they cease to matter. How will the right respond then? By forcing and strapping students into seats? So much for free speech.

Linsey McGoey is professor of sociology at the University of Essex and the author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (2015).

Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture
By Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola
Pluto Press, 256pp, £72.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780745343020 and 9780745343013
Published 20 November 2021

The author

Ralph Wilson, co-founder and research director of the Corporate Genome Project in Tallahassee, Florida, was born into an itinerant military family but grew up largely in rural Alabama. He studied physics and mathematics at Troy University in Alabama and then Florida State University, where he became involved in “years of campus organising and activism against corporate influence. I came to see how the highly influential donors that flooded our electoral process with money were also present on campus.”

The public needs to be aware, argues Wilson, that “the groups stoking the current ‘crisis’ [about free speech] are the same groups that have advanced climate change denial and tobacco industry misinformation, and with the same tactics”. People should also “beware a ‘marketplace of ideas’ model of the academy”, which “not only comes loaded with a free-market worldview, but misportrays the function and purpose of the academy while neglecting the presence of power and influence…It is critical to protect the ability of campuses to regulate themselves and guide their own speech policies.”

Isaac Kamola, associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut, was born and raised in Washington state, where his father worked in the timber industry and he “spent as much time as possible in the woods”. He studied at Whitman College, in rural south-eastern Washington state, and, as a postgraduate student at the University of Minnesota, “became active in organising strike support for the clerical workers’ union” and on “an unsuccessful graduate student union campaign”, experiences that led to a strong sense of “how hostile university presidents and trustees are towards their employees”.

Asked for advice on handling potential free speech controversies, Kamola urges university administrators to “trust your staff, faculty and students to make complicated decisions about what is, and isn’t, acceptable on campus. Capitulating to outside groups – and their political agendas – might spare a few minutes of bad press, but at the expense of sowing distrust on campus and a loss of faith in your institution.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Invested in outrage

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

How can you ‘just ignore’ people who get you cancelled on every platform? I never heard such Jewish Conspiracy dreck. If you oppose a Woke ideology you must be a sinister bad guy? Who is crazy?


Featured jobs