A teach-in at Tent City University and the struggle for alternatives

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 7 November 2011

I spoke at a session for Tent City University yesterday, with Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Alex Callinicos, Dave Hill, Guy Mitchell of the Really Open University, and a student activist from the Education Activist Network. My intention was to connect to the details of the cuts that Toynbee and Monbiot raised, to connect these to the ideological points that were raised about the crisis of capitalism by Callinicos and Hill, and to create a space to talk about the Social Science Centre in Lincoln as a radical response to the crisis. This point was then picked-up by Mitchell and the EAN representative who made clear statements about connecting alternatives to existing sites of protest, as a web of resistance, and about the courage that we could take from the protests against the imposed quickening of neoliberal shock doctrines across the globe this year.

The points that I emphasised are noted below. However, it is worth revisiting them in light of an email exchange I had with my comrade and Cuban expert George Lambie about the crisis. George wrote that:

As you know there are also many things happening around the crisis at the moment and we are getting close to the limits of money printing, which is being replaced by value extraction from societies. In my view this represents a systemic change in the organisation of capitalism with huge consequences, especially for the Keynesian-nurtured middle classes which the first wave of neo-liberalism undermined, but did not destroy.

Enclosed within this space, and now under the cosh of neoliberalism, is the University. My statement on that institution and the crisis follows.

I briefly wish to address the idea of the University. And in particular what is the University for in the face of the discipline of debt and the kettle?

ONE. On the question of alternatives. At Zuccotti Park on Sunday 9 October, Slavoj Žižek argued that “the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world, [and so] we are allowed and obliged even to think about alternatives. There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – questions not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism?” This is a process of overcoming the elite’s interpretive myths – of being-in-excess of their hegemony over us. Of living beyond their enclosure of our lives.

TWO. On hegemony. And yet in education we are told to focus upon finding mechanisms to maintain business-as-usual. As Jeffrey Williams notes of the USA

“Universities are now being conscripted as a latter kind of franchise, directly as training grounds for the corporate workforce; this is most obvious in the growth of business departments but impacts English, too, in the proliferation of more ‘practical’ degrees in technical writing and the like. In fact, not only has university work been redirected to serve corporate-profit agendas via its grant-supplicant status, but universities have become franchises in their own right, reconfigured according to corporate management, labor, and consumer models and delivering a name brand product.”

And in the UK the Coalition Government, in its undemocratic implementation of policy enacted through post-election horse-trading rather than agreed manifesto, is very clear that “The White Paper [Students at the heart of the system] comes as part of the wider government agenda to put more power in the hands of the consumer”, and that HE “should evolve in response to demand from students and employers, reflecting particularly the wider needs of the economy.” Higher education is explicitly a commodity now, to be consumed in depoliticised warehouses and bent on utilitarian ends. It is explicitly open to market forces and for-profiteering. This exposes it to risk, hedging, venture capitalism, and the treadmill of competition. As the militant accountant Richard Murphy argues “the proposed increases in fees, with increased debt obligations to match is not an education policy: it is, I suggest, a policy designed to provide the financial markets with a new form of collateralised debt obligation that they can trade now that mortgages are not available to meet the demand for such products.”

This means that all of the social relationships we develop and nurture within higher education are subject to the rule of money. To the discipline of debt. Such that debt becomes a pedagogy. Our disciplines are sites for the production of cognitive capital, and are overlain by a hidden curriculum of separation, individuation, competition and debt. This is the violence of our ongoing crisis, through which the idea and the reality of the University is attacked. As the eminent Marxist Simon Clarke notes ““The sense of a world beyond human control, of a world driven to destruction by alien forces, is stronger today than it has ever been”.

THREE. On symbolic power. Yet the University remains a symbol of places where mass intellectuality, or knowledge as our main socially-productive force, can be consumed/produced and contributed to by all. The University remains a symbol of the possibility that we can create sites of opposition and critique, or where we can renew histories of denial and revolt, and where new stories can be told, against what the student-activist Aaron John Peters calls states of exception that enclose how and where and why we assemble, associate and organise. This symbolic power-to critique and negate what is denied to us, to overcome the alienation of our knowledge from our lives, is reflected by the spaces that academics take up within and against the neoliberal university. This symbolic power connects to what the Edufactory Collective have termed “Transforming mobilizations around the public into the organization of institutions of the common”. They argue that enhancing the politics of the common is “the political task today.” That discussing in association our common wealth is a central political project, with a critical role for academics and students, acting as scholars.

FOUR. On our histories of resistance. In sets of occupations and teach-ins and free exchange, some of which are incubated inside the University, the symbolic possibilities of higher education might connect into this “organization of institutions of the common”. Here, then we might reconnect to the historical traditions of higher learning beyond the University. We might look to more radical experiments in higher learning, not institutionalised higher education. Our re-reading of historical experiments offer a rich tapestry of what is possible in the face of institutionalised discipline: and so we have William Lovett’s Public Halls or Schools for the People, which are deeply connected to the History of the National Union of Working Classes, the London Working Men’s Association and the Chartists; and we have the worker-student Popular Education projects that connected to 1968 and the Indiani Metropolitani of the Italian Autonomia movement; and we have the anti-Apartheid Teachers’ League of South Africa. And in each of these spaces and the hundreds of other refusals, we have representations of how higher education might be dissolved, in the form of mass intellectuality or higher learning or excess, into the very fabric of society. It is in this borderless or boundary-less activity, which is overtly political in seeking an exodus from the logic of capital, where academics and students as scholars might contribute to our overcoming of the domineering and alienating historical processes of capitalism.

FIVE. On scholarly work in public. Thus, in the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity, academics might consider their participatory traditions and positions, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. How do students and teachers contribute to workerist and public dissent against domination and foreclosure? Where do we discuss alternative value-structures, and an alternative value-system that does not have the specific character of that achieved under capitalism. As the radical Geographer, David Harvey notes, at issue is “to find an alternative value-form that will work in terms of the social reproduction of society in a different image.” Again Edufactory hints at the ways in which scholars can work in public to reveal the crisis and produce alternatives, through: critique of the mechanisms of the general assembly, as a political process; militant research strategies; open publishing and engagement. This is a call for action in public.

SIX. On alternatives. Not only do we have rich histories of popular education within-and-against capitalism to reflect upon and nurture us, but we also have current examples of radical alternatives from where to take courage. And so we can engage with alternatives that seek to demythologise higher education and the processes of teaching-and-learning from a standpoint of critical pedagogy. And this is important because critical pedagogy helps us to critique higher education as it is subsumed under the historical logic of capitalism. It helps challenge the ways in which the elite uses the power of ideas to complement its material and political power, and its cultural hegemony. We see this in the work of the Really Open University and its Space Project in Leeds; and in the work of the outlawed Copenhagen Free University; and in the work of the Really Free School; and in the Peer-to-Peer University; and in the School for Designing a Society; and in the Journals, “Upping the Anti” and “Human Geography”; and in countless other spaces that are trying to describe a world that is in, against and beyond the treadmill dynamic of capital. These webs of resistance form cycles of struggle and refusal, and reveal spaces for alternatives.

SEVEN. On The Social Science Centre. I wish to end by briefly describing one specific space where the production of intellectuality in common is a critical, pedagogic act of resistance, namely the Social Science Centre in Lincoln. The Centre is an unincorporated co-operative, managed by consensus. It exists as a community of scholars and activists, with peer-review, democratic engagement and negotiated, dialogic, social science curricula at its heart. The focus on the social sciences is a deliberate response to the Coalition’s funding agenda. The curriculum is not pre-determined, although it is shaped by the interests and needs of its members; the curriculum is predicated on the idea of student-as-producer. In this process, the hope is that students as scholars become revolutionary social beings within open, socially-driven spaces, rather than becoming institutionalised agents. We hope that by forcing reconceptions of the politics of production, we can demonstrate the precarity of capital. The hope is that this open approach breeds mass, social intellectuality, which is geared to communal problem-solving and transformation. This connectivity is a critique of closed, institutionalised systems of education, which are reinforced through locked institutional technologies and systems. The SSC aims to understand how critical judgments about scholarship – including those that fall outside the present imagination of what constitutes ‘high-quality’ work in academic orthodoxies – can be made and deliberated collectively, and how we can create meaningful criteria for learning and teaching that are not alienating or symbolically violent, but that work to open spaces of possibility for everyone involved. This is not a question of structure or structurelessness, but rather what sort of structuring practices and conditions may be effective for learning authentic, critical, questioning autonomy. In the social sciences. As a model for others to critique and question and re-model. As an act of political refusal.

EIGHT. On courage. The challenge in the Social Science Centre and beyond is for students and academics as scholars to develop a critique in the face of everything. We might, then, consider how students and teachers might dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation. We might then return to Zizek’s focus not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want, in order to consider the courage it takes to reclaim and re-produce our politics and our social relationships, in the face of their enclosure.

After the teach-out I joined our young people as they marched to the Occupation at St Pauls. And I witnessed how the fear of discussion and protest drives the State to brutalise and intimidate. And I witnessed adult men in body armour, riot shields, truncheons and plastic bullets, herd then kettle young people armed with dub-step and percussion instruments. And I heard a deafening silence from our education leaders in the face of this brutalisation. And I witnessed how the courage we demonstrate in our struggle for alternatives is their precarity.

My photos are here.

One Response to A teach-in at Tent City University and the struggle for alternatives

  1. Pingback: A note on Goldman Sachs and the privatisation of the university | Richard Hall's Space

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