Beyond Cuts and Taxation: Critical Alternatives and the Idea of Higher Education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 March 2011

The slides for this workshop are available on my slideshare.

Introduction: beyond cuts and taxation

In a recent workshop on the alternative to cuts, DMU’s Sally Ruane argued that if the UK’s structural deficit [as opposed to its national debt] demanded immediate governmental response, then that response needed to focus upon taxation as a cipher for our shared, common wealth and values. Rather than driving through cuts to public services, which marginalise those living in poverty, the pivot should be on overcoming tax avoidance and tax evasion. Sally’s focus was on humanising our system of economic governance through mechanisms tied to social justice and inclusion. Connected to the Keynesian realities that emerged beyond the New Deal, which was subsequently attacked intellectually by the Chicago School in the 1970s and seeded politically by the Thatcherite-Reagonite consensus, Sally began to imagine an alternative that re-focused our social relationships on alternatives shared-in-common, and based around recalibrating the existing capitalist system. Rather than a political re-imagining of the world as it might be, the argument was that there is a more limited, humane economic agenda for which we might fight.

Sally’s arguments rightly connected issues of social injustice, highlighted in part by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, about the lack of redistribution in the coalition’s political economy, to public outrage about our banking system, and to a series of questions about what is to be done as a result. Functional, solutions have emerged from the left, including: a Green New Deal and no- or de-growth [proposed by the new economics foundation]; the public shaming of tax avoiders [the praxis of UK Uncut]; and, the development of co-operative facilities for managing debt, like Eurobonds [promoted by Stuart Holland]. These solutions argue for compassionate or progressive capitalist approaches, but they do connect economic drivers to issues of governance and politics, a connection that is missing from so much of our public discourse, which is too often reduced to cuts versus taxation.

Yet, as Stuart Price noted in the first workshop, we have a catastrophic cleavage in the condition of our democracy, where the electorate can be undermined by coalition manifestos produced in negotiations after the fact, and which move us to a position where we are disempowered through shock as both our public services and our shared resources held in common are disembowelled. This subsumption of our politics to the realpolitik of the state, managed through shock therapy, is reinforced through what George Lambie highlighted as the power of the transnational flows of [finance] capital over that state apparatus.

It is this role of the state as a key vehicle for capital, nested within a neoliberal discourse that is the cornerstone of what Marx called the “real subsumption of labour to capital”, which I wish to investigate in this second seminar. In particular, I wish to look at the dominant narrative that now subsumes higher education within the needs of transnational capital, or what Hardt and Negri have termed Empire, for, amongst other things, profit maximisation, accumulation by dispossession, increases in the rate of profit, and a furtherance of consumption as the motive force behind growth. As one of the occupiers at University College London argued, “this is about more than education.” In this I want to begin to relate the real subsumption of higher education to the capitalist logic of domination, inspired by the work of Deleuze, Negri and Tronti [among others] on the social factory.

So this seminar is in four parts. In the first I look at the hegemony of neoliberal dogma within higher education, in order to ask whether liberal versions of business-as-usual are viable. In the second I try to relate this dogma to the current crisis of capitalism, in order to demonstrate how higher education and its actors are being deliberately brutalised by the state, through the deployment of pedagogies of both debt and the kettle, as a form of shock therapy. In this brutalisation, hopes that progressives can mollify the system against tax evasion and against the cuts risk a lack of traction. In the third part I briefly place higher education in the context of global flows of capital and the impact of shock through internationalisation on our environmental crisis. In the final part, I wish to explore alternatives, in order to ask whether, in Holloway’s terms it is possible to be in-and-against the dominant logic of capital, and to imagine moving beyond its alienating immiseration. Is it possible that autonomous alternatives and refusals to be subjugated to the iron-fisted rule of money might offer possible re-imaginings? How is it possible for higher education, in Marx’s term, to facilitate the negation of our negation?

Part 1: higher education and the totalising logic of capital

We might start by asking whether autonomous consumption and production of our common educational wealth is possible. Or whether our higher education is now inextricably bound to the individualistic, libertarian, debt-driven privatisation and separation of the market? Moreover, in this historical space, what is the future for higher education where it now exists as a functionary, or training ground, for further capitalist accumulation? No longer recognised as a public good in its own right, our dominant, anti-humanist rhetoric accepts the neoliberal, anti-historical consensus of Fukayama, and forgets the situated critiques of Keynesians like Galbraith. In this, critical theory is relegated to the margins, having no historical power in the present moment, and seeming to be beneath progress. In this present moment, the liberal view of business-as-usual, which imagines the humanising of capital through, for example, effective tax mechanisms or parliamentary democracy refuses us space to contemplate the historical moment and contingency of a higher education for neoliberalism. In the world of cuts versus taxation there is no historical critique.

Yet the world of higher education is one in which the mantra of growth and competition is explicit in HEFCE’s mission statement and in its reports, in the HEA’s strategic plan, and in the Coalition Government’s shackling of the AHRC’s research strategy to its big society agenda. Thus, strategy and structural agendas are linked to economic narratives, over-and-above social relationships. Moreover, in the depositions of representational groups like UUK, or University Alliance, or the British Academy, the rule of money and the interests of business are hegemonic and uncontestable. There is no critique of the relationship between higher learning and economic narratives or the financialisation of education. There is no central critique of the drive-to-indenture-through-debt or the managerialism of labour in the academy. There is no critique of the mantras of value-for-money, efficiency and more-for-less. There is no acceptable, historically-situated counter-narrative within the academy. There is just the world we are in. There is just outrage and money. There is just abstraction.

One implication of this is that higher education is no longer immune from the totalising nature of capitalism. As with the whole social environment, including our mores, cultures, politics, and personal relations, higher education is now part of the social factory. In this way, higher education is part of a regime of capitalist power that can direct the consumption and production of our lives, as we labour and as we relax. As Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued: “we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself”. With no new geographical spaces ripe for accumulation by dispossession, the argument here is that the real subsumption of life to capital through debt and consumption is a form of accumulation by dispossession [of our futures], in order to enable profit maximisation. There is no ‘outside’ the logic of capital. There is no humanising its dominant logic by an appeal against cuts and for taxation. This is where the transnationality of financial capital works against those who would reform the financial apparatus of the state through a plea to the state. As the Libera Università Metropolitana notes

the financial capitalism and transnational corporations do not accept any form of regulation and consider the crisis to be a structural condition to be viewed as part of the contemporary production of value. On the other hand, the parabola of Obama indicates that reformism has come to halt and neo-Keynesian receipts are blunt weapon[s].

Part 2: the pedagogies of shock – the kettle and debt

Thus, the totalising, anti-humanist subsumption of higher education to the market is a form of shock therapy, imparted by the state in the name of growth and progress. Two elements of this shock therapy are especially important in the current historical moment, and these are the twin pedagogies of debt and the kettle. The idea is to marginalise dissent and resistance and to enforce the separation of our social concerns into private, personal spaces, so that we are not willing to fight for our common, educational wealth. We see *our* higher education as *our* private property, paid for and owned individually. The discipline of personal debt shackles dissent as we do not wish to be marginalised in the employment market as labour that is surplus to requirements. We are caught by the promise of the knowledge economy and forced to immerse ourselves in the skills of material and immaterial consumption, in order simply to survive. In order simply to consume.

It is in this space that debt becomes a pedagogy, focused upon the consumption of knowledge and lifestyles, of uncriticality, of employability and skills, of business and not economics, of STEM and not humanities. As Williams notes:

student debt, in its prevalence and amounts, constitutes a pedagogy, unlike the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaims, of privatization and the market.

We are being taught a lesson that as the state transfers the social value of a university life to the individual via debt, higher education is no longer immune from the logic of the market, and is no longer able simple to call upon the mantra of the public good. Thus we enter a world where graduates face paying back double their student loans as debt charges rack up, and where Universities are disciplined by funding shortages into providing what their students as customers, disciplined by debt in a specific market, demand of them. There is no space for common deliberation about the purpose of an education in a world that faces massive socio-environmental disruption. There is only space for discussion of employment and debt repayment. The logic of capitalist accumulation through debt, and the treadmill necessity of finding spaces for the re-capitalisation/investment of surplus value shackles higher education to the hegemony of consumption for capitalist growth. Thus, even where it is shown that subsidies like EMA are efficient in recouping their costs they are scrapped because they are beyond the logic of debt. For, as Michael Gove argues: debt is now a way of life, and a way of marketising humanity: “Anyone put off… university by fear of… debt doesn’t deserve to be at university in the first place”.

This dominant narrative of debt and dispossession has been quickened within UK higher education through the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s subsequent response. The global economic crisis has been turned into a means to speed the privatisation of the state, and to attempt the strangulation of possibilities to energise transformative, co-operative relations. This places HE in the vanguard of the Shock Doctrine, designed “to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy”. It rests upon, for example:

  1. the relentless law of competition and coercion (internationalisation)
  2. the impact of crisis to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant ideology of student-as-consumer, and HE-as-commodity
  3. the transfer of state/public assets to the private sector under the belief that this will produce efficiency and economic outputs
  4. the lock-down of state subsidies for ‘inefficient’ work (Bands C and D funded subjects)
  5. the privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability = encouraging privatisation of HE
  6. a refusal to run deficits, catalysing pejorative cuts to state services
  7. extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt, through increased fees
  8. a controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology.

The Coalition’s higher education agenda might be read as an attempt to enforce the shock doctrine as part of a response to economic crisis. It might be read as an attempt to increase the market for western neoliberal values, delivered through the engine of higher education. This is revealed in David Willetts’ speech to the spring conference of Universities UK, in which he made plain a view of: privatisation; cost reduction; consumption as pedagogy; closing-off teaching in “undesirable” subjects; and anti-humanism.

Let me start this morning with our broader vision for HE – it is a simpler, more flexible system which gives students better value and greater choice. That means a more diverse range of providers should be able to play a role. It means funding for teaching should follow the choices that students make. And it means empowering students to make their own choices based on better, more transparent information.

In the face of this one wonders about the strength of an agenda focused upon taxation versus cuts, of clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance, rather than developing a critique of the historical space that we inhabit. As Žižek notes, our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” We believe that we can convince those in power, who support protest and resistance in the Middle East where issues of governmental legitimacy and resource appropriation are concerned, but for whom the kettle is the appropriate response to similar outbursts at home, that there is a more humanist, socially inclusive response. We believe that our alternative is no-growth, or de-growth [impossible in capital] or a green new deal [impossible in capital fuelled by liquid energy], or a return to Keynsian economics, in the face of the dominant logic of coercive competition that has subsumed the fabric of our lives. Žižek forces us to confront whether, in the face of a political system in which parties trade their strategies for immiserating cuts as if they are the only demonstration of a fitness for government, it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned”?

In this space, alternatives revealed as protests or occupations of university buildings, are revisited by the state in the form of the kettle. The language of the kettle becomes the language of state security against those who would protest the logic of imposed order. Thus University senior management describe student occupiers as terrorists intent on violent subversion of accepted norms, and as a threat to the education [training] of others. Elsewhere management threatens to bankrupt student protesters to silence dissent, or it calls in the police to remove forcibly those engaged in civil disobedience [and not criminal damage]. In this world protest is brutalised or it is de-legitimised. As Neocleous states:

the logic of ‘security’ is the logic of an anti-politics in which the state uses ‘security’ to marginalize all else, most notably the constructive conflicts, the debates and discussions that animate political life, suppressing all before it and dominating political discourse in an entirely reactionary way

Alternative forms of our common educational wealth are brutalised, marginalised and de-legitimised as threats to our security. In this space we forget the lessons of our histories of civil disobedience to authority, in reform movements, in the fight for the suffrage, in civil rights, in moves against war and brutality. Our anti-history subverts our quest for deliberation and meaningful alternatives. Our anti-history reduces us to the present and a story of growth and progress. Our anti-history reinforces the pedagogy of the kettle that enforces silence and stands asymmetrically opposed to critique and resistance. Our anti-historical stance allows the pedagogy of the kettle to be a means by which order can be imposed and a pedagogy of debt enforced. In this higher education risks complicity through silence.

Part 3: a brief note on global higher education

The realisation of a pedagogy of debt is a need to work and to undertake both material and immaterial labour. However, this work demands energy, and in turn stands against nature: climate change, peak oil, energy costs, the loss of biodiversity each threaten business-as-usual within capitalist social relations. Yet these outcomes are simply the collateral damage of accumulation and the desire to extract surplus value. Thus, higher education’s marketisation through internationalisation threatens to take more people from countries with low ecological footprints and export them to those with high footprints, or to transfer activities in the opposite direction. Higher education’s mission appears to be the generation of western business opportunities in the developing world, cloaked by issues of sustainability and global citizenship.

And it is simply not good enough to claim that technological efficiencies or a green new deal will save the day, because a rise in global population and affluence will ensure that this is not possible. Capitalism’s motive means of production is oil. Green technologies do not offer motive alternatives, and rely on natural resources that are hardly abundant. Deeper solutions are needed about the ways in which we address scarcity and abundance, and work for social as opposed to economic progress/growth. Yet in the anti-humanist logic of shock, there is no space to deliberate possible alternatives. Our pedagogies are remodelled to the market and the rule of money, through the kettle and debt, and away from an engagement with critical externalities like the need for a resilient education. In the face of the commodification and trading of food and water, which starves communities around the globe, of resource depletion and carbon emissions, which threaten our very existence, and of peak oil, which threatens neoliberalism as a whole, arguing over taxation versus cuts may be irrelevant. In spite of the fact that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, our historical moment demands a redefinition of what the University is for.

Part 4: critical alternatives and the idea of higher education

Mike Neary has argued that the struggle is not over what the university is for, but against what the university has become. In this struggle there are two forms congealing that offer critical alternatives, and which are connected into broader sites of resistance to the alienating logic of capitalism. The first is the raft of student occupations in the heart of the academy and the second is the emergence of autonomous, informal spaces for higher learning. These forms of resistance offer the possibility of transformation, in-part by re-imagining the general intellect through co-operative moments of protest, which develop aspects of what Hardt and Negri call the multitude, and our struggles for post-national democratic spaces and against submission to the bottom-line logic of capital. The role of the multitude, the force behind and in opposition to capital-as-empire, is in producing, consuming, co-operating and communicating capital through globalisation. Within the totality of the global, social factory, where transnational, corporate power dominates, there are countless spaces in which opposition can erupt: the environment; identity politics; education; health etc.. The immateriality of this multitude, which operates physically and virtually, and its swarming, autonomous, material nature, offers spaces for resistance, like hacking either software or corporate spaces, or for developing practical alternatives that might stick or which might dissolve as they become part of the spectacle, or for infusing wider, societal protests, like demonstrations against cuts, with critique.

The first form of struggle has been occupation. The conflicted and yet productive work of occupation across the UK demonstrates how students are attempting to re-define and re-produce their social roles, in light of a questioning of the structures higher education and their connection to higher learning. They ask:

  1. Can we re-imagine a more transformative university space, which values making, knowing and being over simply consuming?
  2. For whom is the university? For businesses and managers, for co-operators, or for society at large?
  3. How can the space and the meaning of the university be liberated?

Within the occupation, the use of place, its attempted liberation from a normalised utility and its position as a sanctuary are revealed. The focus on spaces-of-sanctuary from hegemony, in order to deliberate transformational opportunities, has been shown in the levels of solidarity from across the globe within and between student movements, and which are increasingly being revealed as conflicted efforts at non-hierarchical, co-operative organisation. Thus, the University for Strategic Optimism argues for ‘A university based on the principle of free and open education, a return of politics to the public, and the politicisation of public space’. This reclamation, whilst negating claims of ownership or property rights, highlights the drive towards personal and co-operative autonomy in a living and commonly-owned space. The students who are arguing for transformation are engaging with what Marx called ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’. This highlights an anti-institutionalised, anti-controlling description of the social forms of higher learning, where barriers, separation, differences and transitions are critiqued dialectically and historicised within the dynamics of capital. In this, the social, co-operative structures rendered possible within universities as sites of potential knowing are pivotal in re-producing a shared set of educational and societal alternatives.

In this project, a second site of alternative, critical practices is revealed through autonomist, conceptual spaces that offer open source possibilities for transformation.

  • Student-as-producer is a concept which ‘extends the concept of production to include ways in which students, as social individuals, affect and change society, so as to be able to recognise themselves in the social world of their own design.’
  • The Really Open University’s emphasis on the need for praxis, in re-asserting the idea of the university as a site for critical action, resistance and opposition, led by students.
  • The Peer to Peer University’s open approach to co-operative production through sharing and accreditation.
  • The Institute of Collapsonomics’ analysis of meaningful socio-cultural resilience, and our capacity to develop agile and mobile associations, which can solve problems and develop alternatives.
  • The University of Utopia’s aim to invent a form of radicality that confronts the paradox of the possibility of abundance (freedom) in a society of scarcity (non-freedom).
  • The Really Free School’s aim to de-school society, in order to share the possibility for re-producing something more meaningful along with those around you. Against the rule of money, the Really Free School encourages “a collective learning process directed by your own desires, ideas, questions and problems. We hope that here knowledge and skills will not simply be transmitted – but created.”

These activist possibilities highlight the interconnections between organisation and technology, environmental demands and human needs, congealed in specific places like occupations in the academy. In challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism these spaces are theorising a higher education that is not framed by business continuity (i.e. ensuring ‘business-as-usual’). From these places emerges a demand for a practical, critical theory, embedded within society that engages with wider environmental changes, against the alienation of capitalist work, and the reductionism of a debate of taxation versus cuts. These co-operators are debating and fighting for the idea and the form of the University-in-society and not the University-for-economy. They are attempting to do so in transitional spaces infused with and by a culture of open critique. These spaces and conflicted, not always consensual, and they are compromised. However, they are at least deliberating alternatives.

As Paul Mason noted last month, about why it is kicking off everywhere, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”. The newly-politicised energy of these graduates instantiates protest, just as the 26 March demonstrations in London demonstrated the new vitality of a broad demographic, represented in large part by the associational democracy of trades unions. This broad demographic is against hegemonic, unrepresentative, parliamentary politics. The question now is how autonomous movements and a broader demographic, congealed in an immediate agenda against governmental cuts, might be enabled to imagine societal alternatives in a world that faces massive disruption. How will governance work at local, national, global scales? As students and staff work together in occupation and in sites of resistance, we might ask how their re-imagining of the role of higher education can be dissolved into the fabric of society, so that higher learning can enable alternatives to become realities against the rule of money.

As Mieksins-Wood noted fifteen years ago:

the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

I have no solutions. The Vice-Chancellors who have been debating these issues have no solutions. Only the willingness to ask and discuss questions, and to find spaces to test alternatives in co-operation. So we might ask:

  • Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
  • In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
  • Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
  • How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  • What is to be done?

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