For a network of commons

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 November 2011

I kept the faith and I kept voting/Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand/For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man/Theirs is a land of hope and glory/Mine is the green field and the factory floor/Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/And mine is the peace we knew/Between the wars

Billy Bragg, Between the Wars.

Yesterday the Education Activist Network emailed though a series of YouTube videos about student protests and occupations at UC-Berkeley. These highlighted the increased politicisation of young people, the increased militarisation of our campuses, and the increased bravery of people as co-operative social forces in the face of State authoritarianism. More appropriately, this might be viewed as bravery in the face of the brutality of the transnational global elites that now dominate the control mechanisms of the State. Those control mechanisms include universal access to healthcare, access to employment and education, access to homes, and/or paramilitary-style policing. In each of these areas the political/economic compact of recent years is in crisis, and this crisis is being played out in education.

The nature of transnational elites has been raised in documentaries like Inside Job, in popular texts like Paul Mason’s Meltdown, in academic spaces looking at corporate networks, and in work analysing trans-national corporate power. This revelation of how these elites now dominate our political landscape was clarified at Tent City University last weekend by David Harvey. Harvey argued that it is only people massing together in the streets and in the squares, whose relationships are shared and nurtured and encouraged in-part on-line and in-part through radical educational forums, who can oppose the foreclosure of our (educational) futures and our (educational) spaces. Harvey argued that people acting deliberately and politically in public spaces that were previously enclosed and policed by Capital enables us to recreate and re-produce those spaces as a Commons. In part this is an outcome of the process of occupation. It is only on this network of Commons, something Nick Dyer Witheford has written about for a networked world in terms of the Circulation of the Common, and that Joss Winn and Mike Neary have critiqued in pedagogic terms, where questions of the inequality of wealth and power can be meaningfully debated beyond the trite inadequacies of ‘a better capitalism’.

Education is central to this project of building the Network or Commons of Commons. In education, as Harvey argues, we are witnessing the enclosure of debate about the idea of the school or the university, so that all we are left with are plaintive cries against students-as-consumers. At the same time, through the enforcement of external, marketised agendas of outsourcing, internationalisation (globalisation), employability, attacks on employment rights, and the proletarianisation of working practices, the grip of transnational capital over education (as the life-blood of our social relationships) is tightened. In response, in a range of Universities, for example in Chile and Columbia, in California, and in Bangladesh, students are resisting neoliberal managerial techniques that are solely designed to extract value from those who have least power. In part this is a form of defence. In part though, as the Edufactory Collective amongst others, have argued, this is a way to redefine political engagement through general assemblies, militant research and open education.

This collective, educational response, framed within a connected set of Commons, and operating globally, is central to a critique of the power of transnational global elites, as they turn in on extracting value from our historically-accumulated capitals. The argument here is that states are running to the end of the possibility for printing money (quantitative easing) as a mechanism for recovering from this systemic crisis. Moreover, there are no spaces left outside the system of capitalist accumulation into which capital can flee or from which it can extract value easily. Therefore, in order to increase the rate of profit, or the compound growth at three per cent that is required both to maintain the Global North’s standards of living and to pay-off its debts, the system has to turn back in on itself, in order to self-valorise. So our socially-prescribed, historically-produced goods [or capitals], like access to universal healthcare and state education, which were accumulated in the post-war Keynesian settlement, are now the source of private profit through market mechanisms.

This forms a new, systemic crisis of capitalism based on value-extraction from societies, with huge consequences for the middle classes. It underpins austerity measures and the privatisation of state assets, each of which is driven by transnational flows of capital. As a result, a world of nationally-defined political economic analyses is outdated, in part because the socio-environmental problems we face are global (as the brilliant Tom Murphy shows for energy), but also because of the porosity of borders to capital. In this current moment of the crisis, we see nations inside and outside the Eurozone that are unable to control the damage being wrought by speculative capital, and that are unable to re-construct their economies beyond the organisation of global, capitalist production chains. Thus, we see the mobility of capital, in flowing to tax havens and in drawing on very low labour rates and profits from sale of goods that are produced in countries with poor labour conditions in high income, strong currency economies. Critically, the key players in these speculative relationships and in making the case for and delivering austerity are global elites, who wish to impose deregulated unprotected labour relations.

This focus on the power of what is termed the markets is in reality the power of oligopolistic, transnational banks, corporations and subservient politicians/media. Thus, any focus on national solutions to the defence of national capitals, of an attempt to recapture, for example, the pre-eminence of Great Britain, visited in-part through its education system, becomes meaningless. Or leads us down the route to fascism. This then infects our education systems. It may remain hidden from view, but it shapes our engagement with internationalisation, employability, innovation, research and development, community engagement, personalisation, outsourcing and technologies. It also shapes our open education agendas, our MOOCs, our work on badges, our engagement with work-based learning, our radical alternatives. There is no outside.

However, 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.

Thus, the real social and political value of our reaction to austerity, revealed in free schools, in tent city universities, in teach-ins and teach-outs, in student-worker occupations, and a million other forms, is their deliberative, educational, open agendas. This is not to dream of them as utopian ideals or fetishise them as anti-capital, but it is to reflect on them as a network of educational commons. They serve as mirrors through which we can look for ways to run down pointless levels of consumption, and to scream against pointless technocratic experiences, and to create more scalable, resilient production and distribution systems that are socially-defined. The idea that under globalisation, in which capital, production, the state, classes and media and culture are ‘without borders’, can be made better and more responsive to our existence in localised spaces is untenable. We require a process of deliberation that is against those who would carry out the logic of a system of global feudalism, where an increasingly powerful minority control/trade/commodify both the scarcity and abundance of resources.

What the process of creating a Commons or Network of Commons through dissent, occupation, protest and refusal has shown us is the courage we share to imagine and re-produce something different. In the face of the increasing extraction of value from our lives, and in the face of the meaningless of a life lived for compound economic growth, and in the face of our powerlessness within the system defined for us by transnational elites, and in face of the use of collectivised force by our elected politicians against us, the educational solidarity of our occupations has shown, as Harvey described, that only people acting and educating as co-operative, social forces can save us now.

3 Responses to For a network of commons

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