on academic activism, boundary-less toil and exodus

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 September 2011

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Nelson Mandela.

If we don’t take action now/We settle for nothing later/We’ll settle for nothing now/And we’ll settle for nothing later

Rage Against the Machine, Settle for Nothing.

A note on institutions and power

In How to Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway argues that we deceive ourselves if we believe that the structures that have developed and which exist in order to reproduce capitalist social relations can be used as a means to overcome its alienating organisation of work. Holloway makes this point for the structure of the democratic state as a symbol of failed revolutionary hope.

At first sight it would appear obvious that winning control of the state is the key to bringing about social change. The state claims to be sovereign, to exercise power within its frontiers. This is central to the common notion of democracy: a government is elected in order to carry out the will of the people by exerting power in the territory of the state. This notion is the basis of the social democratic claim that radical change can be achieved through constitutional means.

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the state from its social environment: it attributes to the state an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the state does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the state does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any government that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the state territory.

Holloway is not alone in arguing that the state’s room for manoeuvre is constricted by transnational global capital, and in particular by the compression and enclosure of time and space wrought by technologically-transformed, finance capital. In this view, working to take control of the state crushes the transformatory intent of those who would fight against capitalism, because this transformation is always about manoeuvring for power. This instrumentalism always risks descending into a hierarchy of struggle for democracy or as nationalism or for a Tobin Tax or for whatever. In Paulo Virno’s terms this is not a courageous ideology, it is based on “weak thought”, or a political philosophy that “was developed by philosophers with theories that offer an ideology of the defeat [of labour movement by neoliberalism] after the end of the ‘70s”.It is a way of seeking compromise with capital, and escaping into a ‘fight’ for exclusionary or problem-solving tactics, like ‘equality of opportunity’.

Thus, Holloway argues that “The hierarchisation of struggle is a hierarchisation of our lives and thus a hierarchisation of ourselves.” What drives an alternative is the negation of hierarchical power within

a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

Thus what is needed is our co-operative conquest of power as a step towards the abolition of power relations. At this point we are able to re-inscribe a different set of possibilities upon the world. At this point we are able to move beyond protest about economic power and occupations of enclosed spaces, to critique how our global webs of social relations contribute to the dehumanisation of people, where other humans are treated as means in a production/consumption-process rather than ends in themselves able to contribute to a common wealth. For Tsianos and Papadopoulos this emerges in the radicalisation of everyday life that threatens to connect a politics of events beyond the traditional forms of the party and the trades unions. As the everyday is folded into the logic of capital, and the everyday is subsumed within the discipline of debt and the apparent foreclosure of the possibilities for an enhanced standard of living for us all, then the everyday becomes a space in which revolt can emerge.

But how is this critique to be developed inside the very heart of the struggle against capitalist social relations and power? Holloway notes:

For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

Holloways argues that we cannot live in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives. He argues for the positive creativity that emerges from the negativity of critique and from our “refusal of capital”. In this we must recuperate doing, as opposed to capitalist labour, and to develop our shared power-to create the world, rather than simply to maximise profit. Holloway argues that we must fight capital’s negation of our power-to create the world through its alienation of ourselves from our work, by its commodification and expropriation of our labour (in de Peuter and Dyer-Witheford’ term “boundary-less toil”), or by its denial of our sociality through enforced or enclosed individuation. We see this in our awakening to the precarious nature of labour in the face of capital’s need to reproduce increases in the rate of profit. This can be achieved for instance by the discipline of the threat of dead labour embodied in machines, or by the capture of our everyday existence in immaterial labour or cognitive work, or by increased financialisation. (Paul Mason’s blog tracks how politicians are now desperately embroiled in keeping the neoliberal show on the road.)

Thus, pace Marx, we argue for association and assembly in describing new, co-operative patch-works of social doing/creating that are not in the name of capitalist work; which challenge capitalist work and its boundary-less exploitation as the main organising principle of our lives. Following Marx, it is through association that Holloway argues for the creation and sharing of social forms that articulate our doing and making of the world, and which dissolve our current power relations into the fabric of new assemblies, and thereby work to negate our reification or fetishising of established forms and practices.

Being against established forms is central in Holloway’s argument for revolutionary activity that centres on the denial or negation of identities forged and fetishised inside capital’s structures, including Universities. The idea is to promote “creative uncertainty against-in-and-beyond a closed, pre-determined world [my emphasis].” In this we move towards a world of disjuncture, disunity, discontinuity, where doing inside capitalism becomes riskier as the repetitive, precarious nature of its alienation and dehumanisation is revealed. This revelation is a recognition that denying capital’s power-over our lives is a possibility, and that revolt against its subsumption of our lives to the profit motive and the rule of money is a possibility. At issue is a move towards “an anti-politics of events rather than a politics of organisation” based on an individual’s or a class’s subjective power-over others. As Marx argued in the Collected Works (Volume 3):

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth… The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life…

A note on higher education, higher learning and an exodus from capital

I would like to make a point about the role of higher education and those who exist within or connected to higher education in this process of creating a species-life. We might open this out by taking Holloway’s starting point about the state [quoted above], and thinking about the University.

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

Whether or not we agree with Holloway’s point about the state’s implications in the maintenance of a capitalist order, we have seen capital’s increasing control over higher education in the United Kingdom through the Coalition Government’s shock doctrine. The ideological, political drive towards, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing means that the University has little room for manoeuvre in resisting the enclosing logic of competition and in arguing for a socialised role for higher education. This means that the internal logic of the University is prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships.

It might then be argued that within the University there is little space to contest the logic of capitalist work and its denial of possibilities; that there is little opportunity for the world turned upside down, where we can create a world that is, in Christopher Hill’s words, populated by “masterless men”. 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 ontological critique, or where we can renew histories of denial and revolt, and where new stories can be told, against 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, when we are sold pedagogies of student-as-consumer, is reflected by the spaces that academics take up within and against the neoliberal university. These are often incubated within the symbolic space of the University and revealed in boundary-less toil beyond the borders of higher education. In these sets of actions, incubated inside the University, the symbolic possibilities of higher education might be dissolved in the form of mass intellectuality or higher learning or excess within the 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 might contribute to a transfomatory praxis.

The notion of exodus is important here, as a form of dissent , revolt or rebellion against capital’s exploitation of the entirety of social life (witness working from home, playbor in games-based industries, Facebook and Google’s subsumption of our identities for further accumulation, or the enclosure of the open web for profit). Within this subsumption, immaterial labour forms “the labor that produces the informational, cultural, or affective element of the commodity.” Thus, the fetishisation of personalisation, of self-branding, of the technologies we connect through, risks the commodification of each and every action we take in the world. However, this connected web of social relations also offers a crack through which we might oppose the domination of capital over our existence. In Empire, Hardt and Negri argue that an association of the multitude, of interconnected oppositional groups that are able to share stories of oppression or austerity or hope or history using a variety of events and spaces, offers the opportunity for multiple protagonists to push for more democratic deployment of global resources. Virno goes further to argue that the very automation that capital develops in order to discipline and control labour makes possible an exodus from the society of capitalist work through the radical redisposal of the surplus time that arises as an outcome of that automation, alongside the ways in which different groups can interconnect in that surplus time.

Academics then have an important role in critiquing the potentialities for an exodus away from the society of capitalist work. In his work on Digital Diploma Mills, Noble argued against the conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and hence private property. In this he saw virtualisation driven by the commodification of teaching and the creation of commercially-viable, proprietary products that could be marketised. The usual capitalist processes of deskilling and automation, and proletarianisation of labour are at the core of this process. Noble argues against the surrender of pedagogic control, and for what Neary has highlighted to be a pedagogy of excess, through which academics and students might engage “in various forms of theoretical and practical activity that [take] them beyond the normal limits of what is meant by higher education. It is the notion of students becoming more than students through a radical process of revelation”. This is an attempt to fight against the compression of academic space by automated time, to widen that space for communal activity that is not driven by money and proletarianisation.

This activist engagement beyond the borders of higher education is a reminder of the history of the struggle of Italian workerism in the 1960s and 1970s. It also connects to current calls for people to stand on solid ground collectively in protest against the excesses of transnational financial capital, and the austerity measures that are catalysing protest beyond the normative structures of trades unions and labour parties. It is in this set of spaces that academics and students might have a borderless role to play, as evidenced as follows.

  1. In the people and networks participating in the 15s hub, against austerity policies that are an attack on the working class and the common wealth. Academics have taken a leading role in these networks, in inscribing and defining new possibilities.
  2. In the range of radical academic projects in the UK that are an attempt to re-inscribe the perception of higher education as higher learning within the fabric of society, so as to imagine something new. In some cases these projects are working politically to re-define issues of power. In most cases they see the institution of the school or the university as symbolically vital to a societal transformation. They form a process of re-imagination that risks fetishisation or reification of radical education, but which offers a glimpse of a different process. This glimpse shines a light on the University as one node in a global web of social relations, and one which enables borderless doing.
  3. Rethinking in public the role of academics in society, or the direct engagement of nerds, geeks, experts, mentors, whatever, in the wider fabric of society, facilitated through social media but realised in concrete experiences on solid ground. Thus:
    • Ben Goldacre argues that *we* “should be showing kids how to extract meaning from the noise of large datasets, by showing them how to do simple stuff”;
    • Tony Hirst argues for “the ‘production in presentation’ delivery of an informal open ‘uncourse’” where production-in-public is the central organising theme, and where “By embedding resources in the target community, we aim to enhance the practical utility of the resources within that community as well as providing an academic consideration of the issues involved”;
    • Dave Cormier scopes an ontological crisis in the educational system, and revisits a rhizomatic approach to learning in order to engage with “the kinds of societal questions i would like to think our education system could prepare us for”;
    • Doug Belshaw raises the possibility for badges to be potentially revolutionary through their “peer-to-peer element”;
    • Change MOOCs offer the possibility of co-operative teaching and study in public;
    • Princeton University actively promotes open access, in order to stop staff handing all copyright to journals, thus opening-up access to its research and practices, whilst Martin Weller argues for an open digital scholarship that will “allow for greater impact than traditional scholarly practices.”

This is not to state that these practices are overtly political or boundary-less, but that they offer a way of re-framing the relationships between academics and the public in an age of crisis. For example, it may be that it is the formation of social relationships, and the concomitant re-formation of value, in the process of creating and sharing badges that is transformatory. It is the critique of commodified accreditation within higher education catalysed by badges as a form o open, higher learning, which makes them important. This stands against the potential reification, privatisation and commodification of badges and their owners as things. It may be that teaching-in-public, or digital scholarship, is re-politicized as a form of active engagement between students, teachers and people in spaces of dissent or protest, in order to underpin new workerist revolts. It may be that these strands form a pedagogy of academic activism, connected to a philosophy of exodus from the daily re-enclosure of capital.

These reflections on the interstices between academic and public, and between accreditation and informal learning, and between the private and the co-operative are surrounded by political tensions, and culturally replicated structures of power. Any process of academic activism demands academic reflexivity in understanding how academic power impacts the processes of assembly and association and historical critique. One of the criticisms levelled at our understandings of the “Arab Spring”, for instance, was against academic tourists presenting as “Western ‘experts’ who jet in and jet out”, and base their work on their identity under capitalist work. The Autonomous Geographies Collective raised this challenge in engaging co-operatively with meaningful participation in social change, rather than parasitically exploiting the protest of peoples against the expropriation of their lives.

Thus, in the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity, as the neoliberal response to the latest crisis of capitalism, academics need to 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 a re-formation of their webs of social interaction? How do students and teachers contribute to workerist and public dissent against domination and foreclosure? David Harvey notes in his Companion to Capital, Volume 1, that Marx is interested in processes of transformation, and more importantly in the revolutionary transformation of society. This transformation overthrows the capitalist value-form in the construction of an alternative value-structure, and an alternative value-system that does not have the specific character of that achieved under capitalism. At issue is “to find an alternative value-form that will work in terms of the social reproduction of society in a different image.” We might, then, consider how do students and teachers dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation?