A note on academic activism, hyper-neoliberalism and the problem of power and consent

In her seminar on “Diagnosing the contemporary: prolific activism, hyper-neoliberalism and the problem of power and consent”, Janet Newman drew on her research into feminist critiques of the ideology and practices of neoliberalism, in order to challenge the realities of academic activism. I have blogged before about academic activism, in particular connected to the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity and the possibilities of exodus, and the types of radical spaces that the University might open up. However, Newman’s work demonstrated how, within the overarching re-formation of capital under neoliberal doctrine, it is the similarities across disparate positions that are in-and-against that re-formation, which offer spaces and possibilities to move beyond them.

In Holloway’s terms Newman’s work on critique and criticality from the perspective of gender politics is one of those cracks in the productive relations defined by capitalism, which itself needs to be connected to other stories or cracks that reveal the everyday and historical injustices of the politics of austerity and our polyarchic state apparatus. One of Newman’s key points was how to create spaces and places through which mappings between community activist and academic positions could emerge, and thereby lead to new analyses and actions. These spaces are crucial because they enable communities, or networks, or society to test what Stuart Price calls “truth claims in a story world”, like the idea that there is no alternative.

So, Newman highlighted a conceptual analysis of positions based on the experiences of women who have brought personal and political commitments into their working lives, in particular since the New Labour project. Her work highlighted the following themes/issues/possibilities that emerged on the boundaries between academic/activist positions.

  1. Mechanisms through which both academics and activists can confront power.
  2. Ways in which critical engagements, including knowledge work, could be developed.
  3. Spaces for close encounters with those who act as/for monitoring power (ostensibly based around financial power and efficiency).
  4. Revealing the mechanisms and strategies through which activist/minority/dissenting discourses are appropriated/incorporated by those in power, as a form of undoing. In this way radical or marginalised positions are neutralised in the process of co-option or are de-legitimised or even erased.
  5. The need for an on-going focus on relational positions or relationships, rather than transactions between groups or communities or individuals.

This final point seems to me critical in the approach of the occupy movement, or the flowering of oppositional, free education movements. It connects deeply to the edufactory collective’s tripartite strategy for opposing the restrictions and enclosure of academic practices imposed by neoliberal educational policy, namely: for a new educational politics based on the general assembly; for militant research strategies; and for activity in public. Newman also revealed a similar position in calling for a new constituency of activist academic positions that can hold politicians to account. She argued for: making our collective work visible; for engaging in public conversations; and for generative labour, or doing new things. This, for her, was a move to connect critique and criticality to our everyday practices.

I am left, therefore, with a deepening sense of the strands/cracks of continuity across stories. Moreover, there is the revelation that these strands/cracks are enabling us to recognise the ideological impact of austerity and neoliberal dogma on the possibility that we might become subjects in our own lives. There is the possibility that in the spaces opened up in occupation, we might form counter-narratives or counter-hegemonic positions. The stakes in this discussion are high: not only do we face socio-environmental crises, but the coercive state is being revealed on a daily basis, in the attacks on welfare, the militarisation of the police, in increasing authoritarianism around the Olympic Games etc..

However, we see in opposition to coercion more than simply hope; we see courage being revealed and the possibility that subject positions might be recuperated and that new spaces/places might be opened up across civil society. Richard Murphy reminds us of this in his work on the courageous state; and we are reminded of this courage in the worker/student actions of Tent City University, and the Space Project, and students at UC Berkeley, and Occupy Oakland, and student protests in Santiago, and Turin, and Dhaka, and at University College London, and Kent State University, and Manila, as well as in Venture Communes, and beyond. This mapping of political, scholarly, historical activism enables us to discuss what might be recuperated by us against the incorporation of dissent inside the dominant narrative. Moreover, this discussion enables us to keep each other’s narratives alive in the face of coercive power, and more importantly enables the legitimisation of our alternative narratives in the face of the de-politicisation imposed inside polyarchy.

So we might then ask how do we escalate dissent beyond the individual cracks shown by our own narratives? How do we join our dissenting narratives, our hopes for alternative possibilities, into something new? How do our local positions scale, so that the coercive power of the state can be critiqued and alternatives debated? And what is the role of academics as activists in that critique? In part, I think, this is a process of finding the courage to move beyond hope. To accept that there is no hope for/from a better capitalism, and that we need the courage to debate and try something new. This is what I take from a re-reading of the zero percent and the call to occupy everything, in the search for an alternative that is not simply in-and-against capital, but that wishes to move beyond it.

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