A note on technologies for control, systemic violence and the militarisation of higher education

In their review of militarism and education normal, Meiners and Quinn argue that there is a three-fold mechanism by which public education in the United States is shaped through hegemonic militarisation: by offering a perception of choice to those denied any such choice as a result of their socio-economic status – where enlisting is an institutionalised way out of poverty and is catalysed through connections between education and the military; by serving as a catalyst for innovation and change in the forms of education, through taking-over schools/colleges and militarising the curriculum; and by using the vast revenues devolved to the military for research inside education. This latter point is critical for these authors when they turn their gaze to higher education.

[M]ilitarization, according to researchers, asymmetrically shapes contemporary higher education, channeling resources to sub-fields within science, engineering, mathematics, and particular areas of linguistic and political inquiry, while the remaining disciplines—art and humanities, in particular—receive no military dollars.

The interaction between the military and the pedagogies of/curriculum for technology is not new. Beyond the neuroses of the battle for education inside the Cold War, Dyer Witheford and de Peuter have argued in Games of Empire that the production of games like America’s Army and the development of augmented/virtual spaces in partnerships between the military and university knowledge labs enable capital to leverage the power of the state to ‘reassert, rehearse and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen’. With a focus on the marketing of the game Full Spectrum Warrior, they highlight how curricula designed around the cultures of game production, as well as the processes/relationships of modding and hacking, demand “the total obedience of the culture industry to the protocols of the War on Terror – its immediate ingestion and reproduction of the state’s paranoias”, and that“new kinds of militarized formats” fuse “technological innovation and the erotic charge of combat” in “renewed, compulsive militarization”. Such compulsive militarisation is made manifest in the connections that emerge between firstly the virtual frontline, secondly coding and narrative and design inside/beyond the classroom, and thirdly the living room as space for play.

The ways in which the interplay between formal/informal spaces for educational engagement and the neoliberal development of curricula enables societies of control to emerge, is also seen in the normalisation of technologies for the management of risk and in promoting the idea of acceptable, business-like performance/attitudes in students and teachers. Here the demand to maintain the duality of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen results in the development and use of technologies for systemic violence through control. Thus, in the physical campus we see the increased use of kettling and a para-militarised response to dissent, with little opposition offered by institutional senior managers or staff. The classic example in the global North lies in the student protests and occupations at UC-Berkeley in 2011, which 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. However, the global South has also born witness to widespread use of military force/technologies in the spaces around campuses and student life, as witnessed in Chile. The result is the enforcement of consent through coercion, and a diminution/marginalisation of the space for alternative narratives to develop.

In part, the use of force on campus enables corporations to overcome the attrition on the rate of profit that emerges from the unnecessary circulation time of immaterial commodities like credit default swaps realised as student loan debts, and in part it enables the State to discipline the thinking/actions of those citizens who feel that they might be anything other than those twin subjectivities. As the interplay between subject-identities and the system is normalised and structured through debt, those identities/attitudes/actions are controlled and managed through the mining of data and an obsession with analytics. Surveillance and monitoring become means by which technologies can be used to effect biopolitical power, or the subsumption of individual wills to the creation of value. Thus, the use of management data to normalise and marginalise, and therefore overcome the risk inherent in the use of debt/future earnings/labour to secure an increase in the rate of profit, is key. Debt-fuelled economic growth demands that the management of risk, including the risk that students might be other than businesslike, should be controlled. Anything that is seen as abnormal in this space is disciplined. Such discipline includes use of physical force by paramilitary police on campus, but it extends beyond this, to the increasing homogenisation of campus-based or institutional technologies through public/private partnerships, and the refusal to support marginalised innovations, often located in open source communities. The physical space is coerced and enclosed, in order that capital can legitimise the extraction of value from the virtual.

However, even those more marginal spaces risk replicating the systemic inequalities and acts of violence that are catalysed by hegemonic positions. As Hoofdargues, all forms of activism/innovation risk their own subsumption inside structural regimes of domination. In fact

the current mode of [neo-liberal] late-capitalism relies on the continuous extension and validation of the infrastructure and the optimistic discourses of the new information technologies. Discourses that typically get repeated in favour of what I designate as the emerging speed-elite are those of connection, instantaneity, liberation, transformation, multiplicity and border crossing

Thus, even those educators who claim to be hacking or co-creating or accelerating ‘new spaces’, or personal learning environments/MOOCs as opposed to institutionalised systems, are operating inside structures which were created with the goal of facilitating global capitalism and its elites, and “that allow for the on-going perfection of military power through technologies of surveillance”. Whether such surveillance takes place in institutional or personal or massively-open learning environments is irrelevant when it is performed inside the totalising logic of capital. Thus, Hoofd argues that “The idea that subjectivities from social movements are in any way less produced by neo-liberal globalisation is highly problematic.” For Hoofd, these movements might form the collective opposition realised in the EduFactory, but her concerns might also be extended to those radical education projects discussing an exodus from formal higher education, or those communities and networks engaged in innovations against the grain of the institution. Without a structural critique that ‘outs power’ as decisions are made, the systemic violence and alienation enacted in the name of capital cannot be escaped. This makes the co-option of educational performance by the state for control or for violence or by the military a normalised outcome. 

Thus, education and educational innovation/transformation is folded inside a discourse that threatens alienation and violence, in the name of value and the reproduction of established, hegemonic positions of power. It is inside this connected set of spaces that the connections between the military, the market/corporations and public education needs to be discussed. If we are really for education as transformation there is no ignoring of the ramifications of:

  1. the recent discussion of the relationship between DARPA, hackerspaces and schools;

  2. the neoliberal networks that connect Blackboard to the Pentagon;

  3. the neoliberal networks that connect Pearson to the US Department of Defense through educational innovation and assessment, and then to its own policy think tanks that are setting an agenda for educational marketisation;

  4. the connections between hacking competitions, education departments and national security, and the co-option of hacking as a pedagogy of/curriculum for control;

  5. the use by Universities of drones, through which The Salon reports connections between the U.S. military, academic research, and defence contractors;

  6. public/private partnerships in the UK that focus upon wireless video surveillance;

  7. the deep connections between the military and research inside UK universities; and

  8. the disconnect between our activist promotion of technologies that are apparently transformative in the global North at the expense of their implication in war in the global South, like the Raspberry Pi.

Hersch, in her review of the ethics of university engagement with/research for the military, noted several preliminary conclusions.

  • Military research on offensive weapons is considerably more likely to contribute to reducing than increasing security.

  • By diverting resources from other areas, military research both distorts the research climate and balance between different subjects and reduces the resources available for creative holistic approaches to conflict resolution.

  • Banning military research is not counter to academic freedom, but such a ban would be difficult to achieve in the short term.

  • The resources associated with military research and the associated research climate may be impeding genuinely creative and innovative research, which often takes place at the boundaries.

  • Useful civilian spin-offs from military research is totally unfounded as a basis for justifying military research.

My contention is that we need to ask fundamental questions about the ways in which our educational spaces and the technologies we actively deploy inside them, contribute to: the normalised violence of coercion or control or marginalisation of students; or the militarisation of the physical spaces of our campuses; or the direct co-option of our own/our students’ immaterial labour in making stuff for the military. As the storify that describes one narrative of the connection between DARPA and Make notes, at issue is the possibility of creating non-militarised spaces that are not underpinned by systemic violence. As austerity bites and as the State, alongside transnational global capital, seeks to reinforce its control over the debt-fuelled obligations of its worker-consumers, the role of the University in applying a critique of the ways in which such control is engineered and our complicity in it has never been more necessary.


3 Responses to A note on technologies for control, systemic violence and the militarisation of higher education

  1. The links between the current “education reform” boom and the military-industrial complex worry me greatly. But how can we talk about them at a human level – too often it becomes a conspiracy theory rather than a call to action? I’m grappling with this because I want to write about it – but I’m not sure how to…

  2. I agree with David. It’s difficult to talk about this stuff without coming across as a bit mad and prone to paranoid delusions.

    What I *really* appreciate, Richard, is your overview, criticality and synthesis from a position (if I invoke the metaphor of the film ‘Inception’) that is several layers down.

    The problem to solve – and I really don’t know how to do this – is to surface these issues in a mainstream media environment that focuses on appearances to the exclusion of *actual* news.

  3. Pingback: some notes on academic co-option and exodus | Richard Hall's Space

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