An informal reading group met last night to discuss Niall Ferguson’s Reith Lectures. The general consensus was that the lectures represent a crisis of hegemonic neoliberalism, with a picture being created of the structures of political and civil society being re-geared for the maintenance of established power relations that are fashioned inside capital. Inside this picture there is no possibility to see beyond determinist ends as Ferguson presents assertions as fact in a rhetorical blaze.
However, the arrow of the evening pointed towards the idea of academic labour in the current crisis, and in particular towards the following questions.
- What is the role of the academic in a world that is being refashioned by rent-seeking elites who are energising what Žižek has described as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”: ecological distress (impending ecological catastrophes); economic distress (the global financial meltdown); biological distress (the biogenetic revolution and its impact on human identity); and social distress (social divisions leading to the explosion of protest and revolutions worldwide).
- What is the role of the academic in the face of issues of intergenerational justice, or the compact between present and future? These are not simply confined to debts securitised against futures as yet unknown or unborn, in order to pay down our present economic crisis. They are also issues of future access to liquid fuel resources upon which economic growth is predicated and the ability to emit carbon without being poisoned by past emissions. Intergenerational justice is a function of the social pressures that might be brought to bear upon the economic/environmental injustices bequeathed upon our children through greed.
- What is the role of the academic in contesting a world that produces a semi-enslaved labour force, through precarity, indentured wage labour, the threat of unemployment, technological surveillance, strike-breaking or the politics of austerity? In the face of the global collapse in real wages and the proportion of global wealth owned by labour, as opposed to capital, what is the purpose of a higher education framed by employability?
- What is the role of the academic in the face of securitised socio-economic institutions, and the imperative to maintain the increase in the rate of profit, which then underpins structural readjustment policies? How might the academic act against capital’s demand for reduced circulation time in the generation and exchange of securitised commodities, based in-part on technological innovation and in-part on the collapse of risk inside those securitised commodities?
- What is the role of the academic in the face of the hegemonic power of undemocratic, transnational activist networks of finance capital, think tanks, politicians etc.? What is the role of the academic in making a case for reality against theses for finance capital, supported by groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, where the means of production and forces of production are outsourced in order to maximise the rate of profit and value extraction from labour?
- What is the role of the academic in the face of the hidden fist of the State that protects the hidden hand of the market? Friedman argues that: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. Markets function and flourish only when property rights are secured and can be enforced, which, in turn, requires a political framework protected and backed by military power… the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
- What is the role of the academic in the face of growth that is increasingly being re-spun from credit, witnessed in QE3, and which is unsustainable and lethal to the needs of labour?
- What is the role of the academic in the face of conservative politicians who would define the law in the name of private property, rather than human rights? How do academics act against this anti-democracy that seeks a context for property rights that underpins unfettered competition, securitisation and marketisation?
- What is the role of the academic where the threat of national defaults in Spain and Greece are presented as a threat to global order? How do academics engage with the mechanics of control imposed by a transnational troika, but which might in-turn be an emancipatory moment for social movements inside those states? How do academics assess the social movements that are generated from protest against austerity, to present democratic alternatives and spaces for manoeuvre? Where are the spaces inside higher education for understanding and engaging with social forces that have historically been the catalyst for democratic change, rather than a supposedly benign bourgeoisie? How might students be involved in this process?
- What is the role of the academic in arguing for a resilient education that is diverse, modular and connected into feedback mechanisms? How does this enable universities to become sites where students come to understand the objective conditions that exist inside capitalism? How does this enable students to overcome the truisms that surround the idea of student-as-consumer, in which the driver is developing the individuated skills of the entrepreneur? The risk in the separation and individuation of students-as-entrepreneurs is that the responsibility for failure is handed to the individual rather than being collectively/socially negotiated and owned.