On carbon democracy and the future of higher education

PART ONE: on oil and capitalism

In a paper on Carbon Democracy, Tim Mitchell, historian at Columbia University argues that the production and maintenance of democracy, and the bodies that encompass civil and political society in the global North, have been underwritten on the assumption that unlimited and relatively cheap oil will produce endless economic growth. He concludes that this model, and therefore the institutions that support actually existing liberal democracy in the global North cannot survive the exhaustion of these fuels and associated climate change. In this, his work connects to that of Friedrichs, who suggests that in terms of state-wide responses to peak oil there would be different reactions in different parts of the world, ranging from predatory militarism to authoritarian retrenchment and the mobilization of local resilience. It also extends recent International Monetary Fund work that connects the geological and technological limits on oil production:

our prediction of small further increases in world oil production comes at the expense of a near doubling, permanently, of real oil prices over the coming decade. This is uncharted territory for the world economy, which has never experienced such prices for more than a few months… we suspect that there must be a pain barrier, a level of oil prices above which the effects on GDP becomes nonlinear, convex. We also suspect that the assumption that technology is independent of the availability of fossil fuels may be inappropriate, so that a lack of availability of oil may have aspects of a negative technology shock. In that case the macroeconomic effects of binding resource constraints could be much larger, more persistent, and they would extend well beyond the oil sector.

Mitchell extends the space in which technological, geological and political economic limits or boundaries to the production, distribution and consumption of cheap oil affect the political functioning of capitalism. Thus, he

traces ways in which the concentration and control of energy flows could open up democratic possibilities or close them down; how in the postwar period connections were engineered between the flow of oil and the flows of international finance, on which democratic stability was thought to depend; how these same circulations made possible the emergence of the economy and its unlimited growth as the main object of democratic politics; and how the relations among forms of energy, finance, economic knowledge, democracy, and violence were transformed in the 1967-74 oil-dollar-Middle East crises.

The idea that our histories of access to and control over fossil fuels are deeply connected to the ways in which the institutions of political and civil society developed is important, not only in helping us to see the limits of our democratic institutions, but also in helping us to visualise the ways in which network infrastructures or networks of governance are used to amplify structural, hegemonic power. For Mitchell the key to developing the idea of ‘the economy’ and of creating finance structures that could be de-coupled from gold in order to maintain the value of the dollar and the power of the United States of America was control over energy.

The carbon itself must be transformed, beginning with the work done by those who bring it out of the ground. The transformations involve establishing connections and building alliances—connections and alliances that do not respect any divide between material and ideal, economic and political, natural and social, human and nonhuman, or violence and representation. The connections make it possible to translate one form of power into another. Understanding the relations between fossil fuels and democracy requires tracing how these connections are built, the vulnerabilities and opportunities they create, and the narrow points of passage where control is particularly effective.

It is therefore important to understand both how specific, historical, energy-economies arise, and the limits that the connections, dependencies and networks of governance that are imposed in order to control those energy-economies by dominant classes. These classes impose control through arrangements of people, finance, expertise, and violence that are assembled in relationship to the distribution and control of energy. The actually existing institutions, values and cultures of civil society flow from that space.

However, it was the move away from coal and towards oil-based economies that enhanced the reality of network governance structures in supporting the power of established groups, because

whereas the movement of coal tended to follow dendritic networks, with branches at each end but a single main channel, creating potential choke points at several junctures, oil flowed along networks that often had the properties of a grid, like an electrical grid, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of energy can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns.

On one level, oil made power more resilient because of changes in the way forms of fossil fuel energy were extracted, transported, and used. Grid-like energy networks are less vulnerable to the political claims, strikes or the withdrawals of labour of those whose work kept them running. However, this dynamic fluidity in the production and distribution of oil was problematic for corporations with global ambitions but with localised control. If oil could move along pipelines or by sea relatively easily, then ‘petroleum companies were always vulnerable to the arrival of cheaper oil from elsewhere.’ For Mitchell this vulnerability, and the mechanisms imposed by cartels or states for the production of scarcity, like post-war subsidies to Saudi Arabia from the USA, and building domestic markets in the USA based on cheapoil, set further limits to the democratising potential of petroleum.

For Mitchell, it is the perceived democratising potential of petroleum that is key. Access to cheap oil underpinned the dollar and the US economy following the 1967-74 economic crisis, and subsequent narratives of economic control took no account of carbon emissions or renewal and retrieval rates for oil fields or of peak oil. Thus, consumers in the global North were promised a deterministic, progressive future. Oil enabled the global economy to be de-coupled from material production, and to become transactional and inflationary.

Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth. This horizon was not some natural reflection of a time of plenty. It was the result of a particular way of organizing expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called “the economy.” Innovations in methods of calculation, the use of money, the measurement of transactions, and the compiling of national statistics made it possible to image the central object of politics as an object that could expand without any form of ultimate material constraint. In the 1967-74 crisis, the relations among these disparate elements were all transformed. Those relations are being transformed again in the present.

In 1975, Robert Tucker, a Sovietologist at Princeton University who had argued for US isolationism, was quoted in a Congressional report on Oil Fields as Military Objectives: A Feasibility Study as questioning how US cultural power in the world could be maintained without wider military engagements that supported its political hegemony.

Even the few among us who have argued for a radical contraction of America’s interests and commitments have done so on the assumption that the consequences of an American withdrawal would not be a world in which America’s political and economic frontiers were coterminous with her territorial frontiers, and in which societies that share our cultures, institutions, and values might very possibly disappear.

Here then the realities of geopolitical power were amplified through the control of oil and further impacted cultural power and economic security. This is also a key point of Mitchell’s analysis: the collision of peak oil, high energy prices that are affecting economic growth in the global North, and the deleveraging of the transactional economy are all underpinning a new politics of austerity that reframes democracy and democratic institutions, as well as the institutions of civil society, like schools and universities.

If the emergence of the mass politics of the early twentieth century, out of which certain sites and episodes of welfare democracy were achieved, should be understood in relation to coal, the limits of contemporary democratic politics can be traced in relation to oil. The possibility of more democratic futures, in turn, depends on the political tools with which we address the passing of the era of fossil fuel.

PART TWO: on dynamic energy-economies, educational networks, and universities

This argument about the implications of oil shocks on democratic institutions is important for educators because it acts as a rejoinder to accepted narratives of: there is no alternative to economic growth; or that the University must be a seat of entrepreneurialism and employability; or that higher education is simply a motor for economic growth. It forces us to question whether, inside a world of reducing access to cheap, liquid fuels, what kinds of educational futures that are defined by neoliberal capitalism are viable? However, it is also important for educators because it offers a model of analysis for the relationships between: capital as a social relationship; sites of energy production and distribution; governance networks; and structural constraints on the flows of capital and power. This model might work as well for education as it does for energy.

Thus, rather than talk about corporations controlling the flows of oil through technologies for its production, distribution and consumption, educators might reflect upon the mechanisms through which flows of intellectual capital are being privatised, and the ways in which knowledge is being commodified through governance networks like MOOCs. I noted previously in a post on networks, the rate of profit and institutionalising MOOCs that

In this argument the network is placed asymmetrically against the realities of hegemonic power that is catalysed and reproduced in the political and economic centralisation that is so characteristic of crisis-prone capitalist modernity. The reactions of central governments and finance capital to the post-2008 crisis bear witness to this process. For Davies then, the research evidence in the public policy, sociology and public administration spheres point to the fact that

‘coercion is the immanent condition of consent inherent in capitalist modernity. As long as hegemony is partial and precarious, hierarchy can never retreat to the shadows. This dialectic plays out in the day-to-day politics of governance networks through the clash between connectionist ideology and roll-forward hierarchy or “governmentalisation”.’

Technologies are central in this clash, for whilst it is possible for some people to connect globally and ubiquitously, those same technologies form the medium of hierarchical power. The challenge then becomes to analyse how those technologies interact with the everyday reality of interpersonal connections, and to uncover the power relations that they embody. Critically this is a historical project, because network governance theory misreads past and present, ignores that networks are prone to resolving into hierarchies and incremental closure, that they reproduce and crystallise inequalities, and that distrust is common. In this way, the emergence of technologically-mediated network governance enables capital to develop and enculturate ideal neoliberal subjects.

Thus inside and against the university, and inside and beyond the network, there is a move away from higher education being state/publically-funded, state/publically-governed and state/publically-regulated, so that the knowledges, services and structures of universities in the global North are set-up in competition and are being privatised. Alongside this approach, techniques of control and surveillance like student satisfaction scores and research excellence frameworks begin the process of disciplining academic labour and controlling the scarcity or abundance of academic knowledge.

However, as with access to the distribution of energy and fossil fuels, points of vulnerability for existing, ruling groups also exist. Inside the increasingly privatised higher education space, where those existing groups are crystallised inside established universities, those vulnerabilities based on price, value and the rate of profit are realised: in private providers like BPP who are able to offer lower-cost, marketised experiences; inside publishing corporations like Pearson who control access to a range of content and draw-down on a range of analytics and market capitalisation to drive their market share; and inside educational innovations like MOOCs which appear to act like dynamic systems able to channel knowledge against slower-moving, institutionalised spaces.

This latter point seems important in light of Mitchell’s argument about why oil enabled capital to discipline labour and extend the consumer economy, through its fluidity and dynamism, as opposed to the less resilient (from capital’s perspective) coal-based economy. Pace Mitchell one might argue that

whereas the movement of [intellectual capital inside universities] tended to follow dendritic networks, with branches at each end but a single main channel, creating potential choke points at several junctures, [intellectual capital beyond the university] flowed along networks that often had the properties of a grid, like an electrical grid, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of [intellectual capital] can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns.

This is not to fetishise MOOCs or academic networks or academic commons as the antithesis of traditional institutions, in their ability to work in agile and innovative ways. My point is to question whether allegedly network-driven innovations like MOOCs, at whatever scale, are perceived to be ways of overcoming perceived blockages in the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge, or social or intellectual capital. In this scenario they would form separate mechanisms, beyond special purpose vehicles or private think tanks that directly partner with universities, through which established corporations could partner or sponsor or underwrite knowledge creation in the public domain. The rationale for so-doing would be to co-opt proprietary knowledge from which rents could be taken later or to promote further a specific, neoliberal cultural discourse. Witness the sponsorship of specific MOOCs by particular corporations or philanthrocapitalist foundations.

Where the infrastructures to create such proprietary knowledge lie inside the University, for example inside high performance teams or in high technology laboratories, then the incentives are threefold: firstly, to partner with universities to crack open the space inside which such knowledge is created so that it can be commodified; secondly, the privatised service-industries that lie beyond the university operate as a disciplinary mechanism on those academic workers with commodity or leveraged skills, like those in professional services or in programming or management, as work can always be outsourced or wages reduced; and thirdly, educational or governance networks offer a mechanism for the relatively cheap acquisition of those commodity or leveraged skills. Thus, one positive side-effect for capital as it operates inside and against the university as a publically-regulated and funded space is in the use of these mechanisms for the extraction of value that has been historically and socially accrued through taxation and public governance. Alongside the threats posed to the idea of the university from external educational networks like MOOCs and waves of outsourcing, the threat that social and intellectual capital might also be produced or distributed beyond the University acts as a disciplinary mechanism inside it.

PART THREE: demonstrating for the University

Thus, a set of contradictions is revealed between: intellectual or academic networks and institutions; the material reality of the university and the ideal, public state accorded to it historically; the imposed economic realities of austerity politics and the democratic ideals of academic labour; and the coercion/violence of the state and the university as a space for democratic and public representation. However, we are witnessing a crisis of education inside neoliberal capitalism. This is represented by a clash between an education that is/was framed in terms of public, networked and civic ideals, and the idea of the neoliberal subject, educated through debt with accreditation as a form of individuated accumulation. This forms, as Winternitz noted:

an expression of the underlying basic contradiction of capitalist society; the social character of production and the private character of appropriation and consequently the tendency of boundless, rapid expansion of production on the one hand, the limitations of consumption on the other hand.

The internal contradictions involved in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall find their expression in crises. As a space previously free from the impact of that crisis, higher education now forms a space inside which it might be resolved through privatisation, indenture and commodification. One might go further to argue that in the same way that the crises of the twentieth century were aggravated by the power of monopoly capitalism in controlling basic raw materials, like coal, oil, iron and steel, there is a perceived crisis inside neoliberal capitalism that relates to the control of intellectual capital by universities rather than corporations or entrepreneurs. In order to overcome the barriers to the reproduction of intellectual capital, governments need to create a market for higher education that can overcome or drive down monopoly prices.

Thus, it is possible to view internationalisation agendas or the use of open education projects, either as catalysts for the creation of new markets for the intellectual capital and knowledge produced in the North, or as responses to the slackening of the accumulation of capital in the global North, or as responses to the growing pressure to export capital to/from the global South. This might include the outputs of open education where it catalyses new markets or demand for products and services through which the rate of profit can be maintained. Therefore, enclosing the global South inside the neoliberal education project also enables capital to fight against the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, through outsourcing, the reduction of costs of production, and in the struggle for new markets. However, in so-doing it intensifies those contradictions which catalyse systemic crises. As Marx noted capitalism’s tendency to crisis becomes deeper and more violent as the contradictions and complexities of capitalist production grow. As Winternitz argued

The cure of the evil is not to stop or to retard the development of productive forces, but so to change the basis of economic life that the satisfaction of the needs of the people, instead of capitalist profit, becomes the driving and regulating principle.

At issue then is how to take those open education projects or internationalisation agendas or the work of high performing teams or with high technologies inside the university and to make them public, beyond the rule of money. For Henry Giroux, this matters because our ‘new politics of disposability and culture of cruelty represents more than an economic crisis, it is also speaks to a deeply rooted crisis of education, agency, and social responsibility.’ How do we use the university and the academic labour that is undertaken inside and beyond a range of open/closed networks to do work in public, or to liberate intellectual capital as a form of mass intellectuality? In Raymond Williams’ terms this demands demonstrations. Linking to Mitchell’s questioning of whether we have the democratic structures to help us to manage the political crises that emerge from dislocations to our energy-economies, Williams argued that.

Demonstration then, though only one means, is a necessary response to a society of that kind, which builds official opinion on established lines, and which has reduced previous political channels to instruments or diversions. To go out and speak in one’s own terms, directly, has become a central political need, and it is, of course, a challenge which the system in the end knows it must take seriously… Under a strain like this, it’s time, not simply for those of us who are demonstrators, who want a new democratic politics, but for the society itself, a society more and more openly based on money and power, to change and be changed.

But how this might be effected? For demonstration demands political action in the world, and whilst Williams was arguing for his academic engagement for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, we might begin to discuss how inside-and-against the neoliberal university we demonstrate our ability to co-develop curricula that actively critique dominant narratives of economic growth. This might help to re-define the university or higher education as a state/publically-funded, regulated and governed set of spaces, which in turn support a wider, open educational agenda to dissolve knowledge into the fabric of society as a form of higher learning or mass intellectuality.

For Giroux’s this is pressing because ‘the commitment to democracy is beleaguered, viewed less as a crucial educational investment than as a distraction that gets in the way of connecting knowledge and pedagogy to the production of material and human capital.’ In Mitchell’s analysis this political role is more important because ‘The possibility of more democratic futures, in turn, depends on the political tools with which we address the passing of the era of fossil fuel.’  However, Giroux also holds one of the possibilities for radical change, through the connections between educational institutions and networks that are founded on critical pedagogy. He states ‘Such democratic public spheres are especially important at a time when any space that produces “critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question” is under siege by powerful economic and political interests.’ Thus

Connective practices are key: it is crucial to develop intellectual practices that are collegial rather than competitive, refuse the instrumentality and privileged isolation of the academy, link critical thought to a profound impatience with the status quo, and connect human agency to the idea of social responsibility and the politics of possibility… This is a message we heard from the brave students fighting tuition hikes and the destruction of civil liberties and social provisions in Quebec and to a lesser degree in the Occupy Wall Street movement. If educators are to function as public intellectuals, they need listen to young people all over the world who are insisting that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they say and do counts in their struggle to unlearn dominating privileges, productively reconstruct their relations with others, and transform, when necessary, the world around them. Simply put, educators need to argue for forms of pedagogy that close the gap between the university and everyday life.

The university, educational networks and the broader domain of higher education are critical sites of hegemonic power, and critical spaces in which we might develop counter-narratives that speak of a renewed civil society in the face of peak oil and climate change. How we engage academics, student and citizens inside and beyond higher education must form part of a broader emancipatory discourse. We need to find mechanisms for developing a mass intellectuality that might help us co-operatively to address Mitchell’s fundamental questions, which themselves supersede the neoliberal discourse of economic growth.

PART FOUR: postscript

This is why I will be marching for the alternative on October 20, 2012.


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