Against a defensive lamentation for the University


In a recent critique of workfare, Aaron Peters connects its objective reality to the response of lamentation given by the TUC and the organised left. This response represents a refusal to use the very means by which capital is restructuring social production as a weapon against it. It represents a refusal by the left to do more than defend capitalist work or fight for less damaging working conditions. It represents the inability of the left to resist and push-back against capitalist work, in order to recover and reimagine the social content of labour. The response has been one of protecting rights related to work; not of defining rights beyond work. For Peters, this is also true of those more energetic struggles that are beyond marches for the alternative or for a future that works. Thus, the activism of the student movement, the pensions campaign and anti-Workfare campaigners has “undoubtedly been embedded within a defensive approach that has come to characterize anti-austerity struggles throughout the OECD.” This focuses upon minimising harm [fees], revealing perceived bad behaviour [tax avoidance], and legitimising certain forms of protest [occupation].

Critically, Peters then asks the following.

Responses such as the 2010 student movement and the backlash against workfare should have been fully expected. As welfare states and labour markets throughout the OECD are restructured over coming decade(s) in response to the Long Recession, defensive claims, objectives and strategies will almost inevitably be the basis from which action, successful or otherwise, will be catalysed. Is it sufficient to merely attempt to defend those post-war gains that have already been steadily eroded for three decades?

Is all we can hope for defence? Is all that we can legitimise, including higher education, defined by increasingly precarious capitalist work? Martin McQuillan enables us to connect this defensive pattern of behaviour to the ways in which students have been increasingly victimised by the State if they behave against a pre-defined role as indentured consumers of an education market. In commenting on the prosecution of students involved in protests, McQuillan notes:

what is clear from these trials, of which Meadows and King were the last to come to court, is that there has been a systematic attempt to prosecute young people with no criminal records, under the serious charge of violent disorder (carrying a sentence of up to five years) in the heightened venue of Crown courts, and at great expense, despite a lack of supporting evidence or likelihood of conviction. Excessive sentences have been dealt out for minor offences and the lives of many have been made miserable or even ruined by this pattern of victimisation. This has been done to send a message to the students of Britain not to protest against the new fees regime or any other related issue of intergenerational inequality.

Here defensive behaviours become normalised, because if you are to be disciplined by the State when you protest the increase in fees, the removal of Educational Maintenance Allowance, or the outsourcing of University services, from where will you find the courage to question the shackling of education inside neoliberal political structures? From where will you find the courage to develop and argue for alternatives? From where will you find the courage to debate alternatives that are against transnational capital’s hegemony over our existence?


Against this lack of agency, Peters then reminds us to imagine “What can be done, when nothing can be done?” He situates any analysis of this question against lamentation and despair and argues that we need to see policy and practice inside the everyday, material and ideological realities of austerity politics.

Workfare is a policy tool to recompose the UK labour market. However it is also clear that within workfare programs there is a kernel of truth which is neglected within the analysis of social democrats and those on the centre-left. It is unequivocally motivated by political spite and class hostility. More importantly however we must also understand it as a policy response to changed conditions of production (which themselves are a response to the as yet unsolved and merely deferred crisis of the mid-1970s) which will not disappear and will only continue to intensify.

We might substitute [the student fee regime] or [the marketization of higher education] for [workfare], and Peters is right in identifying that this is a process of restructuring for the accumulation of wealth will only continue to intensify. This is why purely defensive operations, carried out inside an increasingly globalised terrain, will continue to fail.

For McQuillan this means that academics need to find the courage to act in solidarity with young people because the history of higher education offers a critique of spaces for dissent, refusal and pushing back. The history of higher education offers-up a deeply politicised terrain inside-and-against which social change can be critiqued and alternatives developed. The immanence of marketization means that agency is co-opted inside new forms of social production and consumption, and subsumes the material identities of both the student and the academic inside the processes that reproduce historically-situated, capitalist inequality. For McQuillan, there are deep interconnections of historical agency, transformative values and solidarity, which need to be remembered by those who work inside the University.

the history of student protest has been overwhelmingly one of support for progressive causes: opposition to the Vietnam War and the campus shutdowns following the shooting of Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard in May 1970; the French General Strike of May 1968; the Athens Polytechnic protest in 1973 that helped bring down Greece’s military junta; the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989; and the student marches against the Iranian regime in 1999 and 2009. In recent years, students in Chile and Quebec have successfully opposed government reforms of higher education as part of a wider set of concerns about inequality.

Historically, students have been agents of political change, placing the transformative educational values of the university at the heart of global society and culture. When students are told to think of themselves as consumers, they are being asked to exchange their political agency for acquiescence in a system that perpetuates inequality. We speak blithely of “student choice”, “student satisfaction” and the “student experience” in a rush to engineer a value-for-money relationship with fee-paying customers. When this generation of young people expresses dissatisfaction with that experience as its only choice, it is subject to the full weight of the law.

Universities wish away dissent, questioning and criticism at their peril. Without them, universities would merely be adjuncts to the corporate global economy: and no professor wants to be an adjunct. To remain silent about miscarriages of justice in the sentencing of student protesters would be a betrayal of this present generation, but so would an insistence on their systemic designation as indebted, passive consumers of educational products. As long as we have social inequality, it will be in the purview of young people to protest against it; as long as we have inequality, universities will be necessary agents for social change. Student protest has a future: the values that inform it are the values of the university per se. Those responsible for our universities should not be first in line in attempts to silence it.

Peters forces us to relocate this image of the student/academic/State relationship against the realities of capitalist work as they are shaped by changes to the organic composition of capital. These changes are created through automation, the network, precarious, deskilled and free labour, cybernetics, entrepreneurialism, securitisation and so on, and are enforced by the State through its militarisation. Thus, Peters argues:

If the input of human labour is increasingly insignificant in the production and distribution of goods and services – something with which I entirely concur – and wages represent increasingly smaller amounts of capital allocation within production then who precisely is going to buy these products and with what wages? How will people subsist under capitalism without jobs? It is this issue that is perhaps most elided by the entire political class – the Labour Party and the TUC as much their supposed ideological counterpoints the Conservative Party and the CBI. The future must *work* and by default therefore its moral invocations must stem from the dignity of labour.

A point I take from this is that austerity means that counter-hegemonies cannot be found inside traditional political structures that have been sustained through the dynamics of capitalism. Peters highlights the importance of recognising and outing the power of specific historical moments, and uses the example of workfare as the moment to argue for the possibility of a guaranteed social wage and the potential decoupling of the wage from work, in order to develop mechanisms for the transformation of society. This is not about saving capitalism. It is not about saving the TUC. It is not about the dignity of capitalist work or full employment.


It is also not about defending the University. The focus on specific historical moments in which the production process is restructured, in order that the material realities of the accumulation process can be laid bare, ought to force academics to re-evaluate their roles in the redefinition of the University and of higher education. Yet this is not what is revealed inside organisations like the Campaign for the Defence of the British University. The CDBU risks fetishizing the University, in its argument that:

Higher Education in the UK is experiencing a raft of reforms that are fundamentally reshaping what universities are, how they are governed and their ability to undertake their core task: the production of knowledge in all its guises. CDBU holds that these reforms are premised on two linked shifts associated with the marketization of higher education:

§  the instrumentalisation of knowledge and its production (though mechanisms that seek to determine what the outcome of research will be)

§  the privatisation of public educational assets (eg. in which costs and benefits of education accrue to the individual who can afford it rather than to the whole community)

This amounts to what might be thought of as an enclosure of the epistemic commons. The CDBU firmly believes that the work undertaken in higher education institutions should be connected to other sectors of the economy. But the processes that underpin all education and knowledge are necessarily unpredictable and open-ended. So the universities that support those processes must be maintained as autonomous institutions to protect them.

Inside the CBDU’s aims for rarefied and protected intellectual activity, for protected agency that stands against the hegemonic realities of transnational capital that is restructuring the spaces that exist for that agency, and for the subsumption of intellectual activity inside precarious and entrepreneurial work, lamentation is palpable. There is no recognition that so much groundwork has been laid inside student occupations, the occupy movement, the global protests against austerity, and in alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre. The CDBU reads like it only ever wishes to be inside, and that being against-and-beyond the University as it is co-opted for the process of accumulation, is impossible. Against this stands the lack of any political economic critique and any way of reinterpreting the objective realities of austerity as it is being played out inside-and-against the very idea of the University. In particular, the CDBU’s cry that we should work

To ensure that British universities continue to transmit and reinterpret the world’s cultural and intellectual inheritance, to encourage international exchange and to engage in the independent thought and criticism necessary for the flourishing of any democratic society

demonstrates the epistemological limits of an association that wishes to defend, and has no mechanisms for pushing-back. There is only the University for hegemony here; there is no scope for a counter-hegemonic project that might take marketization and use it against the politics of austerity that only promise dehumanised, capitalist work.


I am reminded that it is the globalisation of the struggle that matters now. Not on the canvass of a defensive, elegiac, educational lamentation for a paradise lost, but based on the historical, objective realities through which transnational finance capital is restructuring production through policy and technological practice. This means standing against the defence of the University as an organisation that is reinscribed inside those processes for accumulation, so that we can move beyond those dynamics. The historical student movements that McQuillan writes about, and the current protests including that at Sussex, offer us a perspective that is beyond defense and which might enable us to define meaningful alternatives that work for the transformation of society.

As I write elsewhere:

The challenge is to take these social struggles that exist inside-and-against the University and infuse them politically, using globalised technologies, in order to open-up a counter-hegemonic space or global commons. It is only through the politicising of academic (student/teacher) labour through solidarity actions that truly transformational change that addresses social need and marginalisation beyond the market can be realised. Universities are critical sites in the globalisation of this struggle, as is the student/teacher as producer/consumer of material relations that are beyond the subjective. It is through the technological mobilisation of these social forces that the legitimacy of the transnational capitalist class might be challenged, in order that global production might be redirected sustainably for the majority of the world’s population that are… impoverished and pauperised, as opposed to being for the minority of high-income, high-status groups in the global North. This means developing models that replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation, including the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain (counter-)hegemony.

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