The University and the secular crisis

In retrospect Steve Smith’s article linked in a previous posting on the University and the rule of money is important in highlighting that the UK Government’s austerity agenda will tighten considerably in the aftermath of the next General Election in 2015. He is clear that the squeeze on incomes for universities will give little room for manoeuvre, and one outcome is that the sector as a whole risks further stratification and restructuring, as institutions operating as competing capitals look for securitisation or financialisation coupled to attacks on labour rights and efficiency drives.

It is salutary to remember that the idea of the University and issues of funding are situated within the politics of austerity and the fiscal realities of an ideological attack on the sector. It should be noted that this is a deeply political attack that has seen resistance from groups of students and public sector workers and trades unions, but limited critique from the sector’s leaders. It is only Million+ that has developed an on-going critique based on the Government’s economic projections. Thus, in March 2013, the CEO of Million+ wrote:

Once the loss to the Treasury of reduced participation (which in turn leads to reduced tax receipts) and the inflationary impact of higher tuition fees are taken into account, the short-term savings will be outweighed almost six and a half times by the long-term costs of the new system.

In developing a meaningful critique, it is important to place the context of University funding, and the concomitant restructuring of the idea of the University for entrepreneurship and employability, in the context of the UK as a de-developing economy. Speaking at the LSE in September 2012, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson stated their thesis that that the historical trend for the UK economy in the last century has been managed decline arrested by quick fixes like access to North Sea oil revenues and the stimulus of the deregulated City. Elliott and Atkinson argue that the UK is in a long decline, signalled now by an economy that is 4% smaller than it was when the financial crisis hit, and which is emerging from recession slower than it had during the Great Depression. They note that: the cost of the economic downturn is in excess of £200bn; real incomes are down, with the IFS stating that it will be 2016/17 before incomes reach 2004 levels and with an increase in levels of poverty; banking is “big, bust and corrupt”; successive rounds of Quantitative Easing and purchasing of gilts has underpinned much higher real inflation than that reported in the CPI, with no respite for savers; and the Treasury has had to borrow in excess of 550bn thereby doubling the debt.

For Elliott and Atkinson, the macro-economic context, inside which higher education is framed, is one of blunder, fudge and self-delusion. Revenues from the UK economy’s strong suits in some services and consultancy areas, aerospace and IT, as well as some universities, are not enough to overcome the lack of strength elsewhere, notably in manufacturing and the bubble sectors (student debt, financial services and banking). On top of this they point to the lack of oil and gold assets, contracting asset prices, and the lack of equity, alongside historic weak growth, in order to argue that any focus on rebalancing the economy is nonsense. They argue that this is the result of decades of macro-economic policy that has framed the UK as a giant hedge fund. Moreover, a series of roll-backs of labour rights through attacks on Trades Unions, plus privatisation related to market efficiencies, has focused minds on productivity, but has led to an overreliance on debt as incomes are squeezed. In driving forward productivity manufacturing has been seen as secondary to services, including finance, consultancy, and increasingly education. Regulation and forms of credit control have been secondary to enterprise and innovation.

Crucially for Elliott and Atkinson, the crash in 2008 enabled the economy’s defects, which had been covered by three decades of financialisation, to be revealed. These defects include: chronic debt; a long-term attrition on real wages; illiteracy amongst large numbers of the public; a pension time-bomb; no plan for replacing oil/gas/nuclear energy; a deficit in tax receipts, which make socialised payment for the welfare state problematic; dysfunctional banking services; an overreliance on exports to Europe at a time of contraction; and an overreliance on the imports of assets including skilled labour. Moreover, there has been a balance of payments deficit since 1983, and in spite of talk about global markets, the UK’s international net asset position is negative to the tune of £325.6bn. There is: a deficit on trading goods; no rebalancing of the economy towards exports and away from consumption, so that engines of growth are consumer debt and mortgage lending, and not science and education; a private sector that has not invested but hoarded, with cash balances worth £754bn but levels of business investment at less than 2% per annum. For Elliott and Atkinson this is a bet on deleveraging and disinvestment. Moreover, Government-borrowing and rescue packages, plus loan guarantees and outsourcing, which are hidden from the balance sheet, total another £612bn of debt.

They argue that this highlights that the UK is experiencing a qualitative change in its economic status, and in how it views and structures itself, as it de-develops. It is locked into a world of increasing competition and rivalry over energy and resources, including labour. Thus, we face a reality checkpoint, as large segments of the UK population are threatened with increasing impoverishment and unreliable access to power, fuel, food, education, health and shelter. For these authors what is needed is an economic plan, which focuses on the roles of the market and the State, and that we will make better choices if we regard the UK as a submerging market economy.

The Elliott and Atkinson thesis connects to: the views of those in the financial press that fiscal austerity has not worked and needs to be geared around both public and private investment and recapitalisation; the recent article byHerndon, Ash and Pollin that critiques the original research on the relationship between public debt and GDP growth that underpinned austerity; and the calls of the IMF for the Government to rethink its austerity agenda in the face of weak growth. In each of these analyses the outcomes of a 2012 Europaeum report on the impact of fiscal policy on higher education is amplified:

the economic downturn has, on the whole, had a negative short-term impact upon public higher education programmes.European universities are being affected in many different ways during the current economic crisis – with winners and losers already emerging, and the differences set to be multiplied over the coming years depending on how the winners use their comparative advantage, and how the losers can best mitigate the effects of cuts through so-called efficiency savings or by raising new sources of income.

The University then, is being restructured as part of a response to a secular crisis, and academic work, productivity, the rate of profit and labour arbitrage are central to this issue. As Harry Cleaver’s first thesis on the secular crisis noted:

We are writing and talking about secular crisis because neither the cyclical business downturns nor the upturns, nor a whole series of capitalist counter-measures (local and international), have resolved the underlying problems of the system in such a way as to lay the basis for a renewal of stable accumulation. Thus, secular crisis means the continuing threat to the existence of capitalism posed by antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings.

This is a point that Aaron Peters makes in his article on workfare as one of capital’s responses to the crisis. As Peters notes:

A discussion of surplus population is central to any enquiry as to the relationship between workfare and the secular crisis. The hypothesis runs that within the contemporary global economy there is a large and growing ‘surplus population’ that is incapable of accessing the labour market. Alongside this group is another yet larger one which frequently includes the ‘working poor’; temporary workers, part-time workers, agency workers, those on zero hours contracts and increasingly since 2008 the precarious self-employed. We know that this second group has grown throughout not only the course of the last several decades but particularly so since the Global Financial Crisis.

Yet employability and individual entrepreneurship developed through an appetite for debt and securitisation underpin the very restructuring of higher education in the global North. They are part-and-parcel of the changing organic composition of- capital and the restructuring required to deliver productivity and growth. What is clear is that there is no such analysis emerging from the leaders of universities, even whilst the austerity agenda that drives the restructuring of the sector is under attack from financial journalists, academic activists and even the IMF. The risk here is that even if a counter-narrative is developed through an analysis of the secular crisis, it is too late to recover the University in any form beyond that of competing capital subsumed under the dictates of money. Securitisation, indentured study, labour arbitrage, internationalisation, commodity-dumping in the global South, the enclosure and privatisation of previously socialised goods are all locked-in.

At issue then is Cleaver’s third thesis on the secular crisis, that of the struggle against capitalist work:

Capitalist rules impose the generalized subordination of human life to work. Whereas all previous class societies have involved the extraction of surplus labor, only in capitalism have all human activities been reshaped as work, as commodity producing labor processes. Those processes produce either use-values which can be sold and on which a profit can be realized or they produce and reproduce human life itself as labor power. Antagonism, resistance and opposition accompany this imposition because this way of organizing human life dramatically restricts and confines its development. People struggle both against their reduction to “mere worker” and for the elaboration of new ways of being that escape capitalist limits.

How might we develop educational spaces into which knowing and subjectivity might be developed, based in-part on socialised knowledge that is liberated from formal educational spaces? As Cleaver notes in his final two theses, at issue is the creation of a revolutionary subjectivity that is based upon

the liberation of alternative, self-determined social “logics” outside and beyond that of capital.

Such a revolutionary subjectivity is entwined with the need to develop

[a] politics of alliance against capital… not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism.

It is the secular crisis outlined by Elliott and Atkinson, the IFS and the IMF, and revealed inside-and-against the political economy of austerity, that is reshaping the very idea of the University. If we are to develop a meaningful, socially-constructed and democratic set of alternatives, they need to be placed against-and-beyond the secular crisis that is restricting and re-inscribing the very idea of the University.

5 Responses to The University and the secular crisis

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