On the secular crisis and a qualitative idea of the University

I was struck over the weekend by a friend’s statement that “I struggle to translate your critiques into the various education/technology contexts of the global South”. This is an issue that generally plagues those of us who work in higher education in the global North, and for whom the wider, global context is increasingly viewed through the prism of competition. Earlier this year, at the Alpine Rendez-Vous, a specific workshop tried to pull out some key questions for those working in the interstices between higher education and technology, in order to address some of these issues of private/public, quantitative/qualitative, development/global sustainability etc.. The workshop focused some thinking in the following areas.

  • Have we implicitly assumed that the western/European model of universities is necessarily the sole or best expression of a culture’s or a community’s higher learning and intellectual enquiry?
  • As western/European pedagogy, or rather the corporatised, globalised versions of it, now deploys powerful and universal digital technologies in the interests of profit-driven business models, should we look at empowering more local and culturally appropriate forms of understanding, knowing, learning and enquiring?
  • Is encapsulating the world’s higher learning in institutions increasingly modelled on one format and driven by the same narrow global drivers resilient and robust enough, diverse and flexible enough to enable different communities, cultures and individuals to flourish amongst the dislocation and disruption we portray as characterising the crises?
  • Our responses, for example personal learning environments or the digital literacies agenda, seem implicitly but unnecessarily framed within this western/European higher education discourse – can these be widened to empowered other communities and cultures entitled to the critical skills and participation necessary to flourish in a world of powerful digital technologies in the hands of alien governments, corporations and institutions?

Our increasing inability to view globalised higher education from any perspective other than that of competing nation states in a transnational system, and of universities as competing capitals inside that world-view, is highlighted by Matt Lingard’s report on the Universities UK event, Open and online learning: Making the most of Moocs and other models. Critically, Lingard highlights how MOOCs are being utilised to catalyse further marketisation of education in the global North with the on-line space being used less as a socially transformative experience, and more as a space for public/private partnership, in order to lever global labour arbitrage and strengthen the transnational power of specific corporations:

The world of MOOCs is full of partners. Universities are partnering with delivery & marketing platforms such as Coursera & Udacity. Companies such as Pearson are partnering with them to proctor in-person exams (eg find a test centre for your edX MOOC). The sponsors of the UUK event were Academic Partnerships & 2U. Slightly different services, but both working with universities to develop & deliver online courses. David Willetts hopes that MOOC & industry partnerships will develop & potentially help with the UK skills gap (such as computer science).

This increasingly competitive, efficiency-driven discourse focuses all activity on entrepreneurial activity with risk transferred from the State to the institution and the individual. The technology debate inside higher education, including MOOCs, falls within this paradigm and acts as a disciplinary brake on universities, just as the State’s marshaling against opposition to austerity acts as a disciplinary brake on individual or social protest. What is witnessed is increasingly a denial of socialised activity beyond that which is enclosed and commodified, be it the University’s attempt to escape its predefined role as competing capital, or the individual’s role as competing, indentured entrepreneur. As these roles prescribe an increasingly competitive identity for the student and the University, what chance is there for describing global alternatives that are not those of neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, the Education Sector Strategy 2020 of which declares:

Education is fundamental to development and growth. Access to education, which is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, is also a strategic development investment. The human mind makes possible all other development achievements, from health advances and agricultural innovation to infrastructure construction and private sector growth. For developing countries to reap these benefits fully—both by learning from the stock of global ideas and through innovation—they need to unleash the potential of the human mind. And there is no better tool for doing so than education.

The rights of the child are tied to strategic development investment, which is likely to come from transnational corporations and States in the North, with an outcome a strengthening of those labour pools for privatised knowledge, innovation and enterprise. In part, this reflects Marx’s development in the Grundrisse of a theory of crisis related to overproduction in one arm of the system:

in a general crisis of overproduction the contradiction is not between the different kinds of productive capital, but between industrial and loan capital; between capital as it is directly involved in the production process and capital as it appears as money independently (relativement) outside that process.

As a crisis of overproduction emerges in educational commodities in the global North, technology becomes a fundamental strand of a strategy for commodity-dumping and value extraction from other arms of the globalised system. Thus, the World Bank notes:

Another set of changes is technological: incredible advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and other technologies are changing job profiles and skills demanded by labor markets, while also offering possibilities for accelerated learning and improved management of education systems.

Technology ties the interface between development and education to labour markets and capitalist work, rather than to solving issues of social production, sustainability or global leadership in a world that faces: economic stagnation, including the threats to national and corporate debt and liquidity of an end to the bull market in bonds, a dislocation between the real and shadow economies, and falling corporate revenues that impact the rate of profit; climate tipping points through increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the oceans and atmosphere; problems of access to liquid resources like oil with a potentially catastrophic focus on shale oil and gas; and problematic access to food staples through commodities trading.

The issue of social production leads me back to the idea of the secular crisis, and Harry Cleaver’s work on reading capital politically. Cleaver’s first thesis on the secular crisis states that:

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 systemic threat to the system is a function of the crisis inherent in capitalism’s need to maintain an increase in the rate of profit catalysed through revenues that can be levered from new markets, lower labour costs, or technological innovation. This tends however, to Cleaver’s second thesis, that of the crisis of the class relation:

The basic antagonistic forces which are inherent in the social structure of capitalism, which endure through the ups and downs of fluctuations and restructurings, which have been repeatedly internalized without ever losing their power of resurgence, are the negativity and creativity of the working class. The working class persistently threatens the survival of capitalism both because of its struggles against various aspects of the capitalist form of society and because it tends to drive beyond that social form through its own inventiveness. As opposed to all bourgeois ideologies of social contract, pluralism and democracy, Marxism has shown that working class anatagonism derives from capitalism being a social order based on domination, i.e., on the imposition of set of social rules through which, tendentially, all of life is organized. Class antagonism is thus insurpassable by capitalism within its own order because that antagonism is inseparable from the domination which defines the system.

In reflecting on the experiences of a competitive higher education in the global North and its role in the marketisation of everyday life in the global South, we might reflect on Cleaver’s use of the idea of systemic domination in the name of value, and his idea in Reading Capital Politically that we need to think about power and the use of a life constructed qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

The intensity of the struggle is dictated by the degree of power. When workers can organize sufficiently to directly appropriate wealth, they do so. At the same time, they struggle to obtain the kind of wealth they want — the work conditions, the leisure time activities, and the use-values. In this sense, too, the struggle is qualitative as well as quantitative.

In a globalised life that is restructured around the metrics of efficiency, value, enterprise, and where all life is enclosed and measured for-profit, are there alternative, qualitative descriptions of life that might enable alternatives to be developed? Are there alternative spaces that might be described qualitatively? One possibility lies in the idea of the commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning; a global idea of socialised solidarity that is exemplified in recent work on the wealth of the commons. This is a set of interconnected spaces that are social and negotiated, focused on a social dialogue between abundance and scarcity that enables democratic governance to shape life. As the epilogue to the wealth of the commons states:

To us, the evidence seems clear: people everywhere have a strong desire to escape the helplessness that institutions impose on them, overcome the cynicism that blots out optimism, and transcend the stalemates that stifle practical action. Another world is possible beyond market and state. This book chronicles some new ways forward – and the beginnings of an international commons movement.

It is inside this statement, and through a rediscovery of our global narratives of the commons and commoning that I might begin to reframe my work against the various education/technology contexts of the global South. Merely reframing it around solutions to the secular crisis of capitalism emerging in the global North does nothing for the development of a qualitatively different, resilient education. It is educational ideas and stories that are beyond the market and the state, which are social and co-operative that need to be described and nurtured. We might then begin to describe an alternative, qualitative future for the idea of the University in the face of the secular crisis.

2 Responses to On the secular crisis and a qualitative idea of the University

  1. Thanks Richard. I think sometimes i use the global South and remote, endangered and exotic cultures and their relations to (higher) education as proxies for other communities nearer to home that are also on the wrong side of some digital divide (sorry, easy short-hand), marginal or disempowered communities just across the street or just across the ring road.

  2. Pingback: “Education is broken, somebody should do something” #altc2013 » FOLLOWERS OF THE APOCALYPSE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *