Some notes on academic labour and fronts of struggle

ONE. The State will not save the public University

The idea of neoliberalism as a globalising, disciplinary discourse is especially important in Stephen J. Ball’s work on Global Education Inc.. Ball argued that the State has a critical activist role in regulating for the market and for enterprise, and not for the society of people. In this model, the State is proactive in acting as midwife to the re-birth of public assets as market-oriented commodities. Ball traces the development of neoliberalism very deliberately as a discourse designed to promote shared libertarian, market-oriented entrepreneurialism that in-turn fosters a new nexus betweeen capital and the State, in order to re-shape all of society inside Capital’s hegemonic, totalising logic. In part, Ball sees this as facilitated by networks of power and affinity that enable the re-production of ‘geographies of social relationships’ that are in the name of money, profit, choice and deregulation. These geographies form shifting, transnational assemblages of activity and relationships that reinforce power-structures, and which consist of academics and think tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and private equity funds, media corporations and publishers, philanthropists/hedge-funds, technology firms and so on.

In this description of neoliberalism, the focus is on how uncertainties are created in the spaces in which the State operates, so that common-sense stories of the value of private enterprise in ‘leveraging’ both performance and cost reduction can be told, and so that those stories can be connected to a meta-narrative of there is no alternative. In turn these meta-narratives seize and co-opt evidence-based practices and academic judgements to reinforce World Bank and IMF orthodoxies that are related to structural readjustment, freedom and choice. Thus, the networks of interconnected actors and corporations, acting as transnational advocacy networks, reinforce dominant positions through: policy forums and advocacy; conferences; prizes; media attention; control of funding; research programmes and outcomes; evidence-based reports; regulation; MOOCs; consultancy agendas; new public management etc..

Jonathan Davies has argued that it is easy to overstate the power of network affinities in pushing back against neoliberal politics, and that such an overstating leads towards network fetishism. He states (p. 152):

network analysis draws attention to the production, reproduction and contestation of power and the manner in which alliances forged around congruent interests and resource interdependencies reinforce asymmetric power relations. The target of critique is the proposition that network-like institutions and practices are proliferating, that they are based on novel forms of sociability and that they transcend structures of power and domination. Networks can be a powerful organising tool, but whether cooptive or insurgent, they have no special potential.

Davies questions the relationship between governance networks and network governance, and insists that critique has to be based upon capitalism, class and spaces for resistance. Such public spaces might include those highlighted in this Open letter to Occupy. He places (p. 140) “A call for critical research in order to consider how different forms of public action, from critical engagement in governance networks through to militant confrontations with the state can lead to self-transformation and learning.” In addressing the ways in which the University is being co-opted for value and for the market, it is crucial that the relationships between the University (including its organising principles and labour relations), the State apparatus that defines/marketises education, and the transnational associations of capitals/businesses that feed off public goods, are revealed.

TWO. The University disciplined globally

William I. Robinson’s nine theses on our epoch also picks-upon this call for a range of critical engagements in a range of public domains, including the relationship between higher education and universities and the State, in order to describe the established order, its organising principles, and alternatives to it. Pace Robinson, we see that the University is restructured inside a global mechanism for the accumulation of value. Moreover,

activists and scholars have tended to underestimate the systemic nature of the changes involved in globalisation, which is redefining all the fundamental reference points of human society and social analysis, and requires a modification of all existing paradigms (p. 13).

Thus, capitalist globalisation denotes: a world of generally-impoverished labour, where capital is fighting for its survival through the politics of austerity; power that is incubated through technology, including in the changing face of production and of labour relations; and the hatching of transnational capital out of national capitals in the global North (following the transnational capture of state apparatus of control in the North and the attempt to do so in the South). This process is as live for the University and the academic as for any other sector/labourer, through precarity, outsourcing/leveraging skills, privatisation, indentured study and financialisation, labour arbitrage and organisational development/efficiency.

However, this process has several contradictions and leads to Robinson’s nine theses, which increasingly impact the life and work of academics and students.

First, the essence of the process is the replacement for the first time in the history of the modern world system, of all residual pre (or non) –capitalist production relations with capitalist ones in every part of the globe.

Second, a new ‘social structure of accumulation’ is emerging which, for the first time in History, is global.

Third, this transnational agenda has germinated in every country of the world under the guidance of hegemonic fractions of national bourgeoisies.

Fourth, observers search for a new global hegemon and posit a tri-polar world of European, American, and Asian economic blocs. But the old nation-state phase of capitalism has been superseded by the transnational phase of capitalism.

Fifth, the ‘brave new world’ of global capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic.

Robinson states (p. 21): “The trappings of democratic procedure in a polyarchy do not mean that the lives of the mass of people become filled with authentic or meaningful democratic content, much less that social justice or economic equality is achieved.”

Sixth, ‘poverty amidst plenty’, the dramatic growth under globalisation of socioeconomic inequalities and of human misery, a consequence of the unbridled operation of transnational capital, is worldwide and generalised.

Seventh, there are deep and interwoven gender, ethnic and racial dimensions to this escalating global poverty and inequality.

Eighth, there are deep contradictions in emergent world society that make uncertain the very survival of our species – much less mid- to long-tem stabilisation and viability of global capitalism – and portend prolonged global social conflict.

Ninth, stated in highly simplified terms, much of the left world-wide is split between two camps. These are: the neo-Keynesians that seek rapprochement with capital, based on social democracy and redistributive justice; those who see capitalism as inherently wicked and to be rejected/resisted without working through a coherent socialist alternative to the transnational phase of capitalism.

Robinson describes a world of structural adjustment by both the State and transnational organisations, in order to support the politics of permanent structural violence against the world’s majority. He notes (p. 27):

we should harbour no illusions that global capitalism can be tamed or democritised. This does not mean that we should not struggle for reform within capitalism, but that all such struggle should be encapsulated in a broader strategy and programme for revolution against capitalism. Globalisation places enormous constraints on popular struggles and social change in any one country or region. The most urgent task is to develop solutions to the plight of humanity under a savage capitalism liberated from the constraints that could earlier be imposed on it through the nation state. An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project… The popular mass of humanity must develop a transnational class consciousness and a concomitant political protagonism and strategies that link the local to the national and the national to the global.

The question is then whether academics recognise these theses in their own alienation, and if they do then what might be done? Is it possible for academics to contribute to “a transnational popular project”?

THREE. For association

This point has been reinforced by Jehu in his resolutions for 2014, which focus upon the self-as-activist in pushing against capitalist work, and against the fetishisation of the State as some kind of moral arbiter between Labour and Capital. Jehu appears to be clear in looking for an activism that lies beyond the politics of democratic capitalism situated inside states, and he encourages all those who labour or who sell their labour-power in the market

not to employ the state, but to abolish it and replace it by association… that is immediately universal — global — and encompasses workers of every nation. We have to go back to our roots and remember that workers have no country. The working class is the material expression of the dissolution of all nations, classes, religions, etc.

This global, associational focus is important because emancipation is not possible inside a life defined by capitalist work.

Labor is not neutral: it does not just create wealth for a few, it creates poverty for billions side by side with this wealth. Labor is itself the active creation of poverty and misery, it is active self-impoverishment of the laborers; there is no palliative that can change the nature of labor, nor prevent the population of the planet from falling further into poverty. Any argument for labor — for full employment — is simply an argument for poverty, misery and environmental devastation.

Thus, Jehu argues that “Going beyond capitalism precisely means going to a set of conditions that violate ‘how capitalism works’ in every sphere of social life.” This is itself critical because the way in which we produce goods is the way that we produce society. So the current organising principles for society are based on the exploitation of labour. This then underpins the politics of austerity, and the move against welfare, or for growth or for the ideology of there is no alternative, or the disciplining of students who protest debts. Thus, we see increasingly the State acting as enforcer, in order to stimulate spaces for growth or jobs that includes education and the University. We also witness an increasing struggle for power between transnational associations of capitals and labour, including academic labour.

Part of this power-struggle focuses upon the need for higher education to contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of a society whose sole aim is economic growth through jobs. We do not witness a move towards shorter working hours, or leisure-time activities, or autonomy in defining a life that is beyond entrepreneurial activity, or in supporting an education that is beyond employability. Higher education and the role of academic labour is defined globally against the ability of the transnational capitalist class to extract value/profit and to fix labour as wage-earner capable of consumption. Jehu highlights how this underpins a politics that is for jobs and not shorter hours, and for jobs rather than the environment (witnessed under the Abbott Government in Australia) and that is for labour-intensity rather that capital intensity, because there is a point at which labour efficiencies damages the purchasing power of labour in a world market. This reveals a structural tension between technological and organisational efficiencies for labour and the possibility for finding other means to use a reserve army of labour that is as true for academics as for any other sector of the economy.

FOUR. Precarity and the living death of capitalist work

In two recent pieces on the attrition on and deterioration of work in Australian universities, Kate Bowles has highlighted the problems in seeking redress from inside the University as an autonomous organisation. Instead she argues for a more humane approach to the management of change and to understanding the ways in which academic work or labour is being restructured globally. Of those involved in change programmes, she notes:

please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.

In discussing tenure, Kate argues that Australian academics are in an increasingly precarious position, especially in light of the threats of outsourcing/leveraging elements of their work, of casualisation, and of perceived market specialism.

Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.

She then points to an Australian Fair Work Commission judgement, which decided in favour of an Australian University that:

“A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]”

This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.

This unbundling of academic labour highlights the subsumption of that work under the politics of neoliberalism that is about power-over the world. Precarity and the lack of tenure, the role of technology, the use of organisation development or neuro-linguistic programming or cognitive analytical therapy, outsourcing, the entrepreneurial turn and employability strategies, and so on, need to be critiqued against the clash of social forces catalysed by transnational capital’s need to control labour. These are each mechanisms played out in educational domains that are increasingly formed of associations of private capitals/businesses, and which form a discourse of accumulation and labour arbitrage. This discourse is enforced by states through primary and secondary legislation, through funding mechanisms, through research allocations, and through curriculum/evidence-based pronouncements.

FIVE. Academic labour and fronts of struggle

Recent academic work on the intensity and geographical spread of protest points towards creating “fronts of struggle”, which are for societal mobilisation against the rule of money. This not only highlights how power deliberately uses policy, law and practice in a polyarchic manner to ossify inequality, but more importantly develops associations that are for equality. They are deliberate in their focus on defining publically and radically, social justice and radical democracy that is beyond private property and growth and there is no alternative. Rather than simply being against elites, they describe a courageous or fearless politics that is for the public.

One marker for this is an analysis of The National Plan of Ecuador, which “recognizes and stresses that the global transformation towards knowledge-based societies and economies requires a new form for the creation and distribution of value in society.” Whilst hamstrung in the first instance by the law of value and its connections to the market, spheres for the circulation of commodities and debt, and the State, the project does offer mechanisms for creating “commons-based infrastructures not just for knowledge, but for other social and productive activities”. It also points to a future beyond capitalism, that is formed of “material infrastructures that make the emergence and thrivability of open commons possible.” This appears to resonate with the horizontal and associational aspirations of the Frente Popular Darío Santillan (FPDS), to create supra-national networks of production.

Academics might then consider whether it is possible for labour to re-organise the University along the lines of The Democratic University: A proposal for university governance for the Common Weal. Also at issue is whether a process of radical democratisation might then be a transitional moment in the move towards a structure that is beyond the actually existing University as a State-subsidised actor for Capital. This highlights the increasing tension between academic freedom and institutional autonomy; a tension between corporate and democratic forms, the management of which echoes the co-option/privatisation of public spaces and public values, and the disciplining of protest and resistance. As universities are subsumed under the law of value and disciplined for growth, “there is a not-too-subtle redefinition by university managers of ‘academic freedom’ from meaning ‘freedom of academics from us’ to ‘freedom for us from everyone’.” The question is how academics might contribute to an activism that point to alternatives that are beyond capitalism?


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