on the triple crunch and the secular crisis of the University

I presented yesterday at the Plymouth University Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory annual conference. I spoke about the impact on higher education of climate change and liquid fuel availability, as symptoms of the secular crisis of capitalism. These are the triple crunch, or in sustainability circles the energy trilemma, and I have previously written about them here and here.

My slides are here.

However, these are the things I wish I had said.

ONE. This secular crisis of capitalism is the secular crisis of the University. This is the systemic inability to reassert stable forms of accumulation. This is the catalysis of a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, through: debts and indenture (for instance for students); the destruction of previously socialised and historically-accrued capital (for instance in the commodification and marketisation of public services like free education and healthcare, or access to natural resources); the imposition of precarity as a form of labour arbitrage (for instance, in benefit sanctions, casualised labour and zero-hour contracts); the increase in ‘asset value’ linked to commodities (from mortgages and buy-to-let, to futures in food and natural resources, and staples like gold); and the re-inflation of stock markets to pre-crisis levels.

In this secular crisis, the dislocation of the debt-driven indicators of economic growth from the realities of how value is created in the productive economy infects the University. It drives student debt, and the data-driven consumption of the idea of education. It drives the myth of the student-as-entrepreneur, who is able to recreate and reinvent herself as an autonomous wealth creator. It drives the myth that higher education exists for international competitiveness and employability, in the face of global labour arbitrage, the disciplining of dissent, the 40 year collapse in real wages, and the catastrophic rise in youth unemployment. It drives the financialisation of the student loan book, and the monetisation of the activities of the University through the bond markets.

In this secular crisis we witness academic subsumption under the rule of money. We witness academic inability to refuse the proprietary claims made for the rule of the market. These claims that are made for the market as the principal organising mechanism for our academic lives, and which cannot be refused, are our secular crisis. And do we wonder at our alienation under the re-inflation of a financial bubble that now re-defines academic study and work, and that will make the poor even poorer when it bursts? A market correction; which further corrects the idea of the University; which further disciplines the idea of the academic; because debt and immateriality cannot create value when it is dislocated from a productive life.

TWO. Indenture, precarity and correction: a collective threat to the social cohesion of our communities and our universities, precisely as they are to our cities and our nations. Where is this collective threat in our discussions of what a University is for? How are the relationships between the market and money, labour and production, value and values, connected to the University as engine for entrepreneurship or internationalisation or employment or creativity? Is the University redeemable?

THREE. And this point further coalesces around the University as energy sink; around the University as engine of value creation; around the University and gross domestic product. Because there is a strong correlation between liquid energy use and GDP, and yet as global energy demand is on the rise, our access to liquid fuel is forecast to decline. As the US Joint Forces Command reported in 2010:

A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions

And we have a recent UK Ministry of Defence Strategic Trends Programme report, which argued:

The western ‘way of life’ is often associated with ready access to a wide variety of consumer choice and relatively cheap energy. This is likely to be increasingly challenged as lifestyles follow GDP levels and ‘normalise’ across the globe. This trend will have significant impact within the US and the UK, where the way of life for the bulk of their populations may be challenged by rising energy and resource. prices, and the declining availability of finance to sustain discretionary spending.

There is no precedent for oil discoveries to make up for the shortfall, nor is there a precedent for efficiencies to relieve demand on this scale. And so the IMF have reported that:

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.

And yet public sector debt, and student debt, and University debt, are burdens that ultimately require economic growth to pay them down. Or they demand the discipline of the State in enforcing the claims of the market to your/my/our labour. As Marx wrote:

the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

Between equal rights force decides. Until our debts are redeemed. And if energy supply looks likely to constrain growth, well what then for the University? What then for our academic labour? What then for our equal rights?

FOUR. Maybe energy is the least of our worries. The Royal Society’s People and Planet report from 2012 argued that there is an urgent need to address issues of climate change and resource availability across the globe. The report argued:

in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced. This will entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth. Decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs is needed urgently. Changes to the current socio-economic model and institutions are needed to allow both people and the planet to flourish by collaboration as well as competition during this and subsequent centuries. This requires farsighted political leadership concentrating on long term goals.

Is this radical transformation the entrepreneurial, indebted, analytical, international, exchangeable University? And how is this University to make sense of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability? This is a report that indicates with high confidence that we are beyond the IPCC ‘marker’ scenario range, and are now at a fork between a mean global temperature rise of 1-3 degrees Celsius and one of 3.5-5 degrees Celsius. Whatever the opportunities this allegedly allows, what is the role of the University in asking questions about the activities it undertakes in contributing to such a rise? What is the critical role of academics in questioning the purpose and value of those activities, be they productive or unproductive? How on earth do universities, driven by internationalisation strategies, measure and reduce scope 3 emissions? What is the role of academics in asking whether this society regulated for the market is the only solution to the crunch of climate change?

FIVE. There is so much volatility and precarity that we might feel deadened by the question, “what is to be done?” And yet under different, collective and co-operative sets of organising principles, which in turn interconnect the State, the market and civic societies, alternatives have been possible.

  • In Cuba, high levels of educational participation and human welfare have been attained at lower levels of GDP and ecological impact.
  • In Bhutan, the Government attempted to index growth based on gross national happiness.
  • In Allende’s Chile, the CyberSyn project attempted to make “a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use”.
  • In Mexico, the Zapatista Little Schools of Below, focused upon collective work as “one of the cements of autonomy, whose fruits usually spill into hospitals, clinics, primary and secondary education, in strengthening the municipalities and the good government juntas.”
  • In Ecuador, the National Plan for Good Living, spoke of five revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; Latin American dignity; designed “to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence.” This includes “the transformation of higher education and the transfer of knowledge in science, technology and innovation”, with practices focused upon diversity, participation, social and economic equality, and bio-knowledge (or an engagement with/care for the land/climate/environment).
  • Through the FLOK Society Transition Project, Michael Bauwens has spoken of the real possibilities for democratic innovation and civic driven change through: the creation of a participatory commons; the creation of entrepreneurial coalitions; the creation of a socially-nurtured, broad-based open commons that are fed in policy and practice; and nurturing solidarity co-operatives. In this way structure supports individual and co-operative agency that is participative, against the commodification of risk that emerges from the individuated consumption in the global North. As Bauwens argues:

we work in a triarchical way. We have the state. We have the civic society with the commons and we have the market with an ethical economy. We need to change all three at the same time and doing so will create a new democracy so we can no longer just talk about democracy and ignore the fact that our state has been captured by financial interests. We have to do something structurally about that. We cannot have a democracy that is actually isolated from the situation in which democracy operates.

  • The IPCC report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability asks us to focus on diversity and context, in order to think about complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments, in reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability. It asks us to focus on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions. It asks us to be sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies, although it is unable to escape Jameson’s stricture that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. It asks us to think about short-termism or failing to anticipate consequences that can result in maladaptation. Whatever its boundaries, it asks us to think.

SIX. In the face of the triple crunch, of the volatility imposed by the interrelationships between peak oil, our climate realities, and the secular crisis of capitalism, is business as usual really possible for those who labour and study in higher education? How do we develop the usefulness of our work and ourselves, rather than their means for alienation and exchange?

What kinds of conversations are we having with society about the reality of our need for more sophisticated financial engineering to underpin increasing student debt and precarious futures? What kinds of conversations are we having with society about the market’s domination over our access to/use of liquid fuel, and the management of climate change?

What kinds of conversations should we be having with young people and their parents about the volatile relationships between debt, real wages, unemployment and precarity, in the face of the added volatility of access to the resources that keep the economy growing?

By refusing our critical, academic role in questioning whether there really is no alternative, what are we modelling for our students and our communities and our society? What alternative scenarios are we remembering and revealing and discussing and realising? How are we being careful in realising who has power-to produce the world? How are we being courageous in modelling questioning and difference and solidarity and association and participation?

Is academic neutrality, inside-and-beyond the University, really an option?

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