#Solidarity and the fitter, happier, more productive University

On the back of my inaugural, my friend Matt emailed me saying:

I said I had a question, which essentially boils down to the phrase ‘common wealth’ that you used at one point in your talk. Universities – and particularly ‘science’ or ‘scholarship’ – are increasingly global affairs, but you didn’t have a lot to say about that in your talk. The majority of the content was focused on more locally-bound issues, democratic participation in institutional ownership, defining shared values and methods to achieve shared goals in locally-driven initiatives, and somewhat less about the role British (and other) institutions can play in global issues of science, social affairs, economics, health: many of which you mentioned as challenges (e.g. oil shortage, marginalisation, labour exploitation) but not as part of your vision for the university. How does your re-envisioning of the non-faster-higher-stronger university plug into that international network and world context?

In the autumn of 2013 I wrote a series of blog posts about the creation of a higher education market, inside which the University is being restructured globally as an association of capitals, and about the role of merchants and merchant capital inside that market in circulating and accumulating value. I then tried to make the case for the Co-operative University as a node in a counter-hegemonic network predicated on a global alliance of the Commons. Increasingly my vision for the University is framed through its abolition in the face of the domination of finance capital, and the liberation of our collective space-time beyond the market as it has subsumed the University. This is the power of Marx’s view that inside capitalist social relations:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

So how do academic labourers work with that as a form of struggle or antagonism, in order to transition away from an alienated life? It may be that the revolutionary nature of capitalism, where all that is solid is transitory and transitional in a process of expansion, signals the courage to develop something new. Nothing is sustainable inside capitalism, so why it the system itself? Especially where the secular crisis demonstrates the global iniquity and injustice of its dynamics? In my post on the role of merchants in higher education I write the following.

The question is how to reveal and critique the material conditions of the working class, including those of teachers, educators and students, as they are subordinate to autonomous commercial and/or finance capital. How is it possible to recuperate the autonomy of educational producers in a way that pushes back against the hegemony of venture capital or MOOC providers acting as commercial capitalists? Is it possible to develop forms and stories of co-operative production and consumption that are beyond the money-form or cost savings? Is it possible to critique the idea of public rather than open education, and as a result to liberate skills, knowledges and practices against their marketization, and where they do not act to drive down wages through speed-up, or labour mobility, or the creation of proprietary skills that can be commodified? Is it possible to push-back against the use of open education to create a reserve army, or surplus population, of skilled workers as a disciplinary tool on wages?

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

Too many of the critiques of higher education focus upon its recuperation, as if it can somehow avoid the restructuring that is taking place across the global economy as a whole. As if higher education as a sector can avoid this restructuring which is taking place across the whole of the global economy. Witness the educational implications of the idea of immaterial scarcity framed by, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership/the Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership and global intellectual property law. However, too many analyses of the crisis of higher education cannot escape the lamentation for the status of academics in the face of the rule of money. In a recent Inside HigherEd article, Altbach and Finkelstein argue for “A career structure that permits reasonable security of tenure” and “Salaries that permit a middle-class life style for academics”, “and reasonable remuneration for those who are hired”. In arguing against a defensive lamentation for what the University was, I have argued 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.

In these terms, what matters is how we attempt to overcome the alienation of political economics, and its symptoms in liquid fuel availability and carbon emissions. Here the role of the academic as organic intellectual is important, in particular as s/he relates to the University as a site for the social production of ideas. However, the issue is how that then forms a moment of sociability beyond the market. Where the processes of financialisation are closing-down/fore-closing on our ability to solve global problems, by commodifying academic labour, we face the issue of whether it is possible to recuperate the University at all. In this instance the question turns to what can be liberated from higher education, in terms of governance, regulation, and academic practices/sociability, before it is enclosed. So I am thinking about the idea of the University situated in space-time, and in particular its potential relationships with other activist organisations and individuals in a range of communities. But I am also thinking about the idea of the academic as an activist situated in space-time, and in particular in relation to other community activists. My own agency is limited by space and by time, but there is a series of groups, networks and spaces with which I feel specific solidarity and wish to associate, in order to discuss a transition beyond capitalist social relations. Inside a system in which “all that is solid melts into air”, this is my starting-point for plugging myself “into that international network and world context”. There is hope that solidarity at a range of scales and with a range of organisations can amplify melting and disintegration where there is a critique of value and power, and an active, associational politics to work for something different. The power-to-do something different. My focus, as I noted in the lecture, is on my own abolition before my own space-time is enclosed through financialisation. Before capitalist social relations can foreclose on my future. Before I cede power-over my life to the violent abstraction of value. I want to push-back with others, wherever I can, as an act of solidarity. This is life as a constant act of #solidarity. The question is where and how can I do that? In a recent article on academic labour I argue for “the ideas of open co-operativism and fearless practice [which] underpin a politics of alliance against capital that seeks to abolish the present state of things”.

[I]t is the spread of ideas across transnational activist networks of co-operators that might enable a reconnection of academic labour as labour across society, in a form that enables it to support mass intellectuality rather than private accumulation.

I want to explore how we might connect the local/national/global cracks in the production, circulation and accumulation of value, as a form of power-to-do in the world. This is rooted in the battle of ideas and the potential of organic intellectuals to develop ideas from anywhere. I want us to be able to express an alternative, local/national/global power-to-do, to make the world differently, rather than in the way prescribed by those with power-over us. This might involve an exodus from the University as it is currently re-produced through the REF, satisfactions scores, indenture and so on. It might involve fighting for labour rights inside the University and beyond with the Australian CASA group or Leeds Postgrads for Fair Pay or the 3Cosas. It might involve work with autonomous groups providing alternatives in co-operative laboratories that are theoretically-grounded, like the Social Science Centre. But this work has to connect to local/national/global stories of precarity and injustice across society, and must involve our collectively pushing back against institutional strategies that reinforce inequality. It must involve work with local/national/global groups arguing for social justice. It almost certainly involves the courage and faith to work towards a grand alliance of the Commons that can join social and environmental justice groups, in order to give hope.

One Response to #Solidarity and the fitter, happier, more productive University

  1. Thanks for the shout out to CASA. Labour activism within the university as it stands is a schooling in ambivalence: in advocating for improved conditions for casualised workers, it’s so easy to end up offering to make casualisation even easier for universities.

    I was very struck in your inaugural by the argument that there is energy in the overall higher education system that can be released into more cooperative practices. The challenge is to find ways to make sustainable living out of this, especially for those with the smallest reserves in practical terms: no accrued entitlements or pensions to underwrite risky moves, and often with substantial existing education debt and family dependents. That’s human energy that’s very hard to release, because even precarious work is not nothing.

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