Beyond the University? Protest and anxiety

Back in August 2012 I wrote a note on the subsumption of academic labour that included the following.

This latter point brings me to the politics of higher education and the ways in which political society advocates in the name of the real subsumption of academic labour to the dominant order. The political realities of Vice-Chancellors as CEOs of businesses for whom the reality is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall cannot be ignored. This places them in the context of networks of neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks. This political reality disciplines the actions that academic managers and administrators can take, either supported by the State or quiescent in the face of its power, and places them in opposition to those academics and students whose labour they need to recalibrate for the market.

As a result we see a range of political actions aimed at disciplining academics and students, including, but not limited to:

Similarly, this has given birth to a range of solidarity actionscommuniqués, and free universities, that are not simply a recasting of higher education in liberal terms around the notion of economic libertarianism or cost-free learning (as pervades the MOOC debate). These are deeply political claims for higher learning, and a critique and reclaiming of the university against-and-beyond capitalism.

However, the accrual of executive power within universities acting as corporations and the use of technology as a mechanism for surveillance and performance management, means that the explicit subsumption of academic labour under the realities of competition, productivity, efficiency and profit is inevitable. In this process the realities of force and political will by those with power-to create a dominant order trump individual protests. Force married to political will then invades the cultural realities of civil society, so that no matter how we argue for education as a public good, it is subsumed under the rule of money.

In this process of ensuring that the capitalist is the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale, the politics are the thing. How might a counter-narrative be generated that connects academic labour to student protests and the broader work of protests against austerity? What is the role of academic trades unions in coalescing and amplifying protest so that pushing-back against recalibration becomes possible? Or in the face of the logic of discipline and coercion, and a political will amongst networks of legislators and academic managers for recalibration, is the scope for the university to be regenerated as a space of resistance and protest too limited? In fact, is some form of exodus the only option?

It feels important to return to this point about our responses to subsumption, in light of the resurgence of student protest in the UK in the past few weeks, and the broader connections rooted in a counter-hegemonic solidarity. In particular the response of Jerome Roos in his Roar Magazine piece “From New York to Greece, we revolt ‘cus we can’t breathe” is important because it focuses on the concrete lack of justice. This also amplifies the demands of the students in occupation at Warwick, which centre upon justice and voice. The lack of a voice because the lack of justice is an illegal hold that restricts our space to breathe and live, and is a critical metaphor in protest and dissent. It leads Roos to note that (quoting Franz Fanon):

when we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.

And on Campus at Warwick, in the fight against its militarisation (#copsoffcampus), student activists state that:

Whilst we are viewed as consumers and not students, the higher education institution will continue to further marginalise and oppress those within and outside the university.

This reminds me of the Sussex students in occupation against privatisation and outsourcing of whom Gurminder Bhambra wrote:

The eviction and criminalisation of students involved in civil disobedience against policies with which they and many others fundamentally disagree is contiguous with other attacks that undermine our public university system. But despite the barriers put in their way, the ever-creative students at Sussex continue to find new ways to give voice to the broader movements of dissent.

What appears to be emerging is the University as a specifically-recalibrated form of anxiety machine, where the space itself acts as a crucible of projected anxieties and forms of social (self-)harm. The anxieties of senior managers forced to compete for artificially scarce resources in an increasingly marketised and financialised corporate space. The anxieties of the Police described in terms of the following practices by the Warwick branch of UCU:

A video, which was subsequently posted on YouTube, showed students being grabbed and pushed and having their hair pulled, followed by CS spray being used at very close range. Also in the footage, a taser gun can be seen and heard, and there have been subsequent reports that it may have been discharged against one student. At the time of writing, three students are being held at Coventry police station.

The anxieties of students revealed in this statement from a Warwick student activist who was arrested:

Activism is arduous – it is, for myself and I know many others, a flurry of sleepless nights; shirked self-care and study; perpetual vacillation between punishing, disenchanting sadness and the utmost euphoria; it is seconds, minutes, hours in prison cells which can’t quite be traced, which dilate and mystify and fade into oblivion; it is a state of flux, bound somewhere between fantasy and reality, a stasis of promise and despair; of internal conflicts and multiple houred debates which will never find resolution; it is mental health problems we can’t quite process or understand; it is daring to dream within a world of horrors and atrocities. It is all-consuming and obsessive, incarcerating as much as it liberating. 

Elsewhere I wrote about the University as anxiety machine, where the projection of anxiety emerged through the fabric of relationships.

This is the dissolution of the University as a means for the domination/hegemony of a particular world view or a specific class. This is the dissolution of the University as a coercive space that is re-forged inside-and-against student-debt and impact and research excellence and analytics and employability and entrepreneurship. This is the dissolution of the University as the civil society of tenured professors versus casualised precariat.

I wonder if the University’s functions now are being redesigned so that they reproduce a sense of anxiety as a permanent state of exception. Inside this marketised University space, the idea of the public is being atrophied, kettled, disciplined, sold-off. It is difficult to envisage how the University might be reclaimed. This is more so given the wider sense of social injustice, linked to the politics of austerity. Precarity and volatility, as Ilargi notes at The Automatic Earth, underpins the transfer of resources to those with power and the accumulation of wealth by an elite, which threatens a clash of social forces. This clash is already happening in student/worker occupations, indignations, demonstrations, strikes, and so on, that are aimed against neoliberalism and austerity across the globe. Ilargi notes:

If we presume that a connection exists between the increase in debt on one side and the increase in “asset value” on the other, then I would say chances are we’re looking at both a gigantic wealth transfer from the poor towards the rich and a huge bubble that allows that to happen, and that will make the poor even poorer when it bursts. Which seems inevitable, because debt by itself cannot create value.

And if I’m right, what we’re seeing is not the incredible resiliency of the markets, and no real increase in asset value, but an increase in the threat to the social cohesion of our communities, cities and nations.

However, student protests remind us that it is less difficult to see how higher education might be reimagined beyond the University, as a form of what William Robinson calls social movement unionism.

Increasingly, organizing the working class means organizing informal sector workers. It means shifting from an exclusive focus on the point of production to a focus on both the point of production and reproduction. That’s what the piqueteros do. They say that if you’re unemployed you can’t organize into trade unions and withhold your labour. If you’re structurally unemployed you have to disrupt the daily functioning of the system. Similarly, if you’re an informal sector worker you can’t make demands on capital in the same way as a formal sector worker. So increasingly, the type of working class organization we need must address both production and reproduction – social movement unionism, for instance, linking neighborhood struggles to formal worker centers and so forth. We have to recognise this and work to deepen the transnational character of these struggles across the world.

In reimagining higher education as a point of production, reproduction and circulation of alternatives, this week’s Co-operative Education conference is important through its focus on Education about co-operatives, Education for co-operatives, and Education in a co-operative way. What is needed is a sense of how and where the subsumption of academic labour might be refused, and a higher education rooted in mass intellectuality beyond the University may be a starting-point.

 


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