on resistance to the HE White Paper

Since I posted on the HE White Paper and academic practice, I have been thinking about obstacles or resistances that could be placed in the way. In the post, I contended the following.

Revealing the ways in which the White Paper is part of a process of on-going expropriation and pauperisation, of everyday life, of academic autonomy, of care and love inside the classroom, of academic development, is a starting point.

What follows must describe and play-out the conditional development of the social productivity of academic labour, for an alternative set of values beyond the market and instrumental financialisation.

Here we might ask, what can we do in association to resist and refuse the disciplinary instrumentalism of the White Paper and the TEF?

What can we do in association with those struggling for labour rights like trades unions, or with cross-sector groups like the HE Convention/Campaign for the Public University?

What can we do in association to refuse the competitive urges of some university “leaders”?

What can we do in association to frame a counter-position that frames an alternative vision for higher education?

What can we do in association with other public-facing workers, in education, in health, in social care, and so on, to define an alternative vision for our collective work? Can we use this as a moment to define alternatives to the law of value as the organising principle for social life?

Part of this work needs to be situated against the fact that the UK context is one of low resistance to the logics of neoliberalism. Here there has been an acceptance that austerity is necessary or ethically-sound. In fact, the primary discussion has been whether policy can or should support economic expansion or whether (in its anti-Keynesianism) it catalyses contraction and therefore threatens job security. One of the issues in revisiting this discussion, as a precursor to opposition, is then the balance between: imperceptible opposition (mutterings); non-disruptive resistance (marches and demos); disruptive resistance (as a function of trade union actions); and militancy (occupations, withdrawal of labour, worker-co-option of workplaces).

The work of David Bailey and Saori Shibata on moving from defeat to obstruction, highlights that in low resistance States, for substantial impact on any proposed neoliberal policy, the sufficient conditions for a substantial impact (a roll-back) are that they need disruption and militancy. The recent Junior Doctors’ action is a case in-point, grounded in labour rights and the idea of the public, although it has not catalysed broader, NHS reinstatement action. However, in HE there has been high-levels of policy disengagement by much of the workforce (staff and students), in spite of the principled opposition by individuals and associations. For instance, UCU and Unison have focused energies on immediate issues of labour rights, rather than on developing alternatives.

Bailey and Shibata’s analysis focuses upon resistance: by engaging with a critique of the likely, negative outcomes of any policy (including sharing concrete examples of those outcomes in order to build solidarity); through developing the ‘weapons of the weak’; by highlighting and making central the entrenched interests of those affected by reform; through outright refusal; and by influencing the role of decision-makers and decision-takers. As such, refusals can take the form of non-compliance, enacting governance problems, or the direct prevention of the reform and its implementation.

As Danny Yee argues in his review of Peter Scott’s The Weapons of the Weak:

conformity is calculated, not unthinking, and beneath the surface of symbolic and ritual compliance there is an undercurrent of ideological resistance, just as beneath the surface peace there is continuous material resistance. Scott considers the consequences of all this for definitions of resistance. Four criteria have commonly been required for ‘genuine’ resistance: it must be collective and organised rather than private and unorganised; it must be principled and selfless rather than opportunistic and selfish; it must have revolutionary consequences; and it must negate rather than accept the basis of domination.

In terms of the HE White Paper, there is a need to think through the potential for waves of struggle, which demonstrate the solidarity between various groups of affected workers and others across society whom the reforms will impact. The points of solidarity include: the embodied toll that neoliberal restructuring and austerity takes on mental and physical health, including in families; the control of performance and activity; the reduction of life to work; and, the inability of the curriculum to manage issues of crisis concerning poverty, climate change, on-going colonialism and so on. The points of solidarity connect:

  • Academic staff who are subject to increased workload and performance management;
  • Academic staff whose workload requirements are marginalising the rest of their lives, as parents, carers, partners, friends, so that never-ending, entrepreneurial work dominates;
  • Students whose work is defined by debt as a commodity or purchased as a service, rather than being regarded as work that should be reimbursed through a wage;
  • Students whose education is solely predicated on productivity and employability, with contributions to social or care work being marginalised;
  • Student of colour, who are protesting and refusing the on-going colonisation of the curriculum;
  • Precariously-employed graduate teaching assistants, or those for whom tenure is becoming an impossibility;
  • Professional services staff for whom the restructuring of back-office functions entails outsourcing or an attrition on labour rights, and amplifies forms of social dumping;
  • Graduates saddled with increasing amounts of debt and weak job prospects, in the face of automation, on-going recession, and so on;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is covered by the Educational Excellence Everywhere White paper, which promises the privatisation and data-driven commodification of pre-HE education;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is also affected by the Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Act (2015), which enables metrics and longitudinal data to be collated about individuals to drive the production of economic value;
  • Community groups fighting for social justice, for instance in refugee, housing or gender rights; and
  • Workers in notionally public-facing industries, where ideas of public service or the public good (contested as those terms are) are being lost, and for whom the realities of austerity are disciplinary (such as the campaign for an NHS Reinstatement Bill).

Here there is a need to redefine the terms of resistance as cross-sectoral, acting communally or socially, precisely because those communal or social aspects of our identities are being marginalised or reduced, as work and productivity becomes our everything. I have written about this, in terms of HE and the oppositional possibility of social strikes, as a moment of refusal of increased teaching intensity. This is situated through the definition of directional demands. As I argue against teaching intensity:

common struggle is critical in refusing the precepts of the [White] Paper. Such common struggled would join with those who are calling for refusal of TTIP, beyond education and in terms of other social goods like healthcare. It would connect intergenerational refusals of debt and indenture, which are shackling families with debt so that they become competitive rather than co-operative. It would connect with others who are precariously employed, in order to work-up moments of refusal and negation, and to demonstrate alternatives.

In this approach there is a need to disrupt the circuits of educational production that are wreaking further violence on higher education, and thereby wreaking violence on our home and social lives. Without such disruption, the ways in which we reproduce ourselves will become increasingly precarious.

Forms of resistance then take the form of moments of solidarity that contest and disrupt the bases of material power. Part of this might be managed through local and national solidarity campaigns between student, academic and professional services trades unions, as long as those unions do not subjugate collective bargaining to economic recovery that is predicated on austerity. Mechanisms must be found to block the circuits of capital accumulation, and the imposition of the rule of money inside education. Part of this is to find moments of radical solidarity, for instance in a focus on debt-free education, and in support of debt jubilees, or the strike debt movement. Part of this is to discuss the importance of time, and in particular of working time and the intensity of the working day. Finding ways to resist overwork are critical, especially between academics, students and precariously-employed staff. Part of this is to find ways to refuse the generation of mental and physical ill-health inside the University and across communities, by refusing to accept the impact and implementation of policy.

Finding spaces for dissent, and for remembering that we each have identities beyond work that are being ruptured, which need recording and sharing as forms of solidarity, are crucial moments in generating energy for alternatives. Finding the time and space to slow or to stop the University are also important. In part this is to support the activities that are being marginalised, like caring and loving and living. In part it is to support capacity-building for alternatives. In part it is to support forms of communal or educational governmentality that are rooted in an alternative imagining of HE, like that to be proposed by the Second Convention for HE. Here the autonomous imagination of staff, students, parents, community groups and graduates might enable us to shape what Dinerstein envisages as a concrete utopia.

The role of time is central in this. Time shapes productivity, intensity, and the creation of value. Disrupting and reclaiming time is a revolutionary act because it is about claiming that time for ourselves and our humanity. Reclaiming time in the face of the HE White Paper is a deeply pedagogic act. Perhaps the most radical pedagogic act we can imagine, because it is an intervention in the ways that we have been taught to experience or reproduce the world. Reclaiming time with others is potentially a way of enacting a slow-motion exodus from austerity and subsequently the domination of capitalist social relations. At issue is whether some form of horizontal organising through general assemblies, radical and collective research, and work done in public, can converge with vertical organising through trade unions and political parties, in order to reframe our collective and individual desires away from being willing slaves of capital. Or is it all we can do to drag our feet?

Here the logics of action must be more than our identities solely defined as teachers or students. They are rooted in class, identity, community, and social rights. They situate specific issues like indentured study or performance management or workload monitoring, against wider policies of austerity. Rather than waiting of an alternative political economy to emerge, the logics of action require an on-going rupture that is constantly reshaped by struggle and which is formative in that it emerges from below. In this way it is more likely to be representative of our humanity, rather than our increasingly cybernetically-controlled existence where our lives are routinely managed.

A key issue is where does our limited energy go in all this? Resisting on all fronts is an exhausting impossibility. Resisting whilst we try to live is also potentially exhausting. Can we resist where we have a lack of agency or control? How do we push back against the normalisation of metrics that feeds into the violence of aspiration, or the internalised desire to optimise our personal and familial outcomes, as they are set by the market?

  1. How do we work collectively inside and across institutions, and between teachers and students, to refuse the TEF? Or must we simply attempt to occupy and recompose the TEF?
  2. How do tenured academics connect to the concerns of precariously-employed staff, alongside indentured students and their families?
  3. How do we build and disseminate stories of the impact of the policies of austerity, in order to build the movement and the alternative?
  4. How do workers’ unions inside and across institutions, including students, academics and professional services staff, disrupt capital accumulation, and divert space and time to the idea of the public?
  5. How do we build a movement against standardised testing and metrics-driven education? How do we recover our humanity through connection to other campaigns?
  6. How do we connect our work inside institutions to other, concrete and local, social campaigns against austerity?

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