In, against and beyond the Co-operative University

We’re decadent beyond our means, we’ve a zeal

We feel the things they’ll never feel

They’re solemn in their wealth, we’re high in our poverty

We see the things they never see

Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck

Wild Beasts. 2014. Wanderlust.

Yesterday I was in Manchester for the Building the Cooperative University conference, which is an outcome of the work of the Co-operative University Working Group (hosted by the Co-operative College). The objectives for the day were:

  • to bring together those interested in ideas and practices around a Co-operative University, co-operative higher education and alternative approaches to learning;
  • to facilitate a mutually supportive environment which enables challenges, issues and solutions to be explored and discussed; and
  • to establish a Co-operative Higher Education Forum to promote cooperative and related adult and higher education initiatives.

We heard about a range of actually existing co-operative projects, including the Centre for Human Ecology, the Govan Folk University, the Brighton Free University, RED learning Co-op, Students for Cooperation, the Social Science Centre, Mondragon University and Leicester Vaughan College. There were a range of other projects, and historical, material alternatives that were voiced from the floor, in particular during the morning session. Each of these were situated against the work of Neary and Winn in co-operation, with the opening out of discussions on membership/governance, pedagogy/curriculum/knowledge, validation and accreditation, and finance. There is more at #coopuni.

I hold my hands-up that I have been involved for years in actual, material, radical/alternative education, through occupations/teach-ins, discussions of the governance of the Social Science Centre and Vaughan College, in educational work through the Walsall/Leicester City Supporters Trusts, and in educational work related to homelessness. Yet I found a day that should have been inspiring somewhat odd.

It had a revivalist feeling, yet a revival of co-operativism situated inside a pragmatically-accepted view of the market and profit. I understand and connect with the need to create something that prefigures a better world, and that is rooted in co-operative values and practices, but from the start I had a sense that we were there to receive wisdom that was almost pre-defined (as a better capitalism). I struggled throughout the day with understanding to what the Co-operative University is the answer. Now I guess this might be because I struggle with my own place both inside and outside formal higher education. It is also because we are witnessing the real subsumption of higher education inside transnational capitalism, and the inability of that system to reproduce stable forms of accumulation. As we wait for the next financial crisis I wonder what happens to indebted Co-operative University students when that hits? At the same time I realise that a Co-operative University inside a Co-operative College inside Co-operatives UK inside a world market and framed by co-operative consumption, has everyday realities of planned revenue streams and loans. And this simply amplifies by cognitive dissonance around what is to be done?

This shapes and reshapes how I view alternatives, in their perceived relationship to formal, corporate, control structures enacted through regulation and statute. In short, I found myself questioning why we are building an alternative model of the higher education institution, rooted in an outdated model of educational practice and governed in a way that perpetuates that outdated model. I found myself questioning whether this was a real alternative.

In part my questioning is situated against my own weltschmerz, in particular in the face of ongoing, secular capitalist crisis with its attendant punishing and disciplinary austerity. However, my questioning extends the nature of this socio-economic crisis, which is destroying the lives/futures of millions of people, into the terrain of socio-environmental crisis. I also wonder why we are building a model in this way that is deliberately connected to a hegemonic system of oppression, and which is rooted in contradictions and tensions around the ongoing nature of work and the availability of employment that is increasingly predicted to be marginalised/made redundant by technology in so many sectors. So in building for an unstable world that is increasingly governed by debt as a moment of social discipline, I found myself asking why are we building in this way for a capitalist world that is collapsing? Is building an alternative form of sociability impossible? I found myself questioning how to enact Rosa Luxemburg’s idea (on socialism or barbarism) that ’to push ahead to the victory of socialism we need a strong, activist, educated proletariat, and masses whose power lies in intellectual culture as well as numbers.’

Much of the day returned less to ideas around co-operative pedagogy and co-operative governance/values, and instead to issues of co-operative capital and finance. This reminded me of Mészáros’s critique of the dehumanising reality of the capital system, which reduces life to second-order mediations that maintain alienated-labour as the primary mediation of our lives. This was amplified when someone with the conch stated that he wished for such co-operative practices to realise a return on their investment. In that moment it felt impossible to escape from the gravitational pull of capital, and I was reminded that if another world is possible it will have to be built from the ruins of our present, inhuman situation, through our voluntary labour being liberated or repatriated from inside the corporate university and ploughed into a co-operative alternative instead. Without liberating time or stealing time in the name of co-operation, we will simply reproduce our existing alienation ad nauseam.

We have internalised capitalism’s value-set, rooted in productivity/intensity and where any alternative is seen as sinful. As Gorz argues in farewell to the working class, we need to realise something different. Tactical and affective autonomy reduces the acceptance of hierarchical discipline, and increases demands for the quality and content of work that is both necessary/in the sphere of heteronomy and free/in the sphere of autonomy. What we require is less a masculine, engineered, corporate life driven by technique, and instead one rooted in humane values where individuals rather than capital are sovereign. Anything otherwise makes capital/exploitation/appropriation central to a productive life, and diminishes the space for a useful life.

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx describes the sphere of freedom or autonomy beginning beyond the sphere of necessity or heteronomy. Freedom consists of being able to work with as much dignity and efficiency as possible (in the sphere of necessity) for as brief a time as possible. It is important that a heteronomous sphere is subordinate to the sphere of autonomy, with the maximum efficiency and the least expenditure of effort and resources. The key is to make it possible for individuals to move from heteronomous, wage-based social labour effected in the general interest and requiring little time or intense involvement, to autonomous activities which carry their end in themselves. Can a Co-operative University help facilitate this as an alternative model, or only extend the apparently necessary labour based on production for exchange rather than use?

This is crucial as labour is increasingly proletarianised and jobs are abolished, and it demands a re-evaluation of the sphere of necessity, what is necessary in order to sustain life, and an end to bullshit work and bullshit jobs that are unnecessary and simply flood the market with useless use-values or exchange-values. Quite how we get to this is another matter, yet during the day I was constantly reminded of the work of more militant and radical, social movements, which had focused upon general assemblies, militant research, and work done in public, as actually-existing autonomy. Connections between such social movements, enacted through solidarity mechanisms and solidarity economies, and focused upon the generation of forms of mass intellectuality that can in turn act as counter-narratives, seem increasingly important in the struggle against the corporate university and marketised higher education.

In this, the reality that the new Office for Students can only drive a market agenda, rooted in strengthening the forces of production of knowledge, rather than democratising the relations of production of knowledge, acts as a brake on the alternative positions that any Co-operative University can develop. Where such associational, democratic positions sit in asymmetrical relation to governance and regulation that amplifies the power of marketised solutions, and which drive value-creation rather than humane values, they have little opportunity to counter hierarchy, power and hegemony rather than point towards horizontal, democratic solutions. Here I am left wondering what will be the practical orientation of a Co-operative University to society? Inside a competitive regulatory, governance and funding system, operating across global terrain, in which universities act as nodes in transnational capitalist networks (transnational associations of capital), how is it possible for a Co-operative University not to be co-opted? In a world where there is no monolithic institution, and no outside of capital, where pedagogy gets reformed and repurposed as excellence, what is a Co-operative University regulated by the office for students for? Moreover, inside such governance, what is it possible for a Co-operative University to be? Inside these structuring realities, how can co-operative values survive against the law of value? Years ago I wrote, pace John Holloway, about activism and exodus and the relationship between capital and the University:

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

There was one final point that emerged through the day and it was rooted in co-operative pedagogy, and co-operative classroom practices. I found the day exhausting because I was talked at for so long, and there was relatively little space for participation. It was almost as if the structure of the day was set up in order to drive a particular set of processes, which were neither co-operative nor recuperative. I am not sure what the structure of the day prefigured. This added to my confusion about the purpose of the day, and the nature of what was given/heteronomous/necessary versus where we had freedom/autonomy to define both the issues around co-operative education and the question to which the co-operative University was the answer.

In the afternoon session I attended the pedagogy, curriculum and knowledge break-out group, and one of the attendees highlighted that we should be talking about dialogue, praxis and the development of the critical consciousness. There was a real dialectical tension in the room as participants attempted to strip back the layers of co-operative pedagogy, curriculum and knowledge, and a general refusal to engage with questions around what is knowledge for and how should the curriculum be governed. Instead interventions pointed towards the nature of socially-useful knowledge, and its relationship to inside/outside the corporate university. There was a focus on the production of such knowledge through practices that were constantly prefiguring something more democratic, as moments of struggle or rupture. In these ways it felt like there was an urgency around dissolving the practices of producing socially-useful knowledge and that knowledge itself inside the fabric of society. Throughout there was an unfolding of why, and a desire to engage with Neary’s question of how do revolutionary teachers teach in a time of crisis?

Is it possible to reconnect co-operative relations of production and values, to co-operative projects, to the co-operative College and into a federated co-operative University? Moreover I wonder how it is possible to connect these activities and moments of becoming to the development of a solidarity federation across a range of other sectors of civil society, in order to develop counter-narratives? It strikes me that the conversations that happen in the margins are key. Conversations that happen in counter-positions, like Rhodes Must Fall, are key. Conversations that happen in spaces that are not white and male and privileged are key. Here, I do not wish to discuss becoming a challenger institution or a moment of disruption, where those challengers and those disruptors simply enable capital to reinvent itself through forms of de-/re-territorialisation.

Rather, I continue to wonder, how is it possible to reimagine the University? How can the Co-operative University enable us to believe that another world is possible?

Or am I just a Cassandra; a Jeremiah; anti-everything?


One Response to In, against and beyond the Co-operative University

  1. Pingback: The Co-op Uni: From Pedagogy to Governance and Back – RoughBounds

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