US(S) v Them, over and over again

So it’s us v. them/Over and over again

Us v. them/Over and over again

Us v. them/Over and over again

LCD Soundsystem, Us V Them.

‘An age of crisis, such as the present, is an age of rage. It is an age of frustrated expectations, frustrated hopes, frustrated life. We want to study at the university, but it is too expensive and there are no grants. We need good health care, but we do not have the money to pay for it. We need homes, we can see homes standing empty, but they are not for us. Or quite simply, for the millions and millions of people in the world who are starving: we want to eat: we can see that the food is there, that there is plenty of food for everyone in the world, but something stands between us and the food – money, or rather the fact that we don’t have enough of it.’

‘That does not mean that we do not want money, necessarily. Money is the form that wealth takes in this society, and as the producers of that wealth, we all want to participate in it. In the present society, no matter how austerely we may (or may not) like to live, we need money to live and to realise our projects. So yes, we want more money, for ourselves, for the universities, for schools and hospitals, for gardens and parks, for projects that point towards a different world, and so on. But we do not want a world that is ruled by money, we do not want a world in which the richness that we produce takes the form of money, we do not want a world in which money is the dominant form of social cohesion, the medium through which our social relations are established.’

John Holloway, Rage Against the Rule of Money.

Want to do something about the USS strike? Follow the money. Do not see this as incompetent institutional or sector-wide managers needing to be brought to heel. This is class struggle; it is the asymmetrical struggle between a fraction of total labour encompassing some academics (with support from some students), and capital operating as a transnational activist network, working to reproduce power. Reproducing hegemony through exploitation and domination. Our struggle has to be seen inside-and-against the ongoing re-engineering of higher education – its real subsumption. This is the struggle by an association of capitals to extract value from education through commodification, and to ensure that our educational lives become defined by productivity and human capital theory.

Elsewhere, I write:

This idea of the subsumption of academic labour inside the circuits of capital is increasingly important in light of Marx’s (1992; 1993a) focus on the associational phase of capital, in which development emerges on a global terrain, with an interrelationship between commercial and money-dealing capital and productive capital. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include associations of policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students, who form a deterritorialised network (Ball 2012; Deem et al. 2007; McGettigan 2013; 2014; Robinson 2004). Here, the expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit, and in educational production it is leveraged through the use of finance capital and credit to increase the rate of turnover of specific educational commodities and services-as-commodities (Gartner 2013; Lipman 2009).

Through the USS strike we witness the assault on life by money. This is the commodification of working lives that we say that we love (and that we tell our students we love), and which we are told that we should love (a love that defines our being). And we have seen this coming. Andrew McGettigan has been writing about this for almost a decade. Back in 2011 he wrote about bond finance, making connections between the United States and United Kingdom as the latter began a process of engagement with finance capital through private placements. In it, he quotes an academic and union leader at the University of California commenting on the relationship between bond finance, credit ratings and university strategy:

Moody’s slipped into its bond rating for the UC system the need for the institution to restrain labour costs, increase tuition, diversify revenue streams, feed the money-making sectors, and resist the further unionisation of its employees.

Not only is this a strategy of diminishing a sense of collective, educational use-value, it forms part of the process of dissolving the fabric of the University as a concrete social institution, such that it becomes open to generating tradable services. The rule of money and the role of finance capital has a solvent effect on the relationship between academic labour and the University. The idea is to ensure that high-value academic commodities, including skills and knowledge, can generate exchange-value. Moreover, in the process of dissolving the fabric of the institution, this transfers a significant portion of the risk around performance in the market from the institution to the academic. In this way we see a twin-assault on academic labour: first, in the ramping up of student fees and the ideological repositioning of education around entrepreneurialism and employability; and second, in the assault on pensions, which is the bleeding edge of a wider assault on staff labour rights.

Clearly, this offers a point of potential refusal and struggle, because it is the moment in which student and staff struggles over the alienation of their (academic) labour come into alignment. The terrain of alienation focuses upon control over the labour-process and the products of that labour, alongside conceptions of the self and relationships with others. For too long there has been a denial of solidarity between staff and students and limited push-back against conceptions of students as consumers or purchasers, and education solely for impact, excellence, employability, entrepreneurship and the production of performance metrics. Of course, the ability to push-back depends upon the ability to theorise the position we now find ourselves in, and the extent to which we are able to use this theorisation to imagine that another world is possible. This means that settling solely for reform of institutional governance is a non-starter.

The pensions struggle demands a recognition that our society increasingly pivots around the transfer of risk to individuals as entrepreneurs, in order to support policy directives for productivity. It is about commodification of life, hidden behind an ideological sheen of austerity-inspired entrepreneurialism, employability and human capital development. It is the reduction of life to human capital, and this is reprehensible. It is the de-leveraging or de-risking of society from the individual. The disconnection of the individual from society as the latter is defined solely in terms of value, to the point of denying our common humanity beyond the market. It is the de-leveraging of humane values from institutional meaning, unless they are able to generate value.

Thus, we read that the governance issues around the valuation of the USS fund connect Cambridge colleges, Universities UK and consultants focused upon de-risking. As etymologic notes on Twitter:

The plot thickens: UUK surveys from Cambridge & its colleges were CREATED by a consultant from Xafinity. Xafinity’s work includes “de-risking” Defined-Benefit pension schemes – the company tell investors that this brings additional revenue.

The emerging struggle over the life-blood of the University, and of the power of merchant, credit and finance capital as they insinuate competition inside the logic of education, must pivot around what we want from academic production as a social activity. Do we envisage that it can only serve the market and money? Do we envisage that this is no way to address the range of crises that afflict the planet? This is important because the pensions struggle reflects an ongoing crisis of value, which has been described elsewhere as a secular crisis of capitalism.

Those staff who have faced the threat of large-scale redundancies, including in the present moment at Liverpool, and those casualised and precarious staff, have already faced this reality (including professional services and graduate teaching assistant colleagues who have been fighting for labour rights, maternity/paternity and pensions for years). It is also been clear to many of us that the drive towards metrics is rooted in the commodification of individual, institutional and subject-based performance, from which debt and debt-servicing can form an ongoing income stream, against which to hedge performance in this crisis of value.

The generation of value and the denial of values is a function of stratification and separation, which is amplified where corporations control the surplus value that is produced through commodification. In such moments, they can discipline and divide production through labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with collectivised academic labour. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers fulfilling a range of roles, solidarity and co-operation are under threat because of ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation.

This process needs a market, and if one doesn’t already exist it must be created. This means market exit looms large, and has been written into policy for almost a decade. This need for a market is also extended to potential students who carry debt, and who are encouraged to purchase commodities or services-as-commodities, as positional goods. Thus, the material circumstances of the production, purchase and circulation of educational commodities are critical, and they catalyse policy as a means of restructuring intellectual work or academic labour.

That some academics’ futures are being hedged can only be the beginning for this struggle. The USS strike is about the reproduction of capital on a global terrain. Therefore, responses to it cannot simply be about individual vice-chancellors or institutional governance failings. Responses to cannot simply come from self-appointed spokesman (and they are generally always white, middle-aged men – I note the irony here). We need a set of responses that originate horizontally and collectively, and which seek to remove academic privilege, and to remove the allegedly privileged position of academic labour. We need a set of responses that focus upon intellectual work at the level of society. There are three strands to where we possibly take this moment of revelation and uncovering.

ONE. The University and the capital-relation

In How to Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway argues that we deceive ourselves if we believe that the structures that have developed and which exist in order to reproduce capitalist social relations can be used as a means to overcome its alienating organisation of work. Holloway makes this point for the structure of the democratic state as a symbol of failed revolutionary hope. We might argue the same for 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.

The USS strike has to be stitched into the reproduction of the University as a node in the reproduction of capital, and more especially in the reproduction of transnational finance capital. This brings academic collectives, including students, into asymmetrical relation with hegemonic power. The struggle has to reflect these asymmetrical power relations, and be geared across a front of solidarity rooted in an alternative form of society, otherwise it will break. This is why I previously wrote about the strike in terms of a wider social strike.

TWO. Breaking the circulation of academic capital

The value of pushing for prefigurative, co-operative and alternative forms of governance for higher education institutions is that they then act as a replicable cell across society as a whole, which potentially draws in students and their communities, academics and professional services staff and their communities, and other groups fighting for social/collective goods. There is a long history of co-operative governance, and inside higher education Joss Winn has maintained a list of writing and projects about co-operation. This is a fundamental starting place for work related to alternative governance. It is crucial work inside organisations, but the ability to affect corporate governance is limited by the range of associated capitals in opposition. The staff and students of any one institution are not simply ranged against that institution, but also against its partners-as-vested-interests, which tend to include finance capital, policymakers, philanthrocapitalists. This is therefore a struggle defined by power, and that is why a reformist agenda that points towards a better or more inclusive capitalist project is destined to fail.

The strength of academic labour in refusing co-option, coercion and exploitation, lies in the fact that capital relies on labour for its reproduction through valorisation and commodification. Academic labour, working in solidarity, has the potential to refuse that reproduction. One of the most important features of the current strike has been an engagement with academic labour, beyond the commodities that it produces, through a reconsideration of the academic labour-process. It is in our ability to disrupt the circulation of value emerging from academic labour that our own strength lies. This is why the UCU call for external examiners to resign their positions is so important, and it is also why action short of a strike or working to contract is so important. The University relies upon an excess of surplus-labour being poured into it because academics continually tell themselves they love what they do, despite the fact that this makes their souls bleed, increases overwork, generates ill-being and mental health issues, and insinuate competition inside each of us.

What is required is a wholesale description of the circulation of value inside the University, and the replication of that across society. Time then becomes critical, because it flags how policymakers do not see the concrete nature of academic work, and instead focus upon its abstract, general properties as evinced through exchange. At some point we need to find strategies for demonstrating an alternative way of imagining academic labour that is not governed by abstract time. However whilst we address this, it becomes important to use managements workload planning in position to demonstrate to students and their communities, families and carers, how much surplus labour is being poured into the institution. This means flagging how much time is allotted for assessment, feedback, curriculum design, lesson design and so on, and what that means for academic lives, workloads and abilities to meet student needs. We need to demonstrate the collective implications of the imposition of overwork and the domination of time over academic practice, in order that we might collectively describe another world.

It is crucial that we focus upon academic labour as a collective endeavour, with its connection across institutions that are either on strike or not on strike, and working inter-generationally between tenured and non-tenured staff and with students/professional services staff, and working inter-communally beyond the University into society. The strength here lies in describing a broad movement of solidarity and dignity, which situates narratives of exploitation that have differential and intersectional impacts. These descriptions of lived experience of the crisis of value can then be used to question our abstract, alienating reality.

THREE. Histories of resistance

It is important to remember that we have countless examples of resistance that have a lineage in praxis back to the eruption of occupations, demonstrations and protests following the Browne review. One of the interesting things for me in the recent pensions strike has been how some academics have become ‘woke’ and yet have not been able to engage with a rich history of academic activism. I think that it is very important that we question why we failed collectively to act when the government, with collusion from vice chancellors, was able to impose huge rises in student tuition fees. It is important that we question why we failed collectively to speak out when the state was brutalizing our students as they marched through London and were kettled on countless occasions earlier in this decade. I think that it is very important for us to question what we will do differently now, in support of our students and their communities, alongside other struggles at the level of society, rather than seeing a pension strike as our soul focus. In this moment we have to move beyond narrow self-interest.

NB I state that we failed collectively, not that we failed individually. I know full-well that many of us did not fail individually.

There are links to a range of alternative education projects on the sociological imagination website, and each of these projects points to a range of strategies and tactics for disrupting the University in its relation to capital, or for disrupting the University as means of production for the capital-relation. We do still have a range of projects looking at the development of alternative forms of governance, including the Social Science Centre in Lincoln in discussions over a Co-operative University being facilitated by the Co-operative College. We also have a series of student-produced, documentary resources about the realities of occupation and the ability to reimagine the University, such as the Really Open University, the Roundhouse Journal’s Reimagining the University and Guy Aitchison’s work on the occupation of UCL, which Connects to the political content of the occupy movement.

I guess what I’m pointing to here is the re-imagination of the pension strike, in terms of what academic labour can learn from social movements and social movement theory.

This is a movement against stratification, separation, divorce and alienation. This is a movement against estrangement from self and other, and it is a movement for solidarity and dignity.


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