I attended a seminar in Brighton on Thursday called Resisting Neoliberal Education: Alternative Systems, Discourse and Practice. My notes and thoughts from the event follow.
ONE. In the round-table introductions I realised that of the 15 attendees, I only knew three people. That means there are 11 other stories of resistance in the room. That’s a lot of new potential energy and possibility for #solidarity and association, and also hope.
TWO. In the roundtable Stephen O’Brien from Cork spoke about how he had written a triptych on learning outcomes, and made a point about how certain language and meaning and ways of working in the world get written into culture so that resistance becomes difficult. Contesting the hegemonic power of learning outcomes in educational practice and theory situates us asymmetrically against Pearson Education and their absolute obsession with learning outcomes as an educational business model. It situates us against the idea that aligning high stakes testing and educational improvement is a form of economic patriotism. It situates us against the commodification of educational relationships through data-mining and learning analytics. It situates us with Walter Stroup and his “rebellion” against standardisation. In this I am reminded that the detail is really important, and that life histories of specific technologies (follow the technology), fiscal innovations (follow the money), and pedagogical innovations (follow the technique), enable us to see who has voice and power. Pace Marx (footnote 4, Chapter 15, Volume 1 of Capital), we might note:
[a specific innovation] reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.
Critical in understanding and critiquing capitalist social relations and alternatives to it, is a focus on how learning appears to us, and how it appears to those with power [or their power-over our power-to-do].
TWO. In the roundtable, someone, and it’s remiss of me to forget who, spoke of the “unattractive nature of academic life” in its current anxiety-hardened, precarious form. I think that collectively we were questioning the representation and formation of the University and the consequences for learning and teaching (as opposed to the student experience).
THREE. Several people spoke about the idea of the public good. Rarely did we mention co-operativism or the Commons. I think that in re-imagining the University inside a new form of sociability, this is a rich space of potential and possibility. Joss Winn’s blog-post on re-imagining pulls a lot of this together, including Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer and the genesis of the Social Science Centre. There is also work to be done for us in thinking through and living the possibilities for transitional alternatives. I think that it is important to see alternative forms as transitional and pedagogic, and not to be fetishized. I reconsidered this in the face of Nadia Edmond’s (firm-but-fair) challenge to me about whether spaces like the Social Science Centre were alternatives that were sustainable or whether they are (my words) simply academic philanthropy. I also reconsidered this in light of remembering that the Really Open University had deliberately used the phrase “re-imagining the University.” The critical thing for me about the Social Science Centre is that it forms a laboratory for co-operative production, consumption and distribution that is about democratic organising principles (governance) for both the Centre and its activities, and its content (e.g. childcare arrangements, curricula, events). Whilst the current Know-How course might be represented inside some universities and through some courses, there are some “scholars” who do not wish to/cannot undertake such a course inside. Equally, the content and curriculum is co-negotiated and produced in a way that is different from the bulk of curricula inside. Finally, the production, consumption and distribution of the curriculum circulates inside-and-through the organisation of the Social Science Centre and informs its governance.
FOUR. A sense of work inside/outside the University was seen as pivotal in resisting or defining something different. This reminded me of Elise Thorburn’s brilliant article on autonomy and the Edufactory, in which she writes about the power-to-do that is situated in three strands: first, inside general assemblies as democratic governance and organisation; second, through militant research done in partnership; finally, through work done in public. I think this is the key to much of our re-imagining; that it is done in public as a democratic act of militant research. Someone at the seminar spoke of activist knowledge that “rows in behind”, as an act of solidarity and love. Through such acts, as a kind of solidarity economy, we might enable the amplification of alternatives as an asymmetrical definition of possible forms of sociability beyond the market. Here we might engage with the idea that no alternative is beyond the structural domination of capitalist social relations, but that we might take them to be transitional through a pedagogic appreciation of what it is to be in/against/beyond. But this takes courage and faith. Not to fetishise the institution, which is itself alienating, but to look for points of solidarity.
FIVE. Over lunch Steve O’Brien used the word monastic to describe much of his recent academic work. I love that term. I feel that in the aftermath of the moments of rage and impotence in the academic (staff and student) protests of 2010-11, for personal and academic reasons I became monastic, returning to theory and harvesting historical and material and global stories of resistance and alternatives and mending myself. There is something here about asking whether it is possible to rebuild oneself in the face of systemic alienation, as a brutal form of therapy, in order to embody one’s position. In order to return to a room where people can meet to listen and speak and voice effective demands.
SIX. Throughout I was reminded of fellowship and the links between fellowship, liberation and de/legitimation. This made me reconsider why I keep returning to this quote about liberation, the individual, the community and association, from Marx in The German Ideology:
The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.
This is about collective and invisible work in the name of counter-narratives and not fixed alternatives.
SEVEN. Ciaran Sugrue spoke about the defence mechanisms that individuals have as “multiple scripts” that are played out differentially depending on context. Steve O’Brien reminded me that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” These two interventions made me reconsider our defences against a world that is increasingly abstract and polarised around inequality and agony. This is especially so where Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK, the Labour Party, accept an hour-glass economy and the fact that some people will be losers in a globalised economy. Here we might again ask what does it mean to be inside/outside and how are our multiple scripts or defences, acts of self-harm or self-care? The work of Frantz Fanon on cognitive dissonance is important for me here, especially in Black Skin, White Masks.
EIGHT. Throughout I had the work of Anselm Jappe on my mind, and the asymmetry between humane values and the production and accumulation of value. In spite of my knowing that sociability, solidarity, fidelity, courage, hope, whatever, are produced and reproduced inside-and-against private property and value, I am reminded that Jappe wrote:
The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”). (p. 11)
But that in spite of this historically, material formation of values:
even value itself is not a “total” structure. It is “totalitarian” in the sense that it aspires to turn everything into a commodity. But it will never be able to because such a society would be completely unliveable (there would no longer, for example, be friendship, love, the bringing up of children, etc.). The necessity for value to expand pushes it towards destroying the entire concrete world and at every level, economic, environmental, social and cultural. The critique of value does not only foresee an economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions but also the end of an entire “civilisation” (if one can call it that). Even so, human life has not always been based on value, money and labour, even if it seems that some kind of fetishism has existed everywhere. (p. 12)
NINE. It feels important to me to have access to what someone called “resources for resistance”, to situate my work fixed in space-time, against those of others. I hope we can create such a collective thing. Someone else spoke of sharing stories and building life histories as a means of “keeping each other’s fire burning.” These are forms of Luddism. Forms of hacking. Forms of re-imagining.
TEN. I was reminded of Allyson Pollack’s work on an NHS Reinstatement Bill, as an act of courage, public justice and hope. I wondered about the possibility less for a manifesto, and more for a free, public Higher Education Re-instatement Bill.
ELEVEN. I read of Chris Hedges’ work on capitalism’s sacrifice zones, and the idea that “There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” Moreover, these zones are deliberately sacrificed in the pursuit of profit: “These are areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed”. This reminded me that as Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued:
we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.
In this she saw hope because:
the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.
This forced me to re-think:
- Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
- In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
- Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
- How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
- What is to be done?
TWELVE. I don’t think I used the word neoliberalism once. I realised that I have dropped it from my vocabulary as inappropriate. For me the issue is Capital and Labour, and neoliberalism was just a global, political economic, phase we were going through. This is about hegemony and counter-narratives. Here the work of William Robinson on global capitalism is important to me. Equally important is finding ways in which we can take the energy of the dominant discourse and (akin to a form of t’ai chi) displace it or use it against itself, by revealing stories of inhumanity and inequality and courage. Through an appeal to what it is to be a concrete human rather than an abstraction.