For the communal university in the face of debt and polyarchy


The rule of money as the prime motive force in UK higher education after the White Paper of 2010 led Natalie Fenton to write that

“The brutal enforcement of market principles into every aspect of higher education is a direct attack on equality and the value of public education for all. It is a turn away from equality of opportunity and a rush towards students as units of revenue and departments as profit centres” (p. 110).

Fenton positions cash, value and the market as a set of objects within a clear ideological space, and then links this space to a process of separation and individuation of education. This ideological attack sits against what might be categorised as liberal, humanist values like equality of opportunity (or occasionally equality) that in turn chime with our collectivised hopes for a better type of capitalism; a better capitalism that mixes growth and employability, sustainability and living wages, fair pensions-for-all and development grants.

The brutality of the separation that underpins the UK Coalition Government’s educational austerity is revealed as the enclosure and asset-stripping of education as a process, and its dismantling into components from which rent or surplus value or profit can be extracted. These components might be measureable inputs like student feedback, or outputs like employability, the effects of which we have been desensitised to over a number of years through the strategic agendas of previous Labour Governments, or they might be sector-wide dislocations like de-regulation/privatisation through student number controls and changes to degree-awarding powers, or re-regulation over the role of HEFCE or the place of Key Information Sets. As a result Des Freedman, writing with Fenton, has argued that

“Universities are being encouraged to think and act like private providers and the White Paper is designed to facilitate a wholescale cultural shift in which all universities need to think of themselves now as part of a competitive marketplace.”


Richard Murphy argues that this cultural shift is predicated upon the rule of money, enabled through a “policy designed to provide the financial markets with a new form of collateralised debt obligation that they can trade now that mortgages are not available to meet the demand for such products.” Murphy argues that we are witnessing a clear attempt to break the intergenerational contract, which links social relationships and access to resources access to socialised goods like education, healthcare and pensions. In this view, by forging artificial scarcity of, or indentured access to, resources, we risk the marketisation of our common wealth, of goods held in common, at a point when socio-environmental dislocations demand a retreat from the treadmill logic of the market.

Murphy’s solution focuses upon corporate wealth rather than individual income, and ties education to the workings of a capitalist economy. He argues “that companies should pay an additional tax to provide university education for all those wishing to participate, and that they do so from payment of an additional corporate tax payable only by large companies in the UK”. This is, of course, a hope for a better or less rapacious capitalism, and one that might create a compact between private, shareholder wealth and public, stakeholder value. However, it doesn’t help us to escape from the internal logic of capitalism, which demands the expanding valorisation of value as its own life-blood. It has embedded within it the same need for growth, for the extraction of surplus-value, for the subsumption of labour under capital, for the commodification of everyday experience. It is not a full-stop in the face of the contradictions of capital.

Our inability to imagine any kind of existence, or any form of value as the mediation of our lives, beyond the logic of capital and the rule of money is being extended to the University and the student experience. In this the Times Higher Education reports that “A number of universities are at risk of a financial contagion crisis similar to that in the eurozone.” That this report comes from banking analysts demonstrates the power-shift emerging in educational policy and practice, furthering Murphy’s contention that the HE sector is seen as a vehicle for the expansion of finance capital and the use of risk as a tool for the extraction of value. The report highlights how this underpins increasing competition and marketisation of the education sector: “Stewart Ward, head of education sector at RBS Corporate and Institutional Banking, which currently directly lends about £1.25 billion to the sector, told Times Higher Education that in the past six months the spread in the price of borrowing for higher-ranked institutions and those lower down the league tables had widened.”


No longer are individual Universities embedded in a web of socialised goods, underpinned by a public policy that welcomes and nurtures an intergenerational or inter-institutional compact. No longer is this web bounded by negotiated practices and governed in the public interest. No longer is the health of the sector the main issue; the key concern now is the financial power of individual universities in a competitive environment. Thus, we see a second Times Higher report on the farrago at the University of Wales, which “was brought down by [quality issues in] validation, its money-making machine… [and] how others might be stopped from putting cash before quality.”

In this revealing of the rush to monetise higher education, the havoc being wrought on the sector leads to two comparisons, one related to football, the other to the failure of national politics. In both we see the subsumption of politics as descriptions of the forms of our everyday life, to outsourced, unaccountable economic power, and more specifically to transnational finance capital.

  1. The possibility that the HE sector may come to resemble the English football league post-1992 following the deal made to form the Premiership, which lead to: the league being ruled by the power of money (witness the power of BSkyB, the influx of transnational capital in the form of hedge funds and corporates in club governance); the ossification of success/competitiveness (witness the limited number of clubs capable of sustaining challenges for the League or for Cups); the growth of indebtedness and administration (in particular where clubs chase access to the Premiership/TV deals); and the need for special pleading for/activism by supporters (in terms of fan ownership, supporter democracy and the rising costs of attending games).
  2. That the HE sector may now become subject to the same transnational governance logic that places bankers in charge of national Governments in order to implement austerity packages and quieten the markets (witness the anti-democratic take-over of Greece in the name of the markets). As financial risk, collateralised debt obligations and individualised indenture enters HE, and the value of the sector to finance capital grows, why will politicians and banks leave management of the sector to academics?

We are then witnessing the very real possibility that academic practice and scholarship will be further kettled/enclosed and brutalised by the rule of money. The metaphor of kettling academic practice is important here because it focuses upon controlling, subduing and ultimately criminalising protest. It is about techniques and mechanisms for subjugation, and the discourses of debt, the rights of consumers and the market are key structures for ensuring subjugation.


The question then becomes how to respond. However, responses tend to be unable to see beyond the politics of power that are revealed inside capitalism. Thus, we see clarion calls for a better capitalism, or for equality of opportunity or for equality, without a critique of our history of labour-in-capitalism from which these values emerge. As we are unable to take a systemic view of the crisis, we are unable to separate out how we define our humanist values from our need to create value as the primary form of social mediation within capitalism. Our values are predicated on liberal democracy, on tropes of equality or liberty, or on often ill-defined practices/qualities like respect or openness. Even inside the University, we are unable to think the unthinkable; to imagine a different form of life.

In attempting a more meaningful critique we might seek to locate the University inside the emerging critiques of polyarchy and network governance. Polyarchy is an attempt to define an elitist form of democracy that would be manageable in a modern society. It focuses upon normalising what can be fought for politically, in terms of: organisational contestation through free and fair elections; the right to participate and contest offices; and the right to freedom of speech and to form organisations. This forms a set of universal, transhistorical norms. It is simply not acceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation without appearing to be a terrorist, communist, dissident or agitator. Within the structures of polyarchy it no longer becomes possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or its limited procedural definition of democracy inside capitalism. Compounding this political enclosure is the control of the parameters of discussions about values or value-relationships like democracy and equality, or power and class, or as George Caffentzis argues over the morality of student loan debt refusal.

Key here then is to understand how the University supports the ways in which neoliberal capitalism intentionally designs, promotes and manages forms of democracy and governance that complement its material objectives, limit participation and power-sharing, and support coercion. Thus we might question how the rhetoric of student-as-consumer enables the market to penetrate the sector, in order to open its resources up to the dominant or hegemonic order, and to manufacture consent for its practices. Manufacturing this consent depends upon coercion of the political cadre of organisational leaders. However, it is critical that once economic and productive power has been extended into, for instance, the educational space, that domination extends to the political, social and class-based relations in that space, through the implementation of ideological control throughout the mechanisms/institutions and cultures of civil society. We are simply not allowed to step beyond the controlling logic of the rights of consumers.

Part of the response might be shaped by a critique of network politics and power inside counter-hierarchies. Gramsci, whilst accepting the base-superstructure relationships of Second International Marxism, saw these relationships as a fluid interplay of forces in which different power and political configurations were possible, and where new hegemonies could emerge from the interplay between political and civil society. Developing these new counter-hegemonies or alternative spaces both for organising civil society and for imaging new forms of value, depended not upon the market or the rights of consumers, but on human consciousness and human relationships.

Thus, any focus on networks as decentralised political spaces, or as participative, democratic alternatives has to be placed inside and against a critique of power and political economy. Those networks are themselves not the response to crises of political society, riven as they are with issues of power, social capital and hierarchy. What they offer is a new set of spaces for the construction of revolutionary potential, especially where they are underpinned by a communication commons that resists the reincorporation or normalisation of communicative action and dissent by capital. It might be argued that this is a key element to the occupy movement, that it incorporates diverse educational spaces for testing the truisms of civil society, and for re-imagining the world that is against and possibly beyond capital. This is not to reify what is offered as free on the web but which is circumscribed and embedded within capitalist social relations and which therefore offers no transformatory potential.

In recovering the possibility of overcoming socio-environmental dislocations, new forms of resistance that are against polyarchy and precription in education are needed. In the past we might have imagined these emerging from incubation inside the University. The obsession with free content, revealed in the clamour for openness or open or free, distracts us from the revolutionary need for general assemblies as democratic potentialities within education, for militant research strategies and for undertaking educational activity in public. Now we might have to imagine new forms of University life inside the Commune, where we can reveal the transnational nature of the attack on our educational lives, which uses procedural control over values like democracy and equality in order to kettle our existence and extend the rule of money. The question then is how to turn that Communal University into meaningful counter-hegemonic practice that can resist, push back against and overturn the rule of money.

For the University as radicalised space

On Tuesday 13 December De Montfort University will be hosting the Roots of Violent Radicalisation Conference, which has been organised by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee. I will be speaking in the workshop on how Universities can best counter violent radicalisation. I will make the following four points.

  1. The University has a radical, historical tradition that is politicised, and which enables both deliberation about and the legitimisation of alternative positions. Importantly, these positions might be realised inside the University.
  2. Most radicalism is not violent, but seeks to refuse, negate and push back against marginalisation and de-legitimisation, through tactics of deliberation, denial or disobedience.
  3. Current University tactics against protest mirror the state of exception imposed by the State, and that this reinforces marginalisation and de-legitimisation. Thus, strategies for coercion are being imposed and are kettling scholarly debate.
  4. The University should fight to recover itself as a space for general assembly and deliberation, and that this work should be done in public, in order to engage with the roots to violent radicalisation.

Point one: the radical University tradition. There is a distinct and vibrant strand of radicalism, as opposed to violent radicalisation, that infuses the historic idea of the University. This strand connects Newman’s declaration that the University was a site for the “collision of mind with mind”; to Humboldt’s view that “Education of the individual must everywhere be as free as possible, taking the least possible account of civic circumstances. Man educated in that way must then join the State and, as it were, test the Constitution of the State against his individuality”; and to the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s that led the historian EP Thompson to declare a hypothesis that was against:

a university [that] had become so intimately enmeshed with the upper reaches of consumer capitalist society that [its administration] are actively twisting the purposes and procedures of the university away from those normally accepted in British universities, and thus threatening its integrity as a self-governing academic institution; and that the students, feeling neglected and manipulated in this context, and feeling also – although at first less clearly – that intellectual values are at stake, should be impelled to action.”

And this strand of radicalism connects many other examples of political, scholarly, historical activism: in Oakland; and Santiago; and Turin; and Dhaka; and University College London; and Kent State University; and Manila; and beyond.

Point two: marginalisation and radicalisation on campus. This radicalism is fed, in-part, by marginalisation; by an existence that is de-legitimised beyond the abstraction of money, and where putting students at the heart of the system reveals only the intellectual poverty of a life lived as a consumer, wrapped in the ideological rhetoric of choice, private property, debt and marketisation. This rhetoric then forms the background to the enclosure and removal of historically-accrued, socially-defined goods like free education and healthcare. Thus austerity is exposed as the State’s action against our shared future.

And in response to this marginalisation we see students in a range of contexts taking non-violent direct action that questions the State’s actions and reveals the coercive machinery of its power. Much of this work of protest is done in public spaces through marches and occupations, and Judith Butler has argued the importance of these radicalised, public movements:

When bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands. They are demanding to be recognized and to be valued; they are exercising a right to appear and to exercise freedom; they are calling for a livable life [sic.]. These values are presupposed by particular demands, but they also demand a more fundamental restructuring of our socio-economic and political order.”

This point reflects the politicisation of both the form and the content of our institutions, and a process of indignation or radicalisation. As the activist Pierce Penniless argues:

We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.”

Point three: the coercive University in a state of exception. In a reprise of historic activism, we see students marching and subsequently being kettled or maced or receiving official letters from the Police ahead of future demo’s or being threatened with baton rounds; we see students using the historically-situated tactic of occupation, in order to protest their opposition through general assemblies and teach-ins, and being classed as terrorists or extremists, and having services denied to them. Or we witness our educational leaders as supine or quiescent in the face of the brutalisation of our young people by the State. Their silence is deafening.

And now we see the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham and Royal Holloway (University of London) in the UK seeking or obtaining High Court injunctions banning any form of protest on their property. Against this criminalisation and de-legitimisation of dissent and the creation of a state of exception on campus, Liberty have argued that “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and this aggressive move hardly sits well with our best British traditions of academic dissent… Universities should be places where ideas and opinions can be explored [my emphasis].” And the written evidence submitted by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies to the Parliamentary Inquiry on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation echoes this point:

Universities play a key role in challenging prevalent ‘wisdom’ as well as debating and researching controversial topics. The ‘values-led’ approach to the revised strategy risks harming legitimate grievances being aired on campuses and could have a significant damage on intellectual debate and research as well as the international reputation of British universities.”

Thus, these English Universities’ attempt to criminalise the politicisation of the form of the University. They attempt to de-politicise its form whilst its content is being politicised through its marketisation. The inscription of a hidden curriculum of debt and consumption within campus-life is coupled to the de-legitimation of any counter-argument that confronts or refuses or pushes back against their power over where scholars might assemble and what they might discuss. We surely have better strategies than marginalisation and overt coercion with which to accommodate difference?

Point four: reclaiming or re-legitimising Universities as radical spaces. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, University communities might consider how they share stories that reclaim the breadth of their common histories and social relationships. This process might usefully be developed using open technological systems. This is important because universities have much to contribute to a public discussion of how cultures protect the richness of their ecosystems, which in turn helps us to describe alternative worlds, and to accept that much of our present is shaped by historical struggles that are valuable precisely because they are political. Thus, we learn not to accept dominant narratives as given, or neutral, or beyond our collective wisdom to re-define in a legitimate manner. And our non-acceptance is not seen as radicalisation.

Which brings us to an engagement with and understanding of violent radicalisation. Universities, in terms of both their management and the communities of scholars that management is meant to facilitate, need to engage with issues of marginalisation, legitimacy and power, and to do this democratically and in public. It is not enough to de-legitimise all protest as extreme unless it conforms to proscribed norms, in prescribed spaces that are too often private. As the historian John Tosh has argued, differences need to be deliberated:

Few things would make for a more mature understanding of current affairs than an awareness that the relevant historical perspectives are themselves the subject of debate – particularly if those controversies bear on the present. It then becomes possible to think outside the box – to challenge the spurious authority of single-track thinking.”

In this process we uncover what is legitimate, and we reveal what we collectively are willing to bear in the name of freedom. What we are willing to bear has to be negotiated communally, through a process that re-legitimises the politics of both the form and the content of the University. This demands trust and consent rather than coercion, a discussion that is more vital to the idea of the University in a world that faces not just economic austerity but socio-environmental crisis. For it may be that we risk enduring a semi-permanent state of exception if we do not find the courage to deliberate the reality of our world. EP Thompson recognised this courage emanating from a radicalised student collective, and saw in it a glimpse of redemption beyond economic growth:

 “We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.”

This was echoed forty years later by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies when they argued that we need to open-up the debate against and beyond the permanence of exceptional circumstances, in order that “The autonomy of universities as places of free speech and expression should be preserved.” It is in this struggle that the University as a community of scholars should fight to recover both its history and its self-realisation as a public space for the discussion of legitimacy, marginalisation and power.

Reclaiming the idea of the University

This afternoon I am speaking at a DMU-hosted event called:

THE ASSAULT ON UNIVERSITIES: Privatisation, Secrecy and the Future of Higher Education, which is being chaired by Stuart Price.

My argument will focus on 4 points.

1. That our existence inside the University is framed by a systemic, historical crisis of capitalism.

2. That through this crisis capital is accumulating historically-developed, social values [e.g. NHS, *free* education] through commodification and, increasingly, coercion.

3. That through both the impact and the re-inscription of capitalist social relations, our institutional lives demand critique framed by the materiality of the crisis.

4. That academics might consider their roles in the processes of refusal/negation/pushing back that emerge. This includes the courage it takes to describe and reveal coercive practices.

I have uploaded the slides to my slideshare [Reclaiming the idea of the University].

I intend to blog the outcomes of this session aligned with my take on: firstly, John Holloway’s lectures in Leeds last week on “the rule of money“; secondly, the discussion meeting held at the Bank of Ideas last Friday about creating the London Free University; and thirdly, Jonathan Davies’ critique yesterday of network governance. The focus will be on the realities of protest, resistance and hegemony in/against/beyond the academy. I will do this in the next few days. In solidarity.

Mobility Shifts and Student-as-Producer

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 14 October 2011

Some matters arising from Mobility Shifts and from yesterday’s student-as-producer seminar at CUNY.

  1. How do we critique formalised education as an ideological apparatus of the state-for-capital?
  2. Are we interested in transition or transformation? If the latter then what is the purpose of norms of justice, equality, democracy, participation that are developed within alienating, capitalist social relations? In the face of free market logic how might we overcome the anxieties that plague our existing models of education?
  3. Does education subtracted from the operation of learning leave accreditation, monitoring, control? Does this connect to institutional/tutor accreditation anxiety, realised through plagiarism?
  4. Capital needs disruptors, which/who can re-inscribe new spaces for control and accumulation, and develop new forms of commodities from which value can be extracted. What is the place of educational innovation inside capital in this process? How do we overcome this devastating reality?
  5. How conservative should schooling be, in order to promote mass intellectuality? How conservative are our allegedly radical methods? Can we be against explanation and for emancipation inside this historical moment?
  6. Where social inequality is at stake, in the face of the market and education as private property, how can we work for its negation? How can we refuse agendas of equality that are culturally revealed as opportunistic or hierarchical or based on structural/legalistic frameworks? How do we work for the negation of inequality as revealed under labour-in-capitalism?
  7. Can we reinvent the University against its prescribed role in the reproduction of education-for-capital? How do we reengage with and critique its history?
  8. How can student-as-producer reveal and oppose the ways in which the student is reified through, for example, the NSS?
  9. How can student-as-producer reveal the possibilities for academic activism and the academic/worker engagement in mass intellectuality?
  10. How do open technologies and the processes and lived realities of hacking help in this engagement with/development of mass intellectuality? How do open bases and frameworks enable distributed models of engagement that propose/describe alternatives?
  11. How do we stand against the rhetoric of technology that reveals and then reinscribes institutional power structures?
  12. How do we become courageous in the face of business-as-usual? How does student-as-producer reinforce academic activism?

In, Against and Beyond the Edufactory

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 15 October 2011

These are my notes from yesterday’s sessions on cognitive capitalism, the University as knowledge factory and alternatives to higher education, from Mobility Shifts. I’ve also posted my tweets from a student discussion of occupy wall street and the response of the University to the crisis.

  1. The University has been subsumed within the circuit of capital, so that it has become emblematic of capitalist social relations, driven by the abstracted power of money.
  2. The University is now a flagship public-private partnership, whose primary purpose is the generation of surplus value through cognitive capital. The exploitation of labour and new sites of struggle are results of the increasing sophistication of the social factory, through which all of social life reveals sites of profit accumulation and the reproduction of capital.
  3. Biopiracy, proletarianisation, routinisation, precarity and globalised culture are all outcomes of this process.
  4. Disciplines become sites of the production of cognitive capital, separated out from each other denying forms of critique that might underpin alternatives. Moreover, a hidden curriculum, focused upon separation, competition and debt, anchors study to capital. As a result we see the wasted potential of co-operation and association.
  5. The idea of the University, as a site of all of living knowledge, is undermined in the face of the endless and hopeless austerity. An exodus from the control systems of capital exhibited through formal education is seen in the autonomy of the internet and sites where general assemblies are developed.
  6. Defensive battles are being waged in generative hubs of radical activity, that sit against the neoliberal enclosure of extant structures and forms, like the University.
  7. Edufactory proposes three spaces for alternatives to emerge: firstly in new forms of general assembly based upon a new politics [see the Zagreb occupation of 2009; student-worker solidarity]; secondly in militant research strategies, which see research as a tool for political action and for widening the field of struggle; thirdly in wresting publication away from corporations-as-rentiers, which turn the cognitive labour of academics and students into private property. This act of violence attempts to remove the academic from revolutionary activity in public.
  8. In spite of this, the University remains a site of resistance in the circulation of capital, In the circulation of money into commodity into surplus value/profit/accumulation, then into money’, commodity” and so on, there are spaces for opposition to develop alternatives, notably at the points of transformation. Although capital will tend to use its biopower in order to maintain control over labour at these points. This also includes the use of technology for control in a transnational field of practices, where academic activity is increasingly measured. This has political consequences.
  9. Within higher education the social relations that lie outside of the University offer hope/spaces for developing webs of resistance – in a politics of community engagement and cross-disciplinary activity and in radical education collectives. These form cycle of struggle.
  10. The precarity of capital is problematised by the power of labour in forcing a reconception of the politics of production, rather than a politics of distribution [of resources, abundance, scarcity].
  11. Universities are becoming warehouses of young people, ensnared by hidden curricula, where activities are used to depoliticise and promote allegedly utilitarian outcomes.
  12. The idea of the University in the production of knowledge at the level of society, in co-producing the general intellect or the social brain, needs to be re-politicised in order to reappropriate knowledge and its means of production for society.
  13. In, against and beyond needs to be understood in terms of real subsumption, through which capital overcomes human sociability to appear naturalistic and pre-determined. It might be critiqued in terms of the social factory or biopower, but it also offers a vantage point for critique from within the social relationships that emerge from/reproduce it, namely the historical moment of labour-in-capitalism.
  14. In, against and beyond is a critique of the power of things or commodities over human sociability and producers. However, capital depends upon the power of labour in order to generate surplus-value and therefore needs principles of domination. A negation might be offered through practices of emancipation, where capital is seen to be in crisis and therefore as precarious. Thus, teh Californian communique offers us the hope that “we [labour] are the crisis [of capital]”.
  15. How is it possible to reconcile our institutional roles and revolutionary intent? What do examples like the School for Designing a Society offer us? What about this list of radical projects? What about upping the anti? What about human geography? Or Noel Castree’s work on academic activism? Or John Holloway’s work on the state as the legal form of capitalism?
  16. some student quotes:

For a network of commons

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 November 2011

I kept the faith and I kept voting/Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand/For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man/Theirs is a land of hope and glory/Mine is the green field and the factory floor/Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/And mine is the peace we knew/Between the wars

Billy Bragg, Between the Wars.

Yesterday the Education Activist Network emailed though a series of YouTube videos about student protests and occupations at UC-Berkeley. These highlighted the increased politicisation of young people, the increased militarisation of our campuses, and the increased bravery of people as co-operative social forces in the face of State authoritarianism. More appropriately, this might be viewed as bravery in the face of the brutality of the transnational global elites that now dominate the control mechanisms of the State. Those control mechanisms include universal access to healthcare, access to employment and education, access to homes, and/or paramilitary-style policing. In each of these areas the political/economic compact of recent years is in crisis, and this crisis is being played out in education.

The nature of transnational elites has been raised in documentaries like Inside Job, in popular texts like Paul Mason’s Meltdown, in academic spaces looking at corporate networks, and in work analysing trans-national corporate power. This revelation of how these elites now dominate our political landscape was clarified at Tent City University last weekend by David Harvey. Harvey argued that it is only people massing together in the streets and in the squares, whose relationships are shared and nurtured and encouraged in-part on-line and in-part through radical educational forums, who can oppose the foreclosure of our (educational) futures and our (educational) spaces. Harvey argued that people acting deliberately and politically in public spaces that were previously enclosed and policed by Capital enables us to recreate and re-produce those spaces as a Commons. In part this is an outcome of the process of occupation. It is only on this network of Commons, something Nick Dyer Witheford has written about for a networked world in terms of the Circulation of the Common, and that Joss Winn and Mike Neary have critiqued in pedagogic terms, where questions of the inequality of wealth and power can be meaningfully debated beyond the trite inadequacies of ‘a better capitalism’.

Education is central to this project of building the Network or Commons of Commons. In education, as Harvey argues, we are witnessing the enclosure of debate about the idea of the school or the university, so that all we are left with are plaintive cries against students-as-consumers. At the same time, through the enforcement of external, marketised agendas of outsourcing, internationalisation (globalisation), employability, attacks on employment rights, and the proletarianisation of working practices, the grip of transnational capital over education (as the life-blood of our social relationships) is tightened. In response, in a range of Universities, for example in Chile and Columbia, in California, and in Bangladesh, students are resisting neoliberal managerial techniques that are solely designed to extract value from those who have least power. In part this is a form of defence. In part though, as the Edufactory Collective amongst others, have argued, this is a way to redefine political engagement through general assemblies, militant research and open education.

This collective, educational response, framed within a connected set of Commons, and operating globally, is central to a critique of the power of transnational global elites, as they turn in on extracting value from our historically-accumulated capitals. The argument here is that states are running to the end of the possibility for printing money (quantitative easing) as a mechanism for recovering from this systemic crisis. Moreover, there are no spaces left outside the system of capitalist accumulation into which capital can flee or from which it can extract value easily. Therefore, in order to increase the rate of profit, or the compound growth at three per cent that is required both to maintain the Global North’s standards of living and to pay-off its debts, the system has to turn back in on itself, in order to self-valorise. So our socially-prescribed, historically-produced goods [or capitals], like access to universal healthcare and state education, which were accumulated in the post-war Keynesian settlement, are now the source of private profit through market mechanisms.

This forms a new, systemic crisis of capitalism based on value-extraction from societies, with huge consequences for the middle classes. It underpins austerity measures and the privatisation of state assets, each of which is driven by transnational flows of capital. As a result, a world of nationally-defined political economic analyses is outdated, in part because the socio-environmental problems we face are global (as the brilliant Tom Murphy shows for energy), but also because of the porosity of borders to capital. In this current moment of the crisis, we see nations inside and outside the Eurozone that are unable to control the damage being wrought by speculative capital, and that are unable to re-construct their economies beyond the organisation of global, capitalist production chains. Thus, we see the mobility of capital, in flowing to tax havens and in drawing on very low labour rates and profits from sale of goods that are produced in countries with poor labour conditions in high income, strong currency economies. Critically, the key players in these speculative relationships and in making the case for and delivering austerity are global elites, who wish to impose deregulated unprotected labour relations.

This focus on the power of what is termed the markets is in reality the power of oligopolistic, transnational banks, corporations and subservient politicians/media. Thus, any focus on national solutions to the defence of national capitals, of an attempt to recapture, for example, the pre-eminence of Great Britain, visited in-part through its education system, becomes meaningless. Or leads us down the route to fascism. This then infects our education systems. It may remain hidden from view, but it shapes our engagement with internationalisation, employability, innovation, research and development, community engagement, personalisation, outsourcing and technologies. It also shapes our open education agendas, our MOOCs, our work on badges, our engagement with work-based learning, our radical alternatives. There is no outside.

However, as Mieksins-Wood noted fifteen years ago:

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.

Thus, the real social and political value of our reaction to austerity, revealed in free schools, in tent city universities, in teach-ins and teach-outs, in student-worker occupations, and a million other forms, is their deliberative, educational, open agendas. This is not to dream of them as utopian ideals or fetishise them as anti-capital, but it is to reflect on them as a network of educational commons. They serve as mirrors through which we can look for ways to run down pointless levels of consumption, and to scream against pointless technocratic experiences, and to create more scalable, resilient production and distribution systems that are socially-defined. The idea that under globalisation, in which capital, production, the state, classes and media and culture are ‘without borders’, can be made better and more responsive to our existence in localised spaces is untenable. We require a process of deliberation that is against those who would carry out the logic of a system of global feudalism, where an increasingly powerful minority control/trade/commodify both the scarcity and abundance of resources.

What the process of creating a Commons or Network of Commons through dissent, occupation, protest and refusal has shown us is the courage we share to imagine and re-produce something different. In the face of the increasing extraction of value from our lives, and in the face of the meaningless of a life lived for compound economic growth, and in the face of our powerlessness within the system defined for us by transnational elites, and in face of the use of collectivised force by our elected politicians against us, the educational solidarity of our occupations has shown, as Harvey described, that only people acting and educating as co-operative, social forces can save us now.

In, Against, and Beyond The University: for the courage of boundary-less toil

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 11 November 2011

“It isn’t for the moment that you are struck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

ONE. At Liberty Plaza on Sunday, Žižek argued that “the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world, [and so] we are allowed and obliged even to think about alternatives. There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – questions not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism?

TWO. This re-framing of alternatives demands that we move against historically positivist thinking, which maintains business-as-usual as our only option. It demands that we move against simple problem-solving arguments that see us making puncture-repairs to reason, justice, and universality, or in plaintively arguing for “a better capitalism”. The more courageous step is to re-imagine and re-produce an overcoming of this historically-specific, alienating capitalist system. We need an ontological critique of what is, on the basis of what could be. This is a process of overcoming the elite’s interpretive myths – of being-in-excess of their hegemony over us. Of living beyond their enclosure of our lives.

THREE. And this forms a process of re-inscribing our place in the crisis beyond what those with power-to chose to reveal. On Tuesday 11 October, the European Systemic Risk Board stated that:

  • There is a global crisis of sovereign risk;
  • The transnational financial crisis has reached a systemic dimension;
  • There is an upwardly rising risk of contagion; and
  • After a period of leveraging, we are experiencing a period of correction.

And yet in education we are told to focus upon finding mechanisms to maintain business-as-usual. And in the background our technologies-in-education are underpinned by corporate imperialism, war and human rights atrocities. Our technologies-in-education are a mechanism for profit and enclosure and the re-production of power, based upon a history of labour-in-capitalism. We are increasingly separated from the reality of our being. This is the violence of our ongoing crisis, through which the idea and the reality of the University is attacked.

FIVE. Dowrick argues that it becomes possible to gain courage and unearth resilience when giving up the wish that things are other than they are; when surrendering to the painful truth of what is. In this space it is possible to recast our lives through sharing, exchange, openness, and against hoarding, privatisation, enclosure. Against the risk of cynicism or passivity that tells us there is no alternative, to fight for that alternative takes courage.

SIX. And what of courage and alternatives and the University? We might argue, pace Holloway, that by fetishising the University as a site of the production of alternatives, we isolate it from its social environment: that we attribute 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’s territory.

SEVEN. Yet the University remains a symbol of places where mass intellectuality, or knowledge as our main socially-productive force, can be consumed/produced and contributed to by all. The University remains a symbol of the possibility that we can create sites of opposition and ontological critique, or where we can renew histories of denial and revolt, and where new stories can be told, against states of exception that enclose how and where and why we assemble, associate and organise. This symbolic power-to critique and negate what is denied to us, to overcome the alienation of our knowledge from our lives, is reflected by the spaces that academics take up within and against the neoliberal university, and might be revealed in boundary-less toil beyond the borders of higher education.

EIGHT. The Edufactory Collective have highlighted the political, activist importance of such boundary-less toil in this historical moment. They argue: “The political question which, from Tunisia to the UK, India to Latin America, revolutionary movements and revolts pose is the alliance or the common composition of different subjects and struggles. Transforming mobilizations around the public into the organization of institutions of the common: this is the political task today.”

NINE. In sets of occupations and teach-ins and free exchange, incubated inside the University, the symbolic possibilities of higher education might connect into this “organization of institutions of the common”. Here, higher education might be dissolved, in the form of mass intellectuality or higher learning or excess, into the fabric of society. It is in this borderless or boundary-less activity, which is overtly political in seeking an exodus from the logic of capital, where academics might contribute to our overcoming of the historical processes of capitalism.

TEN. Thus, in the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity, academics might consider their participatory traditions and positions, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. How do students and teachers contribute to a re-formation of their webs of social interaction? How do students and teachers contribute to workerist and public dissent against domination and foreclosure? Where do we discuss alternative value-structures, and an alternative value-system that does not have the specific character of that achieved under capitalism. As Harvey notes, at issue is “to find an alternative value-form that will work in terms of the social reproduction of society in a different image.”

ELEVEN. We might, then, consider how students and teachers might dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation. We might then consider the courage it takes to reclaim our politics and our social relationships.