Triple crunch and the politics of educational technology

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 November 2011

I want to make a brief return to one implication of the ideas fleshed out by Joss Winn earlier this year in a post on the Triple Crunch, which focused on peak oil, climate change and the economic realities of business-as-usual, and then in my response on Triple Crunch and the Politics of Educational Technology. This implication is the role of academics and scholars; it is academic activism.

In his post Joss wrote: “It’s time that a co-ordinated effort was made by the sector to examine these issues in detail, involving academics from across disciplines as well as business continuity managers and VCs”. I concluded that academics and scholars might usefully contribute to story-telling that enables us “to critique in common the ahistorical truisms of liberal democracy, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency, private/public, and the market.” We used the detail of climate change and liquid fuel availability inside our reality of capitalist social relations, to question the idea of the University.

This morning I read three things that stimulated a return to this question.

1.   The weekly Oil Depletion Analysis Centre’s Newsletter (for 4 November 2011). In developing an analysis of the week’s events that impact on liquid fuel availability, the newsletter highlighted the Euro bailout and Greek politics, persistent Brent crude oil costs of$100/barrel, the UK Coalition Government’s decision to halve the feed-in tariff for solar energy, and a report from Cuadrilla Resources that it was “highly probable” that earthquakes in Blackpool were caused by their fracking activities. ODAC highlighted that:

“The UK today represents a microcosm of the current energy dilemma. Oil and gas production are in decline, energy costs are rising, and the race to avoid the worst impacts of climate change requires drastic cuts in emissions. Shale gas, along with tar sands and shale oil, offer an illusion that business might be able to continue as usual, but these are lower quality resources in terms of the energy they require to produce, pollution, and emissions. They are not the cheap energy sources on which our economy depends, and betting on them risks slowing the transition to a more resilient energy future.”

We might then ask, how are Universities addressing this dilemma in their forms, practices and research engagement?

2.   In a note on #OccupyLSX, Pierce Penniless argues for political engagement and action that is deeply connected to everyday realities. He argues that:

“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.”

PP grounds an issue I made around the time of the occupation of the Michael Sadler building in Leeds last November, in arguing for a process of deliberation focused upon re-production of our everyday realities. PP argues that his main point is to encourage experienced political activists to engage. However it might also be written about academics and scholars in grounding, theorising and supporting the development of alternatives. He writes:

“you need to engage this movement, and it won’t be comfortable doing so. I was down there almost continually, and one thing that’s striking is that its representation online bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening in reality. What’s happening is happening there, not on the computer screen.”

We might then ask how are academic and scholars addressing this dilemma in their practices and research engagements? How are we becoming activist? What are we working for?

3.   Etienne Dubuis in Le Temps (in French, but translated at WorldCrunch), picks up on a point that has been increasingly made in Africa, about corporate land-grabs in what the global North terms “developing nations”. In this capitalist accumulation by dispossession universities in the global North are implicated in a process that reveals real-world examples of the impact of the triple crunch:

“The increasing production of biofuels also explains why international buyers are becoming so interested in purchasing agricultural lands, while the 2008 economic crisis also heralded land ownership as a relatively safe investment alternative.”

Whilst Dubois questions “how the benefits should be divided among investors, host states and local communities?” We might also ask how the risks are divided, and aligned with this what is the role of the universities in the global North and their internationalisation agendas?

In trying to open some of these debates up to a trans-disciplinary audience, and to one which is also focused on technology, Joss and I have a paper being published in e-Learning and Digital Media later this month, in which we consider:

the impact that peak oil and climate change may have on the future of higher education. In particular, it questions the role of technology in supporting the provision of a higher education which is resilient to a scenario both of energy depletion and the need to adapt to the effects of global warming. One emerging area of interest from this future scenario might be the role of technology in addressing more complex learning futures, and more especially in facilitating individual and social resilience, or the ability to manage and overcome disruption. However, the extent to which higher education practitioners can utilise technology to this end is framed by their approaches to the curriculum, and the sociocultural practices within which they are located. The authors discuss how open education might enable learners to engage with uncertainty through social action within a form of higher education that is more resilient to economic, environmental and energy-related disruptions.It asks whether more open higher education can be (re)claimed by users and communities within specific contexts and curricula, in order to engage with an increasingly uncertain world.

In the paper we hint at a re-focusing on deliberation; and a need to find spaces for such deliberation. This includes active engagement with the politics of events that is unfolding around us, at Occupy Wall Street, or Occupy Oakland, or in critiquing communiqués, or in delivering sessions at Tent City University as Mike Neary has recently, or at more established community events. This is part of the struggle for alternative ways of producing our realities and distributing our abundance and overcoming scarcity. Thus Joss and I argue for

social relationships that are redefined by educators and students, and [a] focus on people and values that is in turn assembled through open education. In overcoming alienation and disruption, a resilient education underpinned by open technologies and architectures enables us to critique and overcome unsustainable, commodified, institutionalised forms of education. The challenge is to develop such a critique in the face of everything.

This last statement is refracted by the key point that I take from PP’s cry for experienced activists to work within and for what might be at #occupylsx and at the aligned Tent City University. Only I look at it in terms of experienced academics working in similar spaces to help shine a light on what is denied in our world. To shine a light on the denial of a meaningful conversation about alternatives, in the face of the crisis that is revealed in austerity, in climate change, in resource depletion and in peak oil. And which is revealed at first in the Global South, but as ODAC highlights, which is also so much closer to home than we are allowed to imagine in our desperation for sustainability or business-as-usual.

And we might then reflect on the scholarly role given in A Message to Wisconsin’s Insatiable Workers and Students earlier this year:

Teachers, elaborate your teach-ins. Tell your story, encourage everyone you touch to say why collective struggle (not just bargaining) is a necessary part of our position in this world. Talk about your dying grandmother. Talk about your difficult addictions. Talk about history. This law is an attempt to conceal the realities of our daily lives and to liquidate those stories from the future. Reveal this, and make possible the education that was never allowed in school.

NOTE: Third University will be leading sessions as part of Leicester’s Community Media Week this Sunday and Monday, on social media for protesters. The focus will be on safety and story-telling. I will also be helping at a teach-out as part of Tent City University next Wednesday, on the implication of these issues on academic activism. In solidarity.

on academic activism, boundary-less toil and exodus

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 September 2011

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Nelson Mandela.

If we don’t take action now/We settle for nothing later/We’ll settle for nothing now/And we’ll settle for nothing later

Rage Against the Machine, Settle for Nothing.

A note on institutions and power

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.

At first sight it would appear obvious that winning control of the state is the key to bringing about social change. The state claims to be sovereign, to exercise power within its frontiers. This is central to the common notion of democracy: a government is elected in order to carry out the will of the people by exerting power in the territory of the state. This notion is the basis of the social democratic claim that radical change can be achieved through constitutional means.

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the state from its social environment: it attributes to the state an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the state 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 state 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 government 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 state territory.

Holloway is not alone in arguing that the state’s room for manoeuvre is constricted by transnational global capital, and in particular by the compression and enclosure of time and space wrought by technologically-transformed, finance capital. In this view, working to take control of the state crushes the transformatory intent of those who would fight against capitalism, because this transformation is always about manoeuvring for power. This instrumentalism always risks descending into a hierarchy of struggle for democracy or as nationalism or for a Tobin Tax or for whatever. In Paulo Virno’s terms this is not a courageous ideology, it is based on “weak thought”, or a political philosophy that “was developed by philosophers with theories that offer an ideology of the defeat [of labour movement by neoliberalism] after the end of the ‘70s”.It is a way of seeking compromise with capital, and escaping into a ‘fight’ for exclusionary or problem-solving tactics, like ‘equality of opportunity’.

Thus, Holloway argues that “The hierarchisation of struggle is a hierarchisation of our lives and thus a hierarchisation of ourselves.” What drives an alternative is the negation of hierarchical power within

a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

Thus what is needed is our co-operative conquest of power as a step towards the abolition of power relations. At this point we are able to re-inscribe a different set of possibilities upon the world. At this point we are able to move beyond protest about economic power and occupations of enclosed spaces, to critique how our global webs of social relations contribute to the dehumanisation of people, where other humans are treated as means in a production/consumption-process rather than ends in themselves able to contribute to a common wealth. For Tsianos and Papadopoulos this emerges in the radicalisation of everyday life that threatens to connect a politics of events beyond the traditional forms of the party and the trades unions. As the everyday is folded into the logic of capital, and the everyday is subsumed within the discipline of debt and the apparent foreclosure of the possibilities for an enhanced standard of living for us all, then the everyday becomes a space in which revolt can emerge.

But how is this critique to be developed inside the very heart of the struggle against capitalist social relations and power? Holloway notes:

For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

Holloways argues that we cannot live in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives. He argues for the positive creativity that emerges from the negativity of critique and from our “refusal of capital”. In this we must recuperate doing, as opposed to capitalist labour, and to develop our shared power-to create the world, rather than simply to maximise profit. Holloway argues that we must fight capital’s negation of our power-to create the world through its alienation of ourselves from our work, by its commodification and expropriation of our labour (in de Peuter and Dyer-Witheford’ term “boundary-less toil”), or by its denial of our sociality through enforced or enclosed individuation. We see this in our awakening to the precarious nature of labour in the face of capital’s need to reproduce increases in the rate of profit. This can be achieved for instance by the discipline of the threat of dead labour embodied in machines, or by the capture of our everyday existence in immaterial labour or cognitive work, or by increased financialisation. (Paul Mason’s blog tracks how politicians are now desperately embroiled in keeping the neoliberal show on the road.)

Thus, pace Marx, we argue for association and assembly in describing new, co-operative patch-works of social doing/creating that are not in the name of capitalist work; which challenge capitalist work and its boundary-less exploitation as the main organising principle of our lives. Following Marx, it is through association that Holloway argues for the creation and sharing of social forms that articulate our doing and making of the world, and which dissolve our current power relations into the fabric of new assemblies, and thereby work to negate our reification or fetishising of established forms and practices.

Being against established forms is central in Holloway’s argument for revolutionary activity that centres on the denial or negation of identities forged and fetishised inside capital’s structures, including Universities. The idea is to promote “creative uncertainty against-in-and-beyond a closed, pre-determined world [my emphasis].” In this we move towards a world of disjuncture, disunity, discontinuity, where doing inside capitalism becomes riskier as the repetitive, precarious nature of its alienation and dehumanisation is revealed. This revelation is a recognition that denying capital’s power-over our lives is a possibility, and that revolt against its subsumption of our lives to the profit motive and the rule of money is a possibility. At issue is a move towards “an anti-politics of events rather than a politics of organisation” based on an individual’s or a class’s subjective power-over others. As Marx argued in the Collected Works (Volume 3):

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth… The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life…

A note on higher education, higher learning and an exodus from capital

I would like to make a point about the role of higher education and those who exist within or connected to higher education in this process of creating a species-life. We might open this out by taking Holloway’s starting point about the state [quoted above], and thinking about 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.

Whether or not we agree with Holloway’s point about the state’s implications in the maintenance of a capitalist order, we have seen capital’s increasing control over higher education in the United Kingdom through the Coalition Government’s shock doctrine. The ideological, political drive towards, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing means that the University has little room for manoeuvre in resisting the enclosing logic of competition and in arguing for a socialised role for higher education. This means that the internal logic of the University is prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships.

It might then be argued that within the University there is little space to contest the logic of capitalist work and its denial of possibilities; that there is little opportunity for the world turned upside down, where we can create a world that is, in Christopher Hill’s words, populated by “masterless men”. 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, when we are sold pedagogies of student-as-consumer, is reflected by the spaces that academics take up within and against the neoliberal university. These are often incubated within the symbolic space of the University and revealed in boundary-less toil beyond the borders of higher education. In these sets of actions, incubated inside the University, the symbolic possibilities of higher education might be dissolved in the form of mass intellectuality or higher learning or excess within 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 a transfomatory praxis.

The notion of exodus is important here, as a form of dissent , revolt or rebellion against capital’s exploitation of the entirety of social life (witness working from home, playbor in games-based industries, Facebook and Google’s subsumption of our identities for further accumulation, or the enclosure of the open web for profit). Within this subsumption, immaterial labour forms “the labor that produces the informational, cultural, or affective element of the commodity.” Thus, the fetishisation of personalisation, of self-branding, of the technologies we connect through, risks the commodification of each and every action we take in the world. However, this connected web of social relations also offers a crack through which we might oppose the domination of capital over our existence. In Empire, Hardt and Negri argue that an association of the multitude, of interconnected oppositional groups that are able to share stories of oppression or austerity or hope or history using a variety of events and spaces, offers the opportunity for multiple protagonists to push for more democratic deployment of global resources. Virno goes further to argue that the very automation that capital develops in order to discipline and control labour makes possible an exodus from the society of capitalist work through the radical redisposal of the surplus time that arises as an outcome of that automation, alongside the ways in which different groups can interconnect in that surplus time.

Academics then have an important role in critiquing the potentialities for an exodus away from the society of capitalist work. In his work on Digital Diploma Mills, Noble argued against the conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and hence private property. In this he saw virtualisation driven by the commodification of teaching and the creation of commercially-viable, proprietary products that could be marketised. The usual capitalist processes of deskilling and automation, and proletarianisation of labour are at the core of this process. Noble argues against the surrender of pedagogic control, and for what Neary has highlighted to be a pedagogy of excess, through which academics and students might engage “in various forms of theoretical and practical activity that [take] them beyond the normal limits of what is meant by higher education. It is the notion of students becoming more than students through a radical process of revelation”. This is an attempt to fight against the compression of academic space by automated time, to widen that space for communal activity that is not driven by money and proletarianisation.

This activist engagement beyond the borders of higher education is a reminder of the history of the struggle of Italian workerism in the 1960s and 1970s. It also connects to current calls for people to stand on solid ground collectively in protest against the excesses of transnational financial capital, and the austerity measures that are catalysing protest beyond the normative structures of trades unions and labour parties. It is in this set of spaces that academics and students might have a borderless role to play, as evidenced as follows.

  1. In the people and networks participating in the 15s hub, against austerity policies that are an attack on the working class and the common wealth. Academics have taken a leading role in these networks, in inscribing and defining new possibilities.
  2. In the range of radical academic projects in the UK that are an attempt to re-inscribe the perception of higher education as higher learning within the fabric of society, so as to imagine something new. In some cases these projects are working politically to re-define issues of power. In most cases they see the institution of the school or the university as symbolically vital to a societal transformation. They form a process of re-imagination that risks fetishisation or reification of radical education, but which offers a glimpse of a different process. This glimpse shines a light on the University as one node in a global web of social relations, and one which enables borderless doing.
  3. Rethinking in public the role of academics in society, or the direct engagement of nerds, geeks, experts, mentors, whatever, in the wider fabric of society, facilitated through social media but realised in concrete experiences on solid ground. Thus:
    • Ben Goldacre argues that *we* “should be showing kids how to extract meaning from the noise of large datasets, by showing them how to do simple stuff”;
    • Tony Hirst argues for “the ‘production in presentation’ delivery of an informal open ‘uncourse’” where production-in-public is the central organising theme, and where “By embedding resources in the target community, we aim to enhance the practical utility of the resources within that community as well as providing an academic consideration of the issues involved”;
    • Dave Cormier scopes an ontological crisis in the educational system, and revisits a rhizomatic approach to learning in order to engage with “the kinds of societal questions i would like to think our education system could prepare us for”;
    • Doug Belshaw raises the possibility for badges to be potentially revolutionary through their “peer-to-peer element”;
    • Change MOOCs offer the possibility of co-operative teaching and study in public;
    • Princeton University actively promotes open access, in order to stop staff handing all copyright to journals, thus opening-up access to its research and practices, whilst Martin Weller argues for an open digital scholarship that will “allow for greater impact than traditional scholarly practices.”

This is not to state that these practices are overtly political or boundary-less, but that they offer a way of re-framing the relationships between academics and the public in an age of crisis. For example, it may be that it is the formation of social relationships, and the concomitant re-formation of value, in the process of creating and sharing badges that is transformatory. It is the critique of commodified accreditation within higher education catalysed by badges as a form o open, higher learning, which makes them important. This stands against the potential reification, privatisation and commodification of badges and their owners as things. It may be that teaching-in-public, or digital scholarship, is re-politicized as a form of active engagement between students, teachers and people in spaces of dissent or protest, in order to underpin new workerist revolts. It may be that these strands form a pedagogy of academic activism, connected to a philosophy of exodus from the daily re-enclosure of capital.

These reflections on the interstices between academic and public, and between accreditation and informal learning, and between the private and the co-operative are surrounded by political tensions, and culturally replicated structures of power. Any process of academic activism demands academic reflexivity in understanding how academic power impacts the processes of assembly and association and historical critique. One of the criticisms levelled at our understandings of the “Arab Spring”, for instance, was against academic tourists presenting as “Western ‘experts’ who jet in and jet out”, and base their work on their identity under capitalist work. The Autonomous Geographies Collective raised this challenge in engaging co-operatively with meaningful participation in social change, rather than parasitically exploiting the protest of peoples against the expropriation of their lives.

Thus, in the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity, as the neoliberal response to the latest crisis of capitalism, academics need to 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? David Harvey notes in his Companion to Capital, Volume 1, that Marx is interested in processes of transformation, and more importantly in the revolutionary transformation of society. This transformation overthrows the capitalist value-form in the construction of an alternative value-structure, and an alternative value-system that does not have the specific character of that achieved under capitalism. At issue is “to find an alternative value-form that will work in terms of the social reproduction of society in a different image.” We might, then, consider how do students and teachers dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation?

The Paradox of Openness: the true cost of giving online

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 September 2011

At ALT-C 2011 I took part in a symposium on the Paradox of Openness: the true cost of giving online. I blogged about what I might say, as an introduction. In my five minutes and in the discussion that followed the following twelve points arose.

ONE. In his book on the Cuban Revolution in the Twenty-First Century, George Lambie argues that academia is locked into problem-solving theory. This is aimed at supporting, interacting with, and adjusting the dominant order. This leads to the artificial organisation and construction of knowledge, which in turn closes off a revelation of how society works. It depoliticises and avoids. It is not critically open. It disempowers us in our attempts to transform the world.

TWO. Thus, we need an ontological critique, as a process of analysis of how we experience the world and how we accept the elite’s interpretive myths – their hegemony over us. We need a revelation or a revealing or a revolution in our ways of thinking.

THREE. Through this revealing we need a critique of established ideological or intellectual frameworks. We need a critique of their legitimacy within higher education. This forms a set of political acts, which is itself open to critique.

FOUR. This critique, and our work and our labour are historically situated. Our critiques of what is “open” (whatever that is) within higher education are historically situated. They are situated within capitalist work as our living history and our lived experiences.

FIVE. When we develop a critique of “open”, we might consider its history as a re-ordering of business-as-usual in the years since 2006. We might consider a critique of open as a critique of formal, institutional higher education, but which has thus far been limited to a re-ordering of business-as-usual, with no deeper ontological base. Thus, in higher education we might consider “open” in light of Phase 1 of the JISC/HEA OER programme that began in 2009. We might also consider its history in light of the maturation and analysis of MOOCs since 2008. We might also consider that since 2006 we have seen global attempts at reordering business-as-usual, in the form of capitalist work, through problem-solving or enclosure, in the following spaces.

  • In the UK, the final term of the last Labour Government saw the governance and funding of higher education migrated to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the publication in 2009 of Higher Ambitions, which began a process of the neoliberal enclosure of university life.
  • In 2009 the think-tank demos published Resilient Nation and The Edgeless University, both of which were attempts to recalibrate how we think about managing disruption and the ways in which Universities might become open in their practices. At the same time, the new economics foundation published The Great Transition, which was a blueprint for its future work on de-growth and zero growth economics, and the working practices that underpin capitalist work.
  • We now know from Wikileaks’ cables that in 2007-09 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia admitted that it had been historically overstating its oil production capability by 40%, just as Richard Heinberg was writing about peak everything (2007). In 2010 the International Energy Agency’s Annual Report confirmed the reality of peak oil in that same period.
  • In 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and governments globally were drawn into fiscal measures to maintain business-as-usual; the aftermath saw an enclosure of future life and work though austerity and indenture.
  • In 2008, the UK Government passed the Climate Change Act, which attempted to problem-solve the issue of de-carbonisation through legislation.
  • In these actions or Acts or publications, we see an array of attempts at problem-solving individual issues, or at enclosing our lives through indebtedness or the privatisation of public assets or a lack of transparency about liquid fuels and so on. This enclosing is more than closure, because enclosure implies privatisation or property rights, or power-over a space in order to seek profit (financial or rental) from it. Alternatively, spaces might be closed but operate through, for example, consensus or for reasons of safety, outside the treadmill logic of competition or profit-maximisation or accumulation or a need to increase the rate of profit. Yet, try as we might to see our discussion of “open” within education framed by issues that reveal a new ontological space, critique of that very space is closed off to us. Our discussion is framed by a specific set of crises that are symptomatic of capitalism, and that are disconnected. As a result, in the possibilities we envisage, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.
  • In the face of the violence of the dispossession or enclosure of our futures, we need a revelatory politics of what we might call “open”.
    • Yet our politics of open is closed to the problem-solving logic of value-for-money, efficiency and productivity.
    • Yet our politics of open is closed to the proletarianisation of academic life and the appropriation of our labour.
    • Yet our politics of open is closed to the intensification and assurance of our labour.
    • Our politics of open does not allow us to critique our work in the face of the discipline of debt and the kettle.
    • And so our academic life is closed to a discussion of the politics of ”open”, and a concomitant critique of formal higher education – our politics is enclosed within the dominant logic of capitalist work, which subsumes our power-to create the world through its power-over our labour.
    • And meanwhile, as our students are attempting to re-create and re-imagine their world in occupation, and as our students are fighting for an open public higher education, we tell ourselves stories of co-production and enfranchisement enclosed by business-as-usual.
    • And as David Willetts tells us that we “use ICT for the right reasons”, we might critique what this means for our re-production of ourselves and the world. For as Marx suggests, our enculturation and use of technology is much more complex: “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.”

SIX. And there is hope. There is hope that beyond the commodification of “open” as a resource or a course, and its subsumption under capital, we might rethink our practices and our labour through:

SEVEN. A critique of our social relationships as consumers, producers and contributors, within and beyond our networks (witness open source and the cloud and institutionalisation);

  • Transformatory engagement that attempts to dissolve higher education into the fabric of society as higher learning (witness activist academics or academic bloggers or open scholarship and data);
  • A reinvention of higher education in public, through an open critique of its historical forms that recognises its enclosure within capitalist work and its symptomatic crises.

EIGHT. Within these revelatory activities, we need the confidence to recognise that we might have to operate as infidels, rather than heretics or visitors or residents. Our roles as infidels will challenge problem-solving norms, and the established hegemonic order that defines our work. It might refuse to accept the intellectual parameters of those elites that shape the world in which higher education operates. This is not about adjusting the horizons of our world. It is about cracking and re-framing and transforming them through our activism.

NINE. Thus, we might reveal a paradox of “open”: namely that its very enclosure within business-as-usual, and our inability to think the unthinkable and step beyond it, is too often what is closes its practices to us. Through our focus on problem-solving, and our disregard for ontological critique, our “open” strategies are constrained or contained or neutered. We might ask then, in the battle of ideas, and before we define and dissect “open”, what are we for when we are for open?

The true cost of openness

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 1 September 2011

Closure and exclusion

Following his leadership of the successful Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) occupation and work-in of 1971-72, the Communist and trades unionist Jimmy Reid was elected as Rector of the University of Glasgow. In his Rectoral Address Reid argued that

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today… it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making.

Since May 2010 the UK’s Coalition Government have been quickening the pace of enclosure of our public spaces; of our exclusion from the preserved, open and shared places in which our society is re-invented. Within this process of exclusion and of enclosing space and time (both the present and, collapsed into it, the future), debt presents itself as a cold and calculating means of collectivised, individual indenture. And the formal, historical University as a site of social contribution, that once lay within and yet against the calculating, coercion of accumulation and the market is closed down within that very logic.


And in that logic, the processes of exclusion, enclosure and indenture are violent. They do violence to the history of the University. They do violence to the hope and to the reality of higher learning as an escape from socio-environmental crisis. As a result they do violence to the possibility of our collective being and becoming. They do violence to us.

Incarceration (or the kettle)

It is in this violent, enclosing space that the activities of the University emerge and are re-produced. It is in this space that higher learning and its social relationships cycle and re-cycle. It is in this space then that “open” risks becoming a fetish, closed to critique and uncritically cloaked in a veneer of co-production, or sustainability, or value-for-money, or efficiency. It is as if “open” or “openness” offers us liberation or emancipation within the coercive, competitive reality of capital power-over our labour. It is as if “open” might reshape the activities of higher education, in spite of the shackling of the University to accumulation by dispossession and the dictates of the market. So “open” risks becoming a distraction; a wish that we might avoid the incarceration that capital enforces on our labour-power, through the discipline of technological surveillance, order, productivity, efficiency, debt.


Thus the institutionalisation of open education risks becoming yet another alienating practice precisely because, as Winn argues, “it is just another way of creating capital out of immaterial labour”. A formalised, institutionalised, “open” education threatens us with: proletarianisation and deskilling through mass-production, automation and standardisation; the totem of efficiency and an increase in the rate of profit; the reification of the resource as product; and pedagogy-as-production, curricula-as-distribution and learning-as-consumption. In our apolitical discourse about the free movement and regeneration of reified things, we risk amplifying the commodification of “open” education through liberal property laws (Creative Commons) that guarantee a level of autonomy to digital objects over and above the rights of teaching (labour) and learning (apprenticeship) from which they are abstracted, and which is placed under the control and supervision of quality assurance, productivity and impact measures.


And yet we see the crisis all around us. Our environment is polluted. Our environment is despoiled. Our technologies are underpinned by corporate imperialism, war and human rights atrocities. Our technologies are a mechanism for profit and enclosure and the re-inscription of power. Our world-in-the-cloud is increasingly parcelled off into clearly demarcated, outsourced, privatised applications. And through our outsourced connection to the operation and production of technologies, and our consumption of them within a history of capitalist work, we are displaced from contributing towards worldly wisdom. We are increasingly separated, in part by by the disarming disguise of technology, from the reality of our being. This is our ongoing crisis.


A critique of “open” stands against business-as-usual. It offers “open” as a public concern – a form of contribution that is against what the University is becoming. Its realisation offers safe spaces where associations can be developed. And that is closed to monitoring and ordering and control and profit. And that is against the social re-ordering of our lives for enclosure, the extraction of surplus value and of capitalist valorisation. And that is messy in its social re-formations, in its consumption and in its production, and in how individual contributions are assembled. For as Marx wrote:

only in association with others has each individual the means of cultivating his talents in all directions. Only in a community therefore is personal freedom possible… In a genuine community individuals gain their freedom in and through their association.

And so we might ask what the hacker ethic, and what Lulzsec and Anonymous, offers us? We might ask what open source development offers us? We might ask what a more nebulous, less ordered and monitored and modelled form of “open” offers us? What does openness at the margins, beyond the formally-enclosed institution offer us?


Dyer-Witheford offers us hope in the histories of the Commons:

A twenty-first century communism must also be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial, state and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons, which opens possibilities for new combinations of planetary planning and autonomous association.

These histories offer a critique of the ahistorical truisms of our being, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of order and finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency/productivity/profit, private/public, and the market. The global contribution of skills, alongside stories in which they might be situated, exists in spaces that remain as yet unenclosed. These spaces might be harnessed collaboratively for more than profiteering, or the extraction of surplus value or further accumulation or financialisation, or alienation or violence.

In and beyond technology we teach and re-think these practices and these ways of thinking every day with other staff and students and within our communities of practice. But they need to be politicised in the face of the crisis, because they flow through our being and our power-to create the world. As Marx highlighted

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.


We need the confidence to imagine that our skills might be shared and put to another use. We need the confidence to defend our physical and virtual commons as spaces for contribution, through production and consumption. We need the confidence to think ethically through our positions. We need the confidence to live and tell a different, overtly political story of “open”.

This might mean less of a focus on “open” and more on “autonomy” against capital. For Tiqqun has argued that

“Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.

Stories of custom-in-common: history, power and the internet

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 12 July 2011

Brian Lamb has highlighted two quotes that made me think about politics, power, consensus and the web, and most importantly, about History.

David Eaves, Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data

Charges of “frivolousness” or a desire to ensure data is only released “in context” are code to obstruct or shape data portals to ensure that they only support what public institutions or politicians deem “acceptable”. Again, we need a flood of data, not only because it is good for democracy and government, but because it increases the likelihood of more people taking interest and becoming literate.

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

Paul Mason, Murdoch: the network defeats the hierarchy:

Six months ago, in the context of Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote that the social media networks had made “all propaganda instantly flammable”. It was an understatement: complex and multifaceted media empires that do much more than propaganda, and which command the respect and loyalty of millions of readers, are now also flammable.

Where all this leaves Noam Chomsky’s theory I will rely on the inevitable wave of comments from its supporters to flesh out.

But the most important fact is: not for the first time in 2011, the network has defeated the hierarchy.

These two quotes have emphasized some questions for me.

  1. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, how do we tell stories that reclaim our common history and our social relationships? How do we protect the richness of the technological ecosystems that help us to do this work?
  2. In the rush for technology-as-progress, can we identify how that progress is shaped in our stories of struggle? How do we recognise struggle in our use of technology?
  3. How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

Over a period of six years I wrote about property, the common and political power in Augustan Yorkshire. Revisiting that helps me to identify struggle-in-common over access to resources, be that physical land/cultural rights or immaterial spaces/rights held in common. In the early eighteenth century county elections were an important means by which the political stability and legitimacy of the Augustan and Hanoverian political structures could be ensured. The significance of voters in County [as opposed to Borough] elections in the political system was recognised by contemporaries who saw these ‘forty shilling freeholders’ as the guardian of the nation’s liberty.

To the historian, the importance of the voters hinges upon whether they had any measure of independent political action and power, and how they struggled for their collective rights. Analysis shows that a substantial subset of the electorate had the socio-economic standing, individually or in common, to show a great degree of political independence. Thus, once the politicians forced an election they became involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities which gave the forty shilling freeholders a measure of political power.

Power in networks: a note on shire elections and political power in early-modern England

Notionally the enfranchised county freeholder was a man who voted by right of freehold property that was worth forty shillings per annum clear of all taxes. This also encompassed the possession of a particular office, for example a clerical benefice, as well as annuities, leases for lives, or the control of a mortgage. These men were the bedrock of the county community precisely because of the eighteenth-century elevation of property to a sublime position within society. The marquis of Halifax stated that ‘the interest of the county is best placed in the hands of such as have some share in it’. A share in the land of the county would show a higher political consciousness and entail a recognition of the importance of property and liberty. The importance of shire elections in giving property the opportunity to legitimise or oppose a political outlook meant that any shire election became crucial to the political nation.

The importance of the voters in the political system hinges upon whether they had any independent political action or impact. Were they relatively free to vote as they wanted, or were they subservient to the needs of their social superiors? These issues depend upon the amount of pressure which could be placed upon an individual voter. Investigations related to power and agency help to rescue the voters and the unenfranchised from an impotent limbo, to stress their importance in the political process, and to emphasise the view held by many among the eighteenth century political nation that the ‘forty-shilling freeholder’ was the guardian of the nation’s liberty against over-bearing hegemonies.

A story of struggle in common: power, agency and networked resistance

The importance of local cultural considerations was nowhere stronger than at Hatfield, a lowland agricultural township eight miles north-east of Doncaster. It bordered on Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, and had a large area of common land which had been drained by Dutch immigrants in the seventeenth century. The town numbered between 20 and 31 voters at each election in the early eighteenth century. Whilst the Hearth Tax records of 1672 noted 211 households, there were 350 families in Archbishop Herring’s visitation returns of 1743. Thus, a crude approximation gives Hatfield 1 voter for every 22 families at the 1742 county by-election.

The lords of the manor of Hatfield, which included 8 other townships, were the viscounts Irwin and the manorial framework was important to the functioning of local society. These men were strong in the Whig cause throughout the period and were active at every election except that of 1708 when the new lord was a minor. However, only in 1742 did the Government Whig party achieve a majority of votes in the township. [N.B. at each election there were generally 2 parties with 2 candidates for the 2 shire MPs. Each voter had 2 votes at each election.]

This fractured voting may have had much to do with the franchise in this town which developed through common right. The independence which this gave bolstered the widespread antipathy in the area towards the interference of Irwin in social and economic matters. Prior to the 1695 election Abraham de la Pryme noted that the common at Hatfield ‘is freehold unto us, and the Lord has nothing to do with it’. Moreover, ‘the common-free inhabitants that made above forty shillings a year of their common did, according as formerly, swear themselves worth above forty shillings a year freehold and accordingly polled.’ In a case of trespass which occurred in 1737 it was noted that ‘time out of mind [there] hath been an antient custom to wit that the respective Tenants and occupiers in west field…have inclosed and separated such of their part of the s[ai]d common field…and to hold and enjoy the same…free from any common of pasture.’ In their eyes it gave them rights in common and as political actors.

Local electoral right had emerged from resistance and struggle, and had its basis in the drainage of the area in the late 1620s and early 1630s. In May 1626 the crown and Cornelius Vermuyden came to an agreement about draining the level. By 1629, after a series of disputes and riots, which indicate that the area had a history of direct action against and opposition towards the local landlord, Vermuyden covenanted ‘that he will convey to the tenants of the said manors such portions of the recovered lands as had been assigned to them in respect of their common’.

This acrimonious history of fighting for common rights continued in the eighteenth century. In an argument running from 1726 until 1758, which focused upon the common land, Irwin questioned the landholding rights of the inhabitants. He had a turnpike erected on the common at Stainforth, which provoked a riot and subsequent prosecution that exacerbated the splits within the township. Thomas Perkins after certain inhabitants of the manor signed a submission to Irwin. He wrote, ‘What power he may now have I can’t tell…His Majesty K[ing]: Charles ye 1st w[oul]d not at least…have done a contrary thing.’ This was a powerful analogy to make in comparing the major local landowner to a perceived tyrant.

The very fact that the commons were crucial to the economies of the small farmer, and the feeling that the local balance of power lay with the community rather than the lord, fostered a strong sense of community action and local loyalty. In 1739, Jonathan Parish, who hoped to be made the local schoolmaster, had written to Irwin asking for his favour. Parish reported that ‘by making Lord Irwin my friend [I] had made all my Neighbours my enemies’. Concerning the schoolmaster’s appointment, the local curate Marmaduke Drake, hoped that ‘they were wiser than to be led by ye nose by a Lord’. These men seemed unlikely to defer to any man shy of the monarch; thus, political control may have been illusory at best for a man like Irwin.

This confident air was induced by the strength of the community’s common right. One seventeenth-century commentator noted, ‘by often iteration and multiplication of the Act, it becomes a custom: and being continued without interruption time out of mind, it obtaineth the force of a law’. Similarly, one agrarian historian has written that common field government ‘held the village together’, so that the support for local common rights gave the community a sense of security. In the case of Hatfield this common usage was a form of social, and potentially political cement. Agrarian usage impinged upon the shire franchise and would have added to the difficulties and differences of political control. This would have been more so if those who enjoyed the vote by common right saw a landowner’s actions as an attempt to impoverish them.

The commons were crucial for rearing sheep, oxen horse and pigs, as well as providing thatch, bricks, and sundry extras which bolstered the local economy. Neeson has written that ‘at the local level, custom had the force of the law’. Moreover, if the commons were crucial to the psychological and personal well-being of the individual and the community, then its defence was all-important no matter whom the attacker. The commons gave the individual and the community a chance to live of their own and to survive a dearth. They also gave the chance to have an economic independence that may have fed political autonomy. All this stemmed from what appeared to be enclosure and enfranchisement by consent. There was the strength of custom and usage in terms of the variations in the franchise. As Langford has pointed out ‘faith in local procedures was deeply entrenched’.

Struggle for the common in cyberspace

Which brings me back to my third question:

How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

In Eighteenth century Hatfield, that so many political voters (agents) owned their own lands, and that landownership was so fractured made political control awkward. It simply was not possible for local landowners to brow-beat a majority of men to the polls. The relationship between the politicians and a large subset of the electorate was fragile and conditional. Once the politicians drew the battle lines they were involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that the politicians had to expend so much energy and money to gain an election and maintain some form of control.

I am wondering what this offers in terms of the institutionalisation/enclosure of the internet and the web as a subset of it.

  • How do we struggle to acknowledge and nurture the disparate local contexts and activities born of custom that exist online?
  • How do we recognise power and privilege in networked communities? How does one avoid the real subsumption of the individual within common spaces?

Reflections on the politics of dashboards and Green IT

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 June 2011

Howard Noble from the JISC Open to Change project has blogged about the recent energy dashboards event held in Oxford. This event focused upon a number of emerging themes.

  1. How to represent/visualise energy data so that those who use institutional infrastructure can see the impact of their work? An outcome of the work on dashboards was that whilst some are seeking to reveal cost in terms of everyday activities that make sense to individuals, like the equivalent number of cups of tea that could be made, users of energy generally think about [are encouraged to think about?] their energy use as a cost in cash-terms. Money is the dominant metric in this approach to visualisation.
  2. Much of the focus appears, as yet, to be focused on individual behaviour change, rather than seeing this as a mutual, co-operative endeavour. There are plenty of examples of how networks or communities coming together can engage in a discussion about resilience, rather than sustainability, for example, Transitions Towns, Dark Mountain, the Co-operative College. However, this involves a focus, less on personalisation, which is a driving characteristic of societal and educational “value”, and more on mutualism, negotiation and collaboration.
  3. This need to re-focus discussion upon shared use of space and energy within it demands meaningful, long-term, public engagement. This is one of the outcomes of the DUALL project at DMU, and its successor GreenView, which wishes to enter into negotiation with people about “the impacts of our individual and collective actions, notably our increasing energy use and consumption of goods and services.” This includes technologies that are locally-hosted, but also those which are out-sourced to the cloud. Exactly where are we shifting our carbon commitments, so that we can shift any medium-term environmental risk off our short-term balance sheets?
  4. Thus, I think it is important to see energy dashboards in the context of a deliberative process that surrounds the discussion and opening up of visualisation data as a crack in our accepted norms of energy use. The process of opening-up our energy data, and opening up the production process that underpins those data needs to drive a wider discourse around our socio-technical activities within higher education. We need to move away from seeing dashboards as an end in themselves, as a set of data to be turned into a commodity that can be traded, exchanged or quantified in a league table. We need to use those data and their representation as a way to unpick the activities we engage in within Universities. In a draft article [under review], Joss Winn and I look at such activities in light of emissions and peak oil, and argue for a higher education where:
  • educational technology is a public rather than a private or institutionalised good with an acceptance of less energy-intensive, individualised access to processing power;
  • there is prioritisation of digital technologies in strategies for community consensus-building;
  • Universities are networks that act as hubs for local, community-level engagement with technologies, and high-level digital processes;
  • individual access to the web is less of a right than community access, based on a literacy of openness. Open is central;
  • outsourcing decisions are based on community need related to a critical analysis of environmental impact, rather than on a discourse of cost-effectiveness;
  • persistent and on-going procurement and renewal of hardware and software is rejected, in favour of re-use and re-purposing; and
  • students and staff produce and share their open curricula and artefacts, through trans-disciplinary approaches to global crises, like peak oil and climate change.

Engaging with a critique of the Triple Crunch and developing meaningful alternatives means that we need to think beyond business-as-usual, as realised through investments in a Green New Deal or long-term investments or out-sourcing risk and impact, in order to engage socially with the work, tasks and activities of our everyday, educational lives.

This means that we need to move away from a focus on values and attitudes to engaging with the deep, structural issues that are revealed by the work we undertake. How do the teaching, administrative and research processes of the University bind us into unsustainable practices [in terms of peak oil and carbon emissions], and make our communities less resilient? I am thinking of this in terms of our instant, recurrent, personalised, intensive use of energy-through-high-technology. How might energy dashboards and the information they project, help us to open up a dialogue about the ways in which we live our educational lives?

One lesson from the workshop is that we have a tendency to outsource, and that this makes us less well able to engage in a discussion of responsibility at scale. This might be in terms of institutional outsourcing of our carbon, or personal outsourcing of solutions to Government. This point has been reiterated in terms of corporate influence of public policy making and a withering of democratic engagement, in opposition to the social uses of technologies that should enable communities to share in “collaboration, process, experience, expertise, and knowledge”.

This is, of course, more difficult in a space where the rule of money and the invisibility/ubiquity of energy dominate the landscape, and where there is little discussion of complexities like the Jevons Paradox or alternative ways of working. We need to re-think our educational activities, in order to think about dashboards not as the next commodity or means of acquiring research funding, but as indicators of our shared consumption and production. We need fewer futuristic, positivist stories of green technologies, or green energy, and more focus upon our histories of adapting to energy shortages across communities. Meaningful public engagement is critical here, because Universities are located in time and space, and through community activity, external income generation, distance learning and outsourcing, they have a considerable carbon/energy footprint/requirement.

Clearly, this work demands a politics of energy use within and across higher education, which does not just engage students and staff with energy-as-money, but with issues and ideas of peak oil and consumption/production, and with their necessary activities/technologies. Until we have such a deliberative policy, dashboard-related work risks being the next commodity, or end-point, that salves our liberal, democratic consciences about energy use, but which actually change nothing. Hope lies in the dashboard and its production as a cipher for deliberation and socio-cultural change.

The politics of educational technology

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 9 June 2011

Last week Joss Winn reminded me of the urgency of the work that he and I have been doing in the last year around resilience, tied to the impacts of liquid fuel availability/costs, peak oil, climate change and the treadmill logic of capitalism. Reflecting on the triple crunch of energy, economy and emissions, Joss ended his piece by stating that:

“It’s time that a co-ordinated effort was made by the sector to examine these issues in detail, involving academics from across disciplines as well as business continuity managers and VCs. We really do need to start ‘thinking the unthinkable‘…”

Whilst both he and I have been blogging about resilient education for a while, five issues have begun to pinch, which ought to re-focus those of us in higher education and in educational technology, on the politics of our position. These are big issues that threaten to overwhelm us. But they cannot be ignored.

1.    Global socio-political disruption: the media has focused in on what has been termed the Arab Spring, with an overt focus on Libya [see below on oil], and has tended to overlook analyses of tensions in either the United States based on unemployment figures and the deficit, or across Europe in Greece and Spain. This is then connected to issues around youth unemployment, which in turn has implications for discussions of what our higher education is for, and for whom our higher education exists, and who is abandoned by us. We might usefully reflect on the New College of the Humanities farrago, in light of our educational approach to social justice and inclusion. More importantly, in Western economies struggling under the weight of fiscal stimulus, needing to reduce deficits and structural debt, with pensions and an ageing population to consider, the inter-relationship between higher education and the politics of austerity need to be critiqued and alternatives developed. This is especially important in our current political space, because, as Paul Mason notes: “At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”.

2.    Local socio-political disruption: the emerging neoliberal higher education project is contested. However, we exist in a space where the routine brutalisation of our young people on our campuses is tolerated, where those who dare to criticise established positions of power are termed terrorists, and where our use of social media for local and national organising comes under attack. Neocleous argues that “the logic of ‘security’ is the logic of an anti-politics in which the state uses ‘security’ to marginalize all else, most notably the constructive conflicts, the debates and discussions that animate political life, suppressing all before it and dominating political discourse in an entirely reactionary way.” Higher education should be the battle of ideas. If we truly believe in the transformatory power of social media, then we need to use itto contest these hegemonic positions.

3.    The economy: our framing of higher education rarely considers either the politics of our work or global economic outlook, for example in terms of the threat of a technical US default on its debt or China’s emerging lack of resources. Our planning and our thinking are around business-as-usual, as if higher education existed in a global, political economic bubble, in which the contradictions of capitalism remain someone else’s problem. That’s before we stop to think about the impact on other people of our consumer-driven lifestyles and work and higher education.

4.    Personal and institutional debt: Williams has noted that, in the move from education as a public good to becoming an individual commodity: “student debt, in its prevalence and amounts, constitutes a pedagogy, unlike the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaims, of privatization and the market.” This is reiterated in the development and focus of the New College of the Humanities. However, it also refocuses the future of higher education and its funding mechanisms [in a world that faces the disruptions noted above], and the fear that middle of the road universities will soon be in the middle of a funding crisis. Paul Mason has also highlighted how finance capital in the West repackaged debt and risk in the sub-prime crisis. Are we about to see the same in the form of commodity-trading in student-driven debt? How does a pedagogy of debt enable the resilience of communities-of-practice or individuals?

5.    Energy and climate change: liquid energy is the key issue that we choose to ignore, and which is inextricably tied to the economic issues noted above. This ranges from the impact of geopolitical instability in Libya, to our desperate rush for tar sands in Madagascar, to the problems of energy policy and climate change objectives. So we focus upon green league tables or Masters degrees in the Economics of Transition, and do not consider them within a deeper critique of our dominant political-economic paradigms. Our debt-fuelled higher education is about to be driven by consumption of learning as a commodity. What will be the impact of that increase in economic spending on emissions and energy use? How will that frame resilience?

Technology is implicated throughout these issues, from governmental control/abuse of social media use and data, to feeding fears of anti-intellectualism, and through carbon emissions and the use of liquid energy. More importantly, it also fuels a myth of progress, tied to economic growth and libertarian utility, set apart from a deeper engagement in the history of struggle and the politics of its development and use. We tend to forget our history, in a rush for the future, and where we do remember our memories only stretch as far as Web 1.0. We might use the term Luddite related to technology, but we have no idea of the history of that term and what the Luddites were fighting for, and how technology was implicated through its non-neutrality in that story. The term is pejorative of those deemed anti-progress, and yet the real issue, as Feenberg has argued, is that ” technology is not a destiny but a scene of struggle.”

Yet the historian Ellen Meiksins-Wood has noted that:

‘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’.

Our education and our use of technologies are implicated. In order to understand our present position, and to develop alternatives that matter, we need stories and metaphors and critiques of where we are. There are elements of this, for example in the work of Feenberg, but we need a coherent, contextualised history and a politics of educational technology more than ever.

This is emering elsewhere, outside the formalised educational institution. On Sunday night a UKUncut conversation on Twitter opened up a possibility for discussing a history of direct action, using the #DAHistory hashtag. We also have clear examples of where technology has been critiqued and is being developed politically in the form of oppositional spaces. We also have examples of hacktivism and network movements in opposition to the global incorporation of networked technologies. Critiquing power relationships within our use of technology is important because, as DSG have noted “Governments are responding with a conscious and concerted effort to reframe cyber activity and activism as criminality against state and capital, which, no doubt, will soon be upgraded to a form of terrorism. This bears analogies to similar reframing of narratives around workers movements throughout the 19th and 20th Century, not least the “strategy of tension” in Italy in the 1970s.”

In the face of disruptions, and the return of politics in an era of austerity, those of us who work in education and technology might usefully ask: what is to be done?

Postscript: the importance of metaphors and stories of technology-in-education

We have a narrative emerging about the contradictions in the cycles and circuits of capitalism, and the place of technology in those contradictions. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg de Peuter raise this in terms of games and the creative industries, arguing that the commodification and exploitation of “creatives”, gamers and hacker culture, is a form of “playbor”, which subsumes the desire to play games within the profit-motive. They argue that we need to understand this process of subsumption, in order to find ways around it, and to challenge it. These challenges might echo the revelations about of Sony’s attempts to silence speech that reveals security flaws about its PlayStation hardware, or they might echo the emergent history of hacktivism against Sony. Both de Peuter and Dyer Witheford argue that the dominant narratives of educational technology, for example of Web 2.0 technology as user-generated and hence emancipatory, or of learning analytics as allegedly leading to efficient, personalised teaching and learning, or of technology as implicitly progressive, need to be critiqued within a more substantive history of capitalism and the western, liberal state.

In doing this, Dyer Witheford argues for an alternative narrative, one of possibility, framed by the revitalisation of the commons:

“A twenty-first century communism must also be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial, state and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons, which open possibilities for new combinations of planetary planning and autonomous association.”

This narrative of the insertion of global networks of capital within higher education feeds a second metaphor, that of the shock doctrine. Klein’s work on shock opens up a way of viewing what Hardt and Negri call Empire and what those who follow Deleuze and Guattari frame as immaterial labour within a networked reimagining of our global social relationships. We might now usefully work in common to reveal the impact of this shock within UK higher education, on issues of debt as a form of indentured labour, and of the discipline of the kettle and order, and of the ways in which states attempt to utilise technologies to impose order and control. Such a revelation demands rhizomatic or permeable working across disciplinary boundaries, in ways which develop resilient alternatives to dominant, powerful narratives of the purposes of our lives.

Each of these stories offers hope. Hope in that we might use them as metaphors to help us explain our world, in light of global crises; in order to understand how our behaviours and our cognitive dissonance impacts consumption and production in this world. As a result we might try to build something different. In the worst case scenario, these stories might help us work with others to become more resilient at scales and in networks that matter to us.

These stories enable us to critique in common the ahistorical truisms of liberal democracy, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency, private/public, and the market. A global range of skills, alongside stories in which they might be situated, exist in spaces that remain as yet unenclosed. These spaces might be harnessed collaboratively for more than profiteering, or the extraction of surplus value or further accumulation or financialisation, or alienation. We teach and re-think these skills and these ways of thinking every day with other staff and students and within our communities of practice. We need the confidence to imagine that our skills might be shared and put to another use. We need the confidence to defend our physical and virtual commons as spaces for production and consumption. We need the confidence to think ethically through our positions. We need the confidence to live and tell a different story of the purpose of technology-in-education.

Beyond Cuts and Taxation: Critical Alternatives and the Idea of Higher Education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 March 2011

The slides for this workshop are available on my slideshare.

Introduction: beyond cuts and taxation

In a recent workshop on the alternative to cuts, DMU’s Sally Ruane argued that if the UK’s structural deficit [as opposed to its national debt] demanded immediate governmental response, then that response needed to focus upon taxation as a cipher for our shared, common wealth and values. Rather than driving through cuts to public services, which marginalise those living in poverty, the pivot should be on overcoming tax avoidance and tax evasion. Sally’s focus was on humanising our system of economic governance through mechanisms tied to social justice and inclusion. Connected to the Keynesian realities that emerged beyond the New Deal, which was subsequently attacked intellectually by the Chicago School in the 1970s and seeded politically by the Thatcherite-Reagonite consensus, Sally began to imagine an alternative that re-focused our social relationships on alternatives shared-in-common, and based around recalibrating the existing capitalist system. Rather than a political re-imagining of the world as it might be, the argument was that there is a more limited, humane economic agenda for which we might fight.

Sally’s arguments rightly connected issues of social injustice, highlighted in part by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, about the lack of redistribution in the coalition’s political economy, to public outrage about our banking system, and to a series of questions about what is to be done as a result. Functional, solutions have emerged from the left, including: a Green New Deal and no- or de-growth [proposed by the new economics foundation]; the public shaming of tax avoiders [the praxis of UK Uncut]; and, the development of co-operative facilities for managing debt, like Eurobonds [promoted by Stuart Holland]. These solutions argue for compassionate or progressive capitalist approaches, but they do connect economic drivers to issues of governance and politics, a connection that is missing from so much of our public discourse, which is too often reduced to cuts versus taxation.

Yet, as Stuart Price noted in the first workshop, we have a catastrophic cleavage in the condition of our democracy, where the electorate can be undermined by coalition manifestos produced in negotiations after the fact, and which move us to a position where we are disempowered through shock as both our public services and our shared resources held in common are disembowelled. This subsumption of our politics to the realpolitik of the state, managed through shock therapy, is reinforced through what George Lambie highlighted as the power of the transnational flows of [finance] capital over that state apparatus.

It is this role of the state as a key vehicle for capital, nested within a neoliberal discourse that is the cornerstone of what Marx called the “real subsumption of labour to capital”, which I wish to investigate in this second seminar. In particular, I wish to look at the dominant narrative that now subsumes higher education within the needs of transnational capital, or what Hardt and Negri have termed Empire, for, amongst other things, profit maximisation, accumulation by dispossession, increases in the rate of profit, and a furtherance of consumption as the motive force behind growth. As one of the occupiers at University College London argued, “this is about more than education.” In this I want to begin to relate the real subsumption of higher education to the capitalist logic of domination, inspired by the work of Deleuze, Negri and Tronti [among others] on the social factory.

So this seminar is in four parts. In the first I look at the hegemony of neoliberal dogma within higher education, in order to ask whether liberal versions of business-as-usual are viable. In the second I try to relate this dogma to the current crisis of capitalism, in order to demonstrate how higher education and its actors are being deliberately brutalised by the state, through the deployment of pedagogies of both debt and the kettle, as a form of shock therapy. In this brutalisation, hopes that progressives can mollify the system against tax evasion and against the cuts risk a lack of traction. In the third part I briefly place higher education in the context of global flows of capital and the impact of shock through internationalisation on our environmental crisis. In the final part, I wish to explore alternatives, in order to ask whether, in Holloway’s terms it is possible to be in-and-against the dominant logic of capital, and to imagine moving beyond its alienating immiseration. Is it possible that autonomous alternatives and refusals to be subjugated to the iron-fisted rule of money might offer possible re-imaginings? How is it possible for higher education, in Marx’s term, to facilitate the negation of our negation?

Part 1: higher education and the totalising logic of capital

We might start by asking whether autonomous consumption and production of our common educational wealth is possible. Or whether our higher education is now inextricably bound to the individualistic, libertarian, debt-driven privatisation and separation of the market? Moreover, in this historical space, what is the future for higher education where it now exists as a functionary, or training ground, for further capitalist accumulation? No longer recognised as a public good in its own right, our dominant, anti-humanist rhetoric accepts the neoliberal, anti-historical consensus of Fukayama, and forgets the situated critiques of Keynesians like Galbraith. In this, critical theory is relegated to the margins, having no historical power in the present moment, and seeming to be beneath progress. In this present moment, the liberal view of business-as-usual, which imagines the humanising of capital through, for example, effective tax mechanisms or parliamentary democracy refuses us space to contemplate the historical moment and contingency of a higher education for neoliberalism. In the world of cuts versus taxation there is no historical critique.

Yet the world of higher education is one in which the mantra of growth and competition is explicit in HEFCE’s mission statement and in its reports, in the HEA’s strategic plan, and in the Coalition Government’s shackling of the AHRC’s research strategy to its big society agenda. Thus, strategy and structural agendas are linked to economic narratives, over-and-above social relationships. Moreover, in the depositions of representational groups like UUK, or University Alliance, or the British Academy, the rule of money and the interests of business are hegemonic and uncontestable. There is no critique of the relationship between higher learning and economic narratives or the financialisation of education. There is no central critique of the drive-to-indenture-through-debt or the managerialism of labour in the academy. There is no critique of the mantras of value-for-money, efficiency and more-for-less. There is no acceptable, historically-situated counter-narrative within the academy. There is just the world we are in. There is just outrage and money. There is just abstraction.

One implication of this is that higher education is no longer immune from the totalising nature of capitalism. As with the whole social environment, including our mores, cultures, politics, and personal relations, higher education is now part of the social factory. In this way, higher education is part of a regime of capitalist power that can direct the consumption and production of our lives, as we labour and as we relax. 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”. With no new geographical spaces ripe for accumulation by dispossession, the argument here is that the real subsumption of life to capital through debt and consumption is a form of accumulation by dispossession [of our futures], in order to enable profit maximisation. There is no ‘outside’ the logic of capital. There is no humanising its dominant logic by an appeal against cuts and for taxation. This is where the transnationality of financial capital works against those who would reform the financial apparatus of the state through a plea to the state. As the Libera Università Metropolitana notes

the financial capitalism and transnational corporations do not accept any form of regulation and consider the crisis to be a structural condition to be viewed as part of the contemporary production of value. On the other hand, the parabola of Obama indicates that reformism has come to halt and neo-Keynesian receipts are blunt weapon[s].

Part 2: the pedagogies of shock – the kettle and debt

Thus, the totalising, anti-humanist subsumption of higher education to the market is a form of shock therapy, imparted by the state in the name of growth and progress. Two elements of this shock therapy are especially important in the current historical moment, and these are the twin pedagogies of debt and the kettle. The idea is to marginalise dissent and resistance and to enforce the separation of our social concerns into private, personal spaces, so that we are not willing to fight for our common, educational wealth. We see *our* higher education as *our* private property, paid for and owned individually. The discipline of personal debt shackles dissent as we do not wish to be marginalised in the employment market as labour that is surplus to requirements. We are caught by the promise of the knowledge economy and forced to immerse ourselves in the skills of material and immaterial consumption, in order simply to survive. In order simply to consume.

It is in this space that debt becomes a pedagogy, focused upon the consumption of knowledge and lifestyles, of uncriticality, of employability and skills, of business and not economics, of STEM and not humanities. As Williams notes:

student debt, in its prevalence and amounts, constitutes a pedagogy, unlike the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaims, of privatization and the market.

We are being taught a lesson that as the state transfers the social value of a university life to the individual via debt, higher education is no longer immune from the logic of the market, and is no longer able simple to call upon the mantra of the public good. Thus we enter a world where graduates face paying back double their student loans as debt charges rack up, and where Universities are disciplined by funding shortages into providing what their students as customers, disciplined by debt in a specific market, demand of them. There is no space for common deliberation about the purpose of an education in a world that faces massive socio-environmental disruption. There is only space for discussion of employment and debt repayment. The logic of capitalist accumulation through debt, and the treadmill necessity of finding spaces for the re-capitalisation/investment of surplus value shackles higher education to the hegemony of consumption for capitalist growth. Thus, even where it is shown that subsidies like EMA are efficient in recouping their costs they are scrapped because they are beyond the logic of debt. For, as Michael Gove argues: debt is now a way of life, and a way of marketising humanity: “Anyone put off… university by fear of… debt doesn’t deserve to be at university in the first place”.

This dominant narrative of debt and dispossession has been quickened within UK higher education through the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s subsequent response. The global economic crisis has been turned into a means to speed the privatisation of the state, and to attempt the strangulation of possibilities to energise transformative, co-operative relations. This places HE in the vanguard of the Shock Doctrine, designed “to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy”. It rests upon, for example:

  1. the relentless law of competition and coercion (internationalisation)
  2. the impact of crisis to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant ideology of student-as-consumer, and HE-as-commodity
  3. the transfer of state/public assets to the private sector under the belief that this will produce efficiency and economic outputs
  4. the lock-down of state subsidies for ‘inefficient’ work (Bands C and D funded subjects)
  5. the privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability = encouraging privatisation of HE
  6. a refusal to run deficits, catalysing pejorative cuts to state services
  7. extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt, through increased fees
  8. a controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology.

The Coalition’s higher education agenda might be read as an attempt to enforce the shock doctrine as part of a response to economic crisis. It might be read as an attempt to increase the market for western neoliberal values, delivered through the engine of higher education. This is revealed in David Willetts’ speech to the spring conference of Universities UK, in which he made plain a view of: privatisation; cost reduction; consumption as pedagogy; closing-off teaching in “undesirable” subjects; and anti-humanism.

Let me start this morning with our broader vision for HE – it is a simpler, more flexible system which gives students better value and greater choice. That means a more diverse range of providers should be able to play a role. It means funding for teaching should follow the choices that students make. And it means empowering students to make their own choices based on better, more transparent information.

In the face of this one wonders about the strength of an agenda focused upon taxation versus cuts, of clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance, rather than developing a critique of the historical space that we inhabit. As Žižek notes, our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” We believe that we can convince those in power, who support protest and resistance in the Middle East where issues of governmental legitimacy and resource appropriation are concerned, but for whom the kettle is the appropriate response to similar outbursts at home, that there is a more humanist, socially inclusive response. We believe that our alternative is no-growth, or de-growth [impossible in capital] or a green new deal [impossible in capital fuelled by liquid energy], or a return to Keynsian economics, in the face of the dominant logic of coercive competition that has subsumed the fabric of our lives. Žižek forces us to confront whether, in the face of a political system in which parties trade their strategies for immiserating cuts as if they are the only demonstration of a fitness for government, it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned”?

In this space, alternatives revealed as protests or occupations of university buildings, are revisited by the state in the form of the kettle. The language of the kettle becomes the language of state security against those who would protest the logic of imposed order. Thus University senior management describe student occupiers as terrorists intent on violent subversion of accepted norms, and as a threat to the education [training] of others. Elsewhere management threatens to bankrupt student protesters to silence dissent, or it calls in the police to remove forcibly those engaged in civil disobedience [and not criminal damage]. In this world protest is brutalised or it is de-legitimised. As Neocleous states:

the logic of ‘security’ is the logic of an anti-politics in which the state uses ‘security’ to marginalize all else, most notably the constructive conflicts, the debates and discussions that animate political life, suppressing all before it and dominating political discourse in an entirely reactionary way

Alternative forms of our common educational wealth are brutalised, marginalised and de-legitimised as threats to our security. In this space we forget the lessons of our histories of civil disobedience to authority, in reform movements, in the fight for the suffrage, in civil rights, in moves against war and brutality. Our anti-history subverts our quest for deliberation and meaningful alternatives. Our anti-history reduces us to the present and a story of growth and progress. Our anti-history reinforces the pedagogy of the kettle that enforces silence and stands asymmetrically opposed to critique and resistance. Our anti-historical stance allows the pedagogy of the kettle to be a means by which order can be imposed and a pedagogy of debt enforced. In this higher education risks complicity through silence.

Part 3: a brief note on global higher education

The realisation of a pedagogy of debt is a need to work and to undertake both material and immaterial labour. However, this work demands energy, and in turn stands against nature: climate change, peak oil, energy costs, the loss of biodiversity each threaten business-as-usual within capitalist social relations. Yet these outcomes are simply the collateral damage of accumulation and the desire to extract surplus value. Thus, higher education’s marketisation through internationalisation threatens to take more people from countries with low ecological footprints and export them to those with high footprints, or to transfer activities in the opposite direction. Higher education’s mission appears to be the generation of western business opportunities in the developing world, cloaked by issues of sustainability and global citizenship.

And it is simply not good enough to claim that technological efficiencies or a green new deal will save the day, because a rise in global population and affluence will ensure that this is not possible. Capitalism’s motive means of production is oil. Green technologies do not offer motive alternatives, and rely on natural resources that are hardly abundant. Deeper solutions are needed about the ways in which we address scarcity and abundance, and work for social as opposed to economic progress/growth. Yet in the anti-humanist logic of shock, there is no space to deliberate possible alternatives. Our pedagogies are remodelled to the market and the rule of money, through the kettle and debt, and away from an engagement with critical externalities like the need for a resilient education. In the face of the commodification and trading of food and water, which starves communities around the globe, of resource depletion and carbon emissions, which threaten our very existence, and of peak oil, which threatens neoliberalism as a whole, arguing over taxation versus cuts may be irrelevant. In spite of the fact that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, our historical moment demands a redefinition of what the University is for.

Part 4: critical alternatives and the idea of higher education

Mike Neary has argued that the struggle is not over what the university is for, but against what the university has become. In this struggle there are two forms congealing that offer critical alternatives, and which are connected into broader sites of resistance to the alienating logic of capitalism. The first is the raft of student occupations in the heart of the academy and the second is the emergence of autonomous, informal spaces for higher learning. These forms of resistance offer the possibility of transformation, in-part by re-imagining the general intellect through co-operative moments of protest, which develop aspects of what Hardt and Negri call the multitude, and our struggles for post-national democratic spaces and against submission to the bottom-line logic of capital. The role of the multitude, the force behind and in opposition to capital-as-empire, is in producing, consuming, co-operating and communicating capital through globalisation. Within the totality of the global, social factory, where transnational, corporate power dominates, there are countless spaces in which opposition can erupt: the environment; identity politics; education; health etc.. The immateriality of this multitude, which operates physically and virtually, and its swarming, autonomous, material nature, offers spaces for resistance, like hacking either software or corporate spaces, or for developing practical alternatives that might stick or which might dissolve as they become part of the spectacle, or for infusing wider, societal protests, like demonstrations against cuts, with critique.

The first form of struggle has been occupation. The conflicted and yet productive work of occupation across the UK demonstrates how students are attempting to re-define and re-produce their social roles, in light of a questioning of the structures higher education and their connection to higher learning. They ask:

  1. Can we re-imagine a more transformative university space, which values making, knowing and being over simply consuming?
  2. For whom is the university? For businesses and managers, for co-operators, or for society at large?
  3. How can the space and the meaning of the university be liberated?

Within the occupation, the use of place, its attempted liberation from a normalised utility and its position as a sanctuary are revealed. The focus on spaces-of-sanctuary from hegemony, in order to deliberate transformational opportunities, has been shown in the levels of solidarity from across the globe within and between student movements, and which are increasingly being revealed as conflicted efforts at non-hierarchical, co-operative organisation. Thus, the University for Strategic Optimism argues for ‘A university based on the principle of free and open education, a return of politics to the public, and the politicisation of public space’. This reclamation, whilst negating claims of ownership or property rights, highlights the drive towards personal and co-operative autonomy in a living and commonly-owned space. The students who are arguing for transformation are engaging with what Marx called ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’. This highlights an anti-institutionalised, anti-controlling description of the social forms of higher learning, where barriers, separation, differences and transitions are critiqued dialectically and historicised within the dynamics of capital. In this, the social, co-operative structures rendered possible within universities as sites of potential knowing are pivotal in re-producing a shared set of educational and societal alternatives.

In this project, a second site of alternative, critical practices is revealed through autonomist, conceptual spaces that offer open source possibilities for transformation.

  • Student-as-producer is a concept which ‘extends the concept of production to include ways in which students, as social individuals, affect and change society, so as to be able to recognise themselves in the social world of their own design.’
  • The Really Open University’s emphasis on the need for praxis, in re-asserting the idea of the university as a site for critical action, resistance and opposition, led by students.
  • The Peer to Peer University’s open approach to co-operative production through sharing and accreditation.
  • The Institute of Collapsonomics’ analysis of meaningful socio-cultural resilience, and our capacity to develop agile and mobile associations, which can solve problems and develop alternatives.
  • The University of Utopia’s aim to invent a form of radicality that confronts the paradox of the possibility of abundance (freedom) in a society of scarcity (non-freedom).
  • The Really Free School’s aim to de-school society, in order to share the possibility for re-producing something more meaningful along with those around you. Against the rule of money, the Really Free School encourages “a collective learning process directed by your own desires, ideas, questions and problems. We hope that here knowledge and skills will not simply be transmitted – but created.”

These activist possibilities highlight the interconnections between organisation and technology, environmental demands and human needs, congealed in specific places like occupations in the academy. In challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism these spaces are theorising a higher education that is not framed by business continuity (i.e. ensuring ‘business-as-usual’). From these places emerges a demand for a practical, critical theory, embedded within society that engages with wider environmental changes, against the alienation of capitalist work, and the reductionism of a debate of taxation versus cuts. These co-operators are debating and fighting for the idea and the form of the University-in-society and not the University-for-economy. They are attempting to do so in transitional spaces infused with and by a culture of open critique. These spaces and conflicted, not always consensual, and they are compromised. However, they are at least deliberating alternatives.

As Paul Mason noted last month, about why it is kicking off everywhere, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”. The newly-politicised energy of these graduates instantiates protest, just as the 26 March demonstrations in London demonstrated the new vitality of a broad demographic, represented in large part by the associational democracy of trades unions. This broad demographic is against hegemonic, unrepresentative, parliamentary politics. The question now is how autonomous movements and a broader demographic, congealed in an immediate agenda against governmental cuts, might be enabled to imagine societal alternatives in a world that faces massive disruption. How will governance work at local, national, global scales? As students and staff work together in occupation and in sites of resistance, we might ask how their re-imagining of the role of higher education can be dissolved into the fabric of society, so that higher learning can enable alternatives to become realities against the rule of money.

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.

I have no solutions. The Vice-Chancellors who have been debating these issues have no solutions. Only the willingness to ask and discuss questions, and to find spaces to test alternatives in co-operation. So we might ask:

  • 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?

The University and the crisis

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 7 February 2011

Over the weekend, I attended “For People and Planet: Not Profit and Self-Destruction: Can Universities make the move towards, or even lead ‘transition’?” What follows are the questions that it raised for me. I have also included a few unattributed quotes.

Sustainability: Nothing is sustainable. Can the University as a physical form be sustainable? In the face of massive budget cuts, of an enforced, neoliberal re-focusing of its idea, and of outsourcing/privatisation, what will the University as institution and idea, ether do or become? How can the University seed alternatives? How can the University be open-sourced, so that its ideas can be shared for co-operative production and resilience, rather than coercive competition?

Is sustainability meaningless? What is to be sustained? Is capitalism to be sustained and humanised? Is a BA (Hons) History or an HND Information Technology or a Masters in Youth Work to be sustained and developed? Are our current rates of consumption/production of relative surplus value and use-values and things to be sustained? Is humanity to be sustained? Are we actually talking about the transformation of production and consumption, and the construction of our social wealth?

Transition: Is transition meaningless? We are in permanent transition. “Is the idea of transition to save [energy/money/XX] in a system of production that demands that we consume more [energy/money/XX] than we need?” Is the role of the University in the socio-economic crisis, and the crisis of environmental degradation, and the crisis of debt and financialisation, to enable places to become more resilient and to adapt to shocks? Is the role of the University to enable places to become more diverse in their organisation and production of socially useful things? Is it to enable places to become more modular in their organisation and production of socially useful things? Is it to confront places directly with feedback from their actions, so that those actions have consequences in-place? Is it to enable people-in-society to co-operate and associate? Is it to prepare for reactions to business-as-usual/shocks, or to prepare proactively for alternatives? Is it to suggest a different form of social wealth?

“The future is here right now. It just isn’t very well distributed”. Resource depletion and the impact of global capitalism aren’t distributed evenly within and across nations. Do we really think that socio-technical solutions will ameliorate this and enable 3% growth? Or do we need a deeper critique and set of alternatives? Doing less harm is unsustainable. So how does the University enable higher learning to address this issue?

Place: The University is a congealed space/place. What can be recovered or salvaged from the University as a physical form or as an idea? How can the ideas of the University be open sourced for society? Is the University a fetish? Can “knowing” be re-seeded in society? Do the proliferation of self-organised open “schools”, engaged at, and dissolved into, the level of society highlight that higher learning is more resilient than higher education? Where universities form an essence of congealed competition, can they be a place for co-operative solutions to the problems of place? In the face of business-as-usual, how can the University as an actor-for-capital, help us to work against our alienation into an organisation, or our alienation into the production of commodities? How do we encourage open dissensus in the academy? How do we take what matters into a new way of living?

Can we imagine a new form of social wealth? How do “really free schools” enable us to organise or associate or demonstrate a new form of social wealth? How do they help us to be against the current organising principle of higher learning, focused on separation of subject, and distraction from the problems of place, and coercive competition and debt? If we are entering a world of scarcity rather than abundance, where 3% growth is unsustainable, how can we enable a permaculture of higher learning to take root? Is the socially useful role of the University to provide opportunities/places for permacultures to flourish?

Curriculum in place: In the curriculum we need to reveal the revolutionary moment. We need to teach in the moment of crisis. We do not need a pedagogy for transition, which becomes reified or a commodity. We need teaching that recognises why/critique in the process of learning. We need to teach and think and act and be responsible in public. To do this in private is a negation of our social responsibility. We need to encourage our students in the creation of our social wealth through association, and to contribute towards the creation of an alternative social world.

How do Universities engage with the places where they produce, consume, create value, have value, look for profit? Place is a site of emotion and action. The University’s activities need a physical grounding. They cannot be dissociated from place if disruption is to be overcome. Thus, the politics of place, of working in consensus [not majority], of squatting and reclaiming space, of recognising power, is vital in the development of alternatives. The history of higher learning in place needs to be reclaimed and salvaged. Is the important issue not how can the University outreach into the community, but how can the community outreach into the University?

Universities and places of higher learning need to be reclaimed as sites of radical production and action. There is a history of bravery and courage in the face of disruption, and a social history of opposition and bravery and courage needs to be recovered. Universities and places of higher learning need to help people reclaim their histories and to connect their stories to alternative means of production of their lives, and to demonstrate that the iron cage is not the only option. This means opening up places for fellowship and association, based on histories of courage, and against the dangerous and damaging assumptions of business-as-usual. How do Universities and places of higher learning engage with the lessons of the past to encourage resiliency in people?

Technologies in public: How do technologies support shared histories and stories, within and against and beyond the economies of scale in the University? How can the University seed new networks for critique and the production of alternatives? “We need options in a time of crisis. We do not need to extend our work and pretend it will go away.” How can we “create safe spaces in which we are allowed to be wrong?” Can we do this thinking, improvisation, imagining in public, using technology to support the network? How can we develop the habits of opposition without group-think? We need to share examples, so can technology help us to create and nourish “a parallel infrastructure for higher learning”? Can the edges help redefine the centre without being destroyed? Can this help us to open-source solutions that are rooted in a life-world?

Self-awareness: How do either the University or places of higher learning enable me to be against the impossibility of my life? How do they help me overcome the negation of my negation in capital? How do either the University or places of higher learning enable me to be for the possibility of me? What fellowships and associations enable the possibility of me?

Debate: are Universities a public good?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 February 2011

Halfway through Wednesday’s DMU debate on whether Universities are a public good, a friend asked me if this was the right question. Doesn’t the answer have to be “yes”? Whether you are a neoliberal fixated on the privatisation of public assets, and driving forward market fundamentalism in the name of the knowledge economy, or a *liberal* for whom the University is about developing global knowing and inclusion, or a radical for whom the University is a space for re-imagining in the face of global disruptions, the answer has to be yes. The University is a space in which the focus can be on the economy, or on mending/remaking our social relationships, or on socio-technical solutions to crises of global political economy.

So is the question are Universities a public good meaningful? It depends on how that question and any solutions are to be developed. That question has to open up a crack in the dominant logic of our political economy, within which the University, as organisation as well as idea, sits. One of the issues I had with Wednesday’s debate was that it assumes, as Žižek argues, that our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” Žižek queries whether it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned.” Framed by this critique of the failure of liberal democracy to humanise, and in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism, Mike Neary notes that we must question whether in education “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.”

This is where the debate risks becoming mired in the honest desire to remove us from the immiseration and alienation of capitalist work, towards the idea that we can have growth and pensions and fridges and shiny new iPads in a world that faces significant disruption revealed by energy and resource availability, climate change and massive, structural debt. The point was made that growth is a problem on a planet with fixed resources. But the dominant logic of capital is framed by growth. De-growth or no-growth is illogical in the face of debt, the market and an ageing population that needs social support through taxation. It is not possible to expand markets and grow, and cut carbon emissions – GDP and carbon are coupled. So we need a radical rethink. Unless we wish to give up, and finally accept that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.

The University’s place in this space is framed by the iron cage of control exerted by capital’s control of public funding for growth, and nothing else. The Coalition’s demand for higher education to commit to its economic agenda leaves little space for alternatives to emerge within a funding structure that demands all activity be shackled to growth or else, where our students and young people are brutalised in the kettle when they demonstrate opposition, and where the hegemonic, neoliberal discourse is challenged in a fractured way. So we focus on saving education, or saving disability living allowance, or saving day centres, or saving our national forests. We do not join this up into a set of (radical) alternatives for what our society might become. We abdicate all responsibility to the state that alienates us in the form of funding controls or a mantra of efficiency or through police batons.

And yet the University is a space in a set of communities that might offer the hope that we can create something different, in the face of climate change and peak oil and debt. It offers us a space to re-think our world beyond the subject discipline or single issue or single community. These arbitrary differences allow those in power to divide and rule, and thereby to stop meta-narratives or explanations of the reasons why we are in this crisis from emerging. So we need to ruthlessly critique the rationale behind the Coalition’s agenda, not just in education but across our communities, and with our communities. We need to move on from the outcomes of the debates around “Are Universities a public good?” to ask “what is the University for?”, in order to debate “how might the University be re-imagined in order to provide alternatives?”

Already there are spaces emerging where students and staff are re-imagining education, either in *organisations*:

or within *associations*:

These spaces engage a wide-range of activists in engaging with the question of are universities a public good, to assess the ways in which Universities are public goods and what are those goods for, in order to ask what is to be done? That is the end-point. We need to critique the place of the University in a world that faces significant disruption, to try to work out alternatives that support our communities. For DMU that is important in enabling our communities, at each scale (local, regional, national, international) to adapt to dislocations. Involving those communities in re-imaging the university, in re-inventing it, demands that we open up our places and ideas, that we engage people in the production of their lives or their life-world. In this way the university becomes resilient in adapting to change. In this way the university becomes a space for transformation.

See also: