notes in support of Rhodes Must Fall

I

My two most recent articles have referenced Rhodes Must Fall. The first, “Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety” (with Kate Bowles), argues that narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour. It develops a point that I have been trying to articulate about the process of abolishing academic labour. The second, “Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education” (with Keith Smyth), argues that the university is reproduced by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. One possible way to address crisis is by decolonising and then re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Master’s House community.

In both instances I have been trying, with my collaborators, to imagine what educational repair might look like. The idea of educational repair is critical because it focuses on liberating the curriculum as a social use-value, through a critical questioning of the received canon and the pedagogic practices that reinforce or reproduce hegemonic, social positions. One reading of educational repair is that by revealing and then challenging the racialized nature of the curriculum, it becomes possible to enable repair as a form of social justice. Just as the dominant social goals of education enact forms of violence against specific groups by marginalising or silencing them, more progressive pedagogic practices enable repair to the fabric of society and education. This is one of the key reasons why I support Rhodes Must Fall.

II

A range of campaigns by students and staff of colour have emerged as critical, transnational and local movements and moments in the struggle against power and capital in the university. These include: Rhodes Must Fall; the work of Cambridge students to get the Benin Cockerel statue returned to Nigeria; Dismantling the Master’s House at University College London, and related campaigns around #whyismycurriculumwhite and #whyisntmyprofessorblack; the campaign at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, #StandWithJNU; and the campaign to get the Harvard Law School to drop its shield because it incorporates the crest of Isaac Royal Senior, who built much of his wealth through slave labour.

As Azad Essa argues:

From Delhi to Addis Ababa to Durban, students have recognised that a grand collusion of capital and state is in the process of destroying their futures. The status quo is untenable.

In India, the rage manifests itself against caste inequalities, misogyny, communalism, and rising Hindu authoritarianism that hides itself under an agenda of “development” and “Make in India” or “India shining”.

In South Africa, the rage seen over the past six months over tuition fees and outsourcing, is a refusal to accept continued economic apartheid that excludes the majority of black South Africans under the guise of the “rainbow nation” and “non-racialism”.

[D]issent is not just restricted to education fees – students are demanding a decolonisation of syllabus, language, and the very ways in which knowledge has become a tool to keep people from thinking.

Azad Essa. #StandWithJNU and #FeesMustFall: The reemergence of the student movement.

I read these campaigns inside the university through a deeper connection with the work of those fighting for Black Lives Matter, and in particular its focus on restorative justice across society.

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.

The guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter campaign, focused upon intersectional empathy and justice, might be the organising principles for a deeply pedagogical, alternative social form.

The collective work of students/staff across higher education matters because the university is a critical node inside which the intersection of societal injustices, through class, gender and race are revealed. For instance, campaigns like 3cosas demonstrated the asymmetrical impact on women of colour of the disparity between university and contract workers, in terms of sick pay, holidays and pensions. Injustice is also revealed through the governance and regulation of the university, and in the definition, design and delivery of its curricula. In particular, as a recent ContestedTV round table on What has and what will #RhodesMustFall achieve?, the movement is detonating issues that flow from the symbolism of artefacts (be they statues or the curriculum) inside and beyond higher education. These include the following.

  • The role of knowledge production in the heart of the historic British Empire, as an ongoing process for the transnational, colonial production/reproduction of capital. This does not accept the premises on which the curriculum and the university are built, namely dispossession. The legacy of Rhodes is the legacy of corporations and vested interests that despoil the planet continuing to enact their legitimacy through philanthropic work inside HEIs. This forces us to question how we conduct ourselves today, and how our educational cultures, curricula and organising principles enact violence in contemporary society
  • The hegemonic cultural context of knowledge production, scholarship and research, which reiterates the white voices that are to be heard and those (non-white) that are silenced. As a result, the power that is reinforced in the classroom defines who speaks/listens/assesses and on what terms. Importantly, the curriculum is often presented as neutral, in spite of its context.
  • That the construction of the curriculum and its assessment enforce differentials in attainment that then form the reproduction of racialized inequalities. Wider societal inequalities are amplified inside the university.
  • Control of the curriculum ensures that political knowledge and therefore political activism is limited. Cybernetic forms of control, through the reduction of the curriculum to a system prescribed by functions, feedback, analytics, and degrees of control, then tends to naturalise assumptions about performance. This risks creating ghettos inside-or-outside the curriculum.
  • The thinking led us into this wider crisis of sociability, which infects political economy and our global socio-environment, is not that which will liberate us. Moreover, the trans-historical nature of this thinking, rooted in neo-colonial, capitalist discourses, is provincial and racialized.
  • What is required is a decolonisation of the hierarchy of knowing/doing, inside the university, which then pushes back against fetishized university knowledge both in terms of its content and organising principles. This work sees the university as a node for the intersection of protest, where links to local communities emerge against a reified academia in response to concrete issues.
  • This movement of decolonisation cannot be created through university diversity manuals, which sidestep the everyday realities of silencing and political activism, and which ignore the intersection of race, gender and class. As Tadiwa Madenga notes “I also think it’s important to recognise the word that they will never use, which is decolonisation. They will always only ever use diversity. There is a reason they don’t want to even touch that word.”
  • Symbols, like statues and curriculum, remind us of the systematic violence on which much of higher education is built; they form reminders of accumulation by dispossession. They force us to interrogate domination. This is a process of decolonising our minds that is a reference point in the creation of counter-hegemony in the movement to abolish power.
  • The movement to decolonise or dismantle the university in its current form is one of disrupting the function of Empire, primarily in support of decolonising the global South (the former colonial/neo-colonial world). This is an entry point into a wider discussion about decolonialism and structural forms of racism.

When probed about what they mean by ‘history’, many of our critics actually reveal a deep ignorance of Africa, and Rhodes. What they really express is a desire to preserve infantile fables that reinforce their identities. History is not as simple or static as colonial apologists want it to be: removing the statue from its current position would itself mark the moment at which Oxford entered a more honest present. We should not be so overawed by history that we are afraid to make it.

By calling for the removal of the Rhodes statue, RMF wants to show just how far Oxford will go to defend the indefensible. Just how unwilling it will be to look itself in the mirror. Just what reflexes still dominate its systems of power.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. Rhodes Will Fall.

III

Support for Rhodes Must Fall is immanent to academic activism, and the refusal of instrumental, conservative ideological positions that stress the exchange-value of higher education over its social, use-value. This forces us to question our engagement with the heart of the university, as a functional, technocratic space dominated by business cases for growth that are rooted in new markets rather than reparation. As Giroux argues, this is never enough.

In an age of overwhelming violence, war, and oppression, universities must create formative cultures that allow students to assume the role of critically engaged citizens, informed about the ideologies, values, social relations, and institutions that bear down on their lives so that they can be challenged, changed, and held accountable

Thus, intersectional, intergenerational movements that refuse the violent imposition of hierarchies onto our lives enable alternative infrastructures to be imagined. Student activism against such imposition has been, and continues to be, met with state-sanctioned violence. In the accelerated implementation of neoliberalism within the UK, opposition is branded as outlaw or is brutalised in the kettle. As societies are disrupted by climate change, debt, food production and energy availability, there is a quickening of the transformation of the state towards an iron cage of control, in the name of business-as-usual, growth and capital. And all this is a world where, as Žižek argues, 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.” We might argue that very set-up is demarcated by gender, race and class, and is framed by the failure of liberal democracy to humanise in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism.

And so Rhodes Must Fall resonates for me with something I noted a long time ago:

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… 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.

This echoes John Holloway’s work against power.

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.

We cannot live in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives. As teachers we cannot teach in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives. As students we cannot learn in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives.

NOTE: Danica Savonick and Cathy Davidson have produced An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies of Gender Bias in Academe. It includes a growing range of analyses of the struggles that are being recounted in the university, including the following (chosen here for their focus on gender and race).

Chavella T. Pittman. 2010. “Race and Gender Oppression in the Classroom: The Experiences of Women Faculty of Color with White Male Students”. In Teaching Sociology.

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris, eds, 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. Available at: http://www.usu.edu/usupress/books/index.cfm?isbn=8695
https://www.facebook.com/PresumedIncompetent?ref=br_tf

Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall. 2014. “Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science”. The Center for WorkLife Law.

These might also be extended to focus upon the experience of precariously employed staff, the mental health of graduate students and staff, the labour conditions of professional services staff, and so on.

IV

The political economics of this struggle are also critical, and reinforce the position of the university as a node in the flows and reproduction of global capital, in its productive, cultural and intellectual forms. Reflecting on Holloway’s discussion of the constrictive nature of capital and that the only autonomy possible exists for capital itself, we might think about the relationship of the university and struggle inside the university to this system of domination.

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.

As Mike Neary notes: “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.” This includes the role of the University in processes of global labour arbitrage, which strengthen the transnational power of activist networks that are using education as a countermeasure against a global reduction in the rate of profit. Thus, the World Bank Education Sector Strategy ties educational innovation and the rights of the child to ‘strategic development investment’, with an outcome being a strengthening of those labour pools for privatised knowledge, innovation, and enterprise. The globalised deployment of technologies is critical in this process, and underscores the aims of organisations that sponsor capitalist development through philanthropy, as philanthro-capitalism. Moreover, educational technology becomes a fundamental strand of a strategy for commodity-dumping and value extraction from other arms of the globalised system, including the flow of skilled labour from the global South to the global North.

This matters in the context of Rhodes Must Fall because, as Michael Roberts argues:

the huge low wage proletariat that has emerged in the last 30 years is the key to the profits of imperialism, transferred from the South to the North… In 2010, 79 percent, or 541 million, of the world’s industrial workers lived in “less developed regions,” up from 34 percent in 1950 and 53 percent in 1980, compared to the 145 million industrial workers, or 21 percent of the total, who in 2010 lived in the imperialist countries (p103). For workers in manufacturing industry, this shift is more dramatic still. Now 83 percent of the world’s manufacturing workforce lives and works in the nations of the Global South.

Roberts quotes John Smith’s recent book on super-exploitation:

The wages paid to workers in the South are affected by factors that have no bearing on or relevance to the productivity of these workers when at work, factors arising from conditions in the labor market and more general social structures and relations affecting the reproduction of labor-power, including the suppression of the free international movement of labor and the emergence of a vast relative surplus population in the Global South. This knocks a large hole in the tottering edifice of mainstream economics.

The exploitation of labour has increased through a shift in both absolute surplus value through a longer working day and a surplus population, and in relative surplus value through technological and organisational innovation, which both reduce the value of labour-power. However, a raft of super-exploitative movements impact workers globally by driving wages below the value of labour power, through an attrition on labour rights, an assault on social care and pensions, zero-hours contracts and precarious employment, enforced entrepreneurship, and so on. Moreover, this super-exploitation is also cultural, and ignores the fact that much growth or GDP in the global North, including that which is produced inside universities, is predicated upon resources from the global South.

much of the value in, say, US GDP is not value created by American workers but is captured through multinational exploitation and transfer pricing from profits created from the exploitation of the workers of the South. GDP confuses value creating with value capture and so does not expose the exploitation of the South by the imperialist North: “GDP as a measure of the part of the global product that is captured or appropriated by a nation, not a measure of what it has produced domestically. The D in GDP, in other words, is a lie.” (Smith, quoted by Roberts, p278).

Moreover, for Smith there are critical questions that have ramifications for the organisation and reproduction of the higher education as a node in a global web of production, namely:

the exploitative character of relations between core and peripheral nations, the higher rate of exploitation in the latter, and the political centrality of the struggles in the Global South (p223).

At issue are the connections between super-exploitation in both the global North and South, and struggles to decolonise not just the academy but our minds, as we become aware of the intersecting domination of our capitalist system of producing life as it plays out in race, gender and class terms. As Roberts argues

There may well be more room for imperialism to exploit the proletariat globally and so counteract falling profitability again, for a while. There are still reserve armies of labour from the rural areas in many countries to be drawn into globalised commodity production (and yes, often at below-value wages). But there are limits to the ability of imperialism to raise the rate of exploitation indefinitely, not least the struggle of this burgeoning proletariat in the South (and still substantial numbers in the North).

How we connect local examples of historical, material and on-going super-exploitation and dehumanisation, that respect and emerge through campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall, is one step in a movement of abolition.

V

I want to think about this movement in the context of the abolition of academic labour, in particular through an intellectual (rather than fetishized and academic) mental inversion. This takes Rhodes Must Fall as prefigurative of an alternative form of society that is decolonising its racism and neo-colonialism, as a precursor to decolonising our minds from capital. Here intersectional forms of solidarity, between communities fighting for reparative justice in a range of contexts, is central. These are systematic problems that demand a systematic movement the constituent elements of which articulate collective solidarity, and that contribute practices to that wider struggle. These situate the university as a node in the flows of capitalist social relations, and as such it becomes a space that needs to be refused, abolished, overcome, and reimagined through a process of social transformation.

At present the reproduction of the university for value is underwritten by a social infrastructure that has been corporatized. Indenture, bonds, debts, precarious employment, ad so on each reinforce the domination of a specific, financialised view of life, which then squeezes the space for students and staff (let alone activists) to reproduce themselves beyond the market. What movements like Rhodes Must Fall may offer us is an idea of an alternative infrastructure that gives us the capacity to move consistently against forms of oppression and domination, both inside-and-outside the university. This inside/outside context is important where we recognise that they have weaponised social reproduction (how we find the resources to remake ourselves for the market), in its racial, gendered and class-based forms. In so doing, we may be able to generate serious alternative versions of reproduction, where more exclusive forms are increasingly closed to many of us through the State.

As Robin D. G. Kelley argues, a movement for imagining alternatives operates both inside-and-outside, and enables:

black students to choose to follow Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s call to become subversives in the academy, exposing and resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.

However, Kelley is sanguine about the political limits of such practices in the face of silencing and (de)legitimisation.

The fully racialized social and epistemological architecture upon which the modern university is built cannot be radically transformed by “simply” adding darker faces, safer spaces, better training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary oppressions. This is a bit like asking for more black police officers as a strategy to curb state violence. We need more faculty of color, but integration alone is not enough. Likewise, what is the point of providing resources to recruit more students of color without changing admissions criteria and procedures? Why do we stay wedded to standard “achievement” measures instead of, say, open admissions?

Here there is a connection to the reality that the university is constrained by its position inside a wider, transnational geography and topography of capitalist domination.

A smaller, more radical contingent of protesters is less sanguine about the university’s capacity to change. Rejecting the family metaphor, these students understand that universities are not walled off from the “real world” but instead are corporate entities in their own right. These students are not fighting for a “supportive” educational environment, but a liberated one that not only promotes but also models social and economic justice. One such student coalition is the Black Liberation Collective, which has three demands:

1) that the numbers of black students and faculty reflect the national percentage of black folks in the country;

2) that tuition be free for black and indigenous students;

3) that universities divest from prisons and invest in communities.

Kelley makes the key point that through diversity and equality legislation, universities will become marginally more welcoming for black students, but they are wedded to systems of production that are alienating. As a result they cannot deliver the social transformation that Marx sees as central to humanity.

Harney and Moten disavow the very idea that the university is, or can ever be, an enlightened place, by which I mean a place that would actively seek to disrupt the reproduction of our culture’s classed, racialized, nationalized, gendered, moneyed, and militarized stratifications. Instead they argue that the university is dedicated to professionalization, order, scientific efficiency, counterinsurgency, and war—wars on terror, sovereign nations, communism, drugs, and gangs. The authors advocate refuge in and sabotage from the undercommons, a subaltern, subversive way of being in but not of the university. The undercommons is a fugitive network where a commitment to abolition and collectivity prevails over a university culture bent on creating socially isolated individuals whose academic skepticism and claims of objectivity leave the world-as-it-is intact.

This work is grounded in political education and activism that takes place outside the university. This work reveals the tensions of existing and being reproduced both inside-and-outside the university.

Why black students might seek belonging and inclusion over refuge is understandable, given their expressed sense of alienation and isolation, combined with the university’s liberal use of the family metaphor. It also explains why students are asking the university to implement curriculum changes—namely, the creation of cultural-competency courses, more diverse course reading lists, and classes dedicated to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and social justice. They not only acknowledge the university’s magisterium in all things academic, but they also desperately wish to change the campus culture, to make this bounded world less hostile and less racist.

But granting the university so much authority over our reading choices, and emphasizing a respect for difference over a critique of power, comes at a cost. Students not only come to see the curriculum as an oppressor that delimits their interrogation of the world, but they also come to see racism largely in personal terms

Violence was used not only to break bodies but to discipline people who refused enslavement. And the impulse to resist is neither involuntary nor solitary. It is a choice made in community, made possible by community, and informed by memory, tradition, and witness. If Africans were entirely compliant and docile, there would have been no need for vast expenditures on corrections, security, and violence. Resistance is our heritage.

And resistance is our healing. Through collective struggle, we alter our circumstances; contain, escape, or possibly eviscerate the source of trauma; recover our bodies; reclaim and redeem our dead; and make ourselves whole.

This, for me, is a key moment in my support of Rhodes Must Fall. That it offers us this: the possibility to love, study and struggle (c.f. Kelley) for reparative justice. It therefore offers us the possibility of reconciliation that reject the borders of exploitation. In the face of global crises of sociability, it prefigures alternative, mass intellectual and conceptual possibilities.

It is a choice made in community, made possible by community, and informed by memory, tradition, and witness.