With recent strikes, occupations, and violent repression, the university is becoming a battleground. What does this mean for university staff and students?
To begin, I should stress that the choice to be inside the university is disappearing. Whether by escalating indebtedness, involuntary outsourcing, or indeed, summary suspension for political activity, exclusion from the university is making a comeback. At the same time, whether to be against the university is also becoming less of a choice, since the university, at least in its present form, is increasingly against us.
We confront the university less and less as a place of an idealised 'Education', and more and more as an exploitative boss, a spendthrift landlord, a creditor, and an instigator of violent repression. The blood on the pavement at UCL symbolises this shift. This blog is a reflection on what this means for those of us who nonetheless find ourselves inside the university, whether as staff or students.
Critique, recuperation, restructuring
Historically, universities functioned as basically feudal institutions. Something like a guild, operating according to restricted entry and hierarchical self-management (i.e. academics largely self-managed the institution while support staff had much less power). This is no doubt because - the old universities at least - were feudal institutions. And the newer universities, like Sussex (founded 1961), imitated the feudal structure and traditions (see: silly robes and hats for graduation).
There is a certain critique regarding the elitism of the university which still sometimes circulates. It goes something like this: the academy is an elitist institution, academics up in their ivory towers offer nothing of worth, and students are all future managers, burn it to the ground.
This critique dates from the 1960s, when it had some weight. Indeed, insurgent students soon discovered that many of their 'revolutionary' Marxist professors were deeply conservative members of the establishment. Theodor Adorno infamously saw in the bare breasts of student radicals a descent into barbarism, which could only mean resurgent fascism. To combat this 'fascism', Adorno called in the police to clear occupying students. Because tits are more fascist than state repression, and when you're a Great Intellectual, you'll understand.1
However, the 1960s critique of the elitist academy not only no longer applies, but has been recuperated by capital to restructure the sector. To quote an excellent forum post from back in February:
[the anti-elitism critique] has driven the subsequent real subsumption of the formerly formally subsumed feudal university. i.e. it's exactly the same rhetoric used to attack 'privileged' university workers' pensions, whack up tuition fees and debt for the 'privilege' of studying, outsource and casualise the workforce in the name of breaking down underserved perks, subjugate research to a crude instrumental logic (RAE, REF), modularise and streamline course content and assessment, shift teaching on to low-paid TAs etc. What was once education for the elite has become training for the masses.
This is illustrated this with a graph showing the huge growth of student numbers since the 1950s:
No nostalgia, no future
The exponential growth in student numbers has been met by a dramatic restructuring of the sector.2 The hierarchical self-management of the feudal university has been replaced by corporate-style executive groups consisting of professional managers. Academic autonomy has been curtailed and replaced with the publish-or-perish discipline of the REF.3 Fees have increased in an attempt to turn students into consumers, or in the words of a telling Freudian slip by the Sussex Vice-Chancellor, "units". The 'freedom' of the education has been curtailed so that the freedom of the market may reign.
But this presents defenders of 'Education' with a problem. There was no golden age. When the university had relative autonomy from capitalist discipline, it was, undeniably, an elitist institution. In the 1950s and 60s, between 4% and 8% of the population went to university. Mass access has gone hand-in-hand with the restriction of academic freedom, the imposition of ever-more assessment, spiralling debts, outsourcing and attrition of support staff, transformation of universities into nodes in the circulation of finance capital, and the transferring of teaching to casualised Associate Tutors on zero-hours contracts for sub-minimum wage. Indeed, a whole piece could be written on the political economy of idealism, whereby young, enthusiastic PhD candidates are enticed to provide cheap labour as an apprenticeship for secure academic jobs which are rapidly disappearing.4
In short, the 'real subsumption' of the university. The price of increasing university access from 4% to over 40% of the population is that feudal institutions have become capitalist. An article in the London Review of Books captures this process clearly, and provides some context to the blood on Malet Street's pavement:
The offices of academic and administrative staff will be transformed from ‘cell-like environments’ to ‘den-like environments’: in other words, more people will have to share offices.(...) At the moment, academics’ offices take up 21 per cent of total space; this is set to be reduced to around 10 per cent. Office space for UCL Estates, the Registry, finance and human resources, meanwhile, will expand from 5 per cent to 25 per cent. (...) As academics and students are crammed ever closer together, commercial projects will fill the spaces they vacate. Up to ten new cafés will open, on top of the six that already exist. The masterplanners aren’t shy of talking about ‘commercial opportunities’. The campus they want looks like a shopping centre. Almost every accessible ground floor space is glass-fronted in the plan. Malet Place will be turned into a ‘teaching and learning “high street”’. Retailers will be invited to set up shop in ‘under-used areas’. (...) The ground floor would become a ‘student hub’, including a Starbucks. Offices, a lecture theatre, a common room and a small museum would be demolished.
At the same time, the function and class composition of the university has changed. As Carver points out, just 1.5% of graduates land 'graduate level' jobs, and many of these, such as nursing, are far from managerial or technocratic. But yet 1-in-3 'economically active' people in the UK today have a degree. As DSG wrote in 2011:
We are being made to pay for our own training, with no guarantee, and often little chance, of a corresponding increase in pay. A university degree today is not a sign of becoming middle-class. It’s a way for the working class to make themselves suitable for the post-industrial workplace. This must be the basis of any class analysis of the current argument.
The university increasingly confronts us as an exploitative boss, a spendthrift landlord, a creditor, and an instigator of violent repression. This is the context for Aaron Bastani's suspicion...
...that some of those chanting, many of whom could be considered historically privileged students and graduates, increasingly feel they share more with those rioters in August than the institutions to which they have historically given their tacit consent.
Caught between nostalgia for a golden age that didn't exist and a future equally absent, antagonism and conflict increasingly characterises the capitalist university.
"Solidarity is a weapon, not a word"
This slogan has gained a certain resonance lately. I think it manages to capture three crucial insights on the present state of education struggles. First, and most obvious, is a simple rejoinder to the tendency for 'solidarity' to become a kind of leftist 'best wishes', a platitude, a sign off, from which no further action is required. The slogan insists that words are not enough, solidarity is a matter of deeds. A simple, but necessary, point.
Second, in posing solidarity as a weapon it insists that we are in a fight. And insisting this weapon is solidarity - i.e. relationships of trust and mutual aid, collective action - it also pre-empts any macho interpretation of 'fight'. This is an important counter to liberal attempts to reinscribe class conflict as a 'debate'. This is not a debate, it's our lives, our jobs, our homes, our futures on the line. We won't win with superior reason, but with superior strength. In the university, where liberal notions of reasoned discourse have strong currency, this point is vital.
Third, and least obviously, insisting that our weapon takes the form of solidarity stresses the radical asymmetry of our movement compared to the state. It may seem premature to say this, but if the current trend to violent suppression of dissent continues, and/or crosses the threshold into lethal repression, then the question of violent, armed opposition will be posed. This was the case in the repression and decline of the student movements of the 1960s, spawning the Angry Brigade, the Rote Armee Fraktion, and the Brigate Rosse.
To insist that solidarity is our weapon is to preemptively insist this is a dead-end. 99 times out of 100, the state has the advantage in set-piece confrontations, from demonstrations to armed struggle. But 99 times out of 100 we have the advantage in the terrain of everyday life. This radical asymmetry of methods suggests a basically syndicalist approach: we are strong when we do the patient groundwork of talking to workmates, agitating, educating, organising. This kind of activity is much harder to injunct or bludgeon into submission.
Like a mole, much of this work is subterranean, unseen, unglamorous. But when it does break the surface, it can't easily be repressed, because - to mix my metaphors - it has roots. We don't need to pose this argument as a hypothetical: in the 3 Cosas Campaign we have a clear example. The IWGB workers won partial concessions in a two-day strike, and responded by announcing a three-day strike to win the rest. If highly precarious, low paid, casualised, outsourced, and in many cases migrant, workers can self-organise and win strike action, then many others can too.5
Violent repression works because it disempowers while it radicalises. There's not much point learning that all cops are bastards and the state and bosses collude to violently impose inequality if you're physically smashed and/or too afraid to do anything about it. But the obvious urge to meet them again in the streets may be the path to burnout and more bruises, blood, and broken bones. That's not to say demonstrations and occupations should be avoided, but that we need to take the rage, and direct it into agitating and organising in our everyday lives.6 That way, we can build a radically asymmetric movement that can set its own demands, generate its own momentum, and have the roots to survive and even thrive in the face of the inevitable violent repression.
- 1. I've heard on the grapevine that some Marxist academics have very radical excuses for scabbing on the recent pay strikes. One day strikes are beneath such revolutionary minds, you see.
- 2. Academic Bob Brecher argues that academics have largely been complicit in this restructuring, consciences soothed by anti-elitist rhetoric.
- 3. See this piece on the conservative effect of the REF, and this as an example of the fruits of academic autonomy capital is now curtailing.
- 4. The rise of the adjunct in the US is a vision of the future.
- 5. I have some reservations about the demand for recognition of the IWGB, particularly the pressure it may create towards a growing representative function, full-time officials, and bureaucracy. But for now, let's take heart from a militant and inspiring struggle - one which dispels a lot of myths about the impossibility of a syndicalist approach in 'post-Fordist capitalism'.
- 6. Solidarity Federation and the IWW offer workplace organising training and support organising at work, as well as of course the IWGB in London. Other possibilities could involve organising against UKBA raids, around housing issues, around transport, energy, or food costs, or against police repression.