Farewell To The Bourgeois University - Benjamin Franks

Oxford university gown

A critique of academia and its inhabitants. Ironically or not - Benjamin Franks is now (2006) a university lecturer in Social & Political Philosophy.

Farewell To The Bourgeois University.
A Few Thoughts on the Covert Authoritarianism of Liberal Institutions
Benjamin Franks (1990s)

The author would liken to thank the Institute of Comparitive Boredom, for their charitable support.
First published by Pentagon.
Pentagon is an imprint of the ICB.

This is a revised version of the paper I was invited to give at the Radical Research in the Academy? conference held at the Department of Cultural Studies [DCS], Birmingham University on June 17, 1992. It was delivered to an audience of undergraduates, post-graduates and academics.

It was influenced, but not inspired, by Mustapha Khayati's On the Poverty of Student Life... . More stimulating have been the ideas of my fellow 'petit-bourgeois adventurist' Simon Sadler. The encouragement and advice of Robert Grose, Rebecca Gadd, Sadie Plant and the staff of Pentagon has also been of great importance.

Copies of this text are available free from Pentagon although donations towards costs would be appreciated. The text can be reproduced without acknowledgement or permission.


Within the liberal arts and social sciences (geography, sociology, cultural studies etc.) - claims are made about the radical potential of the research emitting from these departments. What I raise in connection to these claims are three central questions: (1) Can the university be an arena for radical research? (2) Can students and academics be radical? (3) Are there alternatives to the university for radical research?

However, it is first necessary to give a definition of what we mean by 'radical research'. It will be minimally described for the sake of convenience as: a systematic investigation of social events in order to promote an egalitarian program. That means, it is research that attempts the equalisation of contemporary disproportionate power-relations. Consequently this raises the vital first question: can an institution, which is necessarily elitist due to its very nature and position in society, can it promote, in any meaningful way, a program which tries to destroy the existing, gross inequalities in liberty? To put it more succinctly, can a privileged institution, such as the university, successfully tackle privilege?

The investigation of the authoritarian tendencies within even the most pathetically liberal department such as our own, is important for it demonstrates the plainly overt and occasionally subtle, covert ways that the academy influences the scope of research. For the academy influences the choice of topic, the presentation, the intentions and the practices of the researcher.

The most obviously repressive feature of even the most tolerant university department is its elitism. The student is expected to jump through academic hoops, even before entering the portals of the museum to learning. References from schools and work-places are required, to ensure that the applicant is at least capable of learning to obey the authority of the academics and administrators. Previous A level results and other such qualifications demonstrate that the would-be student has a tendency to conform to the performance-reward, exam system. Academics and other university representatives, those who have made their peace with the existing heteronomous social system and receive some of its benefits, make the choice of who will be the next generation of students.

Rather than accept the grisly truth that they receive their wealth and status because they have compromised with the powerful elite, academics prefer to believe that they have reached their position because they embody some sort of desirable academic value. So when they come to choose new students they look for ones which conform to these feted institutional mores. As a consequence replacements are selected on the basis of their actual or potential similarity to their superiors. The student is an as yet unmoulded replica of the academic.

The second form of elitism is that the higher ranks of the academy (the university) is increasingly becoming an exclusive club for the affluent. One does not even need to cite the recent introduction of student loans to observe that the university in this western, democratic nation is progressively for the rich to encourage them to be rich. Only those with the necessary finance and support can come. The cost of rent, fees and the value of wages lost from not working - money which only those with good credit ratings can, by-and-large, afford - that acts as a bar to entry, a price that only decreases relatively, at times of high unemployment. Those originating from prosperous backgrounds also have the academic advantage of not having to wait many weeks for the books they need from the library. They can buy them direct from Dillons or Waterstones and can also afford to keep library books those couple of days longer because they can pay the exorbitant library fines.

The prejudice in favour of the fee-paying 'public' school system in reaching higher education as well as the attendant benefits of being able to afford revision books and having a secure place to do ones homework, are merely the expected advantages of the securely middle-class. Once in the academy the costs escalate. The university is not even based on the desired for, and despicable, dreams of intellectual elitism but its ideological close relative, plutocracy. What is the response of the motivated,: genuinely concerned student body? It cares. It is not blind, it can see the injustices. They oppose private education for schools. Yet such is their hypocrisy that the students will stay and pay their fees and costs loans, which require a return to the lender. There is then placed on the student the financial requirement to join the shallows of petty-management. Pressures which are applied the second the flash from the graduation photograph illuminates the successful candidates face. The university encourages the student into penury which can be lifted only by the acceptance of the career system.

In recent years the student, by-and-large, no-longer claims to be radical. Those that do, are fringe creatures, practising their tele-marketing skills selling Socialist Worrier and Living Marxism. However the student body like other groups in society likes to pretend to have a social conscience. They will wear the consumer symbols of world compassion. With the soul of a saint they'll buy Body Shop peppermint foot-lotion, because buying little plastic bottles of chemical gunge does so much to solve Ecological problems. Or the subversive student will wear a black leather jacket, or ripped combat trousers or a freedom for Africa T Shirt-- proclaiming total dissent on his way to a Jane Austen lecture. Protest is sold to the student in carefully controlled packages. In capitalism in which everything is for sale, militant disaffection is a growthmarket, and the student is only too willing to buy and to help the selling. They come up with the pictures and slogans to promote their goods usingthe symbols of radical cultural assault, pictures of riot and rebellion, to advertise their raves, magazines and gigs. When students leave university they will use these techniques in their future marketing jobs.

Of course at a time when the economy requires more trained bureaucrats and middle-managers, the reigns are loosened to allow more working class students in. For they, once removed from the home environment and suitably confused by the institutions might and wealth are equally capable of turning into first class bastards. The role of the academy as a training ground for a new breed of bureaucrats and managers gives rise to the slogan 'If you liked school, you'll love college and adore work.' [1] The movement from one form of alienating experience to another is such that students' critical energies are restrained ,their abilities to define themselves as conscious unrestricted agents becomes diminished. Students are house-trained by the carrot and stick of the exam and essay system, and any attempt at disruption, results only in students being shown a glimpse of the enormity of the institution's authority. It has its own private security force, its own punishments as well as the sympathy of the state. Such enormous power terrifies the carefully isolated student and pushes the scholar into passive, impotent acceptance of this status quo.

To help ensure disorientation and control of the student's received environment the university is separated from the non­academic world. The locus of the campus is far away from any uncontrollable influences. Even where the student lives is restricted. Their halls of residence are located in an environment dominated by the manufactured needs of the student. So the student rarely confronts their non-student peers on equal terms. And hence they are not in a position to be tempted to consider their position as a student in society in relation to the 'other' - the non-student. Working-class and other minority students might feel estrang­ed, used as emblems of the university's liberality. They might not feel that they fit in. The middle class aspirations of the average white bourgeois student may seem alien. These strange affluent life-style may seem difficult to keep up with. Can the working-class student afford another meal out or a visit to another 70s Night with her affluent colleagues? But most such students soon learn that aping the dominant group is the road to worldly riches. Those who do not conform find university life has little to offer them.

Outside of the university-controlled halls of residence, students live in areas dominated by other students, in houses in once working class areas like Selly Oak, Northfield and the genteel poverty of Moseley. Students don't care if their rented house is untidy, nor how friendly they are with their non­student neighbours. They don't consider what affect their presence has in the community they briefly squat in. They will be gone soon leaving their filth behind, ever upwards into the ranks of the bosses. Little wonder that the locals despise students. The only cause for surprise is that the incidents of student-bashing are not more frequent, nor more bloody. As Nietzsche said 'The higher one soars the smaller one seems to to those who cannot fly'. [2] Meaning in this context, the higher up the career ladder one reaches, the less important your interests and desires are to those who are left behind.

The student may still believe that they go to university to gain intellectual skills, knowledge and go on merit. This deception of their true positionis, perhaps, best illustrated by the fact that many students believe that they would violently attack any academic institution which discriminated against would-be students on the grounds of colour or creed, but do nothing when it rejects students on the grounds of wealth. It was after all this university department [the Department of Cultural Studies, Birmingham University] which demands on the application form that the would-be post-graduate should prove that they can finance themselves throughout the course. Although I am asked to stress that this is a result of the economic pressures placed on the Department by the Academy. The department, which claims to be so critical, however, appears to be only too acquiescent in its dealings with the powers-that-be.Consequently, it is no surprise that, in the eyes of the non­university world, the student has become the symbol of the unreconstructed bourgeois. The Situationist-inspired writer Mustapha Khayati called the student 'the most universally despised creature'. That is apart only from: 'the policeman and the priest.' [3] Which is just as well for these are the two forms of employment the academic now performs.

1. The Academic as Cop

Not only Cultural Studies in particular, but the whole of the liberal humanities in general, are engaged in the suppression of social revolt. After state investigative bodies, such as Special Branch and the private industrial scrutineers, like the Freedom Association and Zeus Securities, the social sciences are the third section of the intelligence gathering services. The first two obvious surveillance services act in the interests of military training, strategy and policing and frequently involve the collaboration of the university's empirical, natural sciences. The state's liberal surveillance wing, sociology, informs on what working class people are thinking and doing. The masterpieces of social research such as Paul Willis's Learning to Labour(4) seeks to pinpoint the potential danger points in existing society. Andy and Mark Anderson explain this exact phenomena in their essay Why The Revolutionaries Have Failed.

Middle class sociologists are [the] counsellors and informers of their class... they seek to discover... the signs when working class people's actions and attitudes are showing signs of becoming a threat to the stability of their class's dominant position. Sure, they get it wrong sometimes as the 1981 and 1991 uprisings throughout the country showed. But they also get it right. These university-trained sociologists therefore play an important role in helping their class remain the dominant one.[5]

There are other methods in which cultural studies helps the dominant class. It steals the radicalism of those attacking the dominant hegemony. No subject, no matter how unimportant or how minor in the arsenal of rebellious assaults is safe from the grasping claw of the sociologist as cultural imperialist. Rap Music, Youth Trends, Black Revolt, Gay Liberation, Strikes, Pickets, Bombings, Marches. All is trivialised in the monotone drawl of the university department. There were even exams on revolutionary politics at the end of the term.

Researchers may claim to be radical to gain the confidence of the groups they are investigating. But their purpose is always to put their academic interests first. Their job is to to get their books published and bolster the reputation of their department. The radicalism of the researcher is like that of the student, just a badge of fashion and convenience. Political militancy is merely another commodity and the major consumers are concentrated in the academy.

The academic acts as a security officer against any potential student rebel. They use two forms of tactic. One overt the other covert. The more obvious expressions of their authority over the student is in terms of essay grades, exam marks, recommendations and references. They can, in their incompetent moments show their real power. The administrator, exemplified by Peter Knight, the Director of Birmingham Polytechnic, suspended and expelled a troublesome minority of students. He could decide who could step foot in the private environs of the university.

More frequently, the academic uses more subtle techniques to ensure that the students do not take their investigations of the university beyond the merely superficial and that they remain solely theoretical, never advancing into the realm of practiceor the potentially discontented post-graduate - they will hint at the possibility of tutorials and financial reward for towing the disciplinary line. The radical is bought off and the hegemony strengthened by her acceptance of a minor authoritarian position.

Alternatively, the department may use that Marcusian trick - 'repressive tolerance'. Agreeing with the criticisms raised by the students, the academic will encourage the formation of endless committees.The administrator using the oldest tricks of divide and rule will encourage the student representativesto see themselves as separate and superior to those students not active on the committee. Luckily, these meetings have no influence, they sole purpose is to tie up the angry student and any potential academic rebel in endless bureaucracy. The trouble-makers finish up exhausted, dispirited, cynical and true-believers in the impregnability of the power of the academy. In this respect the university is identical to any other liberal institution.

The Academic as Priest

Traditionally the main task of the priest was to confuse and disorientate the serfs with religious obscurantism. They preached myths about the lords' and monarchs' divine rights to rule and the impossibility of change. It modern times it is the academic who now takes on this task. Social phenomenon are dressed up in the secret code of the house-trained intellectual. To take one example from so many, consider John Fiske's article on the pop star Madonna, where he analyses the lyrics to her song Like a Virgin. Madonna uses in her lyric the word 'wilderness'.

Wilderness echoes .. Christ's survival and resistance of temptation. It is absent from the discourse of romantic love. Wilderness, too, is, in the religious discourse, the wilderness of the New Testament, but it, is also the wilderness of contemporary urban life; without true romantic love, the secular equivalent of religious love. So we could continue.[6]

So we could continue... It is unfair to single one writer out for special treatment, there are hundreds of similar examples where the academic desperately attempts to find significance in the insignificant. But this practice serves to reduce any genuinely important research by association with this, or any other pseudo-intellectual, drivel.

Yet this obscuration also has another purpose. It recuperates events, and places them under the control of the academic authorities. This imperialism of the liberal arts,like other older forms of imperialism imposes its rules and order on those activities previously beyond its control and consequently a potential threat. In Ireland the British renamed villages and banned the use of the native Gaelic. In Taiwan the Kuomintang imposed Mandarin Chinese and, using the cultural mechanisms of the massmedia, discouraged local dialectics. In Britain the sociologists impose their terminology on events, staking out the ground as their own. And like the theologians who describe crime in terms of sin, in order to keep its resolution within their exclusive sphere of influence so too the cultural studies researcher talks in terms of 'youth sub-cultures' and 'media representations' for the same ends. These being to encourage the populace to look to them for solutions.

Of course important topics are considered by academics. But like the clergyman who would like to become the Pope, the student and academic realises that there are certain questions which cannot be asked, certain dogmas that must never be challenged. For no academic can argue that the university should be destroyed and act upon it, any more than a pontiff can fight for the dissolution of the Vatican.

Also like the priest, the academic will try to win the student's confidence. They will listen to your problems, beseech you to trust them, and occasionally, such trust is justified. But also, such trust is indicative of how lonely and dependant the student has become, reduced to using their parole officer as a confidant.

Students are wholly integrated into the university. They, the student, see their needs to be identical with the requirements of the academy. After violent, sexual assaults on students at University College London, in the mid-1970s, the students took part in demonstrations calling for 'tightening up college security', demanding more guards. Just like Orwell's 1984, the oppressed proles of the totalitarian state love their oppressors and demand more oppression as the solution to their problems. The college ever happy to demonstrate its liberalism gave in to the students' demands and brought in more security guards and ID card checks. This did not reduce sexual attacks, although it did change the venue. What happened was non­students, especially the unemployed, were stopped from getting cheap beer from college bars and the university authorities had far increased their ability to control student occupations - all at the students' request.[7] Students are so integrated into the system that they see the university's solutions as the ones which most benefit them.

Positive Features of the University

It would be too easy to ignore the positive features of the academy, just as in an anti-theological diatribe one could overlook the good works of the church. Just as there are good cops and nice theologians, there are decent academics. There are policeman who help pensioners over the road, clergy who stand up for minority rights and lecturers who will buy students a pint.

However, this does not hide their basic function as agents of control. Liberals, will frequently argue that the problem with the church or police or academy,is that they do not represent the population. In this respect,they are absolutely right. There are insufficient gay andlesbian coppers, or women priests or black lecturers and well-meaning individuals seek to redress the balance. Such re-balancing is laudable. No caring, thinking person would argue that these jobs- should be barred from women or blacks or gays. Yet in centring their attack on gaining more people from disadvantage groups into the academy, they overlook certain fundamental points. By ignoring these issues the well-meaning liberal reduces their project to patronage and futility.

What they fail to consider, is the possibility that Blacks, for instance, do not want to come to the university. They disregard the idea that the university's benefits fail to outweigh its drawbacks. To the liberal everybody must want what they want - and the liberals want capitalist education. They ignore the possibility, faint it maybe, that there are alternatives which can include most of the advantages of the university while omitting more of the disadvantages.

People from ethnic minorities have frequently been on the receiving end of police violence and prejudice, and may have experienced the blatant non-objectivity of the law enforcement system. A system geared towards the protection of the private, property rights of the elite. Consequently, police recruitment adverts aimed at the ethnic minorities are not succeeding in winning over many more blacks and asians into the police force. Likewise an education system geared towards the production of capitalism's soft cops, the personnel managers, the business executives and the social workers, is unlikely to win the support of black people either. It would be a shock to the liberal that non-students might not want to share their reformist aspirations.

The university does produce genuinely important and critical, radical research. We are lucky, that today we have speakers from within the academy who have had to face their own battles to be in a position to carry out their investigations. The university does provide useful resources to produce good work. But bare in mind, that for all the good, well-argued, exciting, criticism that is produced, there are acres of the trivial, the banal and the tedious. Alongside that, the important work is damned by association.

These books of nonsense and sophism, are not produced because academics grew up with a desire to write crap books, to waste trees and bore students. (Although sometimes its hard not believe....) No, the academic produces these books, because they must publish articles, to gain employment, to maintain a reputation as a writer and a critic, to rise up the employment ladder. Consequently, good and original, critical texts are regarded in the same light as the dross. It comes to be regarded as merely employment fodder, even if that is the opposite of the writer's intention. This damnation by association appears to be unavoidable, while the university remains such a central part of advanced capitalism.

The fact that the university is a resource does not mean we have to use it. Especially if it is at the cost of our integrity. The question arises, that if the university is a prejudiced and an elitist institution, is it justified to remain in it simply because it provides us with a few more resources? And if we chose to remain is it not an act of cowardice and indicative of a lack of principle?

One of the problems is that we lack alternatives. There are those who partake radical research outside the structures of the academy, who write, learn and research without being under the gaze of the learned academocrat. There also autonomous groups built on mutual aid and support for those who see education as inseparable from self-education. But these bodies cannot award degrees and bestow titles on the well-behaved. This advantage is also a disadvantage to those who want to sell their learning.

So what are the alternatives? To reform the university so as to train a few more black, asian, women and gay and lesbian students to become bosses? Or to take on the power of the academy and destroy it so that the bourgeois university no longer exists? The university could be a resource for anyone to use, without examination, or negative means-test or intelligence checks or career guidance, without the strong demarcations between student and lecturer, such that anyone can give a paper and anyone can go and listen. But this seems hopelessly utopian. The alternative to the academy is to leave, to move away from the university. Set up other less formal more open but nevertheless rigorous structures, ever weary to avoid replicating the very forms of organisation and practice you left the university to avoid.

It maybe possible to continue to work outside the university and to succeed would mean becoming independent of the academy's traditional lines of communication in disseminating one's research. Consequently, new ways of distributing the work will have to be found. It is possible that it may then be read by people beyond the confines of academic life, perhaps even to the group of people radical research seeks to empower. And this is a step nearer the egalitarian goal of radical research. However, there is no guarantee that the distribution will not go to, nor create; a new elite. Likewise there can be no certainty that performing research will cease to be the weak replacement for action.

There are difficult choices to be made. To stay on as we are or, to ask for reforms, or to shake and destroy, or to leave? And there are other, more basic and self-searching enquiries. The accusations that it is those who have benefited from the best education that money, influence and fortunate circumstance can buy, that are asking these questions should not stop us from raising them, answering them and acting upon the consequences.

In conclusion I'd like to repeat my basic argument that the university because of its position in western, capitalist, society acts as a bar to radical activity. That is not say that one should not be in a university. People have to sell their labour. If that is as a lecturer or researcher, then it is no more worthy of blame than Barrow ship-yard workers selling their labour to build nuclear submarines. But like Barrow ship­yard workers, the lecturer cannot be considered a radical. Of course outside the academy, the lecturer can throw petrol bombs in riots, join armed struggles and assassinate dictators. Some lecturers have done some of these - and all these are radical acts - but these actions are separate to their role in the liberal academy.

It has become customary, in these modern, or rather what I am told are post-modern times, for the author to locate himself in the text, as though what I have said becomes more true or has greater dishonesty if I was a woman or a black or a gentile. Yet, not being sufficiently iconoclastic to break with this recent tradition (if that isn't too oxymoronic), I will come clean... I am middle-class male and have been in the academy, voluntarily for 6 years. So I may be considered a hypocrite. However, I do not pretend that staying here, if I do stay here, allows me any scope in the role of either student, or tutor, to do any thing radical. On the contrary to continue is to remain a reactionary.


1. See Bob Black, 'The Abolition of Work' in J. Flemming & P. Wilson [Edt.], Semitoext[e] :SA, [Semitext(e), 19871

2. Friedrich Nietzscne, Day Break ?

3. Mustapha Khayati, 'On the Poverty of Stud,~nt Life consiier_--d in its economic, political, psyciiological, sexual and especially intellectual aspects, with a modest proposal for its remedy' [Rebel Press], p.l. Also in K. Knabb [Edt.], Situacionist InternaLioual AncholuZy, [Bureau of Public Secrets, California, 1989,]

4. Paul Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, [Go er, J

5. Andy & Mark Anderson, Why the Revolutionaries Have Failed, [SPLAT, Moseley, 1992], p.14

6. Robert Fiske, 'Madonna' in Reading the Popular, [Hyman, i989], p.108

7. A Chronology of Anti-Hierarcnical Violence in Mainland U.K., July 1985 - May 1986, Dangerous Times, [London, 1986], p.7


At the time of delivering this talk I was an X-Ray filing clerk at a local hospital and had just started a part­time, post-graduate course at the Department of Cultural Studies [DCS], Birmingham University.

Partly as a result of the responses to this talk, I have left the DCS - and I have no plans to continue post­graduate studies. I am still a filing clerk.[No longer true - see introductory note.]

Posted By

Red Marriott
Sep 4 2006 14:54


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