Political autism in the UK

24 Jan

Taken from Uniriot

By Marianna Cage

The last 15 years: In the mid-1990s precariousness crept in, starting from the workforce sustaining the infrastructure of the university: porters, cleaners, caterers, NUS bars were sold to agencies and private contractors. In the meantime, hierarchies between academic disciplines were established on the basis of cost benefit analyses. ‘Overseas students’ became spoken of as cash cows. Cuts targeted ‘low income’ faculties: blackmailed into making business cases for their own survival, they had to ‘reinvent’, ‘rebrand’ themselves.

Meanwhile, money flew on real estates and property and expansion there knew no restraint. The process faced resistance, picket lines, staff and students against the cuts coalitions were formed, and mismanagement elected as the designated cause of the sudden imposition of austerity measures. Nemine contradicente. Crisis was the name of the game and the burden fell on the usual suspects. Protest followed to no avail. The ‘restructuring’ made hundreds of casualties in the local communities first, then in selected sectors of the academia.


Meanwhile, academics wrote about structural transformations of the public sphere and the inadequacy of applying market logics to non-economic social ‘transactions’. But the latter ‘externalities’ (like education and the environment) faced mindless subsumption none the less.

1997: New Labour landslide victory. An electorate eager for Britain to opt out of the global neoliberal march towards self-annihilation was forced to undergo a restylized Clintonomics, Public-Private-Partnerships ensured the full regulation of externalities and state regulated processes of intensification of productivity, with meek opposition from the unions who never seemed to recover from the ‘1997 victory’ celebrations hangover.

Before the wide-eyed workers’ representative bodies, within its first term

New Labour managed to destroy a system of free higher education subsidized by local education authorities and introduce compulsory students’ fees whilst securitising knowledge. Like mushrooms, digital barriers popped up in academic libraries, now only open to subscribing and paying members of a closed and privileged community. Cutting the general public off access to information and ‘higher’ learning, the move effectively dispelled anyone’s illusion that universities were public service providers. This revolution was not televised.

Dumpies: So long as the costs of production are externalised an outside is necessary, a dump. That’s education. Not even a preparation for wage labour, education is a mere parking slot in between jobs and unemployment where the need and desire for work is forged through the accumulation of debt and consumerist expectations, a circus for all to get a flavour of liberal rhetoric and accept the aspiration to join the flanks of the ‘disinterested’ disciplined worker whose wage is nothing but a dividend of the corporation – be it public or private.

Disposable research: Innovation is now the name of the game in universities, but what is it but planned obsolescence? Where something is produced for the purpose of consumption at a price and the creation and recreation of profit, it needs to last as little as possible or be perceived as no longer functional. Change research funding priorities as often as you change your mobile phone, and up go the rankings. The measure of research activity is inversely proportional to its sustainable use. As a result, it is no surprise that work in the corporate university is competitive, individualistic, alienating and of dubious social use. Rampant sexism, cronyism, and ruthless exploitation are as present in universities as in other workplaces, but there they are vilified in theory whilst perpetuated in practice. New academic staff is hired on the condition that it brings in at least 25% over its own salary in research funding bids, that it pays for its own (stagnant) wages plus a profit. Teaching is a residual activity, derided are those who indulge in caring about it.

So that universities are fortresses of ignorance and warehouses of reserve armies is a fait accompli, not a future threat.

Protests: Between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s on the streets of London many resorted to protests, less in numbers but perhaps more in political resolve and violence. At the sound of anti-capitalist and reclaim the streets slogans, the city was occupied, banks seized, papers thrown out of windows and set alight, cameras sabotaged, and then the usual horses and kettles. But during the carnivals, the media and ‘public opinion’ were asleep.

There is no hierarchy of struggles for the strugglers but there is one for the framing of oppositional discourse. The media are currently awake and willing to report. Maybe online whistle blowing movements inspire them to become a little less ’embedded’. Maybe it is their children they are worrying about and their friends’ children. Good for them.

And yet on the ground despite the single issue of education at stake this seems more than Middle England revolting. Perhaps a cap has finally been lifted from what since 9/11 has been a willingness to put up and shut up and, or if not, just peacefully march through the usual route, as in the antiwar mobilisations.

Through two important symbolic achievements the recent protests have significantly remapped the oppositional discourse and brought it back to an at least dignified position:

1. Taking back Parliament square after the anti terrorist act: they have pushed through and there is no going back. Parliament square is no longer off limits.

2. Giving bodies to the royalty, and with it, fragility and vulnerability to the highest power.

As for education, finding what to save of the institution becomes harder and harder. The education business is fraudulent and if only the rich can now afford to be defrauded workers are likely to happily keep making them unemployable. Picketing 15 years ago didn’t matter to anyone whilst university managements across the country forced their piecemeal social engineering through. Now the business has gone too far.

You can only try resurrecting a corpse for so long before it turns into a zombie and attacks you for it.

And that’s what they are doing. They marketed higher education as something necessary to work in a call centre for enough years that it became a self evident truth that this had to be the case. The current government is simply cashing in on the marketing. But the single issue is beyond the point.

It might be the disenfranchised youth speaking for itself, and if this is so, today they reclaim the streets, but when the streets are violently closed off again and playing cat and mouse with cops is no longer a joyous transgression but a tedious obligation, where is that voice meant to go? If there isn’t a future for it somewhere we’re back to a situation of total political autism.

What to do about the university? The protests against the corporatisation of the university cannot defend the power of the barons, the yesmanhood of the intellect, the privilege of the few. They close university libraries to the general public? Invest yourself in public libraries. They impose intellectual property regimes? Use public licences, civil disobedience, cooperation. Research has to be privately funded or compliant to government priorities? Subvert, redistribute, outsmart and share. To do this does not entail defending the university as the ‘institutional embodiment’ of the ‘knowledge economy’ or its designated public guarantor, as the ‘real Kultur’. All of the erudition once concentrated in and protected by these institutions now has no choice but to pour out onto the streets, join the commons, and leave the bureaucracy and the forces of conservation behind to battle it out in the fortress, throw away the key, and move on.



3 Responses to “Political autism in the UK”

  1. GimpHag January 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Iz not cool to use “autism” in this way. Very un-PC. Many of us would contend that our autism makes a just as valuable as non-autistics — its use in a pejorative sense would suggest that you would view me as constitutionally mal-formed and a lesser human being.

    • reallyopenuniversity January 25, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      thank you for your comment. The article is a repost from the Uniriot website, link is at the top of the article. We suggest you comment on the website there, where the author is more likely to see it.

  2. rain May 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. These signs all begin before a child is three years old. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood.

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