What Academics Do When They Protest

7 Mar

What academics do when they protest. For a critique of post-fordist modes of protesting

The following text is an edited and extended version of the short article post-fordist protest published in The Paper Issue 0, March 2010.

By Paul Morten

“What do academics do, when they go on strike?” our professor asked during one of the discussions in the wake of the student protests last autumn, only to give the answer immediately: “They use the additional time to work on their research”. His question was intended to encourage a more self-conscious perspective on the protests. It presupposed a fundamental difference between industrial and academic work and questioned the appropriateness of the latter’s protest forms in the former context.  While this is a legitimate concern, in hindsight I wonder if the statement does not pose a more general question. Classically, industrial work is associated with fordism. A high degree of the labour division finds its material realisation in the free wage labourer working in the production line. The strike halts production, reaffirms the free labourer as a subject independent of his labour force, and ideally forces the capital owner into negotiation about the conditions of the acquisition and usage of the subjects’ labour force. Education and the creative industries in contrast are today paradigmatic areas of post-fordist work organisation. Its workers are increasingly perceived not as free subjects selling their labour force but as human capital, as entrepreneurs responsible for investing in the capital they themselves embody. “My human capital”, Michel Feher writes,

is me, as a set of skills and capabilities that is modified by all that affects me and all that I effect. Accordingly, the return on human capital no longer manifests itself solely in calculations about whether to work or to receive more training. It now refers to all that is produced by the skill set that defines me.[1]

The strike would free the academic of, lets say, teaching obligations and thus can become an occasion for further investment of another kind into this strange capital. But only a marginal fraction of last autumn’ protests consisted of strikes. In the form of the walkout it rather provided the space and time for other ways of protesting. What then, one might ask, is the relationship between post-fordist modes of production in education, art and creative industries and the modes of protesting increasingly utilized by workers and students in these fields? Is there something like a post-fordist articulation of protest and what would that in turn mean for the protest if, following Hito Steyerl, what is at stake in the articulation of protest is both, the “organisation of its expression – but also the expression of its organisation”?[2]

Following a broader description of the recent protests in the first section, the second section attempts to trace the tradeoffs between work/education and protest through some of the key areas of last autumns’ student actions.  The concluding section briefly questions the wider political implications of these relations.

Two implicit assumptions are being made in what follows. I assume, firstly, that there has been an convergence in the modes of employment – i.e. fixed-term contracts, freelancing, multiple employment and precarious self-employment, grant based research and study – as well as in the modes of production – i.e. creative, results-oriented, et cetera – between studying and working in the fields of education, art and creative industries. Because of this approximation the terms students, academics and workers are largely used as synonyms in this article. But not only is this equation questionable as it follows a post-fordist logic itself and obscures still existing relationships of power between academics and students. Under closer scrutiny this process of convergence might reveal far reaching implications. I will expand on it slightly in the discussions of education and organisation in the second section of this article. Secondly, I presuppose an affinity between the specific modes of production and the modes of employment in the fields of work and study in art, education and creative industries. This affinity, I will argue throughout the article, facilitates an incorporation of protesting into the regular un-regular work in these fields – and vice versa.


After Millbank, the blogosphere filled up with instant-reflections immediately. At the same time a multitude of initiatives turned towards the “student”-issue or sprung up anew. Protest forms proliferated, putting the lessons learned by critical theory – mainly a poststructuralist understanding of power and postcolonial/feminist notions of performativity – to practical use. By processing the experiences of new social movements these creative protests supplemented the more traditional modes of demonstrations and university occupations, often informing and transforming them. The use of social networking to organise and disseminate rapidly led to the formation of new groups. Mere days into December articles appeared in academic journals and lifestyle magazines, written by the same people either blogging and/or protesting. Shortly after the Christmas break The Paper, the first newspaper dealing exclusively with the student protest, published its first issue. By now an increasing number of research projects utilising the protests as their focal point are being conceived across the country, somewhat incestuously based on contacts acquired throughout the participation in the protests. These projects often incorporate the alternative methods they attempt to analyse. Lectures, conferences, teach-ins, workshops and art events are taking place daily, attended by people organising more lectures, workshops, et cetera, sometimes financed by art councils, public funds and universities themselves. Protest groups invite other protest groups to stage a protest. The speed at which it feeds back into academia is staggering. It is this short circuit of exchange between protest and regular un-regular work or education that I want to call a post-fordist mode of protesting.

Is what we name protest thus creating a self-perpetuating circulation of information, affiliations and people? And is the suspicion that by feeding back into academia this circulation also entails another way of accumulating social and cultural capital not warranted despite all the best intention? Flexibility, mobility, creativity, networking, personal engagement, self-organisation and a familiarity with new media are some of the key ingredients to the rapid success of our protests. But flexibility, mobility, creativity, and so forth are also the mantra of neo-liberalisms reorganisation of higher education. Under their pretence existing structures are broken up and institutional powers reduced. They legitimise the very process we are opposing with our protests – Not the least because of its reinforcement of the class-, gender- and race-divide. Tuition fees and unpaid work as interns and volunteers, two central characteristics of this on-going reorganisation, make the resort to more or less affluent parents or the eligibility for a grant of loan often necessary. But this resort tends to reproduce existing unequal distributions of wealth. Social mobility thus is necessary to participate in the first place, instead of being the outcome of the participation. This concerns our protests as well. What if it is this very similarity which not only enabled the rapid extension of our protests, but at the same time allows for its integration and partial neutralisation?



In the context of an always possible cooptation, it might make sense to start with what definitely transgresses cooptation. The extravagant expenditure of ideas, motivation, energy, time, and material exhibited by the recent wave of student protests, the disdain for property and disregard for personal risk might be held as its biggest triumph. “Ejaculatory economy – spending might make something happen” (Filip de Boeck, in a different context). But framed as economy, is not something more then expenditure already implied? Trying to maximise the “might make something happen”-part in all directions is one logical consequence. And maybe this excessive expenditure was possible in the first place because it did fit in neatly. The use of university buildings, its computer and digital media facilities, lab and art studios, the financial support of departments, cooperation between academics and students and not the least the recourse to theoretical and practical knowledge conveyed by the University without a doubt facilitated it. This does not at all diminish the value of the desire for change, the voluntary efforts put into the protests. It is the same desires however that as “aspirations for a self-determined work-life” prepare the emergence of an “endlessly exploitable” workforce and in consequence effectively menaces to foreclose self-determination.[3] This schema is all too well known from free work. Rhetorical demarcations from the ‘Big Society’ are often that, rhetoric.


The praxis of appropriating a given set up of rhetoric, image, institution or place to undermine its implications theatrically was widely employed by many protest groups to draw attention to the attacks on higher education and mark their relations to other areas of society. Arts Against Cuts staging of orgasmic noises at Sotheby’s spring auction this February under the headline “orgy of the rich” is the latest, and among the most daring, in a series of comparable events. In transgressing what is perceived as normal conduct (and as acceptable protest!), the temporary transformations of underground stations, banks, supermarkets and galleries, streets, letters and images empower the participants and denounce systemic injustice at the same time. But while extremely successful in generating media attention, this sort of intervention risks turning into self-amusement, sometimes even of an slightly elitist kinditself. Subversion is subversive if one is able to discern it as such. Our aesthetics are therefore also class aesthetics. We are our own best audience. Often already conceived with a digital distribution in mind, videos and pictures are posted on the always same homepage and shared in the same network and commented upon by the same people. As mainly symbolic interventions they can then easily be integrated into the frameworks of art institutions, exhibited in gallery spaces or reproduced in magazine. What was intended as transgression becomes a curiosity. As the moaners were removed from the auction hall, the Sotheby bidders fittingly started to applaud and the orgy continued. Yet we can imagine, how Sotheby might want to invite Arts Against Cuts back next year though, commissioning a re-enactment to the bemusement of their audience.

[The championing of desire without lack, intensity and immanence as leitmotifs by strains of postmodern philosophy in the late sixties is coeval with the restructuring of society and its modes of economic organisation we experience today. Perhaps we can understand this simultaneity as a heuristic plane to place our aesthetics on without having to ascribing direct causal relations between both. Under a capitalist organisation of society, the desire for immediacy finds its means of expression in radical individuation. The double subject of the liberal era, split into the free labourer selling his labour power, and the subject of the sphere of individual recreation, is, as it were, unified in the figure of human capital.[4] Doubtless this process set free productive energies. At the same time it assisted in blocking immediacy as a collective reality. Paradoxically, this in turn prevented individual realisation. In these disjunctions indirect speech becomes a dominant mode of expression.] To live in subjunctive is the real postmodern irony. It forms the background to our more theatrical interventions. Not surprisingly advertising, media and party politics are employing very similar strategies to appeal to a similar audience. Informed by the same sources, the people employed in these areas often studied at the same universities. They produce under analogous work conditions. As templates are created by them, our appropriations pioneer their expansion into as of yet unmapped territories. A constant play between deterritorialization and reterritorialization is set in motion. While the strife for surplus value in cultural production just as well creates an excess of meaning, the surplus of meaning indirect speech contains can be put to use for the creation of surplus of value. Collages branding themselves as radical leave an aftertaste.

Nevertheless, interventions of the type described are crucial insofar as they expand the vocabulary of protest. At times glitches break open the intricate logic of contemporary cultural production: In the YouTube recording of the University for Strategic Optimisms conference on violence from the demonstration on the 9th December 2010, the speakers are sometimes hard to understand amidst the noise of chants, helicopters, people marching and police sirens. Far from a failure, it is precisely this out drowning of the speakers that enables the interference to take centre stage as the sound of a demonstration. While the speakers investigated the violence of the protest, reassessing it, in the recording what is also revealed is the violence necessary to conduct a conference in the first place: The productive silence enforced by institutions and their mechanisms of exclusion. Thus the intervention folds back onto itself. Sometimes the interlacing of sign-usage with the means of repression moves beyond the appearance of a glitch. Signs become palpable as reality to very concrete effects. UKUncut flash mobs blowing whistles to close down a row of high street stores, effectively exploiting police protocol is one example disclosing exhilarating possibilities. The experience that some actions are possible and have results while others might fail or are outdated radicalises. As a test of forces this enables us to determine of our current positions in the struggle.


Seen from this perspective “struggle is a school”. But in the context of protests resisting the onslaught on higher education and mainly sustained by people related to the education sector the proverb somehow acquires a strange quality. Concepts of ‘life long learning’ always pose the threat of an even more rigid subjugation under maxims of self-improvement, efficacy and employability. Employability, furthermore, is separated from actual employment. The semantic shift from “employment” to “occupation” in the language usage of the European Union pointed out by the Carrotworkers’ Collective symbolises this.[5] ‘Life long learning’ would then have to be reframed as learning at all times. Leisure time is precisely not anymore the sphere of recreation (of individual labour power to be sold again) but another few hours of self-improvement. It is here, where the border between being a student and being a worker in the fields of education, art and creative industries blurs. Every experience is an occasion for learning whereas learning is conceived as project-centred and results oriented: Learning by doing; doing by learning. If defending education is education itself, as is, for that matter, everything else, protests are not only protests anymore (not that they ever were). They are test-sides, laboratories, class-trips and anthropological excursions. Significantly, management concepts have long been keen on incorporating them as such. They puzzle over means to create resistance within their own institutions which would enhance the institutions resisted against in turn. No doubt, facilitating meetings, designing posters, editing videos and programming blogs and the sharing of knowledge generate or enhance skills. But ironically, those we will have to obtain anyway. The rapidity of our success actually indicates that – at least collectively – we already possess them in abundance. What the school metaphor signals is a pre-emptive colonisation. The well meaning approval of our more creative protests by the mainstream media can eventually be understood in these terms. There is still an argument to be made for leaving school eventually.


This penetration of our protest organisation by the logic of post-fordism made its negative consequences inevitable: self-exploitation to the point of break down. By mid-December exhaustion was visible at every occupation. Not to be dismissed as an unfortunate side effect, exhaustion is inherent to post-fordism. Precarious self-employment abolishes the benefits of the division of labour. Networking on the other hand has yet to provide an adequate alternative. It does not challenge the central position of the subject (the creative individual) competing with others for placements, positions and financing. Where synergy effects are obtained, they tend to lead to new projects and more work. Contacts, furthermore, have to be maintained to remain active. Study, collect, work, engage, create, disseminate, protest, apply, participate, move, meet, talk, write, have fun; see connections where they exist, build them, if they are missing; be at the right place at the right time to get the right person to notice you; do something special, do some more and repeat in random order; while at times thrilling, this is often unsatisfactory and always tiring. Our protests replicate this modus operandi to a great extent. Maybe they even develop it further. The multiplication of initiatives, generating broad attraction at first, is still maintained by a limited number of actors spread across the landscape of protest. Fatigue is one consequence. Having eliminated enough, somehow average seems to be the result. This constant discontent furthermore introduces a variation of alienation. The products of our protests are constitutively in quotation marks. To see people trying to keep spirits up after the vote had passed was somewhat dismaying: Michel Foucault’s liberating “do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant”[6] – one of the most popular quotes of last autumn – had transformed into a cruel imperative for optimism without changing a single letter.


That the ideal of a non-hierarchical, not representative and consensual self-organisation is not only very demanding but can sometimes result in its opposite is palpable in many accounts of occupations. Laws of volume and stamina assume power; no official leaders, but de facto leaders. The equality and unity of students, academics and workers proclaimed throughout demonstrations and occupations, can fall apart quickly in the ordinary environment or even be abused as authoritarian positions are obscured by personal ‘friendly’ contact. Flat hierarchies, seducing as they sound, are work lives’ equivalent – shared effort, shared accountability, but no codetermination. Moreover, even when successful, these forms of organising are often installed in newly created structures like voluntary initiatives or said occupations. Hence they tend not to challenge the institutional framework they accrued from. Neither do they reclaim it from the neoliberal reorganisation already implemented through administrative measures like the Research Excellence Framework. While not transforming the institution from within, it also does not prevent a further dismantling, deflecting pressure instead of generating it.

Establishing long-term commitments under these conditions is difficult. Mobility, even within one institution or city, is deeply ingrained into the designated trajectory of contemporary academic education and careers. Exchange programmes, short-term research residencies and the reduction of completion-time for degrees enable issue-based commitment across institutional and even national boarders. Coordinated actions across the Atlantic, highlighting common issues, were one of its most recent outcomes. But the fragmented personal trajectories they create complicate the creation of continuous and relatively stable involvement to an extent which new media alone can not compensate for. Our disdain for representation becomes problematic.


Moreover because of this scattered nature of our engagements, recourse to resentment and fetishisation of spontaneity were commonly displayed on the streets last autumn.  What these sometimes very effective and important ad-hoc allegiances seem to make difficult is for politics to enter the discourse. The mixture of convictions is ample even at small reunions. The “we”’s and “our”’s I am typing are very dubious ones indeed, more informed by the exclusive club University/Humanities, then anything else. Absent is a widespread cross-social and internationalist analysis. Given political differences, this analysis will necessarily diverge. But if these diverging accounts are articulated and find a sphere to contest each other, appropriate forms of protest can potentially develop. To say that the government is stupid, illogical or simply neoliberal as was voiced without hesitation even by distinguished academics is not enough anymore. Sticking to the smallest denominator of a common enemy and doing what we know best might just reproduce what it is supposed to challenge.


To return to our professor: Not only does the strike provide time for research, but the protest itself becomes research. The protest as research (as opposed to research as protest) has the benefit of being useful in any case, that is, also if the neoliberal reorganisation of education goes ahead unhampered.  This logic creates what it assumes. My assessment, necessarily simplifying, might seem overtly negative. But what I assumed for the more aesthetic interventions I believe is true for all above described phenomenon. It is they, in their successes and their shortcomings – in their successes that are shortcomings, and shortcomings that are successes -, which enable us to grasp our position in this struggle. They provide the ground for further challenging both, the processes we are confronted with as well as our own involvement in them. This second challenging is not the least important in the fight for our own legitimate if compromised self-interests. Defending the university means re-imagine it, we tell ourselves. There is too much problematic about the University as it is to just make sure it remains the same. But maybe the inverse claim is true too, and should not be forgotten: To be able to challenge, transform, re-invent higher education, it might be necessary to defended existing higher education. Its institutional framework is characterised by inertness too important to give up with levity. Resisting a naïve conservatism, perhaps it is from within this relative stability that we can contest the neoliberal logic.

If the struggles in the USA, in Italy, France and Great Britain mark the abolition of the education-deal in the ‘developed nations’ – the implicit promise that higher education will improve social mobility, or what George Caffentzis calls more prosaic the “wage guarantee”[7] –, it bears the potential of a political questioning far more radical then the students revolt of 68 was capable of. After all the precarious workers of education, art and in the creative industries have nothing to lose but their feedback questionnaires, their debts and constant time pressure. It is the generalisation of precariousness through the neoliberal reorganisation of society which in a broader process of proletarisation contains splinters of common interest and therefore engenders the chance for a wider struggle. Only, as teachers, students, creative entrepreneurs and artists we still have something to loose, a lot of privileges and freedoms, even if the privilege is sometimes just a slightly more impressive CV. The ideal of purity is dangerous, because terror is not divisible from it. We do good rejecting it. But then complicity is not accidental. As our specific modes of production allow for the transformation of protest participation into cultural capital, does not a gap separates ours from other forms of precarious work that is not easily bridged?

[1] For a critical account of the transition from free labour to human capital see Feher, Michel: Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital. Public Culture 21:1 http://publicculture.org/articles/view/21/1/self-appreciation-or-the-aspirations-of-human-cap.  Feher seems to answer the political challenge Neoliberalism poses in the conception of human capital with a renewal of a social-democratic project from within its framework.

[2] Steyerl, Hito: The Articulation of Protest, September 2002, http://www.eipcp.net/transversal/0303/steyerl/en

[3] Carrotworkers’ Collective: On free labour. http://carrotworkers.wordpress.com/on-free-labour/

[4] Feher, Michel: Self-Appreciation

[5] Carrotworkers’ Collective: On free labour.

[7] Caffentzis, George: University Struggles at the End of the Edu-Deal. http://www.metamute.org/en/content/university_struggles_at_the_end_of_the_edu_deal

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