The University for Strategic Optimism’s contribution at ‘Whose University?’, a two-day conference co-hosted by Birkbeck, GLITS and InC, 10 June 2011
The University is Dead: Long Live the University!
Prof. Marcus Karlsberg:
The student is a derelict wearing a top hat. The 9-5 in paid employment involves a closure of possibilities. The crushing weight of a future of mind-numbing and back-breaking repetition. Head down, bum up. The Student, on the other hand, is free to contemplate the broad expanse of possible futures, worlds other than the existing one, life that has not been pre-compressed by capital’s codec. We tip our hats to passers by but fail to notice that our topcoat is in tatters, our cummerbund covered in filth. The words of students and members of the Situationist International, written in 1966, gender bias aside, still ring true:
At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of “economic life.” But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our society of abundance, he is still a pauper. 80% of students come from income groups well above the working class, yet 90% have less money than the meanest laborer. Student poverty is an anachronism, a throw-back from an earlier age of capitalism; it does not share in the new poverties of the spectacular societies; it has yet to attain the new poverty of the new proletariat.
Wedded to this economic poverty, and exacerbated by the fracturing of consciousness across the lines of the possible and the actual, is the poverty of status, the misery of hierarchical subordination. Everywhere the student is policed by the overlookers, bailiffs, border agents, and shop persons of knowledge. The student dutifully and dotingly learns to mimic the mannerisms and opinions of the master: cultural capital to compliment the knowledge commodity, sold! to the highest bidder. 10 years of this and the ape can finally speak. Albeit, in a very basic and rudimentary fashion.
Not only is this set-up humiliating and degrading to students, it turns professors into bad people too. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment of ’71 the guarders of knowledge conform to three basic types: the tough but fair type, a close observer, adherent and proponent of institutional rules and manners; the ‘good guys’ who do little favours for the inmates, a flash of recognition here, a due date extended there; And finally, about a third who are ‘hostile, arbitrary and inventive in their forms of student humiliation.’ All have an interest in the preservation of the existing hierarchy: congealed in paycheck comfort and plugged into that other economy, power and prestige (prison sex remains a reliable privilege of tenure.) The obverse of this twin currency, often replete with Cuban cigar and faux Castro cap, is the paralysing fear of loss and the hamster wheel of perpetual publication.
Yet surely it is all worth it in the end. No price is too high to pay for the rites and rituals that teach how to act radically and how to change the world. Sadly, the worst mistake a student can make when learning to impersonate the master, is to miss the point that the serious tone and radical gestures are not, after all, to be taken seriously. Take the recent attack on higher education. The tripling of fees in a scarcely veiled move to make universities the exclusive preserve of the privileged few, immediately following the demand that academic staff act as border agents and anti-terror snoops, was only enough to elicit the two day performance of picket-line parodies scattered around the UK. The Russian art group Voina drew a giant penis on a drawbridge that erected to face the old offices of the KGB. In the UK we have something of a reversal: Alfie Meadows, the son of an Academic, was severely beaten by police, suffering near-fatal brain injury, as he attempted to leave a protest. Much interest and anger was summoned from a number of public intellectuals. In a “fuck you” that dwarfs that of Voina’s, and with the added footnote “go and write a book about it then”, the police have recently decided to charge Alfie with violent disorder. The Russian authorities arrested a number of the members of Voina. We have yet to see Britain’s academic left do anything to the metropolitan police.
The relation between theory and practice is schizophrenic at best. Deleuze has been of more use to the Israeli military than the student movement. Where the university itself is concerned, the real fight is between the students and the representative lackeys of the neo-liberal elite – upper management. It is a disgrace that we continue to let these people run our universities. However, academic staff remain an intermediary class. True, with the closure of departments we see their number being hurled back down into the proletariat. Yet, it is the academics’ interest in the persistence of the status quo – the prison guards at Stanford were sad the experiment had been brought to a close prematurely – that inclines us to take a Luxembourgian position: when the fighting is done and dusted, the petit bourgeoisie will always be found to have been on the side of the ruling elites.
The university is toothless, demented, two-faced, emaciated, certainly it has lost control of its bowels: once emptied of content it is forced to dance to the music of the market, belly laughs from Capital as it decides whether or not to throw penny’s at the lurching corpse. The advance of terminal, structural and mental illness means that the university is incapable of defending itself from further degradation. It is past the point where consent forms might be signed in sound mind, and a trip taken to dignitas. The student, being the only properly revolutionary subject of the university, must carry the burden of the loving child and tenderly hold a pillow over the ailing and exhausted university’s face. So that it might at least die with some dignity; so that energies may be released for the creation of a new covenant of knowledge and a new community of learning.
Prof. Johannes Effra:
Firstly, a brief point. Why are we always on the back-foot? The notion of resistance is based on being on the losing side, of struggling to oppose the progress of some nefarious force that might overwhelm us. I don’t think we need to resist. We need to instead create anew entirely, abandon the rot of the old.
But our concern here is with the university. What was the university? For the university as has been understood, the past tense is now appropriate. A recap of what we already know: research funding cuts, trebling tuition fees and redirected business-friendly state priorities with the Research Excellence Framework: the university is being privatised. ‘Flexible’ temporary lecturing work, shrinking wages for everybody except the management overseeing privatisation, increasing admin and self-auditing, carried out by teachers as university administrators are sacked. What else? The critical edge of the university is likely to be softened into further moribund mediocrity as courses are increasingly refigured towards event management and business interests, or deleted altogether. The ‘whole community’ of students and teachers is over. Even the role of the university to speak the truth, to offer education and good counsel freely is terminally jeopardised. The privatisation of the university acts in real terms as a form of censorship, as areas that do not support the capitalist ontology of profit and self-promotion are cut.
In the last 30 years there has effectively been an upper-class re-takeover of public institutions and democratic sites, privatising them into the hands of the wealthy Oxbridge-educated few, the “Great Bullingdon Club swindle” as Mark Fisher put it. The mistake frequently made however is to argue that finance, the chief weapon of this class war, is a disorganised, crazed system prone to crises, that will inevitably break down, allowing us our utopia. No. Instead it works very well, effectively redistributing wealth further and further upwards, making it possible for a wealthy few to continue their accumulation of capital by feasting on more public institutions, welfare services, and the education funds, and retirement funds, of workers. This wealth redistribution allows this minority to buy politicians and public opinions with relative ease, making democratic freedom ineffective, existing in little more than name only. Mervyn King wonders where the popular left revolt is, as the pay of FTSE 100 chief execs trebles over the last 11 years ,as real wages decline, and greenhouse gases continue to increase out of control. Capitalism is getting more and more effectively organised, as we can see; but concomitantly, its control over individuals is perfected. We do not need soldiers in the street in the West: control is internalised by isolated individuals into fear – of crime, of the outsider, of loss of work, perhaps by being arrested, or even being kettled, a fear of the terrorist, for which protection from state authorities is needed, at any justification. This control is also internalised by depression – the fatalism, stress and sickness many of us here feel with our increasingly demanding and uncertain jobs, the lack of time we have to think, or sleep, or spend time with loved ones, and the malaise that yes, it’s now a cliché, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, which perhaps isn’t so far away, than the end of capitalism. We are very well controlled by an increasingly well-organised capitalism, and the lack of an effective opposition to neoliberal wealth redistribution testifies to this.
The changes to the university are paradigmatic of the wider violence of privatisation occurring throughout all social life. Like the development of unpaid internships in the arts before, the indebted student is another neoliberal experiment, proletarianizing the educated youth whilst forcing them to internalise the values of capitalism, with the fear that by not taking on and successfully performing these values, they will fail to find work and fit in – a circular and self-perpetuating alienation. Work itself in our digitized societies is increasingly stressful, demeaning, precarious yet superfluous, as any bar staff, debt administrator, call-centre droid, shop assistant, child-minder, cleaner or pay-per-hour junior lecturer will know. But in a sense our generation are lucky: there really is nothing to lose, and possibly something to gain. The most effective anti-depressive medication we have is within education. We need to start creating and expanding new centres of cooperative free education: reading groups, study groups and writing groups. Aaaarg.org is one key resource of sharing research and ideas: reading groups are increasingly based on the free access to texts. Free education spaces can be opened up in terms of access, meeting in cafes, pubs, social centres – places already public or reclaimed by the public. But with the prospect of bankrupt universities and boarded-up libraries, a more realistic proposal is for students to reclaim existing old public institutions, ones not even the most tasteless property or PFI-redevelopers will touch. Mutually taught, these new university spaces meet in evenings or weekends, so that those working or with children can come, with further networks spreading online. The Public School.org offers one international approach, but instead of just exchanging expertise, these free spaces are intrinsically radical by virtue of being free, free-thinking and public. They offer a key tool for radical workers to group together, use for critique, shared writing, dreaming and plotting.
On the other hand, our critique needs to get popular and re-enter, and recreate, the public sphere. Perhaps that’s been the UfSO’s best success to date: momentarily seizing private spaces and reclaiming then for public use – banks, supermarkets, streets even. Beyond street spectacle, a new programme for popularising and explaining our ideas is urgent. By education spaces linking up with other communities and communes, we need to make our critique simple and public. Theory itself is fine, but with more effective organisation, charisma and a sense of fun, we might find that we can reach and empower the public. Finally, effective resistance cannot be afraid to step beyond legal restrictions and ideas of propriety, both psychological forms of control on effective struggle. Two-day pickets, one-day union walkout, or a Saturday afternoon stroll to Hyde park via Fortnum and Mason’s: good feel-good fun yes, but there is more at stake and so much more to lose, and we need to act knowing this. Strategic Optimism is one weapon against the psychological control of fear and depression held against us today. As the university and the promises of academic Marxism go to seed, new mutually educational spaces of critique and resistance flourish, the public forms together, and out of the demise of the old a new creative counter-violence emerges. The university is dead. Long live the university!
Prof. Grave Riddle:
At the University for Strategic Optimism, we are all Professors, or whatever meaningless role we want to award ourselves. Meaningless because we insist on true equality; we insist on “levelling-up” – which is to say that we are all Professors, we all have some expertise to share. In the UfSO we deal with problems, like “Capitalism”, or “neo-liberalism”, or more specifically, “austerity”: the cuts to public services, the privatisation of education and everything else, the logic of competition and marketisation, etc. The point is we decide on a problem, or the problem decides us, and we work out what to do about it, together, as equals.
Through working with the UfSO I have been able to imagine a Utopia, a vision of a new University, to rise out of the ashtray of neo-liberalism. The classroom would be more like a workshop, or a discussion group: I have to formulate this Utopia within Cultural Studies as this is where my specific experience comes from, but the model is more fundamental. The class is a group of people who have come together in order to gain knowledge, or perspective or something not quite meaningful yet, because we are still so downtrodden. They decide on an object for analysis:
What do we already know about it?
Is there anyone present who is a part of this community?
Can we think of a way to involve the community in the research project?
These are practical questions, but show something very important: there is no hierarchy. The group decides the object for analysis, they “brainstorm” what they already know, they try to find a way into the object in a way in which subject and object become intertwined, but not quite dissolved; for there must still be a critical perspective.
What about the teacher? What about theory? Well, the teacher is effectively one of the students. The professor’s research is the student’s final project, and vice versa. Research no longer means disappearing into a hole for however many years only to return with a piece of introspective self-immolation, to be then argued over in journals and perhaps even inflicted upon the students. Theory should never come before the problem, and should never intimidate independent thought. The anxiety about originality, i.e. that we must trawl through the history of theories in order to find our own niche, or mostly in order to become a faithful disciple of a school of thought, or a personality cult, is a false one. If we can formulate a theory out of practice, that’s fine. The teacher can offer experience and knowledge when needed, or perhaps only when asked for. Sometimes the research might come to a dead end, and a particular theory can illuminate the way forward. As long as we listen carefully to the problem as it speaks to us, and maintain a working tension between detail and the bigger picture, the work will be critical.
The next point to make is about bringing back the context to the University. A University should be integrated into the local community. This isn’t an easy task, and there are of course the anxieties about The Big Society. I haven’t got enough time now to deal with this problem, but suffice to say that The Big Society is an expert piece of ideology which we shouldn’t worry too much about. If we create a true and popular Big Society, it will not turn out in like the one David Cameron is fantasising about. The University should be integrated and embedded into the life and geography of the surrounding area, acting as its library, its social space, but more importantly, a place where anyone with a problem can come and work it out with other people. An open space with workshops run by people from the community to deal with pressing issues. To quote Raymond Williams again, ‘Culture is ordinary’ and it is something that is being created and discussed in ordinary life. The University as it exists now is elitist and detached from this ordinary life, and even the most progressive Cultural Studies department is compromised by the elitist class-power divisions of the University system.
Why haven’t universities resisted the cuts from within? At Goldsmiths, we could have dug in our heels, resisted like Liverpool Council in the 1980s. But until the university works with and as the community, fiercely declaring our independence from new bases of resistance, resistance will be futile. Instead, from new independent co-educational bases we can sustain a popular movement, perhaps even a common culture. Look at what they are doing in Bristol, in Stokes Croft for example. Not everyone is happy about it, the community is divided, Tesco is still there, but everyone is talking to each other. It’s a start. New education spaces can tap into this.
Back to the Utopia. For a political group like the UfSO, the University is a think-tank in a ballistic sense. We come together to discuss problems, and formulate responses. Not necessarily solutions, because first of all the problems need to be clarified. We attempt to turn the research we do into a “weapon”. This might be a weapon to destroy ideology, or one which inspires or creates a conversation. Turning research into documentation is a good thing because it allows other people to see what you have done, to talk about it, criticise it, and use it for their own think-tanks. Even for the non-political University, creating a document is empowering and inspiring. However, I would say that the University should always be a political institution: in days of implicit fascism like today, it must be the socialist front line, and by socialism I only mean the insistence that culture is for everyone, and that critical thinking is the basis for any true democracy.