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Mike Davis: Wall Street through the augmented eyes of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper

26 Oct

by Mike Davis

Who could have envisioned Occupy Wall Street and its sudden wildflower-like profusion in cities large and small?

John Carpenter could have, and did. Almost a quarter of a century ago (1988), the master of date-night terror (Halloween, The Thing), wrote and directed They Live, depicting the Age of Reagan as a catastrophic alien invasion. In one of the film’s brilliant early scenes, a huge third-world shantytown is reflected across the Hollywood Freeway in the sinister mirror-glass of Bunker Hill’s corporate skyscrapers.

They Live remains Carpenter’s subversive tour de force. Few who’ve seen it could forget his portrayal of billionaire bankers and evil mediacrats and their zombie-distant rule over a pulverized American working class living in tents on a rubble-strewn hillside and begging for jobs. From this negative equality of homelessness and despair, and thanks to the magic dark glasses found by the enigmatic Nada (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), the proletariat finally achieves interracial unity, sees through the subliminal deceptions of capitalism, and gets angry.

Very angry.

Yes, I know, I’m reading ahead. The Occupy the World movement is still looking for its magic glasses (program, demands, strategy, and so on) and its anger remains on Gandhian low heat. But, as Carpenter foresaw, force enough Americans out of their homes and/or careers (or at least torment tens of millions with the possibility) and something new and huge will begin to slouch towards Goldman Sachs. And unlike the “Tea Party,” so far it has no puppet strings.

In 1965, when I was just eighteen and on the national staff of Students for a Democratic Society, I planned a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank, for its key role in financing South Africa after the massacre of peaceful demonstrators, for being “a partner in Apartheid.” It was the first protest on Wall Street in a generation and 41 people were hauled away by the NYPD.

One of the most important facts about the current uprising is simply that it has occupied the street and created an existential identification with the homeless. (Though, frankly, my generation, trained in the civil rights movement, would have thought first of sitting inside the buildings and waiting for the police to drag and club us out the door; today, the cops prefer pepper spray and “pain compliance techniques.”) I think taking over the skyscrapers is a wonderful idea, but for a later stage in the struggle. The genius of Occupy Wall Street, for now, is that it has temporarily liberated some of the most expensive real estate in the world and turned a privatized square into a magnetic public space and catalyst for protest.

Our sit-in 46 years ago was a guerrilla raid; this is Wall Street under siege by the Lilliputians. It’s also the triumph of the supposedly archaic principle of face-to-face, dialogic organizing. Social media is important, sure, but not omnipotent. Activist self-organization—the crystallization of political will from free discussion—still thrives best in actual urban fora. Put another way, most of our internet conversations are preaching to the choir; even the mega-sites like MoveOn.org are tuned to the channel of the already converted, or at least their probable demographic.

The occupations likewise are lightning rods, first and above all, for the scorned, alienated ranks of progressive Democrats, but they also appear to be breaking down generational barriers, providing the common ground, for instance, for imperiled, middle-aged school teachers to compare notes with young, pauperized college grads.

More radically, the encampments have become symbolic sites for healing the divisions within the New Deal coalition in place since the Nixon years. As Jon Wiener observed on his consistently smart blog at TheNation.com: “hard hats and hippies—together at last.”

Indeed. Who could not be moved when AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who had brought his coalminers to Wall Street in 1989 during their bitter but ultimately successful strike against Pittston Coal Company, called upon his broad-shouldered women and men to “stand guard” over Zucotta Park in the face of an imminent attack by the NYPD?

It’s true that old radicals like me are quick to declare each new baby the messiah, but this Occupy Wall Street child has the rainbow sign. I believe that we’re seeing the rebirth of the quality that so markedly defined the migrants and strikers of the Great Depression, of my parents’ generation: a broad, spontaneous compassion and solidarity based on a dangerously egalitarian ethic. It says, Stop and give a hitch-hiking family a ride. Never cross a picket line, even when you can’t pay the rent. Share your last cigarette with a stranger. Steal milk when your kids have none and then give half to the little kids next door—what my own mother did repeatedly in 1936. Listen carefully to the profoundly quiet people who have lost everything but their dignity. Cultivate the generosity of the “we.”

What I mean to say, I suppose, is that I’m most impressed by folks who have rallied to defend the occupations despite significant differences in age, in social class and race. But equally, I adore the gutsy kids who are ready to face the coming winter on freezing streets, just like their homeless sisters and brothers.

Back to strategy, though: what’s the next link in the chain (in Lenin’s sense) that needs to be grasped? How imperative is it for the wildflowers to hold a convention, adopt programmatic demands, and thereby put themselves up for bid on the auction block of the 2012 elections? Obama and the Democrats will desperately need their energy and authenticity. But the occupationistas are unlikely to put themselves or their extraordinary self-organizing process up for sale.

Personally I lean toward the anarchist position and its obvious imperatives.

First, expose the pain of the 99 percent; put Wall Street on trial. Bring Harrisburg, Loredo, Riverside, Camden, Flint, Gallup, and Holly Springs to downtown New York. Confront the predators with their victims—a national tribunal on economic mass murder.

Second, continue to democratize and productively occupy public space (i.e. reclaim the Commons). The veteran Bronx activist-historian Mark Naison has proposed a bold plan for converting the derelict and abandoned spaces of New York into survival resources (gardens, campsites, playgrounds) for the unsheltered and unemployed. The Occupy protestors across the country now know what it’s like to be homeless and banned from sleeping in parks or under a tent. All the more reason to break the locks and scale the fences that separate unused space from urgent human needs.

Third, keep our eyes on the real prize. The great issue is not raising taxes on the rich or achieving a better regulation of banks. It’s economic democracy: the right of ordinary people to make macro-decisions about social investment, interest rates, capital flows, job creation, and global warming. If the debate isn’t about economic power, it’s irrelevant.

Fourth, the movement must survive the winter in order to fight the power in the next spring. It’s cold on the street in January. Bloomberg and every other mayor and local ruler is counting on a hard winter to deplete the protests. It is thus all-important to reinforce the occupations over the long Christmas break. Put on your overcoats.

Finally, we must calm down-the itinerary of the current protest is totally unpredictable. But if one erects a lightning rod, we shouldn’t be surprised if lightning eventually strikes.

Bankers, recently interviewed in the New York Times, claim to find the Occupy protests little more than a nuisance arising from an unsophisticated understanding of the financial sector. They should be more careful. Indeed, they should probably quake before the image of the tumbrel.

Since 1987, African Americans have lost more than half of their net worth; Latinos, an incredible two-thirds. Five-and-a-half million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Sates since 2000, more than 42,000 factories closed, and an entire generation of college graduates now face the highest rate of downward mobility in American history.

Wreck the American dream and the common people will put on you some serious hurt. Or as Nada explains to his unwary assailants in Carpenter’s great film: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

First published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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The Fight for ‘Real Democracy’ at the Heart of Occupy Wall Street

22 Oct
The Encampment in Lower Manhattan Speaks to a Failure of Representation
By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Demonstrations under the banner of Occupy Wall Street resonate with so many people not only because they give voice to a widespread sense of economic injustice but also, and perhaps more important, because they express political grievances and aspirations. As protests have spread from Lower Manhattan to cities and towns across the country, they have made clear that indignation against corporate greed and economic inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the protest against the lack — or failure — of political representation. It is not so much a question of whether this or that politician, or this or that party, is ineffective or corrupt (although that, too, is true) but whether the representational political system more generally is inadequate. This protest movement could, and perhaps must, transform into a genuine, democratic constituent process.

The political face of the Occupy Wall Street protests comes into view when we situate it alongside the other “encampments” of the past year. Together, they form an emerging cycle of struggles. In many cases, the lines of influence are explicit. Occupy Wall Street takes inspiration from the encampments of central squares in Spain, which began on May 15 and followed the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier last spring. To this succession of demonstrations, one should add a series of parallel events, such as the extended protests at the Wisconsin statehouse, the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, and the Israeli tent encampments for economic justice. The context of these various protests are very different, of course, and they are not simply iterations of what happened elsewhere. Rather each of these movements has managed to translate a few common elements into their own situation.

In Tahrir Square, the political nature of the encampment and the fact that the protesters could not be represented in any sense by the current regime was obvious. The demand that “Mubarak must go” proved powerful enough to encompass all other issues. In the subsequent encampments of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya, the critique of political representation was more complex. The Spanish protests brought together a wide array of social and economic complaints — regarding debt, housing, and education, among others — but their “indignation,” which the Spanish press early on identified as their defining affect, was clearly directed at a political system incapable of addressing these issues. Against the pretense of democracy offered by the current representational system, the protesters posed as one of their central slogans, “Democracia real ya,” or “Real democracy now.”

Occupy Wall Street should be understood, then, as a further development or permutation of these political demands. One obvious and clear message of the protests, of course, is that the bankers and finance industries in no way represent us: What is good for Wall Street is certainly not good for the country (or the world). A more significant failure of representation, though, must be attributed to the politicians and political parties charged with representing the people’s interests but in fact more clearly represent the banks and the creditors. Such a recognition leads to a seemingly naive, basic question: Is democracy not supposed to be the rule of the people over the polis — that is, the entirety of social and economic life? Instead, it seems that politics has become subservient to economic and financial interests.

By insisting on the political nature of the Occupy Wall Street protests we do not mean to cast them merely in terms of the quarrels between Republicans and Democrats, or the fortunes of the Obama administration. If the movement does continue and grow, of course, it may force the White House or Congress to take new action, and it may even become a significant point of contention during the next presidential election cycle. But the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations are both authors of the bank bailouts; the lack of representation highlighted by the protests applies to both parties. In this context, the Spanish call for “real democracy now” sounds both urgent and challenging.

If together these different protest encampments — from Cairo and Tel Aviv to Athens, Madison, Madrid, and now New York — express a dissatisfaction with the existing structures of political representation, then what do they offer as an alternative? What is the “real democracy” they propose?

The clearest clues lie in the internal organization of the movements themselves — specifically, the way the encampments experiment with new democratic practices. These movements have all developed according to what we call a “multitude form” and are characterized by frequent assemblies and participatory decision-making structures. (And it is worth recognizing in this regard that Occupy Wall Street and many of these other demonstrations also have deep roots in the globalization protest movements that stretched at least from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa in 2001.)

Much has been made of the way social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been employed in these encampments. Such network instruments do not create the movements, of course, but they are convenient tools, because they correspond in some sense to the horizontal network structure and democratic experiments of the movements themselves. Twitter, in other words, is useful not only for announcing an event but for polling the views of a large assembly on a specific decision in real time.

Do not wait for the encampments, then, to develop leaders or political representatives. No Martin Luther King, Jr. will emerge from the occupations of Wall Street and beyond. For better or worse — and we are certainly among those who find this a promising development — this emerging cycle of movements will express itself through horizontal participatory structures, without representatives. Such small-scale experiments in democratic organizing would have to be developed much further, of course, before they could articulate effective models for a social alternative, but they are already powerfully expressing the aspiration for a “real democracy.”

Confronting the crisis and seeing clearly the way it is being managed by the current political system, young people populating the various encampments are, with an unexpected maturity, beginning to pose a challenging question: If democracy — that is, the democracy we have been given — is staggering under the blows of the economic crisis and is powerless to assert the will and interests of the multitude, then is now perhaps the moment to consider that form of democracy obsolete?

If the forces of wealth and finance have come to dominate supposedly democratic constitutions, including the U.S. Constitution, is it not possible and even necessary today to propose and construct new constitutional figures that can open avenues to again take up the project of the pursuit of collective happiness? With such reasoning and such demands, which were already very alive in the Mediterranean and European encampments, the protests spreading from Wall Street across the United States pose the need for a new democratic constituent process.

‘Creative’ Functionalism and Continental Philosophy at Middlesex

1 Aug
By Paula Gilligan
On May 10th, 2010, the management of Middlesex University in England shut down its Philosophy Department. This act provoked a spate of letters in the newspapers. Now, while the general attack on the Humanities in the United Kingdom has been going on for some time, –for a good many years before the credit crunch, as any lecturer in non-English languages will testify– the events in Middlesex are interesting because of what they tell us about the current state of the academy, and about what the Government and the elite classes regard as its purpose.

The man behind the closure, one Ed Esche, the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, said that this department made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University. As the Department and its students mounted their defence online, more details emerged as to what the management regarded as a ‘measurable contribution’. The University’s financial statements are its charter and they tell us that the institution’s aim is making money. Middlesex operates like a feudal shire–each Department is required to pay a tithe of 55% of their ‘income’ to the ‘Centre’–the Department of Philosophy’s sin was that it only managed 53%. Humanities academics, foolishly harbouring the hope that success on the Research Assessment Exercise will keep them safe, can get cold comfort from this event. The department’s significant ‘esteem’ (‘impact’s’ precursor in the RAE) in the fields of continental and radical philosophy has undoubtedly delivered a tidy return in research income in the past for the University. [1]

On the surface, the Middlesex management’s actions suggest a functionalism, which appears to offer a dose of hard realism to the ‘sherry-sipping’ denizens of this ivory-tower of humanities scholarship. The management said that the number of BA philosophy students the Department attracts is ‘unsustainably low’.  There were two types of arguments against Middlesex’s apparent utilitarianism in the letters and articles on the subject. The main defence, and, I believe, the most dangerous one for the Humanities, pits this type of functionalism, represented as hard and austere (and associated with science, technology, and business), against the soft and yielding human arts, who are, it would appear, in need of protection. The defence of arts and humanities enquiry has traditionally been driven by a defence of culture itself–or at least the prevailing understanding of culture. This is, apparently, done in the public interest, in order to contribute to a ‘civilized’ (but oddly not civil) society. This other function of ‘public culture’, as it is constructed by the knowledge economy, leads us to the role of the arts and the humanities in the generation of capital and in the generation of spaces for social elites. This economy is constructed as somehow separate but equal to the knowledge economy: this is the ‘creative economy’. [2]
We can see this creative economy in action when we look at what Middlesex offers. Middlesex University does not do science–it embraces the arts–or at least the ‘creative’ arts. The University website is full of images of creative activity, and boasts of a new arts observatory.  Its news includes numerous listings of awards given for artistic endeavour. Not a trace of the old polytechnic commitment to small to medium enterprise education and to the regional and social remit is left. Its business programs are laced with modules specialising in ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’.The creative economy positions Humanities scholars in three ways. The first is to act as an advocate of the arts as public goods and for the public good–but this is based on particular understandings of culture as an ‘antidote’ to the uncouth tendencies of untrammeled capitalism.  The second is to ‘educate’ students, rearticulated as consumers/clients for cultural consumption, by exposing them to ‘culture’.  Thirdly, the humanities scholar offers a form of quality assurance for the arts consumer. A lot of the polemic around ‘the arts and the humanities’ are saturated with elite Eurocentric understandings of culture as ‘the best that is thought and said’, and a return to aestheticism and formalism. The words ‘soul’ and civilisation’ crop up a lot. The defence of the Humanities is invariably linked to the defence of the ‘Arts’. We are seen to have common cause, united against the scientists, who are ‘winning’. We need to start questioning this assumption.
Although grateful for the intervention of arts academics outside their own university, the staff and students of the Department of Philosophy, we can guess, were perhaps more aware of this problematic relationship with the ‘creative’ arts than the blogs reveal. They made no attempt to defend the Department on these grounds. Rather they used hard facts, an arsenal which includes data, figures, projections, to expose the lies embedded in such managerial ‘functionalism’–the biggest lie being that ‘income-generating activities’ bring in income to the University where teaching does not. [3]  Still the Department remains closed. Such functionalism, when not openly exposed as the sham it is, eventually reveals its own shortcomings when qualifications and degree programs are no longer fit for purpose, just as functionalist buildings are not fit to live in-but that is not important. As Henri Lefebvre comments, ‘the real purpose of ‘functionalism’ is that it eliminates critical thought’. [4]
In the articles and the blogs, some commentators make oblique reference to the possibility that the Middlesex Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy’s left-leaning views may have led to the Department’s closure. [5]  The students say that the decision is ideological, but do not say more. Following the suspension of a number of student protestors and of three members of staff in June 2010, there are more open references to the issue of the future of critical thought in the blogs. A quick look at the EU calls for submissions tells us that the type of philosophy taught in this Department represents one European tradition that the EU super-state is not anxious to fund. The creative economy (to paraphrase Lefebvre), is a domain without limits but equally the domain of (free) critical thought is without limits. While we can concern ourselves (and do) with art which is truly free, we can, and must, critique the functionalism masquerading under the umbrella of ‘creative’. The aesthetic of this new functionalism is limitless, as it appropriates all ‘creativity’ into itself. The choice presented is stark–either we embrace the creative and knowledge economies with all that entails, and make a ‘measurable contribution’ or we leave the University to the creative classes and their managers. [6]  In the world of the creative economy, critique has become split off from ‘creativity’-arts research has become ‘practice-based’. Humanities-type research serves to quality enhance the conceptual and technological art preferred by the global art markets and to create a further barrier to access to this elite creative class. De Certeau’s famous question: ‘who is allowed to create?’ is forgotten. [7]  Critical theory is either fetishised or banished.
It is very tempting for Humanities Scholars to join the ‘creative classes’ as the EU research funding bodies understand them, but it is dishonest, and its advantages are short-lived, as the creative economy invariably calls on us to renounce free critical thought, which is seen to be negative and not ‘creative’. One of the suspended lecturers at the heart of the Middlesex protests, Christian Kerslake, has made a strong, unpopular, and brave stand in defence of an open, equal, and accessible quality undergraduate education in the humanities-a commitment to public education which requires real sacrifice from academics. If the field of the Humanities is to survive at all, it must start here, with the defence of our public remit–even if it means pulling away from our old relationships, painful as that will be, and finding new allies among the marginalized and the disenfranchised inside, and outside, the academy.Paula Gilligan is the Head of the  Department of Humanities at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, in Ireland, and co-ordinator of its Centre for Public Cultures. She teaches cultural theory, popular culture studies, the cinema and right-wing cultures in France, Ireland, and the US. Forthcoming publications include Ireland and French Cinema 1937-1977 (with Irish Academic Press).

Footnotes:

  • [1] Building on its grade of 5 in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, in the 2008 RAE Middlesex was rated first in philosophy among post-1992 universities, with 65% of its research activity judged ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.
  • [2] ‘Even in narrow economic terms it must be wrong to neglect the importance of the creative economy and the importance of a rich and vibrant museums, galleries and cultural sector for tourism’. Letter to the The Observer, 28th of February 2010, signed by Prof Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and a number of other academics.
  • [3] The argument that they had only 12 students in the honours undergrad stream does not wash when you look at the numbers of postgraduate and fee-paying MA students in the Department’s Centre Research in Modern European Philosophy, not to mention the Department’s contribution to the undergrad programs of the rest of the School. There are currently 63 postgraduate students in the Centre: 48 MA students and 15 PhD students. 5 PhDs were awarded in 2009. See http://savemdxphil.com/2010/05/01/faq-on-the-financial-situation-of-philosophy-at-middlesex/.
  • [4] Henri Lefevbre, The Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, Translated by John Moore, London: Verso, 2002, pp. 189-195.
  • [6] In fact four of the lecturers have decamped to Kingston University, bringing the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) with them, and leaving two of their colleagues behind them.
  • [7] Michel De Certeau, Culture in the Plural, (Translated Tom Conley), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p.33.

Academic Free Fall

31 Jul
By Neil Smith.
When I left Britain in the 1970s to pursue a doctorate in the US, it was an item of faith that US universities were far more corporatized than their UK counterparts, in the social sciences as well as the natural sciences.  To be sure the British system was often stuffy and harboured a lot of dead wood, but few looked toward an American-style academia.

Today the situation is dramatically transposed.  British social sciences are far more corporatized today than in the US, and expatriate British academics returning to the UK are regularly stunned at the wholesale intellectual destruction of UK universities.  To a non-British academic, the language of academia is almost impenetrable, aping the corporate world on which it was modeled.  Administrative memos, grant proposals, and bureaucratic correspondence –  university-wide or departmentally specific – are peppered with verbiage so vague it is vacuous: excellence, accountability, performance measures, capacity building, benchmarking, pro-active, impact factors, grant harvesting, esteem indicators, innovation, technology generation and capture, skill sets, team cohesion, outputs, and so forth.  Into such vacuous concepts, those with power can pour in whatever content is desirable.

There are many reasons for this extreme corporatization, but the most important lie in the wholesale political restructuring of the institutional framework of academia.  This restructuring began as an openly political intervention by the neo-liberalizing Thatcher government and was carried forward enthusiastically under Blair, and it has several salient dimensions.  In the first place, it was deemed desirable to be able to compare on a level plane the performances of every university in the country, and this inevitably led to a ubiquitous quantification of every aspect of teaching, research and service, from the scale of the individual through that of the department and the School or College to the university as a whole.  The vehicle for this state-mandated comparison was the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), initiated in 1986 with five subsequent such exercises.

As all British academics are painfully aware, this had several effects beyond the forced crunching of all intellectual activity into a number.  To boost the numbers, it encouraged researchers to parse already small pieces of research into myriad fragments that could be scattered to multiple journals.  Research became increasingly shoddy – atrocious grammar and little content – with terrifying speed.  As a journal editor in the early 1990s I received a paper from one British scholar and a phone call two weeks later to inquire about and then urge acceptance of the piece “because our RAE submissions are due in two weeks.”  As it turned out a virtually identical paper had been submitted to another journal and that journal’s editor happened to use one of the same referees I used.  In various incarnations this scenario repeated itself during my tenure as editor, all involving UK academics. Not long ago, the faculty union, now the University and College Union (UCU), then the Association of University Teachers (AUT), warned that the RAE has had a disastrous effect on the UK’s Higher Education. The reworking of the RAE into a “metrics-based” Research Excellence Framework is likely to exacerbate rather than resolve the disaster.

The education bureaucrats in the UK are making “impact factors” a centerpiece of this revamped RAE.  The underlying motivation for this move represents a clear continuation of the original rationale for the RAE: to produce practical knowledge, shovel-ready, for bureaucratic policy application.  It straightens out and speeds up the four-lane highway from research to state or corporate utility.  There are fewer and fewer off ramps from this highway, and the toll for accessing it is the guarantee of intellectual mediocrity.  But “impact factor” is an empty shell that is available to be filled with any bureaucratic content.
Twinned with the RAE is the effect of the funding agencies (which for those of us in the social sciences means primarily the ESRC), but only those departments and universities with sufficiently high RAE scores and a good track record by other measures are eligible for such funding.  Continued ESRC funding depended on timely completion of grants and mandated the completion of doctorates by graduate students within three years, four at the most, and failure to do so threatened further funding but also damaged RAE scores.  This had several consequences. First, faculty were under extreme pressure to pass dissertations whether or not they were worthy.  This not only dropped quality standards immediately but reproduced several generations of faculty who had been taught that sloppy, unfinished and sub-standard work was quite acceptable, further eroding the quality of work coming out in future PhD dissertations. By the same token, of course, a longer ‘time-to-degree’ (to use the operative bureaucratese) is no guarantee of superior quality work, and in the US for example unnecessarily long times to degree actually facilitate a casualization of academic work as graduate students are exploited as cheap instructional labour.  But time-to-degree in Scandinavia, to take another case, can also be quite long with very different results, due largely to the quite different social and financial structuring of the degree compared with the US or UK.  This is the crucial point.
Second, the strict time limits on PhDs adversely affected the kinds of topics and the geography of topics students chose.  Several years ago I visited a geography department with 33 PhD students and on inquiry I discovered that 28 of these students were working in the UK.  For a geography department to have only 15% of its postgraduates working outside the UK is a tragedy.  When I asked the students how this could have happened they explained quite casually that if they had to scout out foreign field sites, possibly learn a language, do adequate archival research, learn methodologies, then do the field work (in addition to reading the requisite theory), and write the work up, there was a slim chance of them completing in three or four years.  Much the same would apply to anthropology or history.  Third, ESRC grants come with the requirement that a significant amount – as much as 30% – of the work be policy focused.  Yet if a researcher’s work leads to critical conclusions documenting, for example, the maladies of gentrification, would the ESRC be enthusiastic about policy conclusions that advocate the funding of anti-gentrification groups and movements?  (Even the use of “gentrification” rather than the anodyne and dishonest policy euphemism “regeneration”, while it may not condemn a proposal, will at least draw extra critical attention.)  So basic research is tightly tethered to applications with the state as the exclusive target of policy proposals.  Thus the highway between research and policy runs both ways, raising the specter that ESRC funding is increasingly designed, as I have heard it put, not to produce research-driven policy so much as to produce policy-driven research.

More broadly, universities are under extreme pressure to become their own capitalist entities.  In pursuit of capital, British universities have, apart from anything else, become MA/MSc factories, often aimed at rich and foreign students who fork out the tuition fees in exchange for a commodity – the diploma.
The upshot of these and other transformations, at least for those of us looking in, is that UK academia is consumed by smaller and smaller issues, more and more frivolous topics, the victory of empirics over theory, and less and less significant research.  On top of this, the quality of work has plummeted, and geography for one has become increasingly insular.  The “impact factor” of this neo-liberalization of academia is immense.  Among British colleagues I detect very little critique of this predicament beyond a few individuals, and little or no organized opposition; rather the modus operandi is defensive rationalization. There are exceptions, of course, and the militant strike and sit-in at London’s Middlesex University, protesting the summary closing of the philosophy department, is heartening. That this department had a critical impact in radical, Marxist and continental philosophy as well as more widely, and that punitive retaliations were meted out against participating students and faculty, only strengthens the argument that whatever else drives it, the restructuring of British academia is politically motivated, and not for the better. Overall there has been an utter deflation and flattening of the British academic landscape.  This is especially dispiriting because it is unclear, short of a major institutional restructuring of the scale pioneered by Thatcher and Blair, how this could be redressed, or where the will to do so would even come from.

Neil Smith teaches in the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY.

Source: http://www.socialtextjournal.org/periscope/2010/08/academic-free-fall.php

The Real Knowledge Transfer

30 Jul
In Britain, knowledge transfer (KT) is taking a new turn.  As a university policy, KT emphasized intellectual property rights.  The dream of the managers of the university was to patent knowledge produced in university departments, laboratories, and lecture halls.  This new proprietary knowledge would then either earn rent from the private sector, and in some cases the public sector, or lead to the founding of new private firms, owned in part by the university, the so-called spin-off.
This dream has been notoriously elusive for most universities in Britain, with many spending more on KT offices than they earn in KT revenues, and some KT directors said by the Times Higher Education magazine to make more than senior professors.  Indeed the UK government’s own Lambert Report on business-university collaboration, published in 2003, noted that only a few university spin-offs receive any private investment.  The rest continued to depend on public funding of one form or another, or failed. Is this why the Labour government in Britain, now in opposition, introduced the vaguer notion of social and economic impact, to broaden but also soften a failing measurement?  In Britain, a national audit of research takes place every five years, designed to identify ‘excellence’ in research across the country.  It is a peer review process on a grand scale, reviewing four pieces of work from every ‘research active’ scholar in every field in every university.  Like all such accounting practices, it has produced its object.  And concerns have been repeatedly raised about the perverse consequences of this national audit, from which research money, and individual merit pay, flows.   In order to get into the well regarded journals, and be eligible for this merit pay, scholars became more conformist, more cautious, and inevitably more careerist.  While writing books remained an option, few could produce four such books in a five year period, and in some fields, for instance economics, and most of business studies, ‘books don’t count.’  Many learned the rules of the game all too well, played it safe by writing multi-authored articles with an incremental approach to knowledge targeting specific journals, and demonstrating a willing, suppliant approach to revisions suggested by the journals.  The trumpeted entrepreneurial ethos of New Labour soon looked at odds with this obvious lack of risk-taking and vision among scholars.  Along the way, the failure of mostly engineering and science-based spin-offs and licensing to supplement university income in any substantial way began to put further pressure on the humanities for whom knowledge transfer as IP rent was never a serious financial prospect.
Introducing Impact
Perhaps it should be no surprise then that knowledge transfer should need revising in the government’s next audit, re-christened the Research Excellence Framework (REF), set currently for 2014.  The REF introduces an additional measurement, social and economic impact.  The stated aim of accounting for impact is to gauge the wider relevance and application of research pieces, pieces called of course ‘outputs,’ measuring for something like ‘outcomes.’  In some ways this was the equivalent of reformist calls in academic and professional accounting for broadening what might be measured, the social audit.  At the same time, the new policy was designed to line up the university sector with business, in keeping with its new bureaucratic location, inside a ministry for business development, a place it remains in the new Tory-Liberal Democratic alliance government.  At least, this is the official story.  Other explanations have been put forward.  Some claim this attention to the broader impact of higher education on society, its broader use to society, is a belated recognition that this fully state-funded system in Britain benefits the middle classes disproportionately.  The working class pays but does not attend, except as support workers on the campuses.  Others say it was a backdoor attempt to introduce something like an industrial policy, late in the day, and long after it had become apparent that the country’s economy was dominated by the financial industry in London and Edinburgh.
Most commonly, this latest innovation in the national audit has been received, particularly by academics themselves, as simply the newest sharpening of the management tool.  In this reading the demand for impact fits with a general view of the research audit as part of an apparatus of productive discipline.  Impact will now subject the humanities to the same pressure as knowledge transfer did engineering and science.  And meanwhile the professional schools, business, law, medicine, use their regulative status to prove impact easily, putting yet more pressure on the humanities.  There is something to this reading.  It is certainly true that a centrally planned system of research and teaching funding can realize the ambition of an authoritative national ranking, introducing more direct competition than one would find in the mixed education economy of the United States.  Under such direct competition, management has a claim on labour that appears less residual than it really is.  Thus the common phenomenon of research directors, heads of schools, and deans taking credit for the success of a submission to the audit of other people’s writing and research.
Nonetheless, I think all of these explanations both official and unofficial are insufficient.  In fact I think the key to understanding the rise of impact lies with knowledge transfer itself.  Because it was not so much that knowledge transfer did not succeed but rather that it succeeded all too well, just not in the way it was intended.  Indeed one could say knowledge transfer was more pioneering than even its own pretensions to entrepreneurship.  The real knowledge transfer from the university to the private sector has been the transfer of the management of knowledge itself.  The university’s gift to society in the last thirty years has been as the laboratory for knowledge management itself, and as the factory for the production of a subsequent ‘research active’ subjectivity.   Not any particular piece of knowledge property, but the way to manage all knowledge, this is what the university has been transferring all too successfully.
As the private sector has come to discover the potential wealth in commodities that produce and extend attention, mood, communication, social relations, and opinion, the one commodity key to this production, commodity-labour, has increasingly yielded its secrets to that sector.  Not only has this commodity-labour been trained in the university to do so, to be research active, in the most degraded sense of research as the mining of oneself and others for instrumental purposes, as in the research assessment exercise in the UK, but the university has experimented not just with the production but also the management of such subjectivities.  Those experiments form the basis of the structure of today’s private knowledge management firms.  Marketing firms, software firms, media firms, creative industries firms resemble nothing so much in the way they operate today as university departments, full of peer review, mentoring, collaboration, experiment, and crucially the bringing of all life into work, so familiar to the academic like no else except perhaps the artist, as Andrew Ross has well noted in his revealing book No Collar.
From Statistical Populations to Logistical Populations
But this is not the end of the story, because if this real knowledge transfer was indeed so successful, why the change to social and economic impact?  Of course there is no direct answer to this, but I would suggest it is symptomatic of a change in the universities, indeed a change in research itself under capitalism.  The research park is dying, its armed response teams, its manicured lawns, and its protection of intellectual property rights behind reflective glass will not save it.  Capital is not going to pay for all this any more, even indirectly through the state, nor does it need to.  Capital is following research out into its new dispersed forms, its forms before and after intellectual property rights, and particularly and most importantly into its human form, where the investment is not in glass buildings and spraying ponds, but only in the upkeep of body and mind.  And that upkeep, as Christian Marazzi puts it, is now the responsibility of the labour-power housed within it.  So much cheaper, and so much more effective, as even popular concepts like ‘wikinomics’ hint, this new form of research and development occurs in ‘communities’ of people who work together out of a shared passion.  Sound familiar?  It ought to, and by the way it is very post-disciplinary, in both senses of the word.  The self-motivated, self-organized teams of researchers populating this landscape starting everything from slow food movements to free software movements to new music scenes are today the generators of innovation ‘harvested’ by business.  Pick up any business magazine and this ‘open innovation’ will be featured.  And although this style of working together to invent new knowledge might have been pioneered, incubated we might say, in university departments, it may be bad news for them, and not just because this way of working cannot be rented out.  The massive disinvestment undertaken by governments in Europe and North America occurs not just at the behest of bond markets, but with the acquiescence of capital as whole.  Everyone in business and government is betting they can get their research for free in these communities of practice, the very communities whose spirit owes so much not just to the university at its best, but to the history of the Left, a history of mutual aid, shared property, and egalitarianism.
But here’s the final thing.  The university is not passive in this process.  It is still ‘innovating.’  No longer a place producing experts suitable to what Foucault would understand as a set of statistically organized populations, today the university produces what I would call experts for a logistical population, experts in logistics not statistics.  And here the important new work of Ned Rossiter, Brett Neilson and their Transit Labour research group is itself pioneering.  Business, and government, are no longer a matter of productivity through statistical variation, or at least not this alone, but about making different things fit together, things that look like they would not fit, and making them fit faster, and in more directions.  If statistics produced a population engaged in explorations of more and more relative surplus value, finer and finer ways to achieve productivity or public policy, depending on its application, logistics explores absolute surplus value.  Logistical populations extend themselves absolutely by breaking through statistical categories and making connections, between life and work, public and private, political and economic, and organic and inorganic.  Logistics is the work of extending circuits through new adaptions, translations, governances, scales, and approximations.
And a new logistical subjectivity is being produced in the university in keeping with this dispersed and in some sense humanized form of R&D.  This is a logistical subjectivity that mines information for compatibility, one that can plug itself in anywhere, without an adapter, as the laboring conduit between disparate forms of information, goods, cultures, languages, finances and affinities.  This logistic subjectivity is the one we talk about when we talk about our teaching, when we say it is not the content of the play or poem or ethnography we are teaching that transfers skills to the student, but some general capacity to move between such contents, connecting them in a process of lifelong learning.  What is the distance between what we say and what we mean here?  Is our work not something like this connecting?  Have we become only logistical experts ourselves?

I don’t think so.  Just try to study in the university today.  Study – as what Fred Moten and I understand as that permanently immature premature activity of collective thought without (an) end – is almost impossible in the university.  The university wants us to come to a decision, an answer, a model, a theory, a policy.  It wants to measure results.  It wants deliverables.  It wants us plugged in to the circuits.  It wants to do logistics.  But study unplugs, unplugs and yet remains in touch.  Connects by disconnecting, in a dialectical irony CLR James, who exhorted us to only connect, would surely relish.  We can still do this in the university through study, by disconnecting, drawing attention to the difficulty, care, and undecidability of connection, by dragging connection down with us into the undercommons of the university.  In the undercommons where many of us cannot not study, we find something incommensurate, untranslatable, something that sticks, causes friction, does not easily give itself up, something that stays common, that cannot be operationalized.  In the face of logisitical dispositifs, study does not work, does not connect.  This kind of connection that does not connect in study may seem a fragile alternative, a local one in the face of the global, but measured by the statistical and now logistical resistances of state and capital deployed against it, it hardly seems fragile at all.  Indeed its real impact may be precisely what the knowledge transfer and social and economic impact measurements are designed to regulate.

Stefano Harney teaches in the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary’s, University of London in the UK.

Source: http://www.socialtextjournal.org/periscope/2010/08/the-real-knowledge-transfer.php

What’s in a strike?

29 Jun

On Thursday 30 June (J30), lecturers in Leeds will go on strike to defend against attacks on their pensions. They will be joined by 750,000 other teachers, school students and public sector workers across the country.

The strike is one arm of resistance. Although the official premise is pensions, J30 is also part of a wider fight-back against government cuts and the unfolding assault against universities, social housing, healthcare, museums, swimming pools, public toilets, domestic violence shelters and all areas of social life.

Guest ROU blog post over at New Internationalist: http://www.newint.org/blog/2011/06/29/britain-strikes-30-june/

Statement in relation to the outlawing of the Copenhagen Free University: All power to the free universities of the future

29 Jun

All power to the free universities of the future

The Copenhagen Free University was an attempt to reinvigorate the emancipatory aspect of research and learning, in the midst of an ongoing economisation of all knowledge production in society. Seeing how education and research were being subsumed into an industry structured by a corporate way of thinking, we intended to bring the idea of the university back to life. By life, we mean the messy life people live within the contradictions of capitalism. We wanted to reconnect knowledge production, learning and skill sharing to the everyday within a self-organised institutional framework of a free university. Our intention was multi-layered and was of course partly utopian, but also practical and experimental. We turned our flat in Copenhagen into a university by the very simple act of declaring ‘this is a university’. By this transformative speech act the domestic setting of our flat became a university. It didn’t take any alterations to the architecture other than the small things needed in terms of having people in your home staying over, presenting thoughts, researching archival material, screening films, presenting documents and works of art. Our home became a public institution dedicated to the production process of communal knowledge and fluctuating desires.

The ethos of the CFU was critical and opinionated about the ideological nature of knowledge, which meant that we did not try to cover the institution in a cloud of dispassionate neutrality and transcendence as universities traditionally do. The Copenhagen Free University became a site of socialised and politicised research, developing knowledge and debate around certain fields of social practice. During its six years of existence, the CFU entered into five fields of research: feminist organisation, art and economy, escape subjectivity, television/media activism and art history. The projects were initiated with the experience of the normative nature of mainstream knowledge production and research, allowing us to see how certain areas of critical practice were being excluded. Since we didn’t wanted to replicate the structure of the formal universities, the way we developed the research was based on open calls to people who found interest in our fields or interest in our perspective on knowledge production. Slowly the research projects were collectively constructed through the display of material, presentations, meetings, and spending time together. The nature of the process was sharing and mutual empowerment, not focusing on a final product or paper, but rather on the process of communisation and redistribution of facts and feelings. Parallel to the development of the CFU, we started to see self-organised universities sprouting up everywhere. Over this time, the basic question we were constantly asking ourselves was, what kind of university do we need in relation to our everyday? This question could only be answered in the concrete material conditions of our lives. The multiplicity of self-organised universities that were starting in various places, and which took all kinds of structures and directions, reflected the diversity of these material conditions. This showed that the neoliberal university model was only one model among many models; the only one given as a model to the students of capital.

As the strategy of self-institution focused on taking power and not accepting the dualism between the mainstream and the alternative, this in itself carried some contradictions. The CFU had for us become a too fixed identifier of a certain discourse relating to emancipatory education within academia and the art scene. Thus we decided to shut down the CFU in the winter of 2007 as a way of withdrawing the CFU from the landscape. We did this with the statement ‘We Have Won’ and shut the door of the CFU just before the New Year. During the six years of the CFU’s existence, the knowledge economy had rapidly, and aggressively, become the norm around us in Copenhagen and in northern Europe. The rise of social networking, lifestyle and intellectual property as engines of valorisation meant that the knowledge economy was expanding into the tiniest pores of our lives and social relations. The state had turned to a wholesale privatisation of former public educational institutions, converting them into mines of raw material for industry in the shape of ideas, desires and human beings. But this normalising process was somehow not powerful enough to silence all forms of critique and dissent; other measures were required.

In December 2010 we received a formal letter from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation telling us that a new law had passed in the parliament that outlawed the existence of the Copenhagen Free University together with all other self-organised and free universities. The letter stated that they were fully aware of the fact that we do not exist any more, but just to make sure they wished to notify us that “In case the Copenhagen Free University should resume its educational activities it would be included under the prohibition in the university law §33”. In 2010 the university law in Denmark was changed, and the term ‘university’ could only be used by institutions authorised by the state. We were told that this was to protect ‘the students from being disappointed’. As we know numerous people who are disappointed by the structural changes to the educational sector in recent years, we have decided to contest this new clampdown by opening a new free university in Copenhagen. This forms part of our insistence that the emancipatory perspective of education should still be on the map. We demand the law be scrapped or altered, allowing self-organised and free universities to be a part of a critical debate around the production of knowledge now and in the society of the future.

We call for everybody to establish their own free universities in their homes or in the workplace, in the square or in the wilderness. All power to the free universities of the future.

The Free U Resistance Committee of June 18 2011.