Over the course of the last several decades the view that states in the advanced capitalist world could be meaningfully challenged (and perhaps even taken over) by organized segments of their own populations has come to seen as far-fetched in the extreme. According to Neil Smith (2009: 51), the plausibility of revolutionary transformation has not only slipped out of political fashion, it has been banished to the “infinite horizon of never-never land.” If the university was once a hotbed of revolutionary ambition, it too seems to have suffered the same fate as the broader culture. To many of our generation (in diapers as Margaret Thatcher announced that there would no longer be any alternative) the revolutionary upheavals of 1968 seem an impossible fairy tale. That students were at the fore of a movement that brought the French state to the brink of collapse, for example, is almost unimaginable to those of us who came of age during “the plagues of Reagan and Bush” (to borrow a phrase from Ani Difranco). I studied at institutions that were ignited by the energy of anti-globalization agitation but students were never the driving force behind those movements. North American campuses were a key source of the thousands of foot soldiers that struggled in Seattle or Quebec City but much of the critical organizing was done by networks and organizations that had no explicit links to university communities. I think it is fair to say that over the course of the last the four decades Anglo-American universities have ceased to be generative hubs of radical agitation. Of course, I am not suggesting that the university is somehow outside of the broader political economy and therefore should be expected to be a key source of challenge to the status quo. But neither do we want to dismiss that universities remain institutions where a certain amount of experimentation is still possible, where some opportunities to enter into engagements that are “discontinuous with the universalizing telos of capital” (Meyerhoff et al 2011: 484-85) still may exist.
In recent months, there have been signs that the Anglo-American university’s long winter of political inertia may moving towards a thaw. Recent eruptions in places where meaningful confrontations seemed unimaginable only a few years ago have restored some of our optimism about university-centered politics. The impressive mobilizations that engulfed campuses across the University of California system in September of 2009 offer one example of what I mean. There, students, faculty, and campus workers responded to dramatic tuition fee hikes and employee lay-offs with a coordinated fightback that brought demonstrations and occupations to campuses up and down the Californian coast, from Los Angeles to Berkeley, from Santa Cruz to Fullerton. More recently, the wave of agitation that has shaken the United Kingdom seems to offer even more evidence that universities are once again becoming key sites of opposition. Last November’s large and dramatic protests demonstrated an impressive will to confront the ConDem coalition’s austerity program in general and its proposal to treble tuition fees in particular.
This paper starts from the premise that “we are the people we have been waiting for”
Yet while I am heartened by the potency of these and other mobilizations it is critical to remind ourselves that they have all been defensive efforts to preserve the status quo in the face of bold new incursions from the right. And while I recognize that these are critical campaigns my intention here is to look away from strictly preservationist efforts and examine a few struggles aimed at transforming particular aspects of the university. To be clear, I am not interested in drawing a surgical line between “defensive” and “offensive” battles as if the two were not always already linked. I recognize the paramount importance of fighting back when we are attacked. But I also think it is useful to highlight some of the ways that people inside the university have been able to carve out new kinds of autonomy. Neoliberalization is a process that works in and through already inherited political traditions (Theodore and Brenner 2002) and I believe that some of the key forms of resistance to that process will also work through already existing forms.
I have been very interested in ongoing debates about what an “autonomous” university could look like and the kinds of strategies that particular groups and individuals have taken up in efforts to forge actually existing autonomies within increasingly neoliberalized institutions. This paper starts from the premise that “we are the people we have been waiting for” and seeks to highlight a few areas in which university-based activists have begun to fight back. In what follows I highlight three such strategies in an effort to show how they might be prefigurative of an autonomous university to come. While each one is certainly limited in its disruptive capacity and — on its own — poses no serious threat to the existing order of things, it seems that taken together — along with other forms of struggle and dissent — broader kinds of reclamation might yet become possible. I offer these examples not to privilege them above others but simply to highlight three nodes in what I hope will become a broader circulation of struggles within the university. With this in mind, I begin by looking at new forms of assembly that have emerged as efforts to challenge the top-down governance structures of our universities. Next I look at how “militant” research strategies have been engaged as new ways to radicalize the production of knowledge. Finally, I highlight some of the efforts that have been made to wrest academic knowledge production from the hands of corporate publishers. Our discussion begins with a brief gloss on the lay of the land (what I am calling the “brave new world of higher education”) and a quick explanation of how I am using the notion of a “circulation of struggles.”
The Brave New World of Higher Education
The university, like most public institutions, has been profoundly reconfigured by the creative destruction of neoliberalization. The roll-back (Peck and Tickell) of stable state funding for public universities has been accompanied by a roll-out of skyrocketing fees for access, a new emphasis on public/private cooperation schemes and an instrumentalizaiton of curricula, all administered by an increasingly contingent work force. This reconfiguration of higher education has been marked by what the Edufactory Collective has called the “Double Crisis”. By this, they mean the acceleration of the crisis specific to the university — that which results from outdate disciplinary divisions and funding models, its “eroded epistemological status”8 — and the crisis of post-Fordist conditions of labour and value — the commodification of knowledge and the immeasurability of this knowledge. These crises and the subsumption of the university to capital signifies the decisive end of the New Deal for Education, the blurring of distinctions between a private and a public institution, and the opening of universities as the site of the imposition of austerity and control over academic workers — students, faculty, and the precariously employed. In fact, as Marc Bousquet has argued, the university has become the paradigmatic site for new instantiations of capital, the “leading innovator in the production and engineering of lousy forms of employment that have gutted the global economy”2. The university is “a laboratory for the ‘capture’ of value, or what it refers to as ‘human, social, and cultural capital’”2.
But simultaneously the university is also a powerful laboratory for experiments that will shape not only struggles around higher education, knowledge and academic freedom, but will also forge new alliances between students and labour. The university is the cookshop of future, broad-based movements that challenge not just capital’s imposition on the instruments of higher learning, but capital’s imposition on every facet of the social realm. In fact, as Caffentzis has suggested elsewhere, student movements as they have arisen can be seen as the main arm of anti-austerity struggles, and the strongest response to the global economic crisis — Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding. But, how these struggles — and the three proposals we will bring forward to circulate these struggles — will in fact circulate in and through the university requires a brief elaboration on the concept of “circulation of struggles”.
This concept comes out of the Operaist or Autonomist tradition, developed out of a class struggle reading of Marx’s circuit of capital from Volume Two of his tome, Capital. Capitalism, Marx noted, as a system for the accumulation of surplus value, operates on a circuit. Capital transubstantiates from commodity into money which commands the acquisitions of further resources to be transformed into more commodities. The circuit is expressed as M — C…P…C’ — M’. Money (M) is used to purchase commodities (C) labour, machinery and raw materials, that are thrown into production (P) to create new commodities (C’) that are sold for more money (M’). Part of that — the prime in M’, is retained as profit and part of it is used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities94. As Nick Dyer-Witheford says of this process — one then rinses and repeats. This is the circulation of capital. It is self-generating, auto-catalytic, a “constantly revolving circle in which every point is simultaneously one of departure and return”7.
We are to think, here, of a rotating sphere that is not only accelerating in velocity as it speeds through the circulatory processes but is expanding in diameter as it fills more and more social and geographic space. This is the image of global capital, and the university is not outside this sphere. It is in it, and in fact, as Edu-Factory and others argue, it has become fundamental to the speed and expansion of this sphere. But the circulation of capital is also the circulation of struggle, as Harry Cleaver and Peter Bell pointed out5, shining lights on the fissures that appear at every node, at every moment in the circulation of capital; each space between a letter (the dash between M and C, the dots between C and P) indicate that the “circulation process is interrupted”9 and provide possible moments of breakdown. This counter-circulation, the circulation of struggles, is the way Cleaver and Bell suggest we can begin to see the circuit of capital operationalised as resistance.
Though abstracted from a direct relationship to the circulation of capital, there is a true sense of circulation of struggle at work here.
As a very brief example: the attempt to purchase the commodity labour (M-C) could be interrupted by struggles over the dispossession of populations from the land necessary to create disposed proletarians; the moment of production can be interrupted by workplace resistances whether in the form of organised strikes or more subtle activities. The conversion of commodities to money (C-M) can be interrupted by theft, by weak markets, by public appropriation. When struggle erupts at one flashpoint there is, due to capital’s circulatory nature, the possibility of these struggles igniting other struggles elsewhere in the circuit. This de-centred the classical Marxist focus on the immediate point of production, without relinquishing entirely the concept of anti-capitalist struggle — and rather expanding it. It opens up struggle into a wider orbit, potentially offering the interlinking of struggles and the development of the thus far imperfectly theorised multitude. It helps to think, for a moment here, of the circulation of struggles happening right now across the world, ignited perhaps by the resistances in North Africa, Greece, the UK, Wisconsin and now from Wall Street to 200 towns across the US and Canada. Though abstracted from a direct relationship to the circulation of capital, there is a true sense of circulation of struggle at work here.
The New Assemblies
So, our first proposal for the prefiguring of the autonomous university fits along this circuit, and seeks to give structure to this multitude and a location for the beginnings of resistance to the top-down bureaucratic administration of the university. This structure is that of the assembly, which is a different proposition than creating a union, either of staff, faculty or of students. The majority of the problems we encounter within the university are the same as those experienced in any other workplace — they stem from the fact that we sell our labour power to the university. A contribution to changing these problems would result from changes in the balance of power in the workplace. In order to radically alter the balance of power an organisation is required which seeks to exercise power in the workplace, and against that workplace, against the processes of valorisation that mark it. So, instead of attempting to evacuate the contemporary university to create an alternative, the autonomous university, from without but which creates the same use values just not on the same economic model, the assembly seeks to exert power over the existing institution, and to change it fundamentally, making the autonomous university from within. We propose the “assembly” as the form which these organised resistances to the existent balance of power would take.
Assemblies have become key, of late, in the organisation of movements around the globe. Used from Greece to Spain, Egypt to Wisconsin and here in New York, the assembly provides a space for collective decision making, a horizontality that simultaneously is the creation of structure. A precedent for the current rise in assembly-politics does exist: there have been organisational forms which, in their very construction, resist the top-down politicking of parties, vanguards and parliamentarianism. In particular, Spain in the late 1970s saw the rise of a workers’ assembly movement which described itself as the “independent manifestation of the proletariat”1 and served as a physical confirmation of the class struggle in that country. The assembly is a process of self-education and expansion, but does away with the pure spontaneity and structurelessness that has marked previous attempts at horizontality.
The University of Toronto General Assembly offers us an example of this resistance to — and confrontation with — the neoliberal university. Formed in the fall of 2010, the General Assembly is made up of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members targeting the corporatised and undemocratic governance structures within the institution, and pushes back against those structures, attempting to rebuild and restructure the university as an autonomous space from within.
Following the example of many European university actions, the Assembly membership is broad and inclusive, having undergraduates, food service workers, clerical staff, as well as the requisite graduate students and faculty as active members. All attendees at the assembly meetings are able to vote on motions, and all become stakeholders in the project for the radical transformation of the university, specifically, but for the transformation of our understanding of education, knowledge, and labour practices more broadly. The specific focus of the U of T GA is centred around an anti-corporatisation campaign, but the work extends to accountability and governance issues, international solidarity and student-worker solidarity.
The membership of the General Assembly are the “human know-how” that permits the university to operate, and the specialised knowledge they possess also permits them to resist. Their particular position here is used to agitate against the particular imposition of capital into universities and raises the question as to the limits to capitalist expansion, and the possibility and imaginings of a post-capitalist future.
The formation of the U of T General Assembly can be seen as a confrontation with cognitive capitalism by those who make their living instantiating knowledge. The impetus for the Assembly was the examination of the deal the University of Toronto has made with Peter Munk, owner of Barrick Gold mining company, who will have an entire school — The Munk School of Global Affairs — created in his name. The Assembly agitates against the funding — specifically against the provisions in the funding which give a great deal of decision making power to the Munk board around curriculum and learning outcomes. In fact, “the school’s director will be required to report annually to a board appointed by Munk to ‘discuss the programmes, activities and intiatives of the School in greater detail’” — but also this project attempts to connect broadly the undemocratic nature of capitalist expropriation of resources and the outsourcing of misery for private profit and gain. The assembly-form, in this specific instance, but also in general, offers a body to the resistance, and creates pressure on one of the key nodes in the circulation of capital through the university — the transformation of Money into the Commodity of education. Through its democratic format we can begin to see how one could administer the autonomous university — with collective decision-making power placed in the hands of those most involved in the existence of the university itself.
Militant Research Strategies
Conricerca is itself a practice of intellectual production that does not accept a distinction between active researcher and passive research subject.
The work of the U of T General Assembly in exposing, building community and subjectivities around the Munk deal can be seen as another way to circulate the struggles of the University, we proffer this as the second tool for the prefiguring of the autonomous university — what has been called variously, militant research and co-research or, in Italian, conricerca. Both grow out of the long history of “inquiries” as developed by both Marx and Engels in the 19th C. Militant research and conricerca differ slightly, but both see themeslves not simply as research but as political action. Conricerca (or co-research) was developed in Italy in the 1960s mostly by Romano Alquati and the young activists writing in the militant journals Quaderno Rossi and Classe Operai, and sought to understand the struggles of factory workers and students not as sociological knowledge, but as a political tool for the expansion and circulation of struggle. Conricerca is itself a practice of intellectual production that does not accept a distinction between active researcher and passive research subject. The con- or “co” is meant to “question the borders between the production of knowledge and political subjectivity”11 or, simply, to create a productive cooperation that transforms both parties into active participants in producing knowledge and in transforming themselves. More than anything, conricerca is a political methodology; it is the methodology of a constituitive breach11.
Militant research is similarly, according to the Spanish women’s group Precarias a la Deriva (Precarious Women Adrift), “a process of our own capacity of worlds-making which … questions, problematises and pushes the real through a series of concrete procedures”.12 It is “research carried out with the aim of producing knowledge useful for militant or activist ends” (Van Meter, 2009). Both conricerca and militant research provide one with a set of tools — concepts, techniques, mechanisms — that “contribute to existing frameworks in radical movements by adding research components and by taking a direct role in producing knowlelge and strategies that resonate with movement campaigns, organisations and initiatives”.13 Like Autonomist theory generally, it is a focus on struggle from the perspective of struggle and as such provides opportunities for communication within and between movements thus widening the field of struggle. For example, the U of T Assembly has opened up and connected previously disparate groups — bringing into communication those concerned with the strangulation of the humanities, those concerned with the increasing corporatisation of science and technology research, those concerned with labour issues within the university and those concerned with mining issues half a world away.
In this way, academics have — immanent to their daily work lives — the tools needed to transform institutions and to accelerate the generation of a more autonomous university. The university is, itself, a political organisation, it connects people and creates connectivities between people. Militant research from within the university can push these new collectivities connected in the institution to develp new practices — both educational and political, outside of the university. Militant researchers — a proliferation of them within faculties and departments especially — can begin the arduous task of delinking research and knowledge production from the power relations that currently define the academy and capitalism. Militant or co-research can aid in understanding the extent to which capitalism subsumes the common sphere of knowledge. This is important, as it “provides a language that helps make visible and politically problematic the progressive encroachment of circuits of capitalist accumulation into more and more areas of social life and the parallel movement of externalising more and more all the risks of entrepreneurial activity to workers (through flexibilisation and precarisation) and to living beings as such (through negative externalities such as environmental degradation)”.10
As noted, militant research uses already existing capacities and it built into the organisation of the university, but its fundamental presupposition is to do and be more. But it must be said that while I — as an academic invested in the university — am not reducible to my institutional relations or positions, I cannot ignore the fact that my institutional affiliations introduce certain problematic biases or practices into my work. As it currently exists, the university is not entirely compatible with a programme of militant research and because of this incompatibility our first faltering steps at radicalising and making larger militant research endeavours may fail. Accepting this and then recognising that, if we are committed to a project of transforming and creating the autonomous university we must continue to push at the borders of this incompatibility until we can collectively — as newly produced knowledge subjects — break through them. This is not a problem unique to our endeavour in the university — any worker who attempts to make of their waged labour something other than the pure production of surplus value will come up against these incompatibilities. Working through them is the only way forward.
Liberating our Knowledge
Finally, the third proposal for the autonomous university to come: I am also optimistic about the capacity of academic radicals to pose robust challenges to the property regimes that enclose, capture and sell the work that we produce. I am encouraged by recent attempts to take on the corporate giants that now control the vast majority of academic journals. Their exorbitantly expensive (and therefore decidedly prohibitive) pay-per-use fee structures profoundly limit the kinds of publics that are able to access this work. Today, universities and other (often public) institutions find themselves in the paradoxical position of both paying for the production of academic work only to turn around and buy it back from the corporate publishing houses that print it. Thus under conventional publishing models, our universities are “required to pay for the research costs, associated salaries of researchers as well as subscriptions to the journals where this is ultimately published, while also often signing away the control of these publications.”3 Given the absurdity of this scheme, it is encouraging to see that some journals have begun to try and make their exit from this particular racket. I think that the self-conscious efforts of relatively new journals like Human Geography — a new journal put together by radical geographers and available for a small fee on the web — and Feminists@Law to exit this standard arrangement — either through publishing the work independently or by offering articles through an online open-access format — demonstrate laudable commitment to scholarship that challenges capitalist hegemony in both content and form. The capacity of particular journals to begin to make this kind of exit is, of course, almost entirely contingent on particular kinds of technological innovation that have made publishing itself relatively user-friendly and allow papers to be circulated without the prohibitive cost of actually printing them.
Nevertheless, there are a number of significant barriers that make the move away from corporate publishing challenging. I’d like to highlight two in particular. The first is that the work of publishing a journal is — even in spite of the above-mentioned user-friendliness of contemporary publishing programs — an enormous undertaking. I have been involved in the production of a bi-annual academic/activist journal over the last few years (Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action) and have learned first hand the staggering number of labour hours required to put it together. Even with an editorial board of close to ten individuals — each working on the project for roughly ten hours a week in addition to attending at least one evening meeting — we routinely only barely manage to pull together the final product before deadline (usually through herculean last minute efforts). My point is that the production of even the most basic of journals requires an enormous range of invisible tasks — from solicitation of material, to organizing writers and reviewers, to the final stages of production, and so on.
As we cannot escape — there is no outside to the capitalist paradigm — we must struggle work within in capital for its eventual overthrow.
The second is that — whether we like or not — academic employment is still largely contingent on publishing in venues that are recognized as legitimate. So while our solidarities may lie with a given independently produced or open access journal, the reality is that our livelihoods may well force us to pass them up in favour of recognized “leaders” in the field. How does this get us closer to the autonomous university then? I think that both of these problems could be substantially mitigated if a number (initially just a few) of well established journals were the first to terminate their relationships with corporate publishers. There are a number of well-established journals with strong disciplinary reputations that could well be sympathetic to these kinds of arguments. We might be able to make significant headway by encouraging the editorial leadership of sympathetic journals to lead to take a new direction when their agreements with corporate publishers come to a close. The exit of these established journals could begin to open space for others to follow suit. But the question of infrastructure remains a central one. In order for this challenge to be met, new networks might need to be established. Here, we might imagine groups of journals coming together to build centralized production houses, design templates, etc. They might also be able to use their institutional leverage to re-imagine and remake how information is distributed. Universities, for example, might be convinced that their resources are better used housing particular journals — covering the costs of basic production — than simply paying a corporate publisher to access them.
These three proposals simply sketch the beginnings of what could make up the autonomous university. To be certain, they may at first blush appear to be reformist changes, tweakings of the already existing relationships at play within the contemporary university, but I hold that these changes are the necessary ones that can prefigure the autonomous university to come. As we cannot escape — there is no outside to the capitalist paradigm — we must struggle work within in capital for its eventual overthrow. The practices that I propose here — and I am always thinking about and working on more — are all experiments in how the autonomous university could be, how we can make it together. I encourage our friends and comrades and teachers and students to take seriously these proposals and begin the creation of the autonomous university from where you are, from within, right now.
Without the creativity, insight, ideas, and impetus of David Hugill this piece would never have been written. He deserves more than an acknowledgment, but for now it will suffice.
Bousquet, Marc. “After Cultural Capitalism.” Edu-Factory WebJournal Zero Issue, January, 2010. ↩
Carys, Craig J. And Joseph F. Turcotte, with Rosemary J. Coombe. “What’s Feminist about Open Access? A Relational Approach to Copyright in the Academy” Feminists@Law Vol 1, No 1, 2011. ↩
Cleaver, Harry. Reading Capital Politically. University of Texas Press, Austin: 1979. ↩
Cleaver, Harry and Peter Bell. “Marx’s Theory of Crisis as a Theory of Class Struggle” in The Commoner. No. 5, Autumn, 2002. ↩
DiFranco, Ani. “Your Next Bold Move” on Revelling/Reckoning. Righteous Babe Music, New York: 2001. ↩
Edufactory Collective. “The Double Crisis: Living on the Borders.” EduFactory WebJournal Zero Issue, January, 2010. ↩
Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 2. Penguin Books, New York: 1978. ↩
Nunes, Rodrigo. “Forward how? Forward Where?: Post Operaismo Beyond the Immaterial Labour Thesis” in Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation. 7(1), 2007. ↩
Van Meter, Kevin and Team Colors Collective. “Workshop: What is Militant Research?“. Workshop “Theory, Territory, and Targetting: Research for Movements” as part of the Portland Anarchist Book Fair, June 2009. ↩
Élise Thorburn is an activist and PhD Candidate based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Article CC-BY-NC-SA Main photo Rachel Eisley © 2011