Actually Existing Autonomy

... and the Brave New World of Higher Education

u'\xa9' Main photo Rachel Eisley © 2011

By Elise Thorburn, January 2012

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.


  1. Amoros, Miguel. “Re­port on the As­sembly Move­ment” (1984). Up­loaded June 2011. 

  2. Bousquet, Marc. “After Cul­tur­al Cap­it­al­ism.” Edu-Fact­ory Web­Journ­al Zero Is­sue, Janu­ary, 2010. 

  3. 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. 

  4. Cleav­er, Harry. Read­ing Cap­it­al Polit­ic­ally. Uni­versity of Texas Press, Aus­tin: 1979. 

  5. Cleav­er, Harry and Peter Bell. “Marx’s The­ory of Crisis as a The­ory of Class Struggle” in The Com­mon­er. No. 5, Au­tumn, 2002. 

  6. Di­Franco, Ani. “Your Next Bold Move” on Rev­el­ling/Reck­on­ing. Right­eous Babe Mu­sic, New York: 2001. 

  7. Dyer-Witheford, Nick. The Cir­cu­la­tion of the Com­mon. Talk for “Fu­ture of the Com­mons”, The Cir­cu­la­tion of the Com­mon series, Uni­versity of Min­nesota, Oc­to­ber 2009.  

  8. Ed­u­fact­ory Col­lect­ive. “The Double Crisis: Liv­ing on the Bor­ders.” Ed­u­Fact­ory Web­Journ­al Zero Is­sue, Janu­ary, 2010. 

  9. Marx, Karl. Cap­it­al, Volume 2. Pen­guin Books, New York: 1978. 

  10. Nunes, Rodrigo. “For­ward how? For­ward Where?: Post Op­era­ismo Bey­ond the Im­ma­ter­i­al La­bour Thes­is” in Eph­em­era: The­ory and Polit­ics in Or­gan­isa­tion. 7(1), 2007. 

  11. Rog­gero, Gigi. “Op­era­ist Free­dom” on Minor Com­pos­i­tions web­site. 

  12. Van Meter, Kev­in and Team Col­ors Col­lect­ive, “What is Mil­it­ant Re­search?“, 2008.  

  13. 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