[Meant to put this up ages ago, after finishing the second half, but that is going so slow this just needs to be tucked away here out of sight (! – some of the phrasings of sentences used on this blog already have been quoted back to me recently in forums that, well, were a surprise)]
In a period of little over thirty years, higher education has ventured quite some distance from the old collegiate hierarchical system of privilege, scholarship and esoteric research. It has transformed, by way of Government policy, market demand, commercial opportunity and participant compliance into something quite unrecognizable. A global education industry, intertwined with business and investment, productivity targets, enterprise and creative accounting. Transactional rather than vocational, career rather than idea, commission rather than mission, we have seen the exchange of the old gown for the negotiated compact and a bottom-dollar traffic in interested investigation (e.g., product trials). Speculative education has replaced the old and frankly moribund idea of speculation as such.
There is nothing redemptive in harking back to the old ways. But it is unseemly that the privatized educational system of today has turned teachers into vendors, students into shoppers, researchers into hired mercenaries and senior colleagues into grotesque parodies of corporate greed. Too often otherwise admirable scholars become shiny-suited administrators, hawking student numbers and research contracts around as if they were baubles of divine election and not merely the last dusty job-lots of a faded glory now peddled out at cut price – everything must go! – discount rates for a shop-soiled emporium of decay.
How did it happen that an aspiration for education for all turned so quickly into a market fluctuation? The privatizating and commercial imperative shaping curriculum and content was not born fully formed in the current period, but has been a long time coming. Indeed, the history of the classroom could be construed as a struggle over just this. From the early efforts of the Factory Inspectors – Leonard Horner – and the imperative to school the great unwashed, all the better to fit them to machines – through to the idea of education as a vast instrument for class mobility, widening participation and access to employment – itself a mixed fortune.
In capital, volume one, chapter ten, Marx narrates a class struggle that continually impinges upon the question of education, though fittingly, the site of the action is the factory. The Factory Acts, of 1933, 1844, 1847, 1850 etc., were in effect an effort of the factory owners lobby to mitigate, undermine and evade the constraints imposed by a concerned, if ill-informed, philanthropic tendency in parliament. The Factory Inspectors, such as Leonard Horner, reported upon the conditions in the factories where children worked, sometimes 12 and more hours per day, and it is instructive to consider the elaborate machinations employed by the factory owners to circumvent requirements that these children receive a modicum of schooling. Two hours per week in the first instance (1833 Factory Act). Among the quaint lobbying practices the owners extended to the inspectors as they made their way to inspect the factories were invitations to dinners, visits to country club and horse gymkhanas, the comfort of suitable lodgings, and suitable carriage to the said inspections, including eminently helpful factory guides and fulsome explanations of any anomalies and answers to questions (Horner, Diary).
It then should be noted with no little irony that in the university today, and indeed throughout the education system, the descendents of the Factory Inspectors are guided just as much by the care with which managers attend to questions of presentation, access and quality assurance in a new era of evaluation. Aside from the media event that is an OffStead visit, in effect a form-filling excursive, and the Quality unit of the Department of Business Innovation and Sport, with Universities governed under the same budget lines as commerce and the Olympics, we are not dealing with inspections as such, so much as reports and tabulations – drawn up according to the new guidance whereby Government turns education into a vast factory-like programme, with productivity gains and training regimes of course factored in, and with global reach.
Maybe it makes sense to reflect, in the quiet aftermath of a period of activity, in order to gear up again for more, necessarily thinking this never stops, that the to and fro alternation of theory and praxis is never only rhetorical.
The protest at Millbank in 2010 was both organised and a surprise because it exceeded an official NUS-declared ‘end’ of the rally. The surprise was the palpable shared and active demonstration of intent that contagiously and somewhat spontaneously led thousands of protesters to the same end. Even if the Police also wanted to make a point about the erosion of their conditions under austerity, and so stepped back so as to underline by that withdrawal, the significance of their potential service as protectors of Capital.
Subsequent arrests were not as significant as the events – a raid on the headquarters of the ruling class party offices of course gathered world-wide attention – but less than ideal was the lack of support given to those arrested, and that as a response to austerity and education policy changes underway, this was all rather late.
In the December 2010 rallies, a massive success of mobilization and catching the mood of the nation. Significant positive media reportage in the run up to the rallies, though this turned towards a search for sensational images and descending into farce as the tactics of Police kettle and the staged sacrifice of a Police Van on Whitehall, and perhaps the Prince Consort and his ride in Regent Street were simply front page ‘splash’ journalism. On the one hand protesters learnt that a passive response to kettling at the beginning of the kettle was a trap, on the other hand multiple separate actions – University for Strategic Optimism, Precarious Workers Brigade etc – and groups leaving the rally to roam central London provoking multiple encounters did symbolically threaten and frighten those in charge of the Capital.
In the context of Tunisia and Egypt and the so-called Arab Spring, the March 2011 trades union called rally was too long in coming, and followed a predicted route, also for too long. That the anarcho bloc followed a visibly different route and tactic was impressive, and the proliferation of multiple groups and actions, despite co-ordination problems and sometimes lack of leadership or direction, including a foolhardy self-kettling media grab high-end shopping trip (Fortnum and Masons), meant that enthusiasm and attention were high. Much of this energy then took organisational form and coincided with a resurgence of zine and samizdat publications, citizen journalism and blog posts, public meetings and the like. The anti-cuts groups and the plethora of other campaigns and issues – libraries, interns, pensions – indicated a visible left culture ascending.
August 2011 – the culmination of the proceding year and undoubtedly London’s response to the counter-revolutionary machinations in Egypt, Libya, etc., and a co-ordination of concerns about policing, deaths in police custody (the death of Smiley Culture was also part of the story, as well as the immediate catalyst of the Tottenham uprising, the killing of Mark Duggan), bank bail-outs, austerity, youth unemployment, ruling class privilege, and the arid cultural alienation not mitigated by endless television talent shows and vacuous celebrity tittle-tattle. The media sensation of burning buses and police vehicles, followed by ‘opportunistic forms of aggressive late-night shopping, leading to a heavy-handed and last-ditch severe law and order crackdown, especially after the protests moved towards slightly more affluent suburbs on the third day, like Ealing, still requires discussion. Three days in August showed how fragile the bourgeois social compact was, and the clean-up broom teams in Clapham and the subsequent hand-writing of press pundits, as well as the excessively harsh sentencing of offenders for very minor crimes, have not eroded expectations that this fragile compact will crack again. Considerable effort by researchers (the Guardian/LSE) and institutional programmes, youth, social care, police liaison, council (inner city cleansing) and local government does not, with the evidence of a double-dip recession and ongoing austerity still in place, mitigate the expectation that things will kick of again soon.
Subsequent rallies saw the mobile kettle tactic keep apart the Occupy movement, the Sparks, and the Trades Union rally. An aggressive campaign of overpolicing and militarisation of London in the lead up to the Olympiss, means public dissent takes different forms. This builds upon the need for organisation and the effervescence of new political thinking and critical experiments, in the groups that formed around Arts Against Cuts, UfSO, Precarious/Carrot Workers collective, The Paper, Anonymous, The Indignatios, the flourishing zine and samizdat culture, and the significant inter-relation between the Occupy movement and critiques of its neglect of race in its 99% slogan. The efforts of astute protesters to plan in an alternative and longer frame – rejecting the lesser austerity of the Labour Party, the merely reactive anti-cuts tailism of the Trotskyite Left or the rejectionist grunge-fashion posturing of the Anarchists there is a renewed will to build a communist future for London, Britain or Europe. More than Occupy, more than Uncut, more than a defence of the now corporatized University, more than an anarchist t-shirt slogan, more than a newspaper-seller from hell, more than a conference on ideas or a guest-speaker series, more than the talking heads of Marx Reloaded, more than a moan about the precariousness of all wage labour, more than this rotten system and its corrupt leaders, its greedy pampered bankers, its degenerate and deviously biased newspaper magnates, its criminal tax-avoiding luxury-yacht, racehorse owning ‘captains’ of industry, its mining industry-funded pompous bastard monarchy, its endless dull spectacle of Beckham and Circuses, its broken, abject, pointless routine of surplus and the wrong sort of excess. Everyone agrees Another world must be built, and in the last years its architecture has been put in place – the political events of the last two years point the way.
The still slower work of reading to prepare and analysis is not to be dismissed as indulgence. There is no time for this now, the need to act is greater. Urgency, however, breeds contempt, half-cocked adventures that seem useful but end in recuperation, at best, reinforcing the repressive apparatus and defeat more often. A salutary reading of the Eighteenth Brumaire or Herr Vogt should temper any expectation that things were easy. If that were the case, by now word will have gotten round. It is no surprise that the ruling classes find organisation and mobilisation of their defences a matter of slow but deliberate decision. They have long practiced the forms at which their defence will proceed – from the manuals for counter insurgency – COIN – written to aid the military with ethnographic and sociological data, to the officer training schools that teach a total war against Islam scenario that entails the bombing of Mecca (May 10, 2012, Wired). In the institutions that replicate the class hierarchy, through to the military budgets that approve tanks, warships, ground-to-air missiles and global weapons sales, the platitudes of humanitarian tolerance pale into comedy when we consider just how far Capital will go to defend the privilege of its best of all possible worlds.
It is important to take analysis and organisation together, asking what are the current conditions and what are the possibilities? What are the composition of class forces and their relations? What are the tactically vulnerable points at which the analysis of forces might open up potentials. An assessment of conditions is necessarily framed alongside questions of capacity – of what is, and what is needed.
Repressive state apparatus and global militarism
– police power, terror war
– security state, governmental/control society
– global crisis, constant anxiety, volatility
– infotainment as news, reality TV, celebrity, comedy, talent shows, sports
– social network, capture of new media by corporates, privatisation
– alternative low budget and low impact blogosphere, zine, samizdat Lefts
– weapons industry, lords of death
– mining, climate, sweatshops,
– border control, labour flow management, ethnic cleansing
– education geared to national industry
– health in the lab-coat pocket of Big Pharma
– transport and communications infrastructure automatised, digitised.
The repressive Police power and terror anxiety maintained by constant station announcements, overt Police presence, anniversary security scares – another underpants bomb, May 2012 – requires channelling hostility to cuts and austerity measures to protect banks and capital. Focus upon salaries of executives and shareholder meetings as if these were forums of democracy. Those who don’t have shares vote by remote for Britain’s Got Talent. Meanwhile, deportations, institutional racism, general racism, anti-Muslim and reinforced blanched hierarchies of opportunity, despite, or even reinforced by, liberal sentimentality.
Media narrowcasting under threat by new platforms and possibilities engenders a massive effort to monetise and control, and corral, the social network, itself already at the start a military asset. The prospect of critical journalism undermined by the appearance of even-handed reportage. A focus on excessive bonuses or expenses obscures the inequity of any bonuses or expenses for millionaire entrepreneurs at all – the creation of a climate of unfocussed public disapproval carefully managed so as to avoid focus upon war, mining, pollution, class, race or violent crimes. In the universities, the pressure for academics, and by extension students, at least student activists, the SU and postgrads, to themselves become the malignant and parasitic managerial class is operative here. Becoming self-regulating means complicity in several modes. The university now demands managers to present as petty bourgeois shop keepers, marketing specious wares; or as entrepreneurial visionary explorers tasked with terra-firming new vistas of corporate training, consultancy and product placement; as public brand-uni sprukers of tele-genic ‘ideas’ and Verso-controversy coffee chat radical publishing… etc. Privatisation as a system wide strategy is not examined by the episodic and sectoral focus of both mainstream investigators – Offcom, Offstead etc are not the investigators we need, trades union sectoralism is insufficient. The malignancy here is an emergent but hollow expertise of those who are not just measurers – if all they did was bean-counting we might more readily discount their dodgy deals.