Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Universities for Bread & for Roses

by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS, 2010

On Thursday last week the South African Students’ Congress (SASCO) attempted to close down nine university campuses to add some punch to their demand for free education. They came closest to succeeding at the University of Johannesburg before the police drove them off a burning barricade with water cannons.

These sorts of actions against the commodification of university education have ebbed and flowed since the first days of our democracy. And they have been a regular part of university life across Africa since the World Bank decided, in the mid 1980s, that universities were an unaffordable luxury for Africa.

As the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa noted this was an active attempt by the Bank to exploit the debt crisis to reinscribe the colonial division of labour in which Africa’s role was to provide raw materials and labour to the North while the North, in turn, would do the thinking for Africa.

But what was unusual about last Thursday was that on the same day as SASCO mobilised across South Africa, students and academics organised across twenty-nine of the United States in a National Day of Action to Defend Education. Their occupations, road blockades, strikes and marches were in response to budget cuts resulting in fee increases, retrenchments, the closure of departments and courses and increasing class sizes.

This National Day of Action emerged out of the student movement that developed in California towards the end of last year, which has connections to earlier student occupations in Europe, especially in Austria and Greece. In Austria students occupied campuses in a demand for a reduction in fees and in rejection of education that was becoming reduced to job training. In Greece students have rebelled against both the commodification of education and the attempt to end the tradition of the university as a political sanctuary by allowing the police free access to the campuses.

The financial crisis has been the key factor in propelling students and academics in Europe and North America into the sort of direct conflict with the state that has characterised academic life across Africa since the mid 1980s. The cost of the bailout for the bankers’ private greed is being carried by the public with the result that governments are trying to extract money from society by cutting back social spending.

A number of the student movements that have arisen in response to cuts in social spending have moved beyond an attempt to defend the state from the predations of capital and have sought to challenge some of its political foundations.

In this regard, the Greek uprising of December 2008 is particularly notable for the way in which university struggles were linked to social struggles outside of the university, including those of people not recognised as citizens by the state. In England the ongoing protests against university commodification have included action against the complicity with immigration police by university managers. Something of this broader spirit of rebellion has entered the university struggles in the United States where students and junior academics feel that the combination of student debt and precarious work has become impossible to manage, as people have to borrow to work while working to borrow.

The old faith in the university as a guaranteed passage to a life of privilege is slipping away. The most widely circulated statement from the occupations in California declared, “We demand not a free university but a free society.”

In South Africa, the battles over the future of our universities are complicated by both the imperative to transform our universities after apartheid and conflicts around the nature of transformation. If the ANC had been faithful to the values of the popular struggles that leveraged them into power, they would have developed a commitment to transformation as a simultaneous movement towards deracialisation, decolonisation and democratisation. But, in practice, transformation was effectively defined as the simultaneous movement towards deracialisation and corporatisation with tacked on empty gestures, like new university logos, towards decolonisation.

The effects of this have played out differently on different campuses but many are now gated elite spaces in which managers act with an increasingly high-handed authoritarianism to subordinate academic life to the rule of money. Work that does not attract money is often treated as failure and so the pursuit of music or philosophy for the sake of pursuing music or philosophy shows up as glitch in the system -- a glitch that needs to be ironed out.

The pecuniary logic at the heart of these corporatized universities militates against any serious attempt at deracilisation or decolonisation for the simple reason that the logic in which excellence becomes conflated with profits inevitably privileges the privileged. High student fees and precarious working conditions exclude many from campuses and research agendas are often driven by the powerful -- including the key institutions of contemporary imperialism like the World Bank and various American and European foundations.

The key idea that has been used to inspire and sustain consent for corporatizing universities has been that this is a ‘world class model’. The implicit and often quite blatantly neo-colonial implication was that we had to ‘catch up’ to the ‘world class’ universities of the North. But now that they are being subjected to their own form of structural adjustment, and now that there is such popular resistance to that process, the idea that there is an uncontested understanding of the ‘world class university’ has been blown out of the water.  This gives us a little more freedom to think outside the consensus that has been imposed on us.

And there are some encouraging signs back home. It does seem that there is a serious push within the government to offer more support to poor students. But as urgent as it is to widen access to the university, it is also essential that the realities of inequality are not used to justify an agenda for research and teaching that ties all intellectual work to the immediate and instrumental needs of the market and the state.

It is true enough that there is a clear link between the number of engineers in a society and its prospects for economic growth. But the bitter reality of poverty doesn’t make open-ended intellectual pursuits a luxury. That is the logic of the World Bank.

It’s a logic that is now going global, but it has long history of being intimately tied up with racism.

As the philosopher Lewis Gordon argues, it’s often assumed across the global academy that Africans should provide experience while the white North will develop theory. And, as Gordon notes, much of the theory that is developed for Africa is also developed against Africa. It often assumes that Africans, rather than structures of oppression, are the problem. It is essential that we think, at all levels of abstraction, critically and for ourselves.

But we don’t only need to defend the right to our own critical projects. More than a hundred years ago W.E.B. Du Bois railed against Booker T. Washington’s view that black education should be only technical and vocational, which he decried as submission to the “gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life...the picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities. One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this.”

Even amidst the most incredible material and political degradation there is always a striving that reaches beyond the material. We are not just bodies requiring service delivery to meet our needs. We are also, in Frantz Fanon’s language, motion towards the world and to others.

In early 1912, immigrant women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, struck against the most atrocious conditions. Their strike meetings, which had to be translated into 25 languages, became, as these spaces often do, important intellectual spaces. The demand that crystallised their collective aspirations was for bread and roses. Four years later, Upton Sinclair turned it into a poem:

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

In Johannesburg, as in Athens or Los Angeles, our universities, always being careful to recognise that they are only one mode of intellectual engagement, must give us bread and roses.