Universities, neoliberalisation, and the (im)possibility of critique

Last Friday in April, I was at a conference entitled Universities, neoliberalisation and (in)equality at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was an one-day event featuring presentations and interventions from academics who work on understanding, and criticising, the transformation of working conditions in neoliberal academia. Besides sharing these concerns, attending such events is part of my research: I, in fact, study the critique of neoliberalism in UK higher education.

Why study critique, you may ask? At the present moment, it may appear all the more urgent to study the processes of transformation themselves, especially so that we can figure out what can be done about them. This, however, is precisely the reason: critique is essential to how we understand social processes, in part because it entails a social diagnostic – it tells us what is wrong – and, in part, because it allows us to conceptualise our own agency – what is to be done – about this. However, the link between the two is not necessarily straightforward: first you read some Marx, and then you go and start a revolution. Some would argue that the reading of Marx (what we usually think of as consciousness-raising) is essential part of the process, but there are many variables that intervene between awareness of the unfairness of certain conditions – say, knowing that part-time, low paid teaching work is exploitative – and actually doing something about those conditions, such as organising an occupation. In addition, as virtually everyone from the Frankfurt School onwards had noted, linking these two aspects is complicated by the context of mass consumerism, mass media, and – I would add – mass education. Still, the assumption of an almost direct (what Archer dubbed an ‘hydraulic) link between knowledge and action still haunts the concept of critique, both as theory and as practice.

In the opening remarks to the conference, Vik Loveday actually zeroed in on this, asking: why is it that there seems to be a burgeoning of critique, but very little resistance? For it is a burgeoning indeed: despite it being my job, even I have issues keeping up to speed with the veritable explosion of the writing that seeks to analyse, explain, or simply mourn the seemingly inevitable capitulation of universities in the face of neoliberalism. By way of illustration, the Palgrave series in “Critical University Studies” boasts eleven new titles, all published in 2016-7; and this is but one publisher, in English language only.

What can explain the relationship between the relative proliferation of critique, and relative paucity of resistance? This question forms the crux of my thesis: less, however, as an invocation for the need to resist, and more as the querying of the relationship between knowledge – especially as forms of critique, including academic critique – and political agency (I do see political agency on a broader spectrum than the seemingly inexhaustible dichotomy between ‘compliance’ and ‘resistance’, but that is another story).

So here’s a preliminary hypothesis (H, if you wish): the link between critique and resistance is mediated by the existence of and position in of academic hierarchy. Two presentations I had the opportunity to hear at the conference were very informative in this regard: the first is Loveday’s analysis of academics’ experience of anxiety, the other was Neyland and Milyaeva’s research on the experiences of REF panelists. While there is a shared concern among academics about the neoliberalisation of higher education, what struck me was the pronounced difference in the degree to which two groups express doubts about their own worth as academics, future, and relevance (in colloquial parlance, ‘impostor syndrome’). While junior* and relatively precarious academics seem to experience high levels of anxiety in relation to their value as academics, senior* academics who sit on REF panels experience it far less. The difference? Level of seniority and position in decision-making.

Well, you may say, this is obvious – the more established academics are, the more confident they are going to be. However, what varies with levels of seniority is not just confidence and trust in one’s own judgements: it’s the sense of entitlement, the degree to which you feel you deserve to be there (Loveday writes about the classed aspects of the sense of entitlement here). I once overheard someone call it the Business Class Test: the moment you start justifying to yourself flying business class on work trips (unless you’re very old, ill, or incapacitated), is the moment when you will have convinced yourself you deserve this. The issue, however, is not how this impacts travel practices: it’s the effect that the differential sense of entitlement has on the relationship between critique and resistance.

So here’s another hypothesis (h1, if you wish). The more precarious your position, the more likely you are to perceive the working conditions as unfair – and, thus, to be critical of the structure of academic hierarchy that enables it. Yet, at the same time, the more junior you are, the more risk voicing that critique – that is, translating it into action – entails. Junior academics often point out that they have to shut up and go on ‘playing the game’: churning out publications (because REF), applying for external funding (because grant capture), and teaching ever-growing numbers of students (because students generate income for the institution). Thus, junior academics may well know everything that is wrong with the academia, but will go on conforming to it in ways that reproduce exactly the conditions they are critical of.

What happens once one ascends to the coveted castle of permanent employment/tenure and membership in research evaluation panels and appointment committees? Well, I’ve only ever been tenure track for a relatively short period of time (having left the job before I found myself justifying flying business class) but here’s an assumption based on anecdotal evidence and other people’s data (h2): you still grin and bear it. You do not, under any circumstances, stop participating in the academic ‘game’ – with the added catch that now you actually believe you deserved your position in it. I’m not saying senior academics are blind to the biases and social inequalities reflected in the academic hierarchy: what I am saying is that it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to simultaneously be aware of it and continue participating in it (there’s a nod to Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith‘ here, but I unfortunately do not have the time to get into that now). Ever encounter a professor stand up at a public lecture or committee meeting and say “I recognize that I owe my being here to the combined fortunes of inherited social capital, [white] male privilege, and the fact English is my native language”? I didn’t either. If anything, there are disavowals of social privilege (“I come from a working class background”), which, admirable as they may be, unfortunately only serve to justify the hierarchical nature of academia and its selection procedures (“I definitely deserve to be here, because look at all the odds I had to beat in order to get here in the first place”).

In practice, this leads to the following. Senior academics stay inside the system, and, if they are critical, believe to work against the system – for instance, by fighting for their discipline, or protecting junior colleagues, or aiming to make academia that little bit more diverse. In the longer run, however, their participation keeps the system going – the equivalent of carbon offsetting your business class flight; sure, it may help plant trees in Guinea Bissau, but it does not obfuscate the fact you are flying in the first place. Junior academics, on the other hand, contribute through their competition for positions inside the system – believing that if only they teach enough (perform low-paid work), publish enough (contribute to abundance), or are visible enough (perform unpaid labour of networking on social media, through conferences etc.) – they will get away from precarity, and then they can really be critical (there’s a nod to Berlant’s cruel optimism here that I also unfortunately cannot expand on). Except that, of course, they end up in the position of senior academics, with an added layer of entitlement (because they fought so hard) and an added layer of fear (because no job is really safe in neoliberalism). Thus, while everyone knows everything is wrong, everyone still plays along. This ‘gamification’ of research, which seems to be the new mot du jour in the academia, becomes a stand-in term for the moral economy of  justifying one’s own position while participating in the reproduction of the conditions that contribute to its instability.

Cui bono critique, in this regard? It depends. If critique is divorced from its capacity to incite political action, there is no reason why it cannot be appropriated – and, correspondingly, commodified – in the broader framework of neoliberal capitalism. It’s already been pointed out that critique sells – and, perhaps less obviously, the critique of neoliberal academia does too. Even if the ever-expanding number of publications on the crisis of the university do not ‘sell’ in the narrow sense of the term, they still contribute to the symbolic economy via accruing prestige (and citation counts!) for their authors. In other words: the critique of neoliberalism in the academia can become part and parcel of the very processes it sets out to criticise. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the content, act, or performance of critique itself that renders it automatically subversive or dangerous to ‘the system’. Sorry. (If you want to blame me for being a killjoy, note that Boltanski and Chiapello have noted a long time ago in “The New Spirit of Capitalism” that contemporary capitalism grew through the appropriation of the 1968 artistic critique).

Does this mean critique has, as Latour famously suggested, ‘run out of steam’? If we take the steam engine as a metaphor for the industrial revolution, then the answer may well be yes, and good riddance. Along with other Messianic visions, this may speed up the departure of the Enlightenment’s legacy of pastoral power, reflected – imperfectly, yet unmistakably – in the figure of (organic or avant-guarde) ‘public’ intellectual, destined, as he is (for it is always a he) to lead the ‘masses’ to their ultimate salvation. What we may want to do instead is to examine what promise critique (with a small c) holds – especially in the age of post-truth, post-facts, Donald Trump, and so on. In this, I am fully in agreement with Latour that it is important to keep tabs on the difference between matters of fact, and maters of concern; and, perhaps most disturbingly, think about whether we want to stake out the claim for defining the latter on the monopoly on producing the former.

For getting rid of the veneer of entitlement to critique does not in any way mean abandoning the project of critical examination altogether – but it does, very much so, mean reexamining the positions and perspectives from which it is made. This is the reason why I believe it is so important to focus on the foundations of epistemic authority, including that predicated on the assumption of difference between ‘lay’ and academic forms of reflexivity (I’m writing up a paper on this – meanwhile, my presentation on the topic from this year’s BSA conference is here). In other words, in addition to the analysis of threats to critical scholarship that are unequivocally positioned as coming from ‘the outside’, we need to examine what it is about ‘the inside’ – and, particularly, about the boundaries between ‘out’ and ‘in’ – that helps perpetuate the status quo. Often, this is the most difficult task of all.

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Here’s a comic for the end. In case you don’t know it already, it’s Pearls Before Swine, by the brilliant Stephan Pastis. This should at least brighten your day.

P.S. People often ask me what my recommendations would be. I’m reluctant to give any – the academia is broken, and I am not sure whether fixing it in this form makes any sense. But here’s a few preliminary thoughts:

(a) Stop fetishising the difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Leaving’ the academia is still framed like some epic sort of failure, which amplifies both the readiness of precarious workforce to sustain truly abominable working conditions just in order to stay “in”, and the anxiety and other mental health issues arising from the possibility of falling “out”. Most people with higher education should be able to do well and thrive in all sorts of jobs; if we didn’t frame tenure as a life-or-death achievement, perhaps fewer would agree to suffer for years in hope of its attainment.

(b) Fight for decent working conditions for contingent faculty. Not everyone needs to have tenure if working part-time (or going in and out) are acceptable career choices that offer a liveable income and a level of social support. This would also help those who want to have children or, godforbid, engage in activities other than the rat race for academic positions.

(c) This doesn’t get emphasised enough, but one of the reasons why people vie for positions in the academia is because at least it offers a degree of intellectual satisfaction, in opposition to what Graeber has termed the ever-growing number of ‘bullshit jobs’. So, one of the ways of making working conditions in the academia more decent is by making working conditions outside of academia more decent – and, perhaps, by decentralising a bit the monopoly on knowledge work that the academia holds. Not, however, in the neoliberal outsourcing/’creative hubs’ model, which unfortunately mostly serves to generate value for existing centres while further depleting the peripheries.

* By ”junior” and “senior” I obviously do not mean biological age, but rather status – I am intentionally avoiding denominators such as ‘ECRs’ etc. since I think someone can be in a precarious position whilst not being exactly at the start of their career, and, conversely, someone can be a very early career researcher but have a type of social capital, security, and recognition that are normally associated with ‘later’ career stages.

2 thoughts on “Universities, neoliberalisation, and the (im)possibility of critique

  1. Cao Jana,

    Very interesting read and the question of ‘lack of resistance’ is important – but for me, the question needs to be asked: “How is it that the university became the primary site of revolutionary thought (and perhaps action)?” The intellectual/ activist divorce is covered in The Left Hemisphere by Razmig Keucheyan, who dates it – off the top of my head – from the failure of the German revolution in 1921. After this the door to ‘proletarian’ revolution was effectively closed in core capitalist countries and has remained so. You could also argue that Leftist intellectuals were “given” the academy, or large parts of it, in exchange for quiescence. (It’s no accident the expansion in US tenure positions was connected with the expansion of the US military-industrial complex.)

    Other thoughts on important factors related to neoliberalization of the academy:

    i) Structural changes – Changes to tenure, increase in precarity are all beginning to affect people’s long-term life choices ie. in leaving academic or choosing other jobs, going outside academia as you mention. (“Life after precarity.”) This is only going to increase – and so it should.

    ii) Scholarship outside academia, independent scholarship, or one-foot-in-one-foot-out scholarship is increasing – some might say thriving.

    iii) There’s a rise in academic, semi-academic, or popular-academic work for a readership hungry for new ideas challenging the status quo – and perhaps going further than academic work in bridging the ‘gap’ between theory and practice. Many of these books are written by people working precarious jobs. “Capitalist Realism” by Mark Fischer comes to mind.

    Which leads on to…

    iv) You mention “epistemic authority”, “lay and academic forms of relexivity”. We’re perhaps moving back to a time before the modern disciplinary framework was set in stone. To when many “authorities” were, in fact, amateurs or some kind of lay scholar.

    I call this “porous scholarship” and wrote about it in “From Under the Volcano”, quoting Edward Said’s words on a new kind of amateurism, “an activity that is fuelled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization.”


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