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Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work

12 Oct

Once a French neologism, precarity is now a household name describing in equal measure the fate of low-wage, part-time holders of bullshit jobs, seasonal and migrant workers, creative entrepreneurs of the self, “graduates with no future,” foreclosed homeowners, debtors and increasingly even segments of the salaried bourgeoisie. At its most basic, a term for the economic uncertainty and existential angst associated with the dissolution of fixed employment, precarity also suggests the disintegration of stable societal bonds, occupational identities, social protections and a sense of entitlement and belonging characteristic of the old proletariat. In short, then, precarity is the experiential dimension of the crisis of the society of work dating back to the 70s and 80s.

Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Mural 1923

Increasingly advanced production methods, introduced since the 70s to tame shop-floor insubordination as well as reap the untapped potentials of global competition, have caused a decline in growth rates, which no amount of privatization, financialization and austerity measures has been able to make up for since. Andrew Kliman and others have argued that it is this real crisis in capitalist productivity that lies at the heart of the current slump, and not simply unrestrained financial gluttony, as the more short-termist analysis offer. As capitalist production develops, machines replace people and the rate of profitability, which is given by the human labor theory of value, drops, causing sluggish investment and slow growth. This is essentially Marx’s theory of economy crisis, aka the tendency of the profit rate to fall, but also a story we should know by now from Autonomist accounts about the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (Hardt and Negri) or from profit extraction to rent-becoming-profit (Christian Marazzi), and from David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession.

If we shift the scale of our focus from capital to labor, though, we see that the crisis of capitalist productivity is, in fact, a crisis of work or a crisis of a society built around work as the only legitimate point of access for income, status and citizenship rights. Again, Marx is instructive here: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Socially necessary labor is reduced to a minimum (through things like automation, outsourcing, and financialization) at the same time that human participation in paid work continues to remain our only measure and source of wealth. Work doesn’t disappear as a result. It becomes fragmented, devalued, and wasteful, ceasing to provide a social identity or a collective language of experience.

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Precarity is a word for our time. It describes the slow disintegration of the historic bond between capitalism, democracy and the welfare state. But it also entails a rallying cry to reverse this situation. Continue reading

The Pay Strike And Its Discontents

2 Oct

Breaking Bad Pay Teachers More Money

The ballots are out, the wheels are in motion. Union members have until Thursday 10 October to vote on strike action over the latest derisory pay offer of 1% (if you haven’t received a ballot, go here). The justness of the cause seems clear enough. Since 2009, every pay award has been several percentage points below inflation, leading to a consistent real terms drop in pay. And some of those paltry increases were only attained after negotiations. Yet, despite the protests from above (and excepting a brief dip in student numbers), British higher education is in fine financial health. The overall wage bill is decreasing at the same time that surpluses are growing. And for “growing” read “more than doubling”, from £488 million in 2007/8 to £1.1 billion in 2011/2012. Managers are reaping their rewards accordingly, and a significant portion of Vice-Chancellors are seeing their pay go up by 10-20%. At Sussex, for example, Michael Farthing is now paid £280,000 (including pensions contributions), as compared to £178,000 in 2007 (that’ll be a 57% increase then).

And yet there is a foreboding. Fear is a factor, nondescript anxiety another. Perhaps an awkward sense that any level of action is somehow at odds with the academic code.

Articulated objections come in two stripes. First, the we-haven’t-got-it-so-bad defence. Beyond the usual ‘all in it together’ austerity ideology, there are pay increments (which most permanent academic staff get automatically). Real wages aren’t declining so hard if you move up a pay step each year. This is on its own a pretty restricted ambition, since it amounts to a kind of career “progression” that leaves you standing still. It is also, for all the talk of solidarity with lower-paid workers, a selfish analysis.

In the last 5 years, the pay for new lecturers and tutors has dropped 13% in real terms. Following the USS pension saga, they (we) have each had tens of thousands of pounds taken from them over the course of their careers, while staff that retained their old rights are paying more every month into a scheme that was, let us recall, nowhere near crisis. There are fewer scholarships and research grants than before, and an increase in teaching-heavy posts. Consumer-driven logics are set to make that worse. On the horizon, just over there, is a US-style expansion based on precarity, a prestige elite, and debt bubbles. Some at the top are already breaking from the national pay spine, inaugurating a two-tier system. Consider this trend alongside the state of university finances. What is it to look at this and say things aren’t so bad? I put it to you that such a position is detached, complacent, and irresponsible.

Second, there is the strikes-change-nothing complaint. This has better justification. Local actions over the last years have not reversed policies. Pensions were stripped down anyway. And there is something peculiar, isn’t there, about the idea of day-long walkouts and picket lines in a sector so based on relatively scattered student-teacher interactions. There is no machinery to fall silent, no buzzing shop floors to stand empty. Just a day of saved wages for management and probably a whole stack of reorganised lectures, academics not really being the types to withhold knowledge (or, rather, unwilling to see knowledge as labour). There is a sense that the old tactics are dead, and should be left in their graves.

On the one hand, this is an argument for more radical action. If employers can handle strike days, we need more. Or, alternatively, forms of action that do not fetishise the picket line. Something that will make VCs pay attention, like a marking boycott or withholding final grades. In a customer-orientated culture this is the pressure point, especially if action begins to alter the results of the National Student Survey, that Big Other of the academic scene (what do students really want?). The complaint goes up that the national union lacks the imagination to instigate these actions, and that we should therefore turn to more vibrant kinds of opposition. But new forms of resistance nevertheless confront established modes of punishment. When full pay is withheld day on day, when even partial performance leads to the forfeit of full wages, how quickly will we really buckle? We know something has to break the pattern, but we’re not sure we’re capable of it, or that the sacrifice is worth it. In other words, we find ourselves a little too close to text-book academic bitching: something more fundamental needs doing, but we’re not likely to be the ones to do it.

On the other hand, the fear and the paralysis can be found closer to home. Complaints about the union form do not produce their alternative ex nihilo. There are possible replacements, but no actually-existing ones. Nor does the appetite for creating one seem to exist. And for good reason. The paradoxical character of academic subjectivity is both to consider ourselves in a position of real epistemic and social privilege and to be so despondent about our influence on things as to merely absorb the changes thrust upon us (working conditions, impact agendas, research restrictions). The legal protections of strike action have no parallel, truncated as they are. Creative alternatives have raised energy, and served as political classrooms in their own right, but they haven’t actually stymied ‘reforms’ (whether on fees, outsourcing or investment portfolios). And, strange as it may sound, universities are probably happier taking draconian action against their workers than their students. A faculty occupation, if we could even imagine such a thing, would not end well.

None of that is to say that we (there’s that intangible collective again) should walk zombie-like to the picket. Fersure, let the rejuvenation of academic democracy proceed apace. In the meantime, we have to ask ourselves seriously what the consequence is of another pliant year. There are murmurings that a failure to win this ballot will endanger collective bargaining itself. If we cannot muster the resolve to deliver a strong yes on action short of a strike, and a strong yes on strike – if we cannot even deliver a serious turnout – that’s probably as much as we deserve.

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Wealth Inequality in America

3 Mar

The Student Movement in Quebec: Of Small Victories and Big Disappointments

8 Jan

A guest post by Philippe Fournier, following up on his analysis of the Quebec student movement in May last year. Philippe is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Canada Research Chair in Globalisation, Citizenship and Democracy (Chaire MDC) at Université du Québec à Montréal’s Sociology Department, and works primarily on Michel Foucault in global politics.


A Quebec student march route

A Quebec student march route

Quebec’s protracted student crisis, which laid heavy on voters’ minds, has been fixed, at least for now. In early September, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was ushered in as a minority government. The PQ campaigned on a tuition freeze, higher taxes for society’s upper echelons and a fairly ambitious environmental agenda. These aspirations notwithstanding, popular discontent with the Liberal’s handling of the student crisis, widespread accusations of corruption (see the ongoing Commission Charbonneau) and a collective displeasure with Premier Jean Charest’s smug ways, all contributed to the previous government’s demise. All things considered, the Liberals did very well, taking 31% of the vote. The PQ took a mere 32%, hardly a glowing endorsement from the general public. Most analysts believe that it was also a clear message to the incoming rulers that Quebecers had no interest in one of the more fundamental objectives of the PQ’s platform, that is sovereignty.

There are several dimensions and consequences to the PQ’s election, most of which provide an example of things-that-are or of things-that-will-be in western countries facing economic woe.

Students and Protests

The majority of students see the electoral results as a victory and feel vindicated for their continued efforts. A minority of students, many of whom are affiliated or sympathetic to the now recently defunct CLASSE (now the ASSÉ), which was set up especially for the strike, are less enthused and sense that this is only a reprieve in the long and arduous fight for free education.

The PQ has called for a summit on higher education, which will take place sometime in February and is meant to involve a wide-ranging consultation between state officials, student representatives, chancellors and business leaders. The likely outcome will be an indexation of tuition fees to the cost of living and new innovative means to cut costs in University management. Opposition parties are already accusing the PQ of having bowed down to the vociferous demands of ‘the street’ and have warned that this blank cheque would have consequences on the allocation of funds to other social programs. The ASSÉ is predictably sceptical of such proceedings and is not yet sure whether it will participate. After being told by the government that they had to cut a further 120 million before the negotiations even started, University chancellors are ticked off.

Insofar as the student crisis was widely heralded as a social movement and not just a sectorial claim, it is important to assess its overall effect on Quebec’s current political landscape. Continue reading

Death To Open Access! Long Live Open Access!

12 Nov

A few weeks ago at the Millennium conference, some of us got together to talk about open access and the political economy of knowledge (re)production in our little corner of academia (“us” being Colin Wight, David Mainwaring, Nivi Manchanda, Nathan Coombs, Meera and me). Over the remainder of this week, we’ll be posting those reflections here for your delectation because, some discussion notwithstanding, labourers in today’s university-factories need to get talking about these things, and fast.


Open Access appears to be here. The Finch Report has recommended it, the Government has endorsed it, and there even seem to be some monies newly available for it. The battle is won, and the age of unfettered academic-public intercourse is upon us. Well, not quite. Finch’s preference for Gold Open Access, in which journals continue to receive revenues and make profits and in which academics (or their institutions) pay a fee of several thousand pounds per article for the pleasure (the so called Article Processing Charge (APC) system, which will receive greater attention in later posts), is deeply problematic (well-reasoned explanations for why available from Stevan Harnad and Peter Coles (Telescoper), with more qualified views, even cautious support, from Stephen Curry and Repository Man). Also, the monies aren’t new, and have instead been extracted from existing research budgets (and what a complete and utter surprise that is).

This is all cause for serious concern, and relates closely to the kinds of arguments that are developed and deployed in favour of Open Access (or, to be more provincial about it, Open IR). There are three kinds of arguments for opening up the journal system, arguments from access, ethics and cost, and we are in danger of letting the first overwhelm the different, and better, cases made in the name of the second and third.

The first set of arguments has to do with the problem of access: that the journal system is broken because it creates barriers to the circulation of academic knowledge. The journal as usually conceived was an ingenious and appropriate method for collating and distributing knowledge in the 18th century, but is now redundant. And yet journals – with their pay walls – remain the only (or at least the principal) vector for success or employment in academic life. This is doubly problematic since the various metrics that journal comparisons and prestige enable themselves then become vectors of discipline and control, even in the face of the many, many reasoned objections to such measures.

Continue reading

This Courage Called Utopia

9 Nov

(wild bells) A warm Disordered welcome to Wanda Vrasti, who previously guested on the topic of the neoliberal tourist-citizen imaginary, and now joins the collective permanently. And glad we are to have her. Her academic writings thus far include Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: Giving Back in Neoliberal Times (which came out with the Routledge Interventions series a few months ago), ‘The Strange Case of Ethnography in International Relations’ (which caused its own debate), ‘”Caring” Capitalism and the Duplicity of Critique’, and most recently ‘Universal But Not Truly “Global”: Governmentality, Economic Liberalism and the International’.


It’s often been said that this is not only a socio-economic crisis of systemic proportions, but also a crisis of the imagination. And how could this be otherwise? Decades of being told There Is No Alternative, that liberal capitalism is the only rational way of organizing society, has atrophied our ability to imagine social forms of life that defy the bottom line. Yet positive affirmations of another world do exist here and there, in neighbourhood assemblies, community organizations, art collectives and collective practices, the Occupy camps… It is only difficult to tell what exactly the notion of progress is that ties these disparate small-is-beautiful alternatives together: What type of utopias can we imagine today? And how do concrete representations or prefigurations of utopia incite transformative action?

Javier Lozano Jaén

First thing one has to notice about utopia is its paradoxical position: grave anxiety about having lost sight of utopia (see Jameson’s famous quote: “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”) meets great scepticism about all efforts to represent utopia. The so-called “Jewish tradition of utopianism,” featuring Adorno, Bloch, and later on Jameson, for instance, welcomes utopianism as an immanent critique of the dominant order, but warns against the authoritarian tendencies inherent in concrete representations of utopia. Excessively detailed pictures of fulfilment or positive affirmations of radiance reek of “bourgeois comfort.” With one sweep, these luminaries rid utopianism of utopia, reducing it to a solipsistic exercise of wishing another world were possible without the faintest suggestion of what that world might look like.

But doing away with the positive dimension of utopia, treating utopia only as a negative impulse is to lose the specificity of utopia, namely, its distinctive affective value. The merit of concrete representations of utopia, no matter how imperfect or implausible, is to allow us to become emotionally and corporeally invested in the promise of a better future. As zones of sentience, utopias rouse the desire for another world that might seem ridiculous or illusory when set against the present, but which is indispensable for turning radical politics into something more than just a thought exercise. Even a classic like “Workers of the World Unite!” has an undeniable erotic (embodied) quality to it, which, if denied, banishes politics to the space of boredom and bureaucracy. It is one thing to tell people that another world is possible and another entirely to let them experience this, for however shortly.

Most concrete representations and prefigurations of utopia from the past half century or so have been of the anti-authoritarian sort. Continue reading

Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in an Age of Crisis

11 Sep

For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the talk I gave last weekend on the technological sublime, machine perception, and cybernetic economies. Held in the beautiful Treignac area at The Matter of Contradiction: Ungrounding the Object event, it was a lot of fun and filled with some fascinating discussions. Many thanks to the Treignac Projet for inviting me and organizing the event. Check out more of their work here.

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