What We Talked About At ISA: From #occupyirtheory to #OpenIR?

A write up of my comments at the #occupyirtheory event in San Diego. The event itself was both hope-filled and occasionally frustrating, not least for the small group of walk-outs, apparently ‘political’ ‘scientists’ lacking in any conception of what it actually means to engage in the political (note: this bothered me especially, but was a rather minor irritation in the grander scheme of things). Despite the late hour, there were between 40 and 60 people there throughout, and a number of very positive things have come of it. It looks like there’ll be some gathering at BISA/ISA to discuss further, and we’re pitching something for the Millennium conference on some of the themes addressed below, and there will of course be ISA 2013 too. In the meantime, there’s the Facebook group, the blog, and a mailing list. The term OpenIR is owed to Kathryn Fisher, and seems to several of us to be a better umbrella term for the many things we want to address in the discipline and the academy. I also just want to give a public shout-out to Nick, Wanda, Robbie and Meera for doing so much on this.

The #occupy practice/meme has antecedents. Physical manifestations of a ‘public’, horizontalism, prefigurative politics and more can be traced in all sorts of histories. One such lineage is the foreshadowing of Zucotti Park in recent struggles over education. Take the slogan in March 2010 over privatisation at the University of California, which was ‘STRIKE / OCCUPY / TAKEOVER’. Or Middlesex, where students resisting the dismantling of the Philosophy Department in that same year unfurled a banner during their occupation, one that proclaimed: ‘THE UNIVERSITY IS A FACTORY! STRIKE! OCCUPY!’.

I want briefly, then, to think about the space of the university in our discussions of #occupy. There have been rich and suggestive calls to re-politicise ourselves as academic-activists, to look again at our work and its claims, and to turn our abilities, such as they are, to projects of resistance and transformation. But we risk a displacement. When we talk of ‘the street’, or politics enacted in the reconfigured space of #occupy, or of the ‘real world’ that we must be relevant to, we already miss the university itself as that factory in which we labour. We are tempted by a view of ourselves as leaving ivory towers to do politics, instead of seeing those towers themselves as spaces of politics. As if our institutions and practices were not already part of the world.

Whether you see #occupy as transformational or nor, or whether you simply prefer a different vocabulary, I think a demand remains: a demand to politicise our own positionality. This politicisation can have many dimensions, but I want to suggestively highlight four, each being a sphere in which we should be diagnosing and transforming our own practices.

Precarity and Intellectual Labour: The contemporary in its Anglo-American template is increasingly a nexus of debt, extraction and segregated community. The gulf between the tenured and the precarious, the elite and the rest, continues to grow. Our spaces of discussion are nominally egalitarian, but pay, resources and value are anything put. Paul Mason’s sociological type of the ‘graduate without a future’ needs to be treated with some care here: our conditions are not those of the most marginalised and exploited. The solidaristic connections between various facets of global struggle are rich sources, analytically, politically and emotionally, but we are not Tahrir Square. Precarity is everywhere. True, yes, but this is our precarity, and we are entitled to own it. We are too in thrall to a view of academic work as a privilege, and hardly attentive to who pays, at what levels of interest, and who subsequently profits. A strange kind of self-loathing.

Workplace Democracy: Our commitments to free and equal intellectual exchange have no real counterpart in our actual workplaces. Some institutions have democratic bodies of academic congregation, but they seem few, and certainly neglected. Votes of no confidence in Ministers notwithstanding, we need to look afresh at what it is we should be able to collectively decide, not just in our professional organisations, but in Departments themselves. Who allocates scholarships, and on what criteria? How is it that complaints about the narrow stories of our teaching so seldom change how we end up delivering that teaching? Who determines the true value of our increasingly precarious labour, and on what authority?

The Academic Production Machine: Most of what we write has already been paid for: by increasingly debt-ridden student-consumers, by the state, and by benevolent and not-so-benevolent funds. Yet almost without exception we allow these products to be transferred from the intellectual commons to private profit. Our work is pay-walled and sold back to our own institutions at monopolistic margins. The average annual increase in journal prices has been over 7% since the mid-1980s. 10% of all research funding distributed by HEFCE in the UK is spent by libraries on journal and database access. We resent the transfers of copyright, the unpaid labour of peer review, the limitation of our work to a particular audience, but we don’t allow this to trouble our daily practice. Scientists and mathematicians boycott Elsevier, but we ‘political’ scientists are quicker to embrace the content analysis of Twitter than Open Access. Imagine for a moment that a handful of the top journals took down the pay walls. Or that we advanced a collaborative university press able both to support infrastructural demands and to return academic products to the realm of the public.

The Research Collective: Constrained by the demands of advancement in a context of precarity, and by the model of purist intellectual gestation, we stand atomised. Intellectual moves in politics are overwhelmingly carried out by think-tanks, not by academic thought collectives. Many in IR thrive on moving between the worlds of the university and of policy, but similar border-crossings to the benefit of non-elites seem to founder. There are of course bold projects and activist scholars, but nothing on the scale of the researcher-lobbyists. We are too distracted to engage in common. What might it mean to reverse that?

These four dimensions have their own tensions, of course. Nor is there any reason to suppose that we will all agree. In one obvious #occupy-like conundrum, we must consider whether to make demands. And, if so, to whom? Do we need anything so brazen as manifestos? And what of space itself? Is ours merely a mental topography against #occupy’s physical one? The university is not, and never has been, the clean realm of pure speculation. It is connected and integrated with the social fabric, and thus requires of us some account. We in no small part constitute it. To take the spirit of #occupy, by whatever name and with whatever caveats, must them mean not only that we discuss how we should think, but also what we should do.


5 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: From #occupyirtheory to #OpenIR?

  1. Excellent stuff Pablo, you are becoming a leading light on this. Inspirational! I have one issue. I think it’s dangerous to define the politics of the unviersity by way of equating it to factory and labour. Your fourth point breaks out of that containment. Just like Marxists equating of everythign to labour makes them silent or non-consequential on issues of oppression ,especially race, so equating university to labour/factory runs the same risk. it also buys too much into the privatization language. That certain tendencies want to make unviversity a business is a different consideration to defining ourselves and the possibilities and content of our politics as a factory. None of this is to take away from your demands and their prescience and importance. I would stand with you on that totally. But no, politics – even in capitalism – is much more than just factory and labour, and always has been, everywhere.


    • Thanks Robbie, for the compliment and for the critique. The problem as I see it is that many academics don’t want to see what they do as labour at all, being completely in thrall to a one-dimensional view of ivory-tower-privilege (one that they paradoxically share with some of our more sneering critics in the ‘real world’). So there’s an element of provocation here: what is it that makes us think ourselves so apart from the questions of worker’s control as they might apply in food cooperatives, transport infrastructure, civil service, etc? What, in other words, does it to do to recognise yourself as a worker, with whatever caveats?

      So I would say that the academy isn’t only a factory (although some are trying to make it that), but that it is also a factory. And by that I would want to entail precisely the intersection with the political that you highlight.


      • Yes mate. And i get your strategy. And i totally agree with your critique of ivory tower privilige. But academia is not just a job but also a vocation.Health and education professionals who strike don’t usually do it based on the union’s strategic demands but because they relate themselves getting exploited directly to the fucking over of their vocation (as a public good). Perhaps what is more apt is reclamation of the old trade union idea of a job being a craft. PErsonally, so you know where i’m coming from, I can see myself as a worker, but i’ve been a worker at lots of other jobs and my work in uni is all to do with a specific vocation that is related to a democratization of knowledge production. i could represent myself as a worker and struggle for workers control within academia, but that wouldn’t have to at all address the vocation that i am involved in. it might be instrumentally related. And it might well facilitate my vocational ethics, But it is not the same politics. We have to critically defend our craft as well as gain more meaningful control over our work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s