Fatal Collaborations

A guest post from Chris Rossdale, issued in the midst of the latest round of UK university strikes over pensions, pay, precarity, workload and inequality. Chris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol. He writes about militarism, race and colonialism, social movements and political resistance. His book Resisting Militarism was published last year with Edinburgh University Press, and will be the topic of a Disorder symposium coming to a screen near you soon. You can also find Chris on Twitter here.


In January 2020, hundreds of students at SOAS staged a walk out, joining staff on the steps of the Bloomsbury campus to protest against yet another round of budget cuts. Once again, the institution was at the front line in the long struggle against the neoliberal restructuring of British universities, its position here an enduring product of the collision between aggressive management and well-organised staff and students. This time, administrators had announced that a budget shortfall would be filled by cancelling unfunded research leave for lecturers. Activists expect that this will also entail slashing the hours of sessional teaching staff, the ‘fractionals’ whose inspiring and successful unofficial strike action in 2014 presaged the more determined University and College Union (UCU) action we see today.

SOAS also made headlines last year when students learned that the institution was taking money from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in return for providing academic expertise and training to the British armed forces. Research by the Decolonizing Our Minds society revealed that SOAS has received at least £400,000 since the end of 2016 to deliver ‘Regional Study Weeks’ to the MoD’s ‘Defence Cultural Specialist Unit’ (DCSU). Currently active in at least 22 countries including Afghanistan, Chad and Chile, the DCSU is similar to the widely-criticised Human Terrain System developed by the US to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves the MoD supplementing its forces with specialists in the culture of societies where British operations are active, in pursuit of a gentler form of domination in ‘rapidly expanding neo-colonial context[s]’. The Regional Study Weeks are opportunities for academics to teach DCSU staff about the social and political contexts of particular regions, while highlighting the resulting ‘implications for UK military missions’. SOAS academics made up the largest portion of those teaching, but the weeks have included faculty from LSE, St Andrews, Cambridge, KCL, UCL, Lancaster and De Montfort. As the students’ report states, this academic collaboration with the armed forces facilitates a project that, at best, ‘is useful for crafting more inclusive forms of imperial governance’, and at worst, is used to ‘either destroy or “neutralize” potential sites of resistance with insider information’.

Reports of SOAS’s links with the MoD caused a scandal, but this apparent deviation masked a deeper reality. Collaborations between British universities and military institutions are no aberration – they are the overwhelming norm. A recent report by students at the University of Oxford revealed that the institution’s research council grants active in 2019 included over £80m linked to the MoD, and that nearly 40% of its £420m in science council grants are paired with military-related bodies. BAE Systems has spent millions partnering with over ten universities developing new technologies for stealth drones. Thales, Europe’s third largest arms company, are proud to announce that they are involved with over £146m in Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) funded research, working with over 20 institutions. My own institution, Bristol, received £3m from the Atomic Weapons Establishment between 2010 and 2016, while researchers at Surrey have worked with Lockheed Martin on improving components in armored vehicles. These examples are indicative, not exhaustive; very few institutions can claim to be free of these connections. Universities disingenuously attempt to emphasise the civilian applications of this research in their public-facing communications; however the reality is that the British university system is intimately entangled in systems of military production.

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Inventing the Future

The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.


Inventing the Future Cover - square

Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.

The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.

On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.

Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

The Corbyn After-Effect

Corbyn LOL

Win he did. And how. Although the petty vindictiveness of the #LabourPurge was real, it wasn’t enough to materially affect the result, and has arguably strengthened Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate. Even as dodgy expulsions and dodgier retentions sour the taste, nobody can claim that the Labour elite were too lax in their efforts to hobble him. For those who have felt blackmailed and maligned by New Labour and its outriders this past decade or two, the moment of joyful disbelief is to be relished. A social democrat as leader of the Labour Party! What a notion. Negative solidarity is giving way to a new structure of feeling, not just resisting but asserting positively the horizon of a more egalitarian, less parochial politics. It was fitting that Corbyn’s ascent took place on the same day as the major London march in defence of refugees, and that he moved amongst us.

The euphoria won’t last, is indeed already muted, tempting us to get our disappointment in early. Continue reading

Why Syriza Failed

The following was originally posted on The Current Moment, a blog exploring contemporary politics and political economy in the West. Especially for those concerned with the Eurozone crisis and the impending British referendum on European Union membership, it is a must read!

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Recent events in Greece have baffled many observers. At the end of June, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked out of talks with Greece’s creditors, calling a snap referendum on their proposals. It appeared to be crunch time. Tspiras denounced the EU’s ‘blackmail-ultimatum’, urging ‘the Hellenic people’ to defend their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’, while EU figures warned a ‘no’ vote would mean Greece leaving the Euro. Yet, even during the referendum campaign, while ostensibly pushing for a ‘no’ vote, Tsipras offered to accept the EU’s terms with but a few minor tweaks. And no sooner had the Greek people apparently rejected EU-enforced austerity than their government swiftly agreed to pursue harsher austerity measures than they had just rejected, merely in exchange for more negotiations on debt relief. This bizarre sequence of events can only be understood as a colossal political failure by Syriza. Elected in January to end austerity, they will now preside over more privatisation, welfare cuts and tax hikes.

When nai means yes

How can we explain this failure? I argue three factors were key. First, the terrible ‘good Euro’ strategy pursued by Syriza, the weakness of which should have been apparent from the outset. The second factor, which shaped the first, is the overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment among Greek citizens and elites, which created a strong barrier to ‘Grexit’ in the absence of political leadership towards independence. Third, the failure of the pro-Grexit left, including within Syriza, to win Syriza and the public over to a pro-Grexit position.

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The Corbyn Effect

Moderate Militant-Free Labour Conservative Poster

In the last days, the Labour mainstream has not so much fallen as fully leapt into a fit of apoplexy. The cause an opinion poll – by no means solid, by no means a guarantee of future stock value – placing Jeremy Corbyn as the likely winner of the party’s leadership contest. Labour MPs, some now publicly flagellating themselves, nominated Corbyn for a ‘balanced debate’, but apparently couldn’t countenance that it might actually lead anyone to, you know, debate. Corbyn’s moment of popularity is thus sketched as, among other things, “the emotional spasm…an apocalyptic tendency”. John McTernan – a prime mover in the utter implosion of Labour in Scotland – was invited to hold forth on national TV as an oracle nevertheless, where he showed off his great talent in persuasion by calling Labour supporters “morons”. John Rentoul, that other great passé hack, thought recognising the left-wing appeal of the SNP as a factor in Labour’s defeat was like believing in space lizard conspiracy theories.

There was an equal portion of patronising bullshit to go with the name-calling. “Do some research” before you dare to a preference, chided Anne Perkins. Don’t be a “petulant child”, admonished Chuka Umunna. Sunny Hundal came at logic with customary cack-handedness, transforming the clear articulation of principles into a pathology. These are some of the same people who bemoan the detachment of politicians from real people, the decline in party membership, and so on, only to rise up as vengeful furies when a candidate dares to stir energies. All down to an unsavoury populism, natch. This, says Helen Lewis, is ‘purity leftism’, nothing like the necessary compromises of opposition, where you have to be bold enough to endorse 2% defence spending (something “the public” indeed likes, although hardly top of their polled priorities). Blair, of course, can only relate in the terms of triangulation, regurgitating the 1990s whilst pretending to the terrain of the future.

It doesn’t matter that Corbyn’s record is one of social democracy (remember that?). It doesn’t matter that there are trends in his favour. It doesn’t matter that his economic policies are comparatively bold and redistributive. It doesn’t even matter that many of Corbyn’s policies are popular. One line of Blair’s intervention was widely cited: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform”. Few completed the quote: “…even if it was the route to victory“. This is not political argument, nor even Machiavellian electoral planning, but the tantrum-jitters of the self-appointed aristocracy. Having passed out lectures on loyalty and collective responsibility on Monday during the second reading of the Welfare Bill, the dauphins were by Thursday pre-declaring a coup should Corbyn win and practically spitting on their own activists besides. They saw no contradiction. Labour’s experts advocate not political communication but political manipulation, impersonating the enemy to take their place in our collective consciousness.

And so it will go on if any of the appeasement candidates win. Continue reading

The Perpetual Financial Crisis of UK Higher Education

Higher Education in Britain – particularly in England – is now clearly in perpetual financial crisis. This may seem an odd claim, since universities appear to have higher incomes than ever, and are sitting on vast cash reserves. But this superficially calm macro-level picture obscures the broiling chaos at the micro level. Universities, and particularly their individual departments, have been deliberately exposed to enormous year-on-year fluctuations in their incomes – potential and actual – that vitiates any attempt at rational planning and leaves financially strapped units particularly vulnerable to savage, short-term cuts designed to rebalance the books.

The latest move in this direction comes in a remarkable missive from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which, on instruction from the government, is cutting £150m in funding to English universities — not just in future financial years, but the present academic year (2014-15) and the next (2015-16). That means universities will not receive the funding they anticipated, and planned for, even for the year to September, let alone for the following year.

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Post-Election Politics: Where Next for Britain?

Following the Radical Left Assembly #2 last weekend, Nivi and Kerem caught up with Luke Cooper to discuss the implications of the Conservative Party majority for British politics. What does the election result tell us about the political composition of Britain? What is the significance of the Tory pledge for a referendum on the EU? And what future is there for a politics of the Left?

The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott

Academics in pre-1992 universities who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) will tomorrow be commencing a marking boycott in response to a planned attack by employers on our USS pension scheme.

By any reasonable measure, and despite losses suffered during the global financial crisis (GFC), USS is in good financial health, persistently taking in much more in contributions than it pays out to retirees. However, the arbitrary valuation method favoured by the UK Pensions Regulator – which has an interest in a highly conservative approach, to avoid employers running schemes down then leaving the regulator to carry the can – perversely shows the scheme in deficit. The ridiculous nature of the assumptions behind this valuation have been well explained elsewhere, as has the mendacity of Universities UK, the employers’ association, in using data misleadingly. Put simply, the claim that USS is unsustainable is based on the scenario of all contributing universities simultaneously ceasing to pay into the scheme, e.g. as a result of bankruptcy. By any reasonable measure, the scheme is not in serious difficulty in the short to medium term. Nonetheless, the employers have seized on the valuation to demand radical changes to USS, which will result in a cut in pensions of up to 27%. This follows changes imposed by the employers in 2011, which closed the final salary scheme to new entrants, put new staff onto a vastly inferior ‘career average’ scheme (which was even worse than the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS), which is used in secondary, further and post-1992 higher education institutions), and shifted the burden of contributions from the employers to employees. It also follows years of minimal or zero pay increases, such that in the years since 2009, real pay has fallen by about 13% nationally and 17% in London.

Given this context, it is obvious that employers are seizing the opportunity of the perverse USS valuation to further cut staff costs. Insofar as the scheme faces difficulties because of the GFC, this represents yet another shunting of the costs inflicted by hyper-capitalism onto workers. And insofar as universities are trying to cut staff costs because of vast reductions in the public subsidy to higher education, it represents yet another indirect effect of austerity, which is again about socialising the costs of bailing out Britain’s financial institutions.

At stake in this industrial action is not just the fate of our pensions, but of our trade union. The marking boycott is just the latest in a recurrent spate of industrial action over pay and conditions, including on pensions in 2011 and pay in 2013/14. This time around, 78% voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike, on a 45% turnout – the highest since UCU’s formation in 2006, though still disappointingly low, given the stakes. However, each period of industrial strife was  botched by UCU’s national leadership, leaving the union progressively weaker. The earlier action on pensions was lost: despite some minor concessions from employers, they successfully rammed through changes to USS. The UCU Left grouping rightly warned that accepting this would only encourage the employers to come back for more later – as they are now doing. On pay, UCU itself declared that the principle of national collective bargaining – the union’s main raison d’etre – was at risk: UCU’s rejection of miserly annual pay offers had repeatedly been ignored, and employers were increasingly departing from the national pay scale and trying to tempt UCU branches into local-level settlements.

Yet, a comprehensive strategy on escalating industrial action, democratically determined by the union’s Higher Education conference, was simply ignored by the leadership. Continue reading

Among the Atavists

If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.

Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.

There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:

in this ­complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.

he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration – dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.

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Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

Nick faceAhoi, Disorders! We’re thrilled to host a guest post by Nicholas J. Kiersey, Assistant Professor at Ohio University, indefatigable student of Foucault, Italian Autonomism and Deleuze and Guattari, plus a die-hard fan of Battlestar Galactica. Nick is the author of papers on governmentality in Global Society, the biopolitics of the war on terror in New Political Science, everyday neoliberalism in the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and is due to be published on the occupy movement and affective labour in the financial crisis in Global Discourse and Global Society respectively. Oh, and he’s also Irish. That’s also important. Below is Nick’s review of Dave Eden’s new book on Autonomist thought, which one can only hope has not gone entirely unnoticed because it’s one of the finest on the subject!

All quotes in the below are to Eden’s text, unless otherwise stated.


Eden Autonomy

No doubt, a return to the commodity is a risky venture. As Dave Eden puts it in his exceptional new book, certain framings of the power of the commodity can lead to an embrace of austerity, a “romanticization of poverty” or, worse, “a reactionary anti-capitalism”. Nevertheless, he asserts, a return to the commodity may ultimately be required. Currently popular framings of social movements, such as those of Hardt and Negri, he notes (citing Franco Berardi), offer very bright and “jolly” interpretations of the possibilities of the age, pretty much ignoring the need for a critique of the commodity form altogether. As such, they appear to have little sense of what it is that keeps capitalism going, or what it is that might finally send it on its way! However, while Eden wishes to convince us that we cannot do without the critique of the commodity, it is unclear if he ultimately achieves this goal. For his argument stands or falls on his ability to convince us that it is possible both to embrace this critique and remain faithful to an internal theory of capitalist power. This is a difficult circle to square and, by the end of the book, Eden seems to have done little to address it – an irony given that this is actually one of the areas where the targets of his critique are especially strong.

At the heart of Eden’s explanation of Autonomism, its virtues and its flaws, is the “Copernican inversion” of Marxism in which Mario Tronti asserts that the true dynamic force behind capitalism’s development is the workers rather than capital. Starting from this core observation, Eden proceeds to offer a survey and critque of Tronti’s heirs, particularly Antonio Negri. For Negri, the current order in world power is defined most completely by the antagonism between ‘Empire’ and the ‘multitude,’ where the latter term endeavors to expand the definition of the proletariat in order to capture not only the vitality of “labour as a whole” but to encompass the full diversity of the identities which compose it, and Empire is the power which dominates the multitude. Breaking with traditional Marxism, however, Empire is not capitalism. Rather, it is a multi-valent regime which proscribes democracy in order to bolster a global order of things which is capitalist, statist, racist, and gendered, among other things. Challenging this power, however, the Multitude realises the creative possibilities of today’s intellectual and affectively efficacious labour, and incorporates them in its struggle for self-actualisation.

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