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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A Crisis of Immediacy

I wonder if other writers feel as though they are throwing words by the hopeful fistful into a void, into the place where an audience might be. This hoped-for-reader is on my mind because I feel I should apologise for having taken so long to think these thoughts and align them so that I can throw them into that void.

There is no reason for apologies, however, because my hoped-for-reader doesn’t know that my current thoughts are inspired by a planned but only partly written series of posts from two-and-a-half years ago. Yet I feel I am writing an overdue assignment on the last day of class.

My thoughts are not timely. I worry this means they are no good. This is a strange feeling, to worry not that the words that carry our thoughts are inadequate but rather that they have gestated too long, such that tossing them into the void ceases to be a hopeful act of communication and becomes rather like dropping a crumpled page into the nearest bin.

Artwork from wraphome.org

Artwork from wraphome.org

Those many months past I wanted to write more about the economic crisis, about the disaster in the making that was “austerity”. In particular I wanted to consider what virtues might help us to navigate what seemed an all-encompassing crisis. But the moment has passed, surely. Right? There’s talk now of recovery even in Britain and signs of changing attitudes in Europe. Continue reading

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

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

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.

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

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