As Marx satirically depicts the production of capital, the living bodies of workers, their hands, brain, muscle and sinew, are converted into a gelatinous mass of undifferentiated human labour. Such an industrial process cannot be reversed. The finished commodity conceals its origins in concrete human labour. So it is with our universities. The liberal ideal of the university as a pure community of minds – in the name of which so many battles against fees and cuts have been fought – is ultimately an ideological instrument. For all its cant against ‘commodification’, its function is to preserve the mystery of the education-commodity, to prevent us from peeling back the sausage skin and inquiring just whose brain, muscle and sinew is mashed up inside. Against this we say: look at the thousands of WORKERS on whose exploitation the day to day running of these institutions depends. Just look, for example, at how many classes are taught by hourly-paid staff on casual contracts, whose unpaid marking and preparation load frequently pushes their pay below minimum wage; or taught by post-graduates for no pay at all; or the fact that UCL’s media-savvy promise to pay its workers the London Living Wage by 2013 has not only never been implemented, but indeed been followed by an escalated campaign of outsourcing its lowest-paid staff to private contractors; or that the outsourced Senate House cleaners – mostly Latin-American women who speak little English, who work several jobs to support their families – had their pay illegally withheld by contractors Balfour Beatty; that it was only through the most incredible feats of organising – including unofficial strike action, supported by students and other activists – that they won their pay, a union recognition agreement, and the Living Wage… If we are to confront the realities of life in the sausage factory, this must be our starting point.
But what next?
Well, the PIGS, of course, are everywhere; every sausage factory needs pigs. But these are no ordinary pigs, and they’re not being turned into sausages. They’re here to break up our picket-lines, to violently arrest us when we protest, and to control us with targeted immigration raids. They’re here to monitor our Social Centres for signs of banner making and other ‘terrorist activity’, to count the keffiyehs and the shadows they suspect might be anarchists. In other words, to begin increasingly to do to us in Bloomsbury, what they’ve always done to the poor, the non-white, and the potentially insurrectionary, from Tottenham to Ulster to Anaheim. To those who plead for ‘workers in uniform’, having never felt a truncheon, we reply that these remarkable pigs-turned-abattoir-hands are here to uphold the smooth running of the machinery that turns human beings into sausages, to batter us back into its pipes and grinders, and scrape off the over-spill. This structural role is flatly incompatible with realising that they are themselves ultimately made of pork.
So much is obvious. More difficult to unravel is the PRODUCT itself. Just what is the end result of all this alienated labour, this mashing-up of flesh and bone? And who’s eating it? Much has been said about the power of fees to transform students into consumers, ignorant debt-puppets, munching on the ‘student experience’. And this ‘experience’ is surely a sausage of sorts, a melange of pre-masticated half-knowledge, jargon, and club-nights, encased in a smooth, synthetic skin. A neatly individual experience, one link per person, the same for everyone; a propagandistic light-show designed always to dazzle and never, ever, to illuminate. The spectre of the student-consumer, though, is ultimately a distraction. Or rather, this particular piece of consumption is only a preliminary to the main event, the great spewing out of these transferable-skills-made-flesh into the requisite niches of capital production (the contorted liberal plea for ‘social mobility’ demanding merely the occasional unexpected result in niche-allocation). Thinking critically about just whose interests are served by the creation of graduates gets us further.
Let us not forget, though, that a graduate is not literally a commodity, no matter how many times she is ordered to ‘invest in’ and ‘sell’ herself. The same cannot be said of that other core product of the university machine – that ‘out-put’, relentlessly bled from academic workers, which is simultaneously input for the ever-expanding technologies of bourgeois power. Academic research. Currently we see the connections which have always existed between allocation of research funding and the interests of commerce, government, and military being elevated to the status of natural laws. This logic – the details of whose deductive schema certainly deserve our scrutiny – is inherent in the sublime farce of philosophers scrambling desperately to prove that their products have as much ‘impact’ as nuclear weaponry. It stands exposed and dripping in UCL’s £17 million SECReT labs (a.k.a. Security Science Doctoral Research Training Centre), which, embarrassing acronym aside, do not appear to be making empty promises when they assure the prospective researcher that his every Orwellian wet dream can be ‘implemented in the “real world”’, courtesy of valued industry partners G4S, Thales, BAE Systems, SELEX Galileo… As they shamelessly conspire with Old Corruption to bulldoze undesirables out of East London, razing homes to make way for more of these eminent research facilities, the UCL management, at least, are under no illusions about what ‘community’ their institution exists to serve.
However, our critique must go further. For now the liberal steps up, reinvigorated, to the podium. He spies an opportunity for cooption. Defend academic freedom from political interference! Knowledge for its own sake! The dogma of the BBC interview – that every argument has (at most) two sides – has given these slogans a resonance simply because of what they are not. It is easy to forget that the liberal vision they embody – the university as a pure community of practised minds; an oasis in the desert of capital, which must merely be defended against pollution by foreign elements; a ‘private sphere’ which is simultaneously a ‘public good’, which coincidentally ‘boosts the economy’ while transcending its imperatives – is, in all its bewitching incoherence, ultimately a tool of the master, and as such will never dismantle his house. Make no mistake, the liberal is not on our side. He demands that we trust in the pure judgements of the intellectual elite, as though this had only incidental connections with any other elite. He cries ‘peer review!’ as though the ruthless hierarchy that is academia was in any meaningful sense composed of ‘peers’: witness the hives of departmental intrigue crouched over by notorious but tolerated lechers, the post-doc drones scrambling over each other to lick, suck and publish whatever it takes to escape the abyss of the zero hour contract… His fundamental premise is that sheer force of fantasy can detach knowledge from application, distil its intrinsic value out of its instrumental role in the service of capital. Against this we say: what needs to be confronted is the extent to which this ‘knowledge’ is already political, and the role of academic quite simply that of good, old-fashioned bourgeois ideologist. From philosophy to neurophysiology, history to political science to urban studies, we need to confront the ideological nature not only of what is acknowledged as the mainstream in any given ‘discipline’ (the name is apt for more than one reason), but also the majority of what proclaims itself critical. And what’s more, we need to expose the machinery which generates and enforces this convenient conformity. This machinery is constructed of the clawing limbs of all those ostensible peers. It is oiled by college management structures and their corresponding pedagogical models, by standard textbooks and the exams for which we memorise them, by institutional pomp and framed degree certificates, disciplinary conventions and notions of ‘professionalism’ which exclude anyone who looks like trouble; its operations are multifarious but are everywhere reflections of the rule of capital. The product in turn reflects – cannot but reflect – its production process.
We say that our most urgent task here, now, is to disrupt this machinery. It is to this end that we offer our critiques, although we recognise their incompleteness, their provisionality. For it is, as ever, only through the acts, the process, of disruption, that the true nature of our object is revealed.