Radical academics: When good ideas go bad?

Today, I want to try and think about why it is that radical anti-capitalist ideas are tolerated in universities so much more than anywhere else. In contrast to a lot of my posts, this doesn’t have much to do with current events, it’s more a general attempt to work out an idea.
Anyway, in general this society isn’t incredibly tolerant of dissent. It’s not the most repressive regime that’s ever existed, but it’s also a long way from real freedom of speech. If you want to protest peacefully at the wrong time – say, during a royal wedding – you’re likely to face heavy repression, and while critical ideas are given some limited space in a few papers (Independent, Guardian, Mirror), most of the press forms a solidly right-wing consensus. There is an obvious reply to this, which is that this is just the law of supply and demand playing itself out, and if lefty papers were more appealing then they’d outsell the Sun, but if you think about for a second this idea is obviously bullshit: millions of people don’t read the Evening Standard (notorious for its ridiculous scare stories about anarchists) and the Metro (owned by the same people as the Daily Mail) every day because they think those are the best papers around, or because they’ve sought them out, it’s because millions of those papers are distributed free to commuters every day. There’s no anti-establishment paper with anything like the resources to be able to compete with that, and so our formal freedom of speech is drowned out by the fact that the owners of right-wing papers can shout thousands of times louder than we can.
Anyway, compared to the near-total blackout of radical ideas in most of the media, it’s notable how easy a time they have in the academic world. Universities offer courses like Peace Studies, Critical Theory After Marx, Activism and Social Change, and so on, and there are radical professors ranging from Alex Callinicos and Slavoj Zizek to Antonio Negri and David Graeber. With the decline of interest in Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union, a Foucault-flavoured post-modernism with a vague opposition to “power” is the most fashionable brand of radical thought, but the existence of the Anarchist Studies Network proves that there’s enough room for anarchist ideas within the ivory towers. The image of the student radical is a cliche, but it’s one with some truth to it – hardly surprising, when universities allow socialist and anarchist groups to operate openly in a way that no workplace would. So why is it that the bosses who run universities are generally so unbothered by people promoting ideas that say we should get rid of bosses?
I’d argue that the presence of radical ideas in the universities actually serves as propaganda for capitalism in two related ways. First of all, it serves as an advert for liberal capitalism’s tolerance: when people try to kick up a fuss about police repression of protests, or the absence of radical ideas in the mainstream media, or any of the other authoritarian features of this society, defenders of capitalism can point to the freedom of ideas within academia as proof of how benevolent and open the system is. The flipside of this freedom is that it’s relatively powerless: giving anarchists and socialists space to speak up on a regular basis in the mainstream media, or to organise openly in their workplaces, would carry the risk of their ideas reaching large numbers of working-class people. But most people never reach university, and the majority of those who do are on courses that don’t require them to actively engage with radical ideas, so  anti-capitalist critiques mainly tend to reach a limited self-selecting audience who have an interest in those ideas in the first place.
Related to this, the association between revolutionary ideas and the universities can actually be used as a way to attack those ideas and anyone who supports them. As I’ve said, not everyone gets to go to uni, and, without wanting to get into the vexed question of who’s part of the “real working class” and who isn’t, it seems pointless to deny that those who do get the chance tend to be somewhat better off than those who don’t. Similarly, whatever attacks they’re currently facing from university bosses, academics certainly get better pay and conditions than, for example, call centre or retail workers. This means that the connection between radicalism and universities can be used to dismiss any kind of progressive cause and its supporters by painting them as privileged young folk who don’t understand the real world of work. By attacking radicals in this way, it becomes possible to portray supporting inequality and opposing workers’ rights as the sort of sensible, grown-up thing that “real workers” do. This isn’t helped by the tendency of many well-educated revolutionaries, from the Escalate Collective to the Really Open University to Aufheben to the Invisible Committee, to express themselves in very academic language that can be inaccessible to many people who haven’t been to university (and even to a lot of people who have).
To try and preempt any misunderstanding, I’d like to stress that I’m not saying universities hire Marxist academics as part of some deliberate capitalist conspiracy worked out in smoky back rooms, just that some situations develop a logic of their own, and I think the logic of how universities work tends to promote tolerance of radical ideas more than the logic of society in general. Of course, this certainly doesn’t mean that all anti-capitalist academics, and much less students, are enemies who should be fought against – although those, like Alex Callinicos, who use their position in the social hierarchy to try and set themselves up as the leaders who will guide the working class to victory actually are the enemy, and should be treated the same as any other politician seeking to gain power off our backs. Considering how shit most jobs are, I can’t really blame anyone who turns to academia as a way of escaping the grimness of the “real world”. I want to abolish the difference between academics and the rest of the population, but I want to do that by creating a world where everyone will have the freedom to spend lots of time learning about the stuff that interests them, not a world where everyone will be as miserable as the most oppressed wage-slave.
There are no easy answers as to how students and academics who genuinely want to destroy this system can break out of the safe roles it offers them, but one answer might be to try and forge closer links with university support staff. That’s a fairly empty statement in the abstract, but the 2009 SOAS university occupation in solidarity with migrant cleaners (analysed in depth by the Commune) shows what it might look like in practice. It’s easy to dismiss students or lecturers as posh idiots out of touch with the real world, it’s a lot harder to write migrant cleaners making minimum wage or less off in the same way.
News round-up: obviously, the main story of this week’s been the ongoing News of the World scandal, which Adam Ford has an interesting discussion ofTower Hamlets ALARM want to turn the anger against Murdoch into action with a demo in Wapping tomorrow (as I write this, it’s just been confirmed that the NotW is closing, but that shouldn’t mean that Murdoch gets off the hook). Meanwhile, prisoners’ struggles are kicking off in the US, EDO decommissioner Simon Levin is yet another activist who’s tragically passed away this summer, struggles are going on in Italy, Indonesia and Greece, and two new pamphlets about workplace organising are now free to read online: Weakening the Dam, a Twin Cities IWW piece about helping your co-workers develop into organisers, and Workmates, a SolFed pamphlet looking at a workplace group on the London Underground run according to anarcho-syndicalist principles.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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