Strike-breaking is strike-breaking regardless of your intellectual justification for it

This is a quick rejoinder to this article by Lambros Fatsis. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of rejecting the article because of my political disagreement with it. But equally I’m not comfortable with publishing an argument that “we urgently need to work against the strikes” without also registering my complete rejection of it.

There are some points in the article which I think are straight forwardly problematic (e.g. the notion there’s something ‘inconsistent’ about signing an employment contract and going on strike, the notion that the structural positions of those involved make support for the strike seem ‘naive’ or ‘foolish’, the slightly sneering dismissal of the language of class war) but, reading charitably, I take the basic argument here to be that strikes aren’t radical enough. They render dissent as something exceptional, perhaps carnivalesque, briefly suspending the order of things only for it to later return with a crushing intensity which negates the emancipatory impulse underlying the strike:

We cannot consent daily to reducing the production of knowledge to the level of drafting applications for funding, point-scoring for the RAE and the REF, evaluating our work by Key Performance Indicators and audit measures, upsetting our brains, stomachs and nerves over maximising citations, measuring our work in terms of bibliometrics, undermining our pedagogic relationship with our students by treating teaching as a time-consuming chore and by minimising the feedback or the academic and pastoral support we give to them, humiliate ourselves by accepting the casualization of our labour, and claim to want to overthrow all that in one stroke during a strike. We cannot afford to march for education as a public good yet agree to march to the beat of our institution’s trustees, at least not at the peril of being accused of double-standards.

Striking won’t restore University education or academic working conditions to a golden era that never was, nor will it prepare the ground for more hope towards overthrowing the regulatory discourse of the post-modern enterprising university, but our every-day academic conduct will. Engaging in the first but not the latter gives the impression that we are comfortable with being actively just one day yet passively unjust the rest of the time by fooling ourselves and others in the meantime.

The structure of this argument is one I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to. I think there’s a tendency, not just amongst the left, to overvalue personal judgement in a way which combines objective complicity with subjective repudiation i.e. rejecting a system in principle while nonetheless acting in a way which wilfully reproduces it. So what I take Lambros to be saying is that strikes are one step removed from this, constituting expressive action which leaves the day-to-day life of the institution untouched. If this were so then I’d probably accept the argument. However it straight forwardly misunderstands what a strike is, misreading collective action as a day out for a collection of individuals. Collective agency is exercised through the coordinated withdrawal of labour, representing one move within a much longer standing  game. Steven Shakespeare has expressed what I believe more competently than I’ve thus far been able to:

There is no reason why academics should be any more logical about these matters than anyone else. But I wonder if the gaping holes in these responses are, at least in part, a result of the shaping of academic subjectivity by the capitalist university. We are engaged in a profession which claims to promote something above instrumentalism – and it is precisely this which is our instrumental role. We have to play the games of preparing students for employment, and raising money for research, but we keep an internal distance from these things. We cynically despise them (and often despise the students who do not measure up to our ideals), whilst committing ourselves to a system which believes in these things on our behalf (cf. the Zizekian analysis of contemporary belief).

However, it is this internal displacement which produces the figure of the contemporary academic. This person is invested in an ethic of scholarship, which actually leaves them without a language or imagination for addressing the material conditions of higher education, beyond that of an ultimately ineffective idealism. The melancholy of the modern scholar over the marketization of education is therefore neither a form of resistance nor mere nostalgia, but a fabricated affect essential to the mediating role we play.

Of course, I generalise hugely, and we can all think of many exceptions. I am not suggesting that our bureaucratised unions or existing left groups offer any panacea. Nevertheless, higher education has been, and will continue to be, marketised and instrumentalised, and the vast majority of academics will (grudgingly, cynically) put up with it. And our ethic of scholarship is of no use. It is the same ethic which is able to abide such logical inconsistencies and lack of solidarity when it comes to strikebreaking.

Repudiating collective action because its goals aren’t lofty enough in practice does little more than strengthen those seeking to destroy public higher education. Criticise the tactics, suggest alterations of the strategy but accept that strike-breaking is strike-breaking regardless of your intellectual justification for it. If you’re going to actively undermine the collective action of others while castigating them for the narrow instrumentalism of their goals then you need to offer an alternative. Unfortunately a radical ethics of everyday life just doesn’t cut it. It offers no theory of change. It’s just the universalisation of a personal ethos. It is the apotheosis of precisely the expressive politics Lambros is rejecting. If strikes aren’t radical enough then you need to explain how we can collectively work towards these loftier ends without them.

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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