Joining the dots in seven points: A response to Mark Carrigan’s rejoinder

Following the publication of a recent article of mine which debates rather than simply negates the issue of striking as witnessed at my affiliated institution (University of Sussex), I was delighted to read Mark Carrigan’s objections to my original piece to which I can’t avoid responding in the fear that my argument may have been partly or wholly misunderstood. The comments that follow take the form of a defence in seven points to match the format of the eleven theses I attempted to offer in my original article. Before doing so however, let me qualify my response and my dialogue with Mark, by defending it against the charge of a point-by-point ‘petty-house squabble’ which it certainly is not. I may indeed have chosen a point-by-point format to better capture my arguments in the most concise way available to my own cerebral resources, but this is by no means an attempt to deliver a riposte against Mark or to argue over trivialities; rather it is a necessary rejoinder from my part in an effort to rescue the essential components and the integrity of my argument from possible misreadings, which cloud the picture more than they facilitate exchange on an important issue.

I. Starting with the very reason that Mark gives for his rejoinder, namely his political disagreement with what I wrote, I feel the need to stress that my article, although political in essence, is not articulated in any ideological terms and the difference between the two is one that needs to be highlighted to say the least. I do not ascribe to any ideological position when writing, although I do indeed offer my independent political reflections on a number of issues. This stance derives from my disbelief in and distrust of ideology as an intellectual and rhetorical habit which signifies, but does not directly engage with political ends. Personally, I prefer to discuss politics outside ideological positions, believing that there is no need to position oneself ideologically in order to stand for something politically. One can indeed have a stance which may be political by itself rather than by means of ideological strictures, thus praising political exchange as an intrinsic, not an instrumental good; an end in and of itself, therefore rejecting ideological exchange as a viable means of or a vehicle for politics. It can be said that my view of politics owes a great deal to the ancient Greek paradigm of discussing and enacting politics without necessary pleading allegiance to an ideological position, enclave or party. In fact I adamantly believe that politics is what happens outside ideology rather than through it. That’s another matter however, which is relevant for our discussion here insofar as it spells out where I stand politically but not ideologically.

In the light of the above, the argument I make is hardly informed by an assumed preference for a politics that negates or opposes striking and that’s why I am never (just) saying that “we urgently need to work against the strikes” as Mark claims, but arguing that we; ‘urgently need to work against the strikes in order to better work for them, implying that ‘our work is our strike’ by setting the standards that we wish to see implemented’. The full quote, you will agree, spells out something quite different from its sampled version, which gives the erroneous impression that I wish to see strikes banned in some form of censorship of sorts which I have neither the wish nor the power to impose. In other words my opposition to strikes is not political but critical of their deliberative currency and power as a method of opposition and resistance (my counterargument can be found in the last paragraph of Thesis VII).

II. Bearing this distinction between politics and ideology in mind, as it occurs in my own mind, it hurts to see my argument and position explained away and given the nickname of strike breaking. Taking such liberties amounts to ideologising my political position for me, implying that it can be placed neatly somewhere on the other side of the political spectrum, without my asking of course. Could anything be more injurious both to my argument and to myself as a person and a human being? To make matters worse, the very use of the term ‘strike-breaking’ automatically elevates the choice to strike to the level or a moral absolute rather than treating it as a method, an idea, and a mode of action that can be contested, opposed, and discussed. By framing any opposition to any strike merely as ‘strike-breaking’ one is ushering in a Manichean world-view where strikes almost automatically tilt towards ‘the good’ while any opposition towards them is to be found at the dark recesses of evil alone. Strikes, much like any opposition towards them are not such absolute values however but relative, contestable, discursive, dialogic resources and practices we have in our disposal in order to do or undo things.

II. In addition to being eagerly enlisted as a strike-breaker, regardless of what I think or whether I recognise such a label as an appropriate description of who I am and what I do, I am also accused of misunderstanding what a strike is. In Mark’s reading, strikes equal collective action, and I am accused of reducing them to “a day out for a collection of individuals”, which I am also never saying apart from as an example to highlight the contradiction between everyday professional practice and the exceptional circumstances of a strike. Even if I am to accept that I misunderstand what a strike is, I do not make sense of collective agency and action in the same way as Mark. In my mind, collective action does not assume one form, does not fit one single formula and does not express itself in a one-dimensional way. Rather, I see it as a very complicated, multi-directional process involving a number of different actors rather than a uniform whole; therefore allowing the possibility of many ways of making sense of what collective action is and how it might be best served. No one definition of it will serve all, unless coercion is involved, nor do we all choose to act collectively in the same way; Elinor Ostrom’s recognition of the multiplicity of collective actors and her classificatory typology of (a) rational egoists, (b) conditional co-operators and (c) willing punishers is a testament to such complexity. In case you’re curious I belong, if I must, to the second category.

III. A variation on the theme of collective action comes from Mark’s assertion that I “undermine the collective action of others while castigating them off for the narrow instrumentalism of their goals”, which I never do, urging me instead to ‘offer an alternative’ which I actually do. First of all, I never preach, describe, undermine or ridicule people; there is no trace of such an attitude whatsoever in my tone or in the wording of my argument. I deliberately use ‘we’ throughout the article as an acknowledgment of collective responsibility, thus never reserving for myself a privileged position in the monopoly of truth, morality and virtue, and I am never telling people what to do, undermine their efforts or pass judgment on their actions. What I am doing however is spelling inconsistencies in the way we think and act towards the issues that the strikes purportedly defend.

My interest does not lie in ideologically battling against others by belittling them, but in critically examining our daily conduct towards the claims we make in and during a strike, asking the very simple and obvious questions of (a) are we in a position to shout-out without being found-out?, (b) what do we do daily towards the realising the ideals we claim to defend?, (c) do we actually offer an alternative or some sort of plan? That final point brings us to Mark’s accusation that I offer no alternatives, which I find rather problematic not only because I actually do so (in eleven theses), but also because it assumes that the strikes actually offer an alternative, which they do not; not because they do not intend to but because they are not designed for spelling out plans but merely for expressing dissatisfaction with a state of affairs.

Offering alternatives is not just something that ‘strike-breakers’ need to do, but ‘strikers’ too; when we agitate for change we need to spell out and articulate specifically what it is that we’re prepared to do. Slogans and vague allusions to abstract ideas won’t do, but a clarion call for cultivating those ideals by integrating them to our every-day professional practice will, or so I claim anyway. Even if I am accused of offering no alternatives, what is the alternative offered by the strikes which can match and/or outperform what I suggest?

IV. Mark expresses some puzzlement in relation to the very heart of my argument which he finds “straight-forwardly problematic”; especially “the notion there’s something ‘inconsistent’ about signing an employment contract and going on strike”. I have struggled to understand what is so problematic about that claim but have only come up with the, intentionally far-fetched, example of someone who willingly seeks a career in, and is in no way coerced to work for, the porn industry but claims to fight against the objectification of women’s bodies. The example is admittedly exaggerated, in order to sensationalise the contradiction I allude to, but hits my argument at its core. Given that we know that the institutions we sign our contracts with, do not correspond to the romanticised ideal-type we have in our minds, can we still criticise them for not being the institutions that they should be, without feeling at the same time that we have contributed towards such a betrayal by virtue of agreeing to work for/in them?

V. I am also accused of calling people who support the strikes “naïve” or “foolish” which I never do, given that my article is not an attack on or a criticism of other people’s views or decisions, but a critical self-check of whether our claims match our actual performance or at least stand the test of logic. All I am asking is not that we simply practice what we preach, but that we preach only what we actually practice. My use of the word ‘naïve’ by the way is taken out of context from the following phrase: ‘I very much fear that we are far too complicit in and complacent about the trends, the workings and the regulatory regime of Higher Education in our every-day academic practice to be able to afford such a stance without sounding naïve or hypocritical even’. Needless to say, there is no mention of “foolishness” in any part of my article, nor is any such characterisation attributed to anyone but ‘us’ given the use of ‘we’ throughout the article. Cutting and mixing are two beautiful and immensely creative skills both in the process of film editing as well as in music production, but they are used to add to the result not to reduce it to a bare form, and in order to do so they always remain faithful to the context of what is being expressed as well as to how.

VI. Mark, quite rightly, identifies what he calls my “sneering dismissal of the language of class war” and although I do indeed oppose such a rhetoric of class war, I doubt that I adopt a ‘sneering’ tone. At any rate, what I am arguing is that such allusions to class war add very little except demagoguery and emotive (not emotional!) arousal, so it is now my turn to ask what plan do such statements spell out? What solution do they propose? Where is an argument towards making such warfare irrelevant? Contrary to what I take as Mark’s support for such a statement, in the hope that I am wrong, I think that such slogans make class war even more durable using ideology as a pretext for legitimising conflict rather than proposing or even remotely suggesting change; the very wording affirms warfare, it does not negate or offer an alternative to it.

VII. Last but not least, and here is where Mark and I seem to agree is that “strikes aren’t radical enough” indeed. Much as I value, the subversive, “carnivalesque” element of striking, it arguably turns vital concerns of ordinary academic politics into extra-ordinary events scheduled as special occasions. When I claim that ‘our daily work is our strike’ I aim at pointing out that the ideas, ideals and principles we defend in a Rabelaisian fashion during strikes need to be enacted upon in our everyday professional practice. Just as cosmopolitanism and the poetics, ethics and politics of multiculture are not best served by one-off events but by our everyday, ordinary practice of them, the same applies to our fight against the privatisation and techno-bureaucratisation of education and intellectual life at broad. When I appear critical of striking as a method then, it is not the “carnivalesque” that I oppose, but my fear and suspicion that striking privileges preaching and self-righteousness over reflecting on the harm we do or on whether we actually do the right thing during our working hours.

If a “radical ethics of everyday life doesn’t cut it” as Mark concludes, then what does? If a change in the way we operate in our routine, daily life is not effected then where will it come from? Besides, I do not see such a change in professional practices as a “personal ethos”, as Mark claims, but as a collective responsibility and a collective civic virtue which is realised by collectively aspiring to and actualising the principles of educational and institutional reform we wish to see though what we do at the University. How can change be brought about by striking occasionally, when we are not prepared to change our ways in relation to how we engage daily with our professional practice? A scholarly community which will inspire collective action cannot be convincingly or durably be forged unless we strive to prioritise and set the standards for the type of academic activity we wish to see and live in harmony with.

My personal utopia, to avoid any further misunderstandings, takes the form of pro-active change for where we want to see it happening. Instead of fighting the neoliberal University after accepting to work within its walls, why not refrain from joining it in the first place, seeking and creating better spaces to host our homeless minds? (see Thesis III). Instead of supporting the techno-bureaucratisation of scholarly curiosity and intellectual life by succumbing to the regulatory discourse of the current Higher Education climate, why not, like our German counterparts have done, boycott modes and types of evaluation that betray scholarly sensibilities and standards? Instead of asking students to protest against much of what we commonly oppose, after they’ve paid their fees, why not plead with them publicly to protest by not enrolling in institutions which undermine the intrinsic value of their learning, asking them instead to organise nationwide protests, before joining a Uni, until tuition fees are abolished?

In the light of the above, and bearing in mind the word-length of my original article (6.000 words), has it not become clear enough that the issue that the strikes polarise admits more than a binary mode of thinking and talking about it? Academics of the world unite, we have nothing but some REF points to lose, but our integrity, courage and goodwill to win! Can we, will we do that?

Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music. Recent publications are featured on the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Theory Forum and on The Sociological Imagination magazine on a variety of issues ranging from the English riots, the idea of sociological imagination and the Eurozone crisis. In the spring of 2013 he achieved Associate Fellow status of the Higher Education Academy.

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