Pedagogy of Unrest: Education Struggles and the Prospect of an Autonomous University

élise Thorburn & David Hugill

Students and education workers have been at the forefront of the mass mobilizations that have swept across Europe over the past 18 months. As these movements have developed, their transnational character has become increasingly evident. Student movements have begun to draw connections between their own national contexts and the broader struggles against austerity that have emerged in a wide range of locales, including North America. There are numerous lessons that North American students and workers can draw from the practices, projects, and critiques advanced by European education activists, particularly around issues of organizing and what it means to draw on legacies of struggle. As European universities become subject to increasing homogenization through the adoption of “North American” systems of organization, and as the neoliberal process of university transformation becomes increasingly international, the overt links between our struggles become stronger. At a recent meeting in Paris called to build bridges between student movements from around the world, Élise Thorburn and David Hugill spoke with activists from the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands in order to uncover what North Americans can learn from the battles currently underway in Europe.

Vassilis Christophides is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Crete and holds a PhD from the Conservatoire des Arts et M etiers in Paris. H e is member of the H ellenic Federation of University T eachers’ Associations (POSDEP).

Emma Dowling is a writer, researcher, educator and activist. She is currently Lecturer in Ethics, Governance and Accountability at Queen Mary, University of London.
M erijn Oudenampsen is a free radical and a researcher at the University of T ilburg in the N etherlands.

Gigi Roggero is an activist and precarious researcher at the University of Bologna. H e is part of Edu-factory and Uninomade. H is publications include The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and The Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America (T emple University Press, forthcoming).

In the context of the present “crisis of higher education,” it’s increasingly common to hear radicals calling for the autonomy of the university. What would this autonomy look like?

Gigi: The autonomous university is not a utopia. I don’t think it is useful to talk of the university of our dreams but rather to talk, think, and act the autonomous university starting from the material base, the conditions of class struggle. In my opinion, the university is not outside of social production. So when we talk about an autonomous university, we are talking about re-appropriating social wealth, autonomously organizing knowledge production, and breaking the capitalist mechanism of capture. I don’t think we can talk about this in an abstract way; we need to consider the social organization of something that exists. There are many examples of “autonomous” education that have been nothing more than islands within the corporate university and they haven’t been very useful. It is only when these experiments have the ambition to create new institutions by reappropriating existing institutions and social wealth that they become important.

Merijn: It’s too easy to frame this as a question of whether we should struggle inside or outside the traditional university. I don’t think we can keep our fight exclusively inside established institutions and simply demand that the university in its present form remain open. We need to make the university more autonomous from both capital and state control. On the other hand, attempts to create educational spaces that are autonomous, open, and completely outside of the traditional university system have often been driven by voluntary labour. In terms of scale, they have not been able to have much of an effect. When I’ve been involved in organizing mobilizations against the G8 or with social forums, we have always had “one foot in and one foot out.” That is, we have one foot in the social forum but also one foot in the counter-forum on the other side. I think we need the same strategy when it comes to creating an autonomous university. We need to have one foot inside struggles for the existing university and one foot outside so that we can organize our own forms of education unimpeded by regulatory or economic control.

Emma: I agree with Gigi that we can’t rely on abstract or utopian notions of what the autonomous university is. I also don’t think that there’s an “outside” where we can construct the autonomous, self-organized, self-managed, self-controlled university. It’s a question of resources, a question of our relationship to the state, and to capital. Right now, we face a dual struggle – against cuts but also against the imposition of measure and the instrumentalization of knowledge. These operate together by introducing internal markets into the university where productivity and value can be measured. Student debt is a productive moment for capital. In the UK right now, we are faced with a very interesting question concerning the government’s idea of building a “Big Society.” The idea here is that, in the wake of massive cuts, the labour of social reproduction can be performed by people for free. This is meant to invoke a sense of community and of mutual aid (even though that particular wording isn’t used).1 So libraries, schools, health care, care in the community, and so on, are all meant to be done by the community for each other. The interesting thing is that there is an opening for what a lot of radical activists have been looking for – the ability to realize their autonomous projects, a sense of self management, etc. But it is also clear that what is happening is an off -loading of the cost of social reproduction onto people that are providing these services for free while finding their own income. There is a real tension here. In this context, the question of what an autonomous university might look like becomes very interesting. In the UK, there are a variety of free school projects in which people are trying to think through precisely these kinds of problems. Where the government is talking about free schools, we must ask about the meaning of “free” in material terms, and that has to be connected to the issue of labour.

Vassilis: In Greece, there is a quite different meaning hidden in the term “autonomy,” and this has to be clarified. Here, the “autonomous university” is promoted as part of a neoliberal politics. Autonomy, in this sense, is essentially the independence of university managers to negotiate university worker contracts and salaries as in the private sector. My assessment is close to Slavoj Žižek’s suggestion that universities have been subsumed to the capitalist order and are no longer producing thinkers but rather specialists. Specialists resolve problems set by others rather than choosing what to study. If we are going to defend the “autonomous university” in terms of self-determined goals and the means to support them, we need to argue within but also outside the academic community. We need to defend education both as commonwealth (part of our collective intellectual property) but also as a process of immaterial workers’ social emancipation. Only in this context can universities reclaim public funding while remaining distinct from both the state and the market.

Gigi: But we must be clear here: do our struggles against corporatization simply aim to defend the public university, and therefore the state? The public university is not the opposite of the corporate university. If we look at North America and elsewhere, we see examples of universities that are both public and private, funded by both state and corporate money. Corporatization of the university means that the university becomes a corporation, that it works according to the logics of profit and rent, costs and benefits, and seeks to compete in a global education market. It means that the traditional dialectic between public and private is over: they are two sides of the same capitalist coin. I think it’s false to see the “autonomous university” as a neoliberal project since the neoliberal project is itself only the capitalist response to the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. The neoliberal university is an attempt to capture the autonomy of living labour. If you don’t see that class struggle is what comes first, you risk drawing a totalitarian image of capital: capital without antagonism and without class subjectivity. Therefore, you place the element of resistance in the authority of the state. Theorizing “the commons” is not theorizing about an ideal society: we’re talking about what is produced through living labour and what is captured by capital. The autonomous university is a re-appropration of the social wealth that we produce in common. It involves breaking the mechanisms of capitalist capture and fostering the collective organization of knowledge production. The common doesn’t exist in nature; it has to be organized through cooperation and struggle.

Emma: I don’t think we can approach the question of what an autonomous university would look like without understanding the context in which “the student” and “the lecturer” are produced today. There is a tension within the struggles that are currently taking place, where the struggle to defend access to higher education is still too often counterposed to desires for an altogether different kind of education and knowledge production. It’s within this complex field that the question of the autonomous university is located.

In the UK, current changes to the funding of universities – an increase in the transfer of the cost of obtaining a university education onto the individual student – go hand in hand with the intensification of the Bologna Process.2 Paramount to the Bologna Process is the streamlining of university education along the lines of employability and skills training. How does this translate into what students think they’re at university for? What do the pupils who have recently been demonstrating worry is being taken away from them? It’s the opportunity to improve their employability, and the fear that this opportunity will be limited by their ability to pay increased tuition fees.

When I ask the students I teach why they are at university, their answer is predominantly that they want to get a degree in order to be more employable. It’s about the value added to their labour power through the development of particular abilities and knowledge. But their emphasis is not even on the abilities or knowledge themselves, it’s on the certificate, the piece of paper, the line on their CV that states that they successfully completed a university degree. The pedagogical negotiation is thus primarily around how they can do well in their coursework and in their exams. There is such fear around not achieving the required grades in order to compete on the labour market. For them, this is the value of the education they are receiving.

I once had a situation where none of my students would participate in classroom discussion, so I asked them why. After some moments of silence, one student raised her hand and said that, because there was no mark for participating in my classes, it was not “worth” saying anything because it didn’t “count” directly toward anything that could be quantified in terms of her degree.

This instrumental logic is projected onto me as the authority figure who holds the power to grant them their degree. Consequently, I am often asked not simply how to write a good essay but how I, in particular, like essays to be written. Often, if they understand that I have a particular theoretical or political position, they will try to emulate this in their essays in the hope of succeeding by writing what they think I want to read. This instrumental logic is compounded by fear – a fear of not succeeding and thus not being able to get a job, and a fear of not receiving a return on their monetary, emotional, and cognitive investment. As lecturers, we increasingly have to demonstrate the contribution our courses make to the employability of our students. In turn, we are beholden to the student as customer who – through the continuous completion of satisfaction surveys – provides an evaluation of their “student experience.”

If we want to talk about the possibilities of an autonomous university, we have to think about two crucial aspects of our current struggles together. One, as Gigi very correctly states, is how to reappropriate the social wealth that’s stolen from us. The other is how to break with the particular mechanisms of governance through which “the student” and “the lecturer” are produced – the student as the obedient and willing worker fearful for their individual future and the lecturer as the enforcer, equally fearful of not hitting targets imposed by “measures of success” that determine their continued employability. The autonomous university is therefore not only an alternative space for the practice of self-organized education; it’s also a collective transformative practice of refusal and a transgression of the current relationship between “student” and “lecturer.”

This can’t simply take place amongst those who are currently able to access the university. We must address restrictions to access and the increasing levels of student debt, both of which are intensified by rising tuition fees. This is where Merijn’s “one-foot in one foot out” strategy becomes crucial. But I don’t think it’s simply about having a foot in different spaces. In our practices, we must focus on challenging how the border is drawn between the formal university’s “outside” and “inside.” We have to blur its boundaries; we have to continue to pry open the university and refuse enclosure while continuing to engage in educational projects beyond its confines.

Merijn: Some basic assumptions need to be questioned. No one can tell us with a straight face that an illegible paper on Deleuze’s “becoming animal” and its relevance for “the politics of meat eating in Bangalore” is somehow useful for capital, or that society is somehow in need of that kind of labour power. There is a degree of relative autonomy, and it’s what makes radical research and theory in the university possible in the first place. Our goal should be to enlarge that space of autonomy and make use of it. Similarly, the idea that there is no longer a difference between public and private, or that “public and private universities are two sides of the same capitalist coin,” is an unhelpful simplification. Of course, the Thatcherite politics of inserting business management techniques into the public sphere have had their impact. But public and private spheres are not the same and their differences should not be ignored. The entire world has not followed the models of North America, the UK, and Italy. Try going to Scandinavia and telling people that there is no difference between public and private and see how people react.

I am not advocating a return to a politics of conquering state power and I don’t expect that such a project would solve our problems. That would be naïve. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge state power and intervene in its contested domain if we are to wrest autonomy from it. This requires moving beyond the politics of purism and opening our eyes to the contradictions and fault lines within the system.

Have the student struggles that have engulfed Europe during the last 18 months been able to move beyond the concerns of those directly involved in the university? Have students been able to build alliances with other movements to foster a broader opposition to austerity programs?

Emma: In the UK, self-organized anti-cuts groups have been forming in different cities and boroughs, and in different areas of public sector employment and service provision. In universities, there are anti-cuts groups that bring together students and staff in order to consider where different concerns overlap and where common struggles can emerge. To my mind, it’s crucial that these alliances continue to be strengthened and that links are made with struggles taking place in different locales. This requires physical spaces for collective discussion, analysis, and action, as well as different kinds of media – both virtual and print – in order to communicate and work through problems and issues that arise.

Such a huge wealth of knowledge is coming together and it’s here that experienced activists who have developed skills in organizing, meeting facilitation, media communication, and civil disobedience can share this knowledge with others. But not as professionalized organizers: activists are not outsiders to what’s going on. They too are affected, and it’s on that basis that we must organize.

The existing climate justice movement has an important role to play in making links between the cuts and climate change and in highlighting the absurdity of pursuing economic growth at the expense of social justice and the planet. It’s inspiring that there’s so much going on at the moment but it will take some time to draw it all together. Protests, strikes, sit-ins, teach-ins, and occupations in libraries, universities, local councils, and, in the streets, actions to shut down banks and tax dodging corporations. These moments of resistance are all singular dots or, perhaps, nodes. When you connect them, they create the bigger picture. The political analysis that’s needed is actually happening in practice. Connections are being made through direct actions and protests. With this comes the experience of common struggle. Importantly, it’s not a seamless and harmonious process. In the process of organizing together, we come up against – and find ways to transgress – the limitations of our fears and our different ideas about what needs to be done. We are forced to deal with the social contradictions that pit us against each other and keep us apart. It’s also in this context that union leadership will have to listen in a serious way to what the grassroots wants – a strong and uncompromising movement that pushes the boundaries of legitimacy so that our struggle is not defensive but truly transformative.

Gigi: I’ve been surprised to see the amount of solidarity that other sectors have extended to the university over the last three years. People have been there for us when we occupy the streets and block traffic in the centre of cities, or during clashes with the police, for example. This hasn’t happened because students are young and nice but because of the peculiar position in which both groups find themselves. Students and young workers are paradigmatic instances of the general condition of precariousness. The traditional idea of the university as an elevator for upward social mobility is over. The absence of a future resonates with us, as does the intolerability of the present. In this context, it’s not difficult to build alliances between students, precarious workers, migrants, and metalworkers because our struggles are common despite our sometimes very different conditions of life and work. A new class composition is emerging from these conflicts against capital. The challenge, then, is not solidarity; it’s finding forms of common organization for our different struggles. This has been a central concern over the past few years.

Merijn: University struggles in the Netherlands are at far too early a stage of development for us to form lasting alliances. The student movement must first exist in its own right before it can team up with possible allies. With the exception of two occupations – one in Amsterdam and the other in Utrecht – student mobilizations here have had an institutional character, with student unions and political parties doing most of the talking. Nevertheless, a seed has been planted by the protests currently taking place throughout Europe. In order for this seed to grow and flower, we will have to face the challenge of overcoming a thoroughly depoliticized university culture. Unlike in other European countries, most students in the Netherlands are able to find jobs when they finish their studies. Precarity is still a marginal phenomenon for our generation. Consequently, activists encounter a more indifferent attitude toward labour and political issues. This is unlikely to change in the short term. The Dutch political model is based on depoliticization and consensus building – what Marcuse once called “repressive tolerance.” Now that the government has broken with this model and moved to the right, a new political landscape is emerging. However, thus far, it has mostly involved the once- dominant liberals who plead for “investments” in the knowledge economy, contending with the austerity politics of the new right. There are possibilities here but, at the moment, even the left is using economic arguments for defending education. Third, previous generations of social movements – most notably the squat movement – developed completely outside the university. As a consequence, there are almost no movement-friendly faculty. This is slowly changing with a new generation of PhD students, who have to start building from the ground up.

Vassilis: In Greece, neoliberal educational reform (a) provides less educational opportunities, (b) decreases the quality of education, and (c) shifts educational costs to students and their parents. While most education movements focus on (a) and (c), the centrality of immaterial work in postmodern production and the “digital Taylorism of today’s labour” makes educational quality a central issue for struggle. When there are only a few “centres of excellence,” other graduates are doomed to a revolving door of short term contracts, life-long “learning,” and unemployment. This divisive problem needs to be foregrounded in education movements today.

What happens next? How can these struggles be renewed and expanded?

Vassilis: Since the 2008 crisis began, we have seen capitalism become more aggressive. This was always in its nature, but in the past people were more likely to believe in the illusion that the system was functioning. Now that the system is in crisis, the “law of seizure” is in full effect. It prevails globally and without limit. We are living in a time when capitalism is no longer interested in its own self-reproduction and is actually devouring its own conditions of reproduction by generalizing exclusions from public services (education, health, transport, etc.) Accordingly, many predict that 2011 will be a year of intense social struggle around the world. Nevertheless, I don’t see concrete political forces capable of organizing or leading these struggles in Europe or elsewhere. It’s an irony of history that we’re completely unprepared for the moment we’ve been waiting for.

Emma: I think that Vassilis makes an important point about the absurdity of our present: even on its own terms, capital is not “rational.” We don’t need to try to make its manoeuvres “make sense,” or appeal to the state to be “sensible.” We have to break with the confines of those sorts of conversations and negotiations; we’re not “in this together” with forces that privatize wealth and gains while socializing risks and costs. Our actions have to be informed by a conversation about our common and conflicting material needs and desires for what could be. This has to be transnational; we need to strengthen our transnational links. We need a common analysis and we need to connect our actions in ways that account for different regional expressions of the crisis.

Transnational organizing is of course nothing new. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we are building on and strengthening the networks, campaigns, mobilizations, knowledge, and solidarity that are already there. We have to be self-critical without imagining that we are the centre of the universe. And we have to be attentive to learning from past experiences: we must not have another round of “global” events, meetings, and protests that are detached from everyday social experience. This was a stifling tendency within the anti-summit protests and World Social Forums of the counter- globalization movement.

Gigi: If we look at the composition of these new uprisings – from Italy and the UK to Tunisia and Egypt – we see that they’re led by young workers, highly educated and either precariously employed or unemployed altogether. They are simultaneously students and workers, because today the student is immediately a worker. The new class composition emerging in these struggles is a transnational one. This doesn’t mean that everywhere the conditions are the same, but it does mean that, from Tunis to London, and from Shanghai to Sao Paulo there are common trends. This means that our strategy must involve the construction of a transnational organization capable of providing living labour with a collective force.

Merijn: In order to fight the global wave of austerity, we can’t simply be reactive or defensive. We need to propose something and to know what it means to win. Too often, we’re stuck in the past – defending the rights of a welfare state regime we no longer believe in while demanding a future beyond the state and market that we can’t yet imagine. The biggest problem is therefore one of analysis. We have a toolkit of radical thinking that hasn’t been sufficiently adapted to the demands of present struggles. It’s overly theoretical and aesthetic, and often seems to prioritize radical philosophy over political concerns.
I think autonomist thinking in particular has become something of an academic and artistic exercise. In this framework, student struggles are pitted against the commodification of knowledge, against privatization, against class stratification in education, and against universities for the rich. But at the same time we are told that, as the Edu-factory collective would have it, knowledge is a commodity; there is no longer any difference between public and private, and there is no emancipatory potential in the university. But these are not facts; they are the unstable outcomes of political struggle. We expect the promoters of austerity to talk to us in these terms but not our friends and comrades.

Why has our radical thinking taken such a reactionary turn? Our inability to think through the question of the state has become a major problem. Some have decided to leave the state behind and focus exclusively on the relations of production. Instead of base- determining-superstructure, we now have a new orthodoxy: base- becomes-superstructure. We’re left with a theory that reduces everything to relations of production. The implication is that knowledge is only political when it’s understood as a commodity. For this reason, we must rework our analysis of the state and the public sphere and return to a concept of relative autonomy. Thinking of the state and the public sphere as relatively autonomous from capital would complement our struggle for the commons.

How do we turn the anger on the streets into a viable movement for transformation? What will be required to build a movement that is actively transformative?

Vassilis: The anger on the streets of Paris, London, Madrid, Athens, and Bucharest is a sign of people’s exasperation and desire for change. But we are in new economic territory. We don’t know what we have to do, we only know that we have to act now. Today, the very idea of a radical social transformation may seem impossible. But the very term “impossible” should make us stop and think. The ruling ideology endeavours to make us accept the “impossibility” of radical change – of abolishing capitalism, of a democracy not reduced to a corrupt parliamentary game – in order to make the impossible-real of the antagonism that cuts across capitalist societies invisible. This sense of impossibility is real, but only in the terms of the existing social order.

Political acts are interventions into the domain of the possible. An act changes the very coordinates of what’s achievable. Ours is the opposite of the classical early 20th-century situation, in which the left knew what had to be done but had to wait patiently for the proper moment of execution. Today, we don’t know what we have to do, but we know we have to act now because the consequences of non-action are disastrous. So we have to risk taking steps into the abyss. Our situation reminds me of what Gramsci said, at the dawn of the First World War: “the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Gigi: Let’s come back to the idea of historical legacies. People have often compared the most recent responses to the global crisis to the Jacquerie.3 But it isn’t only the traditional Jacquerie – excluded or marginalized subjects – exploding in anger. Today, residents of the banlieus of Paris, which are central sites of capitalist accumulation, and university workers and students, who were previously considered a privileged class, act and revolt on a common plane. Both act together to reappropriate the commonwealth, much as the peasants of the Jacqueries did almost 700 years ago.
The Jacqueries are our historical legacy, but the problem we must now confront is how to transform today’s Jacquerie into a constituent Jacquerie, a long-term movement. Here, it’s very important that we avoid a teleological idea of organization, where first we have the struggle, and then comes the party or union to represent those struggling. Against both the cult of spontaneity and the orthodox idea of the party, today’s revolutionary organizations must be immanent to the class composition of the struggles themselves. In this way, we have to combine the potency of the Jacquerie with the longevity of organized movements – and to transform both.

Radical theorists and orthodox Marxists often seem irritated with the movements as they exist today. These movements are not as they’d imagined them; they dirty the purity of their theory. We must liberate ourselves from the idealistic poison of a pure “consciousness” to which we will eventually wake up and instead see true communism: organizing in common for our common liberation.
During the 1962 uprising at Piazza S tatuto in Turin – a revolt of the “mass worker”4 then emerging as a collective force in Italy – a journalist asked a leading figure of the Operaist movement, Romano Alquati, if they had expected such a revolt. Alquati replied, “we didn’t expect the revolt, but we organized for it.” The truth of political research and of the organization of the multitude is, without a doubt, contained in this answer.

Merijn: What we are seeing on the left are defensive and reactive struggles in opposition to a new round of austerity measures. Just when we thought neoliberalism as an ideological force was history, it seems to have risen from the dead – parasitically draining the life-blood from what’s left of the welfare state like a creature from a B horror movie. Today, we need rallying points around which we can assemble to achieve visibility and shift the numerical advantage to our side. Just as counter-summit protests mobilized anger by transforming the abstract flows of economic globalization into a tangible enemy and a concrete target, the IMF banker in a three piece suit, we need to identify shared enemies that will allow a hetergeneous opposition to mobilize in relative unison.

For this strategy to succeed, however, we need to break out of the old pattern where a professional subculture of activists acts in the name of the silent and passive majority. New hybrid identities framed around student and precarious worker struggles could be important here. We also need some kind of program, a coherent counter-claim to austerity’s language of historical inevitability. We need a new kind of “monster politics.” Taking our cue from Gramsci, Machiavelli, and Deleuze – where the prince knows how to fight both as a human and as a beast – the movement needs to be properly schizophrenic: not another march through the institutions, or the dream of a temporary autonomous zone, but a fight on both fronts simulateneously.

Emma: Anger and transformation are not separate entities or different stages in a programmed trajectory toward change. Transformation takes place amidst and through our anger. When we’re out on the streets, we think and analyze together, plan actions, and make new friends, we actively build solidarity. Mobilizations are collective experiences, a process of transformation in themselves. We should not envisage “transformation” as a kind of conversion that changes something from one wholly different shape or form to another. Instead, we should understand it as a process of becoming capable of living. To become capable of living is what “viable” means.

If we understand social movements as social relations that move, that are moving, then all the sites of struggle – the laboratories of resistance of the occupations, street protests, direct actions, strikes, and radical pedagogical practices within and beyond the formal university – are spaces and experiences that are about becoming capable of living. When we learn to trust one another, to think, learn, be creative and resist together, to build networks of material solidarity in our neighbourhoods and workplaces and to have each others’ backs in struggle, when we argue and fight about what the “correct” interpretation, strategy, or tactic is, then we become “viable.” This is already happening; it’s there in the expressions of anger that are built together. In this way, we transform ourselves, we transform one another, and – in the process – we transform the world. We learn how to be strong, how to be disobedient, and how not to be afraid.


1 At a recent talk in Toronto, Phillip Blond – the intellectual author of the concept of the “Big Society” – made repeated reference to the importance of what he called a process of “mutualization” to describe a transition away from the traditional welfare state.
2 The Bologna Process began in 1999 and aims to reform and homogenize the organization of universities at the European level. This will mean that all European universities will have common and compatible degree and quality assurance standards. It also means greater “autonomy” from the state, which in this case means far less government funding.
3 Jacquerie is the name for the medieval peasant uprising that was based in local, unstructured mass movements that inspired other communities and were in turn inspired by movements that happened in neighbouring communities.
4 The term for the unskilled, assembly-line workers of Taylorist factories – mostly car factory workers in Italy – that was developed by the theorists of Operaismo.