Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The odious machine

I am on strike today. I have been struggling of late with a sense of despair about the state of contemporary life, and not knowing what to do about it. None of the mainstream political parties in Britain reflect my values, my sense of what is fair and equitable, my growing anger and horror at a country run for and by millionaires while, at our local Tesco, volunteers ask for donations to the food bank, because people do not have enough money to eat, or to feed their children.

I am a university lecturer. I teach English. I have been struggling of late to make sense of a workplace whose principles run counter to what I believe a university should be and what it should be for: the pursuit of learning, of research and scholarship into science, into society, into culture, of dissemination of knowledge that has a direct social and political function, an understanding of the world that helps people make better lives, personally and collectively: NOT a machine for making money, NOT a business, NOT a provider of services for customers, NOT a place which comes to represent the destructive and amoral principles of neo-liberal, marketised capitalism.

My own profession has been supine for far too long. It has stood by while its own members have been disciplined under RAE and REF, have been turned into entrepreneurs whose time is taken up with (increasingly futile) grant bids, who have been pacified and made grateful for a declining share in the fruits of their own productivity; who fought nowhere near hard enough against student loans, and their increase to £9000 a year; who fail to make common cause with their own student body and the administrative and support staff who enable their working lives.

I have been haunted by this speech, made 49 years and one day ago, by Mario Savio, one of the student leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, who even in 1964 skewers the marketisation of the university and whose call for direct action sends a shiver up my spine:

"We have an autocracy which runs this university. It's managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received -- from a well-meaning liberal -- was the following: He said, "Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?" That's the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw material[s] that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

Today I am on strike, but I take most heart from the fact that at the University of Birmingham, at the University of Sussex, and on campuses and in other buildings at universities in the UK, students are following Mario Savio's lead and putting their bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, attempting to demonstrate to those who presume to style themselves 'the University' that the privatisation of student loans, the marketisation of higher education, the deliberate undermining and diminishment of all kinds of education (on this day of the flawed and ideological PISA global student 'table') into processing 'for the needs of business', must and will be opposed.