Saturday, December 06, 2008

Well, i'm still on strike

Yup, things aren't looking great for the strike at York University. With the newborn to care for, i'm feeling the pinch like i've never imagined i might. Alas...

i"m reposting this Australian video about unions that i simply adore. It's as funny the 50th time as it was the first. Humour is such a wonderful weapon. and we need to speak truth to power as the Quakers say. As well as being mindful of Oscar Wilde's advice: "If you are going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh, or they will kill you."

Well, the following article is not so funny, but it has much truth in it.
The Neoliberal University: Looking at the York Strike
(from T h e B u l l e t - A Socialist Project e-bulletin, #165, Dec 5, 2008)

Eric Newstadt

Placed neatly in the middle of a global economic maelstrom, it is near impossible to understand or predict what, if any, consequences the strike by 3500 odd teaching and research assistants and contract faculty at York University in Toronto (represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903) will have for higher education in Ontario and throughout Canada. While there are some early indications that the strike – which began in early November and continues to shut down the university – at York is aiding (at least mildly) in negotiations at the University of Toronto (whose teaching assistants, research assistants and contract faculty are all presently in negotiations), the strike seems also to have engendered the anger and vitriol of the public such that the viability of similar strikes in the sector are in question. And while the tenor of the action was and remains pitched firmly at rolling back the "neoliberal university," it is questionable whether even outright victory at York would or could have such far-reaching consequences across the university sector.

Of course, there is only so much that can be accomplished in a single round of bargaining. Even if it may not yet be possible to outline how history will record the current work action, there are nonetheless some very definitive things that we can say about the particular conditions which have produced the strike of 2008. And we can also weigh and measure the degree to which the strike holds the promise of ameliorating those conditions (at York if not throughout the province), either temporarily or on a more lasting basis.

The Political Economy of the Neoliberal University

It is simply not possible to understand the present labour conflict outside of some consideration of neoliberalism in general: the educative capacity of the state has been deployed in service of a program of accumulation that relies on a highly "flexploitable" and disciplined workforce. Out of the ashes of the Bretton Woods system, through a process of inter-class negotiation and conflict that neither put entirely to rest the practices of the Keynesian state, nor left any aspect of the postwar order entirely intact, a "new world order" built upon the flexibility of labour markets emerged in the 1980s. There is not sufficient space here to go over the details of this historical transition.

What needs to be understood, however, is that the crisis of Keynesianism, which was as much a political as an economic crisis, saw capital, and particularly a re-emergent finance capital, work with the capitalist state to respond to the crisis through a series of efforts that culminated in: (1) the complete transformation of the state apparatus and the state's capacity to do things (i.e. in severe cutbacks to government spending on virtually everything including colleges and universities); (2) the acquiescence to such restructuring by the bulk of the population, and progressively; and (3) the emergence of broad based public support for the logic of "fiscal restraint" as well as for a program of economic growth premised on labour market flexibility, within which the neoliberal university factors very largely.

The neoliberal university began to take shape in the early 1970s, when hiring was frozen while tuition-fee and support generating enrollments were grown, as short-term stop-gaps to what were perceived as temporary fiscal cutbacks. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the neoliberal university began to take on more definitive dimensions, not because fiscal restrain had "hardened," but because what amounted to a form of structural adjustment, drew increasing support from university administrators, an ever larger portion of the professoriate, and a good number of students as well. Thus, the neoliberal university has come to rapidly and rabidly pursue a closer articulation with industry and an educational methodology that focuses more on training than on educating.

Neoliberalism has involved "belt-tightening" and "fiscal restraint." But its unfolding has also been underwritten by a more expansive logic than mere fiscal restraint could possibly entail. The university is now seen as a useful tool in the reproduction of a pliant working class and as a huge, publicly subsidized, research complex that can be deployed to further socialize the research costs of private capital accumulation and thus economic growth in its neoliberal form. In other words, through various forms of public-private partnerships, particularly at "research intensive" universities, private corporations can have taxpayers pick-up 90% of the costs associated with R&D, while they can maintain ownership over the bulk of whatever profits such research generates.

This kind of extensive logic is precisely why the neoliberal university is a massive and expansive morass of highly specialized departments, programs, research centres, laboratories and administrative offices, a huge and immensely diversified corporation with arms in almost every field of study. It is also why the fields of study themselves have become more cut-off from one another, even as we've seen the emergence of so many cross and sub-disciplines, like physical biology, or cultural studies, or urban and environmental planning (such growth makes meaningful forms of "interdisciplinarity" difficult to undertake).

This logic is also why the ideological scope within the neoliberal university is more limited than in previous eras. The space for critical scholarship has shrunk enormously in the social sciences. In part, this is a result of concerted efforts to purge so-called radicals (mainly from the right but also from the post-structural left), but in the main it is a result of state policies that either openly or tacitly endorse such an ideological closing, through conditional forms of finance. The neoliberal logic is also why much the same kind of ideological closing has happened in the natural sciences – there is increasingly less room devoted to basic and curiosity driven research because the drive to "research and innovate" favours the production of commercializable research and of intellectual and property rights.

The extensive logic of neoliberalism is even writ large spatially across the university, as university administrators, ever in search of new revenue-streams, offer-up any useful space to the signs and symbols of corporate accumulation. Buildings and classrooms are named after capitalists (and corporations) who have nothing whatever to do with scholarship, and even the bathroom stalls of the neoliberal university have become advertising opportunities.

Neoliberalism has also seen universities vie for precious market-share in large and growing national and international markets for higher-education. Each university is a competitor firm in the race to seize valuable customers from emerging economies ahead of competitor institutions. All of this has meant that the neoliberal university works hard to cultivate a brand, a particular kind of reputation, an orientation that potential customers understand will help them generate returns on their investments. The neoliberal university is also internally classed: a small cadre of elite academic "stars," who are nonetheless terrifically over-worked, are offered high levels of academic and financial support, they enjoy relatively smaller teaching loads, social-status, and an ability to access some level of control within the institution. A much larger cadre of part-time and/or contract faculty are denied even basic – or any – perks, even as they undertake a terrific – and increasing – proportion of undergraduate teaching.

Not surprisingly, these changes have in turn required that the university become an expansive administrative bulwark with a large and growing cadre of career bureaucrats and administrators, many of whom move from university to university. There are also new kinds of offices opening up all the time, or old ones being re-branded as it were – from technology transfer offices to offices of research and innovation, to registrar cum customer-service departments, to in-house legal departments. The growth of this section of the university has been spectacular (squeezing down academic budgets while expanding general administration budgets). Students are en masse taking from the neoliberal university a general familiarity with the rigours of life under contemporary capitalism: an ability to understand and negotiate a large and expansive corporate environment, a sense of how to work the "system," in the most instrumental way possible, as precisely that is what employers are looking for.

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