Politicising the Immaterial Labour Camp

By Emilia Palonen & Steffen Böhm, 6 July 2004

Fed up with the commodified, marketised condition of higher education, the University of Essex’s Radical Politics Working Group called a meeting to analyse and discuss the constriction of student and academic life by neo-liberal imperatives. Emilia Palonen and Steffen Böhm, lecturers at the University of Essex, report on the discussion that ensued and look at the possibilities for politicising the campus

All quiet again on the university campus. Students are locked into the pacifying activity of exams and, after four months of union campaigns, lecturers have been given more money to keep them quiet. But are we any closer to understanding the current political situation at the university?

The university used to be one of the prime political locations of the modern nation state. Today it is increasingly being colonised by global capital. Under neo-liberalism the state privatises the former public sphere: it cuts public funding and establishes market conditions for universities to compete for students and research finances; higher education is turned into a global market. Thus, ‘the relation of the university to its “outside” is no longer primarily political, as it was in the past, but now frankly and straightforwardly economic.[1] The university is transformed from a primarily public and political sphere into a node in the ‘cash nexus'.[2]

In a system increasingly dependent on intellectual labour, the university becomes a prime site for the accumulation of capital. The campus not only works increasingly like a corporation; it becomes a corporation itself.[3] This involves a fundamental transformation of higher education – from a political sphere of the polis to a commercial organisation that needs to be ‘managed’. While academic disciplines such as business and management that are seen to further the circulation and efficient accumulation of capital, are boosted, disciplines such as philosophy and the humanities which find it hard to show their value to the ‘cash nexus’‚ face the reduction and closure of departments.[4]

The practical problems haunting UK universities – top-up fees, abolition of student grants, a funding crisis, and the strike led by the higher education union AUT – are all symptoms of this logic of commercialisation and marketisation. In response to this crisis, the University of Essex’s interdisciplinary Radical Politics Working Group (RPWG) called a meeting this March to discuss ‘What’s Wrong with the University?’ A short but intense publicity campaign, which included distributing a range of polemical critiques of the current situation, brought together around 60 people. Lecturers, PhD students and undergraduates from many different disciplinary, social and cultural backgrounds participated in a passionate discussion that hoped to transcend traditional union politics. Instead of focusing on a single issue – e.g. staff pay or top-up fees – this event aimed at a wider diagnosis of the university’s condition and sought to explore strategies for a political engagement with the transformation of the campus into an immaterial labour camp.

While, initially, this diagnosis was conducted in theoretical language, the discussion was dominated by concrete concerns and issues. The logic of the post-fordist university was clearly manifested through people’s accounts of their everyday experiences on campus and recognition of the disciplinary practices that limit academic life in general. For instance, it appeared that the camp has no public spaces – not for free thinking, nor for home-made sandwiches. Most campus spaces – especially those of the Student Union – have been handed over to the ‘cash nexus’: standardised, plastic-wrapped commodities are the norm. Students also complained that lecturers as ‘service providers’ were less motivating than lecturers as teachers, thinkers and researchers. Lecturers, on the other hand, are not rewarded for being good teachers; the only thing that counts for them is research output (articles, books, etc.), which is constantly recorded, monitored and evaluated by departmental and country-wide research assessment exercises.

The crowd that took part in this discussion, especially the undergraduate body – commonly seen as a passive and depoliticised mass – was hungry to make a positive impact on the campus. To discuss possible strategies and tactics for political action, a further meeting was called from which emerged the idea of a social centre. Creating such a space on campus was seen as a way to escape the individualising logic of the university market and as an active resistance to, and subversion of, the commercial campus. ‘To render visible the invisible’, was an objective declared in one of the posters announcing the initial discussion. Many participants seemed to feel that the most visible thing on the campus is the student as ‘consumer’. But what is often rendered invisible is the student as ‘student’. It is this imbalance that a social centre could address.

Some might say that the notion of a systemic logic of commercialisation operating in higher education is just a myth. But if it is we ran smack into it when we tried to organise these events. The leaflets, for example, were deemed too political to be handed out in the campus’ bars and some organisers were hindered when distributing them: no interruption of the market place is allowed. Emails sent around on various university email-lists received some angry responses, with complaints that these should not be ‘misused’ for political activity. The RPWG was also told that if it pursues ‘political activities’ further it will be suspended from the research centre it is affiliated to. Despite all these threats and nuisances, the work was taken up by the people who participated in the initial two meetings. They have organised informal barbecues, which are part of an attempt to create a community that would be strong enough to work towards a social centre, and inclusive enough to accommodate diverse groups of people from all corners of the camp/us.

But despite some progress, the main problem remains the same: the Essex campus is for the most part depoliticised. People do enjoy the commercialised university; the commodity fulfils students’ – and academics’ – desires. Many students were bemused by our critical activities. What is wrong with the new consumer-led university? Aren’t unions commercial nowadays too? The AUT and NUS offer insurance deals and other commercial services. Getting a student ID means a passport to the realm of discounts and happy consumption at Endsleigh and STA Travel. Sometimes it feels as if joining a union is in itself an act of depoliticisation and commercialisation. But let’s not be pessimistic. The university has been politicised over the past few months. The AUT strike, the systemic funding crisis and student top-up fees have all worked in conjunction with the wider civil opposition to the Iraq war to produce a politically sensitive situation. Today there is a unique opportunity to create and fill a space for radical politics on the campus. Let’s not be fooled: depoliticisation does not come out of nowhere; it is an ongoing activity carried out by people and institutions. Equally, politicisation is an activity – somebody actually needs to do something to produce it.


[1] Samuel Weber, ‘The Future of the University: The Cutting Edge’, in Institution and Interpretation, Stanford University Press, 2001, p.228[2] ibid[3] Readings, cited in Weber, p.228[4] Over the past two years there have been threats to close departments – cultural studies, chemistry, philosophy, development studies, sociology, anthropology, East Asian studies and linguistics – at universities such as Swansea, Birmingham and Durham

Emilia Palonen <epalonen AT> researches politics and engages in political activism at the University of Essex

Steffen Böhm <sgbohm AT> teaches organisation theory at Essex; he is the editor-in-chief of the journaL ephemera []