Thank you for sending me four issues of the periodical, The University Worker, that you and your comrades have put together, edited and published, quite obviously with great care and dedication, and many apologies for the delay on my part in responding to the substance of the same. As it happens, I have, even now, been able to read through only the first two issues of the periodical, and my comments, such as they are, pertain to the contents of the two of them alone.
While the macro-projection of the university from the perspective of the periodical clearly looks at it as an institution of civil society which has been indubitably spawned by the imperatives of capitalist economies, and therefore regards it as being totally imbricated in the enterprise of sustaining and strengthening capitalism, I am troubled by the narrative’s elision of the complex and variegated histories of the university system in the modern world in general as well as in specific countries in particular. This, perhaps unintentional, tendency toward universalisation and essentialisation in the narrative wily-nilly reduces the university to an abstract entity. In our own country, for instance, the first universities were founded by the colonial state soon after the suppression of the 1857 ‘Mutiny.’ Since then, over a long period of time, under the aegis of, first, the colonial state, and, then, the post-colonial state, the number of universities in India has grown exponentially, run variously by the central or provincial governments, to begin with, and, now increasingly, by private ‘trusts’ and corporations. However, along with the undeniable move towards privatisation and commercialisation in both state-run and autonomously managed universities, there has been paradoxically, over the last couple of decades or even more perhaps, an irrefutable, if still numerically insignificant, widening of the social base of the populations of Indian universities, by which I mean the entry into the universities of ‘newer kinds of social groups in the ranks of students, non-teaching staff and teachers alike. This process of ‘plebianisation’, of the universities, if you would like to call it that, has been neither accidental or incidental. It has been the result of years and years of democratic struggles, largely of an anti-caste character, carried out with differential rates of success, both outside and inside university campuses across the country. To bracket this phenomenon, as the arguments advanced in nearly all the articles in your periodical would push the reader/s to do, as part of the illusional/delusional (false consciousness-driven ) aspirations of parents/wards/ candidates for employment to find niches for themselves in the capitalist wage-market — yes nothing more or nothing less than that as per the thrust of the arguments in the periodical — is, I am afraid, to sadly undermine, if not to denigrate, the hard-won achievements of some of the most far-reaching social struggles in India after Independence.
Apart from this, I find that the analysis of the university system in the two issues of The University Worker which I have perused is too much given to the fallacy of absolute determinism. All constituents of all universities anywhere and everywhere in the world, the reader/s of the periodical must believe, are, far from being their stakeholders, only their dupes. This sweeping discourse of victimisation of course makes a mockery of the university as a site of knowledge production/dissemination which, if only in a much mediated way, are disinterested intellectual activities. If all knowledge produced/disseminated at the universities is ultimately interested and interested in retaining the power-equations of capitalism which all universities serve, then obviously there is no scope for subversive or resistant activities within the parameters of universities. How, in that case, I wonder you would explain the activism of people like your own selves, bred and brought up and operating as all of you are within the sphere of the university system and seeking to transgress its limits too with radical ventures such as The University Worker.
I must confess that I am disappointed by the complete non-recognition of even the possibilities of agential being (or thinking) in the context of universities of the world. All of them, it would appear, are prison-houses of ideology, operating purely, i.e. without mediation of any kind whatsoever, under the dictates and dictation of an all-powerful ideological state apparatus.
Should the revolutionary agenda for today then be to destroy the universities of the world? After all we would have nothing to lose, if this were to happen, but our lamentable and lamented intellectual servitude.
The University Worker Member:
Thank you for your meditated response to the first two editions. I shall try and make some clarifications based on what you have written, and through that, hope to more stringently define what it is we have envisaged as the programme of these newsletters.
If I have not misunderstood the general tone of your intervention, one of the aspects you have found most problematic in such a discourse is how it seems the university space has simply been reduced to a capitalist tool of ideological indoctrination, thereby eliding its variegated global histories. If that were the case, then we would be guilty of understanding history solely from the lens of the dominant, precluding the possibility of any resistance by the workers (which includes students) enmeshed in this space. These reports would then, only have been a distanced and objective critique, or an attempt to raise awareness on behalf of something/someone else, through an ‘alternative’ pedagogical stance. Instead however, we have envisaged the process of inquiry itself as a mode of political intervention in which the worker’s own experience is revisited by the worker herself through the lens of capitalist processes. There is no pedagogical relationship between the worker and the ‘enquirer’. The reports in the newsletters are there to showcase, and engage with the lived experience of the worker’s understanding of his work-conditions, wherein we identify an always already emerging self-consciousness. The emphasis on the worker’s experience and her understanding of it is opposed to a vanguardist position which would perhaps direct an experience with little regard to what a worker is able to understand autonomously.
The university has evolved in various ways, but it is still an institution within our social space and surely the extent of its autonomy depends on how much control has been wrested from its cooption by dominant forces. If we adhere to the old dictum that historical evolution is generated by the antagonism between social forces, broadly structured by class, then education too, like any other institution, has to be seen as a space that is always already being defined; both by a dominant, but also more importantly by the resistance undertaken by the network of people within it. For instance, the post-1857 initiation/expansion of education might well have been influenced by the Empire’s larger agenda (influenced by Macaulay’s policy two decades before), but it also has to be understood as a development that was brought about by the popular (and absolute) demand for education so as to broaden the access to public sector employment. A narrow view would perhaps make one guilty of looking at those moments of the past from one side alone, and not paying enough deference to what is commonly called the ‘pressures from below’. The fact that education is now extended to a much larger section of the population is undoubtedly because of the various struggles undertaken. But capital’s increased need of intellectual labour at the expense of manual labour (though one has to be careful when differentiating) is also a powerful force facilitating this change. An analogy to this is perhaps the entry of women into the public workforce during the inter-war years in Europe. While it is true that it was a culmination of feminist struggles over a longer period, it will be difficult to not factor in the labour shortage resulting from the war necessitating this progression. These historical movements and impulses are dialectically related, and to stress one’s significance over another would obfuscate how history works.
Any revolutionary agenda most certainly would not entail a destruction of the university. As stated earlier, it would be a wresting control of the university from the tentacles of capitalism, and thereby ensuring the possibility of knowledge dissemination which is not strictly in consonance with the dictats of capitalism. It would be futile and incorrect on our parts to think that one resists capital by attempting an impossible evasion of its institutions; after all, there is no space outside of capital in the present. The reports and the pictures in the newsletters stress the need to occupy, wrest control of, and struggle for an autonomous mode of learning that is not simply given or forced on to us. It is not delusional to come to the university, but it would be to think one’s learning is necessarily determined by one’s personal aspirations alone. How can one explain the increasing length of the work day in schools and colleges for students and staff even as the syllabi is being increasingly rationalised and simplified? Again, one would have to go back to recognising the dual processes operating in this relatively privileged space. As for the engagement with ideas/ thought processes that occur during the various programmes one must allow that, more often than not, it is mostly students with a certain prior cultural and/or economic privilege who are able to attain a degree of criticality (which is perhaps what is referred to as agency in the response), again emphasising the divisions of privilege which the university far from neutralising, captures and enhances. While not falling prey to idealist notions within the realm of a hierarchical social structure, one can still call for the need to struggle in order to force the educational space to become a neutral site of actual opportunity.
This perhaps explicitly brings one to what could be the major bone of contention, as to how can one not make a distinction between a general work-space and the relatively privileged critical academic space. In the age of late/finance capital where intellectual labour commands more resources and production space than manual labour, would it really be accurate to think the totality of the capital-labour dynamic through traditional notions of what work comprises, be it the factory floor or the mine? Is it not necessary to expand our theoretical apparatus to include the idea of reproductive labour too; something that capital strives to conceal, even as it is deepens this division? Can we really understand the appropriation of surplus-value without trying to understand the processes which constitute the labour-force, that in turn will work and produce surplus-value? Further, can capitalism exist at all at this historical phase without the university producing its specific forms of labour (managers, bankers, analysts etc.)? Is not one of the important functions of formal and institutional education the instilling of a work ethic which cultivates that one’s time is not one’s own, and is useful insofar as it can be sold in the dearest market, in turn determined by the intellectual/manual skills one has attained? If at all, there is any sense of agential being or thinking, it is what has been autonomously wrested by a history of struggles, centring on social need, not profit.
The point then would not be to say that a student is like a worker, but that the student is a worker at a moment when she has not begun to receive a formal wage. In the last instance, one trains oneself in order to make oneself employable. If at all a sense of criticality is achieved, it depends on a history of past and present struggles which enable a ‘reappropriation’ of one’s own surplus and a constant will to have some control over what one produces; in the student’s case-herself as labour. If one still thinks the impetus to social change is struggle itself, then the academic space is also a location within the social structure which is determined by the capitalist dynamics, and can hardly be conceived of as having a privileged vantage point outside of it. To recognise this would only be accepting that even the possibilities of critique emerging within the academic space owes to the (partial) success of struggles that have resisted the ever stronger enclosing of this realm.