The past three weeks have been amongst the most impressive of my life. The current University and College Union (UCU) strike about pensions is not the first political or social campaign I have been involved in, but it is certainly the biggest. Members of the University and College Union in 65 UK universities are striking for 14 days across 4 weeks, the longest strike action the British higher education system has ever seen.
What I was least prepared for before the strike was the intensity of emotion it would trigger in me. Throughout the last three weeks I have felt a range of expected and unexpected feelings and I would like to take the two most intense ones to reflect on the strike and what is to come after.
In a rather ill-advised move Universities UK tweeted their support for #unimentalhealth day on 1. March. The tweet reads “We all have a part to play in creating a positive mental health community at university. Join the movement this #UniMentalHealthDay“ It did not go down well. While I had an extremely enjoyable time looking at the often scornful but hilarious response s to this tweet they belie a darker reality. There is a lot of talk about the “mental health epidemic “ in higher education, with significantly higher numbers of mental health disorders recorded amongst both academics and students.
— Universities UK (@UniversitiesUK) March 1, 2018
Of course good mental health care provisions are important. When someone has reached a crisis point they need support in order to get back on their feet. Staff and student welfare resources need to be expanded and made accessible for anyone who needs them; they save lives. But there is also something terribly symbolic and cynical about this focus on mental health. What we are really talking about when we are talking about a mental health epidemic amongst academics is the fact that neoliberal universities causes immense personal suffering to their staff and students.
The strike has enabled us to have some long overdue conversations on the nature of this suffering and the way it has affected us personally. Throughout an excellent Teach-Out on the topic and so many different conversations I have had over the last three weeks, often with complete strangers, the intensity of suffering and injury caused through the way we work has become abundantly clear to me. Through the focus on mental health we often allow ourselves to think of this suffering as form of individual defect which needs treatment. But really, when we are talking about rising numbers of depression and anxiety in academics we are talking about people who feel so overwhelmed with their workloads they can no longer cope. We are talking about people dissolving into tears over their emails, about people not being able to get out of bed on their days off, people’s hearts racing in fear at the thought of another meeting, about people whose bodies finally give in, making them physically unable to keep going. Maybe the most heart-breaking part about of this is the intense guilt that many of us feel when we finally reach breaking point. We know that by not pulling our weight, it is our colleagues who will have to shoulder our bit of the work too.
The strike gives all of us an opportunity to really talk about how badly we have been hurt. Maybe the most moving moments for me were those in which people spoke about how the constant stress affected their capacity to feel compassion for others. One of the most painful realisations about the neoliberal university is that it not only turns us into victims, it also turns us into perpetrators. Often we pass on the disrespect and pain we experience on to others, most unforgivably our students. We bitch about them, complain about their demanding attitudes and poor work ethic and their disinterestedness, while all the while we are contributing to a system which encourages exactly these attributes. I used to joke about marking exams, that with each copy of a particular exam I marked I cut off a bit of my soul. This may be a very dramatic way of putting it, but it is not an inaccurate one. Complicity in an unjust system damages us. The fact that each of these injuries we sustain is tiny in itself (we are, after all, still on average incredibly privileged compared to so many others) makes it hard to really admit the emotional toll it has on us. We feel we are dying a death by a thousand cuts.
In the last three weeks I have heard stories of this pain from students, postgrads, lecturers, support staff and professors and often, when people have told their own stories I have felt a jolt of recognition and sadness. The strike has created a space in which people have felt safe to talk about these very emotional and very personal feelings, to make themselves vulnerable in a way that we often don’t feel we can. The effect this has had on many of us is, on the one hand, a feeling of profound sadness. How is it possible that things are this bad? How is it possible that so many of us are hurting so badly and all we get is a lousy tweet about supporting mental health services? On the other hand however this sadness has led to something quite beautiful, to an intense feeling of solidarity.
I don’t think I ever really understood what solidarity meant before this, which is ironic since I’ve taught what feels like a thousand undergraduate seminars on the topic. But I don’t think I ever really understood that solidarity is a distinct emotion. The way I taught the concept of solidarity to undergraduates is in the context of Emile Durkheim’s theories. Solidarity, in this context, is the ‘glue’ that holds society together. One thing that produces solidarity, for Durkheim, is the feeling collective effervescence, experienced though joint rituals. This is certainly part of what happened. The picket lines, the rallies, the Teach Outs and meetings, all made me feel I was part of something bigger, part of a community.
But it’s more than that. C.Wright Mills is better suited to explain exactly what I mean here than Durkheim. In Mill’s the ‘Sociological Imagination’ he writes about the way that sociology allows us to connect ‘private problems to public issues’. By recognising that our own personal experience is connected to those of others we are able to better understand the social structures around us. Listening to all these stories most certainly did that.
Mill’s task has become all the more important in the 60 odd years since its publication, since one of the very ways that neoliberalism has its claws in us is through its individualising power. Part of the ideology of neoliberalism is that ‘there is no such thing as society’, that we are all just individuals. To really understand how important this individualisation is for neoliberalism to work it’s important to look at neoliberal theory. Theorists like Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mieses were heavily invested in the idea that people existed only as individuals, not as groups. Individualism was reflected in their epistemology, both being strong proponents of ‘methodological individualism’, but their belief in individualism was also deeply political. Neoliberalism is built on the foundation that the economy is self-regulating as long as individuals all act according to their own economic interest.
Proponents of neoliberalism often argue that neoliberalism is about freeing markets through de-regulation. Looking at universities it becomes clear that nothing could be further from the truth. It is very clear that far from more freedom and less regulation marketised universities overwhelm us with regulations and limitations. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are prime examples of this. Within the theory of neoliberalism these ‘objective’ measures of universities’ quality should make it possible to compare them to one another and to thus lead to a more efficient allocation of resources. Instead what happens is that fulfilling their measurements adds very significantly to our workload and impacts the very way that we research and teach. Whenever we do something, we think about how we are going to be able to show how that thing has had impact. We try not to piss off students so they won’t give us harsh feedback in the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS), despite several studies showing that student satisfaction and learning outcomes are not particularly closely related (and let’s not forget these measures are sexist as fuck) .
In short, the belief in individualism has to transform our whole environment in order to make us compete against one another. The idea that we, a group of people, could stand with one another and refuse to compete is a tremendous threat to that. It is maybe no surprise that neoliberal theorists have traditionally despised trade unions, accusing them of being the main cause of unemployment, “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”
Pensions researcher Christine Berry has pointed out that the pension dispute itself goes to the heart of neoliberal individualisation. A defined benefits pension scheme is built on a form of collective social contract, whereas a defined contribution scheme is built on the (illusionary) idea that we are all responsible to manage our own investments. (see also here, here and here, )
This strike has shown me why Hayek and his friends were so hostile to unions. While, as mentioned above, the strike has been very sad, it has also been exhilarating. Neoliberalism teaches us that we are responsible for our own lives and that we each have to look out for ourselves. We can’t change the world, only ourselves. The thing about this is that it is simply not true. I wrote earlier that solidarity is a distinct emotion. It’s one of the more complex emotions, but it’s maybe best described as the embodied knowledge that I am not alone in my struggles, that there are many on my side and that together we can change things that alone I could never manage. This feeling is tremendously dangerous for the status quo, because discovering this solidarity is like opening Pandora’s Box; it’s unleashing forces that according to neoliberal ideology shouldn’t even exist. Now that we have made all these connections, connected our private troubles to public issues, what is there to stop us banding together again and trying to achieve a better world? Within the ideology of neoliberalism we are supposed to be resilient to the stresses of everyday life and work on ourselves in order not to despair. What if instead we could fight for a system that allowed us to flourish rather than making us sick?
The Strike as Utopia
Another way I have been experiencing solidarity is through organizing Teach Outs. Within a couple of days I was catapulted into a group of people from various different schools and at various stages of their career and was suddenly involved in organising a whole variety of different teaching events. It’s been one of the best working relationships I’ve had. With almost no funding, only volunteers and starting less than a week before the strike (yes, we were late to the party), we’ve put together a series of events that, had you asked me before, I would have said needed at least 3 months planning and a dedicated admin person. Instead, due to some fantastically dedicated people our Teach Outs, and the whole strike organisation in general, was generated out of thin air. A cursory look through academic Twitter shows me that this experience is far from isolated. All across the UK people are organising big and small events and what is more – many of us are looking at these events and these working relationships and asking ourselves why life can’t always be like this.
At its heart, this strike has shown us glimpses of a utopia. It has shown us ways of being together and working together that are built on cooperation and solidarity. It has allowed us to think about what higher education could and, arguably, should be like. There is sadness, sure, because we realise just how far removed we are from this system, but there is also hope that things don’t always have to stay the way they currently are.
The task that lies ahead of us now is to not lose sight of these new ways of being once the strike is over. A colleague confessed in one of the Teach Outs that he’s scared of going back to work, scared of going back to ‘normal’. I understand that fear. What is there to stop us from losing sight of all the new ideas and solidarity, to be simply worn down through the demands of our work again? Keeping the momentum going may turn out to be more difficult but certainly even more important should we lose this fight. I am not unduly worried though. I am certainly not the only one who has been swept up by the euphoria of solidarity and will be unwilling to part with it.
One of the most impressive things about the strike is that throughout its length numbers at the picket lines as well as UCU membership have been growing across the UK. I noticed a distinct growth in numbers on picket lines at my university the day after it had threatened to cut lecturers’ wages by up to 100% for Action Short of Strike (ASOS), specifically for not rescheduling classes. I’m not surprised. As a casualised worker and PhD student I am well used to the callous disregard with which we are regularly treated. In the past, the university has tried to not pay me for hours already worked on the grounds that the project I was working on had gone over budget. A few months before, the university had tried to almost halve my pay rate on the same project, without consulting me. 2017 also bought me and other postgraduate students an approximately 40% pay cut for our teaching (a 25% cut to the hourly rate plus a significant reduction of available teaching). We knew about the cut to the hourly rate in advance but found out about our radically reduced hours only the week before teaching started. No one had bothered to tell us earlier. There are many more stories I could tell. We are left constantly having to fight even to get what was promised to us. It feels like a constant assault on our dignity. It is a constant assault on our mental health (not to mention our ability to pay rent).
The worst thing about these tactics is that they work. I notice myself and my co-workers become cowed. We keep our heads down and internalise the disrespect we experience. We become anxious and depressed. When I realised my project had gone over budget I almost didn’t even ask to be paid for my final hours. When my hourly rate was reduced I ended up compromising and accepting a lower rate than I had previously been working for. We have become so disempowered that the best we can hope for is to limit the damage done to us. When we do try to stand up for ourselves we are made to feel that we are overreacting or aggressive. That we are asking for extra treatment. As Sara Ahmed has so eloquently put it, when we expose a problem often we become the problem. We can see this internalised disrespect on a bigger level too. How else can we explain that most of us don’t even question the fact part of our work is to work massive amounts of unpaid overtime.
All those UCU members turning up on the picket line the morning after the university had announced their hard-line approach on ASOS were fighting back. They were refusing to be cowed into submission. It’s this more than anything why I think that whatever happens at the end of the strike, there will be plenty of fighting spirit left. This feeling of collective agency that we’ve been able to develop is too precious to give up again.
Maybe what it all comes down to is that we’ve learned to understand the difference between negative and positive freedom . Proponents of neoliberal capitalism often portray freedom as the most important aspect of capitalism. Freed from the force of collectivist thinking we are supposed to make our own fortunes, to follow our own self-interest. What we are finally understanding now is that this is a futile undertaking. If we really follow our own self-interest this includes wanting things that we cannot achieve without one another. A decent pension. A work environment that doesn’t make us sick. To be free means working together with others to achieve a world in which we all want to live in. It means taking care of not only of ourselves but of one another. The strike and the solidarity it has produced has given us all a glimpse of a better university and indeed a better world. How can we now not keep striving for that?
Published here in March 2018