I recently gave a talk on ‘pedagogies of possibility’ to a small group of academics and graduate students. We had a great discussion afterwards, about the politics of education and of the university, about why we seldom speak of these things in our ordinary routines, about politicising the administration of the university as well as our teaching and research.

In most such discussions, I am usually struck either by stubborn levels of cynicism about the possibility that the university can ever be a progressive, democratic or humanising institution, or by blatant disinterest in or disdain for any of these ideals. But not on this occasion, where there was significant striving and plenty of heart. Instead, I was struck by fear – of being afraid to say no to administrative demands, afraid to say yes to unethical practices, afraid to say anything in meetings for fear of being ostracised, afraid to not monitor the class attendance and movements of non-citizen students for fear of reprisals from border agents and afraid to record their attendance in fear of acting as border agents, afraid to give marks that signify the actual quality of students’ work, afraid to mark work at all for fear that others auditing it would be punitive and judgemental, afraid to share information with colleagues, afraid to not share information with colleagues, afraid to assume positions of leadership in case of being infected by power, afraid to not assume positions of leadership in case of being dominated by those more infected, afraid to speak critically about political and social problems in classes.

This seemed to me like a lot of fear for a thirty-minute conversation. It also seemed like a lot of fear for the university where, on first instinct, one might presume that legitimate reasons for fear would be few and far between. British universities are not labour-intensive production plants where workers are disciplined and punished to squeeze sweat for inhuman numbers of hours every day, in places where labour laws are fantasies and wages scrape one by (although there are some who suggest we might be wise to begin conceptualising them through a critical political economy of value which demonstrates the continuities). British universities are also not embedded within authoritarian states that monitor and control academics’ and students’ intellectual work; positions are politicised, but academics aren’t disappearing mysteriously, fleeing the country for political sanctuary, or threatened with psychological or bodily harm for stepping out of line (although there are some who point to continuities between neoliberal managerialism and fascism as well). It is true that many students assume increasing burdens of debt to study and that many academics now work in relentlessly precarious and disempowering conditions, and that both debt and precarity produce perpetual states of anxiety and insecurity which serve as effective forms of political auto-repression. Nonetheless, British universities remain relatively privileged institutions in which, to varying degrees, there remain at least some formal commitments to liberty, fair treatment and autonomy which can at times be activated from below, and in which there remain spaces for critical and creative living. In this sense, the personal stakes of political participation seem relatively low. What could there possibly be to lose from taking positions in committee meetings and classrooms? What are academics so scared of?

As pointed out by some people at the seminar who did decide to claim their dignity and govern themselves by refusing this or that undemocratically arrived at decision which had been ‘cascaded’ from management on high, there are often no adverse consequences at all. Given that even the smallest of refusals or alternatives by necessity carry some risk to comfort, this is remarkable. It follows that at least some of the hegemonic relations of power in universities are potentially very fragile. We fail to notice this because we so rarely poke them to see what happens. And it follows further from this that much of the fear within the academy – specifically amongst newer academics who have not played the game long enough to have the status to resist because there are so few above them to respond – originates in our heads. Amongst other things, the contemporary academic mind appears to be colonised and moralised by a Big Other of authoritative disciplinary power which may in fact not even exist, or at least does not exist in material form yet.

However, there are other things. Such high levels of internalised fear, abnegation of self-determination, effacing of dignity and suppression of care for and solidarity with others cannot possibly be totally invented, particularly when it appears that there is no empirical reason for them to exist.  One thing, which few academics – including those of us who study the politics of education and knowledge – really adequately understand, is the political-economic character of the power of our universities. We do not keep, at the centre of our sense-making, a view of where we are positioned in the four-decade-long-and-still-going global project to transform universities from educational into economic institutions. The creation of complex systems of valuing and ranking universities at the global level, give some indication of the stakes of transforming academics and students as well. Way back in the 1980s, buried in a long report on ‘efficiency’ in British universities, some business consultant warned vice-chancellors that universities would have to eventually choose between efficiency (and by implication, institutional and professional survival) or democracy. That choice has now been made. When we look a little wider, we begin to see that many ways of organising academic labour, non-academic university labour, teaching, learning, research, student life and campus culture are standardising and globalising. Institutional discourses on scholarship, teaching, learning, research and education itself have been so honed and intellectually impoverished over decades, increasingly by people who have no primary interest in any of these things, that it can be difficult to imagine them as anything other than technical activities. Workshops, trainings, conferences, journals and even university courses on ‘educational management’ are proliferating; in the UK, universities employ more people to manage academics than they do academics. And virtually all decisions that do not have to do with the actual moments a teacher spends with students in a classroom or conducting their own research have been efficiently locked in to managerial hierarchies of decision-making in which decisions are ‘cascaded’ from top to bottom and academics serve varying degrees of individualised function depending on which level of committee they are appointed to.

One of the reasons the stakes of educational politics or critical academic work seem so low is that they are invisible from the bottom and unspoken in public and professional discourse. One of the reasons that they are so fragile is that the power of the university, as a commons with potentially formidable intellectual and political strength, is invisible from the top. And one of the reasons people are afraid is probably that they can sense the weight of the enormous systems of economic and political power which mobilise, but are obscured by, the cultural practices of management, space and institutional order that constitute the conditions of everyday life, and which frame the context in which we all teach and learn. I don’t think we fear individual reprisal. I think we fear the machine, and more so fear the unknown consequences of throwing sand into its cogs where no one has tried to sabotage it before.

The upshot of this is that if we are to shape universities to be places in which we can actually teach and study and learn and be – and where we and our students and others who find their way in are excited to be doing so – we need to educate ourselves about the politics of higher education, advanced research, labour, intellectual culture, space and time. And we need to do this in a context in which thinking and speaking about the politics of any of these things is regarded as either a waste of time or a threat to economic productivity and institutional ‘reputation’, as it has become defined in neoliberal terms. And we need to do this in an environment where perhaps many academics, by dint of profession or proclivity, have either no experience of political participation or activism, or no interest in social and economic politics at all. And we need to do all of this in an environment where many academics and some students are exhausted and insecure and are therefore in need of considerable self and collective care. It is at least a fourfold project. This should not be daunting; life is complex. Knowing this is important as it enables us to take steps in particular directions, and we can only begin walking from where we are.

It is also useful, however, to understand the even bigger picture in which it becomes clear that the spaces of the university are among multitudes of similar spaces which articulate differently but are subject to the same forces of power and over-determination. I would encourage people to look at a recent excerpt from David Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project, outlining ‘a practical utopian’s guide to the coming collapse’ (and thanks to Gordon Asher for pointing it out). Graeber does a brilliant job of – or at least makes a provocative stab at – explaining why people are stuck and afraid in institutions everywhere. He suggests that the cause lies somewhere in the contradiction between the fact that the neoliberal economic project has essentially failed, and failed to prove that human life can be effectively reconstituted as if it was a free market, and the fact that the neoliberal political project has thus far succeeded in convincing people either that it is successful or that there is no alternative to it. In other words, people can sense increasing repression and contraction because it has become increasingly important for us to believe irrationally in the legitimacy and desirability of a dead project which can only be kept alive by our faith, our labour, our self-discipline and our self-censorship. It is both a dead project and one that continues to feed and consolidate the power of the elites not only by exploiting but – in the case of ‘austerity’ – scavenging on and savaging the lives of the most already exploited, insecure and wounded people in society. The fear that nothing else is possible is not just a hat trick; it is a material condition of the maintenance of the system itself and secured through what Graeber calls ‘the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness’. The climate of fear in universities is just one example – and indeed a reserved one – of how this shakes out in practice.

One of the things we must educate ourselves about, therefore, is what Graeber characterises as the ‘relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other reams they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murder of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future.’

Graeber indicates a few demands that we might make to get the ball rolling in a different direction – a debt jubilee being one, and putting brakes on productivity for human and environmental reasons being another. However, he also recommends something that has far more immediate potential, particularly for academics, students, administrators and other university workers, as well as for teachers, parents and carers of students, and concerned allies. This is the cultivation of the collective imagination which is so repressed. For, ‘at the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake of the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.’

Of course, they may or may not; there are no guarantees, other than that radical imagination and parrhesiatic speaking are generally risky. Indeed, the concept of parrhesia as reconstructed by Foucault in The Courage of Truth might not be a bad way to re-imagine what the fearless university looks like. We might imagine that it exists wherever a speaker ‘has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his[her] own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself[herself] through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people) and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty’ (see ‘Discourse and truth’, 1983; also in edited form in Fearless Speech, 2001, pp. 11-20). Admittedly, this needs some feminist and poststructuralist work and a critique of the lone masculinist hero; it also needs to be de-individualised, with much more attention to questions of collective speaking, protections and care. Less Socrates, more prefigurative politics. But having a little less REF, a little less audit compliance, a little less satisfaction survey and a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice, might help to decolonise the mind.

What does the fearless university feel like? Let’s poke it and let each other know what happens.

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