CSE Midlands launch event: What is to be done in the age of austerity and autonomy?

I will be speaking about placing higher education in the service of social justice at this exciting event in April…

CSE* Midlands launch event:
What is to be done in the age of austerity and autonomy?

17 April 2015
University of Birmingham
Room: Muirhead 113

All welcome!

“The ability, and desire, to mobilise, organise and associate, autonomously of traditional left institutions, has been widely noted of late. Much theorising on the left highlights the move towards a ‘politics of autonomy’; and the wave of anti-austerity movements that have challenged established institutions (in the form of the indignados, Occupy, Gezi Park, and UK Uncut) seem to chime with this theoretical agenda. This move towards an autonomous and vibrant left appears to be a source of hope, especially as these new social movements add weight and renewed force to the continuing resistance from public service workers and their unions to years of austerity and public service reform.

Yet, this occurs at the same time as the so-called ‘age of austerity’, in which concessions that have in the past been made by the capitalist state are now being withdrawn; repression, rather than concessions, is increasingly becoming the response of the state to social mobilisation. This repressive neo-liberal reaction is evidence of the underlying contradictions of capitalism which traditional Keynesian-type state intervention leaves intact.

These underlying contradictory trends in contemporary capitalism raise crucial questions of strategy, tactics and analysis. The launch of this CSE Midlands group is an attempt to provide a forum for radical and anti-capitalist activists, critical scholars, and activist/critical scholars to come together to discuss ‘what is to be done’ in this apparently contradictory age of autonomy and austerity. This launch event will feature a panel focusing on some of the key contextual developments that contemporary radicals face; followed by a roundtable discussion on “what is to be done?” We intend the launch of CSE Midlands to be followed by similar events across the Midlands, including on contemporary industrial relations, the 2015 general election, contemporary social movements, and current trends in radical and Marxist theory.”


2.00 Intro/opening

2.15 Session One: conceptualising the contemporary context

Sarah Amsler (University of Lincoln), Higher education for social justice

Whyeda Gill-Mclure (University of Wolverhampton), The politics of public service reform

Keir Milburn (University of Leicester), Austerity and contemporary capitalism

3.30 break

3.45  Session Two: what is to be done?

Tony Rabaiotti, Head of Local Government, UNISON West Midlands (tbc)

Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, General Federation of Trade Unions

Malia Bouattia, National Union of Students Black Students’ Officer

Craig Gent, University of Warwick/Plan C

5.00 END – Followed by drinks


* The Conference of Socialist Economists’ is an international, democratic membership organisation committed to developing a materialist critique of capitalism, unconstrained by conventional academic divisions between subjects’. For more information, visit the main organisational website.

Alternative ways of thinking the university (UNIKE conference)

In February, I presented one of several papers on ‘Alternative ways of thinking the university’ at a conference on Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE). I was joined by Joss Winn, also from the University of Lincoln School of Education, who spoke on ‘Labour, property and pedagogy: theory and practice for co-operative higher education’, and Catherine Butcher of the University of Roehampton (with ‘Heterodox forms of university governance: placing students at the core’). A college and friend Aniko Horvath, from Kings College, presented ‘Who owns the future of UK higher education?’ in our stream the following day, and Fern Thompsett of the University of Queensland presented on ‘The prefigurative politics of free universities: an “ateleological” approach to contesting capitalism and the knowledge economy’. Invigorated to have been amidst such powerful ideas.

‘Either we do this or we die. There is no alternative.’ Learning from struggles for autonomous higher education


This paper begins with an assertion, made in 1933 by the African-American sociologist and educator W. E. B. Du Bois that it was necessary to construct radically alternative universities that would enable the ‘physical survival…spiritual freedom, and…social growth’ of black people in the face of entrenched racial dictatorship in the United States. I offer some reflections on his militantly optimistic reading of ‘no alternative’ before introducing a number of other historical cases in which hegemonic definitions, forms, hierarchies, and practices of higher education have been challenged as part of wider struggles for human dignity, economic and cognitive justice, and social change – and in which autonomous institutions and ‘infrastructures of resistance and creativity’ have been created. I then consider the extent to which contemporary movements to defend the public university, on the one hand, and to create autonomous or parallel alternatives to it, on the other, may be considered part of this broader tradition. As the structural transformation of the university under regimes of neoliberal capitalism is well documented, I concentrate on the effects of this transformation on conditions of possibility for critiquing, imagining alternatives to, and ultimately building and defending humane and progressive opportunities for democratic higher learning. I concretise this by discussing some areas of work which are being developed in projects for free, co-operative higher education in the United Kingdom, and conclude with a provocation that divesting in the ideological promises of the neoliberal university, while painful and uncertain, can liberate our desire and will to learn and build better spaces for physical survival, spiritual freedom and social justice. My argument is that those working in universities have plenty of alternatives, but need to learn anew how to understand, cultivate and fight for them.

Read the paper