Practices of possibility in neoliberal social systems

2015–16 Independent Social Research Foundation
Mid-Career Fellowship

Following is a brief summary of the research I will be undertaking this year. To read the full version of the proposal, visit the ISRF website. Check back here for developments, links to the project website (forthcoming) and ways to get involved!

The thesis to be interrogated in this project is that theoretical and practical resources for democratising contemporary social institutions – for a ‘politics of possibility’ – exist in everyday thinking and practice, but that we need interdisciplinary methods of philosophical, sociological and critical-practical research in order to disclose them. This project develops an interdisciplinary methodology of practical philosophy that is designed to deepen understandings of how particular forms of power and powerlessness in neoliberal institutions foreclose possibility, and to identify practices through which they can be challenged and transformed. While we now have a good understanding of how neoliberal rationality is learned in institutions, this has not been matched by philosophically credible studies of the limits and possibilities of how it may also contribute to the formation of alternative forms of reason. Most conceptual studies of neoliberal rationality are therefore separated from the strategies and struggles of professionals and activists to generate new possibilities for action in everyday life.

This project will bridge these bodies of work by examining how different articulations of neoliberal rationality create and inhibit specific forms of possibility. It grew out of a concern that social science, critical philosophy and action research are often more successful at diagnosing the ‘crisis of hope’ in contemporary society than enabling active responses to it, particularly amongst people who work in key socialising institutions. It develops work by critical theorists who attribute the contraction of human and environmental possibility to the expansion of neoliberal and technological rationalities throughout everyday life, and who argue this structurally forecloses spaces for political agency. This research also builds on a rich tradition of educational research which suggests that critical pedagogies can be possibility-enabling practices, but rarely explores what possibility actually is or focuses on how specific practices generate specific kinds of possibility within particular neoliberal contexts. The research will produce an integrated philosophical and empirical picture of how possibilities ‘contract’ in neoliberal society and evaluate the effects of this knowledge-in-use in its application in different institutional contexts. It brings philosophical concept development, empirical sociological research, and methods of participatory action research together into an integrated study which is designed not only to produce new knowledge in each dimension, but to understand the knowledges that we use to connect them in practice.

This project challenges the segregation between philosophies of possibility, theories of political rationality and everyday practice in neoliberal institutions order to address two ‘real-world’ problems. One is that educators working in neoliberal institutions who are not academics or activists have little access to philosophically and empirically robust knowledge about how possibilities for critical agency are foreclosed and enabled in this context. The second real-world problem is that while theories of power, powerlessness and empowerment in neoliberal systems are shaped largely by academic social scientists, many lack insight into (or experiences of struggling with) how this conceptual work is confirmed, mediated by, or challenged in practice. This project therefore does not so much challenge incumbent critical theories and political practices as seek to heal their broken relationships, and to strengthen the potential of their cross-fertilisation for enabling praxis. Its methodology unites the conceptual rigour of critical philosophy with the empirical texture of qualitative methods and the emergent, practice-oriented methods of action research to create practical-critical knowledge about the ‘contraction’ and ‘expansion’ of possibility in neoliberal institutions. My hope is that this act will contribute to the construction of what Ernst Bloch once called an ‘architecture of hope’ which can substantively challenge the hegemony of hopelessness in neoliberalised social institutions today.

New book – The Education of Radical Democracy

Amsler - Education of Radical DemocracyI am delighted to annouce the publication of my new book, The Education of Radical Democracy. It explores why I think radical democracy is so necessary, difficult, and possible today – and why it is vital that we understand it as an educative activity. The book draws on critical social theory and critical pedagogy to illustrate what enables and sustains work for radical democratization, and considers how we can begin such work in everyday life.

“‘The most fundamental lessons that are required for humanization today, as we are reminded by those with long experiences of counter-hegemonic and radically democratic struggle in other places and times, cannot be learned through study alone. Methods for cultivating a radically democratic and militantly optimistic relationship with ourselves, other people, time and space, possibility and the future do not pre-exist our development of these methods for our own situation. As Ernst Bloch argued, ‘man [and woman] . . . is repeatedly transformed in his [or her] work and by it. [S]/he repeatedly stands ahead on frontiers which are no longer such because s/he perceives them, s/he ventures beyond them’ (1995, p. 246). Frontier politics, which is the politics of possibility, is an inherently educative praxis. In a moment where the Front is itself so politicized, certain kinds of practices become particularly important – practices that clarify work on emerging and not-yet possibilities; that visualize and make audible latent tendencies; that intensify and magnify the ‘uncertain, flickering, and often weak lights’ which are dismissed as ephemeral but which may in fact foreshine real possibility; that open up spaces for people to practise critical thinking and being together; that attend to the social and emotional discomforts of radically democratic, counter-cultural and systemically oppositional practice, and to the transformation of individualized fear into common courage; that connect the dots of both foreclosure and possibility in order to construct maps of the apparatuses of hopelessness and models of the architectures of hope. And, in a moment where even these practices are out of reach, other kinds of education – in the ontology of the unfinished and the becoming; in the skills of democratic receptivity; in habits of co-operation, in processes of prefiguration; in the arts of anticipation; and in methods for incorporating these into the political work of constructing material and social conditions for such activities – become critical as well.’

Courage, in two movements

Last month, I wrote asking what the ‘fearless’ university might feel like. I wanted to highlight two very different, but not unrelated, examples that came to my attention in recent days. Each speaks to a different kind of courage that I am interested in exploring in relation to one another.

Last Friday, a group of students of Warwick University occupied the University Council Chamber to hold continual session in which a number of issues can be critically discussed, including the defence and future of public higher education, the reduction of tuition fees and honouring of decent labour rights,  and the responsibilities and hypocrisies of academic leaders at this crucial time (see all the objectives here). The occupation has been supported by members of the Campaign for the Public University, and it is being undertaken in the midst of a new round of informed criticisms of government proposals to sell off student loans to private companies in the UK – not to mention a new round of intense demonstrations against ‘austerity’, corruption and the dehumanizing privatization of life worldwide.

This is one example of intellectual and political courage. Not above question; demanding of respect and solidarity.

Today, a dear friend of mine published a beautiful reflection on how and why we should avoid fetishizing the intellect, and refuse to engage in the ritual abuse of human beings that often accompanies it. She is particularly concerned about the way academics reproduce structures of power, exclusion and hierarchy, often in the name of ‘standards’ but more accurately in the defence of our own fear of inadequacy. She writes:

‘I for one am ready to take up the challenge of doing anthropology from the heart. It would entail a much further-going exposure of our vulnerability as social, and mortal, creatures. It would mean abandoning the ivory tower, where we mistakenly thought our smartness would keep us safe. But it would give us back warmer, more loving relations with our colleagues, our students and the people from whom we wish to learn. I hope there are many anthropologists who will share this project with me.’

 To stand for an ethic of care, humility, love and open learning from within the academy, and to invite others to dare to stretch beyond it, is another kind of intellectual and political courage – particularly when it is asserted in a context that is inhospitable and hostile to these ideals.

Why do I keep writing about the politics of the university? I wonder this quite a lot these days. I long to spend more time teaching, creating, exploring the politics of knowledge, engaging in other kinds of education, exploring the world in public with others, playing with ideas, writing the book on radical democracy that is aching to be finished. So much institutional politics is so boring and, in the grand scheme of things, seems so irrelevant to human concern. But in terms of institutional power the university is an interesting place precisely because it is positioned at the heart of this scheme, and because the scheme is being played out in its most minute of forms, and because there is so much nearly-invisible and not-yet energy being directed towards the articulation of epochal social problems and new forms of thought, resistance and creative agency. There are major public pedagogies at work here. It therefore seems like an important space to watch sociologically and philosophically, as well as being a place that — for those of us who choose to keep faith in its possibility — we need to make more fit for humanity every day.


Some thought-provoking follow-ups:

…on being a little more ‘fucking incandescent’

…and on irreplaceable time

The fearless university

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.