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.’

‘For feminist consciousness in the academy’

‘For feminist consciousness in the academy’

My new piece in a special issue of Politics and Culture, Materialist Feminisms against Neoliberalism.

‘Ironically, it may be precisely because critical feminist epistemologies are presently so illegible within neoliberal rationality that they offer some of the most fruitful resources of resistance, particularly in clarifying the forms of gender power that are deployed to disarticulate the conditions for the development of collective oppositional consciousness. But is it wise to continue to cultivate hope that universities can be spaces for critical intellectual work, or forces in struggles for social justice, under these conditions? Should we not rather map out lines of flight from these institutions and invest all of our critical energies into counterhegemonic or prefigurative forms of pedagogy, politics and cultural work?* To be sure, it is necessary to examine the attachments and interpellations that draw us to the academy as a social form, to understand its many limitations, and to practice alternative forms of feminist public pedagogy (Chidgey 2010). But universities remain complex and contradictory institutions as well as important sites of struggle and the production of critical feminist knowledge and practice. ‘

* Which I would now argue, some time after initially writing this paper, are important both within and outside of the existing institutions.

On co-operation and radical democracy in/for education

It has been nearly impossible to keep pace with Significant Things Happening in education in recent weeks. This may be due to my inability to filter the floods of information and analysis which are now continuously created in our hyper-reflexive ‘attention economy’ of public writing. Or due to a stuckness in negotiating the dissonance between feeling overwhelmed by critique and simultaneously sensing that the praxis to which it points often just cannot yet exist in embodied resistance within our institutions. Or perhaps it reflects the experience of ‘uninterrupted disturbance’ which characterises the permanent counterrevolution of managerial restructuring and governmental policy making in schools and universities. ‘All new-formed [relations] become antiquated before they can ossify’…but it does not feel that we therefore even have the possibility of ‘facing with sober senses’ the real conditions of our lives and relations with one another. Instead, endless reformation, the pseudo-creative but ultimately adaptive and conformist reinvention of the self and of the horizons of possibility, has become a precondition for the intelligibility of the everyday world itself. The irony is that the more we try to make a sensible world within the parameters of this irrational logic, the more impoverished and impaired our sociological and radical imaginations become. We need new ways of making sense, and doing right.

It is seductive to think that we all just need digests of Andrew McGettigan’s digests on the politics of higher education policy and of new work on the politics of educational debt and indenture. But what we really need is time and space and courage and faith to respond to this analysis, to throw ourselves into the project of democratising education at the highest and most intimate levels, to understand and test the limits and living political contradictions of our own knowledge and actions, to orient ourselves morally and politically away and farther away from discourses and practices and habits and systems and acts of power that depoliticise, dedemocratise, dehumanise, and generally foreclose possibilities for people to make autonomous and alternative futures. In education and everywhere. We have so much knowledge in public, but so little public knowledge. So much knowledge in common, and not yet sufficient common knowledge about how to transgress the limits of tolerance that are now bursting at their seams.

I wonder if it is possible to say that we need a new kind of enlightenment; illuminations of possibilities that we presently cannot see from amidst the debris of this storm. Hannah Arendt once described darkness as a political category; a name for the social formation which not only suppresses particular freedoms but eradicates the possibility of possibility itself by obliterating – sometimes silently – the forces and conditions that make new happenings possible. She measured the darkness of a time not by its levels of observable and felt violence, but by the degree to which injustice, inhumanity, and even barbaric violations of life occur in public view, with public knowledge, without public recourse, and with diminished or eviscerated possibilities for collective dialogue, learning and action. According to Arendt, the strength of totalitarianism lay in its capacity to destroy rather than simply to dominate the horizons of possibility by first closing and then foreclosing all space in which people might think and act and become and transform together. The darkest situations, therefore, are those in which the very desire for such possibilities becomes nonsensical; where, as Arendt described it with the words of the poet Bertolt Brecht, ‘there is only wrong and no outrage’.

The present times and spaces of aggravated neoliberalism have been described as ‘dark’, but they also seem to be cracked by a curiously strong presence of outrage and despair – some virtual, but quite a lot on the street and some in the classroom as well. It would be tempting to thus conclude that the situation is worse than we thought; that in fact there is wrong and outrage, but that the latter is no longer a force for autonomous or revolutionary action. But it more likely seems there is a missing link between the articulation-in-practice of the No and finding voices with which to speak it, and the articulation-in-practice of the many Yeses that so many people are groping and striving towards. There is a not-yet-knowing-how to break cynical and comfortable habits and relations of ‘disaffected content’, and a not-yet consciousness of the extent to which we are neoliberalism. It is therefore in the spaces of prefigurative creation between critique and possibility that I think some of the most important work in education is now being done.

As Arendt also argued in Men in Dark Times (1968), we must keep our minds and hearts and ways of being receptive to the politics of possibility in order to make sense of the new forms we cannot predict it will take. ‘Even in the darkest of times’, she wrote, ‘we have the right to expect some illumination’, and it

‘may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…’

Just as it is difficult to keep on top of changes in educational policy and politics (unless one does so for a living), it is also difficult to keep a fair perspective on the volume of ‘uncertain, flickering, and weak light’ that is presently illuminating alternatives in education in a multitude of ways today. From the growth of new student, student–worker and student–community movements to the rising levels of academic and popular critique of neoliberal educational policy and practice; from highly organised projects in popular higher education to slow-burning interest in radical and alternative and transformative models for teaching and learning, things are not what they were three years ago, when the languages of crisis and death were much more common. Today, while we still find ourselves speaking through discourses of death and despair, it is increasingly in less wounded and more messianic registers in which references to the loss or abandonment of this cultural and economic and institutional form of the school and the university mark the possibility of new beginnings rather than the end of hope. There are things happening just this side of the future as well.

What does unsettle me about the newest educational movements and politicisations, however, is the lack of attention to questions around the creation of new institutional (or anti-institutional) forms, and to the embodied materiality of prefigurative political activities. Or more so, the lack of attention to creating new forms of educational work, and new ways of organising learning throughout social life, which are radically politically democratic and radically economically democratic. Issue-focused and theoretically articulated struggles against particular violations or against entire organisational logics are absolutely necessary. But these must be part of a broader political and intellectual project (‘project’, from Latin: to ‘throw out/ahead’) – a revolutionary historical project to reclaim education as and for democracy. A project in which we, educators currently occupying the hegemonic institutions, learn to struggle and to resist, and in which all those in resistance make a long-term commitment to building new institutions. Whether these will be ‘in the shell of the old’ or elsewhere remains a question.

But what remains a fact is that at the moment, most people live at least partly within and rely upon these institutions, and are trying to make them work and to keep the vampires out for complex reasons that cannot be reduced to ‘disaffected consent’. And what also remains a fact is that when examined micro-politically, or rather from the vantage of the richness of everyday life, these institutions are simultaneously neoliberalising but creaking and cracking with repressed and disoriented and not-yet possibility. With teachers who despise what the class war is doing to our common children but who do not allow themselves to believe in alternatives because the fear of failure is too immense, and children who have a better-than-you’d-guess understanding of things like justice and courage and how they can enjoy learning. Filled with so many people who are happy to get along so long as they can, but who are also looking just as hard for a different sort of light, listening for a different tone. And it has to be on a wavelength we can actually see and frequencies we can hear if it is to take any breath at all. Lots of people know that the change needed is radical. How to really get from here to there? How do we learn the courage and the hope?

The cultural theorist and critical educator Raymond Williams once said that ‘it is in making hope practical, rather than despair convincing, that we must resume and change and extend our campaigns’. Much as I love the sentiment, I think that it cannot be a guide for action. Hope, in the form of what Ernst Bloch called ‘real possibility’, is rarely practical. It is more likely to be impractical (or regarded as such within an established order of things), unconvincing (within the dominant horizons of intelligibility) and inconvenient (in relation to the priorities that clutter our existing to-do lists) and it requires an awful lot more support and courage than we are used to mustering. Therefore, the task of enabling and facilitating radical democratisation in and beyond our educational institutions, as well as in our everyday relations to thinking and to one another, cannot be to make hope practical. It is to make despair untenable whilst making it possible to engage in practices of hope and transformation which may be impractical, to cultivate ‘negative capabilities’ and to effect an ontological reframing of the value of practicality itself. It is to attend to the difficult questions of self-care and care for others in this way of being, to the care and security of the young and the old, and coming to understand how anyone in particular might experience and contribute to this project, differently, according to their own emotional and material and relational affordances. ‘From each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs.’ What would it be like to organise not just educational work but the labour of a whole social politics and ethics of learning in a way that blurs the boundaries between theoretical and practical activity, re-integrates learning needs with desire, orients energy towards holistic development, and enables ‘all the springs of co-operative wealth [to] flow more abundantly’?

It is this question that motivated me to join the Social Science Centre in Lincoln (UK) in 2011, a small higher education co-operative which was established as an act of resistance to the privatization and corporatization of the university, and as a space for experimentation and creative work in the self-organisation of cultural labour, co-operative and critical pedagogies, curriculum and anti-curriculum design, and new forms of popular higher education. It is also this question that makes me more immediately interested in some energies which have been stirring recently across the UK and in various places around the world about the possibilities of co-operative education, co-operative schools (as an alternative to private academies in situations where actually public education appears to be off the table), the creation of a co-operative university, and the strengths and limits of the radical tendencies within the (now well-neoliberalized) co-operative movement in general.

Co-operativism has long been a powerful and ubiquitous movement. But can the concepts, histories, actually-existing experiences, and languages of co-operative education offer either a guiding light towards a movement for educational democracy proper – particularly where these are understood as forms of material and economic self-governance and democracy as well as political and cultural ones – or a doorway into more coherent conversations about a range of social forms? Does co-operativism as a belief system and social form, with its concern for institution-building and mutual aid alongside its concern with educating democratic process, offer a potential point of articulation? Do the understandings of co-operation now circulating mean similar things to all those affected? We have yet to explore the relationship or dissonance between these (e.g. the labour-oriented concepts) and other discourses of co-operation in education, particularly those inspired by the work of John Dewey and other theorists of co-operative learning and democracy. And what should we be careful not to lose in projects articulated around ‘co-operation’? Co-operation is, after all, just one of many forms that a radically democratic life might take, one kind of activity that might be productive, and it can often appear undemocratic through the lens of dissensus. To what extent can we push back and forward, in any concrete situation, through co-operative practices and forms of organisation within bureaucratic, capital-driven institutions? With whom should we be willing to co-operate? Would embracing co-operativism, let’s say for the university, mean that we would abandon the fight for communal, socialised and public education, or on the contrary radicalise and reimagine it? How do we activate the radical, prefigurative and transformative energies of co-operative experiments, and to make such work possible for people living in the widest range of conditions, when the temptation will be ever to make them ‘practical’ and ‘intelligible’ within our present capitalocentric logics? What is the relationship between co-operation, co-operativism, and radical economic, political, cultural, social and cognitive democracy? Is co-operativism, as a potentially Sisyphean project within our present conditions, the politics we need for liberation and living today?

Fortunately, it seems that there may now be more, and more visible, public spaces forming to cultivate common inquiries into and experimental work around these questions.

Click here to join the ‘Creating Co-operative Universities’ mailing list.

Read reports on recent gatherings:

Co-operative Education against the Crisis

Realising the Co-operative University

And read some good musings by Richard Hall, and here.

And visit Joss Winn and Richard Hall’s workshop on ‘Forming a Co-operative University’ and Mike Neary’s session on ‘The university and the city: the Social Science Centre and forming the urban revolution’ at Discourse, Power, Resistance 14 in April 2014.