University in Crisis (#2): The Logic of Austerity

The University in Crisis!

The first lecture, by Bob Jessop on the university in the context of neoliberalism, is tomorrow, Oct 25th! Here is the poster, lovingly designed by Dr. Turnasol! And below is an article I wrote for the student paper.

University in Crisis (#2): The Logic of Austerity

In this deeply conservative moment, it appears the nation has divided itself into two camps around the issue of austerity: those who demand ‘deep and decisive’ cuts, and those who demand ‘moderation’ and ‘protection’ for the poor. Both camps employ a discourse of ‘fairness’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘restraint’. But, as we have seen with the ConDem cuts to welfare, ‘fairness’ means different things in different hands. Some would suggest that it is ‘fair’ to reduce welfare so that ‘it’s always worth going to work’. Very few suggest the glaringly obvious: that it would be more ‘fair’ to raise wages. At present, certain options have been deliberately excluded: to suggest our artificially low wages should be raised is to question neoliberal economic orthodoxy, and to go against the grain of austerity’s logic. What is overwhelming at the moment, what makes it so oppressive, is that the logic of austerity is parroted by every mouth.

A generalisation, you might think. Turn on the television or the radio – read a newspaper. Read the emails circulated around your department, with joking (and not-so-joking) references to the need to cutback on spending in this ‘age of austerity’. The role of the BBC (and other media) in producing and reproducing ideology becomes clear when we note the way that the need for austerity is presumed, has become an unquestioned fact. To quote the slogans of David Cameron: all that is left to us is to choose where to make those cuts. Labour says here; the Tories say there; the Liberal Democrats sit in the middle and lie through their teeth. Essentially, there is no difference between them.

What becomes clear is that, if the only choice we have is where cuts will be made, universities will not escape cuts unscathed. In fact, they will not escape without being brutally mauled (who doesn’t tremble at news of former BP chief executive, Lord Browne’s report?). If we accept the logic of austerity we doom ourselves.

Around the country many are finding themselves made redundant, or unable to pay their rent, or their mortgages. Pensions, benefits, working loads and hours are everywhere being manipulated to favour business under the cover of austerity. In this context no amount of ‘whinging’ (for this is how it is seen) about the problems of higher education will register – particularly if our rationale is that ‘education is valuable in itself’, or that ‘education must remain open to all’. For we must face the fact that, under the current system, education is not open to all. There is no doubt that higher education has remained a privilege. Moreover, there is a contradiction many refuse to acknowledge: we (especially in the arts and social sciences) continue to defend the worth of education in itself, and yet we have accepted into our midst an increased instrumentality and increased bureaucracy. Indeed, the romantic notion of education being worthwhile in itself has become worse than a shallow lie: it has become an apology for the status quo in the face of a system where nothing may be conceived any more which does not cheerfully include instructions as to who its beneficiaries are.

We should not be satisfied, then, with either camp. When our union leaders call for more moderate cuts and a graduate tax their calls ring false, for, on the one hand, it is clear that we cannot accept the logic of austerity and expect that the beleaguered lower and middle classes will fund our ‘privilege’. On the other, because its is utterly defeatist to accept the inequities of our current system

Fortunately, another course becomes clear: reject austerity and reject the status quo. If we step outside the box of neoliberal orthodoxy, we immediately see that the two are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, complimentary. For the project of building a more equitable and egalitarian society could very well also prove to be a solution to the problem of the debt crisis – and of capitalism itself. It is with this understanding that we must reach beyond the university, beyond the partial cause, and establish solidarity between all those who struggle against the brutally irrational ideology of austerity.



~ by Wit on October 24, 2010.

2 Responses to “University in Crisis (#2): The Logic of Austerity”

  1. Hi Wit. Thanks for your useful comments on the blog. You are absolutely right to ask ‘How do we want to live?’ in the context of my question on how to adapt society from knowledge based economy to knowledge based society. It is clear that we all want change but the answer to the question is going to be difficult to get at. My reasons for thinking this is that society is made up of many people that are idiosyncratic by nature; each with a viewpoint. I would think that the democratic voting process captures some of this, yet the political parties seem unable to agree or even discuss how the financial system could be reformed towards societal improvements. At the moment they seem bent on taxing bonus’s, a policy that does not get to the heart of the problem and may even exacerbate it (it could be forcing a moral hazard issue beyond that which already exists). Under current political party manifesto’s no case for financial reform is being made. This means there is no way (at present) to make the vote towards significant financial market reform. If however, movements could be formed that forces its way into the political system then this could change. The severity of the financial crisis could be the catalyst to make this happen but it needs to be organised. I think the Robin Hood Tax movement may be a useful vehicle for this purpose.

  2. Given my comment above, it may prove useful to gather forces to take the case to parliament. Shouting about the cuts, although important, does not convey the message for changing policy at the core of the financial system. Yet, this must be done for sure. We need a clearer focus on what the change should look like before the case can be made however.

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