Radical alternatives? Surely we can do better?

16 Dec

We wish to juxtapose two things.

The first thing is this statement from Vinay Gupta on the muppetocracy. In it Vinay gave us food-for-thought about the desperate hard-work that a re-politicised form of higher education might have to undertake in the face of socio-environmental crisis. He writes

“Do you think Occupy, or any political group, Left, Right, Green, Libertarian or other, has any hope of doing so much better than our existing system that we actually manage climate?”

He goes on, damningly:

“Gandhi’s last card was this: with enough discipline, we could govern ourselves and our own affairs so that the State had little or nothing to do. Everyone perfect in their duty to their family. Everyone perfect in their duty to their neighbour. Every village perfect in its duty to its poorer neighbours: a global wave of responsibility displacing coercive models at every point.

“That’s not happening either.

“And now the question: do you know what to do?

“So here we are, face to face, at the end of our tethers. If you’re not aware of this situation, I guarantee you it’s because you’re not paying attention, alas. The more people know about these issues, the more worried they get. The best of us are chronically depressed and grasping at straws, fighting our own minor battles in full expectation of futility, while awaiting results that seem to take forever to come.”

The second thing is about futile battles. We popped along to the Bank of Ideas last evening to see how the London Free University was developing. We love the Bank of Ideas, just like we love the Space Project in Leeds, and the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, and the heroes in Oakland and those who are indignant in Chile and Spain and Greece, and everywhere. There were some lovely people at the first meeting of the LFU – in particular it seemed to us a number of younger academics in precarious employment situations or who had been inspired by the Occupy process, and for whom education was a way in, or a way out, to something else. Something more enclosed. There were also a number of older academics for whom engagement with a different energy was revitalising.

What we learned from the second meeting was enlightening for us in thinking about place and dissent and co-option and process and curriculum, and it made us wonder a few things about *alternatives* as potentially futile battles. So this is like our Christmas list of things we have been thinking about over the course of 18 months in attending and arguing and doing, and most importantly in listening and hearing other people.

  1. There are always people who think they know the answer. Or at least how to unlock it. Like it is a commodity to be revealed. And in thinking that they know the thing they speak or skew conversations. And they demonstrate their power. And they forget to listen. And they marginalise. And they accelerate the exodus.
  2. Are we really trying to re-produce the University in the name of *free*, whatever *that* is, inside capital and ruled by money? Without a critique of the form of the University inside capitalism we risk simply re-producing all the same alienating principles that congeal and restrict inside the academy. Mimicking what we are railing against is comfortable but changes little. It simply gives us a new, safe space in which to rail and exclude.
  3. The process of consensus is disabling where it is shackled to a perceived need to be productive or by self-imposed time constraints or by the fear of being bogged down in long discussions, and by the desperate, unquestioned desire to act now. However, we’ve seen the allegedly direct democratic process of consensus used in time-limited ways to marginalise or simply give voice to those more experienced in the process. In this way it is no different to standard institutionalised forms of governance. But what is worse is the subtext that it is more open and transparent, and that somehow at every point we don’t have to out power relationships. The network, for all our trite statements about newness, is neither new nor power free. It is just as hateful and disabling, or just as counter-hegemonic and different.
  4. Nor is it good enough to use statements about alleged openness, facilitated by technological or platform richness. Or to state that everyone has access through always-on, or libraries or SMS or to use assumption and assertion of *democratic process/form* in order to drive what is a deeply political process. Technology is not neutral. Technology is enclosing and monitoring and its use needs constant attention, and we need to find a way to engage those whom it marginalises, if we are not to become that which we claim we are not. It is not enough to say that because notes from a meeting were online, and that issues were previously raised, that certain directions or issues are closed for comment. Or that we do not have the time or the courtesy to renegotiate. The very act of making such statements is an act of power-over. Previous discussions or technological determinism become veils over what was once enacted and what needs renegotiation. We need to recover and remember how our statements are potentially acts of closure, of the rejection of the need to reiterate or re-cover issues that need constant renewal. It is a sense that we must always be moving irrespective of the need to bring others along, rather than a recognition that we might not in any one place have the answer.
  5. We appear to be becoming obsessed with content. We see disenfranchised teachers wanting a place or set of spaces in which to re-find themselves. But to what purpose? To the empty promise of an education that is free for all? Free for all under capitalism with no engagement with critical pedagogy or structures or politicised forms, that risks then becoming a free-for-all. By re-engaging our focus on the subject, within its fetishised, commodified, REF-ified, controlling, capitalist appearance, we start from us. From the teacher, with the power. We do not start with the student. Or the community. This is simply another way of doing things to people. Or speaking to an echo chamber. And this is maybe where traditional university educators have it right when the mesh critical pedagogy with power, before they get to content. We know that content is safer for some people. As is producing curricula for students. But who says we know what is needed? Who says we have it right with our “activism 101” or our “educational technology 101” or our “physics 101”? For whom and for what is this free or radical education?
  6. We note that it is very rare indeed for people to start from the student or the community, and to ask how might I help that person/those people? What does this mean for me as an educator? What does this mean for power? What does this mean for process? What does this mean for politics and pedagogy? What does this mean for content? Our obsession with content and just getting on, mirrors their obsession with employability and becoming a productive economic actor.
  7. Place is important in building permacultures that emerge over time, and may congeal, as occupy threatens, into some form of counter-hegemonic position. Does it really matter that the mainstream, virtualised within its X-factor love-hate, its bitter cynicism of all things French, its snarling and visceral hatred of Leveson, its snide cynical use of austerity to demonise, might lose interest in us or our commodified, branded project? Why run to catch-up with a thing that neither knows nor cares? Do we somehow believe that the thing we loathe can be tamed? Or that we will not just form it spectacle? That the thing which brutalises can be turned through some liberal homily? Really? We might push back for a while but building the alternative as a process takes time, and deliberation, and technology, and talk, in the social centre, and the pub, and the WEA, and the Women’s Institute, and at the football, and on the picket line, and in the school and the university. And occasionally in the mainstream. But isn’t the rule and domination of the mainstream over our lives the thing we wish to break? With its alienating hatred.

I’m sure there are other things that we learned. But it has made us think about shock and awe, and how their domination of our spaces is so disconcerting at times that we can only imagine alternatives within their space and place. It is as if we can reimagine nothing other than a nicer form of what they do to us. A nicer form of control and power, because some of us are more free or more knowing than others. Rather than negating their institutional and process-driven power over us, we simply re-inscribe those patterns through our new institutions and forms and processes, whilst claiming they are new or democratic and power-free.

So we wonder how we might try to create something that starts from power and critique and critical pedagogy and politics, and most importantly from the student, in order to disengage, refuse, say no, push back or break their imposition on our world. Surely we can do better?

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