Outwardly, the sequence of events at Goldsmiths may be read as a demoralizing series of defeats, by which SMT continues to erode worker security irrespective of organized opposition, made all the more disheartening by mass resignations—with many citing toxic working conditions under current management as the reason for their voluntary departure. The stakes of the struggle are also revealed just here with two potential outcomes: 1) For SMT to realize their restructure, erecting a more violent institution while flagrantly working to impair future oppositions by reducing the workforce and targeting trade unionists for redundancy; or 2) For the dispute and boycott of Goldsmiths to mark not simply the unmatched extent of one local pushback but the mere beginnings of a protracted labor campaign to be sustained against the university in its current form—and perhaps against worker-governability by the managerialism that now characterizes higher education. It may only be possible to see the struggle defined by the defeat of one side in the presumption that its ends are within sight.
Painted in bold against the outer walls of the Margaret McMillan building at Goldsmiths, University of London, an inscription in memoriam of Mark Fisher reads, “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”1 If these words cut hard against the currents of education as Fisher saw them before his death in early 2017, in which metrics of productivity and excellence coincided with foreclosed conceptions of public goods and abundance to the detriment of personal and collective wellbeing, they do even more so today. Though tagged on its brick and mortar, the mural does not stand representative of Goldsmiths as an entity but in contradistinction to it, much despite attempts by College management to recuperate and commodify the intellectual and political projects of its workers and students. Framing their ongoing drive to push through a restructure based on increased high-salaried managerial positions, reductions of administrative and teaching staff, and growths of student numbers to finance the institution on their debt, the current Warden and Senior Management Team (SMT) pitch Goldsmiths as “a beacon of progressive, liberal values” that throws “a searchlight on some of society’s biggest problems.” With their restructure exemplary of the entrenchment of austerity that Fisher recognized as all pervasive, the values management invoke read as no more than hollowed, marketable abstractions seeking normalization among incoming student cohorts who may have never experienced the conditions of education differently. Management’s so-far relentless mission since early 2020 to execute a restructure no matter the strength of trade unionist opposition seems revealing of an objective of institutional depoliticization waged in the name of progressivism.
Responding to an ongoing dispute with the Goldsmiths University College Union (GUCU) which already saw three weeks of strike action during the 2021 winter term, SMT issued a statement on January 10th 2022 in which they doubled down on plans to make up to fifty-two “permanent” staff redundant across the departments of English and Creative Writing (ECW) and History by the end of the spring term. These redundancies were proposed as just part of the initial phase of an SMT-driven “Goldsmiths Recovery Programme”—a euphemism for a College-wide restructure. Spearheaded by Frances Corner, Warden (or Vice-Chancellor) of Goldsmiths since 2019, the Recovery Programme was officially unveiled in September 2021 to allegedly redress former economic mishandling of the College while repairing financial damages endured in the COVID-19 pandemic, and was announced with SMT’s motivation to “improve student experience” at the College while reversing a £12.7 million deficit into a surplus.
Since its first appearance, GUCU members have continually labeled the Recovery Programme as an ideological restructure driven not by genuine economic necessity but as an assault on worker security, as well as teaching and research autonomy, in an effort to increase annual profits and consolidate managerial power within the institution. With an overall goal to save £9 million over two years, an initial target for 2022 was set by SMT for £6 million. Two thirds of this were to be achieved by savings from academic departments and the centralization of “professional services” (administration in the US context). The remaining £2 million was to be gleaned from non-pay decreases elsewhere in the College budget. In September 2021, ECW and History were announced as the first targets for job cuts for already falling short of compulsory departmental savings contributions, with the equivalent of twenty full-time academic workers to be made redundant and up to thirty-two dedicated departmental administrative posts to be “deleted” (as described by SMT in an email to constituent staff). GUCU considers the latter effort a “fire and rehire” scheme set to deskill workers reinstated in a limited number of more atomised roles and to disproportionately affect those who identify as BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) and as women. Academic dismissals would be determined based on “rank and yank” tactics, requiring workers to complete a metrics-based “Skills Match Questionnaire.” The lowest “scoring” academic staff would be marked for redundancy.
An additional and pivotal aspect of the Goldsmiths Recovery Programme is the establishment of an institution-wide “connected curriculum” of compulsory undergraduate modules, planned by SMT to be in place by September 2022, to affect teaching practices, content, and learning objectives across the College. With titles such as “Goldsmiths 101,” the curriculum is allegedly designed to reflect the institution’s supposed values and “mission to promote equality, diversity and inclusion,” all while BAME workers across departments affected in the restructure face unemployment, including academic staff who designed and teach on the UK’s only Black British Literature, Black British History, and Queer History MA programs. The restructure’s landing page on the Goldsmiths website mentions an “expectation of the continuation of areas including Creative Writing, Black British History, Black British and Caribbean Literature and Queer Studies as vital areas of academic endeavour” alongside “traditional areas of strength like the environment, civic responsibility and social justice”—pledges management see as achievable without commitments to the livelihoods of workers.
The connected curriculum has received resoundingly negative responses from internal feedback solicited by SMT, and has been conveyed by workers as an embarrassingly simplified amalgamation of research topics extracted from faculties across the College. A lecturer from the department of Sociology, for instance, describes “Goldsmiths 101” as “proposed in sheer ignorance… Firstly, ignorance about the social sciences and humanities taught by us… Secondly, there is a blatant and appalling ignorance about students and their life experience and plurality of interests and concerns.” Sketched as three compulsory centralized modules for most undergraduate students, forty-five credits—the equivalent of three modules—would consequently be subtracted from departments for each student enrolled on one of their degree programs. Hypothetically, the effect of a reduced demand for departmental modules would provide more scope for SMT to identify “underperforming” programs. This would pave the way to further redundancies in conjunction with the connected curriculum’s “digital first” delivery (i.e., partially automatable online teaching), and therefore present a means for SMT to in part reach their remaining £3 million savings target. As Goldsmiths undergraduate degrees are currently largely based on option modules, the compulsory curriculum would also detract from students’ abilities to develop their own research practices, effectively assaulting their autonomy over their own education. In another review, a lecturer from the department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies claimed that student feedback on the connected curriculum has been “uniformly negative,” and quotes an undergraduate as saying, “[i]f this goes forward, I will be utterly ashamed for having this institution’s name on my degree.”
The SMT statement of January 10th insisted that no viable savings alternatives to redundancies had so far been proposed by workers of ECW or History. Management announced that it would therefore “commence its original proposal to reduce staff numbers as the way to close the financial gap” posed by the departments. This statement was taken to blithely disregard measures proposed by GUCU to save staff positions—such as rescinding plans to create new high-salary management roles, another key feature of the restructure2—without an explanation as to why such proposals were not considered “viable” in the short to medium term. Repeated declarations by SMT that redundancies are “always a last resort” were ultimately contradicted by March of this year, when it was revealed that by the voluntary severance of dozens of staff —and subsequent unfilled vacancies noted as close to double the number of positions marked for forced redundancy—enough savings had been generated at Goldsmiths to significantly reduce if not completely halt compulsory job cuts. Instead of doing this, GUCU reports, savings have been continually redirected to fund an interim “change management” team, consultants from the corporate sector with no long-term interests in higher education, hired to oversee the restructure and redundancies process.
* * *
GUCU has declared SMT’s continuous refusals to cancel unnecessary job cuts as exemplary of institutional violence at Goldsmiths, and indicative of autocracy that follows managerialism, by which decisions are carried through on principle no matter the cost inflicted on those below. SMT’s expressions of regret for those affected by redundancies, meanwhile, stand in contradiction to the material effects of the policies they themselves design and implement—from the evisceration of individual access to waged work to increased workloads for remaining staff. If, as a recent article in Tribune magazine claims, current events at Goldsmiths present a microcosm of working conditions across the higher education sector, it is this that has become most recognizable amidst SMT’s restructure: the degrees of violence to which workers and students alike are subject in the corporatized austerity university.
Worker struggles against the Goldsmiths Recovery Programme were escalated in early 2022 and have reached unprecedented extents even against the backdrop of some of the largest ever coordinated actions of the national University College Union (UCU). In March 2022 alone, up to fifty-thousand workers across sixty-seven universities went on strike as part of the national “Four Fights” campaign. By that same month, almost eight out of twenty teaching weeks of the 2021–22 academic year at Goldsmiths had been absorbed by strike action in a local campaign for no job cuts, no connected curriculum, and no institutional restructure without meaningful consultation and involvement of all workers. Just days after SMT’s January 10th statement, the UCU issued an international academic boycott and gray-listing of Goldsmiths, appealing to researchers of other institutions to cancel or relocate events scheduled at the College, to refrain from submitting to its publications, and to refuse new contracts as its external examiners. Such a move is described by the UCU as their “ultimate sanction” against an institution and, considering the lasting reputational damage that may follow, one only issued as a last measure against egregious displays of institutional violence.3
Despite the breadth of industrial action at Goldsmiths, SMT’s strategy has evidently been to hold steadfast in the assumption that once the initial force of worker outrage against the restructure has been exhausted, so too will the organized response subside. Just after 7pm on Friday, April 8th, the eve of an Easter-period recess, redundancy notices were issued by email from SMT to sixteen staff members of ECW and History. The majority of academics who received dismissals are active trade unionists, including departmental reps and a serving co-president. The fact that, at least so far, the number of redundancies issued by SMT have not come near the initial projection is not a point of celebration for GUCU members. Grief and exhaustion arepalpable among staff and students at Goldsmiths, yet determination to continue the fight against the restructure has been bolstered by the example set by the University of Liverpool UCU, which in a 2021 dispute overturned the compulsory redundancies of forty-seven academic staff members after termination notices were issued by management.
As an ongoing struggle, the situation at Goldsmiths is difficult to analyze comprehensively, as is its end result difficult to predict. Having never entered one before, GUCU is currently in its third local dispute under Frances Corner’s governance, with worker organizing across those motions now stretching beyond three academic years. As of April 2022, GUCU members have reballotted at 87.5% to extend the current dispute period and take action short of strike (ASOS) over the summer term, with publicized tactics including a marking boycott and non-compliance with the connected curriculum. Additionally, there has been a reballot of 78% to resume strike action in the 2022-23 academic year. A single industrial motion covering two academic years is, once more, unprecedented in the history of the UCU. Outwardly, the sequence of events at Goldsmiths may be read as a demoralizing series of defeats, by which SMT continues to erode worker security irrespective of organized opposition, made all the more disheartening by mass resignations—with many citing toxic working conditions under current management as the reason for their voluntary departure. The stakes of the struggle are also revealed just here with two potential outcomes: 1) For SMT to realize their restructure, erecting a more violent institution while flagrantly working to impair future oppositions by reducing the workforce and targeting trade unionists for redundancy; or 2) For the dispute and boycott of Goldsmiths to mark not simply the unmatched extent of one local pushback but the mere beginnings of a protracted labor campaign to be sustained against the university in its current form—and perhaps against worker-governability by the managerialism that now characterizes higher education. It may only be possible to see the struggle defined by the defeat of one side in the presumption that its ends are within sight.
* * *
Mere yards from Fisher’s words on the central campus of Goldsmiths on Lewisham Way in South East London, one can now find on the New Cross Road high street the prospective site of an “Enterprise Hub,” a renovation project set in motion following the appointment of Corner as Warden. Set to cost the institution upwards of £4 million, the same figure planned to be saved by staff redundancies and administrative changes in the more recently conceived restructure, management’s proclaimed goal for the Hub has been to build “a local community of entrepreneurs and support business-start up and growth.” Although indefinitely paused as an outcome of industrial dispute, the conception of the Hub is emblematic of a broader vision for the transformation of Goldsmiths into an institution that reflects the political economy of fully marketized higher education, in which a university qualification is foremost a transaction and a marker of personal investment and self-entrepreneurialism.
Goldsmiths is no outlier in the fact that the so-called financial health of UK universities has become dependent on student fees and recruitment growth since the 2010 Browne Review.4 By the review, block grants that formerly subsidised undergraduate education were slashed and student fees—only reintroduced for the first time since the 60s under Blair’s 1998 government—were almost tripled and capped at £9000 per year.5 This event prompted the renowned UK student revolts of November 2010. In that year, around 44% of Goldsmiths’ reported income was comprised of student fees, while around 39% was composed of grants. By 2020, tuition fees stood at approximately £9250 per year per home-rated undergraduate student and accounted for 77% of income. Funding council grants made up just 9%.6
Peter Fleming points out that as universities came to be financed on student debt—in accordance with policy designed by people who received degrees during a time in which public university attendance was free—so increases the impulse to see a return on investment in education. From this tendency follows an attack on education for its sake, particularly within the arts and humanities.7 This arises at individual level, as students become “consumers” in an educational transaction, and from policy makers keen to see graduates pay off state-issued student loans.8 As a result, remaining government grants are prioritized for university departments that specialize in STEM fields while the arts, humanities, and social sciences receive less year on year. UK universities are now also subject to government fines if less than 60% of recent graduates do not secure “skilled employment” within the first year of completing their college course. As such, higher education is ever less provided as a social good than for the tending of human capital, or the production of homo oeconomicus, for future returns in economic circulation, while arts and humanities curricula must increasingly prove their applicability on the market and the “transferability” of the skills they cultivate.
Considering all of this and the managerialist turn that has also defined higher education post-Browne Review,9 SMT’s promotions of business growth and enterprise are hardly surprising. They also fly in the face of governance models previously proposed by a staff-and-student collective seeking to position Goldsmiths “at the forefront of re-casting the university” as a public good and to set a strategy to lobby the state for alternative funding mechanisms.10 Instead, the emphasis under the current Warden is to teach in the areas of social justice, ethics, and diversity, so that they may, presumably, be applied elsewhere on the job market. The paradox that the employment stability of those who teach and support learning at Goldsmiths is negated so that more students may earn degrees from the College to, also presumably, buy themselves a level of future security is overlooked by management.
Similarly premised on job cuts and SMT expansion, an earlier iteration of the Warden’s restructure was circumvented by worker organizing in 2020. Formerly the head of the London College of Fashion and Pro-Vice Chancellor of University of the Arts London—which saw a restructure similarly based on job cuts imposed in 2017—Corner sought to establish her position at Goldsmiths on campaigns of ethical business practices and an institutional “Green New Deal.” (The latter was seen by many on the ground as tied to a green-washing PR scheme following a 137-day student-led “Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action” occupation of Deptford Town Hall, a campus building just doors up from the future site of the Enterprise Hub. Within a month of the occupation’s end, which happened after management threatened to pursue the legal eviction of students demanding that the College address institutional racism, SMT began rebuilding the Goldsmiths brand as a forerunner of decarbonization and fossil-fuel divestment.) The Warden’s vision of a business of care was undermined early in her tenure, when in January 2020 an “Evolving Goldsmiths” agenda was circulated by SMT to unexpecting staff to announce a plan to reverse an institutional deficit of £10 million to a surplus of £2 million within three years and achieve financial sustainability by 2030.11 As the precursor to the pandemic Recovery Programme, Evolving Goldsmiths was also purportedly motivated to produce an improvement in student experience while correcting the institution’s financial standing. The agenda stipulated for the first time the construction of the Enterprise Hub, the creation of new senior management positions, and a 15% cost reduction from academic and professional services. Also introduced in late January was a “Voluntary Severance Scheme” open to all to lower staff numbers without yet forcing redundancies.
Identifying serious flaws with the financial rationale of the scheme, GUCU immediately and vehemently disputed SMT’s claims the Evolving Goldsmiths was designed with “radical transparency.” For example, workers questioned why ten years were required to achieve economic stability when budgetary deficits at the College had been reported for just three. In a financial analysis of the plan, GUCU noted that the reported deficit was not based on massive income losses but a failure to meet projected growth, including a targeted 5.3% increase in student fees income despite mitigating external and internal conditions—from Brexit to individual departments hitting recruitment capacity without the provision of further teaching resources.
Following the establishment of an official union dispute and a local ballot to escalate demands for no job cuts and no SMT-dictated restructure, the Warden announced the “closure” of Evolving Goldsmiths via email in April 2020. In the wake of COVID-19, however, she simultaneously gestured to the development of a “recovery plan” for the College to withstand financial losses caused by the pandemic. The voluntary severance scheme was also retained and ultimately extended to March 2021. Although welcoming an end to Evolving Goldsmiths, staff quickly expressed skepticism of the recovery plan, claiming that it would be meaningless for a restructure to be canceled if its significant features were to reemerge beneath another name.
Suspicions that elements of Evolving Goldsmiths would reappear simply rebranded materialized in 2021—after Corner and SMT had received an 87% vote of no confidence from academic workers. In the vote, it was asserted that management had lost all credibility in the aftermath of the first restructure scheme and for proceeding with unpopular plans to centralize administration and establish an Enterprise Hub despite running the College on a deficit. The Goldsmiths Recovery Programme was only unveiled after SMT secured a £7 million revolving cash credit in loans from Lloyds Bank and Nat West, which, in refinancing the College’s standing debt, made budget cuts a contractual requirement. Worth £60 million, the entire Goldsmiths campus save its main “Richard Hoggart” building were taken as collateral should the College breach its covenants.
To secure its deals with the banks, Goldsmiths was required to undergo an “Independent Business Review,” or an external audit, to identify savings opportunities. KPMG subsequently won a tender for the audit even though the chair of the Goldsmiths Finance & Resources Committee had worked for the firm for thirty-four years, presenting what the worker-led “Goldsmiths Collective Change Working Group” claim to be a clear conflict of interests.12 Releasing its findings to the College in September 2020, KPMG recommended measures previously proposed by GUCU as savings alternatives to Evolving Goldsmiths, such as selling excess campus real estate and halting capital expenditure projects like the Enterprise Hub. According to GUCU’s reports of the (embargoed) audit, staff redundancies were not initially proposed by KMPG. However, SMT contracted the firm again for an additional audit, this time to carry out a “Professional Services Blueprint” and an “Academic Portfolio Review” in which the savings recommendations shifted entirely to staff cost reductions and the financial profiling of modules and programs within departments. Plans for the Enterprise Hub were paused.
With contradictions abound in the recovery plan, GUCU members have illustrated how questionable financial framing by SMT alone casts the necessity of such a drastic restructure in dubious light. For one, the deficit reported by SMT as catastrophic is far lower than projections of as much as £25–40 million at the onset of the pandemic due to student enrolment holding despite state-issued travel restrictions. Meanwhile the underlying deficit of £6.5 million was reduced from £12 million in the previous year13 due to departmental savings through measures such as frozen pay rates and unfilled job vacancies. This means that savings have already come at the increase of staff workloads for stagnated compensation. In interviews conducted for this text, academic workers repeatedly stressed concern over the absence of an impact assessment of a further-reduced workforce. It’s argued that consequently further-swollen workloads and worsened staff-to-student ratios would adversely affect ability in the College to retain student numbers regardless of management’s insistence on growth, thus enabling SMT to repeatedly declare financial crisis. Nonetheless, the rejection of savings alternatives and the rehiring of KPMG to explicitly focus on reviewing staff-related expenditure— which accounts for the highest proportion of outgoing costs at 65%14— indicates that redundancies were always an intentional and essential feature of the restructure. In GUCU analyses, KPMG were consulted until SMT got the right answer, proving that the Recovery Programme is not one motivated by financial necessity but is of an ideological imperative and one by which the College has been intentionally nestled into the grip of the banks to shield the restructure from trade-union opposition.
* * *
Totaling thirty-eight strike days between November 2021 and March 2022, GUCU action against the Recovery Programme continues to demonstrate strengths in solidarity despite SMT’s pitting of workers against one another via metrics evaluation and students against workers more directly. For instance, in one of numerous emails to students throughout the year, Corner announced that she had taken the “unprecedented step of urging UCU members to not vote in favour of taking industrial action, given the significant effect any such action could have on our students’ learning and experience.” In the same message, the Warden linked an anti-strike motion from the University College London Students’ Union in spite of declarations of support of industrial action by the Goldsmiths SU. Student solidarity has, however, been clear in their presence on picket lines, in their disseminations of agitprop and zines, and in direct action—showing continuity from previous student support for workers’ rights at the institution, such as 2019 campaigns to end the outsourcing of cleaning and security staff. During a strike week in February 2022, students disrupted and momentarily shut down a Goldsmiths Council and Academic Board meeting, at which SMT was present, at the University of London campus in Central London. In a speech calling out misrepresentations of the College’s economic state, it was pronounced that “staff and students have been gaslighted by all this deception and dishonesty.”
Repeated email appeals from management to staff to cancel strike action in consideration of student welfare begs for particular attention, for the post-Browne Review university is itself premised on accumulations of wealth at the expense of students and therefore on the very contraction of welfare. GUCU reports that SMT have refused requests from academic staff that wages withheld during strike periods be redistributed to students as a refund for the significant teaching time lost in the past academic year,15 while students engaged in a fees strike in solidarity with staff have risked potential and actual expulsion from the College. (The first expulsion was issued to an international MA student on February 24th, mere days after the disrupted board meeting.) Concern for welfare, it seems, is extended only so long as students remain compliant in their positions along the capital flows of the institution. As such, claims that a restructure of Goldsmiths is motivated by desires to meet demands for improved “experience” at the university depends on a purely figurative student, simply referred to in mass emails, and one that stands in disregard of the fleshed demands of those on picket lines against staff cuts and curriculum changes.
Worker solidarity is not, however, organic to the institution but has grown from organizing pursued at various levels. The development of the anti-casualization movement in the College in particular goes some way to explain how such sustained strike action has been achieved against the Recovery Programme as well as how and why it’s been adopted as strategy at all. In the summer term of 2020, 472 associate lecturers, many of whom were also doctoral students of the College, faced contract termination ahead of uncertain enrolment projections in the new academic year as a result of travel and in-person teaching restrictions. Although accounting for 39% of departmental teaching labor for 7% of the pay, cuts to associate posts posed an easy savings opportunity for the College and one that could be accomplished by simply allowing fixed-term contracts to expire. To resist this, in June 2020 a number of associate lecturers embarked on a wildcat grading strike modeled off the UCSC strike of the same term. Their demand to management was relatively simple: for their contracts to be furloughed through October to allow actual, rather than projected, enrolment figures confirm the teaching demand before allowing contract expirations.16 While the strike ended after one month amid tensions with academic department heads, it revealed how those of the most precarious working positions have lead the way in regards to increased militancy among worker organizers. It also set a precedent for a January 2021 GUCU grading boycott as ASOS to demand no compulsory redundancies for two years—an action that also won a commitment from management that departmental budgets for associate lecturer pay would not fall below 95% of their 2021 level before spring 2022.
The wildcat strike furthermore provided an incentive for casualized workers, including doctoral researchers teaching on a fixed-term basis, to take up GUCU leadership positions to strengthen the branch’s anti-casualization stance.17 Subsequent strategizing against the Recovery Programme has thus been informed by increased consciousness within the union branch that precarious academic work can no longer be seen as a mere rite of passage to be endured as an early career researcher—if it should have ever been accepted as such—before the eventual attainment of long-term, so-called permanent work. Rather, the experience of wage insecurity, even perpetually so, is a de facto expectation for most entering graduate study to pursue academic work, and perhaps especially for those within the arts and humanities. Steered by workers employed on fixed-term contracts and others, it bears repeating, who’ve been directly targeted by SMT for redundancies, the GUCU response has been formed in recognition that the Recovery Programme represents, at bottom, an ongoing disintegration of tenure and entrenchment of casualization for all except those of managerial posts.
* * *
In a recent panel discussion, Claire Fontaine expanded on their notion of a “human strike” as “the disarticulation of the mechanisms that make everything functional and make everyone complicit in the processes that continue to destroy what is alive and healthy. It is a defunctionalization of struggle itself as a tool for reform, it’s the immanence of self-transformation through the refusal of oppressive dynamics.”18 While Claire Fontaine’s human strike is not restricted to workplace or university struggles, it is such a space for disarticulation, defunctionalization, and refusal that seems possible through the strike and boycott of Goldsmiths: by staging an utter rejection of the ideological agenda imposed not just by current management but general management patterns of academia, the institutional violence already manifest through the histories of the university, and the precarity into which workers across the institution are interpellated. Disrupting the ways in which the College functions, the withdrawal of labor strikes at the institution as capitalist enterprise and transforms the positions from which subjects interact—be they (co)workers or students—to more than variables on a metrics scale representing incoming capital or outgoing costs.
Despite this positive reading of the strike—genuinely expressed from the position that organizing at Goldsmiths has set an important bar in the sector—limitations remain inherent to its form. With restructures like the Goldsmiths Recovery Programme but a symptom of a wider political and economic context, the local strike can only serve as a temporary tactic in an ongoing struggle, while organizing across the terrains of higher education must engage beyond institutional parameters. This, too, reveals potential limitations of the academic boycott in UCU’s current iteration. If applied with consideration of the risks of reputational damage, the boycott might be seen to operate according to and therefore uphold prestige based on the calculable merit of those attached to the institution. While the boycott of Goldsmiths articulates a rejection of the ideological drives of marketization, it seems necessary that its conceptualization, at local or general level, be extended to somehow encapsulate worker orientations towards the academy, specifically default identifications as an academic before an institutional worker,19 that enable elevations of concern for reputation, academic clout, or prestige above working conditions and the liveability of life bound to the university. How will the institution operate when the lines of reverence are completely redrawn?
As drops in recruitment and retention numbers and measurements of student satisfaction (as recorded by the National Student Survey) are instrumentalized to discipline and dismiss workers at universities, it seems likely that a concerted student movement will be required to sustain labor disputes at Goldsmiths (and indeed elsewhere) beyond the current academic year. This too will require maintained awareness of the parallels between students and staff in the political economy of the university—or put frankly, the ways in which the exploitation of each is related to the other. While the indebtedness of students as “cash cows” has been a point of focus in the Goldsmiths fees strike as well as rent strikes organized at several UK universities during COVID-19 lockdowns, we are far off a student-led movement against the financialization of education to match that of 2010 which saw fifty-thousand take to the streets of London. Twelve years ago, students were galvanized by that which was being diminished: the guarantee of affordable public higher education. Students today must now reckon with that which has never been offered. Their determination to transcend assigned positions as financial nodes through the university may, in the end, determine the outcomes of the labor movement to come and the university to follow. It’s perhaps from such collective desire that a new political subjectivity will emerge, which Fisher saw as a necessary occurrence to subvert resignations toward managerialist education.20
With sincere thanks to the workers and students at Goldsmiths who shared insights for this text.
Perhaps it’s worth saying that the savings measures of the restructure have not been extended to the reduction of senior management salaries to prevent redundancies elsewhere. The salary for the Goldsmiths Warden in 2021 was reported as £245,000 including taxable benefits —a sum noted in the College’s official financial statement for 2020-21 as more than six times the median total remuneration of staff. See “Annual Reports and Financial Statements for the Year Ended 31 July 2021,” 53, <“https://www.gold.ac.uk/media/docs/public-information/annual-reports/financial-statements-2020-21.pdf> [Accessed March 30, 2022].
See “Censure and Academic Boycott Policy,” <https://www.leedsucu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/UCUHE56_Censure_and_Academic_Boycott_Policy.pdf> [Accessed March 30, 2022]. Academic boycotts are becoming more frequently deployed in the UK, as the UCU branch of Queen Mary, University of London, similarly called for one in February 2022 over punitive salary deductions from staff for actions short of strike. There was also a boycott of the University of Leicester in another redundancies dispute in spring 2021. UCU does not encourage current or prospective students to boycott sanctioned institutions.
Fleming, Dark Academia: How Universities Die (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 39. Wendy Brown has a similar discussion regarding US higher education; see Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 176-90.
The withdrawal of subsidies were intended to reduce government spending on public education and make way for private college competitors in the sector, while, to compensate for rising individual costs, government loans were introduced to at least partially cover fees and living maintenance for students at public and private institutions. This created a repayment-scheme state asset, with tranches of privatized debt loans subsequently sold to the private sector to reduce public deficits. <https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn01079/> [Accessed 27 March, 2022]. However, while block grants were £5 billion annually in 2010, the government now issues around £20 billion in loans to 1.5 million students each year, with an outstanding state-held debt at £141 billion in March 2021. The average debt among individual borrowers in 2020 was £45,000 <https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn01079/> [Accessed 27 March, 2022]. Those with student debt in the UK do not begin making loan repayments until their income exceeds various thresholds, and undergraduate loan repayments are set at 9% of pre-tax income. Therefore, paradoxically, while the state curtails direct funding of universities, it carries increasingly vast amounts of student debt. Until 2022, the outstanding balance on student loans was to be written off after a thirty-year period. <https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/publicsectorfinance/methodologies/studentloansinthepublicsectorfinancesamethodologicalguide> [Accessed 27 March, 2022]. Government policy changed in 2022, extending the repayment period from thirty years to forty. By this alteration, Grace Blakely reports in Tribune, a projected 70% of graduates would repay their student loan in full, up from 20% in the thirty-year period projection; see https://tribunemag.co.uk/2022/04/student-loans-finance-graduates-cost-of-living-crisis-inflation-conservatives [Accessed April 21, 2022].
Claire Fontaine, Iman Ganji, and Jose Rosales, “Foreigners Everywhere”, Diversity of Aesthetics, Volume II, edited by Andreas Petrossiants and Jose Rosales (New York: Emily Harvey Foundation, 2022), 13. Emphasis in original.
The Hilllbillys is hardly a children's book. The illustrations are raw, and it is a bleak story that carries pessimistic despondency rare to see from movement documents in the era. Harless and Cutler offer a deeply frustrated parable of exploitation and environmental destruction in the Appalachian region.
Throughout 2018-19, in the course of my research for the book So Much To Be Angry About, I interviewed over a dozen people who were involved in the Appalachian Movement Press (AMP) printshop. The book weaves together memories and documents of AMP, and in my interviews I often asked about the overall politics that formed the foundation of the group. Was there a unified motivating ideology, an agreement held among them beyond the need to “get full information out to all Appalachians”?1 The answers I got were usually circumspect, but many pointed me back to the AMP mission statement as a guiding principle which, though strident in tone (and a bit stilted), defined their mission as no less than the full liberation of the Appalachian colony. The statement reads:
Based in Huntington, West Virginia throughout the 1970s, Appalachian Movement Press was born out of militant student organizing at Marshall University, a college that historically draws students from the rural coalfields of Central Appalachia.2 Most of the well-documented movement printshops in the US during this era were based in large cities, creating publications in an urban context and often for a national readership.3 AMP, however, was formed in a small city and defined a specific regional, class-conscious, and largely rural audience and focus. In this era, if you wanted to start an activist newspaper or print anti-war flyers for an upcoming demonstration, you needed to know a printer that was sympathetic to your politics (or at least willing to take your money and not ask questions). Otherwise, you needed to start your own printshop: this is how the “movement” press was born. The AMP operators got started by pulling together an assortment of second-hand printing and binding equipment from around Huntington and running their first publications out of the front living room of a collective house near the college.
AMP eventually positioned themselves to run print jobs at cut-rate pricing for a growing network that included activists involved in actions against strip mining, rank-and-file coal miners battling corruption in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union, community organizers working around (or splintering from) federal War on Poverty initiatives, citizens and workers fighting for recognition and treatment of black lung disease, and a myriad of other struggles.4) Besides this gig-work in the movement, AMP workers also printed regionally focused magazines at rates which kept their shop, and these publications, viable on their shoestring budgets.5 While they never set out to mark their own legacy, probably the most identifiable facet of the history of AMP output is their in-house imprint: several dozen staple-bound titles bearing their sparse logo of a coal miner’s pick-ax. Songbooks, reprints of labor history articles and book chapters that were otherwise difficult for their audience to find, contemporary anti-corruption journalism, original chapbooks by firebrand Communist activist/organizer/educator/poet/preacher Don West, and anything else they thought their readership needed to “educate themselves for the coming conflicts.”6
Sometime in the early 1970s, during AMP’s first big wave of printed output, Rod Harless produced The Hillbillys: A Book for Children at the AMP printshop. The story was lettered and illustrated by artist Dan Cutler, but unfortunately his work had not surfaced in my research by the time So Much To Be Angry About hit the presses. I did have some context for Harless, who had published with AMP before: a former Navy budget analyst at the Pentagon, Harless later worked for a regional housing authority and taught at Antioch College’s brief and magnetic Appalachian Campus in Beckley, WV.7 Most of what AMP produced was heavy on the text and thin on any graphics, so when I finally found a copy of The Hillbillys in an archive, I was excited to find that it was illustrated. I sat right down on the floor between the library stacks, cross-legged like I was a kid again, reading it cover to cover.
The Hillbillys (sic) is hardly a children’s book. The illustrations are raw, and it is a bleak story that carries a pessimistic despondency rare to see from movement documents in the era. Harless and Cutler offer a deeply frustrated parable of exploitation and environmental destruction in the Appalachian region. They take a stark view of prior generations’ inability to effectively counter the coal companies who had already wrought human rights abuses across the region for decades and were, by the 1970s, seriously ramping up the practice of strip mining. But The Hillbillys isn’t just a work of dark humor. The book serves as an offbeat, pedagogical outline of the Appalachia-as-resource-colony idea, the core politics that Appalachian Movement Press proclaimed in their mission of liberation.
The thirty-eight illustrated pages of The Hillbillys tell a story of “an ancient mountain kingdom called Hillbilly Land.” Hailing from the faraway lands of New Rock and Penn Delphia, a ruling-class “order of men called Royal Profiteers,” who have an insatiable appetite for eating thin green chips called “Profits,” learn from their “Ex-Zecke-Tivs” that Hillbilly Land sits on an underground trove of Profits. Since these Profits are mined underground and must undergo complicated processing before being eaten, it’s going to be a hard sell to convince the Hillbillies to destroy their homeplace in the pursuit of digging this addictive resource out of the ground. But the Royal Profiteers send their “toughest and most resourceful” Ex-Zecke-Tiv to do business on their behalf, and pretty soon the Hillbillies are strip mining their homeplace, operating scoops and draglines and arguing amongst themselves, wrecking the land while Profits are shipped right out of the mountains daily.
Eventually, the landscape is ruined, the air and water are thoroughly poisoned, and the Hillbillies realize that their homeplace is becoming unlivable. They organize to redress their grievances, and they angrily march to Capital City to speak with the Head Hillbilly – who is, notably, not a Royal Profiteer, but rather a wealthy elite in the pocket of the Profits industry who himself calls Hillbilly Land home but lives apart from his kin in a castle.8 He greets them warmly, listens to all of their troubles, and makes grandiose statements about how they’re all going to fix this mess. But the Head Hillbilly secretly casts a “Magic Word Spell” upon everyone who marched to his door. The Hillbillies leave in a daze of reassurances and platitudes. They later discover, when they recover their senses and become angry and turn back around to march on the capital again, that this spell will take effect and the cycle repeats itself. They can’t affect change, they can’t get the people in power to listen or make any sense when they do, they can’t make the destruction stop, they can’t win. “After several floundering trips in and out of the powerful force field created by the Magic Word Spell, the Hillbillies journeyed home in dismay and sank into dull despair,” the story concludes. “But after awhile, the Hillbillies decided that, after all, every kingdom and all people have their problems, and so they just ordered 1,500,000 gas masks and sets of goggles and left it to the next generation to try to solve the problems of Hillbilly Land.” The story begins with the archeological discovery of the ancient mountain kingdom of Hillbilly Land, but by the time the reader is holding the book, it has been destroyed beyond memory.
At the time The Hillbillys was published, Appalachian activists had already begun incorporating a framework for thinking about the region which drew global connections with “Third World” struggles for anti-colonial liberation brewing in the politics of urban-based organizations like the Young Lords and Black Panthers. As a response to endemic poverty and the increase of strip mining in Central Appalachia, many activists began to describe the coal-rich areas of eastern Kentucky and most of West Virginia as a resource-extraction colony inside the colonial borders of the United States: an internal colony.9
As a subjugated colony, the idea goes, the mountains of Appalachia have been taken over by wealthy industrialists from northern urban centers (steel magnates in Pittsburgh, for example), often with the collaboration of powerful regional elites. This colony has been deeply exploited for its resources – first for timber, then for coal – and the profits gained from this exploitation have left the region on the same trains that carted away the trees and coal. The people who call the region home, who were previously living in a quite different balance with the land before the colonizers arrived, experience systemic repression and poverty as their industrial colonizers “prevent autonomous development of the subordinate internal colony.”10 One can see the parallels with The Hillbillys: the whole region is Hillbilly Land, taken over by the Royal Profiteers, with the Hillbillies coerced into mining Profits under the jurisdiction of their Ex-Zecke-Tivs and the various localized Head Hillbillys.
When applied to Appalachia in AMP’s time, this colony framework proved particularly powerful for conceptualizing how it felt to live in the region: it codified existing folk understandings of the historical power of outside industry into a legible explanation for why things were the way they were. Thinking about and talking about Appalachia as an internal colony rooted in resource extraction helped activists describe to themselves and to the public what was happening to them as they experienced it, and in doing so connected their struggles to a broader internationalist, anti-imperialist project in the New Left politics of the era.11
Meanwhile, developing concomitant to these ideas was a burgeoning movement to reclaim “Appalachian” as an identity, articulating the regional culture as distinct, valuable, and legitimate. This very idea was an attack on the persistent negative stereotypes applied from outside the region, common tropes which explained Appalachia as a region “lost in time,” its unfortunate residents backward, stubborn, maybe even toothless. The hillbilly stereotype, in some form or another, is exhumed and given stage time for the curious outsider in a cycle that almost feels timeless. It is dizzying to try to clock the instances of paternalist national “interest” in the people of the region over the last few decades, even the last five years: articles about the “White Working Class” after the 2016 elections (and their tendency to “vote against their own interests”), J.D. Vance’s best-selling bootstraps memoir (and the backlash to it), countless articles about coal dependence vis-a-vis renewable energy, hot takes on the crisis of opiate addiction. Anyone in the US can summon a classist hillbilly stereotype and slot it into a mysterious landscape in a moment: these are perennial, perpetual, and seemingly bulletproof-true to most folks outside the region. To Appalachians, it is exhausting, demoralizing, oppressive.
In AMP’s time, Frantz Fanon had been writing about the psychology of colonized peoples in other parts of the world, and the Appalachian Left was paying attention and finding deep parallels on their home turf. Appalachians were not, in fact, the backward people they had been told they were. Instead, they were oppressed colonial subjects, and “the oppressed,” as Fanon noted, “will always believe the worst about themselves.” When this powerful effort at reclaiming and dignifying a regional identity entwined with the colonialism narrative, it explained what many activists and writers on the Left experienced as a broad, almost pathological fealty to the coal industry coupled with a pervasive lack of knowledge and pride in the original folkways of Appalachian people carried on from earlier generations: “Appalachian” was conceived as an oppressed minority identity.
As promoted by Appalachian Movement Press in the context of the Left politics of the 1970s, ideas about Appalachian identity were meant to draw predominantly from identification with the culture of place – namely, the mountains and valleys of the central Appalachian region. But in retrospect, the movement at a general level was expressing a primarily white identity through the absence of a diversity of voices in so many of the published materials and the language used therein. Reclaiming and defining an Appalachian identity drew lines almost exclusively around the Euro-ethnic settler traditions that had generationally assimilated into white culture by this time. Maybe because this reclamation work was building steam in the decade after the outmigration of a majority of the African American population to northern industrial centers in the 1950s and ’60s, it does not appear to have included Black Appalachians in practice. The exclusion of any Indigenous people who either preceded or continue to live in the region, or their relegation to history if mentioned at all, was a given.12 “Appalachian” is notreally meant to have anything to do with ethnicity, and proponents certainly did not directly claim “Appalachian” as a white identity. But it was not uncommon for activist writers to claim parallels to struggles against oppression by rural Appalachians and, in many cases, urban African Americans – and it’s these parallels that unintentionally defined the “Appalachian” identity of that period as separate from communities of color.13
We can critique this tendency while looking through a contemporary lens, but we can also, certainly, find much to learn from: as people watched Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah portray Fred Hampton organizing with Chicago’s Young Patriots, who were white Appalachians-in-diaspora willing to work alongside Hampton’s Panthers and others for collective liberation, I hope we can begin to understand where this fight really was: the power of solidarity and cross-racial organizing, and why it was so dangerous to the status quo. Meanwhile, in my interviews, nobody I spoke with told me that their Appalachia in the 1970s was actually homogeneously white: Black Appalachian (or now, Affrilachian14) activists occupied critical leadership roles in organizing in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky in that era and before.15 More recently, authors like Neema Avashia (Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, WVU Press), William H. Turner (The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, WVU Press), Crystal Good’s new Black-led newspaper Black By God: The West Virginian, anthologies like Y’all Means All (PM Press) and multi-faceted organizations like Black in Appalachia that combine filmmaking, podcasting, and rigorous archival work are all complicating the all-white Appalachia narrative. Many more voices are rising from the hollers and hills; yet it is the broad exclusion of people of color from the larger narrative of Appalachian history that has propped up some of the earliest and most damaging stereotypes that still haunt the region, and much of the literature about it, today. And it is this same amnesiac exclusion that can and is turned against Appalachians, with minimal editorial adjustments, by white supremacist organizations who often focus their efforts on rural communities in poverty looking for answers.
Earnestly promoting Appalachia-as-colony would be considered gauche in most academic circles today. The conception does begin to fall apart the more you begin to pick at the label. For starters, there’s the reality of the settler colonialism that formed the areas we now refer to as West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio. As in so many pre-coal “colonial” narratives, the landscape that serves as the backdrop for The Hillbillys portrays an “Idyllic Holler” as the beginning of time itself.16 Harless’ “ancient mountain kingdom called Hillbilly Land” is a familiar locale which is replicated, often and under many names, in legends wherein white settlers have existed since approximately the beginning of time, irrespective of the vast Indigenous societies which thrived more widely in the region before settlers began to encroach.
These stories meld too easily into prevailing mythos about a hardy Scots-Irish people having found themselves in a kind of mountainous tabula rasa just a couple of generations before the coal barons arrived. This genesis idea is remarkably persistent and bolstered by the oft-taken-for-granted fallacy that the area was “only a hunting ground”17) for Indigenous peoples and so, since the land never really “belonged” to anyone, nothing was actually taken. It’s a fantastical omission that assumes a kind of white Appalachian indigeneity and creates a false absolution which chews at the table legs of the internal colony idea and, more broadly, undermines the kind of deeper reckoning with settler-colonial history that is really needed.
Talking about Appalachia as a colonized region will also put you on the wrong side of understanding the mechanics of capitalism, although here the distinctions begin to get blurrier. David Walls writes that activists like the AMP founders “hit upon the internal colonialism model for reasons that had more to do with the focus of the New Left in the late 1960s – imperialism abroad and oppression of racial minorities at home – than the appropriateness of the model to the Appalachian situation.”18 Walls and others suggest that regional plight should in reality be seen as part of the typical functioning of any industrialized capitalist state, where peripheral areas are sacrificed to bring resources to core centers – southern West Virginian coalfields, for example, sacrificed to keep the lights on in Philadelphia. It’s not a colony, exactly, but it is a “sacrifice zone.”
Maybe that distinction catches traction in journals not widely read outside of academic circles. Meanwhile, the colony model still appeals on the ground as an organizing concept today. All of the baggage is still intact, and yet it is a useful shorthand which helps to crystallize how it feels to live in the rural parts of the region for many people today.19 I struggled for a long time when writing the book with how to reconcile the refutations I found in academic journals and my own concerns with the articulated experiences of the people I knew who grew up in the coalfields. There, quite often, the resource colony idea (if it comes up) is spoken of as fundamentally true. And why not? Looking at the single-industry domination of areas of southern West Virginia over the last century, for example, there sure is a hell of a lot of what looks like “prevent(ing) autonomous development of the subordinate internal colony” going on – just ask folks in what their options are for earning a wage. The vocabulary won’t often match the one I am using here, but it should not be a surprise that the idea retains a persistent hold in some form or another – even if the concept could use a retooling along more contemporary decolonial lines.20
That retooling could start with a reckoning with the history of the land. To begin that reckoning, we could look at what ecologists call the “shifting baseline,” a concept that The Hillbillys illustrates well. The term describes our tendency to measure change in an already wounded landscape based only on how much the ecosystem may have deteriorated within our lifetimes. We then use this metric to figure out how much work we need to do to “fix” things, so that cleaning up a local creek, for example, often means bringing the ecological balance of it back to how it looked when you fished or swam in it as a child. Your own autobiographical experience is usually your baseline, and that reference point shifts forward for each generation. This impulse is reflexive, and it fails at acknowledging a more complex, longer history of the land. The health of that local stream would have been fantastically different, and more robust, hundreds of years before you were born, and it’s that baseline we should be aiming for. We often do this when it comes to understanding other histories of land as well: The Hillbillys in Hillbilly Land had a baseline of their own existence that mirrored that of many Appalachian history narratives: history for them starts right before the coal barons showed up. The “idyllic holler” is a part of this, a persistent narrative anchor which keeps us blind to the larger complexities of the history of the land and the people that call it home. Taking these blinders off is a powerful first step.
Packaging The Hillbillys as a “children’s book” helps bring a little levity to its overall bleak tone. The whole package is rare to see in movement publications of this kind, at least from AMP – the press specialized in buoying regional identity and determination, not harping on the despairing side of things. The Hillbillys was probably never read aloud during storytime in regional daycare centers, though I suppose one can hope. Besides putting narration to the frustrations of the Left in their time, Harless and Cutler set up a backdrop to the guiding mission behind Appalachian Movement Press: emancipation of Appalachian people led astray by the brutality and false promises of a “colonizing” coal industry. Whether or not the intellectual frame holds all of its water under scrutiny, it has a staying power.
Over the decade between 1969-79, Appalachian Movement Press became a vital connective thread during a critical time in the struggle for human rights and environmental justice in the region, developing an independent regional press with the overall mission of uplifting Appalachian people to self–determination. The printshop is a little-known piece of the history of the Appalachian Left, and importantly the Appalachian Left itself is a little-known piece of US movement culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Written during a remarkable decade of struggle in central Appalachia, The Hillbillys doesn’t offer a happy ending. The authors left that up to future generations. “Going through those (AMP) publications and reading them,” writer Jim Branscome told me during a phone interview at the beginning of 2019, “you would think that the mountains were on the edge of a revolution.”21
Big, deep gratitude to Jessica Scott and Ben Case for early critical readings of this essay which helped to put it on the right track.
The Hillbillys was published in only one, undated edition by Appalachian Movement Press, between 1970-72. This presentation in Viewpoint is the first time in over forty years that this publication has been made available to the public outside of a small number of library collections. The book So Much To Be Angry About: Appalachian Movement Press and Radical DIY Publishing, 1969-1979, profiles the history of AMP and the people who operated the printshop, and dives into many more of the publications that rolled off their presses, including several reproductions of whole publications. The book is available from West Virginia University Press.
The central Appalachian region, where Appalachian Movement Press was focused, encompasses eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, parts of western Virginia and eastern Ohio, and the entire state of West Virginia. From Appalachian Regional Commission, “The Appalachian Region.”
Black lung, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is still a prevalent workplace disease caused by inhalation of coal dust. Many of my friends who worked in mines for years cannot claim benefits for their black lung disease through a complicated morase of regulations that keep compensation limited. Editor’s Note: See the updated version of Barbara Ellen Smith, Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020); and Chris Hamby, Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2020.
Mountain Call, out of Mingo County, WV was one such magazine, which straddled a quasi-psychedelic drop-out ethos and a class-conscious, pro-union community and regional pride. MAW: Magazine of Appalachian Women, was another key publication from AMP’s last years, the first (known) feminist magazine in the region, which thrived for four ground-breaking issues before AMP itself began to implode.
Editor’s Note: Another key focus of the internal colony framework, hinted at in The Hillbillys, was the role played by regional development commissions like the Appalachia Regional Commission – as power brokers and key components of the state apparatus. See David Whisnant, Modernizing the Mountaineer: People, Power and Planning in Appalachia (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979).
David Walls, “Internal Colony or Internal Periphery?,” in Helen Lewis, Linda Johnson, and Donald Askins (eds.), Colonialism in Modern America, The Appalachian Case(Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 1978): 319-49. Editor’s Note: See too another well-known presentation of the Appalachia as internal colony thesis: Keith Dix, “Appalachia: Third World Pillage,” Antipode 5, no. 1 (March 1973), 25-30, which summarizes some of the work Dix was doing with the People’s Appalachia Research Collective and the group’s journal, People’s Appalachia.
Miners for Democracy, as just one example, had many powerful Black leaders, reflecting the history of the United Mine Workers as one of the earliest racially integrated unions stretching back to the Mine Wars era (1900-1921).
Allen Batteau coined the term “Holy Appalachia” to describe this mythology of an untouched population of white settlers in Appalachia, which he extended to include the abolitionist history of the region and the persistent idea that the mountains were always a bastion of antiracist culture. The term “Idyllic Holler” is my own, a specific locale within Holy Appalachia that is replicated indefinitely through story. The Appalachian colloquial “holler” comes from “hollow,” the valley area between mountains, often running along a creek or other watershed.
The usually accepted, generally taught modern history of West Virginia continues to claim that the area was merely a “hunting ground” and that there were no Indigenous Peoples fully established in the area when the white settlers came. However, as historian Bonnie Brown suggests, even if an area were considered territorial hunting ground before settlers came, this could still mean that Native people were occupying the area for half of any year. Corey Knollinger, “Wild, Wondering West Virginia: Exploring West Virginia’s Native American History,” West Virginia Public Broadcasting, February 7, 2019.
If you are intimate with the complexities of addiction, then it is not hard to see something familiar in the desperation in The Hillbillys, the stage being set for the trauma that can happen in any community fighting destruction brought upon it by outside forces.
Editor’s Note: Comparisons could be drawn with new understandings of “extractivism” that have emerged from contemporary struggles in Latin America: see Verónica Gago, “Financialization of Popular Life and the Extractive Operations of Capital: A Perspective from Argentina,” South Atlantic Quarterly 114, no. 1 (January 2015): 11–28, and Verónica Gago and Sandro Mezzadra, “A Critique of the Extractive Operations of Capital: Toward an Expanded Concept of Extractivism,” Rethinking Marxism 29, no. 4 (2017): 574-591.
In the last two years, renewed militancy in university struggles has led to both victories and defeats at campuses across the country and beyond. Against the backdrop of continuing academic proletarianization, ever rising student debt, and expanded campus policing, students and workers have nonetheless formed new tactics and solidarities, and forced numerous concessions from university administrations. This dossier presents critical reflections and reportbacks from recent university struggles, indicating some of the possibilities, paradoxes, and challenges of ongoing fights to transform the university.
With the recent victory of one of the longest grad labor strikes in North American history, 2022 has begun on a high note in university organizing. It is worth comparing this moment to the start of 2020. Then, a wildcat grading strike at UC Santa Cruz was gaining momentum and visibility, eventually becoming a full teaching stoppage and picket line with mass community support. In both the militancy of its tactics, and the political scope of its demand – which tied a labor struggle to problems of social reproduction within the context of increasingly financialized universities – the COLA strike quickly became a key reference and inspiration at numerous other campuses. It seemed to indicate the initiation of a new cycle of struggles.
The political opening created by UCSC grad workers was abruptly widened by the arrival of the pandemic, as student, worker, and community groups frantically mobilized against the mass layoffs, unsafe working conditions, and material neglect that followed from universities’ prioritization of capital over life. Over the first weeks of spring, small organizations grew massively in size, their meetings (now held on Zoom) better attended than at any point in their existence. From NYU to the University of Hawai’i, and from UMass Amherst to Oregon State University, new actions, new networks, new solidarities, bloomed into existence. Colleagues became comrades, and discontent, worry, and militancy generalized across campuses.
This opening was ripped even larger with the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing rebellion. The footprint of antiracist and abolitionist campus organizing dramatically expanded, leading to intensifying campaigns and, at the University of Chicago, a 19-hour occupation of campus police headquarters. Shifting public attitudes towards racism and policing were reflected in organized labor’s increasing, if still limited, adoption of explicit antiracist positions and demands. By the start of the summer, multiple struggles had converged both within and between campuses, and plans for a fall general strike were in preparation. In some ways, at least, 2020 was off to a good start.
Since then, some concrete victories have been achieved. While no general strike actually materialized, numerous grad and undergrad, adjunct, and campus worker unions have won recognition and corresponding bargaining rights – often by way of extended agitation campaigns and the threat of strike action. Among these is UC’s Student Researchers United/UAW, which with over 17,000 workers, was the country’s largest new bargaining unit of 2021. Contract fights have also ended with not insignificant pay and benefit increases. Though such victories have sometimes occurred against the anti-democratic pushback of business unions, certain democratic reforms have also been achieved, such as the UAW’s new international leadership election policy, which for the first time gives tens of thousands of UAW-affiliated university workers at least a nominal say in who runs their union.
One may also cite less tangible – but arguably no less important – victories, such as the shifts in the balance of forces that have occurred every time a university was forced on the defensive by student and worker militancy, forced to make some concession that violated its default austerity logic and its preferred modes of conflict management. Such shifts have opened political space into which scores of new students and workers have poured, with the latter thereby developing critical perspectives and practical experience that will be instrumental in future struggles. As labor militancy generally increases across sectors in the country, so it also increases in higher education. The broadening scope of strike demands – to address rent payments, harrassment and discrimination arbitration procedures, and policing (both private and public) – has definitely expanded the horizon of collective struggles in, around, and against universities.
And now graduate workers at Columbia have concluded a ten-week strike with perhaps the “clearest and most decisive win” in North American grad labor history.
Yet between 2020 and 2022, we do not find an unambiguous narrative of university labor on the offensive. The victory in Morningside Heights does not represent the norm. If there is a line connecting 2020 to 2022, it is one that is at times faint, which reverses, or momentarily disappears, before jumping forward again. This is perhaps just the time of politics itself; not the linear mechanical time of automatic forward movement, “but a broken time, full of knots and wombs pregnant with events,” a time of breaks, a time of leaps. Yet if there have been, over the last two years, a couple leaps, so there have been reversals, lulls, setbacks.
For as 2022 begins we experience an almost nauseating replay of 2020, in which we fought, mostly without success, to weaken universities’ ghoulish drive to remain in-person (and later to reopen) and to thereby collect every last penny of tuition, room, and board rather than protect the safety of students and workers. That the latest wave has necessitated the same exact fight indicates that, two years later, power remains firmly in the hands of the other camp. As does the fact that, of the over 650,000 university jobs lost in the wake of the pandemic, only about half have returned, with job growth having “sputtered” by the second half of last year. In comparison to February 2020, one out of every fourteen jobs in higher education has perhaps permanently disappeared, and the university seems to have seized another “crisis” to further entrench austerity.
Nor have higher education’s structural problems loosened. Over 40 million Americans now hold $1.8 trillion in student debt, a number that is expected to soon exceed 2 trillion. The distribution of this debt is itself racially inflected, with black college graduates owing on average $25,000 more than white graduates. That debt is anything other than simultaneous means of extraction and discipline is belied by a labor market in which a BA, and even MA or PhD, can often deliver at most a low paid service-sector or entry-level administrative job, which promise just enough to cover interest payments for the remainder of one’s indebted life. Militant refusal to allow the university to thus interpellate and capture students in the order of financialized capital is met by repression and police surveillance. After everything, cops are still on campus.
The proletarianization of academic labor continues apace. Over 70 percent of faculty at US universities are non-tenure track. Adjuncts among those can expect around $3,000 per course, and sometimes significantly less. Often providing an insufficient income on its own, teaching undergrads has become a gig like any other. Nearly 25% of adjuncts are on public assistance, and many experience intermittent homelessness. The prospect of escaping such conditions into the relative luxury of a tenure-track appointment are insignificant. After the virtual disappearance of the 2020-2021 job market, this year’s market has seemed to restore the “normal” of the permanently shrunken post-2008 market. In the latter, applicants pay in perfectly tailored job documents and slick websites to play the lottery for each coveted tenure-track spot, to which 400, 500, sometimes 600 applicants apply.
If the organizing response has not yet proven adequate to this impasse, a widespread psychic response seems at least to have absorbed it. Even before the pandemic, graduate students were six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the rest of the population, under conditions of work in which isolation, competition, obligatory professional conformity, and minimal job prospects constitute the norm. Among organizers and militants, too, the last two years have not been easy, given that cycles of excitement, burnout, and infighting – routine experiences in many struggles – were experienced on top of the already frayed nerves of virtual life in quarantine. While the transition to video meetings at first enabled us to gather in greater numbers than ever before, it also led to its own set of frustrations. Collective, embodied joy – a lifesource for any movement – was more difficult to experience through the mediation of blue light and audiovisual glitches; new opportunities for sidebarring allowed for the real-time breakdown of solidarity through covert, chat message dismissals. Even in assembling this dossier, we battled, on all sides (including our own), motivation deficits, periods of silence, depressions…
It is in this context of uncertainty and ambivalence, of exhaustion and anticipation, that we present the following four texts, which provide critical reflections and report-backs from recent university struggles. The first two texts offer inquiries into the history, aims, and strategic visions of two organizations that formed in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and antiracist rebellions of 2020. In the first, The Cops off Campus Research Collective overviews their project to research and consolidate information on campus policing, as a tool in abolitionist struggles. In the second, the Midwest Labor Group details the motivations behind their experiment in building a cooperative grad worker labor union in the Midwest. These inquiries are followed by an intervention from Aimée Lê and Jordan Osserman, who report from the perspective of ongoing struggles in the UK against the casualization of academic labor. The dossier concludes with an abridged reprint of “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” a 2019 text that sketches an abolitionist stance towards the history, present, and future of the university.
This dossier tackles a set of overlapping themes and problems in current university organizing. In our inquiries, we encouraged reflection not just on struggles within universities, but also, on the university as its own conceptual object, as its own political aim and stake in such struggles. The Cops off Campus Research Collective (COCRC) accordingly theorizes the university within the broader regimes of accumulation and dispossession to which it is linked. This analysis refuses, by implication, “many collective assumptions of the university, perhaps most centrally its benevolence and its inevitable future.” Similarly, The Midwest Labor Group cautions against critical discourses that urge only the “democratization” of universities, without simultaneous calls for broader social transformation. Left at democratization, academic workers may become only “managers of their own exploitation,” unable to challenge broader processes of proletarianization that characterize the economy as a whole.
The COCRC also clarifies the overlapping terrains of abolitionist and labor struggles, indicating the central role of police in disciplining workers, historically and today. They indicate how “Abolition movements have helped to unsettle union organizers’ subscription to a narrow, ‘bread and butter’ trade unionism and shift them to a solidarity unionism approach that tries to intersect labor struggles with other antiracist and feminist struggles.” Complementing this analysis is the Midwest Labor Group’s extended discussion of organization in relation to business unions, which have historically striven to limit agitation to economic grievances. In pushing for a horizontal “combat organization” that struggles across broad social, political, and often extra-legal terrains, they indicate the possibilities, and pitfalls, of definitively breaking from entrenched union structures.
Class consciousness provides the major theme of “Our Consciousness and Theirs,” in which Lê and Osserman combat the complacent expectation that worsening conditions of work will automatically compel precarious academics to fight back. In contrast, the authors argue that class consciousness develops only when “individual demands are actively and consciously made political and collective: in other words, through class struggle.” Lê and Osserman’s discussion of the contextual causes of “professional consciousness” reinforces the Midwest Labor Group’s invocation of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire to describe the structural individualism of grad workers; like 19th-century small-holding peasants, graduate workers may be viewed as “an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other.” However, with their analysis of the conditions and consciousness of an academic “class fraction,” Lê and Osserman ultimately seek to assist the overcoming of all divisions – apparent and real – in the working class.
The final text, “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” historicizes universities as imbricated with multiple “regimes of accumulation” from the 19th century onward. In canvassing some of the projects that have constituted these regimes – from the accumulation of capital by other means after the formal end of slavery, to the dispossession of Native peoples’ lands, to the management of post-World War II capital and population surpluses, to the non-circulation of students’ wages today – the authors draw attention to the shifting social function of universities throughout their history. In thus demonstrating how the university is “consistently embedded in various, intersecting projects of capital, both its accumulation and its (non)circulation,” along with the “disciplining and management of non-capital surpluses, such as population and living labor,” the authors prompt the question of which parts of the university, if any, can be salvaged and made use of in contemporary struggles.
“An Invitation”will provide our final word: “The abolition university recognizes that abstract oppositionality and critique, left to their own devices, may in fact unwittingly reproduce accumulation regimes by offering their practitioners the sense of moral supremacy and social exteriority necessary to imagine knowledge production as a form of change in itself. Instead, we imagine the abolition university as a relation, a network, and an ethos with various potentials for transforming what and whom the university can be for.”