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10.05.2022 à 15:32

Recast the Institution: Reports from the Goldsmiths Boycott


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.

The post Recast the Institution: Reports from the Goldsmiths Boycott appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

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Artwork by Student at the MA Gender, Media & Culture course

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 are palpable 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.

Sign outside of the Richard Hoggart Building

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.  


1 Originally from Capitalist Realism: Is there No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), 17.
2 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, <“>  [Accessed March 30, 2022].
3 See “Censure and Academic Boycott Policy,” <> [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.
4 Robert Anderson, “University fees in historical perspective,” History and Policy, February 8, 2016,<> [Accessed March 27, 2020].
5 See Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 1.
6 International students pose a particularly lucrative market for UK universities—paying up to three times the amount as home-rated students—and accounted for 34% of total fees income at Goldsmiths in 2020.
7 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.
8 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. <> [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 <> [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.  <> [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 [Accessed April 21, 2022].
9 Fleming, 13.
10 See also “An Alternative Approach to Evolving Goldsmiths: Doing Higher Education Our Way,” March 17, 2020. <> [Accessed 27 March, 2022].
11 Unlike the Goldsmiths Recovery Programme, references to “Evolving Goldsmiths” are not  visible on the College website. Webpages hyperlinked in this text may be edited or deleted by management.
12 KPMG has since been the subject of several scandals relating to negligence in auditing procedures and gross misrepresentations of the financial outlooks of contracting corporations; see [Accessed April 1, 2022].
13 See “Annual Reports and Financial Statements for the Year Ended 31 July 2021,” 18.
14 In 2021, the College reported total outgoing staff costs as £91.8 million, just £3.4 million less than reported total fees and education contracts income for that year <> [Accessed March 27, 2022]. In 2020, staff costs before a sizable private pensions credit issued to the College was reported at £95.5 million, while total fees and education contracts income was reported at £100.2 million <>  [Accessed March 27, 2022]. To the management of an institution prioritizing economic growth above all else, outgoing expenditure that comes close to the amount of the primary source of income, student fees, seems not the last nor regrettable but the logically first and obvious choice among budgetary “savings opportunities.”
15 See “GUCU Response to the Warden’s Most Recent Communications,” [Accessed 29 March, 2022].
16 In a recording for Montez Press Radio, associate lecturers who organized and partook in the Goldsmiths wildcat strike provide an excellent breakdown of the complexities of organizing across the institution <> [Accessed 29 March, 2022].
17 Meanwhile, lecturers hired by the College as independent contractors for public-facing short courses won a legal case against the College in October 2021, gaining worker status and previously denied union representation and paid leave. This presented a concrete success for the labor struggles at Goldsmiths as well as for the anti-casualization movement across the sector. Short-course lecturers at Goldsmiths were represented in their case by the same firm that in earlier 2021 represented a UK Uber drivers’ campaign for workers’ rights<> [Accessed 29 March, 2022].
18 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.
19 As Roberto Mozzachiodi outlines, quoted in “Our Consciousness and Theirs,”
20 Fisher, 53.

The post Recast the Institution: Reports from the Goldsmiths Boycott appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

08.04.2022 à 21:58

1,500,000 Gas Masks: Appalachia as a Resource Colony in Rod Harless & Dan Cutler’s The Hillbillys: A Book for Children


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.

The post 1,500,000 Gas Masks: Appalachia as a Resource Colony in Rod Harless & Dan Cutler’s <em>The Hillbillys: A Book for Children</em> appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

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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.


1 AMP co-founder, Tom Woodruff describing the initial vision of the organization, from the foreword to A Time For Anger, by Don West.
2 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.”
3 Josh MacPhee, “A Brief History of the Movement Printshop.” introduction to Shaun Slifer, So Much To Be Angry About (Morgantown: WVU Press, 2021).
4 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.
5 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.
6 See Mother Jones’s quote; “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.”
7 Find a Grave, “Roderick Mansfield ‘Rod’ Harless”; see too the obituary published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
8 AMP readers would have been familiar with local and regional corruption that mirrored this, whereby familiar local elites acted in the interest of, and from the pockets of, absentee corporations.
9 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).
10 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.
11 Walls, “Internal Colony or Internal Periphery?.”
12 Editor’s Note: But see the brief discussion in the Communist League’s (later Communist Labor Party) report on Appalachia from the early 1970s on Appalachia.
13 In other words, as Yvonne Farley told me during an interview in 2019, “Nobody was really calling Black people hillbillies.”
14 “Affrilachian” as a term for African Americans who identify as Appalachian is attributed to the Kentucky-born Black poet and scholar Frank X. Walker
15 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).
16 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.
17 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.
18 Walls, “Internal Colony or Internal Periphery?,” 322.
19 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.
20 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.
21 James Branscome, interview by author via telephone, February 12, 2019.

The post 1,500,000 Gas Masks: Appalachia as a Resource Colony in Rod Harless & Dan Cutler’s <em>The Hillbillys: A Book for Children</em> appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

19.01.2022 à 19:42

Introduction: Notes on Contemporary University Struggles


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.

The post Introduction: Notes on Contemporary University Struggles appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

Texte intégral (2485 mots)

Agnes Martin, Tremelo (1962)

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.”

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19.01.2022 à 19:41

Midwest Labor Group Inquiry


By "cooperative labor union," we meant an organization that would focus on building the power of rank and file workers by pooling our collective resources and knowledge to further on-the-ground organizing. We were tired of being subordinate to and undermined by business unions that weren't interested in building the capacity necessary to take militant action and, frankly, didn't care about our interests as workers. We also wanted to assist new organizing efforts of workers both inside and outside of universities in order to build a powerful working class base that could defend its own interests. The vision was to join workers from multiple Midwestern universities in one union or cooperative labor organization. We hoped to eventually expand to other universities in the region and beyond, and to include adjuncts and service workers as well.

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Texte intégral (3460 mots)

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977)

VP: Introduce yourself to our readers. What was the Midwest Labor Group and what were the conditions that led to its formation? What did it seek to accomplish, and how did it intend to do so?

The Midwest Labor Group was an experiment in building a cooperative grad worker labor union, which took place from May to October 2020. Grad workers from seven unions across the Midwest participated in an attempt to build a new form of labor organization that would serve the interests of workers rather than business unions. It was a response to what we had experienced in our attempts to work with business unions and their bureaucrats, who seemed to just want media attention and an expanded pool of dues payers to line their own pockets.

By “cooperative labor union,” we meant an organization that would focus on building the power of rank and file workers by pooling our collective resources and knowledge to further on-the-ground organizing. We were tired of being subordinate to and undermined by business unions that weren’t interested in building the capacity necessary to take militant action and, frankly, didn’t care about our interests as workers. We also wanted to assist new organizing efforts of workers both inside and outside of universities in order to build a powerful working class base that could defend its own interests. The vision was to join workers from multiple Midwestern universities in one union or cooperative labor organization. We hoped to eventually expand to other universities in the region and beyond, and to include adjuncts and service workers as well.

By cutting out the top, executive layer of business unions, we sought to create a shared pool of resources to which we would have immediate access, and which could be used – without impediment by union staffers – for costs such as strike funds, hiring organizers from our own ranks, or legal fees. And by connecting organizationally across multiple public and private universities, we sought to build greater capacity for immediate, coordinated, cross-campus action.

The decision to launch this experiment resulted from numerous, concrete experiences and frustrations, many of which were shared across campuses. These included: the reduction of resources invested when legal conditions became hostile; exclusion from decision making while being expected to carry out those decisions; the suppression of militancy, including active counter-organization on the part of the business unions; organizing without the protection of labor laws like the NLRA; and the consistent siphoning off of dues money, out of the local and into the national union. In addition, we were contending with an academic jobs crisis only deepened by COVID, along with nationwide university austerity.

So we were being squeezed from both sides: on one side we faced an increasingly minuscule possibility of ever finding well-remunerated work or material stability in academia; on the other side, the unions with which grad workers had for decades in this country organized were proving uninterested at best, and engaging in outright sabotage of worker self-activity and militancy at worst.

Because of all this, the parent-union model no longer seemed viable. We needed to chart a new way forward.

VP: Rank and file workers have long struggled against business unions. Recently, rank and file union caucuses have directly waged this struggle, including within graduate worker unions. This is in addition to informal, horizontal networks between grad workers nationwide. Finally, some new graduate labor groups have affiliated with unions like United Electrical, which specifically advertises itself as a rank and file union, and whose record on respecting local autonomy is markedly better than that of other unions. Why were these sorts of options unattractive or unavailable to you? What were the specific obstacles posed that even a rank and file union movement seemed unable to transcend, outside a new organizational form? 

We weren’t opposed in principle to affiliation with a rank and file union, and yet we had concerns about resources. As a result of the anti-communist purges within the labor movement during the first half of the 20th century, these unions (of which few remain) often can only provide minimal material support for campaigns due to their limited resources. Having access to the resources necessary for major wins was just as important as having autonomy. Enormous amounts of money in the form of dues flow through graduate worker labor unions. So we wanted to find a way to capture the entirety of this revenue flow to use it entirely on building power and taking militant action.

Rank and file or democratic caucuses may make sense for workers within well-established or already recognized unions, but to us these caucuses always seemed to be facing uphill battles. The balance of power is often structurally tilted against workers even within their own unions. This is especially true for grad workers, because with the high turnover rate in our unions, it can be difficult to establish stable and expanding rank and file governance structures that can maintain power within our unions vis-à-vis the national leadership of a parent union. The lack of stable rank and file governance structures within grad union locals means that the national leadership of our parent unions often has the final say in decision-making, often through the attrition of more experienced members or the intimidation of less experienced members by labor bureaucrats posing as experts. In reality, most if not all of these labor bureaucrats have little to no experience with the extralegal circumstances that grad workers at private institutions (coming soon to a public institution near you!) find ourselves in.

Given that most of us were coming from unrecognized labor unions, it seemed unnecessarily masochistic to willfully jump into such a situation. On the other hand, national networks and coalitions, while providing important forums for short-term collaboration, hadn’t seemed capable of transforming into sustainable vehicles for repeated collective action, or of being a means of building collective power. This seemed to us to be a structural problem. The best case scenario when grad worker unions are affiliated to national unions is that you have two decision making structures: one at the level of the governance of your local and one, more informally, at the level of cross campus interaction. In contrast, we wanted to create a more unified, single structure for immediate collective decisions and actions that involved the maximum number of people at the maximum number of institutions. We wanted to hardwire cross campus coordination into the running of our own locals as well. While the “one big union” idea covers a bit more ground than what we had discussed as a group, we nonetheless hoped to create something in its mold. The Midwest Labor Group was to be a kind of workers’ council which reached across numerous institutions and workplaces.

More generally, with organized labor in general and university labor in particular in retreat, with increasing political instability, economic stagnation, and individual immiseration, we need a new model for an economically sustainable combat organization that can take part in the fight of socialism versus barbarism. Business unions are unwilling to engage in extralegal collective action because they don’t want to spend more money on our campaigns. Because the legal status of grad workers at private institutions as workers was liable to be overturned by any legal challenge on the part of campus administrators, we effectively had no legal protections as workers, as any attempt to wield the protections of the law would have resulted in our status as workers being overturned by the Republican dominated NLRB. Grad workers at public institutions were having their legal status as workers challenged using the example of grad workers at private institutions. Rather than immediately engaging on this new (or newly returned) extralegal terrain, business union leaders wanted us to wait for a Democratic majority on the NLRB, at which time we could file for new NLRB elections. But this wasn’t feasible, as grad workers had immediate workplace concerns (e.g. pay, healthcare, discrimination, etc.) and were already facing the possibility of having to return to in-person teaching. More generally, the oscillation of legal rights for grads over the past two decades shows that we can’t count on permanently favorable legal conditions and that we need instead a strategy that does not rely upon the law.

Despite the difficulties of being on new terrain, within the extralegal (or precariously legal) status of grad workers at private universities is the potential for bringing our struggles beyond the economic and into the political. The question of our legal status as workers forces us to reconsider our tactics, strategies, and our relationship with the legal labor movement. The experiences of taking collective action outside the protections of the law, combined with the structural positions of grad workers in the ideological apparatuses of civil society, like universities and the media, has the potential to change the opinions of those who engage these apparatuses. Even if this doesn’t necessarily create new revolutionaries, the idea that “unions are good” being spread by teachers, writers, scientists, etc. broadens the base of those willing to struggle in their workplaces (or at least support such struggles), and that creates further openings for revolutionaries.

VP: What were the factors that led to the conclusion of this experiment? What obstacles prevented its success? 

Ultimately we think the project foundered on a residual, and perhaps at times unconscious, investment in traditional organizing models. Here it was a problem of buy-in: a real belief in the labor group’s stated cooperative vision was probably required to motivate the time and energy spent on this project. However, this vision itself was shared unequally between the different groups (and here we have just one manifestation of the more general organizational difficulty of coordinating across different workplaces, universities or otherwise). Those who didn’t buy into this vision seemed instead to fall back on the default idea of traditional unionism. We don’t think the investment in the more traditional model was malicious – it may even have been partly unconscious, given that there was broad agreement on the cooperative principles of the group itself. Instead, it is likely that most who participate in the grad worker movement don’t really have any vision for their unions or their universities in the long run. It often feels like a lot of grad workers don’t really ask what their unions are trying to do, how they might achieve their goals, how they might secure hard-fought gains in the long run for both themselves and the industry as a whole, etc.

This was brought out most clearly to us with the sudden about-face of one of the unions constituting our group. In the initial stages of the experiment, this union – which was affiliated with a national union – participated fully and had even given our cooperative much of its impetus. However, after winning some gains in a COVID impact bargaining process, they abruptly changed course and started advocating against the idea of a cooperative labor union, which is where we had started. It seemed they didn’t want to risk the minimal protections that their own affiliation to a business union still afforded them. They sacrificed the achievement of long-term interests through broad industry-based solidarity for short-term benefits and risk-avoidance – following the pattern of an age-old strategy of management itself. While those of us more committed to the cooperative vision were distributed at multiple universities, we were nonetheless too few to hold the experiment together against centrifugal forces like these.

VP: How has this experiment and your other organizing experiences informed how you conceptualize academic organizing moving forward? What are the strategic implications of the successes and failures of your group? What is to be done, or else, what can be done and what cannot be done?

Our experiences with this project and grad worker organizing in general have led us to believe that grad worker organizing is overdetermined by (at least) two major structural factors.

The first is that grad work is very individualistic in nature: we are judged on the work that we produce as individuals. We’re also in direct competition with each other for the few remaining positions within academia. For the purposes of career advancement, grad workers need to curry favor with faculty members, which means that many are unwilling to confront or otherwise antagonize faculty for fear of hurting their imagined future careers. This results in a situation in which cooperation is the exception rather than the norm in our work. Our days are dominated by time spent alone working for the university, our advisors, and/or ourselves. Without much basis for cooperation in our everyday lives (and with plenty of incentives for competition), grad workers bring to mind the small-holding peasants described by Marx in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”: “an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other” and further, “whose mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse.” This results in a mass that is “formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”, which is to say that it results in groups of workers that are merely aggregates of individuals rather than collectives that understand their struggles to be shared.

The second is that many (if not most) grad workers come from wealthy backgrounds, which provides them with material security before, during, and after grad school, and which removes a sense of urgency from their organizing, if they organize at all. Academia has historically been a bourgeois profession, and university labor becoming increasingly proletarianized doesn’t mean that such hegemonic bourgeois aspirations (and their attendant illusions about self-importance, etc.) have disappeared from the minds of grad workers, however reluctant they would be to admit it. Moreover, grad school remains, at least for a “lucky” few, a means to upper-level administrative positions with salaries comparable to those found within the corporate sector. While there are plenty of working class and/or militant grad workers, on the whole graduate student bodies are populated by large numbers of students whose career aspirations are – explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously – inimical to university workers’ interests as a whole.

Of course, there are many grad workers for whom organizing remains a real material necessity. But these considerations make us wary of placing too much hope in grad workers as a distinct political subject. The possibility of advancing workers’ interests at universities seems tied instead to the struggles of groups like service workers or undergrads, especially undergrad workers or those from over-exploited backgrounds. As for academic labor, adjunct organizing appears more promising than grad worker organizing. This is because the structural individualism we discussed above is somewhat weakened amongst adjuncts: with each passing year as an adjunct, tenure appears more and more out of reach, while recent adjunct organizing successes (which have been far greater in number than grad organizing successes) materially prove the advantage of collective action over individual “professionalization”. It’s difficult to see further, militant organization arising among grad workers outside of conscious, Herculean interventions on the part of committed political operatives.

VP: Stepping beyond your immediate experience in the labor group, what kind of university (if any) are you fighting for? What is the broader political vision that has animated your organizing, and what is the place of academic or intellectual labor therein? What should the university look like, and what is the role of academic labor in getting there? 

We think it’s important to view the university in terms of its relation to society, and not suppose that the university could be transformed in the direction we want without concomitant social transformation. So, on the one hand, we broadly agree with the call for the democratization of the university (which, while common today, is hardly a novel demand in the history of university struggles). Minimally this means that workers should make all decisions regarding their working conditions. This entails the abolition of boards of trustees. It also entails the removal of “tiered” system of academic and manual labor in universities, so that command hierarchies within segments of the university--e.g. hierarchies between tenured profs and adjuncts – and between segments – e.g. between upper-level administration and service workers – are transformed into horizontal distributions of labor.

On the other hand, we’re critical of approaches that stop at this call for democratization. If left there, without further political mobilization beyond the university, democratization would merely transform academic workers into the managers of their own exploitation. As long as universities are directly or indirectly subordinated to capital, a merely “formal” transformation of governance structures will do little to challenge the proletarianization of all academic labor. If we don’t want democratization to only further facilitate exploitation by providing a false sense of autonomy, it needs to be coupled with the actual overcoming of the value relation in society more broadly. The university is not a “kingdom within a kingdom.”

This line of reasoning affirms recent critiques of nostalgia for the supposed “Golden Age” of higher education in the post-War period. The argument that college reduces inequality by providing a pathway to middle-class jobs, and that access should therefore be dramatically expanded by way of tuition-free college programs, mistakenly supposes that the job market exists as it did in the 1950s and 1960s, and that college graduates today do not overwhelmingly end up pulling espresso shots or ringing up customers in H&M. (It also supposes that “middle class” jobs in capitalist society are a worthy end in themselves.) While free education will be a central component of any socialist society, and while such proposals are worth fighting for, to characterize the College for All Act as “revolutionary,” as some have done, is a capitulation before the parameters of education as they have long been set.

Yet even prior to the revolutionary sequence that would definitively free the university from capital, there are still roles for intellectual labor and students. For example, struggles to free the university as much as possible from the constraints of capital along with its attendant imperative of intellectual conformism will give intellectual labor the autonomy required to foster greater challenges to reigning ideologies. Doing so will help to cultivate socialist counter-hegemony in society more broadly, given the strategic position of academics and researchers in civil society, noted above. Rank and file workers’ organizations likely remain one of the most promising avenues towards such a goal. Additionally, by making education free or by abolishing student debt, students would be better positioned to interrupt their studies to take militant action, insofar as the disciplining function of exorbitant tuition and debt would no longer exist. Such trajectories would at least partially transform the university into a force aligned against class society, rather than a central institution for its reproduction, as it mostly is today. So even if we’re still fighting for a university that is neither a means of capital accumulation nor merely a credentialing institution to help individuals create enough surplus-value to live; and even if such a university is only possible in a world in which no one anywhere has to produce surplus-value to live – still, there are paths forward.

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19.01.2022 à 19:37

Cops Off Campus Research Collective Inquiry


Our theory of the university - how to study it and how to be in relation to it - calls for a fundamental rethinking of property relations. It is a theory that refuses many collective assumptions of the university, perhaps most centrally its benevolence and its inevitable future. To focus on accumulation, capital, and land  has the potential to widen the frame of who the stakeholders are in this struggle beyond students and faculty so as to be accountable to and ideally in solidarity with other campus workers and the people who live in areas adjacent to college and universities. To think the university in this way is to shift away from the idea of being “in but not of” to grapple with the ways we’re all of it, whether or not we want to be and thus to refuse a tempting absolution from complicity with the institutions’ violence. We understand ourselves as working in and on the university, with our different and shifting positions in relation to university institutions (tenure-track, tenured, adjunct, staff, grad student-worker, ex-academic) to agitate across our positionalities—particularly in reckoning with the limits and possibilities for studying, collaborating, and organizing in solidarity with each other.

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Texte intégral (4047 mots)

Agnes Martin, Homage to Life (2003)

VP: Could you explain a little bit about the history of your organization? How did it come together? What does it seek to accomplish? What do you see as the relationship between research and action projects? 

The Cops off Campus Research Collective began in summer 2020 when folks involved with abolitionist university studies put out a call for people interested in data analysis to work on a project researching campus policing and helping to consolidate information about campus police for more accessible use in abolitionist organizing. The initial idea was to build a database that would aggregate all kinds of research on campus police, including information on budgets, hardware transfers, local and state partnerships, as well as administrative creep and personal testimony about campus policing. Since policing looks wildly different across campuses, and data on campus police is less readily available than data on city and state police departments, our database aims to build and maintain organizing tools and knowledge that can sustain across the usual cycles of campus organizing with the attrition of student organizers and losses of institutional memory. 

The uprisings in summer 2020 sparked sustained and widespread interest in abolition, and the project was oriented toward supporting abolitionist campus organizing from the data and research side. By the fall of 2020, members of the group had set up an Airtable database and put out calls for research on campus policing. At the same time, other members of the group were engaged in lesson and workshop planning to help bridge the research and action projects. Some of the results of this labor were a publicly available toolkit that presents strategies of engaging with the database, and a resource on how and why to talk to university archivists. Over the course of the 2020-2021 academic year, COCRP held workshops with students, faculty, and staff at various institutions, including the University of Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, as well as a large open-event co-sponsored with Critical Resistance that brought together organizers from across the country in advance of Abolition May. Currently, we are working on a workshop to bring more data analysis folks into abolitionist movements on and beyond campuses. Throughout this project, research has always been conceived as a tool for action rather than an end in and of itself, so we are always asking how the research can adapt to better serve organizing efforts.

VP: The Abolitionist University Studies Invitation argues against nostalgic appeals to the “Golden Era” university, and documents how the post-war expansion in public universities was “part of a larger set of accumulation projects designed to direct and manage the anticipation and actuality of postwar surpluses of capital and population,” along with how this expansion was typically “underwritten by militarized funding priorities, nationalist agendas, and an incorporative project of counterinsurgency.” If today the Golden Era university should not, and cannot, be retrieved, what is the vision(s) of the university that inspires your work? What is an “abolition university”?

Rather than setting out any particular vision, we use this concept of “abolition university” to ask what kinds of spaces, relationships, and ways of studying an abolitionist approach to the university could bring into being. We’re inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis’s ideas of “abolition democracy,” which Davis frames as a proposal for “the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render prison obsolete.” Yet, we are ambivalent about whether the university should be radically transformed or should itself be rendered obsolete along with prisons. “Abolition university” could mean a call to make universities into resources that are useful for wider abolitionist movements. We could draw visions for this from historical precedents, such as Oberlin College in the 1830s-1850s which J. Brent Morris describes as a “hotbed of abolitionism.” “Abolition university” could also mean taking seriously the question from Max Haiven’s response to our invitation: “how do we imagine a society that no longer needs the university, or where the needs that are today met by the university are met otherwise?” A similar interpretation comes from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s acceptance of our invitation when they say: “abolitionist university studies, by which we take them to mean, as well, study in and the study of the abolitionist university, and we recognize, along with them, that an abolitionist university would be kinda like an abolitionist prison or an abolitionist plantation. It would be where the generation of knowledge in the university – at the level of its form, content and practices – tends towards the knowing degeneration, disorganization, and disequilibrium of the university.”

Trying to grapple with these interpretations simultaneously sets up a complex challenge for abolitionists—a challenge that requires going against the individualizing grain of academic professionalism and forming new collective subjects through practices of studying, relationship building, and organizing around abolitionist projects. For visions of this kind of “abolition university” in and through studying and organizing, we can point to many inspirations: what Jarvis Givens calls the “fugitive pedagogy” of black people’s subversive studying within and against the white education system, the Study and Struggle groups inside and across prison walls, Dechinta Bush University that supports land-based education for Indigenous resurgence, Pu’u Huluhulu University that set up Indigenous-led teach-ins in the resistance camp for protecting sacred Maunakea in Hawaii, and the many studying/organizing groups formed through bringing Black Freedom Movements onto campuses, such as the Third World Liberation Fronts at San Francisco State (1968) and UC Berkeley (1969), the Malcolm X Liberation University that formed out of an occupation at Duke University (1969), and more recently, the many Black Lives Matter campus protests that resulted in at least 80 statements of demands in 2016, with renewed efforts after the uprisings in response to the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, including a wave of Cops Off Campus organizing.

VP: Your research collective draws on the experience of numerous struggles and years of research. How does this background inform how you conceptualize organizing tasks in the present? What are the strategic implications of your analysis and critique of the university?

Abbie, Eli, Nick and Zach entered graduate school in the mid-two-thousand-aughts, each with varying degrees of interest looking to the university itself as an object of inquiry. Abbie and Zach pursued PhD programs with the intention of interrogating the function of the university; Eli initially focused on environmental politics but shifted his research through organizing at the university; Nick had other projects in mind but turned to studying the university in part as a response to their experiences in graduate school.  Across our locations in different fields (Cultural Studies, Political Science, History of Consciousness, and American Studies, respectively) and at distinct institutions (UC Davis, University of Minnesota, UC Santa Cruz, and NYU), we were all impacted by and active in the resistance to the retrenchment in funding for higher education in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In this context, we looked for and began to develop theories and histories of the university that would help us to understand the present conditions and provide a framework through which to organize against, within, and beyond our institutions.

Since starting to write together in 2019, we’ve worked to develop a theory of the university that can help redefine what a university struggle is, the kinds of demands organizers can make, and how we need to imagine a radically different kind of institution. A central aspect of this work has been to theorize the question of accumulation across the scales of individuals, institutions of higher education, and broader capitalist regimes. This has allowed us to identify different points of pressure and rupture. We surface the accumulative function of the university in its central and ongoing role in processes of land dispossession to open possibilities for linking organizing around land and place with efforts to confront gentrification and policing. We also look to the noncirculation of wages as a tactic of accumulation implemented by university administrators who have shifted the classification of graduate student workers to undercut labor organizing.

Our theory of the university - how to study it and how to be in relation to it – calls for a fundamental rethinking of property relations. It is a theory that refuses many collective assumptions of the university, perhaps most centrally its benevolence and its inevitable future. To focus on accumulation, capital, and land has the potential to widen the frame of who the stakeholders are in this struggle beyond students and faculty so as to be accountable to and ideally in solidarity with other campus workers and the people who live in areas adjacent to college and universities. To think the university in this way is to shift away from the idea of being “in but not of” to grapple with the ways we’re all of it, whether or not we want to be and thus to refuse a tempting absolution from complicity with the institutions’ violence. We understand ourselves as working in and on the university, with our different and shifting positions in relation to university institutions (tenure-track, tenured, adjunct, staff, grad student-worker, ex-academic) to agitate across our positionalities—particularly in reckoning with the limits and possibilities for studying, collaborating, and organizing in solidarity with each other.

VP: In recent years, university worker militancy has markedly increased. It is visible in numerous struggles around, for example: adjunctification and job security; wages and benefits; union recognition; and rent, financialization, debt and social reproduction. What is the relationship between campus abolition and university labor struggles such as these?

Police play a critical role in labor discipline - as part of an administrative surveillance apparatus and means by which administrators seek to limit organizing through intimidation, arrest, and physical violence. Administrators, in particular, exploit the vulnerability of noncitizen students to the threat posed by police repression and consequent deportation.  The archives of university labor struggles are replete with examples of police – campus and municipal alike – acting to suppress organizing and curb militancy. During the 1971 Yale strike, university police acted as the “armed fist of management against labor throughout the strike,” and the New Haven Police Department brutally beat striking workers at the university’s commencement exercises during the strike’s climactic moment.1 University police even polled members of the blue collar janitor and food service workers’ union about plans to strike, and then formally reported what they had learned to the university’s HR executives.2 To these historical antecedents we might append more recent examples, such as the actions of the University of California Police Department during the UC Santa Cruz COLA wildcat strike in early 2020.  Transformations in the political economy of higher education have seen a shift during the last century from a situation in which bourgeois college students were enthusiastic strikebreakers (e.g., Columbia students during the 1905 strike by NYC subway workers, or Harvard Students during the 1919 Boston Police strike)3 to one in which the police are the default cudgel wielded against students and other campus workers.  But as universities have become so central to the regional labor markets of post-industrial, “Meds and Eds” urban economies, it’s increasingly clear how much these campus labor struggles are about the relationship between universities, capital, and the state, a connection made perhaps most clearly during the explicitly abolitionist strike by the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in Fall 2020.  

In current struggles, such as the 2021 Howard University protests, the relationship between universities’ institutional accumulation and the noncirculation of student wages is very evident in the ways that outsourced, mold-infested living conditions extract additional reproductive labor from students who are not paid to study.  At Columbia, where striking members of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) found that the university was not only withholding pay for teaching but also putatively unrelated stipends for study, the strike has revealed the limits of an ideological distinction between teaching as labor and studying as not-labor. Thereby, the strike also uncovered the fraying architecture of a decade-plus old set of reforms that many private universities made to graduate employee funding - attempting to decouple graduate funding from teaching requirements, such as by increasing fellowships and reclassifying TA teaching as adjunct work. These struggles might therefore seem only tangentially related - one a struggle over the outsourcing (and concomitant sorry state) of undergraduate housing, the other a labor strike by graduate students - but they are linked not only by abstractions like “corporate greed,” but also because both are directly struggles over the commodification of study-as-social-reproduction, of study as unwaged and invisible labor students perform for institutions.

There is a longer history of symbiosis between campus labor and abolitionist struggles.  Three members of GESO (now Local 33) the graduate employee union at Yale, wrote the 2001 report “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition” – a precursor to much of the contemporary research on universities and slavery.  Those three scholars, two of whom went on to become union staffers, wrote their report to puncture the autohagiographic narrative the university was constructing during its tercentennial celebrations and to build connections between the struggles of campus workers and working-class New Haveners and the historical legacy of the university’s traffic in human commodities.  Another member and organizer of the same union, five years later, led the campaign against Yale’s investments, through Tom Steyer’s hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, in the largest private prison company in the US, The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), since renamed CoreCivic.  That campaign, unable to persuade the university’s investment office to divest from the hedge fund, instead succeeded in forcing the hedge fund itself to divest from CCA.  As we write, the largest strike in the US is the (now recently concluded) six-week walkout by the graduate employee union, at Columbia University SWC-UAW Local 2110, where in alarmist and distorting emails, provost Mary Boyce has sought to frame the picket lines as violent and disruptive spaces in need of policing.  Contingent academic workers in the US increasingly constitute an important source of labor militancy and union membership – graduate and undergraduate student employees now make up nearly ⅕ of the membership of the UAW.  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.

VP: The last year has witnessed an explosion of abolitionist and anti-racist organizing at universities across the country along with increasing coordination and networking between struggles at different campuses. Yet victories have arguably thus far been limited, and there have also been notable setbacks. How do you interpret the current moment in abolitionist campus organizing? What are the specific obstacles faced? And how do you envision that we’ll finally get cops off campus?

Over the 2020-21 academic year, much of the organizing was done on a campus-by-campus basis, with the emergence of larger, Turtle Island-wide organizations like the Cops Off Campus Coalition helping to connect campus abolitionists to share tactics, build solidarity, and coordinate action. The signature event for the COCC was 2021’s Abolition May, in which the coalition worked to fill the calendar with actions nearly every day on different campuses. As is often the case, the political economy of university activism has over the intervening months stemmed some of the tide. With the emergence of vaccines, campuses that had been mostly remote during 2020-21 have reopened to in-person learning as of the Fall. 

One of the strengths of Cops Off Campus organizing had consisted in its creative use of remote and videoconferencing technologies to mitigate the effects of distance (between organizers on different campuses, as well as between organizers and the campuses with which they were affiliated). 

In the main, however, our collective strengths and experience were less seasoned in some of the tactics that might have enabled us to take better advantage of the return to campus. Perhaps more pressingly, the interval between one academic year to the next always taxes activism that is deeply related to undergraduate student movement. From one year to the next, graduation itself removes from campus the most seasoned undergraduate student organizers. 

At the same time, we might do well to understand that the effects of an anti-policing struggle play out over a much larger field, and have their impact on the tactical range available to campus administrators. As we noted in our Cops Off Campus Toolkit, the most recent origins of the phrase “cops off campus” came in the context of picket line chants during the graduate worker wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz. In the University of California system, much of the practical infrastructure that ended up transforming into system- and statewide Cops Off Campus work was already in place before the catalyzing moments in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It grew out of solidarity work with graduate workers, in a moment where UCSC spent millions of dollars to mobilize riot cops in a strike-suppression campaign. That work required drawing links that many organizers had not necessarily been in the habit of making – between the growth of policing, rent and real estate inflation, and anti-labor politics.

When we see, for instance, UC-AFT’s success at leveraging a strike threat to force UC administration to make some considerable concessions to organized lecturers, what we may well be seeing are the indirect effects of the kinds of coalitions that abolitionist struggle has been able to build. It is difficult to cultivate the basic habits of solidarity among different academic constituencies. We have not yet succeeded in getting cops off campus, clearly. But what we have been part of building are the solidaristic habits in which labor organizers feel increasingly emboldened to see policing as part of the institutional architecture that they must struggle against. And moreover, we think that we’ve worked to do something meaningful to interrupt the tactics that universities feel safe in deploying against labor, in a way that may in the future encourage more militant action.

Our struggle ultimately is not only against policing but against the social work that policing is deployed to do, and the problems that it appears as a solution to. Not necessarily to stretch the concept of policing so broadly that it applies to every social practice. But rather toward a more thoroughgoing understanding of its social and institutional impact. Toward that end, we may also need a broader range of ways to measure success. We want policing gone, but one of the ways of understanding whether we’re getting there is to notice where, tactically, universities have come to flinch at using it – even if they have not taken it off the table entirely. Our work, after all, regards abolition not simply as the disappearance of police but in making the work of policing impossible.


1 Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, “Beneath The University: Service Workers and the University-Hospital City, 1964-1980,” Unpublished PhD Dissertation, New York University 2015.
2 Ibid.
3 Stephen H. Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 331-349.

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19.01.2022 à 19:31

Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation


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.

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Texte intégral (10816 mots)

Agnes Martin, Friendship (1963)

We think it’s time to take up an abolitionist approach to the university. We can’t do it without you.1 […]

In what follows, we lay out a conceptual framework through which to approach an abolitionist university studies that is especially attentive to questions of periodization and informed by a historical materialist interest in modes and regimes of accumulation. We begin with a discussion of the most dominant periodization in contemporary work on the university, represented by work in Critical University Studies, which focuses largely on the eras following World War II (and sometimes the 1890s). We then propose an alternative periodization by highlighting how the university’s dominant modes of accumulation have changed across history along with shifts in broader regimes of accumulation. In this framing, we argue for the importance of understanding the “post-slavery university.” By centering this new concept, we aim to emphasize the unfinished work of the abolitionist movement by situating US universities after the Civil War as continuous with a broader terrain of struggles pitting what Du Bois called the “counter-revolution” of capital and property against abolitionism and Reconstruction. In other words, with the formal end of slavery, capital aspired to use the post-slavery university for accumulation by other means. Bringing our periodization up to the present, we analyze the university’s dominant modes of accumulation within the broader contemporary accumulation regime: individual accumulation (and individualization itself) through education, institutional accumulation, the circulation of capital, the expropriation of labor, and the non-circulation of wages (i.e., from the perspective of students’ wageless labor). […] By developing a specifically abolitionist approach to the university—its histories, its present, and its futures—and in conversation with you and with others, we want to build an abolition university. We invite you to join us.


Critique is not simply a practice but a mode of institutional reproduction. It allows us to experience ourselves as if we are outside of the institution while remaining firmly ensconced in its liberal narrative of self-valorization.2 Unconvinced of the university’s beneficence, abolitionist university studies makes visible the university’s practices of self-valorization and seeks to short-circuit them. Here we draw a line between our project and much of Critical University Studies (CUS), the decade-or-so-old para-disciplinary formation which has eked out a meaningful institutional footprint and intellectual impact. We break with such work because of the ways CUS is haunted by its allegiance to a “crisis consensus” fueled by nostalgia for the apogee of the postwar public mass university.3 In its oddly non-materialist reliance on a periodization that yearns for a return to the so-called “Golden Era” of the university, CUS conjures the imagined goodness of an expansive and expanding public university system flush with federal and state support. Here, the university exists as a redistributive institution through which the masses can acquire upward social mobility. Almost invariably, however, this story neglects the ways this expansion was underwritten by militarized funding priorities, nationalist agendas, and an incorporative project of counterinsurgency.

As we detail below, the period of rapid midcentury growth may be most effectively understood as part of a larger set of accumulation projects designed to direct and manage the anticipation and actuality of postwar surpluses of capital and population. Through reference to what, in retrospect, was a rather short-lived and tainted period of growth, CUS takes on important contemporary issues ranging from privatization to student debt, financialization to adjunctification. Its periodization can be useful as a mode of staving off right-wing revanchist attacks on public institutions, as a mode of address appealing, in the first instance, towards what we might call “the concerned-dad audience.”4 Yet, in so doing, it simultaneously re-commits the university to the American exceptionalist narrative of U.S. Cold War liberalism, unnecessarily circumscribing our thinking about the university by national borders as it neglects the very exploitative transnational histories and conditions foundational to the university’s existence.

One of our core concerns with the prominence of the “Golden Era” narrative is its failure to recognize, let alone take on, the accumulation projects operating at the heart of midcentury university expansion. While the Golden Era narrative lauds the expansion of public university systems across the country from the 1940s to the early 1960s, both in the size of their enrollments and the scale of their budgets, it often does so without attending to the material motivations, conditions, and implications of these shifts. So, for instance, Jeffrey Williams can excitedly describe the virtues of the post-war “welfare-state university” as it was underwritten by the 1944 GI Bill, without contending with the fact that the bill’s intended purpose was the absorption of the surplus population of returning veterans.5 Williams discusses how the bill’s structure provided funds to students rather than directly to universities and thus “made universities beholden to those who would make use of their services.” He does not, however, consider the material implications of this arrangement in fomenting and inflating a market in higher education, a market notably predicated on the exclusion, or at best limited and conditional inclusion, of people who fall outside of a white, heterosexual, masculine, citizen norm.6 The GI Bill was but one part of a larger apparatus of accumulation projects of the midcentury university. A more fulsome accounting would necessarily include: absorption of surplus populations via institutional expansion, absorption of surpluses of land generated by taking land out of agricultural production and into suburbanization (e.g. U.C. Irvine, among other places), and the consolidation of military-university financial and population flows.

The Golden Era periodization gathers the means for narratively depoliticizing the tension between the university of accumulation and the university of liberal redistribution. Even when the tone or intentions are not explicitly nostalgic, the midcentury university exerts a powerful normative force on virtually all discourse about U.S. universities. The outcome of this has been a formula for criticality that measures the failures and crises of neoliberalism by contrasting them with the ostensible beneficence of the midcentury norm.

Finally, this nostalgia for a bygone era has a worrisome tendency to fetishize criticality as both the object and product of critique itself and as the apparently oppositional, but ultimately complicit, relationship between the practice of critique and the logics of academic capitalism. It valorizes detachment and dialogue with well-meaning liberals where we prioritize the abolition of the existing order through militant organizing.


To invoke the language of abolitionism is to position this project in relationship to and in continuity with the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, which worked not only to abolish slavery but also to establish an abolition democracy. The 19th century story of the university allows us to get to the question of what the university is in a way that starting the story in the 20th century may turn us away from.


One way of historicizing universities is to account for them as modes of accumulation themselves and as the effect of other modes of accumulation. This kind of articulation of different forms of accumulation offers us the term regimes of accumulation, which we use to historicize the multiple moving parts that in sum and in interrelation situate the university itself in a given moment of time. To locate the university within regimes of accumulation, moreover, is to view accumulation in a way that does not reduce it to the accumulation of capital. It is rather to specify the university’s particular function in the disciplining and management of non-capital surpluses, such as population and living labor.7 We think that this perspective on the university as, and as an outcome of, institutional accumulation can also generate a means of discerning productive and surprising continuities between universities and other institutions that do not necessarily share the same social standing or prestige in spite of sharing similar social functions.

Consider specifically some of the important functions shared from the perspective of institutional accumulation, between universities and prisons, which partly animate our framing here. We are inspired here by Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s account, in Golden Gulag, of the four surpluses—finance capital, land, labor, and state capacity—that converged in the process of California’s massive project of prison expansion in the 1980s.8 While Gilmore does not use this term, one way of viewing the form this convergence takes is as an instance of institutional accumulation. Though these kinds of comparisons between universities and prisons are always risky, they can be illuminating and surprising as well. As Amanda Armstrong has shown, prisons inherited from the university a genealogy in the deployment of state technologies of debt-financed construction.9 The perspective offered by the standpoint of institutional accumulation can thus offer a way not simply of comparing—in the sense of rendering equivalent—universities and prisons but rather of grasping the stratification of wageless life, in the sense that Michael Denning has used the term.10 From the perspective of capital, in the abstract, prisons and universities both offer highly scalable state-guaranteed investment opportunities for low-interest, low-risk bonds that stabilize other, riskier investment opportunities. Both universities and prisons are capable of effectively disappearing surplus populations from the labor force and thereby disappearing capitalism’s structural generation of unemployment. Both universities and prisons are capable of taking surplus lands out of agricultural production and repurposing them as large-scale social investments. This perspective also allows us to forego some of the ideological sheen that the university arrogates to itself as a function of its own historical privilege.

By taking up this more capacious understanding of accumulation, the abolitionist university studies we propose can also attend to other kinds of accumulative practices, ones that exist and operate alongside, within, and against the accumulative function of capitalism in the service of imagining and making alternative ways of being and worlds. These forms of accumulation might include the accumulation of debt (financial and otherwise), of suspect and subjugated knowledges, of untoward relationships. For Moten and Harney, for instance, the accumulation of “bad debt,” the debt that cannot or simply will not ever be paid, is the very condition of possibility, the very principle upon which a fugitive public can form.11 That is, if, as they write, “credit is a means of privatization” then debt is “a means of socialization,” it is social and mutual. How might such a counterintuitive approach to the question of accumulation help us scavenge the parts of the university we want to hold on to and make use of? What modes of retaining knowledge of and relationships to past struggles and solidarities, while remaining cognizant of the various ways they condition our present and future, can or must an abolitionist studies approach enable?


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Editor’s Note: The footnotes in the image correspond to the footnotes in the non-excerpted, full version of this document. We have left them as is since they are contained at the bottom of the image for easy reference.


The post-slavery university developed in step with the land policy advocated by the Free Soil Party of the 1840s and 1850s, which insisted that the territorial settlement of the West should be preserved for white workers. Acknowledging this allows us to nuance an important point: anti-slavery ideology, including some that took up the label of “abolitionist,” resided quite comfortably with anti-black sentiment. Prior to the Civil War, this anti-black form of anti-slavery ideology extended settler colonialist logics of elimination of indigenous peoples across the continent to the west and across the Atlantic to Europe and elsewhere. In New England, administrators and faculty at institutions such as Wesleyan and Yale supported the work of the American Colonization Society, which advocated the “repatriation” of free black people from the United States to Liberia. In the west, the founding of public institutions such as the University of California was made possible by similar processes. For anti-slavery legislators like Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, the rebellion of states in the South presented a cluster of economic concerns and opportunities. The legislative push for what we now refer to as the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act stemmed directly from the opportunities presented by the rebellion of Southern states against the Union, and from anxieties about the potential economic consequences of abolishing slavery. Hence the Morrill Act, which offered to each state not currently in rebellion access to tens of thousands of acres of federally claimed lands. The congressional support of the Morrill Act was driven by much more than their commitment to the democratizing power of public education. Rather, as Manu Karuka shows, the strategy employed by the U.S. state—allocating massive tracts of land—was already by the time of the Morrill Act’s passing a strategy for securing for industrial capitalists the infrastructural basis for building massive railroad projects. Karuka helps us to think, then, of the land grant as a technology of imperial consolidation, as a means of courting and crafting public-private investment in securing national infrastructure by way of the displacement and elimination of Native peoples.12

The federally-backed urgency for the establishment of institutions of higher learning followed on the heels of the Homestead Act, passed less than two months prior. Combined, the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act represented two pieces of legislation that would have been impossible if not for Southern secession, because of the Southern states’ persistent efforts to block all federal land-allocation legislation that might open Western lands to large-scale settlement by non-slaveholding populations, which would have diluted their concentration of legislative power by adding representatives in Congress from non-slave states. Allocating capital in the form of lands that states could claim or sell for the construction or enhancement of universities, the Morrill Act anticipated the rising value of research especially in the fields of “scientific” agriculture and mining technology but also in the expansion of statistical thinking and the categorization of human differences in a prospective post-slavery union. Without the ability to intensify production under the coercive power of the lash, the notion of scientific agriculture promised to assuage the anxiety about lost agricultural productivity through the promise of the enhanced value of applied intellectual labor, while the development of new sciences of racial and gender difference rationalized modern modes of exclusion and exploitation. Indeed, one way of tracing this genealogy of the land-grant university would be to say that the latter was a definitively post-slavery institution, but with “post” signifying here not a simple chronological “after,” and not the ideological “after” of slavery that consists in a transparent liberal freedom. More specifically, “post” here constitutes a settler-colonial project to valorize and exploit free white labor, using the knowledge form to recoup lost extractive capacities.

The educative function and knowledge production work of the universities concretized in the post-slavery moment in ways that sedimented, enshrined, and insured racial and settler logics previously maintained. Black people faced discrimination in the northern land-grant universities, and Black southerners were excluded from the initial land-grant universities altogether, at least until the second Morrill Act in 1890 created Black land-grant institutions, which were themselves funded far less than the historically white universities.13 The kind of education provided in the earlier white-dominated universities tended to be for training “an expanding middle class: professionals, white-collar businesspeople, and sole proprietors.”14 The other side of this racial-colonial capitalist education system was seen in the forms of education given to Black and Native American people, such as at Hampton University, a historically Black university founded in 1868. Hampton trained Black teachers, including Booker T. Washington who later created a model for rural Black schools based on the educational model that he had learned at Hampton: education for civilizing and assimilating Black people into capitalism, seeking progress through education and entrepreneurship rather than organizing to confront and dismantle the Jim Crow system.

In 1878 Hampton began educating Native Americans, an initiative propelled and led by Richard Henry Pratt, who later founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a model for dozens of Indian Boarding Schools around the country. Universities such as Dartmouth, Harvard, and William and Mary were chartered in part as institutions “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land.”15 Where they failed to fulfill this founding mission, post-slavery institutions succeeded. Education served as a key element of “primitive accumulation,” that is, creating the pre-conditions for capitalist relations, which centrally include new separations between individualized producers and the means of production. This process is not a stage prior to capitalism but rather an ongoing, continual process necessary for capitalism’s persistence and expansion.16 A foundational aspect of this primitive accumulation has been the dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ land.17 Universities participated in this both directly through using land to build campuses and indirectly through relying on profits from industries, such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar, which were based on stolen land and often on enslaved labor as well. In order for Natives to be assimilated into capitalism, those not eliminated outright needed to be separated from their land so that the land could be transformed into a “means of production” for these labor-intensive industries and its inhabitants could be turned into individualized producers. Building on the Hampton Institute’s model of education for assimilation, the Indian boarding schools aimed to turn “tribal Indians” into “civilized individuals,” to make them stop seeing themselves as members of a Native tribe and, instead, see themselves as independent individuals, instilled with possessive desires to accumulate property and capital.18 In a complementary effort, white students in schools, colleges, and universities were instructed to see themselves more as “individuals” in contrast with the degraded identity of “Indian” students. This education could make Natives accept “allotment,” an individualized form of land ownership in opposition to Native peoples’ collective modes of interrelating with the land.19

Universities, in turn, helped to organize and consolidate the westward movement of U.S. empire, or what the U.S. Senator from California John Weller called, in 1852, the expectation that Indigenous peoples “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man.”20 The University of California at Berkeley, sited on the stolen land of the Ohlone people, established a military science department in 1870, keeping with the Morrill Act’s mandate to institute military training through the curriculum. Berkeley’s move to admit women starting in 1871, often taken as evidence of the university’s progressive history, also corresponded to the material and discursive architecture of genocide. By the 1880s, roughly eighty percent of women enrolled at Berkeley did so to become teachers.21 The increasing number of teachers in the West was a sign of both the shift in the mode of social reproduction of settler society and, with many of them teaching in Indian schools, their key role in the carceral techniques of settler colonialism. As Benjamin Madley notes, “education” in 19th-century California was a central mechanism of Indigenous dispossession.22 California’s 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians gave effective sanction to white settlers’ kidnapping, abduction, and effective enslavement (via laws allowing for indenture) of Indigenous children. Settlers’ arrogation to themselves of the right to accumulate and govern Native lands was inseparable from their expression of the right to educate Native children. Education, in this way, was both a concrete expression of the accumulation imperative and a means of imperial disavowal by rewriting violence as a project of amelioration and uplift.

But with the counter-revolution in response to the Reconstruction period, a new abolitionism was revived by those in the Black freedom movement, as exemplified by Du Bois’s “abolition democracy.” These new abolitionists realized that celebrations over formal emancipation obscured the continuation of the racial-colonial capitalist world that had necessitated slavery, enabling the mutation of slavery into new forms, with a system of domination built around institutions of white supremacist policing, incarceration, convict leasing, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws. Abolitionists appropriated resources from universities, such as Du Bois at Atlanta University, to study with and for organizing toward the dismantling of these racial-capitalist institutions. The long Black freedom movement picked up these aims through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, which student movements tactically shifted onto universities through the Black campus movement.23 This periodization can allow us to rewrite and more deeply contextualize some of the more canonical critical work in University Studies. The reach of the post-slavery university as a historical formation and analytical heuristic transforms how we understand the stakes and history of universities’ becoming-corporate. For instance, in his 1990 book Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education 1894-1928,24 Clyde W. Barrow historicizes what he calls “the institution of a corporate ideal in the university,” an apotheosis of “the corporate ideal of administrative rationality” which was “reconciled with demands for educational democracy through an expressive myth of universal equal opportunity.” In such a way, he chronicles a moment of corporatization some seven decades before much of the contemporary discourse on “the corporate university” situates the origins of such a phenomenon. Barrow sees the close of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth as the stage for a concerted attempt by capital and the state to construct an ideological state apparatus centered on universities. The central motor of this capital-state-university convergence was the recomposition of universities’ boards of trustees to include increasing numbers of local and national representatives of the capitalist class. This, in turn, produced a foundational struggle over the metrics and standards of university teaching and research. This struggle marked what Barrow calls the “proletarianization of intellectual labor”, as both universities and the American Association of University Professors itself became sites of contestation over the limits and meaning of academic freedom, a struggle in which the class politics of faculty labor is, for Barrow, of paramount importance. This conflict was resolved in the 1920s by the defeat of left-insurgent forces — in the AAUP, in the nascent American Federation of Teachers, and on campus — who had an expansive vision of labor solidarity, sidelined in favor of a much more depoliticized and circumscribed understanding of academic freedom. For us, this defeat suggests another moment at which something like an abolition university might have emerged, and holds important lessons for the project of making one now.


When our engagement with contemporary US universities is organized through an understanding of the post-slavery university it becomes all the more apparent that even as the social function of the university is variable across time, space and institutions, the university is consistently embedded in various, intersecting projects of capital, both its accumulation and its (non)circulation. […]

With the caveat that the analysis we present is focused primarily on non-profit, four-year institutions, what follows is a preliminary discussion of four of the primary modes of accumulation that condition the contemporary U.S. university: individualization and accumulation via education, institutional accumulation, the circulation of capital, the expropriation of labor, and the non-circulation of wages:

Individualization and Accumulation via Education

One important commonality that carries over between for-profit and not-for-profit higher education institutions is that both create the pre-conditions for capitalist relations through the construction of the subjectivities of students as “individuals” who desire to accumulate credits. As Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, for-profit colleges sell dreams “of mobility, stability, and status.” Not-for-profit institutions do the same. Colleges and universities play a vital role in the cultivation of proprietary human capital, producing and shaping “individuals” who accumulate “credits” in the form of grades, passing grade levels (K-12, freshman-senior, MA, PhD), diplomas, and social networks that can be commodified for selling one’s self on the labor market. This is equally true, if not truer, for individualized academics who work to make a life through their accumulation of capital in various forms–social capital, financial capital, publications as academic capital. While the benefits of this process of accumulation are not guaranteed, for far too many the only surety is the accumulation of often unpayable debt. As Melinda Cooper’s work cogently illustrates, this process has, by design, had the dual effect of individuation and the consolidation of family wealth and intergenerational dependence.25

Institutional Accumulation

While there is little guarantee that students will actually receive the forms of accumulation they seek from colleges and universities, this is not to suggest that these institutions are not spaces of accumulation. To the contrary, colleges and universities have, since their inception, solicited and manufactured vast amounts of wealth in the form of endowments and land acquisition. If the confluence of the Morrill Land Grant Act and the Homestead Act set the terms by which universities were foundational tools for the dispossession of Native American peoples’ land, many universities have continued these processes of dispossession by accumulating land to expand their campuses in urban areas, contributing to gentrification and “studentification.” This is made possible, in part, by the fact that non-profit institutions, such as universities and many hospitals, are exempt from property taxes. New York University and Columbia are consistently ranked as top landowners in Manhattan. A guaranteed, and oft repeated, laugh line on the academic conference circuit refers to NYU as a real estate company that teaches classes. But it’s worth remembering that NYU’s real estate adventures are financed in part by the labor and debt of its 51,000 students. This was underscored by the scandal which erupted onto the pages of the New York Times and other major news media in 2013. It was widely known amongst NYU faculty and students that the university used New York real estate to lure prospective faculty and administrators, providing loans and at times purchasing properties. What sparked outrage was the revelation that university funds were being used to provide loans, many of which the university eventually forgave outright, to purchase second or third homes and vacation properties for senior administrators. Exemplary here is former NYU President John Sexton’s Fire Island bungalow, which benefited from multiple NYU loans totaling well over $1m in value, even as the university continued to generate the most student debt of any tax-exempt university in the US.26

[…] As the economist Richard D. Wolff has long argued, the tax-exemption of wealthy institutions functions as a form of state-facilitated wealth transfer from the bottom upwards, foisting the costs of social services enjoyed by tax-exempt institutions and their patrons onto cash-strapped cities increasingly dependent on a post-industrial landscape of work dominated by hospitals and universities. 

Circulation of capital

While many nonprofit colleges and universities, such as those discussed above, amass immense fortunes in the form of endowments and land, all such institutions also serve to facilitate the accumulation of capital through its circulation. Because they are formally organized as non-profits and funded by a combination of tuition dollars and, to a greater or lesser extent, philanthropic, state, and federal money, the vast majority of colleges and universities compete for revenue but do not necessarily produce profit in the conventional sense. Instead, revenue is recirculated through wages for administrators, faculty, staff, students, and other campus workers (usually in descending order), as well as the provision of housing, food, healthcare, and infrastructural needs. Such needs can be the construction of dorms, gyms, and labs but also the ongoing management of fire and police departments, sometimes on the scale of a town or small city. To provide such services, universities frequently contract with the same corporations engaged by other large-scale institutions, including prisons and hospitals, such as Aramark, Sodexo, and SMG. These corporations then extract massive profits through exploitative labor and land practices. Through such outsourcing, universities are able to reduce costs while shielding themselves against protestations from labor and student movements. Because of the way university economies are entangled with these broader industries, it is necessary to differentiate between a direct profit-motive on behalf of the college or university, per se, and something more insidious, more networked through individual possessive investments in a financial and social arrangement that clearly fails to make good on education’s promises of distributing access and prestige, let alone something like “knowledge.” While endowments matter a great deal, following the profit-motive in higher education leads to a multi-headed beast – the student loan industry, the college sports complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and corporate service providers to whom campuses redistribute their need for janitorial, food, security and other services. In such a way, the university serves as a space through which a vast amount of capital moves in order to consolidate as profit elsewhere. This is made all the more possible by the supposed benevolence of colleges and universities, which serves to rationalize the exploitation of labor in the name of their educational mission.

Non-circulation of wages

Even as the university circulates wages, conscripting its employees into its operations, as in other sectors of capitalist production, profit is primarily amassed not through such circulation but, instead, through the reduction of wages. Consider this: the university’s relation to capital must be understood from the perspective of the noncirculation of wages. That is, from the perspective of the category of the student, whose wageless labor is, in the U.S. at least, endlessly recast in rose-tinted hues—as self-development, societal improvement, the fulfilment of the promise of citizenship, the propertied acquisition of privilege. The massive flight toward higher education over the past century attests to the university’s increased share in the disciplining and organization of unwaged labor, as well as its increased capacity to absorb and manage population surpluses. Universities, to put it differently, accumulate not only capital, but also labor. And people.

When leftists call for the expansion of “free” and accessible higher education, they must do so with this in mind: the expansion of education in the U.S. has always been an expansion of state capacity to induce wageless labor. Such a framing, admittedly aimed at dulling the progressive patina that education-related ideologies have come to enjoy in U.S. political life, may also “free” education from being yoked to the liberal fetishization of “equality-of-opportunity” discourse. As Elizabeth Tandy Shermer has explored, the twentieth century’s postwar boomtowns and those regions that sought to develop them thus collaborated with industrialists and politicians to develop top-flight educational infrastructure.27 Industrialists and real estate developers in the western United States embraced the capacity of universities to supplement research and development, and to magnetize workers boasting or seeking training in science, economics, and engineering into otherwise unfamiliar parts of the country.

The expansion of low- or no-tuition higher education ultimately became a cornerstone feature of the so-called full employment aspirations of Cold War U.S. economic policy. Because it aimed to reduce the overall quantity of unemployed people in the labor force without a corresponding increase in the quantity of waged laborers, it represented a negative instrument toward the achievement of full employment. Higher education thus promised to decrease unemployment without necessarily further populating the ranks of the waged working class, or the share of the population involved in direct production. Geopolitically, the idea that universities could aid in hiding structural unemployment without increasing the wage—understood here as one of the means of working-class struggle with capital—could be deployed to deflect leftist criticisms about capitalism’s need for unemployment. Domestically, universities offered the upside of enhanced state oversight and involvement with the production of the specific forms of labor power demanded or desired by capital.

Cold War university expansion presupposed and pivoted on gendered divisions of labor. The educational benefits of the G.I. Bill were directed primarily to white, heterosexual male heads of households, whom it positioned as “the most deserving citizens.”28 Far from promising gender equality, the postwar expansion of coeducational universities helped to supplement this vision, which turned on the idea that a university’s function was to produce and accumulate for capital pools of scientifically trained men. Such men could have their education and career aspirations supported by unwaged labor in the home, or they could be attracted to universities or to university-adjacent areas by the availability of a large pool of eligible “co-eds.” Industry, too, would benefit from access to women with professional training.29


With universities acting as sites of accumulation and circulation, capitalism has displaced its recurrent crises of overaccumulation onto them. For example, in the 1950s with recessions leading to unemployment and domestic migration to cities, the liberal-capitalist establishment narrated an “urban crisis” with a solution of reinvestment in higher education as a means to retrain the workforce. Capital’s attempt to displace its overaccumulation of surplus populations onto the universities backfired in the 1960s due to the failure of the universities’ mechanisms of stratification to withstand the forces of student struggles. Despite suffering backlash, repression, and cooptation, the Black campus movement appropriated space and resources from universities for abolitionist studying and organizing that was intertwined with other movements within and beyond their campuses.30

This appropriation is the relation of “theft” which Moten and Harney have memorably described as “the only possible relationship to the university today”: “To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony… to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.”31 […]


Critique isn’t a substitute for organizing. “No solidarity before critique,” Edward Said’s famous injunction, pitted against essentialized and nationalist invocations of collectivity, remains useful today, though for different reasons than he may have intended it. The problem is not only that solidarity consists in belonging in “an obediently filiative manner to one’s given or ‘born’ constituency,” as R. Radhakrishnan glosses Said’s thinking on the question.32 It’s rather that critique is itself the name of an unthought mode of solidarity. It’s not that critique isn’t useful, it’s that an instrumentalist understanding of critique cannot account for the ways in which critique organizes us within a larger institutional framework of valuation. The problem, in part, is that critique itself has an organizational imaginary that is a means of university reproduction, and that we need to learn to historicize. The expectation that critique is a sufficient vehicle for the enactment of our politics needs to be counterbalanced with a historical understanding of critique as institutional embeddedness, as a useful expression and inhabitation of complicity with the university. Looking to various examples of universities absorbing and thus containing interventions made by interdisciplinary fields and student activists, claiming their work as simply part of the natural progressive telos of the institution bares out this point.33

If critique is to be useful for us, in other words, it will be in a constant confrontation with its limits, not because it is an expression of our exteriority to the institution.

The account we’ve offered here, with its emphasis on shifting regimes of accumulation, offers in the most abstract sense an account of how we ended up where we’re at. But it offers neither a blueprint for what to do nor a horizon for understanding what an abolitionist relation to the university might look like in practice and execution. The latter, we think, is something that we need. We’re fighting accumulation regimes but we want a sense of what our work is supposed to add up to. […]

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.


1 This is a substantially abridged version of the original Invitation. For the full version, visit
2 la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), pp. 41-43.
3 Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell, “Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus.” Feminist Studies,  Vol. 44, No. 2, (2018), pp. 432-463.
4 University writing has a set of generic conceits that have historically functioned to resolve in advance the question of how to relate to and think about the university. From Kant to Daniel Coit Gilman to Charles Eliot to Clark Kerr and Derek Bok, the dominant genre of university writing vacillates between diagnosing the problems that the university itself is enduring and promoting the university as a means of solving social problems. It is overwhelmingly a retrospective genre—many of its masterpieces have served as mass-marketed retirement plaques—crafted almost exclusively by white men of high repute, and it regularly combines memoir with the analytical perspective of popular management literature.  Critical university studies—especially in its international articulations—has meaningfully challenged these generic conceits and the gerontocratic presumptions structuring them. In the U.S. iterations of CUS with which this piece is principally concerned, the normative contours of the imagined public have occasionally continued the tendencies of the older genre, appealing to an already-established and enfranchised public whose access to the levers of political power positions them to a proprietary surplus of representation when it comes to the name of the “public.” We have somewhat snarkily referred to this white, middle-class, and sorta-liberal formation as the “concerned-dad audience.”
5 Jeffrey J. Williams, “The Post-Welfare State University.” American Literary History 18, no. 1 (2006): 190–216.
6 Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005); Margot Canaday, “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship under the G.I. Bill.” Journal of American History (December 2003), pp. 935-957, 936.
7 Marx uses the concept of “living labor” in the Grundrisse to refer to “labor that is still objectifying itself, labor as subjectivity.” See Marx, Grundrisse. Trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1993): 272. For more on how the theory of human capital destabilizes the capital and non-capital distinction at the level of higher education, see Morgan Adamson, “The Human Capital Strategy.” ephemera 9(4) (2009): 271-284.
8 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
9 Amanda Armstrong, “Securitization, Risk Management, and the New University.”
10 Michael Denning, “Wageless Life.” New Left Review 66 (November-December 2010): 79-97.
11 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 61.
12 Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
13 Sharon Stein, “Confronting the Racial-Colonial Foundations of US Higher Education” Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education Vol 3, 2018, pp. 85-86.
14 Sorber, N. M., & Geiger, R. L. (2014). “The welding of opposite views: Land-grant historiography at 150 years.” In Higher education: Handbook of theory and research Springer Netherlands (pp. 385–422), 394. Quoted in Sharon Stein, “A colonial history of the higher education present: rethinking land-grant institutions through processes of accumulation and relations of conquest.” Critical Studies in Education. 2017
15 Wilder, 33-45; Dartmouth College, “The charter of Dartmouth college,” (Dresden, Vt., i.e.,  1779).
16 Jason Read, “Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism,” Rethinking Marxism 14, no. 2 (2002). Melamed, “Racial Capitalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies 1(1) (Spring 2015): 76-85.
17 Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
18 Joel Pfister, Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
19 David Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (University Press of Kansas, 1995), 17.
20 Quoted in Benjamin Madley, “It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians.” Los Angeles Times, 22 May 2016.
21 UC Berkeley Division of Equity and Inclusion, “A History of Women at Cal.”
22 Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
23 Ibram Kendi, The Black Campus Movement; Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
24 Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894-1928 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).
25 Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone Books, 2017).
26 Ariel Kaminer and Alain De La Quierier, “NYU Gives its Stars Loans for Summer Homes,” The New York Times, June 17, 2013.
27 Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
28 Margot Canaday, “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship under the G.I. Bill.” Journal of American History (December 2003): 935-957, 936.
29 National Manpower Council, Womanpower (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957).
30 Ibram X. Kendi, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave, 2012).
31 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney.  “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses,” Social Text 79 (Volume 22, Number 2), Summer 2004  pp. 101-115.
32 R. Radhakrishnan, A Said Dictionary (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 52.
33 Mark Stern and Kristi Carey, “Good Students and Bad Activists: The Moral Economy of Campus Rest,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy (Vo. 16) 2019.

The post Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

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