radical education collective

Precarious alternative, Gašper Kralj, REC

Posted on | April 14, 2010 | Comments Off

Although the theory of precarious labour can be traced back to the autonomist emancipatory thought and practice of the “refusal of work”, precarity has only recently entered the discourse of counter-cultural and political movements.[1] The strategy behind the theory was to disclose new modulations and regulations of work in the wake of the on-line global economy and to connect the multitude of new workers’ identities with the “impossible class”. Such a class-in-becoming has been articulated on the European level under the common banner of the precariat: flexible, over-employed, under-paid, non-guaranteed temp-dwellers living permanently on the border in between “projects”.

But my aim herein is not a search for the collective identity of precariat (from seasonal migrant workers to self-employed project-dependant freelancers). My attempt is to trace the limits and possibilities of the precarious labour theory in our specific post-socialist situation. Departing from the concept of self-precarization[2] based on the idea of permanent availability without being able to plan either a workload or free time, I will try to analyse the emergence of such precarious subjectivity and its possible common reinvention in the particular context of the contemporary “academic” capitalism.[3]

Precarious labour is not only an analytical object but a concept for understanding new forms of exploitation and control in an age of “knowledge-based” global economy. It is also a powerful tool for organizing social struggles and self-reproductive movements beyond the state and traditional unions.[4] Precarious labour has been widely associated with the rise of so-called “immaterial labour”, which has been developed theoretically by autonomist social thinkers (Virno, Negri, Bifo, Lazzarato etc.) as a response to the workers’ struggles and the “exodus” from the assembly line factories of the sixties and seventies, which has (with the emergence of new on-line technologies in the eighties and nineties) propelled the transition from disciplinary societies to the societies of control. As Deleuze writes: “In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything …”, and he continues: “Indeed, just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school … Which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation.”[5]

The origins of the contemporary “academic” capitalism can be traced back to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Whereas the Bayh-Dole Act has transformed U.S. universities into proprietors of research funded by state budgets, the universities have begun to sell their research work to corporations. This has led not only to transformations of the university which has become one of the important players on the market dealing in research and investments in high-tech and military (e.g. Internet), but to both the transformation of the university into a private-public institution and the deployment of the specific bureaucratic-managerial culture in the university at large. It has also promoted the establishment of numerous private universities, colleges and research institutes that have taken a leading role in the formation of “academic” capitalism, which saw its ultimately perfected conclusion in the EU with the Bologna reform (which has only recently, in the wake of the global crisis, been “politically correctly” criticized by former advocates of the reform) and that has affected universities just as it has all other producers and marketers of knowledge.

Capitalist prerogatives of the “knowledge-based” global economy have also been imposed (with a reasonable delay) in our particular post-socialist situation. The number of universities in Slovenia has grown from two public universities in 1993 to three pubic universities, one private university, and 25 other private higher education institutions (including 12 as state concessions) as of 2009. Universities, public and private, and other private higher education institutions in Slovenia have become sites of “mass study” (with 19 students per thousand inhabitants enrolled in 1991 to 56 in 2009) while the regular employment of university staff has become, like elsewhere, a particular scarcity. All of which has, as in other spheres of extensive immaterial production “radically modified not only the composition, management, and regulation of the workforce – the organization of production [of knowledge] – but also, and more deeply, the role and function of intellectuals and their activities within society.”[6]

Official EU “Recommendations for the management of the university” distributed in Slovenia in 2008 promoted the “development and spread of the politics for the establishment of spin-off companies, which will allow and encourage personnel from public research institutions to collaborate in the forming of spin-off companies, if this is to be required, and to interpret the necessity for long-term collaboration between the spin-off companies and public research institutions”, where the “results from the public research institutions and with such institutions connected knowledge […] must be more visible in the private sector with the aim of encouraging its exploitation” (articles 12. and 14. my translation).[7]

What was actually visible in 2009 was the almost €80 million that the Ministry of Higher Education invested from the public budget for the establishment of eight e.g. “Centers of Excellence” (located at Jožef Štefan Institute, Chemical Institute, and Faculty of Economics) all of which are promoting the above mentioned recommendations. Whereas several contracts of intent signed between the university and the industrial sector were cherished by the undersigned stating that “the current crisis finally forced the university to full develop its cooperation with business,” others in charge finally perceived “the university as a big corporation where a lot of money circulates.”

But it seems that the sheer stupidity of the corporate mind has been further invested in yet more brutal corporatization of the university, almost entirely eradicating critical engagement in the face of the crisis with the paranoiac identification and policing of all possible “disturbing elements” that in any way whatsoever resists the trivialization of education which has, in the disguise of lifelong learning, became a mere scheme of perpetual job-training. Of course, there are several mechanisms available for such trivialization systemically embedded in all manner of internal and external evaluations, from the anonymous internal evaluation of teaching staff to the external evaluation of research project applications performed by corporate agents (e.g. Erste Bank in the art field).

The figure of the student, researcher, teacher, artist etc. has become identified both as a producer of knowledge (or artefacts) and as an individual who must either pay or credit a study scheme, an exhibition, a publication, participation at a conference etc. in order to obtain his or her job, status or merely symbolic social position. This double expropriation of both the “means of production” and the means necessary for a decent life come to combine with what Isabell Lorey calls self-precarization.

The idea behind this point is not to say that the production of knowledge (or arts) is “immaterial”, but that the capitalist control over the “products” of the immaterial labour (such as ideas, affects, critical theory, creativity, information etc.) creates a new visibility of the crisis of corporate capitalism, including the crisis of the university that is being structured along the lines of financial corporations, where the only currencies are “credits and points”; where we have to publish in the “selected publications” that almost nobody reads; where we have to present our unfinished papers at the “conferences that count”; to apply for projects that are “permanently rejected” or have nothing to do with our fields of research; to “banalize knowledge” in lectures that take on the appearance of reality shows and more. But the essential question remains: Who forces us to do so? And, on the other hand, why don’t we invest our energies, our knowledge, and our creativity elsewhere?

What I have in mind is not only the promotion of “fast-food” corporate research and education, ad hoc exhibitions and conferences, but a change in the paradigm of cognitive labour. On the one hand is the rise of “net-working” that relies on skills that connect the worker with the machine, and a perception of the worker as an interface between different machines operating in front of the computer, but also being continuously available via cell-phone, e-mail, social networks and the like. Whereas being unavailable on the cell-phone is socially sanctioned, other schemes and devices offer essentially two options: being unavailable or invisible to everyone. One can be available, unavailable or invisible to everyone, but an “alternative is purely theoretical, because the physical body, despite not being a legally recognized person, still has to buy his food and pay his rent.”[8]

Bifo speaks not only of the colonization of every atom of time and of the transformation of the cognitive worker into the human-like machine which is “pulsating and available, like a brain-sprawl in waiting”; he goes even further by arguing that if we take into account the conditions in which the majority of the global population works, the average wage, and the negation of rights, “we can say, with no rhetorical exaggeration, that we live in a regime of [digital] slavery.”[9] What has become the impossible task is how to destroy the machine without destroying ourselves. This becomes even clearer if we take into account Silvia Federici’s argument that struggling on the contemporary terrain of precarious labour “is not the same as struggling in the traditional factory setting, against for instance the speed of an assembly line, because at the other end [...] there are people not things.”[10] On the other hand, changes in the nature and perception of labour include activities that were previously not recognized as work or were recognized as leisure: arts, cultural activities, fashion, and so forth, including education or “schooling”, the term deriving from school (skhole) and literally meaning “to hold free time in one’s power”.

Today we often hear that researchers, assistants, teachers and other cognitive workers are not workers per se (which refers instead to the working class, which can only be constituted as such in the course or context of struggle). This is actually not the case because we form a privileged “creative class”, but because of the impossibility of composing transversal linkages and forms of solidarity necessary to be recomposed as a collective subject of radical change instead of being self-victimized objects in search of state or corporate funding. Whereas the creative class has become a “coordinating class” in charge of “coordinating the projects” promoted under the banner of liberal freedom where all are free to apply but only a few can succeed, cognitive nomads seem to lack tools for coordinating counter-behaviours necessary to rekindle the struggles.

Precarity, precarization, precarious labour etc. don’t (yet) form a part of the public discourse in Slovenia, but they are elephants in the room. They are both difficult to translate and impossible to frame within a single definition, but they are nevertheless becoming something so present that they are already becoming almost invisible. Therefore the Radical Education Collective has initiated a research process that includes individual and collective “translations” of the Workers’ Inquiry[11], whose aim is not only to provide answers but to formulate relevant questions and possible alliances. That is to say that our quest is not a search for collective identity nor categorization and classification of different types of precarious workers but to re-elaborate both precarity and precarious labour as conceptual and organizational tools from within and for the emerging subjectivity on the horizon of struggles for the reappropriation of common knowledge and creativity.

[1] Coordination des intermittents et précaires d’Ile-de-France, EuroMayDay etc.

[2] Isabell Lorey, 2006, Governmentality and Self-Precarization: On the normalization of cultural producers, http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/1106/lorey/en#redir (accessed on April 1, 2010).

[3] Sheila Slaughter, Gary Rhoades, 2004, Academic capitalism and the new economy: markets, state, and higher education, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

[4] Silvia Federici, 2008, Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint, http://auto_sol.tao.ca/node/3074 (accessed on April 1, 2010).

[5] Gilles Deleuze, 1990, Societies of Control, http://www.nadir.org/nadir/archiv/netzkritik/societyofcontrol.html (accessed on April 1, 2010).

[6] Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial Labour, http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm (accessed on April 2, 2010).

[7] Uradni list Evropske unije, “Priporočilo komisije z dne 10. aprila 2008 o upravljanju intelektualne lastnine pri dejavnostih prenosa znanja in kodeks ravnanja za univerze in druge javne raziskovalne organizacije”, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2008:146:0019:0024:SL:PDF (accessed on April 2, 2010).

[8] Franco Berardi (Bifo), 2003, Info-Labour and Precarisation, http://www.generation-online.org/t/tinfolabour.htm (accessed on April 2, 2010).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Silvia Federici, 2008, Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint, http://auto_sol.tao.ca/node/3074 (accessed on April 2, 2010).

[11] Karl Marx, A Workers’ Inquiry, New International, vol. 4., no. 12., pp. 379-381, 1938, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol04/no12/marx.htm (accessed, April 2, 2010).

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