Post-fordist protest

Posted on March 6, 2011


University professors march on Tahrir Square | Hossam el-Hamalawy


What do academics do, when they go on strike?” our professor asked during one of the many discussions last autumn, only to give the answer immediately “They use the additional time to work on their research”. His question was intended to encourage a more self- conscious perspective on the protests. It presupposed a fundamental difference between industrial and academic work and questioned the appropriateness of the latter’s protest forms in the former context. In hindsight I wonder if the statement does not pose a more general question: Is there something like a post-fordist articulation of protest, how does it look, and what would it mean for our most recent protests?

After Millbank a multitude of initiatives turned towards the “student” issue sprang up anew. Protest forms proliferated, putting the lessons learned by critical theory to practical use. These creative protests supplemented the more traditional modes of demonstrations and university occupations, often transforming them. The use of social networking to organise and disseminate rapidly led to the formation of new groups. Articles appeared in academic journals and lifestyle magazines, written by the same people either blogging and/ or protesting. In January, The Paper was published, the first newpaper dealing exclusively with the student protests. An increasing number of research projects are being conceived, incestuously based on contacts acquired throughout the protests. These projects often incorporate the alternative methods they attempt to analyse. Lectures, conferences, teach-ins, etc. are taking place daily, attended by people organising more lectures, workshops, etc, sometimes financed by art councils, public funds and universities themselves.

It is this short circuit that I want to call a post-fordist mode of protesting. Are we creating a self-perpetuating circulation of information, affiliations and people? And is the suspicion that by feeding back into academia this circulation also entails another way of accumulating social and cultural capital not warranted, despite ‘all the best intentions’? Flexibility, mobility, creativity, networking, personal engagement, self- organisation and a familiarity with new media are some of the key ingredients to the rapid success of our protests. But they are also the mantra of neo-liberalism’s reorganisation of higher education. What if it is this similiarity that eventually allows for the integration and neutralisation of our protests?

By adopting a post-fordist organisation for our protests, many of its negative consequences are inevitable: By mid- December exhaustion was visible at every occupation. Not to be dismissed as an unfortunate side effect, self-exploitation to the point of breakdown is inherent to post-fordism. Precarious self-employment abolishes the benefits of the division of labour. Networking, on the other hand, has yet to provide an adequate alternative, because it does not challenge the central position of the competing individual. Study, work, engage, create, disseminate, apply, move, meet, talk, write; see connections where they exist, build them, if they are missing; do something special, do more, repeat in random order.

Our protests replicate this modus operandi. Having eliminated enough, somehow average seems to be the default. This discontent introduces a variation of alienation. The products of our protests are constitutively deficient, without us being allowed to articulate this deficiency. To see people trying to keep spirits up after the parliamentary vote had passed was somewhat dismaying. Michel Foucault’s liberating “do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant” had transformed into a cruel imperative for optimism.

That the goal of non-hierarchical self- organisation is not only very demanding but can also result in its opposite is palpable in many accounts of university occupations. There are no official leaders, but nonetheless many de facto leaders emerge. Set up as additional structures, these self-organised cells often fail to challenge the institutional framework they accrue from. Establishing continuous commitments is difficult, because mobility is deeply ingrained into the designated trajectory of contemporary academia even within one institution. Because of the multiple locations and modes of our engagement, recourse to resentment and a fetishisation of spontaneity is common. In a way, it provides the glue for our initiatives and actions. But if we turn the problematic around we might ask what ad-hoc allegiances, important as they are, prevent from entering into the discussion? What is still missing, it seems, is a widespread cross-social and internationalist analysis. Given our political differences, this analysis will necessarily diverge. But only if these accounts are articulated and contest each other, can appropriate forms of protest and resistance develop.

If the recent student protests mark the abolition of the education-deal in the ‘developed nations’, they bear the potential of a political questioning far more radical then the student revolts of ‘68. After all “precarious workers of art, education and the creative industies have nothing to lose but their feedback questionnaires”. It is the generalisation of the condition of precariousness facilitated by post-fordism that engenders the chance for a wider struggle to emerge. It could provide a foundation to a political project. However, it also presents a challenge. Precariousness does not equal precariousness. As students, academics or workers in the creative industries we are in a privileged position and have therefore still a lot of privileges to lose, even if it is sometimes only a slightly more impressive CV. Complicity is not accidental: specific modes of production allow for and facilitate the transformation of protest participation into cultural capital. In doing so a gap appears that separates those who can put their participation in protests to work, from other forms of precarious labour that is not easily bridged.

Posted in: 2. Ed Zero