Let’s begin with the scandal of the month. Over the last few weeks, various major newspapers have disclosed secret documents that shed light on the truly astounding scale of online surveillance operations conducted by intelligence agencies in the UK and the USA. Intelligence officials in the USA have practically admitted that they have lied when asked in public about these operations. Nonetheless, their actions have been defended by senior government officials. Edward Snowden, the former intelligence employee who had acquired the documents, fled the USA, fearing for his safety. Given the US government’s aggressive approach to whistle-blowers and critical journalists, this is hardly surprising. It’s all a bit like one of Philip K. Dick’s more daringly paranoid novels.
These revelations have caused some debate in mass media at the international level, and they seem to have provoked some concern among some governments. At the same time, Snowden’s disclosures have been met with a surprising degree of indifference, hostility, and willingness to simply ignore them and move on. Consider this alongside other developments over the last few years – from drone wars to an economic ‘crisis’ that seems to be surprisingly beneficial for the very wealthy to the use of secret courts and torture in an unending ‘war on terror’, and the insight offers itself that not all is well with democracy in the rich nations of the Global Northwest.
This argument is not new at all. Over the past ten years, there have been extensive debates about the advent of a post-democratic society, in which the political process is dominated by the interests of corporate elites, the uses of neoliberal disaster capitalism in advancing the interests of these elites, and the rise of a new authoritarianism in political life. At the same time, of course, there have been important counter-trends, not least in the form of social movements that have sought to build new forms of political participation and dissent. It is not my aim here to assess these developments and the ways in which they have been debated in academia. For the moment at least, there are arguably strong tendencies in the Global Northwest towards what might be labelled a post-democratic society. In some societies, such as the UK or the USA or Greece, these tendencies are currently more visible and widely debated than in others, but they might amount to a much more widespread crisis of democracy, grounded in fundamental shifts in our assumptions about self-identity, social relationships, and socio-economic processes. The question I wish to consider is what role universities will play in the context of these trends.
In the Global Northwest, universities have for a quite a long time been key sites of critical political and social debate. At the same time, of course, universities have been serving establishment interests in often astonishingly uncritical ways. However, it seems to me that pathways for the articulation of critical scholarship and intellectual dissent are currently being closed down, in favour of a model of academic life that accords scholars a much more limited role as purveyors of practically useful skills in ‘real-world’ labour markets. In the UK, respective tendencies are self-evident in debates about the purpose of academic teaching and the desired impact of research. At the same time, profound transformations of the organisational structure of British universities over the past decade or so have rendered them increasingly inimical to open and politically controversial debate. Universities have been pushed into the marketplace and have self-consciously adopted the self-identity, image, rhetoric, and, frequently, managerial staff of the business corporation. The organisational logic of the business corporation is profoundly hierarchical and tendentially authoritarian. At the same time, universities have acquired business corporations’ concern with maintaining and enhancing their brand image in the pursuit of competitive advantages and profit. As a result, it seems to have become more and more difficult for academics to participate in the governance of their own institutions or voice controversial opinions. (As these problems are systemic, I do not wish to name specific universities here. However, there are numerous high-profile and easy-to-find instances of serious conflicts between academics and corporate management over undesirable political statements on the part of the former, both in the UK and abroad.)
All this points to a possible but not entirely likely future of utterly commercialised and utterly de-politicised universities. Nonetheless, for the time being, universities in many ways do remain as spaces of critical debate, and there are numerous campaigns and individual interventions (e.g. these: link 1, link 2, link 3) that are seeking to contradict the outlined trends. However, an important challenge to the effectiveness of these campaigns and interventions seems to lie in the fact that they are so easily disregarded. In the UK, for instance, the reforms of higher education undertaken by New Labour and the Conservative government have been strongly criticised, both in public and within universities. In the end, they have still been pushed through without much regard for dissenting voices. How many academics really, really wish for the REF, impact assessment, and incessant audits of their teaching? Rather than simply in a repression of dissent, the problem seems to lie in a profound crisis of scholarly expertise, coupled with transformations of the public sphere that have enabled fast and easy expressions of dissent through a variety of media, while at the same time turning dissent into banal statements of individual opinion that lack authority and are thus easily ignored by the powers that be. For universities and individual scholars to transcend the outlined post-democratic trends, they will need to engage with this crisis of expertise and recover discursive grounds on which they can meaningfully participate in the political process. In this sense, current critiques of academic life need to challenge both overt, easily identified threats to academic freedom and the much more complex and subtle transformations of knowledge in contemporary society in which these threats are grounded.
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