The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities


Soviet books poster
A 1925 poster by Rodchenko A. M. extols ‘Books for all branches of knowledge.’

In the midst of the privatisation boom in the late 1980s, the free-market economist Deepak Lal noted with some dismay that the Thatcher government had effectively nationalised British universities. Although universities and the private sector had been entangled to a substantial degree at least since the 1960s, the subordination of the former to the interests of the latter took a significant leap forward when the Universities Funding Council and then Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) replaced the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 1988 and 1992 respectively. While the UGC had acted as a ‘bridge and buffer’ between state policy and universities, the new arrangement was much more direct. Advocates of laissez-faire policies suddenly began to realise that ascendant neoliberalism was turning out to be something quite different. Much vaunted commitments to privatisation were actually secondary to, and contingent upon, another objective.

Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series

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Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis | Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan

Diversity of Viewpoints is Essential for the Pursuit of Knowledge | Jo Williams

Emotionalisation, Neoliberalism and Academic Freedom in the US | Sam Binkley

The Transformation of UK Higher Education Since 1968 | Hugo Radice

The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan

The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring

More thoughts

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech Must be Protected and Respected | Valerie Adams

Thoughts on Academic Freedom (and Our Series) | Various


As British capitalism underwent a thorough restructuring in the 1980s, businesses cut back on training to minimise their costs in order to survive. Individual units of capital were unable to ensure a plentiful supply of adequately trained ‘free’ labour to meet the challenge from newly industrialised economies in the Far East in particular, and so this burden increasingly fell onto the state. It was decreed that higher education institutions needed to educate a much larger proportion of the population than hitherto, and were to do so without a corresponding increase in funding. It was further made clear that what funding was made available depended on meeting this strategic objective. The other function that universities played, the reproduction of a coherent ruling class, would continue to be met by a limited number of the most prestigious institutions. Conservative historian Elie Kedourie was led to wonder ‘why it should be thought right and necessary for universities to be submitted to a regime akin to that of a command economy is quite obscure’.

Kedourie’s intuitive understanding was matched by bewilderment because while perceiving common features, he did not understand the true nature of the neoliberal regime championed by the Thatcher government. While rhetorically committed to the market, the fundamental aim was more directly subordinating state enterprises to the process of competitive accumulation of capital. The strong state was to be mobilised to support and promote competitiveness while refashioning strategic state enterprises to function as business analogues. In this neoliberalism comes close to the Stalinist and post-Stalinist system, even though the form of capital to be accumulated, private rather than state, varies.

The Soviet ‘command economy’ geared all enterprises to serve the cause of military competition with the West and to do so it employed market analogues and competitive mechanisms throughout the system. The inculcation of a culture of competition, albeit with what Isaac Deutscher in 1952 called  ‘ideological embellishments’, was conspicuous throughout Soviet society (for an overview see Miklóssy and Ilic (eds) 2014). The irony was that just as neoliberals crowed that the ‘command economy’ had finally been vanquished, its forms of organisation and practices permeated state enterprises in the West. This was particularly acute in countries with centralised constitutional arrangements, like the UK and the Netherlands, which facilitated the generalisation of governmental imperatives. Federal structures like Germany and the United States prove less susceptible to centralised reforms of the state. The massive endowments of the most prestigious US universities provided additional forms of insulation. While neoliberals in US business schools were often the most vocal in advocating such reforms, many people working in US universities look on the reforms in UK institutions with amazement.

The first extended treatment of how these reforms were affecting UK higher education was provided by veteran Sovietologist and one-time Vice-Chancellor Ron Amann (2003) and developed into more sustained analyses by Hugo Radice (2008) and Chris Lorentz (2012). I was unaware of these sources when I wrote my first article on the topic in Times Higher Education (2014), but my subsequent work has benefited from studying them. The parallel forms of proxy metrics, the narrowing of professional autonomy, the emergence of managerial ‘Newspeak’, and the corrosive effects on essential aspects of academic life such as collegiality, which could not successfully be quantified and measured, were enumerated well in these studies. Radice made important links between the way in which UK universities were increasingly imbricated with the private sector and the ways in which the USSR was affected by the capitalist world as origin and competitor.

I think it is important to build on these insights, but I want to draw on historical works about the way the USSR developed and functioned as well as recent research about neoliberalism. These bodies of literature have much potential to inform each other, but have generally been kept separate due to varying specialisms of researchers, but also because of the assumption that the USSR was fundamentally a post-capitalist society and so requires a different approach. There are, I think, good reasons to doubt this, not least in light of the way directors of Soviet state enterprises rather seamlessly slid into positions as directors of private enterprises at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s. The fact that the USSR’s rulers called the system ‘socialist’ does not make it so, any more than the Khmer Rouge renaming Cambodia ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ made it democratic. Indeed, the USSR functioned in the world economy rather like large corporations such as Ford and General Motors operated within the United States economy, with the same tendency towards stagnation. The strategies workers adopted to absorb managerial pressure were also very similar, and they are those we see in universities today.

For me further research leads to some of the shared intellectual sources of management practices, beginning with the way Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ was adopted and developed in both the USSR and in the West. It also leads to the ways in which neoliberalism and the reformers of the Soviet bloc interacted in the 1980s and how policy developed through this interaction, especially as pressure intensified on established, industrialised economies from the rising economies of East Asia. I think there is much more going on here than accidental resemblances and parallels, and this has important consequences for understanding the dynamics of the system and for developing strategies of resistance.

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Craig BrandistCraig Brandist is professor of cultural theory and intellectual history in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, where he is also president of the Sheffield University and College Union. He started at Sheffield in 1997, and from 2003-2009 directed the AHRC-funded project The Rise of Sociological Linguistics in the Soviet Union, 1917–1938: Institutions, Ideas and Agendas. Brandist’s research current focuses on the history of cultural theory, particularly as it was affected by the Russian Revolution and its subsequent degeneration, and his latest monograph is The Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia.


Craig Brandist

Craig Brandist is professor of cultural theory and intellectual history in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, where he is also president of the Sheffield University and College Union. He started at Sheffield in 1997, and from 2003-2009 directed the AHRC-funded project The Rise of Sociological Linguistics in the Soviet Union, 1917–1938: Institutions, Ideas and Agendas. Brandist’s research current focuses on the history of cultural theory, particularly as it was affected by the Russian Revolution and its subsequent degeneration, and his latest monograph is <emThe Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia.

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