(Photo: el Rafa/Flickr
We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis! Anomalous Wave, Living Knowledge, and the Common Institutions
By Paolo Do and Gigi Roggero
The University Struggles in Italy
In the summer of 2008, the Berlusconi government approved a financial bill that, at a time of economic crisis, introduced heavy cuts in the funding of the Italian public education system. The three tiers of public education have been hit by cuts that seem to amount to a total dismantlement of the system. Following a draft started in Italy by the left, and continued by the right in a less scrupulous fashion, the public education system has spent the last ten years in deep crisis, a sort of permanent crisis in which reorganisation appears, year by year, as more like dismantlement.
It’s against this process that primary and secondary school’s, as well as university workers, started their protest in September 2008. Students, researchers, precarious teachers, PhD students, and schoolchildren with their parents occupied schools for several weeks, stopping lessons and blocking the university, protesting against the cut in full-time teaching positions, and addressing the topic of worker time and affective labour, of reproductive labour. Thousands of students protested in the streets and squares with the slogan ‘We won’t pay for your crisis’.
Occupy the university and block the city: these are the words of one of the biggest Italian movements in recent years, taking inspiration from the protests in France which, through Manif Sauvage (Savage Demonstration), blocked and paralysed French cities for at least one month continuously, in order to obtain the suspension of CPE law.
For entire weeks university lessons took place in squares, in the street, and in stations. Demonstrations of thousands of students without permission have confronted the police, making the metropolis an unpredictable space and blocking metropolitan production, where the metropolis is understood as not only a spatial condition, but also an articulation of a new form of exploitation and command, as well as a new condition and possibility for social conflict.
The movement was not only in Italy: there were many demonstrations in Italian consulate’s throughout Europe. In Berlin, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London and Copenhagen, Erasmus students as well as precarious researchers working in Europe have tried to establish themselves as an activist brigade in the struggle and protest, thus making Europe the real field of conflict.
Calls for a new form of welfare to sustain direct and indirect income, and a new monetary form for students, place this protest beyond the classical boundaries of the students movement. In fact, within the productive metropolis, also the new student figure is beyond her traditional borders. Furthermore, students and researchers have also occupied theatres all over Italy, claiming free access to knowledge, as well as free culture, and again this multiplicity of practice reveals the true diversity and multiplicity of the movement called Anomalous Wave. A big anomalous wave has erupted in a political contest where the right has never been so strong and the left no longer exists. The Wave has been able to invent a new form of the social conflict, the mass social conflict.
The Movement within the Double Crisis
We are facing a double crisis: one is the global economic crisis, and the other the crisis of the university in the modern era. The first is clear for all to see, while the second one is in a long process of transformation, both of the productive system and the higher education system. Focusing on this process, Bill Readings wrote a book in the ‘90s called, significantly, The University in Ruins. The Italian protest movement is trying to find possibilities within this double crisis in order to transform the university system and knowledge production; to raise an autonomous university from the ruins. We can point out at least four political and analytical aspects of the crisis, that are particularly relevant to the movement against the university system changes. In fact, these changes are part of global trends, and they take form in different contexts with peculiar types of translation.
First is the trend towards corporatisation. In Italy this is paradoxically combined with a sort of ‘feudal power’ in the state university system, but there is no contradiction between these two elements: feudal power is the peculiarly Italian interpretation of the corporatisation trend. At the same time, when we talk about corporatisation we need to be clear that it doesn’t mean simply the dominance of private funds in the public university, or its juridical status. It means that the university itself has to become a corporation in order to compete in the education and knowledge market, based on calculated costs and benefits, profit logic, input and output, and so on. In other words, this goes beyond the dialectic of the modern university between private and public.
That is, the mobilisation against the corporatisation of the university cannot be based on a defence of the public model, which has been put in crisis not only by neoliberal capital, but also by the movement. ‘We won’t pay for your crisis’ means we won’t pay for the public university crisis. The opposition to corporatisation poses the problem of how to escape the alternative between public and private, state and corporation.
The second aspect arising from the crisis concerns the centrality of the production of knowledge, both in contemporary capitalist accumulation, as well as in the struggles. The classical mantra of the left, “knowledge is not a commodity”, is not true. On the contrary, it is a central commodity in the contemporary productive system. In fact, there is a political economy of knowledge imposed through an artificial measure – i.e. the credit system, the intellectual property system, the system of evaluations of performances, the reference economy, and so on. In other words, the knowledge production exceeds the classical measure of the production of tangible goods. From this point of view, there is no correspondence between the so called meritocracy system and the qualification of knowledge, because the aim of the first is to create a hierarchisation process within the education and labour markets. It is not connected with a process of disqualification of knowledge, that is, a process of lowering the value of the workforce. Déclassement is one of the central topics of student struggles all over the world in recent years, and in the Italian movement too. We have to pay attention: the problem is not to be against evaluation in abstract terms, but it is to disconnect the measure and the evaluation, the meritocracy and the quality of knowledge. We could say that meritocracy is against quality of knowledge, because it aims to create an artificial value in order to capture the collective power of cognitive labour. In other words, our problem is to experiment with an evaluation process definitely immanent to living knowledge cooperation. We could call it self-evaluation, based on the fact that knowledge production is definitely out of measure.
In this context of the centrality of the production of knowledge, we have arrived at the third aspect: the rise of a new figure of the student. She is no more a workforce in training, but directly a worker, a producer of knowledge. There is a continuous overlapping of the education market and the labour market: “lifelong learning” is the mainstream name of this process. There is no more outside. The slogan of the Italian university movement, “We won’t pay for your crisis”, as well as the global practices of conflict and resistance in recent years, brings into immediate focus the question of labour and production relationships. In this context, we could talk of the passage in selective mechanisms from exclusion to differential inclusion. In other words, in the permanent accreditation system the value of the student-worker does not depend so much on whether a person attended a higher education institution, but first of all it depends on what institution he or she attended. So the value of the degree is related to the position (that is, the artificial value) of the university in the education market hierarchy, corresponding to the prestige of the institution, its brand, and the possibility to accumulate advantageous relationships, measured as human and social capital, and not necessarily to the quality of knowledge. Neither does the increasing of fees indicate a return to classical exclusion mechanisms, because enrolments increase as well, but through the debt system, which is another selective filter to regulate the value of the workforce. It is a lowering of the wage, often before a wage has been earned. Since education and knowledge are incompressible social needs, the financialisation of welfare is a way to realise these needs in an individual way. But it is also the prototype of the permanent fragility of the system: in fact, the not discharge of the debts is one of the causes of the global economic crisis. And in Italy the government and its think tank are trying to import a model that is in crisis in its original context.
An Anomalous Wave is Haunting Europe
Finally, the last aspect points out the central political question: if we are beyond the dialectic between public and private, as well as inclusion and exclusion, the alternative to the double crisis is not a return to the public system, or the simple inclusion within a neoliberal system. The struggles indicate immediately what is at stake: the autonomy of living knowledge, and the construction of common institutions, that is, the autonomous organisation of social cooperation. Here we need to be clear about what we mean by ‘common’ or ‘the commons’. On the one hand, the commons are not happy islands: they are continuously subject to possible capture by capital. Today capital value production is based not so much on the organisation of social cooperation, but on the capture of the commons. On the other hand, the commons are defined by social cooperation and living knowledge production: they do not exist in a mythological natural state. Also the water or the earth are continuously produced and reproduced: they are defined as commons only because they are the at stake in a process of cooperation and struggle. So we propose to talk of common from this perspective, as defined by the relationship between singularity and multiplicity, within and against capitalist production relationships. In this theoretical framework, since the double crisis involves the necessity of the capitalist system, based on common capture, to block continuously the power of living knowledge and social cooperation in order to control it, the common institutions constitute the breaking of this capitalist capture, and the line of exit based on the autonomous organisation of productive forces. Also, the common institutions indicate a new temporality. Many precarious workers talk about the absence of the future. But traditionally the future has been a normative dimension of the present, in order to control and to defer the radical issues of social movements, and to consolidate the role of representation of the traditional parties and unions. Common institutions are the reversal of this absence of the future in the fullness and richness of the present. Since they are based on the collective organisation of knowledge production, common institutions are continuously open to their subversion.
This is the meaning of ‘self-reform’ within the university movement in Italy. It is not a proposal to address to the government or some parties, and it does not allude to a reformist practice aimed at softening the radical issues. On the contrary, it is the organised form of radical issues, in order to build up autonomy not in a far away future, but immediately. It is the consolidation of the power relationship in order to increase the level of the conflict and the transformation.
In recent years we have witnessed many conflicts all around Europe, from Spain to Denmark, and from France to Greece and Italy. Together, they constitute a resistance process within the Bologna Process, that is, the project to build a European common space of higher education through the harmonization of the reform lines in the countries of the EU. They are speaking the same language. They are writing a common lexicon of the autonomy and the conflicts in knowledge production. Now we have to take a step forward: we have to re-think the European space building up a Counter-Bologna Process. That is, the transnational organisation of the autonomous university. A university without borders.