Article Image

In an article I wrote for Library Trends (open access preprint link), I argued that neoliberalism should in large part be understood as a process of restructuring of labour in order to increase profits and (just as importantly) make sure those profits fall into the right hands. Neoliberalism was a reaction against the post-war welfare state situation in which, following the Second World War, a tacit compromise was reached, an agreement for capital to share a portion of its profits in exchange for peace on the labour front. By the late 1960s, capital was frustrated with this situation and sought ways to recapture the share of profit flowing to labour 1. For people who grew up in this period - let’s call them “boomers” - the post-war compromise, the institutions of the welfare state, and the unspoken truce between labour and capital are sacrosanct. When I was younger, arguing politics with my dad, he found it unimaginable that capital would renege on the post-war compromise, for fear of the reaction of labour. One of the achievements of neoliberal restructuring is that it managed - for a time - to defang labour by replacing collective responsibility with self-entrepreneurship, by convincing individual workers that they alone and not the welfare state or society were responsible for their own wellbeing (in all senses) and, perhaps most insidiously, convincing some workers - the aristocracy of labour - that they were not even workers at all.

Into this last camp fall tenured academics. The university as an institution has long been considered sacrosanct (i.e. not subject to capitalist restructuring) because of its lengthy history as an institution of social order and the production of subjectivities (i.e. because it is an institution of the ruling class), but also because it fit the ideology of the welfare state for universal education, managerial training, etc, etc. Additionally, during the first phase of neoliberal restructuring (roughly from the 1970s through the 1990s), universities acted as job sponges, keeping workers out of the job market for longer and longer periods of time (i.e. degree creep) while capital was in the process of removing worker protections and making precarious the weakest and most vulnerable segments of workers.

While capital’s attention was on these segments, academics could consider themselves - and here we see again the power of ideology - as non-workers, and the universities as not subject to capitalist restructuring. When the neoliberalization of the universities began in earnest in the late 1990s, in other words, when the academy began to be subject to the same processes of subsumption as the rest of the economy, it took academics by surprise. Because boomer academics did not see themselves as workers, they believed that a) the university as welfare-state institution was untouchable and b) that they could rely on deference to their own wisdom and knowledge to correct decisions by capital and the state. Those who live by the word die by the word.

Labour disputes within universities are, of course, not new; but they have so far managed to remain within the bounds of welfare state conceptions of education, labour, capital, etc. This is all changing now.

As the precaritization of academic work has proceeded (encompassing adjuncts, casual staff, teaching staff, outsourcing of “support staff” roles), the academic aristocracy of labour continued to close ranks, relying on its own untouchabiliity as defense against the predations of capital. We saw this in the Event which led to the creation of the McMaster University Academic Librarians’ Association. One is reminded of Niemöller’s famous “First they came for the Communists…”

It turns out that all capital was waiting for to finalize the operation of proletarianizing the entire academy was an indication from a government that it was willing to ignore the history of universities, the welfare-state sanctity of the institution, indeed the welfare state’s conception of the importance of public education as such. In the new conservative government of Alberta it has found such an indication. The University of Calgary laid off 19 library workers before Christmas, and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology has just announced the abolition of 230 position leading to 150 layoffs. University of Alberta has been notified that its 2019 budget has been cut by 18% for 2020, with at least two more years of budget cuts coming. The university administration has explicitly stated that this will lead to massive layoffs.

Academics as the aristocracy of labour have long believed tenure would protect them from layoffs, once again because tenure predates neoliberalism and bears all the ideological privilege of a different socio-economic conjuncture. I suspect we are about to see how little tenure counts against the need of capital to maximize its profits and to reduce all segments of labour to a disciplined mass. In a way, in terms of class consciousness, this is perhaps not a bad thing: academics shorn of the protection of tenure, made as precarious as the rest of the working population, will perhaps no longer be able to see themselves as non-workers. Perhaps I’m being naive; ideology is a hell of a drug.

Our unions may be some protection, but Canadian unions are often built especially to allow for divide-and-conquer. The seven constituencies in the University of Alberta academic association will likely be set at each other’s throats. Some of these constituencies have tenure, some do not; faculty are by far the largest constituency, librarians are by far the smallest. But we have to remember that unions, too, were incorporated into the post-war compromise, and form a structural part of the relations of capital today. They understand their role as managing the capital-labour relationship, rather than as actively antagonistic to the power of labour (except in specific and extreme circumstances). Canadian labour law prevents much in the way of antagonistic action, though we can learn a lot from the solidarity shown the Wet’suwet’en by First Nations across the country. Indeed, we ought to be actively seeking mutual support with Indigenous land defenders and climate change activists, as well as workers in other sectors, like nurses, teachers in Ontario and Alberta, indeed, all workers and marginalized people across the country. This would require, of course, not only overcoming the ideology of the aristocracy of labour, but settler-consciousness, racism, and climate change denial. A tall order for sure.

But ideology is strong. It is unlikely that academics will recognize that collegial governance, like reconciliation, was never really in play, but was always simply an ideological means to retain order. When that order fails, as we are seeing right now with confrontations in Tyendinaga echoing confrontations at Kanehsatake thirty years ago, the naked power of capital and the state is exposed in the form of the police.

I don’t know, then, what the best strategy is to achieve the solidarity we need. I do know that knowledge, explanation, and better arguments are useless. The common refrain “doesn’t the government realize what these cuts are doing to universities? don’t they know what effect this will have on education?” is pointless. They absolutely know; the hardest thing for those who still believe in the sanctity of the welfare state is to understand that they don’t care. AI offers capital the possibility of (finally) extricating itself from relying on increasingly better-educated workers (see Eagleton’s Literary Theory and Ursula Huws’ Labor in the Global Digital Economy for accounts of this reliance). This possibility is probably spurious, but capital never looks a gift horse in the mouth. Education is not the valuable asset it was under the welfare state, or even in the first phase of neoliberalisation. Indeed, my own experience of going to university in the 1990s was that even then the last thing you received at a university was an education. It is no wonder that they have become sites of labour-capital antagonism despite the best intentions of academics themselves. The only wonder is what took so long (ideology and privilege again).

Time will tell how the situation in Alberta will play out. But it is impossible that other governments around the world, still at least partly bound by allegiance to welfare state rhetoric and ideology, are not watching the situation carefully, poised to follow suit as the profit to be made destroying universities and public education becomes worth the social cost.

Correction: I made a mistake in the information about Alberta layoffs. The changes can be seen here

  1. I should point out that autonomists like Antonio Negri see this process differently: that it was agitation on the part of labour under the welfare state that provoked capital into neoliberal restructuring. 


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview