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What’s Wrong with the University? | Theory And Analysis

The university is a hierarchical institution that protects the elites by awarding them cultural capital and whitewashing their reputation. It upholds existing inequalities and indoctrinates students into the reigning ideology. Universities serve the vested interests of the state, corporations and wealthy donors. They control and distribute knowledge in ways that empower the rich to get richer.

Hierarchy is baked into the structure and mission of the university. The elites go to university in order to distinguish themselves from ordinary folks.

The university provides formal education that helps run the system and extend its life. It inculcates entitlement and defines the proper manners of the ruling classes. University education establishes and maintains the pecking order that elevates a few individuals and relegates the rest to the derogatory category of laypeople or the uninitiated.

A Cambridge or Harvard degree is viewed with veneration that defies logic. Universities depend on magical thinking to promote their brand and image. They feed off myths and delusions that subvert humanity. Magical thinking, however, goes against the core principles of scientific endeavour and critical judgment.

The university teaches students that knowledge is valued within legitimate frameworks and should serve the dominant agenda. Higher education gives nuance and subtlety to the injustice that permeates society. It shapes the image of the establishment and helps it preserve and grow its assets.

In a free society, knowledge is open and democratic. In contrast, the university builds hierarchical relationships and a closed circle of experts. Even if education can set us free and unleash the creative potential of humanity, universities are no bastions of freedom or creativity. There is a sense of adventure and free exploration in science that university education fails to deliver.

The university is not a haven of freedom that some academics imagine it to be. They may carve out safe spaces inside the institution, but that kind of illusory liberty can also be obtained outside academia. This is based on the power that professors have won over the larger community. The academic pyramid is another instance of the oppressive mode of existence that anarchists abhor. Far from an exception, subjugation is one of the pillars of university education. By definition, the competition for privilege cannot be fair.

Universities conform to the provisions of copyright law and restricted access to knowledge as a tradeable commodity. Academic research is published in peer-reviewed journals that hide articles behind paywalls. Only affluent organisations and individuals can access scientific knowledge, as multinational publishing corporations have seized the means of its dissemination. Academic publishing is now primarily a business.

It is no coincidence that university is run as a company. This seemingly ancient institution has managed to survive for so long because it assumes the structure and power dynamics that currently dominate humanity. In the medieval times, it was subservient to the church. Today universities are corporations managed by sleazy capitalists.

The university is part of the neoliberal order and the gig economy, as more and more academics have short-term contracts and work for slave wages, while the entitled few enjoy permanent positions. The inequality between senior professors and precarious staff has sharpened class consciousness: junior researchers, doctoral candidates, and part-time lecturers organise to stand up for their rights.

Academics are valued for their ability to win grant money. This mercantile approach to education prioritises capital and dehumanises scholarly efforts as their goal is not to improve the world but rather to create value for the university.

Since universities subscribe to the capitalist mode of value production, the monetary worth of an academic degree is the key criterion of academic achievement. Even by this metric, universities have failed students. University education has become a debt trap.

While the elites reap the lion’s share of the benefits, most participants in the higher education process get ripped off.

Cultural capital associated with university education is reinforced by financial strength. At a certain level, it is one and the same as university weds knowledge to power and money.

Universities are not only chasing state funding, but also wooing private benefactors. In return, the wealthy expect nothing less than the validation of their authority. Greedy capitalists donate to universities to clean their reputation and evade taxes. The university enables the rich to create an illusion of respectability and defend their wealth. This is a reciprocal bond, where one supports the other.

Universities use capital to acquire resources and hire people, reproducing and aggravating the injustices that fester in the globalised world. Elite universities in the global north attract qualified students and professors from the global south. Colonialism plays out in research collaboration, academic services, and knowledge dissemination. Elite universities foster colonial relations that have existed since the dawn of capitalism. Scientific innovations, produced by elite universities at the expense of the global south, serve the rich and powerful of this world. This exchange exploits the poor and perpetuates global inequality.

Higher education institutions in the global south cannot be on par with western elite universities because they do not have the funding or resources to offer commensurate remuneration or research conditions. The reason behind this discrepancy is capitalism: elite institutions extract and exploit human and material resources for the indulgence of the privileged few. Academic excellence and meritocracy are a sham.

The global elites enjoy abundance as the rest face austerity. Education is not exempt from this logic. The main cause of inequality in university rankings is the power of capital.

Humans produce more free knowledge and engage in creative activities far beyond university education. Academic recognition of a handful of scholars among seven billion people is a mockery of the idea of open knowledge. Very few can make it to the top of academe, but everyone is already part of humanity and their individual and collective efforts have a much greater impact on knowledge and education than those of a small band of scholars within the exclusive ambit of academia.

Online technology has made the sharing of insights and the learning of new things more accessible and egalitarian. It has engaged millions of people, demonstrating that you do not have to go to university to learn or exchange ideas. Skills, knowledge, and creativity are not the preserve of formal education. There are now new opportunities being opened for disseminating knowledge and developing original views. One caveat here is that the online tools that have challenged the exclusive role of academics are unaccountable to the public as they belong to profit-driven corporations. Social networks and new media have loosened the chokehold of pretentious experts, but they might serve as oppressive implements in the hands of their owners.

Knowledge should be free. The limits imposed by the university will eventually give way to open and horizontal learning relationships, which will help us dismantle the current order and build a harmonious society.

A fair and democratic university is a contradiction in terms. The university is a model of subversion that forces students and professors to play by the rules and pledge blind allegiance to the powers that be. Since the game is rigged, many people refuse to believe the promise of higher education.

Society will benefit from doing away with the shackles and blinders of academia. In the Anarchist struggle for freedom and equality, the university is not an ally, but one of the numerous reasons to overthrow the system. ■

Pavlo Shopin is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in the English Department at the University of Freiburg. He comes from Luhansk, Ukraine.

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Productivity Is Not Your Friend | Theory And Analysis

On social media, I have recently come across an ‘anti-capitalist love note’, reassuring its readers that they are much more than their productivity. This criticism of economic output as a measure of human worth will strike a chord with many people. Material production influences the kind of person you are, but it does not justify or invalidate your existence. No capitalist accounting can do justice to being human. You need no reason or apology for living life in freedom, and productivity is not your friend.

The cult of productivity has led to extensive damage and misery, as those who enthusiastically embrace wrong ends – placing profits before people – wreak havoc upon the world, and subject fellow humans to oppression and abuse. Their hard work brings bitter fruit.

In his essay ‘Productivity is dangerous’, Vincent Bevins suggests that the obsession with productivity contributed to Germany’s imperial aggression and state violence in the 20th century. In his lecture ‘Judenplatz 1010’, Timothy Snyder reminds us that the concept of productivity was used by the Nazis to dehumanise Jews who ‘were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to be murdered when it was judged that the calories they consumed were worth more than the work they produced’. Productivity is wielded as a bludgeon against humanity: ‘This is an artefact of the industrial world: humans who are denied humanity are judged as objects who carry out physical work.’

Under capitalism, most of us are not our productivity because it is appropriated by the capitalist class. Our actions, which are human at heart, serve the capitalist purpose of fuelling economic growth that perpetuates subjugation and precipitates ecological ruin.

Productivity is hypocritically worshipped and weaponised by the rich because they reap the benefits of mass exploitation. In this unfair and unsustainable system, people are alienated from the results of their labour, and their own worth is lost in the process.

Productivity is monetised and domesticated in the capitalist economy. Creative endeavours are harnessed by capitalism and serve its nefarious goals when the worker plays by its rules, which promote fierce competition and protect those in power – the rich subjugate and discipline the poor. Authoritarianism and other social distortions lead to a warped view of humanity with regard to its productive potential and actual output.

Equating productivity with humanity and self-worth is a kind of vulgar behaviourism that benefits the privileged. Actions do shape human nature, and behaviourism is not evil or misguided per se. The problem arises when we define people only through those aspects of their life that can be quantified and integrated into a broken economic mechanism that is destroying not only the environment, but also social relationships. Human behaviour that does not bring profit loses recognition and visibility, whereas toxic productivity comes to the fore.

According to behaviourists, humanity predominantly depends on what people do or do not do. In this view, productivity defines humanity. While it does matter what people do, it should not detract from or augment their humanity. Behaviour might be what makes us human in some complex and multifaceted sense, but it is crucial to acknowledge humanity without relying only on productivity. Humanity should be an all-encompassing option that includes all humans in a society.

All living beings have meaning and significance that cannot be reduced to their service to economy. Once humans overcome this exploitative vision of society and environment, being human will cease to be an exclusive privilege. People need to learn how to live in harmony with each other and nature. Human rights should not entail the devastation of life on Earth to indulge the superiority fantasies of the few affluent individuals who reserve justice and freedom for themselves.

Planting trees and cutting them down can both be seen as productivity. The modern economy introduces a perverse asymmetry to this equation as deforestation is deemed much more profitable than reforestation. There is a way to judge the consequences of productivity as positive in one value system (profit), and negative in another (the environment).

When it comes to the environmental crisis, both conservation and innovation require a different kind of productivity. Growing forests and building green power plants are not neutral options. In the current model, they are not valued for their environmental impact.

A proper judgement should be made of those who extract and burn fossil fuels, and run the economy based on unsustainable growth. Economic productivity measures not only affluence, but also responsibility for the extent of global destruction, from carbon footprint to nuclear waste.

Productivity can be the reverse side of consumption. Being productive could foster consumption. Some business models rely on generating demand for their products. Whether production and consumption are enriching or destructive activities depends on the relationship between human beings and the environment. In an exploitative and extractive economy, productivity and consumption mean both exploitation of other humans and the decimation of nature.

What is rewarded is not always what benefits us and the environment the most. From cultural heritage to investment bankers, our culture and economy erase humanity and nature in favour of wealth and tyranny.

In his book Bullshit Jobs (2018), David Graeber argues there are many jobs that make no sense. Instead of decrying their existence, we could question the economic system that created them by demonstrating that it disrupts the natural relationship between humanity and productivity. If people notice the profound gulf between human and economic worth, they will see that every job is bullshit.

The relentless focus on productivity inevitably motivates the wrong kind of action. When people are free to do what they please, they will not inflict self-defeating damage. Forced to produce the right amount of stuff in an exploitative economy, many people actively undermine the good work of others because of their ineptitude or perverse motivation. If everyone is compelled to work regardless of their preferences, those who want to do something else or wish to sit idly by might cause chaos and devastation. Their forced contribution will not only cancel out the efforts of others, but far exceed them since disruption can be easier to achieve than constructive change. This involuntary destruction is not an aberration, but the very essence of capitalist production.

The understanding that human worth does not equal productivity and that the latter can have catastrophic ramifications should not lead us to believe that we are always better off doing nothing. On the contrary, these insights should motivate people to organise in order to topple the current system of ruthless exploitation and to establish a more harmonious relationship among human beings, and between humanity and the environment.■

Pavlo Shopin is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in the English Department at the University of Freiburg. He comes from Luhansk, Ukraine.

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Anarchy is When You Don’t Want to Become a Politician | Theory

One of the reasons why anarchists are seen as a self-absorbed bunch is that they do not trust the idea of political representation. The media and the powers that be create an illusion that the majority of population are deeply invested in elections and keen to cast their vote for a candidate or a party that would “defend” their interests. Since there is a belief that a liberal democracy empowers its citizens through representation, anarchism is dismissed as an antisocial perspective. This seems to be wrong since it disenfranchises the electorate and widens a rift between state institutions and the public. While many people feel compelled to vote, anarchists are vocally skeptical about the naive enthusiasm around the mindless delegation of power to political elites. Therefore, anarchism is lambasted as a marginal and counterproductive position when it comes to political representation. This criticism is demonstrably false.

There are strong reasons for anarchists to be wary of political representation. Furthermore, the Anarchist view of representation is organically woven into the popular attitudes to politics.

First, elections are open only to eligible voters. To make matters worse, since only a fraction of the elected representatives assumes control over the government, it is always a small minority that decides the crucial outcome of any election. In a liberal democracy, a minority of people elects a tiny group of individuals who run the state. The majority of population does not participate in elections, and most voices are not heard. Anarchists are thus in solidarity with most ordinary people.

Secondly, many voters participate in elections to protest against the elites and challenge the status quo. They see it as an act of resistance and a rebuke to the system. People comply with its operation in the hope that the candidates they elect will destroy it from within. Hence more and more anti-establishment candidates enjoy popularity with disgruntled voters. Anarchists do not disagree that the system needs to change and would be happy to help dismantle it. However, there is a clear recognition that once inside the system political actors will inevitably become part of the establishment and serve the interests of the few to the detriment and subjection of society at large. This has been proven time and time again.

Finally, many people feel that representation does not work and regard as hypocrites any politicians who claim to represent them. While some can be hoodwinked into delegating power and voting in elections, only a tiny minority aspires to become politicians. The establishment are the real fringe that wields power and runs the state apparatus.

Most of us do not seek to become politicians because we recognize the fraudulent nature of representation. If you ask why someone does not wish to be a politician, they will most probably reply that politics is corrupt. Then they might admit they do not think it is a real job and say they hate hypocrisy in which all politicians eventually engage.

It is not rocket science to understand that political representation is a hoax. Not being a politician is a matter of common sense and decency. The refusal to represent others in political institutions is not a rare attitude, but a deep-seated conviction of the vast majority of people.

Anarchists can reach the wider public if they manage to draw attention to this paradox of the human condition: perhaps political propaganda has persuaded a plurality of citizens that voting in elections can be good for them, but the overwhelming majority still intuitively rejects the prospect of becoming a politician. It is one thing to delegate power, and quite another to exercise it over others.

Most of us can tolerate some kind and degree of violence, but ultimately refuse to take responsibility for the brutal oppression of fellow humans. We share the vision that it is inhumane to subjugate others and do not want to be in charge of an unfair and violent system. People can be misled to accept tyranny, but humanity cannot be defeated or fully eradicated – refusing to top the political pyramid is a form of resistance that stems from common human dignity and freedom. Anarchy thus remains at the heart of being human. Colin Ward concludes his book “Anarchy in Action” (1973) by saying that “anarchism in all its guises is an assertion of human dignity and responsibility. It is not a programme for political change but an act of social self-determination.”

In this light, the current populist trend threatens to damage humanity, as more and more people are drawn into political machinery. For those who have bought into the promise of changing government institutions from inside, a reality check is just around the corner: these idealistic contrarians will become the thing they hate – the elite oppressors. Staying away from politics thus means refusing to be a functional cog in the machine. It is an Anarchist principle that most people can appreciate and find sensible.

Anarchy is not the exclusive preserve of a slim minority, but the underlying fabric of society. Ward argues that “an Anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, Nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.”

At their most humane, people are already kind-hearted Anarchists who do not wish to harm and oppress each other. If only more of us could see how misguided and injurious political representation really is. It stifles and constrains our humanity. At the level of intuition, most humans do actually grasp the perverse influence of representation as they do not want to become politicians. ■

Pavlo Shopin is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in the English Department at the University of Freiburg. He comes from Luhansk, Ukraine.

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