Our Columnist Billy Allen questions the philosophical underpinnings of the current UCU strike
Perhaps I rally against the vogue when I say that I am not too satisfied with the workings of the upcoming academic strike action, proposed in many universities across the UK, UCL of course included, in the next month. After all, as students, we are all frustrated with the potential inconveniences of cancelled lectures and absent professors – yet we are generally, collectively willing to respect the freedom to strike as a basic liberty, and to recognise that the industrial action on show here is of an equitable sort.
I do, of course, believe in the freedom to strike; it is one of many human liberties which is worthy of the strongest, most adamant defence. That freedom is often characterised, however, in terms of our external interactions between people, between institutions, between societies – in other words, striking is as much a “freedom from” as much as we believe it is a “freedom to” act. Now, I will always argue that rights and liberties spring up from within the individual: they are innate. They do not need to be bestowed by others, brought into being by their necessity, or come about because of some oppression against us. They are there and present, and may freely be used by us according to our own will. These are true “freedoms to” – natural liberties without strings attached.
The problem is that these forthcoming strikes by the University & Colleges Union do not strike me as a natural exercise of personal liberty. What is at work, rather, is a collective invocation – a proud ‘call to arms’ by union leaders who operate under the assumption of best interest, rather than the democratic proof of it. It is an old argument, but one worth repeating, that these Union bodies, become, in their bureaucracy, inadequate representatives of their sponsors. They become politicised, and ideologically charged in a way that is add odds of the pragmatic and quotidian attitudes of the individual employee.
Bureaucracy can, of course, be tackled – it requires great effort. It flourishes amid apathy but suffers by the assertion of a strong will. But as it happens, it has not been well tackled. It has been put up with to the extent that the action which UCU has called will be obeyed without too many questions. It has ultimately led to a diminishment of the will to exercise liberty – for instead that liberty is exercised on others’ behalf.
But what is wrong with this ‘collective invocation’, as I call it? We have the issue, as I have said, of the disjunction between Union aims – ideological – and the employees aims – pragmatic. That is problematic. There is also, perhaps, a concern with the whole ‘collectiveness’ of the endeavour. That is to say when all these academics, lecturers and other staff strike, will they be doing so with true personal conviction in their cause, or will they be following a political platform established by the collective whole of strikers? So, there is this issue with personal agency, of being swept up by the masses and left without a clear voice of one’s own.
There is also a matter of context. What a remarkable role-reversal it must seem now to older eyes, that between the teachers and their students, it is the former who are bold enough to rise up against the establishment. Leave aside for the moment the troubling state of affairs that would see the academic arena become so dominated by mercenary concerns, over the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Instead, we might worry about our own lot as students, if we are so worked into the university machine of loans, accommodation, tuition fees and administration – that we have lost our own willingness to strike. Having, we assume, already won most of our desired liberties, the edge has come off of our revolutionary spirit. It is now our own professors who rise against the system, and by unfortunate though undeliberate consequence, ourselves. It is almost a cause for embarrassment.
Finally, and most tooted, any discussion of these strikes should probably discuss academia as a vocation. Maybe this lands me solidly in a reactionary tradition – but I have always numbered professors and researchers among the hard-working doctors, lawyers, statesmen and servicemen of our nation. They give themselves wholly over to the pursuit of knowledge and teaching. Remuneration is in academic achievement whereas pecuniary remittance is subsidiary. These academics, I thought, were a sort of priesthood, who did not draw such clear lines in the sand. It appears, however, that this has changed. Perhaps the hard labourers and primary work of the past has become the employment of intellect and study in the present. I believe it is a product of what economists call a ‘sectoral redistribution’. And as such, the mass workers of the present, sitting in offices at this very moment, carry with them the instinct to resist encroachment as much any other working class – as Marxist as it sounds, it is probably true.
My only final worry, then, rests that the force of ‘class’ action shall force down the intellectualism which is a necessary underpinning of universities everywhere. In adopting freedom from the liberty to earn a decent pay – though, let it be said, no-one should be made to suffer beneath the punitively shallow payslip – there may be the sacrifice of the depth of the culture of academia. Academics must measure such a sacrifice with great care, and ideally, without the coercion of Unions who have, as history as proven, sometimes the right ideas, and sometimes the wrong ones. But to have students sitting idle and somewhat vulnerable in this whole affair is the greatest irony of all. These proposed strikes are a mirror to our natures as students – we have become reticent. The ideal characterisation of the student spirit would be us all out on the streets, campaigning on our professors’ behalf, with a poised despise of the establishment. As it happens, we do not. We peer out of windows, study our computer screens, anxiously wondering what troubling event shall befall us next.