“The university is a factory”, we hear this cry everywhere, sometimes as a declaration and accusation of contempt, shouting out to the world. “This isn’t how it’s meant to be. Once universities were pure places of learning and research, serving all of society, before neoliberalism and capitalism ruined it all”. Often there is the corollary “Shut it down” for by ceasing its productivity by force may we hold it to ransom demanding change. Sometimes people shout, “The University is not a factory!” as if the changes they protest are the turning point of transformation, and if only they are stopped then the university will remain pure and unsullied.
Both of these twin delusions are wrong, but there is a third meaning. Often overlooked but obvious once the surface is scratched and that is the university is a factory and it has always been a factory! Never has the university been a place of pure academic and intellectual pursuits, serving and bettering society, but unsullied by crass material demands. But rather once it was a strong hold of the elites, producing the knowledge needed by the upper classes to cement their rule both over the workers in their homeland and in their colonies taken through bloody murder.
It produces the officers, administration and owners arming them with the knowledge needed to rule with an iron fist, and to justify their actions to themselves and to those they have crushed. Now it produces all this and more. It creates industries to be the sites of exploitation, it streamlines the process by which exploitation takes place. No knowledge is born that is not enclosed, stolen and turned to poison regardless of the potential it holds to liberate and enrich us all. It produces workers as far as you can see burdened with debt to make them fearful, forcing them to take any work and be grateful. Convinced that if they merely keep their head down to the grind stone and they’ll get to do what they love, but if be some chance they do manage to realise that dream then due to the fear of debt and loss they will except nearly any conditions with smile. In this way dreams become nightmares and purposeful action becomes the shuffle of a zombie.
It may seem from this that it is better not to go to university, but no. This trap reaches us all even if we do not step into its halls of industrial learning. For if you do not go, if you do not gain the hallowed piece of paper declaring your knowledge, your chains of debt and the fear of debt then you are worth so much less. As a lesser person, of course you don’t know enough or cannot work hard enough to really understand and engage in society and then be awarded the “good jobs”. So you must be grateful for whatever scraps you get and if you get none, well stop being greedy.
For these reasons merely shutting down the university factory is not enough, for the reforms this may bring will merely give us a temporarily kinder factory until reform is eroded. That is not to say such reforms will not help, but ultimately they will fail and they will never be enough. That is not to say they will not buy time or that temporary relief is worth nothing, for some it gives breathing room needed to prevent suffocation but it will never be enough. So if there is no golden age for university to return to, what is to be done? Burn it down! Not in the fire of the phoenix which brings rebirth and renewal, for we must not strive merely for a renewed and reborn university factory but instead with the fire that destroys a structurally unsafe house which has already claimed many lives. Once the failures of the past have been burnt away then something truly worthwhile can be built in its place. A form of education which liberates rather than furthering oppression, where knowing is not created merely for enclosure but for the common benefit of all and where learning not the creation of terrified workers ready for the rote intellectual labour of bureaucracy is the aim.
But just as the university factories’ life and purpose is inseparable from the function of capitalism, so is the struggle against it inseparable from the struggle against capitalism. So the struggle of the student and the worker is inseparable, for what is a student but a worker who has been duped in paying for his own training and fooled into gratitude? What is study but labouring to recreate yourself as a better worker? Even without this students work, whether it be waged labour to support themselves, unpaid academic labour without which the factory could not run, or the ever present but never recognised labour of social reproduction. As the worker is alienated from their labour the student is alienated from their knowledge, the worker from their knowledge and the student from their labour.
So if we wish to succeed in making education everything we wish it be, we must fight for so much more than merely education and against something much great than the university factory. The cancer of the university factory is but a symptom and the cure is not easy.
As a student you have some of the greatest freedom in your use of time of any worker, yes there are deadlines and registers but there is no boss breathing over your shoulder. Your pay cannot be docked for you are not paid for your labour but rather have agreed to pay for the honor of giving it in the future and in the mean time you have a loan. All of this is because your work has been disappeared and while this hurts you it give you more freedom to attack that which is killing us all. So use your time within the university factory not to remake yourself as the perfect fearful worker grateful for scraps but rather use it learn how to fight. Take advantage of the resources made available for your labour and turn them against their masters. Take journals of politics, chemistry, biology, physics and military theory, to name a few examples, that most would never see and expropriate them. This goes not just for students but every worker in the university factory; steal back your labour! Engage in the struggles within the university which will aid in setting the ground for the destruction of the interlinked and interdependent oppressions which the university factory is only a symptom of. Lastly never forget that you are a worker and, if there is to be any hope, all workers and those whose denial of access to the means of production is needed for capitalism to function must stand together against the owning class, united in struggle. Always remember the aim is not to reform but make something new where knowledge is held in common and all have access to the means of production both materially and intellectual.The university is a factory, burn it down! Society is a factory, burn it down! Let us build a better one in its place.
Toni Belly (Plan C Birmingham)