From self-education to self-valorization

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Should we grow roots within the university, or rather desert it? This question – which widely circulates amongst social movements, especially when they do not exist – runs the risk to be misleading. In other words, it runs the risk to lead to the choice between fanciful, perspectiveless controversial issues and an illusory self-organization which lacks force relations. Therefore, we need to radically displace such a question, just as we did by escaping the false dilemma between uncritical pro-Europe supporters and nostalgic anti-Europe critics.

Let's start from a matter of fact: someone has actually abandoned the university in the last few years. Thousands of young people. After all, when the University National Council has released its latest data – a decline of 50.000 enrolments – we were not surprised. For us, the crisis of global university and the dismissal of the Italian have been for a long time more than just hypotheses. Rather, we saw them as a fully deployed tendency. And those chancellors who talk about a collapse of universities deserve nothing more than a harsh satire: as if this this rout was not their responsibility! That said, we know just as well that understanding the tendency is not sufficient. The political problem is how to act upon it. To tackle the issue, let's take a step back to try, then, taking two steps forward.

The lost battle...

If we want to find a name to summarize the Anomalous Wave blocking point, here it is: meritocracy. The mistake was to approach it as a mere ideology, which was enough to deconstruct, or which could be substituted with another ideology. As we sketched in the previous editorial, though, the problem was – and still is, to a certain extent – to grasp the specific ambivalence of the uncanny meritocratic claim, between justicialist drives and confused class-based instances. In the end: after having accomplished the work of demystification and grappled with its material core – made of precariousness and deskilling – we were not able to build on that instance in a radically opposed way. The retreat to the defence of the public sector by some segments of the movement did not represent an expansion of consensus. Quite the opposite, it has been identified – not without good reasons – with the protection of the constituted powers of the public sector. So, once abandoned constituent practices and watchwords, the field has been occupied by invocations of judges and handcuffs to get revenge over corrupts and barons.

In just two years, until the “No Gelmini” and December 14th, 2010, things have rapidly changed, following the rhythm of a crisis which bites ever more ferociously, but also of new subjects who claim their freedom of speech – those we have defined second generation precarious workers. The meritocratic claim has lost its value and meaning for those who have problems in thinking about a future putatively stolen by a few corrupts, since they actually never heard a future!

The second generation precarious worker has never known the one-on-a hundred who, by working hard and following the rules, has deservedly obtained social recognition and a decent academic career. To the contrary, s/he is surrounded by stories of those who are “failures” before the system's eyes, whereas deskilling and precariousness are not a possible bitter discovery, but a certain starting point. In this brief but intense period, however, also self-education – namely the main practice of autonomy and conflict within the university in the 2000s – consumed itself. Paradoxically, it experienced its crisis exactly when it became a mass movement, that is to say when it embodied the separation from the public institutions. At that crossroad, though, either such a practice could pose the issue of “double power” inside and against the university, or it would be reduced to a blunt weapon. We know how things went. Starting from this, political interventions in the university – but more generally in the knowledge factory – cannot simply be rethought: they clearly need to be reinvented.

... and the open war

Following this path, it is important to understand why there is a (yet) numerically small but increasing tendency toward the abandonment of the university (the trend can be detected at a global scale, confirming that, beyond the peculiarities of the Italian case, we are not talking about an incomparable anomaly). Let's try to grasp, then, the motives of people who decide not to go to university. Doubtlessly, in a situation marked by constant impoverishment, economic difficulties provide an explanation: the issue does not only concern tuition fees, but also expenses for services, rent, food and books. And yet, we do not think that this explanation is exhaustive. In particular, we do not think that there is a return to traditional mechanisms of social exclusion – which would politically imply a renewed struggle for social inclusion. What really matters is that university is devalued first and foremost for those who are included in it, and consequently loses every attractiveness towards those who need to decide whether to enter it or not. Here, value is to be understood in a twofold way: what gets consumed is both the value of labour power and that of the very meaning of the educational and academic experience. On the first aspect we have repeatedly insisted. Now we need to highlight the second.

The Bologna Process has intensified the rhythms and pulverized knowledge by attacking those forms of sociality and circulation which were not a corollary, but rather the core of the academic experience. The term neo-Taylorism is at the very least ambiguous since it recalls the idea of a linear continuity which must, instead, be put to question politically even before than sociologically. Upon that supposed continuity, in fact, are built forms of organization and representation which are, today, either unusable or openly opposed to ours. That said, we should not make the symmetrical mistake of imagining a naturally expansive and progressive function of knowledge as such. What we are witnessing is a banalization of knowledge which is above all functional to the production of a conformist subjectivity, and only secondarily to the needs of labour flexibility. Tu put it otherwise, the production of the “precarious man” precedes and instantiates precariousness. This is why, far from being the solution, social inclusion is actually the problem.

Obviously, within this general tendency the are differences to be assessed through inquiry and eventually understood: humanities students are not the same as hard sciences students, a certain university is not the same as another one, let alone the crucial social conditions from which one starts. What will happen, though, when the illusions linked to specializations (often inhabited by a proletarian composition looking for social redemption) will impact the materiality of processes of deskilling and loss of meaning? So, we could reverse the question concerning the decrease of enrolments and ask ourselves why do people still enrol to a university marked by this twofold devaluation. We do not know the answers: perhaps someone decided to consume in such a way the the last remains of familial welfare; others may think the can postpone for a few years the confrontation with precariousness and unemployment; others might still preserve some hope for social mobility; others simply want to find some resisting spaces of sociality and knowledge circulation. It is not difficult to hypothesize that at this level it is necessary to look for diffused forms of resistance, subterranean and as yet incapable to assume a collective dimension, from which to start in order to reinvent practices of political intervention.

Again, we came back within the university. How to trace, – from here holding the place – constituent lines of flight which are potentially able to compose those who decided to stay out and those who decided to stay in?

Situating ourselves along the frontiers

Self-education was elaborated and practised within a university in which the tendency towards the crisis was already legible but not fully verified. It was situated in the backlash of the expansion of educational institutions, in the terminal promises of social mobility, in the last pieces of an illusion. Today, the challenge is in a certain sense the same: we need to go beyond the division between knowledge production, transmission, circulation, and consumption. It is of no use to pose the problem in ideological terms – for example, through the uninteresting issue of whether or not lectures should be frontal of not, or the geometric disposition of those who speak and those who listen in a room. As if horizontality were a starting point and not exactly what is at stake, as if capitalism did not develop through the production of inequalities and hierarchies. The problem, then, is the construction of a new process of cooperation and knowledge production as founded on the common. What changes, however, are the co-ordinates within which this problems is situated. The process of cooperation must spread on a metropolitan plane and use the university as a place of political intensification. It must, above all, smash and invert the loss of meaning of the academic experience.

Let's advance a hypothesis, to be enriched by practical experimentations and approximations: the task is shifting from self-education to self-valorization. As a consequence, we need to provide an organizational form to co-operatively produced knowledge, to build up a new meaning of academic experience as a whole, to aggregate in common spaces those who are inside the university and those who are outside (because they do not enter or because they abandon it, or else because they finished it and now face the uselessness of the piece of paper they acquired in the ruins). How can precarious students or physicians, researchers and graduates who make a living through mini-jobs, cognitive or factory workers, artists or geeks who have never gone to the university – how can all these people create a common space in which to valorize and rethink their knowledge, in which to construct new knowledge, in which to collectively question the segmentation which defines the technical hierarchy of labor? Shifting to self-valorization means not only to question the forms of knowledge organization within a given place – the academic institution – but also to affirm that both that knowledge and that place have been emptied. Shifting to self-valorization means not only to produce new knowledge, but also refusing the existing one, based on a banalization through which subjection is conveyed.  Shifting to self-valorization obviously means to immediately pose the issue of re-appropriation of welfare and income. As was already the case with self-education, also in this case the prefix “self” is profoundly ambivalent, within the historically determinate relationship between neoliberal rhetoric and autonomy of cooperation, between individualism and the common. We need to situate ourselves within this ambivalence, to melt it into the construction of autonomy, to combine rupture and constituent process. This is, perhaps, the way through which we can imagine the positive recomposition of the radical critique of meritocracy.

All this – and here we come back to the initial question – we cannot do by exclusively staying within the university, namely by defending the last remnants of a public sector which is almost completely privatized. All this we cannot do by exclusively staying outside the university, namely by abandoning a space of condensation of labor power and of possible application of force. This is why we should situate ourselves along the frontiers between university and metropolis. These frontiers have already been made porous by the circulation of living knowledge and by capitalist apparatuses of capture. These frontiers can become the constructing site of autonomy. Here it is possible to organize the lines of flight towards the outside in order to hit inside, and vice versa.

“Where they destroy, we build up”, is the watchword used by Milan-based Ex-Cuem. Yes, the way to go is exactly this.


* Translation by Emanuele Leonardi.