Accumulation by Dispossession
In reaction to the new pension plan put forward by British universities, lecturers all over the UK have been on strike for almost a month – and are discussing even more industrial action. This new plan would mark the end of guaranteed pensions funded by the contributions of all lecturers over the UK. Instead pensions would be subject to the fluctuation of the stock market – representing a huge loss for each individual lecturer according to the union. The University of Sussex's Vice Chancellor, Adam Tickell, despite the radical reputation of the university and his own marxist past, stood for the revised pension plan... This made the University of Sussex one of the centers for protest during the strike, leading to a national demonstration organized by Sussex's Student Union (which caused the whole university to close for a day – that's the power of a well shared facebook event!). At the same time, Sussex administration announced that the weekly price of a bed in (what used to be) the cheapest student accommodation on campus would raise from 98 to more than 150 pounds – yes, weekly. This is due to the fact that an extra building is currently in construction – by workers that are actively discouraged from forming a union. The building was occupied by a group of students on the night before the demonstration.
The authors of the following piece just happened to meet on that morning, for a little study session. We are very enthusiastic students and we wouldn't want to stop studying because of some political discord... Moreover we like to apply what we are taught in class to understand the world around us. We sat for a couple of hours with David Harvey's “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession.” (2004) and that's what came out of it.
Why We Will March
As both consumers of knowledge capital, and investors in our own education, we thought it might be useful to bring to your attention the concept of accumulation by dispossession, the precarity it entails both in academia and in the rest of our economy, and the links to the current uprising. While the University of Sussex will be endowed with a shining new car park, it seems that the conditions of teaching and learning are getting quite eroded.
Accumulation by dispossession is the process by which some of us are robbed of our livelihoods, rights and many other precious things of life, which are then utilised as resources for capital accumulation and further inequality. In the context of the education-industrial complex, it takes all sorts of shapes and colours, and it operates at many different levels. Let’s see a few examples.
The changes proposed in the USS pension scheme dispossesses our lecturers of their labour rights, loads of their labour power, their income security and the many things it entails such as the possibility to plan a happy and peaceful retirement. It is accumulation as the money that is produced by our lecturer’s labour will not be spent on them but reinjected in an institution that is increasingly profit-oriented.
This money, by the way, comes from the tuition fees that students have been paying since the 1990s in this country – which force many of us to contract huge debt – that is used as a financial asset allowing for accumulation by financial institutions. We will be devoting many years of our life working to repay these loans. That, plus rising student accommodation fees (kudos here to the students currently occupying East Slope – they got a point) is part of the vicious circle in which we are caught: having to accept jobs in the current flexible regime, in order to pay for our education. Clearly, the University is not a neutral institution. What use is it to be taught radical thinking, and even marxist theory, while we actually participate in this, as consumers of education and investors in a future increasingly flexible and insecure. Is Sussex only radical in its marketing strategies, in the end ? Or is there a way in which we can actually be radical and refuse to participate in accumulation by dispossession ?
And if education is only an investment, could we at least invest in a future that would not be so precarious? Or are we only investing in shiny buildings and cool campus coffee shops? Clearly loads of us would be happy to get free tuition and quality education in less trendy facilities. If even university lecturers – who are arguably more secure than many workers around the world – are still at risk of being undervalued, and if unionisation is the main means by which we can fight against dispossession, what are the hopes for the rest of the workers around campus that make it run and function for us, that are discouraged from unionising and are increasingly put in competition with the many unemployed people that form surplus labour?
From this discussion it seems that precarity is touching all of us. We should recognise this common condition, which runs across classes and occupations, and which intersects with other domination patterns such as racism and sexism. We are all at risk, even though some of us might lose more than others. Let’s not give in to the neoliberal mentality that pervades our institution. Instead, we should recognize precarity as the common condition from which solidarity can emerge.
In and of itself, the current pension dispute is worth being upset about. Our lecturers – committed and talented professional academics as they are – are having their pensions (deferred wages, let’s remember, taken directly from a monthly paycheck) exposed to the risks of the stock market. This is not an arrangement that they agreed to and quite rightly not one that they are going to accept. But, please also consider the broader set of processes of which this is but one manifestation.
Is the public university a site for knowledge capital to be applied on the market by you, its consumer clients, or should it instead – as the university of Sussex’s marketing strategy pitches in principle – be a space of intellectual contention and creativity ? In short, do we acquiesce in a sad cycle of cynicism and apathy? In the very real and present sense, the future of education in the UK, as we know it, is at stake.
This is why we’ll be marching today.