A month in and still ongoing, the UCU industrial action has created an ebb and flow of energy, of optimism and defeat, disillusionment and disdain, the will to fight and the desire to surrender. So much has happened in the past few weeks and it doesn’t seem to be stopping.
The intensity of this struggle, in my opinion, is not merely a reflection of strength, of our will and desire to get a collective win. It is a more so the conditions of our life, at work and beyond, that make the action feel so weighty. The action has created the possibility for a dissident space that seeks to rebuild and empower from a place of loss, of a cheapened sense of self.
In Capitalism in the Web of Life, Jason Moore argues that the primary requirement for the functioning of capital, and therefore the central strategy of modern power, is the production and appropriation of ‘Cheap Nature’ – i.e. cheap labour power, cheap food, cheap energy and cheap raw-materials. This is not exploitation – this is a step prior; the condition of possibility, in fact, for exploitation. It is the cheapening of all ‘life’ – life, in the deepest and most expansive sense – so that it can legitimately be exploited by and for capital. The act of cheapening is primary to exploitation.
Such cheapening, no doubt, engenders (the feeling of) precarity – so that, confronted by so deep a threat of loss of self and of life, one is willing to subject oneself to forces of exploitation in order to pre-empt loss. Of course, what neoliberal capital does so well – through notions of hard-work and merit, development and progress – is individualises the experience of precarity and, thus too, the fight against it. Because the more one fights against precarity the cheaper we risk making ourselves.
Precarity, then, is a concerted strategy to disallow collectivity and solidarity. In this circumstance, the fight against precarity must be the fight to create and maintain the conditions for solidarity. This, as I see it, has been the power and triumph – even if limited – of the action, evident nowhere more than the student solidarity actions.
At various points, in the lead-up to and during the strikes, employers called on staff to uphold their moral duty to students and to refrain from any action that would cause them to suffer. This demand for the fulfilment of duty and the assumption of suffering was embedded even in the terms of the comprise offered to striking staff. Yet, the solidarity actions demonstrated a clear understanding of how such arguments, that pit the wellbeing of students against the wellbeing of instructors, rely on a false moral economy.
The moralistic language of duty, of harm and suffering, further individualises the experience of precarity and our responses to. It projects the image of wilfulness rather than willingness – a will, in fact, to fairness and justice. Yet the nation-wide student actions recognised this cynicism of employers in appealing to our sense of duty while simultaneously eroding the conditions under which we can fulfil these.
To be sure, student actions refused the normalisation of employer conduct, putting to rest the notion that students have narrow interests – that they care only about classes and grades; that they view themselves as a-historical beings, without a past and a future outside and beyond their role as students, uninterested in and unaffected by the social and political contexts of the worlds they occupy. Instead, student action reclaimed academic space as one that exceeds the curricular and is concerned – or at least must be concerned – with ‘conscientization’.
Thus, the success of the strike, such as it has been, follows not only from a resistance to cheapening but more importantly from an ethics of care – from the active use and negotiation of our collective power, rather than a divestment of it; from the undertaking of individual and collective action that seeks to build community rather than that which merely antagonises the opposition.
Precarity and the moralistic discourses associated with cheapened life seek to weaken the possibility of solidarity. But the history of progress is that of striking solidarity between those who would otherwise be divided.
** cover image from: Women's Strike 2018