Coloniality in/and the Disputes in UKHE
In their recent text Spent Behind the Wheel, Julie Hua and Kasturi Ray present the bewildering case of a legal action taken against the city’s regulatory Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). The TLC had authorised the creation of a driver-managed health insurance pool “wherein six cents of the driver’s cut of every fare would be placed in a fund to pool drivers into an employee-health-insurance plan” (p. 49). Crucially, the plan would have had no adverse effect on fares or on lease fees. Nevertheless, the city’s largest (private) leasing companies filed a suit against the TLC, for overstepping its authority. The leasing companies’ actions makes sense, according to Hua and Tay, “only if what the leasing companies are trying to protect is their complete control over driver lives” (p. 50). The question of whether the owners could afford such an initiative became a question of whether the workers deserved it.
It may be difficult, indeed uncomfortable, to view the ongoing industrial action in UKHE within the same frame as labour struggles in the passenger driving economy. Indeed, too many of us are still happy enough to persevere in the pretence of being removed from the degradation of work elsewhere. But the insistence on this fundamental separation is the manifestation of a colonial logic. And we persist in it at our own peril.
To comprehend academic work within the same frame as passenger driving is not to suggest an equivalence between the form or conditions of labour, but rather to assert the singular logic that underlies that all present forms of economic activity - i.e. the logic of coloniality. We know that the role of capital is to create more and more forms of degradation in order to extract more and more value. The logic of coloniality, however, reveals the lines along which degradation, or devaluation, proceeds.
What we are witnessing in the current disputes in UKHE pertains not only to capital’s relentless drive to produce an ever-expanding pool of extractable life – but more, importantly, to the work of coloniality in preserving the distinction between value (i.e. all that associated with rationality) and null-value (i.e. all that appears in excess of rationality, and is associated with the body/affect). The association of the academy with knowledge production – i.e., with rational activity – has accorded it an ethical regard/value not available to physical or affective forms of work, such as passenger driving.
It is scarcely surprising then that, by and large, academic workers (are made to) imagine themselves and their conditions of labour, as fundamentally distinct from those of the “lower orders”. These imagined “lower orders” are made up of ranks of people whose “lives [are] valuable only insofar as they enable other, independently valuable lives to flourish” (Hua and Ray, p. 76). Historically, these have been racial, gendered, sexual and disabled Others made subject to capital, their “liveliness” (p. 88) is extractable to serve human flourishing. It is as such, that all forms of minoritized lives have historically been deemed unfit for, and therefore barred from, the ‘world-building’ intellectual work of the academy.
And even in the present moment, when such exclusions are more opaque, the academy remains cocooned in white, middle-class sensibilities of difference and removal from (the possibility) of degradation. Yet, the role of precariatisation – whether through casualisation, workload intensification or pay depletion – is to establish a vast range of activities conducted in the university as physical-affective, so that they may be authorised as extractible.
This is evident in the tenor of communications from VCs/Principals/UUK – recall the unnamed VC’s statement: “I don’t care if it’s bloody, as long as the blood spills within the union”, or our own Principal’s insinuation that workers cannot fully grasp the matters at hand: “proposals from Universities UK [are] perhaps not fully understood”. This insistence from management that the dispute is based on emotion rather than understanding – and the sordid suggestion that we can be made to understand and behave only through the use of force – is fundamental to the operation of colonial power and its intent to degrade.
It is not catastrophising to note, then, that the current UKHE dispute is part of the “slow long slaughter” (to borrow from L.A. taxi driver “James”, quoted in Hua and Ray) of university workers through the management’s imposition of “complete control over [workers’] lives” (p. 50). One only need look over at the HE landscape in the United States to see how this power operates to produce a deeply stratified workforce – the masses of adjunct/precarious workers (nearly 75%) who are paid poverty wages and have no health insurance (representing teaching as service work) and whose worn away “liveliness” is mere collateral damage in the flourishing of bloated ranks of administrators – those that claim the rational capacities to truly comprehend things, including, no doubt, what is best for workers – "justly" rewarded with 6- and 7-figure salaries and gold-plated health care and pension plans. (See also this on: Australian Unis Wage Theft)
Do we truly believe that the UK is immune from this? (watch how these VCs justify their pay) Are we really that removed from the situation wherein senior managers and academics deemed “world-class” will be appointed at astronomical pay with elite pension and health care plans (recall the NHS is also under attack – and universities are poised to claim staff health care as an added financial burden) while the rest are pushed further and further into disposability?
This is why it is so galling that Universities seem to believe that EDI work can continue alongside this degrading dispute. Who benefits from stratified labour other than the generally white, wealthy and abled? What meaning can diversity, equality and inclusion have if it is to be solely in the realm of extractability and disposability?