Struggles Against Commodification of the Mind

The free play of the mind has been managerialised. Holding our way of life to account has yielded to accountancy. The logic of the commodity has now penetrated into the sphere of human needs and nurture, breeding pathological symptoms there. In universities, as in transnational corporations, a largely disaffected labour force confronts a finance-obsessed managerial elite (Terry Eagleton, 2009).

Student occupation at the University of Vienna

November 17th marked the twentieth anniversary of the popular uprising in former Czechoslovakia, when thousands of students marched through the streets of Prague on International Students’ Day. Though officially sanctioned by the government, the occasion was used by the student movement to protest against the stale orthodoxy of the Czechoslovak regime, one of the last remaining Communist outposts in Central Europe. Hours later, when news spread of the violent suppression of the demonstration by security forces, the fate of the increasingly hollow regime was effectively sealed, as the event ushered in a remarkable period of popular mobilisation and mass civil disobedience which ultimately led to the regime’s downfall. Twenty years later, with the Czech student body thoroughly depoliticised, one had to look elsewhere however to find traces of the legacy of the International Students’ Day.

Yesterday, in dozens of cities across Europe, thousands of students and teachers took to the streets as part of the Global Week of Action of the Education is Not for Sale network. On that day alone, more than ten German universities together with the Universities of Bern and Zurich in Switzerland were occupied by students, raising the current number of occupations to more than 50. And whilst much of the Western press focused its attention on the rather bland and apolitical celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution enveloped in the self-serving historical narrative of ‘the victory of freedom’, one would be hard pressed to find a single mention in the Anglophone press of these events. One could of course argue that the phenomenon of the largest European-wide wave of student protests since the 1960s does not meet the strict criteria of newsworthiness of the mainstream media…

Die Uni Brennt!

Audimax occupied

Yesterday’s demonstrations, however, are but the most recent manifestation of rather remarkable developments that have radicalised the student movement on campuses throughout Austria and Germany for more than three weeks now. ‘Die Uni Brennt!’ – ‘The Uni’s on Fire!’ is the banner under which thousands of students have taken matters into their own hands, occupying lecture halls to resist the unbearable conditions at their universities. Much like in former Czechoslovakia, where the November 1989 anti-communist movement was spearheaded by students of the Academy of Performing Arts, on October 22, several hundred students of the Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Vienna gathered and spontaneously occupied Austria’s largest auditorium- the “Audimax”. (Hence the term Audimaxismus used to describe the wave of occupations, currently nominated for the Austrian ‘word of the year‘). As the news of the action spread, students from several other departments joined. Sticking to the movement’s metaphor of choice, the occupations spread literally like wildfire to other campuses in Austria, including Graz, Innsbruck and Linz. On Wednesday October 28th, seven days after the initial squatting, Vienna witnessed one of the largest education related rallies in Austrian history, with 40.000 attendants. Within days, the student movement mushroomed into a veritable political force with almost daily media coverage in major newspapers, features on TV news programmes and a heavy internet presence.

Less than two weeks into the Austrian protests, students at a number of  German universities launched solidarity campaigns with their Austrian peers by occupying their own lecture theatres – in Heidelberg, Munster and Potsdam on November 3rd and 4th and later spreading to Dresden, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and many more.  New occupations are taking place almost by the hour – while writing this article, students at Hannover, Kassel, Regensburg and Augsburg universities joined in, raising the current number to more than 50 (see map of all occupations here). The majority of the occupations have met little resistance from authorities, though in Tuebingen, Marburg and Muenster students were forcefully evicted by the police.

Some might argue that there is nothing essentially novel about these protests. Sporadic university occupations occur regularly throughout Europe (and elsewhere), only to peter out after a few days, usually achieving none of their original goals. But there does seem to be a fundamental difference in what is currently happening in Austria and Germany. With almost a month into their occupation (or liberation – as some prefer to call it), students at the University of Vienna are at the forefront of the movement and have in many ways set the standards for protests emulated elsewhere.

Given the fact that the occupation is not centrally organised by the student union nor managed by traditional political parties, the movement is a real-time experiment in direct participatory democracy. From the very beginning, the students have managed to create an extremely resilient and efficient (if at times frustrating) democratic system of internal governance. The driving engine behind the movement are the self-organized action groups that organise everything from a public kitchen, first aid, press contact to legal consulting and the planning of daily events. In addition, more than a hundred working groups have been formed, whose main aim is the discussion of strategic and content related issues. All key decisions are taken in daily plenary sessions on the basis of proposals submitted by working groups, subject to democratic voting procedures (one vote per student present) – these are streamed live online (at times watched by several hundred people at a time). Daily events include public discussions of strategic issues, lectures, film-screenings, poetry-readings, concerts and many more alternative cultural and educational activities, planned for days, even weeks, in advance. Outside the Audimax, the movement is particularly good at rapidly mobilising people for spontaneous protests in the streets, flashmobs and other forms of direct action. In sum, their organically evolving system of democratic governance, creativity, efficient use of extremely limited resources, emphasis on transparency, democratic participation and gender equality put the senior management of the university and Austria’s political establishment to shame. (The former’s first response was to charge the students of costing the university 25 000 euros a day. As the Austrian writer Robert Misnik put it – money well spent!).

The students have taken Austria’s political elites by complete surprise. They can no longer be easily dismissed as a fringe student movement consisting solely of empty political slogans pronouncing the ‘death of capitalism’. But this makes their cause no less radical. Hundreds of stakeholders – faculties and research institutes, individual academics from around the world, trade unions, politicians and artists – have formally expressed their solidarity with the struggle. So what are the students struggling for? While much of the anger is directed at the Conservative minister for education Johannes Hahn, the movement is the culmination of discontent with the creeping commercialisation of education that has been brewing for years.

The students have articulated a detailed list of demands. The basic demands (elaborated in much more detail on their website) consist of:

1) Academic formation rather than simple job training
2) Free entry to university-level education
3) Democratisation of the universities
4) Full funding of the universities
5) The Disability Equality Act must be effectuated at all universities in order to allow for a barrier-free studying
6) The precarious working conditions for university personnel must be put to a stop
7) We call for a 50 % proportion of female staff at all levels and universities

The Commercialisation of Public Education

Of course, the developments in Austria are far from unique. All across Europe public education is under threat. The British higher education system in particular is facing many of the same structural pressures guided by the neoliberal agenda of the so-called EU Bologna process, intensified by the present economic recession. Already, “Ministers have already ordered universities and colleges to make £400m in efficiency savings”, despite the fact that “universities generated more than £59bn for the economy in 2007-08” – more than any other public sector. With more budget cuts scheduled for the coming years, around 6000 jobs are at risk with a potentially devastating impact on the quality of teaching and research, according to the University and College Union.

It’s not just a matter of funding however. Many of the hard-won democratic reforms and rights that were put in place in the wake of the 1960s student movement(s) are being rolled-back through the introduction of tuition fees, proliferation of managerial reforms that can only be described as bureaucratic authoritarianism, cuts in public funding and a consequent dependence on the corporate sector. The result is an emphasis on the ‘usefulness of knowledge’ (read: useful to business and government), students treated as consumers (without formal consumer rights, that is) and the neoliberal mantra of ‘cost-efficiency’ and fiscal ‘sustainability’. More than half a century ago, members of the Frankfurt School described this proliferation of instrumental rationality throughout society as the “colonisation of the lifeworld”, a process that inevitably leads to the stifling of critical debate and turns seemingly autonomous institutions into instruments or power and domination. Hence the call for a re-democratisation of the university.

But there’s no need for theoretical speculation here – the plans are clear and explicit. Only last month, Lord Mandelson spelled out his vision for the future of higher education in the UK:

Expanding investment means universities will have to deepen and diversify their sources of non-public income through commercialisation of their teaching or research expertise, through a more professional approach to endowments and through greater resource efficiency.

In an essay entitled ‘Death of the Intellectual’, the eminent British philosopher Terry Eagleton describes the state of academia in the following words:

By and large, academic institutions have shifted from being the accusers of corporate capitalism to being its accomplices. They are intellectual Tescos, churning out a commodity known as graduates rather than greengroceries.

Utility is now the touchstone of reality, in which case one might as well give up reading Macbeth: the witches’ cursing simply can’t be quantified. One can foresee the future of this situation easily enough. Before too long, academics will be offering students a menu: £80 for their most world-shaking insights; £45 for some bright but not brilliant stuff; £15 for a standard range of ideas. As far as marking essays goes, a fiver for each comment doesn’t seem too excessive. Eagerly anticipating these developments, I already have a slot on my office door into which students must insert a pound coin simply to gain admission. Since they can’t afford to buy books, I have launched a rather profitable little lending scheme.

Anyone who has spent some time at a British university will no doubt find Eagleton’s scenario eerily realistic. So why hasn’t the movement spread to campuses in the UK? On the one hand, with student politics on campus monopolised by orthodox Marxist political parties and a National Union of Students dominated by New Labour affiliates, the short-term prospects for a student uprising look bleak indeed. On the other hand, only several months ago, students in Britain were by and large the only ones in the whole of Europe who showed their solidarity with the people of Palestine during Israel’s war on Gaza, as a wave of occupations swept through the country, forcing some universities to divest from Israeli companies and put in place scholarships for Palestinian students.

Students and Social Change

What is at stake in the struggle over public education as spaces for critical thinking is once again put succinctly by Eagleton:

Whereas critique assesses actuality in the light of possibility, measuring the indicative by the yardstick of the subjunctive, the ambition of advanced capitalism is not simply to combat radical ideas, or even to discredit them. It is to abolish the very notion that there could be a serious alternative to the present.

Whether or not the wave of ‘Audimaxismus’ in Austria will translate into real policy change is an open question. For now, the movement shows no signs of abating but how long this will last too remains uncertain. And here the students harbour few illusions. Most are well aware that the immediate problems they are facing in their classrooms and lecture halls are but a symptom of much larger, complex webs of power relations and technologies of domination that permeate through the social order as a whole. To quote Eagleton again:

Universities can’t be changed in isolation. To prise them loose from the grip of late capitalism, we need a society that can afford free education for its young people and academic independence from private interests. This means transforming the economic system that currently syphons off billions of pounds for shareholder profits, fat-cat salaries, weapons, offshore tax scams, useless commodities and a good deal more.

This is a burden students alone cannot carry, and neither should they. At the very least, however, students in Austria have shown that collective struggle, so often proclaimed to be a thing of the past in the age of postmodernity, remain the only means of awakening the public from its collective slumber of complacency. Their struggle against the commodification of the mind is a continuation of the historical legacy of the international students’ movement to which we owe many of the freedoms that we so often take for granted. And for that reason alone they deserve our respect and support.


For more information, updates, videos, etc. about the protests in Austria visit their website.

For more on the same in Germany go here.

You can sign a petition in support of the occupation here.

Watch the live-stream from Audimax here

Join the english or german facebook group.

See the (incomplete) map of occupied universities.

Support the strike at UC Berkley

(see Judith Butler’s article in The Guardian for more on this)

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