My friend goes to a leaving party in a bar in a trendy part of the city. It is for an academic he knows at a big university. Many of her colleagues are there, including a woman who works in admin, in the department of the academic who is leaving. She is there with her boyfriend. They are dressed in hipster retro-rocker style fashion, with tattoos and 1950s rock’n’roll clothes.
The boyfriend, who works for a major international company, begins to explain how he hates diversity workplace policies and that ‘a lot of people are getting really angry about it’. He says he has a ‘yellow boss’. My friend walks away. The evening continues. An hour passes and more booze is consumed.
The admin staff member and her boyfriend then corner my friend and start asking him about his politics. They ask him why, if he is so into LGBT politics, he doesn’t like President Trump who has enshrined LGBT rights in law. They keep pushing. They ask for my friend’s views about the ‘oppression of women in the Middle East’. They bring up the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandals. They carry on pushing.
The entire conversation is a string of extreme right-wing talking points and English Defence League tropes. Exasperated with my friend’s unwillingness to engage, the hipster retro-rocker boyfriend finally asks my friend to define his politics. My friend answers, ‘I’m a communist’. The boyfriend becomes enraged and starts to jab his finger at him, saying, ‘You’re fucking shit you are! You deserve to get battered!’ and ‘I should batter you right now…’ He storms out of the bar, and his girlfriend says to my friend ‘he is right, you are scum…’
Stunned, my friend stands there before leaving the bar, loudly calling out ‘He’s a fascist! This guy is a fascist!’
OK, it was a boozy university party, not a scientific study. But the divide between back room and academic staff has always been pronounced in universities and many middle class academics seem blind to the full extent of the populist rightwing turn.
The social world inside these liberal pockets is hypersensitive to anything that might be interpreted as a slur against difference, at the same time as it is almost completely desensitised to class. Not only this, but the quality of discourse that many working class people find perfectly acceptable, with all of its frankness and factory floor language, is not just frowned upon, but policed in the middle class liberal atmosphere of the university. There are serious consequences for those detected, and ultimately ejection from the rarefied atmosphere, unless behaviour is modified.
Habermas’s ‘communicative competence’, the idea that ‘communicative situations’ can be created where all have an equal say in a public sphere, has become grimly relevant again.
Habermas explained how the Public Sphere emerged through the late 17th and 18th century and then on into the cultural explosions of the 19th century, where it was finally eaten away by capital and privatisation. But Habermas’s communicative competence, if it ever worked as a theory, has historically buckled. Communicative competence always arrived on the odourless breeze of neo-Kantianism. Habermas’s work in many ways tallies with the whole Euro-project that is now collapsing, its idealistic desire and its terrible failings.
The idea that ‘communicative situations’ can be created where all have equal say, equal access to cultural capital and vocabulary, is what universities strive to put in place. But wishing it into being is a naive hope.
However, there is much to say on the current ‘communicative situations’ to be found all around us in universities. I’m getting a strong sense that the more right wing opinions are becoming emboldened and getting out there, in the public sphere.
In the spirit of a more materialist philosophy, and against the neo-Kantianism of Habermas, I want to begin again with those actually existing historical examples. Here then, are some more recent scenes from university life.
I go to an event in a trendy part of the city. I see someone I know and she greets me with a kiss on both cheeks, saying, ‘I have to greet people Euro-style now’. ‘Virtue-signalling’, saying or signifying something ‘right on’, became a handy term for the right to hit liberals with recently. After Brexit, virtue-signalling is taking on new forms, and here is one of them.
Later, I’m in a discussion group at an evening class. The topic is immigration and one of the attendees says ‘why would you let the enemy in? The muslims?’ Later on, an academic colleague describes how in Mein Kampf, Hitler makes comments on the Austro-Hungarian state he grew up in, claiming that it was intolerably diverse. The connection between this and the comment made in the discussion group arrives as a physical, adrenal spike. I shiver.
For some reason, at this point I remember how I took one of my research informants to an academic event, a working class guy. He was wearing a hoodie and jeans. Some people stared. My informant started to feel out of his depth. He seemed to be visually shrinking in front of me. He couldn’t concentrate on our conversation and started drinking faster. Eventually, he said, ‘this isn’t my kind of place’ and left.
Days roll on with unremarkable banality, in the fog of my own interior monologue. Then suddenly I’m talking with academic colleagues and one starts to rail against ‘toxic masculinity’. This discussion then turns into a narrative of disgust over how males are reacting to their disempowerment.
The negative afterimage to virtue-signalling can be found in this kind of dialogue: Although the university will swarm around particular kinds of behaviour and condemn it as offensive, that same behaviour can be found in this kind of ‘back room’ situation, which the sociologist Erving Goffman described; ties loosened, speaking freely to friends in the university café.
Only this ‘speaking freely’ is directed precisely at those the university would clamp down on for speaking freely like this, were they doing so audibly in the university space. The grubby, classed subject with their potentially racist opinions, Reddit account and coarse manners.
The hypocrisy here is deep. They may never directly say that those people are inferior, but the dialogues themselves say it clearly enough. ‘New men’ who ‘get feminism’ being withering about those who don’t still sounds toxic to me whether you call it masculine or not. At the same time universities preen and posture over their supposed openness and tolerance, completely blind to the presence of fascist staff members.
To be clear, I engaged in this conversation as actively as everyone else. I am not free from contradiction, only for me, the contradiction is precisely where philosophy begins, not where it ends.
But we have to pause and consider what else is at play here. The post-industrial classes, astray, in post-industrial zones, are the collateral victims of the movements of capital. So when somebody asks them to ‘get with the programme’, what is also being asked of them?
Can I please be present when the people asking them to get with the new social programme find themselves redundant and behind the curve, precisely at a time in their life when they least need that?
Because that’s what we are dealing with here: There is an implicit but omnipresent assumption that people bring themselves ‘up to scratch’ in terms of their cultural capital and behaviour in order to sell their labour by the hour in a marketplace. If it isn’t up to scratch they don’t go to market and are sneered at by those who do. Or rather, ‘they’ get a very particular set of marketplaces for their caste. Universities, with their increasing focus on ’employability’, are training people to leave their caste. The unspoken corollary is that this redundant caste must wither and die as all that is solid evaporates and god help it if it tries to enter the university on its own terms.
‘Professionalism’ is a big problem here. It is not a neutral category, a stable place of correct discourse. It is a petty bourgeois mode of communication. Respect and respectfulness are not neutral universal categories either. They are produced by the middle classes, as is professionalism. To ask one to not live in one’s symptoms was what modernity was all about, and that is still with us: Those who differed from the produced norm were not just sidelined by the Nazi or Stalinist regime.
Of course, that is a very extreme parallel to make. Universities have a deep phobia of morality, preferring a discourse around ‘ethics’. But in ethical departmental meetings this is boiled down to a tick sheet list of oaths that look like morals. The way the liberal mode of communication operates within university spaces is a de facto morality.
I encountered this in relation to my first ethnographic work, Small Towns, Austere Times, when lecturing to Anthropologists who talk the good talk about multiple voices and modes of ethnography, but then clamp down on the classed subject siding with his own tribe as unethical. When their ethics and my ethics clash, and they point the finger at my ethics, they make a moral, not an ethical judgement. Mark Fisher described this ‘grim’ situation:
‘…where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate…’
Ethos, ethnography, ethics: Ethos is the spirit of culture or geist; ethnography is a writing (graph) of that spirit of culture; but ethics is still defined as a morality, pretty much everywhere except in university culture. The way ‘ethics’ is written into university culture is as something that is neither moral nor amoral. It is portrayed as flexible, open and inclusive, and yet still acts as a stable floor to meaning.
I thought universities were supposed to be really open and tolerant places, but actually, some of them must be counted among the most draconian places I have ever worked. I thought universities had an atmosphere where all felt able to speak. But here, staff are scared that people might have opinions about their opinions, therefore they don’t give their opinions. Nobody needs to discipline precarious temporary staff: The outspoken ones are simply not re-hired. It is a system that empowers the mediocre and creates an atmosphere of paranoia and unfreedom.
The way to begin to fight it is to write articles like this one: But the way to properly deal with it is to say all this inside these so-called public institutions; but to do so is to head for the door marked ‘Exit’.
It might be tempting to think that this rhetoric of ‘ethics not morals’ and talk of ‘flexible subjectivities’ floats over the awful scenes I have described without touching them, that it is just ineffective fluff. But it is worse than that, the ethical rhetoric and post-hippy culture creates the spaces for the situations I describe.
I have seen how a philosophy of ‘we’re all a bit loose here, everything is a bit radical and non-conformist’ has bred real abuse. But I have also seen how some of the greatest testifiers to that philosophy have been the most prohibitive, bullying and abusive. I have seen this both as a member of staff and as a paid worker for a trade union.
One last scene in the university: I send a polite message to a line manager about pay and copy colleagues and union officials in. I am then reprimanded by the union branch and a colleague for it; it isn’t just that the contradictions are unspeakable in universities, some basic forms of speaking at all are deemed completely outré.
At another institution, I watched how the union branch aided a ‘restructure’ by a group of bullies. When asked if they were complicit with the process, they stated that they ‘had no evidence’ that this was going on, despite informal conversations to the contrary.
‘What are they going to do?’ I asked the branch secretary, ‘write it down for you?’ ‘That they are taking over a fragile department and culling whoever they can to then replace them with their friends?’ He didn’t reply.
It was a voluntary, unpaid hand-holding exercise by union reps, in a feral department takeover situation, later claimed as a triumph, because there were ‘no compulsory redundancies’ (just horrible, passive-aggressive coercion into ‘voluntary severance’).
At this point I can only conclude that I am totally convinced by Henri Lefebvre’s statement in his work on The State that the aims of the modern trade union and state capitalism are exactly the same. Union ‘process’ cannot touch the seething underbelly of social life and so is itself structured by the default neoliberal processes of the contemporary university: It is gagged and shackled precisely by its mode of communication; it thinks it has chosen this mode, but it never paused to make a decision in the first place.
The problem isn’t that the union is too radical, but that it isn’t radical at all: It is a structural, voluntary adjunct of the university; not an opponent of its current state of being.
‘Ah, but how come the “university” wants to get rid of the union then?’ you may reply. Well, they want to get rid of you too, at the same time as you are a structural part of the university, along with all the other staff and features of working life that stand in the way of increased profit, for instance pay over the summer months. There is no contradiction here.
To return to Habermas, in order to unseat him, we now have a bipolar communicative sphere: On one unlit side we have seething, faceless agonism; on the other, stifled, silenced ‘professionalism’ with a human face, hiding its pain in the bright glare. But these things are not neatly separable. Our situation is that of maggots in the communal rice store: The good and bad are not easy to separate and we are all affected. You only have to sniff round the edges, where talk is looser, or booze is flowing, to see the contradictions and hypocrisies.
There is little point clinging to Habermas’s hopes for the public sphere. But that public sphere needs to be radically refigured and this is precisely where it gets difficult.
There’s a lot of heated discussion around safe spaces for students in universities at the moment. Safe speaking spaces are all very well, but they are pointless if they simply remain pockets of discourse where the converted are preached to. They need to spread out into the places where they are most unwelcome. To do that, hard words are required. But hard words, at the moment, are abolished in official spaces, only to flood back pathologically through faceless internet forums.
One can see it in the university admin employee with far right opinions who has to deal with all kinds of diversity policy on a day-to-day basis: Clearly her daily activities and her political opinions do not match; recourse to internet forums is inevitable.
There is a detectable opening up of racist discourse, and that is horrifying, but as soon as we enter into the touchy, liberal discursive space of the university on its own terms we have lost. Not only do we collude with the prevailing direction, we enable it. This is exactly Habermas’s space of communicative equality. Habermas hoped for the European project to expand, and to America, which is bleakly, drainingly ironic: Now we have ‘post-truth’, the maggots and rice are one.
Last week I walked into the building I was due to teach in to find The Army, having set up their stall, collegially talking to students with the aim of recruiting them. Safe spaces? I felt like reporting this as part of my responsibility to The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, or my ‘Prevent Duty’.
Discussions around safe spaces of discourse for students, in terms of whether or not to bring in controversial speakers, seem to be projected from a completely different world to the one I inhabit. It might be tempting to say that the distance between the safe and unsafe space of discourse is the distance between the academic office and the pub, or the student seminar and the halls of residence.
But it isn’t, as the speakable and unspeakable are still going on in inside the university, both in terms of stifled opinions and as evidenced by recent horrible scandals. It isn’t that the policing is too weak, it’s that the attempt is even made. Something completely different needs to happen, even though direct intervention from Mars tomorrow morning is more likely.
The excessive hand wringing over communication in the university is not only functionally dishonest, probably at a completely unconscious level, it is ineffective on its own terms. But what it really is, underneath what it professes to be, is a structural scene of communicational competence which ensures that everyone speaks in their mode. The middle class mode of professionalism and respectfulness that functionally outlaws the real ‘criticality’ that now needs to take place.
Asking for a miraculous return to pragmatics and ‘intelligent populism’ when the ground lies like this is naive. Asking for utopia is never going to work. It is mere dreaming. One begins in the shattered present and then negates and negates: This is not the best strategy; it is the only strategy ever possible. Agonism, sadly, is the only way forward.
And we must negate, and we must firmly grip the fascism that is re-emerging, emboldened and out there, and deal with it: I am not claiming that being ostentatiously free to say whatever you please equates with either progress or freedom; but the liberal left are simply not learning from what has just happened. The institutions, universities particularly, are often slow to catch up. But if they do not change things will only get worse. You cannot handle what is happening by being nice, friendly, or more liberal. You cannot deal with it actively by continuing to live in your comfortable amnesiac bubbles.
There is a fence. On one side we find the ‘mwah mwah’ of the newly imposed habit of a Europhile greeting, signifying disappointment at the decision to leave the EU. On the other side we have commie bashing thuggery: Plus ça change and all change, at the same time. New borders are drawn up through public virtue-signalling, as fascists become publicly emboldened. At the same time, the two ‘sides’ intermingle but rarely encounter each other.
The rise of everyday fascism must be countered wherever it is found. But the liberals have to accept that the storm and stress they are struggling to understand on the other side of this new fence was partly produced by the sealed world they live in.
The rightwing need to accept that their ways come out of a patriarchal, brutal culture of imperial domination, and I count myself among those who emerge from it. I still inhabit some of the symptoms of that emergence: Rebirthing slime that attracts disgust and sometimes anger; I have not taken psychoanalysis to make the full accredited journey to the ‘other side’ of middle class life, thankfully.
I inhabit my own symptoms. But heaven forbid I bring those symptoms into the university on their own terms, with their classed, oppositional spirits.
But the idea that I or ‘they’ simply ‘get with the programme’ is disgusting: Firstly because middle class liberals assume that it is their programme in the first place, and that the othered must come into that space, and it is a space, as Henri Lefebvre figured it. Secondly, they assume that the tools of remaking the classed subject are simply to hand to be used, but are being ignored, they are not. You don’t know about what you don’t know. You don’t miss what isn’t there to see, precisely because it’s absent. Thirdly, there is the naturalised demand that ‘they’, the othered, shift to match the culture of those making the implicit demands.
There is a developmental totalitarianism to all of this, and it matches the vertical class model: That the middle classes are more civilised, that you move up the ladder, or you take routes out. To suggest that they need to come down the ladder and take a journey inward is to be faced with the sheer incomprehension of those who unconsciously inhabit their elevated cultural caste as a naturalised state of being.
That incomprehension and your state of being are one, just as it is in the working classes. Yet the working classes are being asked to continually emerge from their incomprehension into the light of the middle classes.
After the crash of 2008 there was no revolution. After 2015 and 2016 there was no rush to recalibrate the disciplines inside the academy in relation to what happened outside its walls. This is telling. The assumption here is that all is well inside the academy and outside there are toxic subjectivities to be found. These are possibly to be researched, as ‘subjects’, to be travelled to and returned from, as one might travel to New Guinea before coming back with intellectual capital.
‘It’ is not neatly outside the university. Communication in our various public spheres is not about competence, it never was. At the first most basic level it is about who is in those public sphere institutions and who is outside (and if you have a smart mouth you will be out, not in).
At the second level it is about who has been pre-loaded with all the signifiers of upper middle class life and political rhetoric. It is about whose communication is deemed stylistically unspeakable, and whose is to be applauded. Orwell explained that the middle classes communicate like bats, via high-pitched shrieks at a frequency nobody else can pick up.
This lack of a level playing field is precisely why we should unsentimentally say goodbye to Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, but oddly, in order to go through some sort of horrible agonistic processes in order to try to bring it about at a future time. If that can be pulled off, the process is going to be messy. I doubt it can be achieved. But the sheer hypocrisy of the university needs to be faced. We have to fully wake up to the lack of permeability many of our institutions suffer from, not just universities, which has led to this situation in the first place.
I would love to believe in Mark Fisher’s brilliant essay Exiting the Vampire Castle, but I don’t. The diagnosis is precise and correct, but there is no way to clear the bourgeois subjectivity out of the way without insulting it. It shapes the discourse. It is the discourse of right and the supposedly oppositional unions inhabit it too. At the same time, the far right are going public. They are largely doing so outside the space of the university, even if it is detectable on the campus fringes.
Exiting the Vampire Castle suggests that we can walk out of the evil lair of the evil one. The way ‘ethics’ is written into university culture, as something neither moral nor amoral, flexible, open and inclusive, and yet still a form of control, means that Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magical Mirrors is a better metaphor for what we are in.
We, all of us, are not cleanly separated from the bad object. Our lives are not like a computer game where the hero flees Dracula. We are enmeshed in the mirror, our identities morphing into those of Merlin. Look into the Merlin myths (for there are many) he was not a Gandalf-like figure, he was closer to Loki, the trickster-hero rooted in Icelandic mythology.
This is Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magical Mirrors, and the middle class liberals are absolutely tripping in it. I want to ask all the liberal middle classes who are already beginning to disagree with the points I am making here, do you have ‘clean’ and non-violent dreams?
Like prohibition, this unconscious gagging of the stigmatically classed subject just creates even worse ghettoes, where the bile flows all the more thickly. Internal bleeding that will lead to a deeper social malaise. As we can see the bile is only handled in a slightly different way by the middle classes.
Welcome then, to anger. It has been burning underground for decades, precisely because of you, now what are you going to do about it? You cannot get around it, sneak under or over it, this is a return to Agonism, ‘let’s all get nervous’.
You can see the nervous incomprehension all around. ‘How did we not see 2016 coming?’ Well, some of us did. After the smelling salts have been taken, the middle classes then offer themselves as the solution to the problem, blind to their role in the problem itself. This might take the form of making some gallery work or creating a research strand about ‘it’, the problem, ‘out there’.
Can some of you at least wake up to the fact that you can no longer, like neoliberalism, offer the cause of a problem as the solution to that problem?