What do we know about struggle?

[This month, Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Donya Alinejad]

“For the first time I feel like this is my university.” Over the past year, hearing this comment – and ones like it – from colleagues in the hallways has been no coincidence. This past year at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) has been marked by plans for a set of deep and unprecedented budgetary cuts and reorganizations that will mean things like jobs lost, fewer student services provided, and workloads increased. But this period has also been one in which national media and political attention turned, however briefly, towards a bottom-up, employee-led movement (that we started building at our university against these damaging measures. During this period colleagues referred to a sense of ownership over the university. It was a budding and unique engagement among the many of us involved in this workplace movement. But the feeling was also fleeting, a rupture that plainly demonstrated the contrast with how marginalized the university’s employees normally feel.

Right from the start, we knew we were contending with the creeping normalization of the managerial rhetoric of “efficiency” and the stark, top-down implementation of that all-too-familiar crisis policy used to both justify and obscure neoliberal logic wherever necessary: budgetary austerity. Given the problems, it was clear this couldn’t be built as a one-off campaign. A sustained movement was needed. For some of us, it became an attempt against the odds to take back our university while at the same time starting to ask ourselves what that would actually mean.

Our initiative was one that consistently mobilized upward of a hundred people for periodic collective actions on campus, and in the thousands when it came to signed support among employees and students in just a few short months since the first intervention. Our little movement has had its ups and downs, is still ongoing, and has yet to achieve its short-term aims of putting a stop to forced redundancies and the implementation of budget cuts under the guise of reorganization. Even so, it has called into existence a whole new repertoire of practices for me. And I think those practices are worth talking about here, not only to offer you the story, but also to ask you for your own experiences that might help move towards answering the question, what do we as anthropologists and academics know about struggle?

Knowing through doing
I’ve been inspired and invigorated by the piercing critiques in columns/forums/books/articles that anthropologist and others have recently taken to in order to think through the worrying ways in which neoliberal ideas are shaping our academic institutions (more hyperlinks than I can provide here, including to pieces on this blog). More than anything, pieces by young anthropologists and other scholars far away made clear to me just how close the parallels are between the basic processes underway at our respective universities internationally (i.e. increasingly precarious labor positions with short-term contracts, divestment and cuts, increasing workloads and class-sizes, individuation and commoditization of education, management goals trumping scientific content, divorcing science from its role as public good unless commercially valuable, undermining smaller and qualitative programs, etc. not to mention the issues around for-profit publishing).

Yet what I’ve been missing are people’s stories about what they’re doing with these critiques at their respective institutions. I have little to no idea how you are all making changes (or stopping changes) in your workplaces, and, more importantly, how your experiences with the practices of struggle might valuably feed back into your critical analyses about the nature of the problems we face. So, without speaking for the many others involved in our initiative, here’s something that some humble, new practices of struggle helped me find out.

Valuing voice
At its most basic, this experience has highlighted the problem of voice. Media scholar Nick Couldry talks about this in an interview (with reference to his book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism (2010)), drawing a distinction between “voice as value” and “voice as process.” Voice as process is people being able tell their own stories. But voice as value is those stories also having an impact on the decisions that shape their lives – it’s people having a say – and I think that’s exactly what’s at stake here.

At the VU this distinction couldn’t have been more relevant. In addition to existing bodies representing employees and students (like the university works council and faculty-based committees) there have also been committees and policy advisory bodies set up that assess and recommend plans around the reorganization. The sentiment of the movement, though, was that the voices that came out of these bodies were ultimately left unheard when it came to the board’s decisions (voice as process) – this explains why our movement also included those left disillusioned by their close involvement in such bodies. As Couldry notes, voice as process is absolutely the norm. But it is voice as value that poses a counterweight to the value that our institutions (managers, elected officials, etc.) bestow upon the market when making decisions. In other words, people having a say in the decisions that shape their lives is the only thing that can challenge the spread of market fundamentalism.

The subtle successes of our little movement include creating a unique space to think collectively and out loud about the shared problems effecting different departments and bureaus within the university by bringing together academic and administrative staff – young and old, men and women, library workers, PhD candidates, communications/PR workers, IT workers, and eventually tenure track staff, and finding intersections between our concerns and goals. In addition, we’ve caused clear delays in the university board’s decision-making regarding its short-term plans by working together with members of the university’s works council to devise and align our critiques, and applying pressure. That’s pressure we’ve only been able to apply by forming a single group across union lines, one that shifted us all into a higher gear when it came to organizing collective action by involving the vocal and engaged elements of both unionized and non-organized employees.

So, basically I learned, firstly, that even marginally making our voices count requires lots of (different forms of) doing. And secondly, in order for it to be normal for our voices to count, the structures and relations in which we find ourselves need to be different.

Next steps
There are two sources of inspiration for my upcoming postings in the next few weeks. The first is my own attempt to tease out certain particular aspects lessons/obstacles that emerged from the developments at the VU; things like cooperating with unions, approaches to management layers, dealing with student support/participation, and facing issues of dwindling time and energy, with a hope for relating these to some bigger ideas about problems and solutions.

The second (and hopefully main!) source is you. Do you think we can come up with a shared vocabulary and/or define a common project? Do you have experiences to share, or spaces you know of where this is being done with success? On what levels can we connect struggles? How would you frame what is at stake (differently that I have) and how does that inform what you’re doing? And what does this tell us about what it means to struggle at neoliberalizing universities today?

Each following posting will aim to incorporate the comments and points raise in response to the posting(s) prior. I want to do this in order to distill and explore some central themes from the discussion that might just lead to creating something beyond a series of blog postings. It all depends on your input. What do you know about struggle?


Donya Alinejad is a PhD candidate at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She does research on the role of internet media in the formation of selves among the children of immigrants from Iran in Los Angeles, California.