Towards Effective Resistance: Governmental vs. Deliberative Ethics

Resistance and Power

Perhaps the most prominent question surrounding accounts of changes to universities in “neoliberal times” has been an ethical one: whence resistance? In her study of “younger” UK academic staff (under age 35), Louise Archer (2008) describes a range of common strategies through which academic staff attempt to cope with what is often described as neoliberal or managerial modes of governance. Gaming research agendas, speaking out against unfair practices, creating professional support networks, and emotional and spatial self-management were all strategies engaged by younger academics to cope with the perceived increasing work hours and decreasing time for meaningful academic work. Against such a greedy institution, resistance seems to be a fitting description of academics’ desired relation to the university. However, as Archer (p. 280) warns,

[the participants’ resistance also opened them up to other pressures, as resisting subjects can only remain intelligible within the neoliberal context to the extent that they manage to continue to produce the (‘right’) products within the precarious contemporary context.

Consequently, it is those who are likely to be highly motivated to succeed in academia who are attracted to the competitive environment against which they have been forewarned. The desire to “survive” in academia (in a professional sense) complicates the narrative of resistance. There are no clear friends and foes, no villains to smite nor heroes to champion. By contributing, we are conspiring. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why strategies of resistance are often localised, individualistic and moralistic in character.

To assume that universities are holding all the cards, so to speak, is a fallacious attribution of power. Indeed, to conceive of resistance as kind of act which shifts power concpetualises power as a reified substance – a kind of capital held by some and restricted from the grasp of others. Power, as Foucault commented, is a means for describing a quality of relations between individuals whereby some actions are made easier or more difficult by virtue of the actions of others. Understood as a relational property, power implies that individuals are imminently entangled in generating power relations, which are experienced as subjectivity. Or, as Dan Butin (2003: 168) claims:

such a process of subjectification is not simply inscribed upon the individual. The individual does this to herself, one might say under duress, one might argue unwittingly, one might confess with scant choice, but it is not something done to her; it is something done with her.

Once we come to understand how we are subjected within power relations, we may choose to accept or attempt to resist. Either way, these power relations require our cooperation to operate whatsoever. Rather than decry the perverse influence of some (reified) form of power upon a “pure” domain (i.e. Mode 1 knowledge), it is more productive to identify what actions are made easier or harder within power relations, and how this easiness or hardness is able to be reproduced in relations between actors.

Governmental Ethics

A key conceptual tool for understanding widespread patterns of power relations has been as interesting to ancient philosophers as it has to modern sociologists: rationality. In their most “real” form, rationalities are conventions of thought – agreed upon means for transforming ideas or framing reality. When applied to academic governance several, important political rationalities become apparent, the most well-vocalised of which is appropriately termed a neoliberal rationality. When confronted with processes that demand our cooperation, we may develop a number of imaginings about our relationship with those processes. For example, when confronted with the metrics culture of modern academe, we may feel obliged to become stoic system gamers, bounded to our duty to both academe and intellectual cultures; or alternatively we may become protective leaders, assisting others to carve out space for intellectually-demanding work; or we may feel that competition is the necessary reality which we must face as individuals and develop an individualised mode of self-government.

In other words, although neoliberalism (as a political rationality) may seem to prescribe a rational entrepreneur of the self, multiple governmental ethics become possible when filtered through the complexity of human relations and values. Neoliberalism becomes a pervasive political rationality precisely because it can accommodate a nebula of ethical subjectivities while maintaining the integrity of its governmental assemblage. Rather than criticising “who” is able to exist within neoliberal frameworks, or “what” power exists there, the vital question for arriving at an effective mode of resistance is “how” the government of academics proceeds, and “how” we might imagine it otherwise.

For example, one systemic criticism which has developed along these lines is Stephen Ball’s (2003: 216) notion of “performativity” in higher education governance:

What do I mean by performativity? Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement.

Utilising the technology of performativity, academics and teachers find, Ball claims, their values challenged or displaced by “the terrors of performativity” (p. 216), which are passed down from above. Its efficacy as a technology of government is derived from its hyper-rational and objective appearance, which are sustained so long as the means by which real events become “performances” remain black-boxed.

The risk inherent in performative technologies is that they will become self-referential and self-affirming, or value what Ball (p. 224) describes as “fabrications” of reality over attempts to ensure that truthfulness is maintained.

Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness, both in the market or for Inspection or appraisal, and in the ‘work’ they do ‘on’ and ‘in’ the organization – their transformational and disciplinary impact.

If the goals of a university are explicitly to satiate the demands generated through mission compacts with the federal government, evidenced through accountability reporting procedures (as occurs in Australian universities), then these “fabrications” risk further closing the informational feedback loops between society and university management. To attempt to assist universities in remaining open to changing social demands and debates, a discourse of “resistance” is clearly not sufficient. A more systemically-oriented critique is required to address issues surrounding self-referential communication systems.

The paradigm of resistance is insufficient for addressing systemic issues because, when enacted, resistance tends to emerge in a highly individualised form. When early career researchers (or even PhD candidates) say “no” to opportunities, address research topics they see value in (but are perhaps not “sexy”) or aim to reduce work involvement (possibly for health reasons), a common discourse of “risk” is likely to follow. The figure of the self-responsible entrepreneur is invoked by well-meaning colleagues and advisors, for your own sake! The change in perspective required here is the need to see how “resistance” is interpreted within a governmental assemblage.

Though many of us may dream of critical theory sheep, it’s important to recognise that in an era normalised around governmental institutions, government is not only accustomed to failure, it is a “congenitally failing operation” (Miller and Rose, 2008: 190). But this trait is perhaps only a birth defect from one perspective. Governors may be so used to their plans facing insurmountable complexity that failure is both expected and considered business-as-usual. Consider these two examples:

  1. Resistance to metrification. A good portion of university rankings and performance metrics are derived from commercial databases and media corporations, such as Time Higher Education and the publishing house Elsevier. Although there are often public and academic critiques of the methods used to score and rank universities, the outcome of critique is seldom the cessation of measurement. Indeed, the failure to satisfy the critics provides a basis for an “improved” or at least “updated” methodology and renewed performances. These new rankings are then able to be marketed and sold, provided they maintain enough credibility. The overall logic of demonstrating competitive advantage is not overcome by problematising the methodology of rankings.
  2. Resistance to systematisation of research. When academics attempt to carve out space for “basic” research or normatively-driven research programs, these initiatives do not overturn the drive towards commercialisation and accountability embedded in the systemic logic of academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). Basic or normative research that relies on the claim that it’s societal impacts may be unexpected comes up against a hard sell: “funding basic research is a calculated investment in serendipity“. In an era of increased focus on accountability for taxpayer funding, impact is required to be not only “intended”, but also perhaps more predictable. The economic argument for funding basic research (that of “the importance of ‘basic research’ to provide the capital on which the next generation of innovations will be based“) is more readily drawn upon than the argument from serendipity. The new problematic for government becomes – how can research be conducted with greater certainty or security? Disinvestment is an obvious risk-management strategy where this question cannot be adequately answered.

Rather than resistance, the paradigm for thinking about how to organise academic labour needs to be framed in terms of a better means to govern. If the problem with our current corporate-style academic practices are that they are becoming performatively self-referential, or serve the interests of the economic over social, environmental and cultural betterment, then what is needed is a form of doing academic work that is more open to the changing demands that emerge from beyond that closing informational loop. This entails active participation in broadening the kinds of normative discussions which enter into university life – a revised mode for governing academic work.

Deliberative Ethics

So, given that, as academics, we are bound to accountability norms and our own desire to “survive” in academia, we – not personally, but systemically – contribute to the production of a governmental ethics. A form of self-government which begins from the desire “to further secure my position as an academic” will only become a negotiation over how we are subjectified as enterprising academic labourers and hence fail as a paradigm of resistance to current modes of government. It seems that one means through which we may fruitfully attempt to disrupt the current governmental assemblage is to influence how it reasons, which requires systemic thinking.

To influence the trajectory of academic labour, it is perhaps important to reflect on our own function as interpreters and scientists, knowledge producers and disciplined analysts. As intellectuals, we are able to contribute to the formation of values that enter into consideration of why academic labour is governed at all. As opposed to academic labour, which is increasingly instrumental to pre-defined governmental strategies, intellectual labour (the passionate labour grounded in cultural and personal senses of morality, rather than rationality) is normatively driven and not easily reconciled with competing ethics, such as that prescribed by an ethic of entrepreneurship. Because intellectual labour is not dominated by an economic rationality, it may form the basis of deliberation; of opening up governmental practices in academe to a deliberative ethics. Deliberation is not serendipitous – it can occur within time-restricted frames that can be evaluated for effectiveness – but it does allow for a wider range of voices from the intellectual groups to contribute to deliberations. To assist in enacting more deliberative modes of ethics in academia, it is necessary to imagine what we are attempting to accomplish through academe, rather than within it. To this effect, there are perhaps a few useful qualities which we might hope to better cultivate:

  1. More open public communication, not merely in disseminating results, but in formulating research programs. A more deliberative ethics will require academics to communicate normative positions to non-specialists and interpret the values and norms of non-specialists.
  2. A substituting of the status of “academic” for something more like “intellectual” – your value as a thinker derives not from your ability to say more than another person, but to bring them into a process of communicative deliberation with you: to enlighten, not to merely be enlightened.
  3. Acceptance that the modern university is part of a capitalist framework – material capitals, cultural capitals, symbolic capitals, embodied capitals – and that present forms of government (i.e. neoliberal political rationality) will not be reasoned with at a symbolic level. They will, however, respond to changes in how they are able to function on a technological level. Informational networks (in and around which academics frequent) are vital to how government interprets and influences reality. It is worth exploring our authoritative role in the organisation of these media by which governors know the objects/subjects of government.

In summary, to influence the government of academic labour, we need to act on a systemic level, aiming to shift the norms through which knowledge labour is enacted. This will not occur through “resisting”, as resistance under governmentality also presents the current governmental assemblages with new problems to propose solutions towards. Rather, we must be active in generating solutions in a publicly deliberative manner, engaging in a form of ethics which connects our behaviour with the knowledge that we, as intellectuals, develop and embody about the needs of our ecologies to sustain a peaceful and prosperous human existence.

And with only a few hours to spare, Buon anno!