Radical Academics and Academic Radicalism

May 11, 2012

What amounts to being radical in society today? Returning to the library after a lecture by David Harvey on “Rebel Cities”, I do have to ask myself the question – who are we rebelling against, and what for?

Harvey makes good points: the proletariat of the Left may not look like the proletariat in Marx’ time, but that does not mean they are all outsourced to China. Indeed, they are still here; they are the ones that make society go around. Transport, maintenance, logistics. As Harvey puts it, they are the ones on public transport at 6am in the morning (even earlier in London), going in to work before the rest of the city wakes up, working for minimum wages and remaining structurally invisible. He is perfectly right that they  are also producing value, and that mobilizing them to strike has been extremely effective in the past.

The problem is, of course, that no one knows each other. The heterogeneity of the city means it takes more to find out what unites us – the ones who do not get to fill the city with meaning, or make plans of how the ever-shrinking public space will look in future. As the Left has no money power, it needs to mobilize in different ways – in many respects, he says, the only power the Left has are the people on the streets. Merchant capitalism started from trading networks, the Hanseatic League in mediaeval times – so maybe it is possible to see a league of socialist cities, that form a network of alternative, political cities that change what politics is? We need alternative modes of living, and by making the cities we want to see, we also make ourselves.

Harvey’s analysis is, thus far, interesting and thought-provoking. During the Q&A he critiques the Left further for its obsession with form – how all movements seem to demand just one specific type of organisation – and that a rethinking of this is urgently needed. We need several aspects of organisational strategies, rather than the paranoia that only one particular form is possible. Again, his arguments are valid. In the Occupy movement in London, there has been an obsession with the General Assembly that has, several times, stalled, blocked or been directly detrimental to the momentum its members have tried to generate. We need to be open to different ways, to trust each others’ good judgement and to not shout “hierarchy” the minute someone shows leadership. But to increase our “termite potential” without being squashed, evicted or exterminated, we also need to rethink several other aspects – not least how we are to not just be the change we want to see, but create the conditions under which this being is possible.

And this is where I depart from Harvey. Though he has useful theories, important comments, and constructive critiques, there is no connection in his analysis between the academy and the streets, save in theory. He talks about the need for different modes, yet is speaking at a lecture of a university that is heavily complicit in the very system he critiques, at an event co-sponsored by “Deutsche Bank”, as the banner next to him proudly proclaims. When we talk about co-ops, different solutions, networks of socialisms – how will all this come about when all our forums are sponsored through and through by corporations and other bodies that exploit the proletariat in all parts of the world, only to return a fraction of their profits to be see as compassionate, society-building organisations? If we are to rebel, surely it should be against this very effect – no matter how complex this task will be. Termites are effective, but even more so when they move closer to the core of the building structure.

If the City of London was truly worried that the outcome of tonight’s talk would be radicalising even two people in that room, LSE would not have been the host. Radical academics may bring us useful thinking tools, but the many questions from the audience about how to find a solution, are directed the wrong way. Instead, we should look to those Harvey spoke about: the Chilean students. We should look to the student occupations in the UK and elsewhere, and how they are neither talked about in the press nor allowed to live for long without repression. The force by which they are silenced and struck down upon shows that the establishment knows precisely where the danger lies: Not with the radical academics, who are (with the danger of overgeneralising) sat in comfortable positions from which they voice their opinions, but from the academic radicalism that a growing student generation shows, in their unwillingness to accept the same premises. Even from within the institution, we should not, cannot, be afraid to critique it. Not just stating our unhappiness with it, but actively working against it.

Surely, if there is any hope in uniting for urban rebellion, it lies not just on the streets, but in all the spaces of public institutions; schools, universities, hospitals, as well as private sector workers and the unemployed. It lies in those who do not speak up against power and in those who are struck down by it. It lies in those who protest against a society where even charity is sold to the highest profit-maximiser. Our challenge is not just to bring people out onto the streets, to block transport links, but to forge all those spaces together. Harvey ends his talk with recounting a “free university” that took place in NY on May Day. These are the things we need to see more of – a refusal to make knowledge separate from the rest of the struggle. It is central. But to be radical is therefore to dare to critique the platform you stand on to the full extent of risking your own fall. That is, after all, what the striking workers do across Britain today.


By Ragnhild Freng Dale