Anarchism and Australian universities: Making campuses ungovernable

The university frequently plays an important role in the political imaginary of our times. For many conservative – and some liberal – commentators, the university is seen as a means of leftist indoctrination, a place where ‘wokeness’ rules and alternative right wing views are shouted down. Meanwhile many leftists view the modern academy as a ‘jobs factory’ aimed mostly at creating model capitalist employees, where the truly liberatory traditions of Marxism and anarchism are disarmed through a focus on employability, relativist poststructural thought, or insufficient focus on class struggle. While such caricatures may have some explanatory power and rhetorical force, they frequently gloss over the complexities of higher education in our time, and the potentials and pitfalls it offers revolutionary politics. How can we as anarchists understand the modern university?

If we listen to accounts from both students and staff in order to reach such an understanding, we can quickly begin to see that the modern university is in a sorry state. The neoliberal reforms of higher education in Australia over the past 40 years, in combination with broader changes in the nature of capitalism over that time, have degraded the lives of students and staff. Students now, if they arrive at university expecting deeper learning and mental communion, are quickly disabused of the notion. They are atomised and disconnected from each other, treated as customers by uncaring administrative structures disconnected from real learning, forced to learn skills in Mickey Mouse courses and undertake unpaid labour in internships ‘for employability’, and all the while juggling this with precarious work due to a lack of financial support. Staff too, particularly academic and teaching staff, work precarious, casualised jobs, and are subject to wage theft as they try to teach their intellectual discipline to students.

It’s easy, then, to imagine that the current state of the university is one that has fallen since a golden age, but the truth is that the university has always been instrumental in state and social oppression. Many of the basic hierarchical structures of the university, such as the role of the chancellor, derive from their roots in the medieval church. The early university was almost exclusively the preserve of senior church figures and wealthy elites. This changed little with the advent of the modern research university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the university was seen as a form of intellectually-charged finishing school for wealthy elites. It was only in the post-war era, with more technological forms of production and concomitant technocratic forms of social governance, that the numbers of both universities and university students increased rapidly. While this more varied class composition of the university led to modern struggles on campuses in the 1960s and 1970s, these have to some extent been quelled by the neoliberal reforms begun by the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating in the 1980s and completed by the Liberal government of Howard in the 1990s and 2000s. These reforms have subjected universities to the discipline of the market in general and employers in particular, and have seen discourses of employability dominate university curricula.

Yet, while universities have always played their part as an ideological state apparatus designed to maintain hegemony, complete domination of an institution such as the university is never possible. The desire for equity, sociality, autonomy, and real learning frequently exceed the restrictive bounds of modern higher educational institutions, and student and staff activism remains a vital part of revolutionary left activism. University students both in Australia and elsewhere have often played, and continue to play, a key role in liberatory social movements. Similarly, staff struggles against management constitute a key site of class struggle that can serve to both push back against neoliberal reforms in the short term, and to raise class consciousness.

The part that anarchist praxis has played in these struggles on campus in Australia so far has been marginal at best. This is partly due to anarchism traditionally being less well-represented in academia than Marxism. It is probably also due to Australian revolutionary traditions being far more informed by Marxism than anarchism. This situation has changed though in the last 20 to 30 years, as the failings of Marxist projects in the 20th century became clear, and now it is anarchism that is increasingly informing politics on campus. So what does this mean for us anarchists, both students and staff, engaged in struggles on campus?

Some parts of revolutionary struggle will remain, to some extent, the same. Class struggle still remains paramount, as capitalism atomises and alienates us all. Leftist student groups already show great commitment to staff struggles against management, and staff struggles with management are often motivated by a realisation that student learning conditions are improved with the betterment of staff working conditions. Both staff and students also share concerns around precarity in employment, and the campus could prove to be a key area in organisation against this in the workplace. The university then, in its class struggles, could prove to be a true place of learning where staff and students learn how to organise and win control over their workplaces and education.

On the other hand, anarchist praxis goes beyond just a focus on an overly economistic theory on the role of the university. While the university certainly plays a key role in the reproduction of capitalist society it is not entirely reducible to this. The systems of hierarchy and dominance that anarchism seeks to dismantle, while playing a key role in the maintenance of capitalism, go beyond simple reproduction of capitalist economic and social relations. One example of this on campus is the hierarchical organisation of faculties and knowledge production, which as we saw earlier in some senses predates capitalism. 

Perhaps a more salient example of these forms of domination would be racism. Despite the assertions of conservatives in their current culture war against critical race theory, the university still remains a hostile environment to those who aren’t white, as simply looking at the lower participation rates for many people of colour in university education and academic attests to. While racism is in part understandable as playing a key part in racial capitalism and labour market stratification, it is not reducible to it, and glosses over other key forms of racism as state violence in a rather reductionist way.

Anarchists are positioned well politically to understand such issues as racism, sexism, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, and environmental struggles on their own terms, rather than reducing them to class struggle. At the same time we can bring non-hierarchical, prefigurative forms of praxis to these struggles, just as we can to struggles in the workplace and broader class struggles, as part of our commitment to alignment of revolutionary means and ends. Anarchists can be involved in leavening a complex and varied ecology of revolutionary groups and struggles with an uncompromising commitment to a truly free, communist society beyond state control, and making sure this commitment begins right now in the means by which we build towards such a society.

Another key part of anarchist praxis we can bring to struggles in the university is our ongoing engagement with education. Anarchists have long recognised that education plays a key role in maintaining hierarchical structures, and that it will also play a role in the removal of those structures too. Anarchist praxis on campus, particularly by teaching staff, should therefore include handover of control of both curriculum and assessment structures to students. This may not of course be entirely feasible within existing structures, however, and thus anarchist education reforms will need to vary according to context. Such variations may tend more towards raising critical consciousness within existing pedagogical structures on campus, in the manner of Paulo Friere, or it may be prefigurative educational structures such as free universities existing outside existing campus structures.

In short, then, anarchist praxis on campus should seek to make universities ungovernable, to use the words of Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. This of course is not easy, and will perhaps be even harder than the neighbourhoods and urban spaces to which Ervin refers, as the university is a key site of ideological state processes. The move towards being ungovernable on campus from both the state and university governing bodies dominated by employer groups will require both gross and subtle moves against hegemony depending on the context. Ultimately, however, struggles on campus will clearly be insufficient for broader social revolution, and campus activists will need to connect their struggles with broader conflicts in the workplace and on the streets.