Tackling sexual harassment and violence in universities: seven lessons from the UK

[This post is by Alison Phipps (Professor of Gender Studies in the Department of Sociology at Sussex), and refects on fifteen years of work on sexual harassment and sexual violence in UK universities in order to distil seven lessons for scholars, activists and organisers. Originally published at Genders, Bodies, Politics. Edited/updated and republished with permission.]

This is the text of an online keynote I gave, hosted by the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and the Freie Universität Berlin, on February 5th 2021. It was the last in a series of sessions on sexual harassment and violence in universities; when I was invited to speak, I was honoured but also concerned about what I could offer as a UK-based academic whose work on sexual violence has been focused on universities in my home country. My work started in 2006 with a pilot study at my own institution, and since then I have been involved in a number of research and intervention projects, collectives and campaigns. I thought it would be useful if I tried to distil what I have learned over the past fifteen years for fellow scholars, activists and organisers in other contexts and countries. So here are seven lessons from the UK: I hope some of them will resonate and perhaps help others avoid the mistakes I have made. In fifteen years my work has been characterised more by failure than success: but along the way I have at least learned to fail better.

My first lesson is: name the problem.

Sara Ahmed has written: ‘When we put a name to a problem, we are doing something.’ This doing, in her words, is ‘gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing.’ This gathering up, this making tangible, can allow the thing to be addressed. As James Baldwin famously said: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ It was the UK student movement that made us face the issue of sexual harassment and violence in our universities: in the early 2010s, some amazing young feminists persistently named and worked to address it. I want to acknowledge, amongst others, Kelley Temple, Susuana Amoah and Hareem Ghani, who were all Women’s Officers of the National Union of Students (NUS).

The first national study of sexual harassment and violence against students was published by NUS in 2010. Called Hidden Marks, this was a survey of over two thousand self-identified women students across all four UK nations. One in seven had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault; 68 per cent had been sexually harassed. I worked with NUS on the research, and shortly after the report’s release they commissioned me, with Isabel Young, to research ‘lad culture’ in universities and how that framed sexual harassment and violence.

Isabel and I recruited forty women studying in England and Scotland, for focus groups and interviews. Our participants were very clear on what ‘lad culture’ was: a group dynamic enacted by young men in team sports and on the social scene, characterised by misogynist and homophobic ‘banter’. This ‘banter’ often involved rape jokes and sexual harassment and had the potential to escalate into more extreme forms of sexual violence. Our report, entitled That’s What She Said, theorised ‘lad culture’ as a conducive context for sexual violence. It was launched on International Women’s Day 2013.

That’s What She Said entered a climate in which women were ready to snap. For Ahmed, ‘feminist snap’ occurs when our experiences of negotiating worlds that demean and exclude us become overwhelming. The report prompted an outpouring – in feminist groups, students’ unions, classrooms, faculty offices and on social media – from women who had had enough. And as Ahmed says, moments of ‘snap’ can be catalysts for change. In the movement that emerged around ‘lad culture’ we raised awareness, created training, and developed partnerships with local support services. We used the media to ‘name and shame’ perpetrators and the institutions that enabled them. We lobbied university leaders for a better response. By 2015, this had prompted the formation of a task force by Universities UK (the body that represents UK university leaders) on violence against women, harassment and hate crime.

The taskforce report, released a year later, recommended that all institutions adopt centralised reporting procedures, develop effective disclosure responses, and run training programmes. Afterwards, the Higher Education Funding Council for England made £4.7 million pounds available for projects addressing sexual harassment and hate crime on campus, which supported institutional initiatives across the country. There was also further data-gathering: in 2018, NUS and the 1752 group (the UK’s first lobby group on staff-student sexual misconduct) conducted a study with almost two thousand current and former students, and found that 40 per cent had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from university staff.

In 2019, three years after the taskforce report, Universities UK circulated the results of a progress review of 95 institutions across all four UK nations. It found that 87 per cent had a working group on sexual harassment, violence and/or hate crime and 76 per cent had secured senior leadership buy-in. 81 per cent had delivered training, and 78 per cent had developed or improved reporting mechanisms. Crucially, it found there had been an increase in reported incidents and ‘a profound change in the initiatives and ideas that are now available for sharing across the sector’. It concluded that ‘over time, this will help facilitate cultural change at both institutional and sector level’.

The activist movement against ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in UK universities had succeeded in naming the problem and getting institutions to face it. Yet despite this huge achievement, I was circumspect. Institutional actions had mainly consisted of policy compliance and getting rid of ‘bad apples’ using disciplinary procedures. The movement, despite the input of a number of women of colour, was dominated by fellow white women who seemed happy to accept or even encourage this approach. But sexual harassment and violence are not a disease infecting particular ‘bad apples’ – they sit deep within the tangle of roots that nourishes the whole rotten tree.

This leads me to my second lesson: don’t individualise the issue.

Sexual violence is about systems. To understand it we have to think big: I theorise it as a pivot for heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and its colonial extensions. It works at the level of the nation, the state, the community and the household; it allows for the extraction of socially reproductive and hyper-exploited productive labour; it facilitates the expropriation of land and resources. It enters the world via four vectors – threats, acts, allegations, and punishment – and these must be considered together if we are to understand why sexual violence occurs and how to stop it.

Acts and threats of sexual violence impose bourgeois binary gender and facilitate the free and low-cost social reproduction capitalism depends on. They keep women in our place and enable men’s domestic power over us. They punish people who do not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. They support historical and ongoing colonial systems in which economic and caring labour is extracted from Black and other racialised communities for little or no reward. Rape has been used to terrorise and subjugate colonised, displaced and dispossessed populations in war, occupation, settlement, enslavement and theft (including their neo-colonial forms).

Allegations and punishment of sexual violence have achieved the same ends. Black and other racialised and colonised men have been brutalised and killed following accusations made by white women. Sexual violence is used as a political device to construct populations, cultures and nations as dangerous, to justify border regimes and military-industrial projects. The spectre of sexual danger can be deployed to demonise and deport migrants, and to funnel racialised and classed populations into the criminal punishment system. It can also be brandished to construct queer and trans people as a threat.

Sexual violence in the university performs all these functions, at a smaller scale. Sexual harassment and assault are used to demean and dominate, to make students and staff (usually women) unwelcome, to keep us under control, and to express and maintain supremacy. In UK student communities, there is evidence that ‘lad culture’ and its attendant sexual violence is the preserve of middle- and upper-class white men who see successful young women as a threat. Sexual harassment of students by staff usually involves senior male academics (the majority of whom are white) expressing their entitlement and abusing their power. As well as women, gender-nonconforming students are at high risk of violence, and being marginalised by race, class and/or disability creates additional vulnerabilities.

Acts and threats of sexual violence reserve and shape the space of the university for privileged white men (and some white women, too). They articulate and preserve the power relations of the institution and the wider world. And in universities, as in the wider world, certain groups are constructed as more sexually violent than others. There is anecdotal evidence that queer academics, especially those who are also Black, are more likely to be accused of sexual misconduct. A recent report described how anti-radicalisation agendas in UK higher education construct Muslim men as particularly misogynistic. The institution is not neutral when it comes to addressing sexual violence.

My third lesson is: know the institution.

As with sexual violence, when considering the institution, it is necessary to think big. I draw on abolitionist university studies, which understands education as key to the capitalist, colonial, modern world-making project. Eli Meyerhoff theorises education as a mode of primitive accumulation, which creates the preconditions for racial capitalism through hoarding the means of study and using them to credentialise us for stratified economic roles. It inculcates us into ways of knowing and learning that reflect capitalist norms and practices: separate public and private spheres, the rational and consuming individual, and colonial dichotomies between culture and nature, modernity and tradition, value and waste. We become ‘competent’ in the knowledges of the state and status quo, and other forms of world-making are cast as deprived and less evolved.

Higher education has shaped nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, democracy and ‘civilisation’. Anthropology, economics, demography, sociology, psychology and criminology have rationalised exclusion and exploitation. UK universities are deeply embedded in state capitalist violence, including post-9/11 counter-terrorism regimes through which academics become border guards. They are also places where student protest is violently repressed. As economic actors themselves, universities are central to flows of dispossession and accumulation. They have been built upon indigenous and/or enclosed common lands and enriched by transatlantic slavery. They are now entrenched in the neoliberal rationalities and practices of privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing and precarity, and are subject to, and have, complex financial interests (including in the military-industrial complex).

During COVID-19 in England, the moral bankruptcy of our higher education system was starkly exposed. Our increasingly privatised universities lured students to campuses with promises of ‘Covid-safe’ teaching, to collect fees and rents. Students were blamed and punished as the virus inevitably spread, then told they could not return home and trapped in infection hotspots by fences and cops. There was horror and condemnation of university leaders as this situation progressed. People who perhaps did not know before, realised exactly what the institution is. But this institution is what white feminists have looked to, to protect us from sexual violence. How can the institution protect us from violence, when the institution is violence? The university cannot not save us – it is what Audre Lorde would call the master’s house.

So, my fourth lesson is: put down the master’s tools.

Activists against sexual violence in UK universities have mostly made gains in policy. In response to our lobbying, institutions have made written commitments, amended discipline processes, revised reporting procedures and commissioned training. We have worked hard for these successes and have done well to achieve them. But policy machinery constructs the institution as benign and able to be worked on, concealing the violence built into its very existence. Contemporary UK policy work also tends to be undertaken within neoliberal systems of measurement, monitoring and audit that generate surplus value for the university. This creates an emphasis on maintaining the appearance of a functional institution, not worrying about the reality.

This is what Ahmed terms ‘institutional polishing’ – initiatives ostensibly about equality, that are actually about little more than generating a marketable image. These initiatives are what she calls ‘non-performative’ – they do not produce the effects they name but substitute for them instead. A non-performative is seen as doing something, when in fact it allows institutions not to do anything else. A report produced in response to an issue, which is then used to declare that the issue has been addressed. A policy which is created and publicised, but ultimately not followed because just having the policy is what counts. In the UK, it has become important for institutions to look like they are doing something about sexual harassment and violence. But looking like and doing are not necessarily the same thing – in fact, sometimes the first allows us to escape the second. Policy is very often one of the master’s tools.

Institutional polishing can also turn into institutional airbrushing when problems emerge. ‘Naming and shaming’ perpetrators has been another key strategy of the mainstream movement against sexual violence, and it is powerful because it threatens to mar the institution’s polished image. But the key word here is ‘image’ – the impact of the disclosure on the surplus value of the institution is more troubling than the disclosure itself. Communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators. But in universities (which present themselves as communities but are actually corporations), the financial impact of disclosure must also be projected and totted up. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished, so the problem is airbrushed out.

What I call institutional airbrushing takes two main forms: concealment and erasure. Either issues are minimised, denied or hidden and survivors encouraged to settle matters quietly, or when this is not possible, the perpetrator is ‘airbrushed’ from the institution and it is made to appear as if they were never there. Confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements are often used, or financial settlements given to perpetrators to convince them to resign. Institutional airbrushing stabilises the system; it communicates and embeds the idea that all the institution needs to do is to remove the ‘bad’ individual. After the blemish is airbrushed out, the malaise that produced it remains. And after the blemish is airbrushed out, it has a tendency to reappear elsewhere. ‘Bad apples’ can always re-attach themselves to a different rotten tree. This is called ‘pass the harasser’ and it is a significant problem in UK higher education.

I am not saying that people who perpetrate sexual violence have a right to keep their jobs. I also know that not excluding a perpetrator from an institution can be a de facto exclusion of survivors. But I am concerned that, like capitalism itself, institutional airbrushing moves problems around rather than addressing them. I am also concerned that ultimately, we may outsource our perpetrators to women in lower-status, lower-paid economic sectors. Although ‘naming and shaming’ can be a form of direct action when other avenues are closed, it more often triggers institutional airbrushing than genuine institutional change. Institutional airbrushing is one of the master’s tools: it does not prioritise the personal interests of survivors but the financial interests of the institution. And when done in the corporate media, ‘naming and shaming’ can also be co-opted in the service of the bottom line.

This brings me to my fifth lesson: don’t mistake outrage for justice.

In the corporate media, trauma is big business. The phrases ‘disaster porn’ and ‘tragedy porn’ have been coined to describe our fascination with the troubles of others, which creates a market for the consumption of pain: photographs of drowned migrants on European beaches, stories of sexual assault in Hollywood, and videos of Black people being brutalised and killed by police. This material, usually fed to us online via ‘clickbait’, gives a quick fix of sympathy and outrage but does not often lead to systemic analysis or radical political action. Instead, it objectifies its subjects to make media outlets money. In the corporate media, holding governments, institutions and individuals to account comes a poor second behind manipulating outrage to generate revenue. This is what I call the ‘outrage economy’ of the contemporary Western media.

Sexual violence stories are capital in this economy, exemplified by the viral iteration of #MeToo. Although it was started by Black feminist Tarana Burke as a survivor-led movement of mutual support, #MeToo went viral following a tweet by white actor Alyssa Milano, as a moment of mass media disclosure. It was described as a ‘flood’ of stories of sexual assault by CNN, CBS and CBC, and a ‘tsunami’ on CNBC, in the Times of India, the New York Times and the US National Post.

A key limitation of this mainstream iteration of #MeToo is that media markets, like all markets, are profoundly nihilistic. Clicks, likes and shares are a multi-denominational currency. As long as they accumulate, as long as media companies can make advertising revenue and harvest our data, it does not matter why. In other words, the media using sexual violence as clickbait does not imply support for feminist goals. The media using sexual violence as clickbait does not mean survivors will not themselves be vilified if this happens to be the juicer story.

In my fifteen years in the field, I have become deeply uncomfortable with the key strategies of mainstream sexual violence activism. When institutions let us down, we often ‘invest’ our trauma in networked media markets, to generate outrage and the visibility we need to further our cause. But cynical media corporations exploit this outrage, building visibility for their brands by encouraging audiences to consume our pain. Meanwhile the threat of damage to the brands of exposed institutions and organisations leads to an airbrushing of ‘bad men’ from high-profile sectors. These individuals usually move on to start all over again, while oppressive systems are left intact.

When individual men are ‘named and shamed’ in the media, when institutional policies and initiatives focus on punishing or excluding these ‘bad apples’, there is almost no effect on the whole rotten tree. Indeed, we often end up nourishing its roots – when mainstream feminist activism relies on the patriarchal, racist, capitalist institution for punishment, we use the master’s tools to try to dismantle the master’s house. Like the carceral feminism that calls on the punitive state to put perpetrators away, activism against sexual violence in universities fails to dismantle the intersecting systems that produce sexual violence and strengthens them instead.

Because of this, my sixth lesson is: stop calling the manager.

The punitive tendencies of the mainstream movement against sexual violence are a key part of what I call its political whiteness. Political whiteness involves, among other things, a clear conceptual distinction between victims and perpetrators, an understanding of the state as benign, and a belief that punishment works. White and middle-class feminists have called for more police, more convictions and longer sentences – and when something goes wrong in our workplaces, we ask the manager to sort it out. And when we turn to authority, we legitimate and bolster that authority. In our efforts to address personal abuses of power, we turn to the institutional power that facilitates them. In thinking we can be safe in our institutions by punishing the ‘bad’ men, we conceal the fact that the institution itself is unsafe.

Our demands for discipline can also increase the institution’s power and ability to perpetrate violence. Policies that make it easier to dismiss harassers might chip away at everyone’s employment rights, especially in a post-pandemic context where universities are looking to make substantial cuts. Technologies such as codes of conduct or ‘morality clauses’ in employment contracts, or a ‘sex offenders’ register’ for higher education (which has been suggested by some activists), could be misused to target groups seen as ‘deviant’ or a sexual threat. Such forms of institutional governance are also ultimately designed to protect the university from liability, not to protect us. Law firm Pinsent Masons, which represents UK university administrations as they defend themselves against discrimination claims and has given them advice on breaking strikes, has written the guidance for universities on how to handle alleged claims of sexual misconduct.

There is also a difference between punishment and accountability. Punishment is a passive and impersonal process – the person who has been harmed hands over their power and is kept in the dark (although nevertheless it requires a huge amount of courage and work). Accountability, in contrast, is both personal and active. For Mia Mingus, accountability requires four steps from someone who has caused harm: self-reflection, apology, repair, and changed behaviour. It centres the person who has been harmed, their understanding of why the behaviour was harmful and their definition of what constitutes repair. It makes space for that repair, acknowledging that none of us is above causing harm and we may all need that space someday. It is the job of the perpetrator and not the survivor, and requires significant community input and support.

Accountability, as described by Mingus, would be difficult to achieve in higher education institutions which are corporations rather than communities, in which we are hierarchically organised, individualised, distrustful and overworked. None of this is conducive to honest communication and collective action. True accountability would require a collectivist, not a capitalist, institution – and this is probably an oxymoron. That does not mean, though, that while supporting survivors as best we can within the options currently available, we cannot also try to move in a better direction. In the longer term, we cannot keep calling the manager and relying on the system to do the work of accountability for us, when it is what needs to be dismantled.

This sets up my seventh and final lesson: be in it for the long haul. 

After fifteen years in the field, I heed Lorde’s advice that refusing to use the master’s tools may only be difficult for those who ‘still define the master’s house as their only source of support’. This is an invitation to stop relying on the master to deal with our collective problems, and to join the work of building a different house. A house where we tackle things together means a house founded on care – not the privatised care of the market and heteronormative family, not the bare minimum provided by the institution and state, but more capacious and collective ways of surviving and thriving. Instead of strengthening the status quo, mainstream feminist organising against sexual violence needs to become part of the broader project of making anew. We must think big and act small. What world do we ultimately want to live in? What are some baby steps towards it that we could realistically take?

I am referring here to the abolitionist distinction between reformist and non-reformist reforms. Non-reformist reforms move us towards the world we want, not further away. They shrink, rather than grow, the state and institution’s capacity for violence. To start with, in universities, this could mean creating small, self-organised groups of staff and students who imagine new ways of relating and solving problems together. It could mean using these prototypes to develop policy suggestions and initiatives which create structures of accountability rather than shoring up the institution’s power. It would mean making demands for institutional resources: money most importantly, and the time and space to do this important work. This would be a radical challenge to the current model of the university and to current mainstream feminist activism.

It would also be hard work, and might be bound to fail given what the university is. But all we need to do is move in the right direction. I take hope from recent mass strikes in UK higher education, which showed that neoliberalism has not stolen all our solidarity and community away. I also take hope from the many forms of grassroots care that have proliferated during the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe that we will not know what we can create until we free ourselves from how the institution stifles our imaginations and start doing what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. People marginalised by race, class and disability, queer and trans people, have long been supporting survivors and working towards transformative justice outside the institution and outside the state. There are many amazing examples to emulate. This is work that will not be completed in any of our lifetimes, and it is not always easy to know whether we are dismantling power or helping to preserve it. This means we must be in it for the very long haul.


I hope at least some of these lessons are helpful – if so, I have created an infographic that you might want to download as a reminder (it can be used as a wallpaper or screensaver, or printed out if you prefer – click the image below to open full size, in order to save).

Your Teachers are Researchers: Changing Research Culture

This post reflects upon the event ‘Your Teachers are Researchers’, held as part of Sussex Law School’s Research Seminar Series on 26 November 2020.  It is written by Verona Ní Drisceoil (co-organiser and chair) and Bal Sokhi-Bulley (co-organiser and panellist) with input from the panel of staff (Neemah Ahamed, Matt Evans, Sabrina Gilani and Lucy Welsh) and from the student voices (Henry Bonsor, Jasmine Bundhoo, Ayo Idowu-Bello and Tyrone Logue) who participated in and facilitated the event.

Introduction

There was bhangra and then there was jazz. There were staff and there were students. And then there was a space of collaboration and ‘collaborators’. On 26 November in an otherwise usual Week 9 of term, students and faculty of Sussex Law School (SLS) came together in a shared, non-hierarchical space to reflect, relate and disrupt. The result was a powerful, moving and liberatory one. In that shared space, collectively, and in friendship, we had succeeded in doing research relationally – building relationships with, rather than just being in the same room as, our students. We created a ‘liberatory space’ (Jivraj, 2020) wherein we were able to be otherwise.

‘Your Teachers are Researchers’ grew out of a desire for connectedness in these times of pandemic; to breach the staff/student binary and grow a research culture that shared a space with the students with whom we do ‘research-led teaching’. In this respect, the event drew inspiration from Fung’s vision of a ‘connected curriculum’ (Fung 2017), from Freire on dialogue (1970) and bell hooks (1994) calling for the teaching and learning experience to be different; one that can be shared and transgressed, together. This vision strongly echoes Jivraj’s (2020) call to engage in ‘self-liberatory’ processes, that can only be achieved through a focus on relationality – between staff and their students – allowing us all to ‘belong’ to, and in, the academy.

A False Binary

In that space, we discovered that the staff/student binary is a false one; we had instead become ‘collaborators’. The event was deliberately organised to remove the normative hierarchy of faculty/student. Students, as opposed to their teachers, led and facilitated the session. Faculty were decentred. Final year students Henry and Jasmine began with powerful reflections on what research-led teaching means to them. Eloquently, they shared how the Law and Critique module convened by Bal and Sabrina had offered a space to be ‘intellectually creative and sensitive’ (Jasmine) and distilled our shared roles as activists, writers and thinkers, as, ultimately, to ‘make the word a better place’ (Henry). They spoke too of how the module had helped them to grow in confidence – to find voice and expression – and equipped them with the ‘tools’ to go out and ‘flourish’.  Ayo and Tyrone (Year 1) followed by introducing the panel of faculty speakers: Bal, Sabrina, Neemah, Matt and Lucy. Their introductions were thoughtful and generous; their questions, powerful and insightful. They set the bar high!

Faculty then spoke to their experience of teaching their research and to something they were currently or had recently been working on. Over the course of the evening, we were able to share that doing research is slow, requires resilience and is personal to us. Bal spoke to how she felt compelled to write about the intersections between pandemic, race and class over the summer when the Leicester Lockdown happened. Her reference to the labelling of BAME communities as ‘dirt’ was picked up by Sabrina, who questioned what it means to be ‘human’ in the context of criminal law and punishment, focusing on how we express and recognise humanity through material engagement. We then heard about the intersectional experience of women of colour from Neemah, who played us Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’. We were reminded of the wider, problematic space that we inhabit as individuals within higher education by Matt, who interrogated the space of the neoliberal university. And we heard about what it means, in the context of a wider neoliberal Britain, to make claims to access justice from Lucy, and how as staff and students of law we can and ought to question exactly what ‘justice’ means.

The presentations were punctuated with a flurry of questions – ranging from Alex (LLM Human Rights) asking Bal about whether Trump should do ‘friendship’ with China to remedy the blame culture he began; to Ayo asking Neemah about colourism and the different experience of lighter and darker skinned black women; to Tyrone asking Lucy about the nexus between the economy and access to justice. There were also questions about the potential impact our research has. For instance, Vanessa (LLM) asked Lucy about the process, as an academic and researcher, of impacting change in the criminal justice system.

Reflecting on the event immediately afterwards brought up feelings of pride, warmth and a sense of freedom (from the usual hierarchies and the ‘right way’ to treat our students). Verona commented on how the event made her heart feel full – in that space, she said, ‘something special happened’. Bal said she was ‘blown away by the student participation. Henry, Jasmine, Ayo and Tyrone were exceptional – eloquent, engaged and I felt both proud of them and reaffirmed in our roles as educators/researchers’. ‘It was fantastic to take part in such a well-attended event and to have the chance to actually have a conversation with students, guided by them, about research, teaching, learning, their overlaps and the environments in which they take place,’ said Matt. Lucy expressed that, ‘it was invigorating/uplifting to create a place for discussion together and see how superficially disparate interests can be brought together in a shared space of friendship and creativity’. 

Building on the theme of friendship and connectedness, Henry commented,

for me, the most meaningful aspect of the event was created by the relationality between both teachers and students. Previously, I felt like research was something that teachers performed in their own time and only shared with their peers. 

Similarly, Ayo spoke of how this event was so much more than an event about researchers talking about their research. She said that

this event gave me a sense of community and togetherness which is something that I had not felt since moving to Sussex due to the exceptional circumstances of a pandemic… This event created a space where there was no hierarchy, there were no tutors and students because for those few hours, we were all students who were there to listen, learn and critique one another.

For Tyrone, ‘the event made space for direct engagement with tutors’ allowing, he said, ‘for a valuable discourse which is often all too elusive in the conventional classroom’. Finally, Jo Bridgeman, Law, Politics and Sociology ‘research guru’, tweeted ‘this was fabulous… the staff and student contributions were outstanding.’

Building Community Through Research: Changing Culture

Pointing to the potential for collaborative opportunities, Sabrina has since found research synergies with several students in attendance (including Daniel and Amanda from Year 1) and commented on how the event is likely to shape future projects between teachers with (not just ‘and’) students. ‘Your Teachers are Researchers’ transgressed the teaching-research divide in a unique and holistic way; it created a space of shared mutual respect where everyone’s voice was heard (hence, ‘student voices’), and everyone’s presence acknowledged. Without dialogue, there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education (Freire, 1970). In a similar vein, hooks reminds us that ‘it is not sufficient to create an exciting learning process. To generate excitement, is to ensure interest in one another and in hearing one another’s voices’ (hooks, 1994: 8).

Over the past three decades or so, forces both at a national and global level have tended to silence disparate voices and pull research and teaching apart (Barnett in Fung 2017). Siloed performance indicators such as TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), REF (Research Excellence Framework) and KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) remind us that so much of our lives are about measurement and thus control; this event was freeing in allowing us to relate in a creative non-regulatory way. Against the background of measurement, Fung calls for a different approach: a truly symbiotic relationship between teaching and research. This, she suggests, begins with explicitly inviting students, at all levels, to connect with researchers and the research environment (Fung, 2017). Involving students in shared spaces of dialogue and critical engagement is an integral part of the learning journey. The benefit of this shared dialogue, of course, is not unilateral. The symbiosis provides a dual benefit in the form of opportunity for authentic co-creation. In this space, students become partners, co-researchers and co-producers as opposed to passive consumers (see further Carmichael et al, 2020). There is, perhaps then, a move towards joint ownership and joint decision-making where students inspire research.

SLS, like many law schools, is following the trend of trying to ‘decolonise’ its curriculum. We echo Jivraj in recognising that this process of decolonisation will only happen through ‘doing’ relationality together in recognition of belonging. It was not our intention to ‘decolonise’ here – but this is the point. As Adebisi (2020) reminds us, ‘[d]ecolonisation is also a reflective practice in which we as academics much constantly adapt our own pedagogies and question our own practices’. That is what we were doing – reflecting on our practices and attempting a counter-pedagogy that resists the hierarchies of knowledge transfer and we did so also through an active recognition of the need to include voices from BAME students and staff (on the problematic construction of ‘BAME’, see further Adebisi 2019). Counter-pedagogy, performed in such organic and holistic spaces, provides possibility for a true reimagining of the core purpose of universities and that is a hopeful thing.

Conclusion

The presentations began with some bhangra, which Bal described as not simply gratuitous! But, rather, a manifestation of both ‘sonic intimacy’ (James, 2020) and resistance (given the roots of UK bhangra and its growth alongside race riots). These vibes remain with us – we created an intimate space and a space that resisted the normative boundaries of the staff/student relation. We hope to continue to challenge this binary and to grow the research culture at SLS with our students as we continue to do our research, teaching and encounters with each other otherwise

References and Further Reading

Adebisi, Foluke. 2019. The only accurate part of ‘BAME’ is the ‘and’… African Skies, 8 July. https://folukeafrica.com/the-only-acceptable-part-of-bame-is-the-and/

Adebisi, Foluke. 2020. The Law Teacher Special Issue on Decolonising the Law School. African Skies, 2 December. https://folukeafrica.com/the-law-teacher-special-issue-on-decolonising-the-law-school/

Barnett, Ronald. (2017) ‘Foreword: Energising an Institution’ in Fung, Dilly. A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education. London, UCL Press.

Carmichael P, Tracy F. 2020. ‘Networks of Knowledge, Students as Producers, and Politicised Inquiry’, in Dohn, NB, Jandrić, P, Ryberg, T, de Laat, M (eds.). Mobility, Data and Learner Agency in Networked Learning. Cham, Springer.

Freire, Paolo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum (revised edition).

Fung, Dilly. 2017. A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education. London, UCL Press.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education and the Freedom of Practice. New York, Routledge.

James, Malcolm. 2020. Sonic Intimacy. London, Bloomsbury.

Jivraj, Suhraiya. 2020. Decolonizing the Academy – Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Interventions, 22(4): 552-573. 

Staff Panel/Papers

Neemah Ahamed, ‘What Do They Call Me? On the Poetry and Lyrics of Audre Lorde and Nina Simone’ 

Matt Evans, ‘The neoliberal university and resistance in the current crisis’

Sabrina Gilani, ‘Material Rights and Embodied Cruelty: Encountering the Constitutionality of Capital Punishment’

Bal Sokhi-Bulley, ‘From Exotic to “Dirty”: How the Pandemic has Re-colonised Leicester’

Lucy Welsh, ‘Accessing justice in criminal courts. Is it all about legal aid?’

Authors

Verona Ní Drisceoil is a Senior Lecturer in Law (Education and Scholarship) at SLS. Verona is currently working on two projects. One, with Imogen Moore (Bristol), exploring ‘confidence, community and voice’ in law school transitions and another exploring inclusion, exclusion and hierarchies in law schools. This second project asks, ‘who is not in the room and why not?’.

Bal Sokhi-Bulley is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Critical Theory at SLS. She writes and teaches on critical approaches to rights, and is currently working on using the concept of ‘friendship’ to re-imagine rights in the hostile environment; this work features in her courses on Law and Critique, Human Rights: Critical Perspectives, and Migration Rights and Governance.

The neoliberal university and resistance in the current crisis

Photo of Matthew Evans
Matthew Evans

This post is by Dr Matthew Evans (Lecturer in Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and Visiting Researcher in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand). It draws upon and discusses the recent article: Matthew Evans (2020) ‘Navigating the neoliberal university: reflecting on teaching practice as a teacher-researcher-trade unionist’, British Journal of Sociology of Education 41(4), 574-590.

Introduction

Recently I published an article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (BJSE), entitled ‘Navigating the neoliberal university: reflecting on teaching practice as a teacher-researcher-trade unionist’. The article ‘reflects upon the neoliberalisation of higher education and its effects on teaching practice’ and ‘on the interrelationship of different scholarly identities and practices—as a researcher, teacher and trade unionist’.

In the article I ask ‘whether critical, emancipatory praxis is possible or if complicity in, and co-option by, neoliberalism is inevitable’ in universities. In response, I set out four approaches to navigating disciplinary power in the neoliberal university:

  1. ‘instrumental compliance’;
  2. ‘participation in and pedagogic reflection upon mobilisations such as strikes when they emerge’;
  3. ‘incorporation of critical and emancipatory themes and approaches into teaching’;
  4. ‘reflection upon the ways scholarly identities overlap and inform one another’, and (drawing on Agnes Bosanquet) ‘small targeted acts of resistance’.

Since its publication, I have been struck by how the article is both more relevant than ever and already out of date. I explore these tendencies here. First, I discuss some of the specific reflections which have been superseded, followed by a discussion of ways that the issues identified in the article are increasingly relevant. I then conclude with thoughts on possible future developments.

Specific reflections: already out of date

I wrote the first version of what became the article in mid-2018. Already, several of my specific reflections have been superseded or become out of date.

For instance, in the article, I wonder whether the ‘instrumental compliance’ of ‘submitting works for consideration for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (even whilst on a teaching-only contract)… might lead to promotion—or contractual recognition of research’. Since writing this, I have been promoted and moved onto a contract that recognises research – so it seems there were indeed instrumental, personal, benefits of compliance in this case. Nevertheless, much as this has personal benefits, such compliance also serves to reinforce the neoliberalisation of higher education which I argue against in the article.

There have, however, also been developments in the more collective (and arguably more hopeful) modes of navigating – and resisting – the neoliberal university such as ‘participation in and pedagogic reflection upon mobilisations such as strikes when they emerge’. The BJSE article included reflection upon participation in the 2018 strike by the University and College Union (UCU) over proposed changes to pensions. At the time of writing this was very recent. By the time the article appeared in print, however, there had been further rounds of strike action in 2019 and early 2020. These build upon and go beyond the activities I reflected upon in the article through, for instance, not only being over changes to pensions but also over pay, workloads, casualisation and equalities.

Furthermore, I wrote the article long before the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time the article was published, however, the pandemic was very much underway and ongoing. The reflections I put forward in the article are of the pre-pandemic era. Nevertheless, many of the issues and trends I identify have continued and intensified.  Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought issues highlighted in the article to the forefront, which I discuss next.

The neoliberal university: more relevant than ever

Since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the neoliberal university is perhaps more visible that it was. The scrabble for students (and therefore fees) in the wake of the exam results fiasco, alongside universities’ performance of ‘hygiene theatre’ in a bid to persuade student-consumers of the safety of campuses, highlights the ways in which universities are encouraged (even compelled) to compete with one another, engaging in and promoting neoliberal ideals rather than critical or emancipatory aims.

In the BJSE article I note that ‘meeting the neoliberal university’s expectations is linked, not only to employment, but also to health, wellbeing and—in extremis—survival’. This dynamic is clearer than ever. Staff (and students) contend with:

Implicit and explicit pressures exist to deliver face to face teaching or student support as universities continue ‘selling students the lie that they can have a full university experience in the current crisis’ (as UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady puts it).

Furthermore, universities have announced cuts, promotions freezes, job losses, and other ‘cost savings’. Along with concerns over the safety and wellbeing of staff and students, all of this has led to responses from trade unions, student unions and their allies. Some of these are grassroots, local and somewhat informal (such as the Crisis Justice at Sussex campaign), whereas others are more formalised and legalistic (such as UCU’s legal action challenging the Westminster government’s decision to ignore advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to move teaching online in English colleges and universities). These point to possible directions for future developments in resistance to the neoliberal university during (and perhaps beyond) the present crisis.

Conclusion

Responding to, and resisting, the effects of the neoliberalisation of higher education can take various forms. In the BJSE article, I focus upon two forms of resistance which are more individual (‘incorporation of critical and emancipatory themes and approaches into teaching’ and ‘reflection upon the ways scholarly identities overlap and inform one another, and small targeted acts of resistance’) and one which is more collective (‘participation in and pedagogic reflection upon mobilisations such as strikes’). I conclude that whilst for individuals ‘[s]ome scope exists to resist neoliberalism in teaching practice’, this is ‘structurally limited’. Therefore, ‘for an emancipatory, critical vision of education to be pursued most fully and most effectively, a broad collective struggle is necessary’.

The COVID-19 pandemic and universities’ responses to it reinforce this conclusion. What happens next is uncertain. However, one lesson I take from the environment that led to my article simultaneously increasing in relevance and becoming outdated between being written and published, is that circumstances are fast-shifting, and it is possible for things to get better as well as worse. To end on a more hopeful note, it is worth emphasising that mobilisations of unions and others in the current crisis suggest that the broad and collective struggles necessary for emancipatory and critical education may yet emerge.

What Kind of Justice for a ‘Global New Deal’?

[Republished with permission from Critical Legal Thinking]

Delivering the 2020 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres recently set out a wide ranging critique of the current global order, characterised by pervasive, institutionalised inequality, and failed, nationalistic responses to the global Coronavirus crisis. In response he has called for the reform and reshaping of global governance structures, for a ‘New Social Contract’ and a ‘Global New Deal’.[1] But what kind of justice is presented in the call for a Global New Deal?

In sharp contrast to the incompetence and the right wing populist bluster of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson the intervention by António Guterres is refreshing. Guterres presents the Coronavirus crisis not in terms of a ‘security emergency’, or a ‘war on the virus’ or a ‘conspiracy’, but starkly in terms of the failure of the post-war global political order which is beset by systematic and structural inequality. Guterres frames this inequality as multifaceted and intersectional, combining inequalities of wealth, gender, race and knowledge and stretching across populations and nations of the Global North and Global South. This is held in place by inequalities of political power within the institutions of global governance, across the UN Security Council and across the Bretton Woods institutions. Such inequality is the legacy of neo-colonialism and globalisation.[2] Guterres argues:

COVID-19 has been likened to an X-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat. Because while we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some of us are in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris.[3]

In response to the pandemic Guterres calls for the creation of a ‘New Social Contract’ based upon sustainable development, social protection through investment in public services like education and healthcare, affirmative action policies to redress gender and racial inequality, multilateral cooperation on climate change, and policies of corporate taxation and economic redistribution.[4] For Guterres this must go hand in hand with a ‘Global New Deal’, involving the reform of global governance institutions on the basis of ‘inclusive and equal participation’. Such a Global New Deal is to be:

[b]ased on a fair globalisation, on the rights and dignity of every human being, on living in balance with nature, on taking account of the rights of future generations, and on success measured in human rather than economic terms … [5]

Guterres’ call for the renegotiation of a global ‘New Social Contract’ and ‘New Deal’ can be thought in broader terms of Karl Polanyi’s idea of a ‘double movement’ with respect to forms of social struggle and the political and moral regulation of the economy. For Polanyi both social liberalism, and fascism, emerged in the 20th century as starkly differing reactions to the levels of social inequality, deprivation and international instability caused by widespread policies of free market capitalism and European imperialism.[6] The emergence of social democracy and the Keynesian welfare state in Western Europe and North America, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, was one set of responses to this. The mid-20th century social democratic regulation of capitalism in turn provoked neoliberal reaction and the subsequent political ‘disembedding’ of domestic economies and then the global capitalist economy from the 1970s to the present.[7]

Guterres’ response to the rapid rise of global inequality sits then within a broader landscape of social democratic efforts to push back against the human and ecological devastation that has been wreaked by 40 years of neoliberal globalisation. In this respect his call sits alongside domestic proposals of a ‘Green New Deal’ suggested by sections of the left wing of the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party. Guterres’ call also sits alongside the intellectual traditions of social democratic ‘cosmopolitan’ theory and policy across the fields of development studies, international political theory, international relations, and international legal theory. In this the register and principles of social democratic, Keynesian welfare capitalism developed in Western Europe and North America is drawn upon to rethink in liberal internationalist, cosmopolitan terms the reform and transformation of global social relations and the institutions of global governance and international law. In speaking of ‘fair globalisation’ Guterres’ call echoes key elements of this social democratic cosmopolitan discourse developed by figures like Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Pogge, David Held and Jürgen Habermas.[8] Broadly this is a vision of ‘global justice’ in which global capitalism is morally and politically regulated and put to use progressively for the benefit of the whole of humanity.

There is definitely some appeal to Guterres’ call to action, it is sprinkled with flashes of something more radical: the denunciation of the commodification of health and education; the recognition of the gendered nature of care in the home as unpaid work; the acknowledgement of the persistence of neo-colonialism. In this sense such a social democratic, cosmopolitan vision of global justice is more appealing than our current alternative marked by the failure and slow breakdown of the post-war global liberal order, rising nationalism and right-wing populism, and the ‘success’ of the Chinese authoritarian model of capitalist development.

Yet, there remains something fundamentally inadequate about Guterres’ call to action, which shares a set of limits and blind spots with the discourse of social democratic cosmopolitanism. Guterres’ account needs to be understood as sitting within a long tradition of Western scholarship and political action guided by the assumption that the fundamentally unequal and exclusionary idea of private property can be morally regulated, and, that the economic utility of self-interest can be channelled, regulated and made less socially destructive. Such a philosophical and economic narrative runs at least from Aristotle, through Cicero, Grotius, Smith, Keynes and Rawls, its contemporary language is that of ‘capabilities’, ‘socio-economic rights’, ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘sustainable development’.

Yet this long and dominant intellectual tradition is marked by far too little awareness of the forms of violence, exclusion and exploitation which sit at the heart of the systems of social reproduction that have underpinned the historical development of private property, the emergence of capitalist economies, and the global political and juridical order that sustains globalised capitalist relations. In ignoring or underemphasising the fundamental forms of violence, exclusion and exploitation that make private property, capital accumulation and capitalist social reproduction possible, the efforts to morally regulate markets and capital consistently become unhinged and plod on by justifying past and contemporary modes of exploitation through narratives of charity, welfare and future progress.

Thought of in this historical sense what is being pitched by Guterres is not so much a ‘new’ deal, but the repackaging of a distinctly old deal of the moral regulation of commercial society and capitalist markets updated with a few more nods to an expanded range of human rights, historical wrongs and a faith placed in environmental technical fixes. In many ways it represents a repackaging of a narrative of post-war Western economic prosperity and peace devoid of the key assumptions and presuppositions that made its brief moment of success possible: the successive waves of violent accumulation and dispossession domestically and through colonialism and empire; cheap resource extraction and environmental destruction; the exploitation of labour wherever it could be found; the exploitation of the unpaid, unrecognised gendered labour of women in the home; the exclusion of non-citizens from a small zone of Western prosperity and peace; and the holding of all of this together through the interventionist violence of US global hegemony.

Pitched against the ravages of neoliberal globalisation and rising tide of authoritarianism and right wing populism the repackaging of the social democratic old deal as a new deal may seem promising, but is this way of thinking truly up to the task of offering the world a plan to get to grips with the current overlapping set of crises facing humanity? The exploitation of the natural environment and biosphere, the exclusionary social relations of private property and capital accumulation, the alienation and exploitation of labour, the exploitation of gendered labour, the predatory operation of financial capital, the commodification of all things and humans, the cultural hegemony of market rationality, consumerism and individualism. All of this is hardwired into the current globalised system of capitalist social reproduction.[9]

To think of reforming and morally regulating contemporary capitalism as some form of global social democratic settlement might cure some of the ills brought by neoliberal globalisation, and might make some forms of poverty a little less severe. Yet it is also incredibly naïve to think that if we continue to gloss over and ignore the fundamental forms of violence, exploitation and exclusion that sit at the heart of contemporary capitalist social reproduction, our world could ever become anything radically different from what it currently is. It is also incredibly naïve to think that the old model of Western social democratic capitalism can be repackaged for the globe absent of the manifold forms of violence which made that slice of Western peace and prosperity possible.

Reflection upon the violence of capitalist social reproduction, and the moral rejection of this, has to inform any idea of an egalitarian and democratic global constitutional settlement.  Anything less, portrayed as ‘global justice’, merely scratches the surface and offers a bit of moral comfort while the exploitation and degradation of the earth and humanity rages on.

[1] António Guterres, ‘Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era.’ Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, New York, 18 July 2020. https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/annual-lecture-2020-secretary-general-guterress-full-speech

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

[7] For various accounts see: Fred Block, The Origins of International Economic Disorder, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Vol 4: Globalizations, 1945-2011, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, trans. Patrick Camiller, (London: Verso, 2014); Richard Peet, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO, 2nd ed. (London: Zed Books, 2009); Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste, (London: Verso, 2013).

[8] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, (London: Penguin, 2009); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008); David Held, Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus, (Cambridge Polity Press, 2004); Jürgen Habermas, The Divided West, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006).

[9] For differing accounts see: Stephen Gill, Power and Resistance in the New World Order, (Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2003); William I. Robinson, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law, Globalization, and Emancipation, (London: Butterworths, 2002); Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012).

Tarik Kochi, University of Sussex, is the author of Global Justice and Social Conflict: The Foundations of Liberal Order and International Law (Routledge, 2019).

What do we do?

[This post is by Alison Phipps (Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex) and discusses her most recent book, Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism. Republished with permission from Genders, Bodies, Politics]

‘What do we do?’ is the question I’m most frequently asked by readers of Me, Not You, and this question has become louder and more urgent in the past two weeks. Massive protests in the US and elsewhere against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others have brought the idea of abolition into the mainstream, and many white feminists are newly interested in fighting sexual violence without criminal punishment.

I am also at the beginning of a (life)long journey towards what Angela Davis calls ‘abolition feminism’, and the final chapter of my book shares what Davis and other Black feminists have taught me so far. For instance, there’s a thought experiment imagining a world without sexual violence (which would, of course, be a world without police and prisons), and some practical suggestions on how we could use that as our guide. This would be via what abolitionists call ‘non-reformist reforms’ – interventions that get us closer to, instead of further away from, our ultimate goal. I give examples of what these might look (and not look) like. The chapter also offers a ‘toolkit’ of questions white feminists can ask ourselves, to evolve our political action away from some of the problems identified in my book.

But despite this, the ‘what do we do?’ question persists – which suggests that perhaps readers are looking for more. What is this ‘more’, and why do some people want it? I’m not sure I would give it, even if I could. My book was intended to help readers understand the dynamics of mainstream feminism, not to offer a panacea (because one does not exist). It is not a set of instructions – I am not in charge of feminism, and as a middle-aged white academic I am definitely not interested in taking up that mantle. Bourgeois white women like me dominate mainstream feminism, but I am also struck by the fact that ‘what do we do?’ is most often asked by fellow privileged white feminists. I have several thoughts about why.

Whiteness and (the) social order

As I explore in my book, political whiteness both seeks authority and defers to it. The white will to power I write about can be satisfied by proxy, demanding an authoritarian response. We see this in white feminist calls for more police and longer sentences; we have also seen it during Covid-19, as while some white people have protested lockdown measures, others have informed on their neighbours for failing to observe them. Whiteness creates deep desires for both individual liberty and social control, and the impulse to call the manager or police to enforce the rules we need to feel safe sits beside our own need to be told what to do. The material and symbolic benefits we derive from the existing order also make it difficult and threatening to imagine anything different. As a result, we can get defensive: and demanding solutions are given to us can be a way of shutting down discussion of things we cannot face. It is what the CEO does when his staff bring him problems he does not want to have to fix.

The demand for pre-made panaceas also shows how neoliberal capitalist mentalities have permeated white feminist consciousness. We want instant gratification, something off the shelf. This is dangerous on many levels: grabbing at immediate answers can stop us from wrestling with important questions, and quick and easy actions are often ineffective. As I write in Me Not You, performative outrage, and calls to get rid of ‘bad apples’ from institutions or communities, are usually just forms of pressure release that enable oppressive systems and dynamics to continue. So is white self-analysis, if this is where we get stuck: Alison Whittaker and Lauren Michelle Jackson are among those who examine how white anti-racism more often constitutes navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and attempts to ‘renounce privilege’ and assuage guilt rather than work towards structural change. This is a re-centring of the self, not a genuine engagement with the Other.

As I say in my book, white feminists can – and should – take our lead from Black feminists and other marginalised people who are less attached to the way things are, whose imaginations are not so bounded and who model what Tina Campt calls ‘living the future now’. Black feminists have long tried to tell us that the view from where they are is much clearer than we can comprehend. Patricia Hill Collins famously called Black women ‘outsiders within’; bell hooks has written about her own experience of ‘looking from the outside in and the inside out’. I love Gail Lewis’ description of how, from the margins, it is possible to see across an entire field of vision – whereas from the centre one has to keep turning around and about. This is why many groups located on the margins are already working to formulate the answers white feminists want handed to us on a plate.

But we cannot expect more marginalised feminists to just hand us these solutions: political programmes have to be collective and developed through dialogue. We all need to do this work – and echoing Mariame Kaba, I think perhaps not enough of us are currently doing our small part. I join Kaba in her request that we all ‘work together to think through something different’, adding that white feminists should listen more than we talk, and acknowledging that thinking through something different is a long, hard slog. It is a lot easier to identify problems than to develop ways to tackle them (and I say this to myself as much as to anyone else). As I write in Me, Not You, ridding the world of sexual violence is not going to happen in my lifetime, or yours. But we can all do our own small part to move towards it, not further away.

Doing my small part

For the past fifteen years my main activist focus has been tackling sexual violence in universities. This work has included collaborating with Susuana Amoah and others at the National Union of Students, engaging individual institutions across Europe in research and training, and forming the Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) collective with Liz McDonnell and Jess Taylor. CHUCL aims to help universities reshape their structures and cultures so equality policies can be more meaningful, and so they can deal more effectively, and less punitively, with problems such as bullying, harassment and violence. We have not got very far yet, but we are in it for the long haul.

As we move forward with CHUCL, I am trying to keep an abolition mindset. This means refusing to become what Audre Lorde called the ‘master’s tools’ (in other words, being used to preserve oppressive systems even while we claim to dismantle them). This can happen in various ways. For instance, CHUCL research on structural and cultural problems in universities has been used as evidence they have already been solved (what Sara Ahmed terms ‘non-performativity’). Universities have reacted defensively and demanded we provide instant solutions, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility. They have defaulted to individualised forms of diversity training which are presented as ‘taking action’ but do not address, and instead conceal, the deeper issues we have pointed out. Key questions for us are: how do we help universities take responsibility for and tackle their own troubles? How do we build institutional capacity to deal with unacceptable and violent behaviour? And the big one: how do we push for real structural and cultural change?

We are taking our lead from survivor-led community accountability and transformative justice approaches that have worked in other contexts, but many institutions are a long way from having the capacity to implement these. Complete success would require a collectivist, rather than a capitalist, university. Of course, we are not going to get one soon – but we are thinking hard about ways to work towards it (and whether we even should, especially given universities’ complicity in racial capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism and slavery and its afterlives). We have a lot of failure ahead of us before we can even imagine something that looks like success. But we are doing our small part.

We all have to do our part, if we want to change the world. So if something has struck you in my book – whether it has inspired you or made you feel uncomfortable – I am delighted, but you must consider if and how you want to act. If you do decide to act, make sure you start small. Reflect on, and work to undo, how your own actions perpetuate systems of oppression (and that includes saviour modes of ‘helping’). Use your privilege and/or your money to do one thing for the benefit of more marginalised people every day (and thanks to Mariame Kaba for this principle, which has been a touchstone in my more chaotic moments during Covid-19). When there is a crisis, step up. Through these actions, educate yourself on issues, think about the better world you want to build, and learn about – and from – those who may already be building it.

Building feminist futures

When your imagination is liberated from what is, when you are better able to visualise what could be, think backwards to something you could realistically work towards yourself sustainably and longer-term. You might be able to find a group of like-minded feminists organising towards the same thing, who you could support with your time and money. If you can’t find one, create one. Your action could be as simple as setting up a neighbourhood collection for your local food bank (it is difficult to eradicate violence while basic needs are not being met). Or you might decide to get involved in action against prison expansion or to free incarcerated survivors. You might even work towards implementing a transformative justice programme in your community, organisation or institution. As you take action, you could use my toolkit regularly to check in with yourself. And although there should not be gatekeepers, seek out visionaries to guide you.

I cite many of these visionaries in Me, Not You – you can look to Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and lots of others besides. Our feminist tomorrow is also being envisioned by the young Black feminists and others currently on the streets protesting police murders and demanding abolition. It is being envisioned by the young activists and authors producing resources for the fight. For instance, Lola Olufemi’s new book Feminism, Interrupted offers a manifesto for a different, and truly radical, feminism. Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, sets out practical strategies for tackling sexual violence without criminal punishment. Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes is a compelling argument for decriminalising sex work, one legislative advance that would eradicate a huge amount of violence and that we could all be campaigning for. These dynamic young feminists are not going to give you instructions either, but they do provide rich food for thought – and the future of feminism lies with them.

As we move towards this feminist future, there will be no easy answers. The problems with mainstream feminism have been well and truly exposed (and by many others both now and before me), but we are still figuring out how to solve them. And although white bourgeois feminists may need to get our own houses in order first, when we are ready, we will need ongoing conversations between feminists of all positionalities: younger and older, differently classed and raced, trans and cis, differently abled, sex-working and not, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight, and more. These discussions would be led from the margins but everyone would have a voice; there would be space to question, learn and grow; and most importantly, talk would lead to action rather than being an end in itself. I am deeply invested in doing my part to facilitate this this journey, and will probably be asking some tough questions of fellow white feminists (and myself) along the way. And I will pose one back to you now: what do you want to do?

This blog was originally posted on the Manchester University Press website – if you buy the book from MUP and enter the code OTH583 at checkout, it is currently 50% off (which is £6.50 plus P&P). 

A Violence Which Must Be Named (Critique in Times of Coronavirus)

[Republished with permissison from Critical Legal Thinking]

by Tarik Kochi • 29 April 2020

Across the UK two narratives currently dominate and frame much of the critique of the British government’s current response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The first is that of incompetence. The story so far unfolding is that of a government which has ignored both the World Health Organisation’s advice and the experience of numerous other countries in their approach to limiting the spread of Coronavirus, as well as ignoring earlier recommendations and warnings within UK government commissioned contingency planning. The picture is that of a Prime Minister and Cabinet drastically out of their depth, with little experience of crisis management or detailed planning. It is an image of a government disorganised, acting too slowly, ignoring the pleas of many within the NHS, incapable of rolling-out mass testing, and therefore actively contributing to a death rate which is much higher than neighbouring countries like Germany.

A key figure in the narrative of incompetence is the persona of Boris Johnson, the spoilt public schoolboy, the chancer. He is a politician who is a master of grand rhetorical flourishes but who has previously shown (as with the case of Brexit and Northern Ireland) that he possesses little by way of mastery of detail. This picture, commonly presented in liberal-left newspapers like The Guardian, is now even being briefly sketched by the News Corp owned The Sunday Times with an account given of Johnson failing to attend a number of Cobra crisis meetings in January and February as worries over a global pandemic started to grow globally[1].

The second intertwined narrative of critique is that of a British government acting within the framework of a right wing nationalist, Brexit ‘populism’. This is less dramatic perhaps than that displayed in the USA by President Donald Trump, but is still visible in Boris Johnson’s early dismissal of social distancing and the boasting of having shaken everyone’s hands on a visit to a NHS hospital. The predominance of an attitude which tipped its hat to Brexit populism can be found in the way the British government dragged its heels in late March 2020 in imposing a social and economic lockdown. Johnson expressed a reluctance to lock the country and economy down as it was contrary to British ‘liberty’ and this took place even as the level of mortality rose dramatically in Italy and Spain.[2]

The story of British populist nationalism pervaded British government attitudes to refusing to initially join EU procurement schemes for ventilators and personal protective equipment. Populist nationalism seemingly guided also the favouring of British ‘branded’ firms like Burberry and Dyson in the as yet unsuccessful production of key equipment, in the reluctance to advise the general public to use face coverings, and in the jingoistic championing of the NHS as a public ‘wartime’ effort. Such government championing of the NHS is of course detached from the reality of continued government failure in properly supporting the NHS and community public health provision with adequate resources, equipment and testing. As such the British government’s response is still guided by an agenda of right wing nationalist culture war. The NHS is portrayed by both the Conservative party and the tabloid press consistently in patriotic, jingoistic terms – and never, contra the Brexit logic, as a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan institution, highly dependent upon the labour of immigrants. Generally there is a sense then that key figures within the British government have been so shaped by a mind-set of the proceeding years of populist, nationalistic Brexit campaigning that they are unable to either understand or respond to the Coronavirus crisis in any other way.

However, while there is a great deal of truth in the twin narratives of incompetence and right wing populist nationalism, there is a danger that this focus alone, and the focus upon the persona of figures like Johnson or Matt Hancock (or Trump in the USA), obscures a deeper truth to the current crisis. This truth is a history and contemporary persistence of neoliberal ideology and rationality which has shaped, guided and blinkered the actions of the British government. Incompetence and populist nationalism take place then in the context of a neoliberal world view which has turned a dangerous and deadly virus into systematic social violence. Political, security and public health strategy shaped by the context and persistence of neoliberal ideology amplifies social, economic, class, gender and racial inequalities and does so to expand the pool of those who are vulnerable to and institutionally unprotected from the threat of death from Covid-19. Neoliberalism does this by framing the ideas of social protection and the public good in such a way that the value human life is always relative to and lesser than the value of capitalist accumulation.[3]

The British government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis, guided by the current dominance of neoliberal rationality within the Conservative party and across sections of the civil service, has to be placed in the historical context of 40 years of neoliberal restructuring and social transformation.  Over this period the institutional capacity of the NHS, the wider public health system, local government, and community and social care provision have been stripped apart and drastically underfunded through policies of austerity. Many of these institutions have been partially privatised, their reservoirs of institutional knowledge depleted through job losses and outsourcing to the private sector, their information systems and coordination mechanisms fragmented and rendered inefficient and sometimes inoperable through years of moulding and shaping in accordance with the logics of market competition. In this key respect the incompetence of the current British government response, papered over by patriotic rhetoric, is a result of the deep institutional failures of the neoliberal state and the devastating consequences of a 40 year project of neoliberal state building, social reorganisation and the production of neoliberal subjectivity.

One dramatic example of the British government’s approach has been the early policy of allowing the infection to spread in the hope of generating a form of ‘herd immunity’. While this has been rolled back somewhat via social distancing, aspects of this policy are still in play during the current lockdown through the absence of widespread testing and social contact tracing.[4] Such a policy places the vulnerable, such as the elderly either in their own homes or within care homes, as well as those with serious medical conditions, subject to a roulette wheel of contact with medical staff, carers and family members. So far the majority of medical staff, paid carers, and family members providing care (many who still have to travel to work) have had no access to either testing or the technologies of information sharing via contact tracing.

The policy of working towards herd immunity cannot be disconnected from attempts to secure the buoyancy of the capitalist economy. This approach (allegedly initially supported by Dominic Cummings[5]), continues to play a role in current debates over the easing of the lockdown and typifies the ‘biopolitical’ operation of neoliberal rationality as identified by Michel Foucault.[6] In this the population is managed as a herd, some are left to live and others left to die based upon utilitarian projections of an ‘acceptable’ level of deaths ranked against the costs of protection, and against the potential damage to the capitalist economy. For the most vulnerable, unprotected by widespread testing and tracing, this amounts to what Achille Mbembe more sharply terms the activity of ‘necropolitics’[7] – a politics of death which of course operates in far more extreme terms across the Global South.

The reality of the current operation of a neoliberal necropolitics is the threat of death intensified by economic inequality and economic vulnerability. Hence in contrast to advertisements for the middle classes suggesting they spend their lockdown following online yoga sessions or cooking a day-long ‘isolation Middle Eastern lamb roast’ with ingredients bought from Tesco, life for the poor in contemporary capitalist society is rather different. Those who are forced to travel to and from precarious, low paid work, or live in cramped homes full of extended family members, or survive on meagre state benefits or state pensions or foodbanks, are already fully subject to the systematic violence of the neoliberal state. If they fall ill, in turning up to an underfunded and under-resourced hospital they are forced to face the deadly consequences of the systematic violence of the neoliberal state all over again. Further, if and when the pandemic calms the burden of public debt, newly incurred by the government to prop-up the economy, subsidise wages and prevent mass bankruptcies, will no doubt be unevenly loaded upon the shoulders of the population in renewed measures of austerity and more savage cuts to what remains of the welfare state. As with the previous round of pragmatic, state intervention to bail out the banking sector in 2008, the costs of this debt burden will impact the greatest upon those already suffering economic and social disadvantage.

As this crisis rolls on, develops, changes, what must be remembered, critiqued and held to account is the violence of neoliberal ideology and the many different manifestations of neoliberal rationality and strategy. Against the dementia created by the production of neoliberal subjectivity, the waging of culture wars, the cult of political personality, and the jingoistic chants of nationalistic populism, the systematic social violence of neoliberal thought and political action which is shaping and intensifying this crisis must be named. As with the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis, it would be naïve to think that the current crisis will somehow automatically erode the hegemonic hold of neoliberal ideology over contemporary social and political thought. Rather, throughout the pandemic and any subsequent economic crisis the proponents of neoliberalism will most likely assert ever more strongly a value system which sacrifices human dignity and social equality for the sake of capitalist accumulation. Whether this takes place through new and greater levels of austerity, strategic forms of internal structural adjustment framed as ‘resilience’, or as the intensification of neoliberalism’s populist nationalist turn, this is a violence which must be named, called out, and contested.

Tarik Kochi, University of Sussex, is the author of Global Justice and Social Conflict: The Foundations of Liberal Order and International Law (Routledge, 2019).

[1] Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott, and Jonathan Leake, ‘Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster’, The Sunday Times, 19 April 2020.

[2] Fintan O’Toole, ‘Coronavirus has exposed the myth of British exceptionalism’, The Guardian, 11 April 2020.

[3] For differing accounts of neoliberalism see generally: David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (OUP, 2005); Stephen Gill, Power and Resistance in the New World Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); William I. Robinson, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (CUP, 2014); Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2014); Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015).

[4] Anthony Costello, ‘Despite what Matt Hancock says, the government’s policy is still herd immunity’, The Guardian, 2 April 2020.

[5] Peter Walker, ‘No 10 denies claim Dominic Cummings argued to ‘let old people die’’, The Guardian, 22 March 2020.

[6] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-79, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[7] Achille Mbembe,“Necropolitics”, trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no.1, (Winter 2003), 11-40.