Strike writing: on civility and solidarity [updated]

I wrote this in December 2019, facing a general election bogged down in Brexit, anti-Semitism, and dog-whistle politics; worn out by helplessness at the end of a year of political despair. The gains hard-won through our last industrial action seemed to be slipping away, our employers refusing to budge and the trustees of our pension funds treating us with contempt. We were furious. We took strike action for eight days and things changed. Talks restarted. We saw an apparent willingness to listen and heard sympathetic noises on matters that won’t cost too much or be easily tested. In the end, however, we have met with intransigence from our employers. We have made some progress, but not enough, and we are out on the pickets again. This time feels different: less anger, more quiet determination. It is difficult for all involved. I am genuinely distressed on the part of my students, who are suffering a severe interruption to their studies. I’m also persuaded by the argument that civility makes friends (thank you Dr Fergus Neville!) and we are standing on the picket lines with new comrades.

I took this post down for a while to reflect. But I see the very tactics that so provoked me played out on grander stages. In politics, for example, our Prime Minister urges us to be friends and unite Britian as he forces through the most divisive and hard-right political agenda in living memory. Be nice too easily means be quiet; civility remains a potent mechanism of control. We Brits are just too damn polite, overburdened by our bourgois heritage.

So here it is again in (nearly) all its intemperate rage

It’s Monday, noon. The morning has gone well: big turnouts on the picket lines, much solidarity from colleagues and students. In east Fife we stood in the fog and the dreich, and the bagpipes played; Stephen Gethins, our MP, turned up and wished us well and fussed my dogs, who are now staunch SNP hounds; our twitter is flooded with pictures of pickets and placards. The Second Great University Strike is underway. And now I’m home. It’s quiet, the dogs are sleeping off their exertions, and I am at my keyboard; I have things that I am trying to think through and, academic that I am, I do not know how else to do so. Strike writing.

The topic in hand is civility. Specifically, the repeated injunction from the institutions for which we work that we should approach this dispute in a ‘civil’ manner. At the risk of boring the reader, let’s recap for a moment why we are striking: a sustained assault upon our pension scheme, a significant real term drop in our salaries, inequalities of race and gender, casualization, temporary contracts, general workload and the accompanying audit practices. These are just the headline-grabbers that the union put on the ballot paper. Our profession is in tatters, with stress and overwork rife. Everywhere I hear that enough is enough, that something has snapped, that the social contract around higher education is not so much broken as in smithereens. Our employers’ refusal to negotiate has driven us to industrial action where we stand to lose eight days of salary in the run-up to Christmas. I am sure I am not alone in feeling pretty uncivil about this whole affair.

What then the justification for civility? It seems to me that we can parse the word in several ways. Let’s start with the most innocent. Managers in our institutions are understandably worried about keeping the wheels on the cart in the short term. After all, we will all be back at work next Thursday. If, with inflammatory words and intemperate behaviour, we torch the caravan completely (a metaphor, of course) it will be difficult to convene a faculty committee, let alone get students through the rest of their year. The call for civility is a bid to salve intra-institutional relations. But the strike is predicated on the fact that the wheels are coming off the cart anyway, if they haven’t already done so. It feels to many that the whole has been dragged along on its axles for a fair way already. If a colleague can’t participate in industrial action because they are on a short term contract and are worried about their visa, treating them cordially (as we certainly will) won’t do much to compensate for the institution’s structural inequalities.

I’ve noticed calls for civility coming from both sides of the dispute, and here’s a second sense of the word. Civility occupies a particular place in the lexicon of liberal discourse. It represents a Habermasian ideal, where deliberation is the political virtue-of-virtues, and civility forms a necessary part of its practical application. If we can’t be civil, we certainly can’t discuss. The problem is, of course, that the very possibility of democratic deliberation presupposes the existence of a set of institutions to support it. While Aristotle could rely upon his agora being there next Monday, we can’t be so sure; contemporary commentators point out that the political and economic climate of the last decade has corroded institutions to such a point that liberal thinking no longer makes sense. This looks increasingly true in our own corner of the world: civilised debate and scholarly engagement, fine virtues indeed, are predicated on the existence of the ‘University’ as an institution. We are striking because we believe that institution is itself under threat, if not already irretrievably damaged. It makes no sense, then, for us to hold ourselves to its norms, precisely when those who manage our institutions feel no need to play by the same rules. For evidence I offer the readiness of universities to use the law to close down protest, a course of action that is neither civil nor dialogic.

In this we see another parsing of civility, as a mechanism of control. The extensive literature of civility in political discourse (students reading take note – there is always a literature!) is quite aware of this aspect. Andrew Calebrese’s astute reading of the problem follows Weber and Elias in seeing ‘civility’ as part of the state’s monopolistic apparatus of force. It screens off the incivility and coercion that lie beneath disparities of wealth across the globe, and more recently at home. The civilizing process was – is – a project that seeks to naturalize unequal social relations, underpinned by the ‘symbolic violence’ of unjust conditions mutely accepted. From this perspective, it is civility (and the demand for civility) that is most toxic: ‘liberalism’s greatest pathology,’ Calabrese writes (p.540), ‘seems to lie in an article of faith, namely, a belief against all evidence to the contrary, that the ends of social justice are most effectively pursued through means of a shared commitment to certain formal procedures for negotiating our differences, however incommensurate these differences may be.’ In our world, this symbolic violence exists in the disparity of institutional power between we who are striking and our masters, such that a senior manager might – most civilly – threaten redundancies and closures, leaving us voiceless in reply. The vice chancellor who offered his support of staff in their right to peaceful protest let the cat out of the bag; while their protest must be limited to peaceful means, his reply need not be. Symbolically, at least, but this is exactly what old Bourdieu was on about.   

There is a further, fourth, reading of civil, one that locates its genesis in the birth of the modern market economy, among the bourgeois virtues of the eighteenth century. Civility signifies a set of virtues that belong to and underpin the market. The American economist Deirdre McCloskey’s famous essay, ‘Bourgeois Virtue’ (1994 and more recently a book), argues that the market inculcates its own virtues – that the necessity of repeated exchange and of satisfying customers in order to earn a living, demands the virtues of pleasantness, trustworthiness, and reliability. This is a good thing, she writes (p.181): ‘We happily take what the market gives – polite, accommodating, energetic, enterprising, risk taking, trustworthy people; not bad people’. The market civilizes us, not least because we must talk: civil dialogue is the basis of commercial exchange. Though some of her examples sit wrong twenty-five years later (‘Donald Trump offends. But for all the envy he has provoked, he is not a thief…Trump does good by doing well’. Truly, yes, see p.182) McCloskey drives home her argument: we are all bourgeois now. More recent contributions to the sociological analysis of markets agree that markets create moral worlds. They take a Durkheimian approach, recognizing morality as social fact constructed in specific group or institutional settings, but the upshot is the same. The virtues of civility are the virtues of the market.

I noted above that the backdrop to the strike is the marketization of our sector. It is reasonable to say, then, that the nascent market in higher education valorizes a kind of morality that McCloskey would find inherently civil: polite, accommodating, energetic, entrepreneurial, trustworthy, reliable. These are certainly the qualities that the NSS – another audit device – seeks to perform. It would seem also that injunctions for us to be civil are injunctions to adhere to such a moral code – and indeed, why not? Who wouldn’t want such a colleague?

Well, most of us. The market demands a particular kind of agency. It is built on individual action, calculations of risk and return, and freedom of choice. The calculating market agent would never strike. The downside is tangible and concrete, while the upside is risky and unclear. Far more sensible to free-ride, allowing others to bear the costs while remaining guaranteed a share of any benefits. As for collective action, the game of prisoners dilemma tells us that it is foolhardy, especially when its outcomes are so uncertain. The market demands trust, but only in line with contractual agreements, and these are what strikes violate; the market-savvy employee knows it is best to work. Market relations are paid-for relations, the stuff of emotional labour: the smile of the barista at six in the morning, or the ‘how can I help you?’ of the shop assistant. McCloskey sees this latter as a testament to bourgeois virtue, but we all know just how insincere those words can be.

As Martin Nickson has recently and eloquently argued, university managers are in thrall to the dogmas sweeping business elsewhere. In fact, with their predilection for squeezed employees and weak contracts, universities increasingly resemble the very worst kind of business, and the entrepreneurial, accommodating, energetic, polite employee looks ever more like the downtrodden gig-worker. The competitive logic of the market has leaked into the institution: as entrepreneurial micro-firms, we lapse into an agonistic relationship with our colleagues, one made bearable only by insincerity. Moreover, markets are predicated on choice, and freedom to choose. When we are enjoined to be civil in our protests, we are being asked – often explicitly – to respect the choices of others. They may be self-interested, bourgeois choices that in many cases disadvantage a collective cause, but we are left with no vocabulary to express our dissatisfaction. Such matters are simply, well, regrettable. The injunction to be civil is one to play the market agent, to bite back our words and smile ‘How can I help you?’ as we outmanoeuvre our peers. It is a strategy of division and dominance, another mechanism of control.

What then for civility? McCloskey argues that we have two other options, the aristocratic virtues of the ancient Greeks, unfashionable after Ypres, or the plebeian virtues of St Paul, excoriated as slave morality by Nietzsche. We are all bourgeois now, she writes – smiling, courteous, entrepreneurial, insincere. That isn’t what I experienced on the picket lines, not this morning, or in March 2018. There was anger, freely and eloquently expressed, solidarity, integrity and care. There was laughter, there were bagpipes, and tomorrow, if we can remember the words, there might even be song. There was a feeling of participation and belonging. Frankly, it was most uncivil. Long may it last, and to my more civil colleagues: it’s not too late to lose your manners. Join us in the cold, the wet, and in solidarity.