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  • Response 4: The Summer of Our Discontent
  • Caroline Edwards

I write this response on the eve of another wave of industrial action in the UK in November 2022—the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) “UCU Rising” campaign, the latest in a series of regular disputes over pay and working conditions, the gender and ethnicities pay gap, and casualisation that has been ongoing since 2018. In 2022’s “summer of discontent,” we’ve seen our rail, maritime and transport workers, airport staff, bus drivers, telecommunications workers, postal workers, nurses, refuse workers, and higher and further education staff engage in ongoing industrial disputes with intractable bosses. Even criminal barristers continue with an indefinite, uninterrupted strike after years of government cuts and chronic underinvestment. Everywhere you look, there is a palpable sense of a country on its knees. It’s nearly 100 years since the last General Strike of 1926 and in the UK it’s looking increasingly likely that we will have another General Strike on our hands soon. In “Two Cheers for Blueprints, or, Negative Reasons for Positive Utopianism” Antonis Balasopoulos contextualizes this within the longer economic durée of the shift from Fordist production to so-called flexible accumulation after 1972, writing in this issue that “the turn of capital to the faster and higher [End Page 554] profits involved in financialization rather than infrastructural and industrial investment, form much of the objective, structural ground for what can only be described as the rapid rise of a dystopian structure of feeling in western societies since the early 1970s.” Antonis’s brilliant summary reminds us of the monumental scale of the challenges facing utopian thought and praxis in our current moment. Make no mistake—the “crisis ordinariness” of everyday life under late capitalism that Lauren Berlant identified in Cruel Optimism (2011) has intensified in the years following the Global Financial Crisis (2007–8), the wave of Occupy protests in 2011, and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic (2020–). “For some time now,” as Antonis writes, the utopian goals of “happiness, fulfilment, [and] emancipation . . . have been out of the question altogether.”

It’s hard not to agree with this assessment, given the current chaos of life in the UK. Adam Stock’s roundtable contribution “Funding Utopia: Utopian Studies and the Discourse of Academic Excellence” focuses on the academy’s complicity with the neoliberal financialization of what were previously protected as public goods (education, our health service, transport infrastructure, and so on) over the past three decades. As Adam notes, the rhetoric of “excellence” that has come to dominate all areas of university life—teaching, research, public engagement, and the quantifiable “impact” of university research beyond the academy—is really just another way of using competition to mask the market logic of scarcity. Swingeing cuts to publicly funded research have led to a scarcity of resources in scholarly knowledge production, which is legitimated through the discourse of “excellence” and “prestige.” Only a handful of elite research leaders are granted awards and the value of all research becomes judged by its proximity to this distribution (concentration) of wealth within a small number of institutions. Defending education as a public good has long given way to the desperate, existential struggle for survival at UK universities. Numerous institutions are on the brink of bankruptcy, which was the goal all along for the ideologically driven Office for Students (OfS). Market exit, as they euphemistically term it, proves market efficiency.

At my own institution, Birkbeck, University of London, the challenge to utopian thinking is all too violently clear. Birkbeck has a special place in the UK higher education system—a university founded nearly 200 years ago in the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand (it was called the London Mechanics’ Institution back then) to offer education to working-class Londoners that [End Page 555] fitted around their busy working lives. As my colleague Joanna Bourke writes in Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People (2022), life expectancy in the poorest parts of London was just twenty-nine years; cholera, typhoid, and typhus were major killers; and illiteracy was widespread. At Birkbeck, we are the only university to teach evening classes and offer the requisite support...