This insightful reflection on academic strikebreaking captures something very important about the contemporary politics of higher education:
The disavowal at work here is stunning in its mundanity, the fact that it went unremarked as it was stated. ‘The union should adopt different tactics – but I will not join the union’; ‘I support the strike – but I am not going to strike myself’; ‘the cause of the strike is just – but I renounce the basic means of resisting injustice’.
There is no reason why academics should be any more logical about these matters than anyone else. But I wonder if the gaping holes in these responses are, at least in part, a result of the shaping of academic subjectivity by the capitalist university. We are engaged in a profession which claims to promote something above instrumentalism – and it is precisely this which is our instrumental role. We have to play the games of preparing students for employment, and raising money for research, but we keep an internal distance from these things. We cynically despise them (and often despise the students who do not measure up to our ideals), whilst committing ourselves to a system which believes in these things on our behalf (cf. the Zizekian analysis of contemporary belief).
However, it is this internal displacement which produces the figure of the contemporary academic. This person is invested in an ethic of scholarship, which actually leaves them without a language or imagination for addressing the material conditions of higher education, beyond that of an ultimately ineffective idealism. The melancholy of the modern scholar over the marketization of education is therefore neither a form of resistance nor mere nostalgia, but a fabricated affect essential to the mediating role we play.
Of course, I generalise hugely, and we can all think of many exceptions. I am not suggesting that our bureaucratised unions or existing left groups offer any panacea. Nevertheless, higher education has been, and will continue to be, marketised and instrumentalised, and the vast majority of academics will (grudgingly, cynically) put up with it. And our ethic of scholarship is of no use. It is the same ethic which is able to abide such logical inconsistencies and lack of solidarity when it comes to strikebreaking.