Social media reassures me I’m not alone in my fascination with Sussex VC Adam Tickell’s role in the current university crisis. As Tom Slater put it, it’s disturbing to realise that “someone who is capable of such excellent critical analysis, expressed with such elegance, has now become an appalling neoliberal VC, who is apparently treating his striking staff with sneering and arrogant disdain”. His quote from a 1995 paper about “slaying the neoliberal beast” has done the rounds on social media and Tickell has been held up as an example of an avowedly radical academic turned neoliberal manager, raising an obvious question: what happened? Were his politics merely a sham to win the approval of his peers? Has he somehow persuaded himself his current actions conform with those politics? Is it merely the case that his politics have changed? Or does reaching such a position necessitate insulating one’s working life from one’s politics in a manner which ensures such cognitive dissonance won’t be an impediment to your day job?
These are questions which have fascinated me for a long time. As someone who spent over a decade at the University of Warwick, I found myself asking them about Nigel Thrift on many occasions. The most pronounced occasion was when the release of Thrift’s co-authored book, Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left, coincided with a particularly active period of political protest on campus. The university sought to remove occupying students and forcefully resisted their demands precisely as the vice chancellor opined about the importance of the political and the necessity that new openings be taken up by the left. Not long after this police called to campus attacked occupying students in an act of needless brutality. As I tweeted at the time, his own book contained an account of state power and violence, as well as a call to recognise the creativity of those working within mediating organisations. If I read him correctly, he offers a turgidly polysyllabic but theoretically compelling account of why he should have been held responsible for these actions:
Nigel Thrift explaining state violence pic.twitter.com/8jzSoF2G6p
— Mark Carrigan (@mark_carrigan) December 4, 2014
In the absence of an in-depth qualitative project which seek to understand the personal morphogenesis of vice-chancellors, it will be difficult to ever reconcile these questions. The occasions on which I’ve discussed these questions with those who’ve actually spent significant amounts of time with such people, including at least one who had been in pretty senior university management, leave me assuming the worst about the people concerned. Nonetheless, I find a default assumption of the venality of power unsatisfying. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to look through Tickell’s work to see if there are signs of his later development in his early analysis.
I since found Tom Slater, co-editor of The Sociological Review, had the same idea and this makes me wonder if such analysis could be an interesting exercise in the sociological analysis: the sociology of ideas to inform a biographical analysis of the political economy of higher education? It is obviously the case that we cannot read back an individual’s motivations and commitments from their writing in a straight-forward manner. This is particularly so when it comes to the peculiar conventions of academic writing, as well as the limited audience of peers to whom such writing is primarily directed. Nonetheless, I think it’s feasible to bracket those considerations and take the writing seriously as an expression of belief, in order to understand the possible ramifications those beliefs had for the individual’s subsequent choices and trajectory. To that end, here are some beliefs expressed by Tickell in his Reflections on Activism and the Academy:
- It is important to distinguish between different varieties of capitalism. Even if we might agree that capitalism is the enemy in the abstract because we see it as an inherently exploitative system based on inequality, we must recognise “that the living standards of people can both improve and deteriorate within the system”. For this reason, we identify neoliberalism as “the most potent threat” while recognising the limitations of what we can do and the compromises necessary to do it.
- It is important to “work at the community level, to use people’s understandings of the problems and potentials of their lives in order to help them to improve their lives” but we have to recognise “the potential achievements at the microlevel are limited”. We can no more solve problems such as homelessness or widening inequality through action at the community level then we can by writing papers, even if our action may be components of a broader solution. Neoliberals “operate on the national and international levels” so “neoliberalism needs to be resisted at these levels.
- “It is not enough to understand, we must act on our understandings”. This action inevitably involves compromise and engagement on different levels with the “complex, multifaceted structure” which is the state. Purity is not an option if you want to make a difference. Much as the state can be “detrimental and reactionary” it is not necessarily so and a fatalism about power obscures the opportunities we have to exercise an influence over it. What might make sense on an “abstract level” becomes indefensible on a political level for Tickell, as someone who “would opt for a welfare state any day”.
A lowering of expectations follows from these points, with Tickell suggesting that “perhaps we should set our sights a little lower than capitalism and attempt to slay the neoliberal beast”. In fact, it’s not clear even this is his ambition, as he ends with a call which is not mutually exclusive but nonetheless somewhat different: to strengthen civil society: “we need to help in the construction of a new, better meso level social order which may involve collaboration with the state and even with capital (itself a contradictory phenomenon)”.
From anti-capitalism to anti-neoliberalism to strengthening civil society in the space of a four page essay. If this deflation of ambition happens within the context of radical writing, what hope was there to sustain a critical outlook over the course of a career? Tickell sets up his radicalism in terms of a realism which would always be deflationary: bracket ‘abstract’ considerations in order to focus upon the opportunities available in this particular moment and the capacity we have to realise them. It might follow from this that we seek to extend our capacity to realise these concrete steps, congratulating ourselves on avoiding the abstractions in which our colleagues are mired in while we make a real difference to the world. What could be better than running a university for someone committed to strengthening the meso-level social order in a practical and immediate way?