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Let’s Build Leftist Academic Solidarities to Rebuff Far Right Attacks

To defend space for justice-based scholarship, we must challenge the individualizing logic of the corporate university.

Student activists from the various CUNY campuses across New York City hold a rally in front of Hunter College to demand divestment from Israel, the resignation of the CUNY board, free tuition, and student debt cancellation.

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The onslaught of five decades of relentless neoliberal reforms directed at public universities has aligned those institutions with the profiteering agendas of global capital while simultaneously shrinking dramatically the space for academics to fulfill their public roles as intellectuals. Paradoxically, as the global zeitgeist of neoliberal knowledge production has orchestrated the transformation of universities as propagandists for the free market, rife with entrepreneurship hubs and incubators for settler colonial/neo-capitalist experiments, the global right has organized systematic campaigns targeting academics engaged in public conversations on the raced, classed and gendered roots of neocolonial/capitalist knowledge.

The rise of the far right, mainstreamed through the hegemony of populist authoritarianisms globally, draws upon and in turn, unleashes, coordinated attacks on academics carrying out justice-based scholarship. Orchestrated digitally and mainstreamed through media platforms, these attacks are materialized through brick-and-mortar political-economic infrastructures that bring the disinformation/hate campaign to the university.

One tweet interrogating the hegemonic flows of colonial/capitalist power can turn you into the target of a digital disinformation campaign, as right-wing networks of anonymous internet users, funded by powerful political and economic groups, attack your life and livelihood. A white paper or policy brief in the public domain can turn your life upside down, making you the target of viral disinformation campaigns coordinated by far right hate groups, political parties and commercial funders overnight. You wake up to fake websites attacking you, digital attacks releasing your private information, and your mailbox full of threats of physical and sexual violence, including death threats. These digital infrastructures of disinformation and hate targeting academics are often run anonymously and are globally networked.

Within this climate of growing disinformation campaigns targeting academics, the power and control over the university held by risk managers and media professionals has turned public scholarship into the site of surveillance and management, replete with authoritarian techniques of control and erasure. Risk and reputation form the two key ingredients that fuel the corporate university, continually calibrating its managerial strategies while responding to the populist climate that is built on the premise of undermining knowledge.

An academic under attack from the far right can quickly find themselves alone, needing to respond to multiple requests for information from university technocrats, and struggling to just keep up with the disinformation. In many instances, the support from the university turns into facile prescriptions of self-help. In other instances, the university washes its hands of its duty to care for the academic under attack. In yet other instances, the university gives in to the demands of the far right, launching investigations, issuing disciplinary actions and even firing the academic being targeted.

How then can spaces for justice-based scholarship be secured, sustained and propagated across the neoliberal corporate university? How can universities be transformed into fulfilling their public roles as spaces for raising critical and inconvenient questions that interrogate power?

To articulate claims for justice and to raise questions that challenge the status quo, academics must turn within to find courage. However, this courage is rooted in the wider collective, necessitating that academics go public in securing support for justice-based public scholarship.

Friendships Beyond the Walls

Seeing academic work as collective work is at the heart of building and sustaining spaces for carrying out justice-based scholarship within the context of ongoing neoliberal transformations of university life. Building infrastructures of care that offer embodied support and nourishment as collective resources is vital to securing the lives and livelihoods of academics that become the targets of attacks by the far right. This infrastructure offers joy, kindness and security that are vital to offering comfort amid the targeted attacks by the various streams of the far right, nourishing us with strength and courage.

The enclosure of neoliberal universities by the individualizing logics of competition has disconnected academic life from public spaces of resistance. Corporate universities have increasingly become walled off, rife with ever-expanding building projects that separate them from the wider communities in which they are located. The managerial turn works precisely to detach the academic from the community.

To safeguard justice-based public scholarship therefore is to reject these enclosures, turning to friendships beyond the parochial confines of the university.

Solidarity emerges from the many friendships with activists who embody courage in their everyday practices of questioning structures, offering insights into strategies for sustenance, and offering guidance on ways to raise uncomfortable questions in spite of the threats mobilized by powerful forces. The everyday struggles of survival that activists negotiate offer immensely valuable pedagogies for survival within the toxic climates of corporate universities that have been re-organized to serve the power of the free market. Moreover, these activist networks come together amidst crises to plan strategies of resistance that challenge the campaigns mobilized by the far right, building frameworks for sustaining the strategies of resistance.

In my own public scholarship, I have drawn on friendships with activists in learning strategies of resistance and sustenance. From late-night conversations to strategic planning over weekends, infrastructures of activist organizing are vital in offering ongoing resources for challenging the forces that seek to silence us. When I have been targeted with a wide array of threats, including organized campaigns by powerful political and economic forces, my capacity to speak has been sustained by strategies of resisting repression such as petitions organized by academics and activist networks, letter writing campaigns, researching the attack strategies and writing about them in white papers and policy briefs, tracking the disinformation and reporting it, raising complaints about the harassing organizations and media, and engaging in media advocacy. When I have been targeted by disinformation campaigns, working alongside activists has been vital to building strategies for resistance, rendering these strategies public, sharing the strategies with academic and activist collectives, resisting the disinformation and hate on the platforms both individually and as collectives, and holding universities to account.

Community Struggles

Justice-based scholarship is sustained in the dignity, struggles and organizing of communities at the global margins.

That we must look beyond the university and into the generative capacities of community life in order to return our universities to our public roles is one of the most salient learnings for justice-based scholarship. Turning to the theories of decolonization — such as Kaupapa Māori theory, for instance — teaches us the power of theory emergent from within struggles and collective organizing. The rhythms of community life offer anchors for organizing knowledge, situated amid practices of occupying land, growing food and sharing resources. Justice emerges from the struggles of those who have been marginalized, laying claims to knowledge amid the violence of erasures.

Repression of voices at the margins is one of the most insidious strategies for sustaining and perpetuating inequalities. For those at the margins who have been systematically denied access to resources and erased from spaces of participation, turning to courage is an everyday act that challenges the silencing strategies catalyzed by those with economic and political power. Voicing out how the repression works and identifying the sources of the repression dismantles the silences that are circulated by colonial/capitalist power.

From Indigenous struggles against ongoing expansion of neoliberal extractivism, to feminist struggles among landless women farmers against the neoliberal attacks on food systems, to the various intersecting anti-racist struggles, to the struggles against exploitation among low-wage migrant workers, those who are speaking from the margins are manifesting enormous courage. It is this collective courage held in communities at the margins that forms the bedrock of justice-based scholarship. It works as a reminder that for structural transformations to take place, radical imaginations must be voiced.

Academics with the freedom, privilege and resources to raise these questions must intervene into the structures of power and control that constitute the corporate university. Critical interventions into the public sphere are fundamentally necessary when we place ourselves in academia as seeking to address social justice in our scholarship.

Struggles to Transform Our Universities

Most importantly, unless the neoliberal university is transformed, there is little hope for securing the spaces for carrying out justice-based scholarship.

Our everyday organizing therefore should turn to methods of collectivization that challenge the individualizing logic of the market-driven university.

The attack on academic freedom internally by professional-managerial technocrats who have no understanding of the academic mission of the university must be challenged and dismantled through collectivization.

The anti-intellectualism of shallow cost-effectiveness calculations must be thoroughly challenged. When technocrats seek to impose constraints on academic freedom and limit it, processes should be built for holding them to account, including measuring their performances on their understanding of (and advocacy for) academic freedom, and demanding their roles be circumscribed. Technocrats must be held accountable to elected academic bodies such as senates and academic boards, having to create annual academic freedom reports and be measured on the basis of these reports.

We should be asking questions that interrogate the staffing of managerial positions in areas such as risk management, audit, governance, media, reputation management and data management. We should interrogate the ways in which data are gathered and decisions are made. The power held by technocrats must be the site of our agitations within universities, with our unions organized to question technocracy in decision-making processes that directly impede academic freedom. In a neoliberal climate where senseless managerialism has shaped the broader approach to risk management in universities, sustaining justice-based scholarship calls for disrupting the power of technocracy through collectivization.

Academics doing justice-based scholarship should join unions in spaces where unions exist, and should organize to build unions in spaces where they don’t exist. Moreover, unions should be continually educated and engaged in the conversations on academic freedom.

Dismantling the technocracy that inundates the neoliberal university forms the basis of reorganizing university leadership in the affective registers of care. I have personally witnessed the ways in which the wider affective network of support offered by academic leaders at my university has sustained my public interventions. When academic leaders embody care, they create the infrastructures for raising claims to justice. This translates into steadfast assurances of support and sustenance even as the university negotiates threats that are directed at it because of the public scholarship of academics.

In sum, collectives and communities are the essential ingredients of scholarship seeking to make an impact on the unequal terrains of power and control that constitute injustices globally, nationally and locally. This recognition is vital in de-centering the individualized model of scholarship that prevails in the academe, and in turning toward the role of academia in working alongside struggles in seeking justice, working collectively and collaboratively to transform neocolonial neoliberal structures.

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