Philosophers united against cuts

Students and academics meet at Institute of Contemporary Arts to discuss university department closu

It was only a matter of time before the protests of 1968 were alluded to in the Nash Room at the ICA yesterday evening. After an academic year that has brought mounting opposition to cuts in higher education, an impassioned crowd of students and academics from across the country had convened at the arts centre for a debate -- "Who's afraid of philosophy?" -- to discuss how to oppose department closures.

Since January, when £2.5bn worth of cuts was mooted, joint student-staff protests have been staged at the University of Sussex, at King's College London and at the University of Westminster, all of whose humanities departments have borne the brunt of attempts at savings, with philosophy departments made to feel particularly vulnerable.

This month, plans to axe the highly regarded philosophy department at Middlesex -- one of the most successful in the university -- prompted a 12-day student occupation of the Trent Park campus. Among those expressing their support for the campaign were Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky.

Last night -- five days after the students were evicted from the building following a high court injunction -- Professor Alexander Garcia Düttmann of Goldsmiths, University of London, warned that the protests at Middlesex represented much wider discontent with a managerial culture that forces researchers to prove their worth in quantitative and economic terms.

"Many of us are fed up with the way in which philosophy, the humanities and higher education more generally is treated by university managers and administrators . . . Whatever [subject] cannot account for its measurable success and whatever does not bring in money has no longer a place in the university, we are told.

"[The idea] that every aspect of academic life, a life now determined by the imperative of getting external funding, can and should be assessed and monitored . . . is a fiction that leads to arbitrary measures, as can be gauged by the decision to close a centre for philosophy that was actually successful according to the adopted criteria," Düttmann said.

In the view of Peter Osborne, senior lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex (who stands to lose his job), closures are being made at the behest of "new university managers and administrators [who] are the organic products of a new capitalist regime" in higher education. And philosophy, "functioning emblematically for the open-endedness of experimental research and unmeasurable quality of intellectual inquiry", has become "the temporary resting place of a capitalistic dread".

Professor Alex Callinicos of King's College London praised the co-operation between academic staff and students in organising the protests. Nina Power of Roehampton University urged campaign organisers to probe funding bodies such as the HEFCE themselves.

"Academics live in daily morbid fear of not getting research grants and approval from these bodies," she said. "We need to find out who makes up them, what they stand for, and why on earth they are unelected."

Readers can follow the ongoing campaign to save the Middlesex philosophy department here.

UPDATE: Good news for academic staff at King's College London, who, after staging a walkout this month, have been told there will no longer be compulsory redundancies in the School of Arts and Humanities.

In a document accessible via the university website, university administrators said: "At the end of the Consultation period, the School has identified the savings required by means other than compulsory redundancies; these include a range of voluntary severance packages, relocations, early retirements, non-replacement of retired staff, and the replacement of retiring staff with early-career academics."

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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