David Graeber’s three social principles – hierarchy, exchange and communism – are useful devices to think about the world, particularly when you become sensitized to the way in which one can turn into or mask another. One site of human interaction that may be illuminated by Graeber’s principles is the modern university: perhaps especially the British version which has evolved from nominally democratic modes of governance to extremely hierarchical ones within a generation.
When I started my career, institutions were funded by a block grant from government, which they were largely free to do with as they wished, and departments often functioned (with disciplinary variations) according to a combination of exchange and communism: there was a rough division of tasks and some tally was kept of who was doing what, but not so precisely as to consititute a real market. If you did extra one year, you might hope to cash in your credit next year, but you couldn’t claim it as a matter of entitlement. This system had only recently succeeded a very hierarchical one in which a single patriarch was “the Professor” and could tell everyone else what to do and exempt himself from teaching undergraduates. The formerly hierarchical system was, however, democratic further up the ladder, since the patriarchal professoriate essentially ran the universities.
The democratic period after the fall of the patriarchs, although now looked back on by those who see universities as, ideally, “communities of scholars” turns out to have been only a brief interregnum. In the UK, we moved to an increasing conditionalization of funding (the taxpayer expects something in exchange for the money), a system of hierarchically-imposed production targets (the various research assessment exercises) and market competition among universities for academic “talent”. These talented souls bought in at a great price could then (at least for a time) dictate personal terms that undermined departmental communism. So it goes.
The increased conditionalization of funding has also given power to a management layer (the elite vice chancellors and their teams) who can mediate with the funders (government and industry) and need to force their employees to meet the production targets and whatever other desiderata flow from the realities of funding, realities that these managers also create through doing things like lobbying for student fees (or sitting on the Browne Review). Democratic structures of university governance are an obstacle to “efficient management” – a “luxury” “we” can’t afford – and, anyway, they tend to fall into disuse as now time-pressured academics cease to attend. (Incidentally, academic contribution to the wider society also falls away as people are increasingly focused on their narrow research and haven’t time for other stuff.)
Internally to the universities, pseudo-market accounting mechanisms are widely applied to departments (or larger units) now conceived of as cost-centres. Many of these units are permanently in debt, debts that they have no realistic prospect of ever discharging. Since they are in debt, they are in no position to argue with or resist the demands of senior management presented as requirement of market rationality: exchange begets hierarchy via debt again. Creditor departments (often the STEM subjects) regard themselves as (a) virtuous and (b) hard-done-by, as they too are being overworked, but think that this is largely to subsidize the lazy humanities and social sciences. With virtuous creditors set against sinful debtors (“Germans” versus “Greeks”) no basis exists for cross-institutional grassroots co-operation, for democracy or, indeed, communism. Which suits the managers nicely. They, in turn, as the essential mediators with the “real world” are much in demand, or so they claim, and deserve to be rewarded according to “market principles”.
Of course, it is tempting to get all indignant about this and to wish for the restoration of the more democratic and communistic elements of academia (and I often do). But it is important to note that this transformation has not largely occurred as the result of a power-grab by bad people, but, often, as the result of incremental application of the seemingly irresistible demands of rationality. There’s a Foucauldian story here too. It seemed reasonable for government to demand some kind of accountability for taxpayer funding, and accountability brings with it systems of accounting. Suspicions of cronyism and unfairness during the “democratic interregnum”, coupled with memories of the patriarchal era, brought with them demands for comparability, standards, transparency and so forth: standards needed consistent application. Complaints of administrative overburdening of academics brought forth specialist administrative teams and “efficiencies of scale” (which were often less efficient in practice, but the leakage of power had happened) and, anyway, we wanted to concentrate on what we do best (not that, given targets, expectations, and vastly increased student numbers we had much choice). All did not run headlong towards their chains but many did, and for those taking the decisions the aim was usually not to institute a new kind of university but rather to solve this resource problem or that, to secure some funding, to ease someone’s burden, etc. There were many micro-decisions and a lot of them not only seemed, but actually were, quite sensible at the time they were taken, at least within the constrained perspective available to those making them.