Towards democracy?


Chapter 11 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

In previous chapters I have described power systems with which higher education is intertwined. But so what? What's wrong with the state, capitalism, etc.? Isn't higher education pretty much all right the way it is, aside from a few needed reforms?

This is not the place to present an indictment of power structures, but a few illustrative consequences can be listed.

* War. In modern societies, war is organised violence between military forces waged on behalf of states. Much academic research serves to develop military technologies and organisation. More importantly, much academic knowledge, by its direct application or ideological use, serves to bolster the power of the state.

* Economic exploitation. This includes the allocation of the economic product, which results in unemployment and poverty for some. It includes alienating labour, which is imposed on workers by job structures that are designed to maintain managerial control. It includes priorities for economic investment that are geared for profit rather than social use. It includes ruthless exploitation of poor people in poor countries by the diversion of resources into completely inappropriate and often corrupt modern sectors. Much of the economic exploitation in capitalist countries is the result of the capitalist system, which itself is closely linked to state power. Much academic knowledge and training are oriented towards serving this system.

* Occupation stratification. Academic credentials are part of the overall system which allocates people to occupations in a way which seems to be based on merit but actually legitimates unnecessary inequality.

* Patriarchy. Academia by and large reproduces the system of male domination.

There are of course many other social problems, ranging from political repression to racism. My point is that present-day society is very far from being the best of all possible worlds, and that higher education is linked to the dominant social structures which are at the root of many major social problems.

What is the alternative? That's the big question, and one that has many answers. One standard answer is that there are no real alternatives: military preparations are necessary to defend against the communist (or capitalist) threat, economic inequality is necessary to maintain economic growth, and so forth. Another standard answer is that the basic structures are all right, but considerable reforms in them are required: arms control agreements, policies to overcome inequality of opportunity, and so forth.

My own view is that the major social problems are not going to go away simply through reforms - and even achieving reforms is a major enterprise. Reforms can be useful, but more fundamental changes are required. (The problems with slavery went deeper than nasty and unscrupulous owners.) What these changes are is another big question.


One possible alternative goes under the name of self-management, which essentially means people directly controlling the basic conditions of their own lives. Self-management provides a general goal for many feminists, environmentalists, anarchists and others. Although initiatives towards self-management seldom have a high political or intellectual profile, they are pervasive in all sorts of grassroots arenas, not least in the educational field.

Here is my own picture of self-management. Some of the basic desirable features of a self-managed society are:

* guaranteed provision of material needs (food, shelter, clothing);

* opportunities and encouragement for all to engage in satisfying labour;

* opportunities and encouragement for all to participate in decision-making at a local level;

* social justice, including elimination of power or privilege based on factors such as gender, ethnic origin and age;

* nonviolent means for settling disputes and for defence of the community;

* environmentally sensible life styles;

* opportunities for learning, artistic and spiritual activities.

This is only a partial list, but let me proceed to what it is likely to mean in practice.

One feature would be that production facilities would no longer be owned and controlled by a few. Instead, decisions about production and work would be made by workers and members of the community. Private ownership of goods might still be thought desirable, but the control of other people's labour would not be permitted.

Work would be decentralised to a much greater degree than now. Instead of goods being produced centrally, designs would be encouraged which enabled people to easily build and repair their own goods. Another feature would be a greater reliance on community facilities: public transport, washers, power tools, boats, hot water heaters and garden plots for groups of households.

There would also be less specialisation in labour tasks. Instead of being forced to do lifting or typing all day to earn a living, people would be able (if they wished) to engage in a variety of tasks.

Finally, formal hierarchies would not be the basis for relations between people: no one would be able to exert power over others by virtue of their position alone. Expertise, exceptional ability, experience and leadership would still exist, but they would not form the basis for formally constituted authority. Instead, people with expertise or other skills would exert an influence on decision-making through their utility to the group. Members of groups constituted for large-scale decision-making might be chosen as revocable delegates, or by lot.

In such a society, people would have more control over their lives. With decentralisation and local production, it would be natural for decisions about work priorities, community development, health and education to be made by the local communities concerned.

Local control serves the community's interest and also makes life vital and stimulating. A good way of deciding how society should be structured is to try to maximise each person's direct influence over the important decisions which may affect their life.

In such a society, no one would be forced to use communal facilities or to adopt a number of work roles. What would be different is the social structures that make it easy for people to do some things and harder to do others. If it were easy to enter a different occupation, more people would do so. There is no question of forcing people to change their needs or preferences. But what can change is the social structures through which people express their needs and preferences.

Is such an alternative society viable? It is impossible to say for sure without creating the society and seeing if it works. But there is quite a lot of evidence suggesting the value in moving towards self-management. Anthropological evidence shows that societies have existed in which organised violence does not occur. Furthermore, these nonviolent societies are much more egalitarian than violent societies. This suggests that warfare is a product of social systems rather than innate drives. Research on industrial democracy and job design shows that high economic productivity is quite compatible with an organisation of work in which workers collectively control their efforts. Indeed, productivity is often much higher without managers. It is also technically feasible to have local self-reliance in energy, transport, food and production of goods. And so on.

'Research shows' that self-management is possible, viable and a jolly time for all! Well not quite. There are still a lot of gaps in the vision of a self-managing society: much of it remains a vision. One problem is how to organise large-scale decision-making in a way which maintains grassroots participation and does not allow a power elite to develop among representatives. There are ways and examples of doing this, but more study and experimentation need to be done. Another problem is allocating the economic product: can a system be set up in which people voluntarily choose to abide by the principle 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs'?

Another issue is pluralism. In a self-managed society there would be a great diffusion of power, and this would permit the development of considerable diversity within and between communities. For example, one group or neighbourhood might foster a particular interest in the visual arts while another might make a special study of computer systems. One community might encourage collective living while another might be built around private life styles for individuals or small groups. Pluralism and diversity sound nice, but do they give too much scope for development of the oppressive village mentality in which individual expression and social innovation are discouraged and in which power systems may be built around sex, ethnicity and so forth?

These and many other questions remain to be answered. Few academics have done much to help answer them.

It is often argued that the precise details of a self-managing society are not so very important, since they will be decided by the people involved. I think this argument is a cop-out. Nevertheless, it is possible to move in the direction of self-management without knowing the precise end point, using the anarchist principle of incorporating the ends in the means. If the goal is participatory decision-making, then groups promoting this goal should base their own decision-making on participatory means such as consensus. If the goal is a nonviolent world, then the means used to attain it should be nonviolent.

This may seem to be an obvious principle, but it is surprising how many major policies and social structures are based on the alternative principle that the ends justify the means. Attaining 'peace' through military build-ups is an obvious example. Another is helping the poor by giving money to the rich under the guise of promoting economic growth. Another is building 'communism' through increasing state power. Yet another is promoting curiosity and the love of learning through compulsory schooling.

Retying knowledge

What would be the role of knowledge in a self-managed society? The bulk of present-day specialist knowledge which is tied to privileged groups is clearly unsuitable. The alternative is knowledge which is widely accessible, understandable and useable. Instead of knowledge being oriented to the interests of privileged groups, it would be designed to benefit people in a participatory democracy.

This does not mean that knowledge is neutral, which can never be the case. All knowledge is more useful for some purposes than for others.

The alternative to present-day tied knowledge might be called 'democratic knowledge.' As nice as this sounds, I think the terminology of 'democratising knowledge' carries a misleading connotation, namely that what is required is to make it possible for anyone to use the knowledge. But that is hardly sufficient: what point is there in democratising knowledge about how to torture people? The aim should not be merely to spread existing knowledge around to more people - in other words, to 'untie' it - but rather to create and spread knowledge which is especially suitable for democratic purposes. This is a project of 'retying' knowledge: designing its form and content so that it is relatively easy to use in ways which benefit the collective interest and harder to use in ways which benefit special interests at the expense of others.

A typical body of tied knowledge is that embodied in a computer-monitored production process - such as computer key boarding - in which the workers are subject to control which they cannot understand or alter. Simply telling the workers how the computer manager works will not help them all that much, unless they understand enough to disable or reprogramme the computer as part of industrial action for better conditions. What is needed to overcome the subordination of the workers is knowledge of a completely different type, which would tell them how the work could be organised so that word processing is only a part-time activity for anybody, and so that all workers are involved, if they wish, in a variety of tasks, including 'managerial' tasks. Also valuable is knowledge about how to struggle for such changes in the workplace. The alternative to 'knowledge for managerial control' can be called 'knowledge for self-management' or 'knowledge for democracy'.

I have been focussing on knowledge, but that is not the only or the most important factor in power systems. Self-management must confront the power of property, the power of formal positions and the power of conventional socialisation, among other things. But knowledge is increasingly interlinked with these other forms of power. That is where higher education fits in.

There are quite a few students and academics and some outsiders who are involved in higher education and who want to work for 'progressive' social change. What can they do?

One thing to do is to build alternative structures, such as learning networks, which embody desired principles. This sort of activity is vitally important. But I want to focus on challenges to existing structures, which are also vitally important. What can activists in higher education do to help promote self-management?

Some of the standard reforms do not really offer very much. One of the major thrusts of educational reformers over the past several decades has been to open up higher education to all classes and groups, notably working class, ethnic and female students. Closely related to this are the efforts to overcome discrimination in academic employment itself, in particular the domination of white middle-class males. These goals are laudable. But even if they could be achieved - which seems unlikely - they would not challenge the structure of academic hierarchy and privilege itself, nor the links between academia and the state, capitalism and the professions. The main difference would be that the groups of people who would obtain privileges through academic credentials would contain a larger proportion of women, minorities and those with working class parents.

The basic roles of higher education are in legitimating the occupational structure and the allocation of people to slots in it, and in providing knowledge which is jointly useful to academics and powerful outside groups. Critical reforms must challenge these roles. Here are some changes that would undercut the role higher education plays in supporting oppressive power systems.

(1) Tie knowledge to non-elites. This would challenge the links between higher education and elites in the state, corporations and the professions. Instead of pseudo-neutral academic knowledge that is selectively useful to powerful groups, a true pluralism could be the goal. The idea would be to maximise the freedom to tie knowledge in different directions, and especially to those groups lacking social and intellectual resources.

(2) Establish academic democracy. This would replace the power systems based on internal hierarchy, patriarchy and domination of students. Decision-making would include all interested individuals and groups in a participatory way, including non-academic groups. Academic democracy might be accompanied by an equalising of salaries at the level of the average wage.

(3) Abolish credentials. This would remove the role of higher education in providing occupational filters and legitimating economic inequality.

(4) Open academic facilities to non-academics. This would help to overcome academic knowledge monopolies. Open facilities could be linked to a programme of education with production, thereby overcoming the separation of routine and supervisory (intellectual) labour.

Carried to completion, a programme of this sort would spell the end of higher education as we know it. But such a programme cannot be contemplated in isolation. Even to make steps in these directions would require major efforts that would depend on parallel efforts in other spheres. The value of spelling out a programme for challenging the fundamental in egalitarian power relations inside and connected with academia is that it provides criteria for evaluating the direction and effectiveness of immediate campaigns. For example:

(1) Tie knowledge to non-elites. Consulting for trade unions or unemployed groups helps in doing this; remote academic studies of industrial relations do not.

(2) Establish academic democracy. Equal participation of staff and students in departmental decision-making is a step in this direction; limited student representation on governing bodies is of marginal relevance; promoting women to elite positions in itself does nothing at all to promote democracy.

(3) Abolish credentials. Providing more resources for voluntary recurrent education (without credentials) makes a contribution here; getting more working class students into higher education does not, nor does the stiffening or weakening of course requirements.

(4) Open academic facilities to non-academics. Inviting outsiders (without formal qualifications) to join in research projects is a step in this direction; changing the level of tuition or scholarships is not.

In the remaining four chapters, I examine strategies to change the function of higher education. Rather than use the goals just listed - which are not seen as goals by more that a few activists in academia - I structure the discussion by focussing on four commonly used approaches: making policy changes, doing critical teaching and research, setting up alternative educational programmes, and linking with social movements. These are not the only approaches, but they are very common ones. Although my preferences will be obvious, I should say that I don't reject or endorse any of these approaches without qualification. The aim in analysing strategies should not be to find the correct strategy and to dismiss all others, but rather to gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of particular courses of action that are feasible for particular individuals and groups in particular circumstances.

Academic activists?

If knowledge for self-management is the goal, who is going to help achieve it? Certainly only a few supporters will be found among the elites in the state, corporations, professions and academia itself. The basic thrust from these areas is towards solidifying elite control. (That does not rule out fierce battles between elite groups over funding, admissions and institutional autonomy, battles which are really about the control exercised by different elite groups.) Even so, there are a few people inside dominant social structures, such as state bureaucrats and educational administrators, who do what they can to promote self-management. Those in these 'insider' positions, even though they face difficult constraints and awkward compromises, often can do quite a lot, especially in providing support for activists on the 'outside'.

Among academics, only a few tenured staff are interested in any social action which breaks with the normal patterns. Those who are willing to act are in a powerful position: they can use their academic status to undermine the power systems which link academia to other elite groups. Nontenured staff - which include a high percentage of women and minorities - are much more likely to become radicalised due to their precarious positions and experience of discrimination. They are also vulnerable to the lure of an academic career on the one hand and the demoralisation of falling by the wayside on the other.

While many academics have progressive views on a range of social issues, only a tiny fraction actually become involved in social action at a grassroots level. If they do become involved in social action, it is much more likely to be in professional or bureaucratically organised groups, such as professional lobbies or social democratic political parties, which allow them to use their special skills.

Quite a few academic intellectuals with radical ideas are notorious for their allergy to personal political action: "before acting, it is necessary to study and understand better the objective political and economic conditions". This is a familiar problem for intellectuals: the paralysis of analysis. As Saul Alinsky once wrote, they discuss and discuss and end in disgust.

Students provide more hope. Because they are not so tied to careers and because many of them have high ideals for intellectual matters, students have been in the forefront of many struggles for justice and equality. Even so, it is usually only a small minority of students who are politically active, as indeed was the case even during the height of student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The conditions of students' lives are favourable for social action. They have free time, contact with new ideas and like-minded people, and places and causes for becoming involved in political activity. On the debit side are continual pressures for study and assessment, the competition for credentials, and insecurity about future careers.

Two groups among students may provide a special stimulus for change. One is women. They encounter and experience the system of male domination in academia which is contradicted by beliefs about merit and opportunity. Some of them act to oppose their subordination, using support from the feminist movement, including academic women's studies programmes. The feminist challenge to academic patriarchy occasionally becomes a wider challenge to academia itself.

The other group is so-called mature-age students. Many of them enter higher education to learn, not just to obtain credentials. They are less likely to acquiesce in being treated as children.

Finally, there are quite a few non-academics - such as trade unionists, feminists and minority rights campaigners - who are unhappy about the present uses of higher education. They have little to lose by trying to change such an entrenched system. Nevertheless, their actions on the outside, which apparently have little to do with higher education, may have the greatest impact of all. For example, the alternative health movement poses an ongoing threat to the legitimation of medical professionals through credentials.

Higher education is a useful place to promote self-management because of the increasingly important role knowledge plays in society. People connected with higher education are in a good position to help retie knowledge and to support struggles against monopolisers of knowledge. But, on the other hand, higher educations not a uniquely important place for this struggle. It is simply one place out of many to challenge the local patterns of patriarchy and hierarchy. Similarly, it is simply one place out of many to help build alternatives to state power, capitalist power and professional power. It is not even an especially effective place to seek to overcome class inequality, since the educational system only shuffles people into different slots in the wider system of inequality. But although social revolution is very unlikely to be brewed in the academic cauldron - cups of tea are much more likely - academia is one place to work towards democracy.


On the indictment of academia and its links to other power systems - a topic on which much was written during the peak years of the student movement in the late 1960s and early 1970 - see for example Theodore Roszak (ed.), The dissenting academy (New York: Random House, 1967) and Immanuel Wallerstein and Paul Starr (eds.), The university crisis reader (New York: Random House, 1971).

The following treat aspects of self-management.

Daniel Guerin, Anarchism: from theory to practice (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970). Historical examples and arguments for anarchism.

A. H. Halsey, 'Schools for democracy?', in: John Ahier and Michael Flude (eds.), Contemporary education policy (London: Croom Helm, 1983), pp. 191-210. Yugoslav self-management in industry and in schooling.

David Morris and Karl Hess, Neighborhood power: the new localism (Boston: Beacon, 1975). On neighbourhood self-management.

Colin Ward, Anarchy in action (London: Allen and Unwin, 1973; Freedom Press, 1982). The case for self-management.

Trevor A. Williams, Learning to manage our futures: the participative redesign of societies in turbulent transition (New York: Wiley, 1982). A report and analysis of academic work to promote self-management in industry and in education.