This book is a collection of our writings authored individually or jointly during the writing, but mostly following publication, of our co-authored Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes (UNSW Press, 2010). They cover a broad range of topics concerning the writing and practice of history, the social and political roles of historians, the nature of the modern academy and of academia, and biographical and autobiographical portraits. In common is their linkage to the writing of our book, and to robust discussions and feedback following its publication. In common too is a conception of the scholar as an activist, taking part in public discourse and movements for social change.
The pieces were published in a variety of online and paper-based publications and sites, their circulation boosted by our uses of social media and various data bases. So far as the modern Australian academy is concerned, and we have honorary associations in this system, these sorts of publishing outlets tend to be frowned upon, and the use of them discouraged. They fly under the radar of career determining algorithms and ratings’ convolutions, systems which limit, restrain, and confine humanities’ academics in particular, regarding what they write and publish.
While Rowan had previous experience of online journalism and commentary, for Terry it was a new world, his long involvement in writing, editing and publishing confined to the traditional paper-based world of academia. It was our publisher of Radical Sydney at the time, Phillipa McGuinness, who strongly suggested as we came to the pointy end of publication, that if we wanted our book to be successful it would be advantageous if we took to social media and became proactive in promoting the book, rather than letting the publisher do all the running. So we jumped in, and with increasing confidence expanded our online work and visibility. Suffice to say, at the time of writing the book is still in print and selling after a decade; not an insignificant achievement in the world of Australian publishing.
The immediacies of online publishing and feedback, and the reach, nationally and internationally of our online work were enjoyable and appreciated. The data bases we used provided ongoing statistics regarding views, downloads, the location of users, and the use and citation of our works. It was feedback well beyond that of the limits of our paper-based experiences. And as we variously dealt with copyright issues and put more of our respective back-catalogues of work online, they too benefited in terms of exposure and use.
We had come to the writing of Radical Sydney as labour historians, but from different biographical and work-related backgrounds. Rowan’s work had largely been conducted outside of academia in trade union and social movement publications. That said, during the writing of the book he was also engaged in doctoral work (successfully completed in 2013). Terry’s long and successful work, on the other hand, had been conducted within academia, in peer reviewed journals, books and forums.
We had co-authored previously in the 1960s and 1970s as new leftists, but now spent considerable time in the new century working at creating a common and seamless voice, and a form of historical writing that was at once authoritative, instructive, enjoyable, and readable by audiences beyond the specialist niches of academia. A result of this process was the focusing of existing reservations and disquiets we both had about historical writing, in particular labour and social movement history, and about academic knowledge production generally within the modern neoliberal academy, and with its dissemination.
We adopted the term ‘radical history’ for the type of historical research and writing we saw ourselves engaged in and advocates for. In our essay ‘Radical History and Mainstream History’ we identified this as having three distinguishing features: its subject matter, its political stance, and its relationship to its audience. As we explained:
Radical historians write about the struggles of disempowered people to stand up to their oppressors and exploiters, and to take control of their lives by attacking coercive authority and by socializing power. They tell stories of resistance and agency, not of ruling and maintaining order, which are the signs of ruling class history. Radical historians, secondly, are partisan. They write with a social purpose, and in doing so they draw on radical philosophies and methods. They write history as a political act. Thirdly, although writing about the past, they want to encourage people in the present to resist and rebel. Because the radical past was always being made anew their work is pregnant with possibilities, alerting their readers to the possibilities for action in their own situations. This has consequences for how they write. Readers must be given space to reflect on the present as well as the past. It is not enough to tell stories; the stories have to be shaped by theory, sharpened by the historian’s passion, and riddled with unresolved political questions. Moreover, whether writing for other radical intellectuals, engaging with scholarship and theory, or seeking a wider audience, radical historians place a high value on clarity of expression, avoiding like the plague the over-theoretical language of academic in-groups, and their self-aggrandizing citation of trendy thinkers.
Embedded in this formulation of radical history is a critique of the modern academy. We were not spring chickens with regard to critiquing universities. Between its creation in 1967 and its winding up in 1972, we were amongst the founders and part of a radical education experiment, the Sydney Free U. This arose out of contemporary student and staff dissatisfactions within Sydney University, and more generally our opposition to how we saw university education at the time, with its flawed emphasis on ‘training for the economy’, and with its continuation of the ‘forced-feed learning techniques’ that began in the school system. The Free U envisaged another sort of academy and educational experience. Based in rented premises off-campus, this had democratic and self-management principles at its core, and worked at bringing together scholarship and activism for social change. At its height during the Summer of 1968-1969, some 300 people were involved.
Following publication of Radical Sydney in 2010, and nearly forty years after the Free U closed its doors, we again focused on and wrote critically about the modern academy. The economic imperative was still central, but now more so than ever. Now, well and truly, the human and complex processes of teaching, learning, research, and knowledge production are toxically superintended by business models and corporate-style managements and processes, couched in weasel words and spin. Decision making was and is delivered by fait accompli, put in place top-down by highly paid elite advisors and HR professionals, and administered by compliant bureaucrats. While democratic governance gets a run in formal and public descriptions of governance and decision making within universities, this tends in reality to be lip service and as scarce as hen’s teeth. In many Australian academic workplaces, while the word collegiality is thrown around with abandon, in fact caution, timidity, fear are toxic.
The worth of research and writing in this production model is less about its social worth, its contribution to the creation of a better world, its address of social injustices, and the promotion of a common wealth, than it is about how much funding it attracts and where it is published in a hierarchy of ranked journals and a hierarchy of academic publishers. In turn this fosters in the humanities and social sciences, scholarly genres largely accessible only to fellow scholars trained in the genre discourses.
We regard all this as tragic, and it was a focus of our writings post-Radical Sydney. Knowledge, understandings, and ideas with transformative social, political and cultural possibilities and potentials are locked up behind the paywalls of academic journals published by multinational publishers, who benefit from the labour of academics who they do not pay; and in prohibitively expensive books with small print-runs, often set and printed at low cost, that few read.
The multinationals make vast fortunes from this process, and academics buckle down, keep noses to the grindstone, because this is how you keep the roof over your head and food on the table. And this is how you advance careers. As for the work produced, novelist Umberto Eco saw it clearly in his medieval murder mystery novel The Name of the Rose (1980). Central in this is a monastic library in which the books and their contents are ruthlessly and murderously limited by the librarian with regard to their access and reading, the library acting as a knowledge prison that silences books. Treated this way, argues main character Brother William of Baskerville, books are “dumb” because without readers, they are just collections of signs that produce “no concepts”. As with books, so too with academic articles. In the writings collected in this book we challenge this system, both in the saying, and the doing.
As 2021 got under way, authoritative data began to be reported by the Australian media on the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown and associated border security laws on Australian universities. Data had been available previously, but it was anecdotal and piecemeal. Now, according to data released in February (2021) by Universities Australia, the peak body representing Australia’s university administrations, it is clear that at least 17,300 academic jobs have gone, with the ominous expectation more will follow. Not included in this count are the jobs lost amongst the precariat, casualties of the slash and burn of courses and programmes across Australia and attendant organisational changes. This large body of insecure university workers was estimated in mid-2018 at 94,500 people, mainly in teaching-only roles. They were, in effect, the engine-room of the university system.
Like on old-time ocean liners in the days of steam, these were the unseen stokers deep below decks, stoking the boilers that enabled the decks and photo opportunities above to glisten and shine. It included many young researchers stitching together incomes on a semester to semester basis, trying to earn a living, many striving to build future academic careers. On the eve of the pandemic, for example, the University of Wollongong (NSW) topped the bill with insecure work; according to Gender Equality Agency data (2016-2017), it had the highest insecure workforce of all Australian universities, coming in at a whopping 76.8 per cent. While we have not seen supporting data at the time of writing regarding job losses in the precariat overall, anecdotally we understand that the biggest part of this is in the humanities and social sciences.
Hard data too of the parlous financial straits of the universities emerged, something their administrations had tried to paper over during 2020, and which the media had obligingly passed on. As the result of the 2020 pandemic crisis, gone are the billions of dollars long harvested by Australian universities via international student fees ($10 billion banked during 2019), with the largest percentage of this coming from China (37 per cent in 2019). Prior to 2020, this was a financial booty Australian university administrations recklessly banked and planned on, often ignoring cautionary advice to the contrary. In 2019, for example, this provided 27 per cent of their revenue. Given the state of Australia’s deteriorating relations with China in particular at the time of writing, and the resurgence of White Australia attitudes that have re-emerged blatantly in recent times, this treasure chest is unlikely to be refilled any time soon, if ever.
Metaphorically, and overall, this is not a James Cook/June 1770 Endeavour situation, where your ship is holed below the waterline on the Barrier Reef, so you toss cannons overboard, lighten ship, then beach and repair it and successfully continue the voyage. Rather, in our view, this is more akin to a Daniel Defoe/Robinson Crusoe situation, where one is cast ashore on a desert island because your ship has sunk, and a new beginning has to be figured out and built with whatever can be salvaged. If we are correct, then this will be a long process. Hopefully, despite being shattered and demoralised, the staff who are left will be able to contribute from below to that re-building.
One thing is certain; a lot of fine, critical, dissident scholars are never going to be able to work as they once did in the ‘publish or perish’ regime. They are now outside the system, and their jobs have gone; some have contractually burnt their bridges in the process of redundancy. If they want to remain active and research and write and publish, they will have to finds ways and means and alternatives outside the niches and highly specialist routes they were trained to travel.
They will have to build, in effect, a new and autonomous intellectual sphere, and wherever they find suitable sites for this – in the thinking of ecological and other social movements, in Free Schools and Universities, in communities strategising to escape oppression, among radical labour thinkers, etc – their unifying experience will be that of building a moral universe guided by socialist principles and politics rather than academic careerism.
And the same applies to radical scholars who remain in the universities. Their task will be just as difficult: to reclaim the universities for learning and scholarship by resisting the current neoliberal, audit culture; and to orientate their teaching and research to the autonomous intellectual sphere generated by the struggles of movements for social change outside the academy.
We hope that our words and thoughts and examples in this book go some way towards helping both groups.
Some of our essays are quite short; we include them because we want to show our thematic and intellectual consistency. Readers interested in the details regarding original publication of the various pieces, and footnoting where it was provided, will find these in the Notes at the end of the book.
The founding manifesto of the Sydney Free University, ‘The Lost Ideal’, was published in the Sydney University student paper Honi Soit, 3 October 1967. It is available on the Reason in Revolt site at https://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/objects/htm/a000522.htm For a later generation’s review of the Free U experiment and discussion of its current relevance, see Nina Dillon Britton, ‘The Free University: A people’s history’, Honi Soit, 26 October 2020 <https://honisoit.com/2020/10/the-free-university-a-peoples-history/>. For a powerful critique of modern universities, and for a practical vision of change, see Raewyn Connell, The Good University: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Victoria, 2019. Connell was one of the founders of the Sydney Free University.
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