Archaeology and Capitalist Realism

This is a speech I gave at a Teach-Out during the 2019 University and College Union (UCU) UK Industrial Action. We were on strike for pensions, better pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads. We regularly hold teach-outs to provide liberatory space for teaching and discussion and the subject of this teach-out was Neoliberalism, Marketization and Education. Forgive some of the miscellaneous citation, I was away from my books. 

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism begins by quoting Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek:

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Capitalist realism is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2009, 2). It creates the illusion that change is impossible. It coopts any subversion and and sells it back to us. The product is you.

It is certainly easy for archaeologists to imagine the end of the world. Post-apocalyptic fabulism is not just limited to popular media and books, but also fuels our archaeological teaching and interpretation. We tell stories about death, destruction, and collapse as we sift through what is left behind. Garbology and Pompeii scenarios can help us think about durability of material culture and the stories we tell with what evidence remains.

So too it is relatively easy for archaeologists to identify Empire. Empire is the name that Bergman and Montgomery (2017, amongst others) give to the organized destruction under which we live. It is the “interlocking systems of settler colonialism, white supremacy, the state, capitalism, ableism, ageism and heteropatriarchy” (Bergman and Montgomery 2017). The commodification and monetization of…everything. The constant anxiety and depression. The ways that we measure and are measured that are destructive to learning and conviviality and that remove meaningful contributions and creativity in favor of fulfilling yet another Personal Learning Outcome, adding to your CV, conforming to grade descriptors. This manifests probably most profoundly in the horrendous mental health crisis amongst students AND educators. Are we all deeply, individually, broken, unable to cope, in need of mindfulness, “resilience training” and yoga?

Fisher cites Oliver James’ work that identifies a correlation between “rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism” (Fisher 2009, 23). The reaction to this has been what Fisher calls the “privatization of stress”—if these are all caused only by individual problems, neurology, family background, “any question of social systemic causation is ruled out” (Fisher 2009, 23). You must suffer individually, be diagnosed individually, be treated individually, submit your Student Support Plan on time and to our exact specification instead of coming together to FIGHT the thing that is making you ill. The fact that so many of our students and my colleagues suffer from poor mental health makes me sad, frustrated and monumentally ANGRY. This is the work of Empire. (With the caveat that regardless of structural causes of poor mental health, you should get help early and often)

The reason I get so angry about the organized destruction that Empire enacts upon ourselves and our communities is that we (archaeologists) have the distinctive expertise to break capitalist realism, and we don’t always seem to know to mobilize this expertise.

Three points:

1. Contemporary archaeology has been scrutinizing the links between material culture and structural violence since its inception. Rathje’s garbology showed us that all of the trash that we are putting into landfills is not rotting safely into the ground. He famously found “perfectly preserved 40-year-old hot dogs,” and a 25-year old head of lettuce. Buchli and Lucas’ (2001, ethically dubious) examination of a recently abandoned council house showed the violence of the privatisation of council housing during the Thatcher years and its potential impact on women who were the victims of domestic violence. Rachael Kiddey’s work on homelessness and more recently on migration is also relevant to this discussion. This is no surprise to this audience, but we can meaningfully use archaeological methods on contemporary assemblages to critique social and political structures.

2. We must use the creative, generative, collective forces within archaeological methods to engage in what anarchists call prefigurative politics, making small-scale versions of the societies we want to live, love and work in. Daniel Eddisford and I have identified significant instances of prefigurative politics within existing archaeological practice, both within the housing of archaeologists—how does your workspace change how you think about archaeology and how you interact with your colleagues? And, within commercial archaeological uses of single context methodology. In examining a large, extremely complex Harris Matrix from Billingsgate we found annotations in varied handwriting, with many changes, long lines of white correction fluid, and erasures.

These materialize the process of collective decision-making and interpretation through the inscription of stratigraphic relationships on paper. Individual archaeologists are able to meaningfully contribute to the site-wide narrative. The construction of a record of the stratigraphy of the site as a coherent whole is undertaken by archaeologists in conjunction with those working around them without the direct oversight of a manager. In this way archaeology can fostered a model with similarities to anarcho-syndicalism, wherein a small, non-hierarchical group works together towards a common goal, side-stepping more formalized authority. At its best, archaeology is non-alienated labor, making communities of practice instead of reproducing hierarchy.

3. People who are already fighting Empire need our help.

At the end of Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher (2009) states:

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

Bergman and Montgomery (2017) quote Silvia Federici in discussing the social amnesia imposed by Empire:

What most matters is discovering and recreating the collective memory of past struggles. In the US there is a systematic attempt to destroy this memory and now this is extending across the world, with the destruction of the main historical centers of the Middle East—a form of dispossession that has major consequences and yet is rarely discussed. Reviving the memory of the struggles of the past makes us feel part of something larger than our individual lives and in this way it gives a new meaning to what we are doing and gives us courage, because it makes us less afraid of what can happen to us individually.

Reviving the memory of struggles of the past, uncovering egalitarianism and forming critiques of social inequality is deeply important, and is the work of a small but growing cohort of archaeologists. Archaeology is the collective, deep chronological documentation of the capacity of humans to imagine different ways to live. As archaeologists we are the discoverers and keepers and storytellers of the different ways we have found to be human. Capitalist realism tells us there is only one way to be, only one way to imagine ourselves, while people trying to break free of Empire are begging for us to use our expertise to find different ways to be. The more we find out about the past, the more we find it to be a weird, wild, wonderful place. Our gift as archaeologists must be tell stories of human resilience and diversity of experience to help people dream of alternatives to Empire.

That’s why it is so important that we come together to fight the deadening of this remit, the blunt forces of neoliberalization and marketization in education trying to subvert this gift into another avenue for capitalism.

Bergman, C., & Montgomery, N. (2017). Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. AK Press.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.

Teach-Outs and the Progressive Stack

Amidst the incredible student-led gun control movement in the US and the completely sickening slaughter in East Ghouta, the USS strike amongst (some) UK university workers seems rather unimportant. The surface cause of the strike—fighting for our pensions—sounds downright quaint even within the UK context, but it is within a landscape of intensive, predatory neoliberalism that has been eroding the UK university system for the last 20+ years.

This strike action has been a rapid education for me—though I’ve been teaching in universities since 2006, my lectureship so far has basically been firefighting, with developing new courses and getting used to new responsibilities while conducting top notch research (right???) and occasionally seeing that child that I’m rather fond of. I didn’t really think I’d have to learn the specifics of my pension, the timeline of escalating student fees (beginning to understand why Tony Blair is so thoroughly despised), and the subtly different rules of protest and industrial action in the UK, but here we are. We are two days into a strike action that could potentially take out 14 days of teaching from a critical time of the student year, the end of the spring term.

I’m no stranger to protest; my mother took me to an anti-nukes rally in the early 1980s, I protested the build-up to the 9/11 (forever) wars and took action in Berkeley many, many, many times, as perhaps one might expect. One of my photos of these protests made the cover of the 2010 University in Crisis issue of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ The Habit of Courage is published in that issue, and much of it still rings true for the UK actions:

The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people of good conscience. We are raised, with good reason, to be obedient; it requires a great deal of discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our more sociable inclinations to conform….

…the call to direct action was not limited to ‘safely’ tenured faculty – but included undergraduate and graduate students, and untenured faculty, drawn into sometimes uncomfortable confrontations with the administration by their sense of integrity and drawing strength from what I am calling “the habit of courage.”

This habit of courage and willingness to engage in ‘non-violent resistance’ has weakened in recent decades, replaced by a self-interested and protectionist academic ethos. A more politically cautious faculty have followed a neoliberal notion of decorous and quiet civility….

Meanwhile, there is a resurgence of anti-intellectualism, the infiltration of corporate business models to every aspect of academic and university life, the devaluation of the arts, humanities and the social sciences, increasingly seen either as a luxury or as intellectual enemies of the global economy. The Enlightenment idea of the university as a voluntary community of teachers, researchers, and students dedicated to the open and disinterested pursuit of knowledge and learning is being rapidly replaced by the idea of the university as a corporate enterprise whose primary functions are to provide a skilled workforce and to generate profitable and usable research for industry and global commerce.

Scheper-Hughes points out that, ironically, during these strike actions we actually do more teaching and admin than we would have done otherwise, through organized teach-outs, strategy meetings, and public outreach on the radio, print and television.

We’ve been organizing Teach-Outs (as opposed to Teach-ins, which would cross picket lines) at our local archaeology pub who immediately and fervently declared their solidarity. I was afraid that our first Teach-Out would find me and a handful of fellow lecturers having a lonely pint, but…we had standing room only. There is a hunger for action amongst students and staff that is refreshing but honestly unsurprising.

During the Teach-Out, we had questions and discussion guided by the progressive stack, a tactic used for group meetings during Occupy. Sara Perry and I had been talking about ways we could use it in the classroom, and I had written it up for review by our teaching committee. The progressive stack in the context of the Teach-Out was invigorating; POC spoke before white people, LGBTQ+ people before cishets, students before lecturers, women before men…to the best of my ability, at least. It relied on my own biases and foreknowledge, so it was (deeply) imperfect, but foregrounded voices that were critical to our discussion. We’re doing it again on Monday, and hopefully gathering momentum–getting more diversity on our speaking panel, etc.

It was and will continue to be, completely exhausting. Organizing on the fly, standing out in the bitter, bitter cold, and keeping up the emotional energy left me with very little to give my family afterwards. So…basically like academia, right?

But, again, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes states:

Nothing good happens without struggle, without solidarity, without a readiness and a willingness to court controversy, to take risks, and to expect and to sustain retaliation….

There’s a very real chance that this, my first UK industrial action, might be the last. If it fails, a toothless union isn’t worth much, except to be laughed down by ridiculously overpaid VCs sipping “pornstar” martinis in expensive hotel suites while our precarious associate lecturers and other university workers struggle to make ends meet. It’s critically important to support the strike and to take back our universities.