USS strike: academics (and football fans) are fed up with ‘dehumanising’ conditions

Protests by West Ham fans have striking similarities with the unrest sparked among academics by proposed pension cuts, says Richard Watermeyer

March 20, 2018
West Ham's new stadium at the former Olympic Park has been branded soulless by many fans

At a match on 10 March, West Ham United fans invaded the pitch at the London Stadium on four occasions.

Fans also hurled vitriol (and allegedly a coin) in the direction of the chairman, who was soon removed from the stands by stewards for his own safety.

The clashes during the fixture against Burnley bring into stark reality what happens when a community feels disenfranchised and ignored.

West Ham fans’ frustrations at the perceived mismanagement of their football club and the sacrificing of its heritage, traditions and very identity for financial gain escalated and led to the furious reaction of a not inconsiderable subsection of the crowd. 

Many football pundits have been quick to express their distaste at and intolerance of these ugly scenes, with some seeing them as reminiscent of the “dark days” of terrace violence and hooliganism.

Condemnation of this disturbance in public soundbites, however justifiable and politically expedient, obfuscates the symbolic violence being committed to the fans’ cultural community.

Beneath the fury exhibited at the London Stadium, a community reels in crisis in the face of economic tyranny. At the same time, a whole community is demonised in the media through their indirect association with the “disturbers of the peace”.

As both a West Ham fan and jobbing academic, I have reflected on what happened at the London Stadium and have been struck by what I see as parallels with the ongoing industrial action occurring across UK universities (in which I have played a part).

Industrial action, in this case, features as organised opposition to plans that would largely decimate the pensions and financial security of academics in retirement.

While the strike has fomented a qualitatively different sort of aggravation than that encountered at West Ham, it has fuelled a similarly intense passion and emotionalism that is indicative of a community that perceives itself also to be under siege.

In the same way that West Ham’s move from the Boleyn Ground to Stratford represents a feeling of cultural displacement for many fans, academics through the strikes have articulated their own sense of dislocation.

This is a dislocation from their host institutions, particularly as sites of aggressive marketisation, and more especially institutional managers who in the space of social media postings are represented with growing frequency as neoliberal pariahs and enemies of the aspiration and ideal of the “public” university. So too is the current board of West Ham United, vilified for what same fans indict as them having “killed the club”.

The passion and emotion on display in both contexts are powerful. Correspondingly, they may be difficult to control. The inflation of passion can cause transgressions of social and moral boundaries –  lost in the moment. Passion may also crowd, overload or anaesthetise other cognitive senses, including tolerance and compassion.

Yet passion remains an indivisible part of our social architecture; informing a sense of who we are, our social and cultural membership and sense of belonging, and our democratic agency. Passion is as necessary to football as it is to academia.

Without “fire in the belly”, we may have nothing to get up for, no impetus to teach, and no motivation to research. For the majority of us, social scientists especially, working in academia represents an emotional and ideological commitment to higher education as a part of an overall project of democracy.

Regrettably, too many members of universities’ managerial elite appear to lack a similar emotional and ideological investment.

Consequently, they may be without the emotional intelligence and empathy that many among the “rank and file” would attribute as the hallmarks of good leadership. They seem instead to be blinded by all that a university is not, its material signifiers, rather than what it is: a community founded on democratic principles dedicating itself to the pursuit of knowledge.

For both higher education and football communities, the corrosive and dehumanising effects of their fiscal rationalisation on cultural identity and community are horribly real.

The vision of progress espoused by the neoliberal university seems almost exclusively connected to the construction of shiny new buildings, whereas in the neoliberal football club it is the construction of imposing stadia.

The trouble is, neither of these visions of progress answers to or accommodates the needs of their communities. They are far less ideological or spiritual homes.

They are, instead, emblems of a profound human dissociation.

Both football fans and academics alike may be, in this example, thus homeless. They may feel broken or otherwise as if they are casualties of a broken system and broken trust.

Yet they are not without hope, despite much of the dystopian sentiment that tends to saturate their public rhetoric and the rawness of their emotion. While the football field and “fields” of academia are corrupted by the vice of corporate greed, their communities have an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent themselves.

The potential of such renaissance is arguably truer or more apparent for academics than football fans, where the power through critical activism and solidarity to inflict pain on the purses of corporate interests is greater; gate receipts are only one part of football’s cash bonanza.

In both cases, the emotional intelligence that seems to desert the neoliberal elites must be harnessed by the “academic (and football) proletariat” in bringing to the fore and confronting the symbolic violence committed upon their communities.

By doing so, they might advance the recovery of their ideological and spiritual homes.

Richard Watermeyer is a sociologist of education and a reader within the Department of Education at the University of Bath.

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Reader's comments (1)

This reads mainly as claptrap likening Universities to football teams is insulting.

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