Students protest at Brown University in the US. Photo: Danielle Perelman

Undercommoning within, against and beyond the university-as-such

  • June 5, 2016

Education & Emancipation

The university-as-such is a criminal neoliberal and neocolonial institution. It cannot be reformed. It must be abolished and reinvented.

Undercommons (n.): The networks of rebellious solidarity that interlace within, against and beyond dominant institutions and power structures

Undercommoning (v.): The conscious and unconscious labors and process of interlacing the undercommons

The Undercommoning Project (n.): A network of radical organizers working in the shadow of the university.

The university-as-such (n.): Their dream, our nightmare.

Beyond the university-as-such (n.): Our dream, their nightmare.

The University is a Thief

No specter is haunting the university; the university is haunting us.

While we are accustomed to imagining “the university” as an enlightening institution that works in the public interest, we, The Undercommoning Project, hold that: in an age of skyrocketing tuition prices, soaring student debt, the hyperexploitation of precarious service workers, the proliferation of highly-paid senior administrative positions and the increased commercialization and corporatization of higher education, universities today are anything but a public good.

Indeed, we insist the university-as-such has never been a bastion of progress, learning, and fairness; it has always excluded individuals and communities on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship and politics. Indeed, it is implicated in the past and present of slavery and colonial genocide in North America.

Worse, the university has always been a thief, stealing people’s labor, time and energy. We charge that the university-as-such is a criminal institution. Along with the Edu-Factory Collective we understand the university today as a key institution of an emerging form of global, racial capitalism, one that is a laboratory for new forms of oppression and exploitation, rather than an innocent institution for the common good.

From its pirating of Indigenous biomedical knowledge to the marginalization and containment of non-traditional inquiry, from the training of corporate kleptocrats to the cronyistic production of private patents, from the university’s role in gentrification and urban enclosures to the actions and implications of its investments and endowments, from the white-supremacist and eurocentric knowledge it exalts to its dark collaborations with the military-industrial complex, the university thrives on its thievery.

So when we say the university-as-such is criminal, we mean criminal like the police: a force of racialized and class-based figures of authority, enforcement, and violence that guards, incarcerates, entraps, on the one hand, and on the other, punishes freedom, solidarity, and communal potential.

You may accuse us of losing faith in the university; it never had faith in us. Long ago it transformed us, as it had others before us, into overwhelmed debtors, precarious adjuncts, and exploited service sector workers. We were only the latest in a long line of its waste products.

You may accuse us of devaluing study, learning and research; far from it — we value them so greatly that we know they must be liberated from the structures of the university-as-such, which today already lie in ruins. The university-as-such can be the occasion for the joys of study, of solidarity, of poetic play, of learning and honing our powers. We refuse to relinquish these pleasures. But we will insist that these are gifts we give one another, not tokens of the university’s affection for its subjects.

We dream of the thing to come after the university.

Within, Against, Beyond

Therefore, when we say that we organize in the shadow of the university, we mean that we organize with those who have been used and abused by the university-as-such: students and workers of color who endure institutional racism while having their images used in the name of diversity; precariously employed adjunct faculty who must rely on social or communal assistance for survival; exploited graduate teaching fellows still urged to play the rigged academic game; custodial and food services staff who are treated as disposable in patriarchal and racist divisions of labor; so-called “dropouts” who’ve been ejected from the university because they can’t stand its discipline; students and former students who will be haunted by debt for decades; and organizers who educate, study, and research outside and in spite of the university’s present configurations.

We want to experiment, explore and enjoy building solidarity between these outcasts onto whom the university-as-such casts its shadow, in order to create conditions where something monstrously new can grow amidst the rubble. And so our study must be molded in the traditions of freedom schools and oral histories, of fugitive campfires and underground reading groups. We value autonomous study as an exercise in cultivating collective, transformative liberation.

We have no nostalgia for the fabled university of the past, the mythical ivory tower of meritocracy, civility and white collegiality: that supposedly utopian place never existed, at least not for anyone outside the raced, classed and gendered elite.

We also have no nostalgia for the future long promised by advocates of the university-as-such. We do not believe access to present universities merely needs to be widened or brought into the virtual world, nor do we believe that the mission of the public university merely needs to be redeemed from the forces of managerialism or commercialization. We believe the university-as-such must be abolished.

Of course we believe in the value of high-caliber research. Of course we believe everyone should be able to study to develop their skills and knowledge. Of course we believe in debate, freedom of expression and rigorous critical thinking. Of course we believe in communal intellectual joy. We believe in them so fiercely we refuse to continue to see them enclosed, warped, choked, defined by and destroyed in the university-as-such.

Does this sound entitled? It should. The undercommons deserves to enjoy and reinvent all that it produces, which is to say everything. It is our collective labor and knowledge that university-as-such prepares, consumes, digests and uses to reproduce itself: we are mobilizing to reclaim that labor and knowledge, within, against and beyond the university-as-such, in the name of producing something monstrous.

Knowing/Practicing our Value

Thus we advocate grassroots study groups and collective research projects within, against and beyond the university as we know it. We advocate the creation of new networks of study, theory, knowledge and collaborative learning outside the system of credit(s) and of debt. We see the university-as-such not as an alma mater (“giving mother”) but as a parasite. It feeds off its students’ future earnings via their debt, and off its increasingly precarious employees via their labor; it thrives on the good intentions, the tragic idealism, and the betrayed hopes of those over whom it casts its shadow.

Undercommoning is the process of discovering and practicing our value within, against and beyond the university’s measures. We refuse to suffer silently the depression and anxieties the university-as-such and its constant crises instill, trigger and exploit. We will not relinquish the senses of radical wonder, passionate curiosity, and critical integrity we create together. We insist that the splendor of the university is not to be found in the mahogany or the oak of its aristocratic chambers but in the tapestry and grain of insurgent collaborations.

We recognize that the university as it currently exists is part of an archipelago of social institutions of neoliberal, free-market racial capitalism. It includes the for-profit prison and the non-for-profit agency, the offshore army base and the offshore tax haven, the underfunded public and the elite private school, the migrant-worker staffed shop floor and the Wall Street trading floor, the factory and the factory farm. All are organs for sorting, exalting, exploiting, drilling, controlling and/or wasting what they call “human capital” and that we call our lives.

We are well aware of how much privilege and comfort the university-as-such affords many of its inhabitants, employees and clients. But the privileges of this university life are less evidence of institutional largesse than they are how the university-as-such sustains and reproduces the reigning social order. If this university appears to provide a greater latitude of freedom for independent thought and action, and if it bears within it resources unlike any other, we can nevertheless only advocate, along with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, who coined the term “the undercommons,” that the only appropriate relation to the university today is a criminal one.

To resist the university-as-such from within is to recognize that it has already turned us into criminals in its own image. If the university is, today, already a criminal institution, one built on the theft of the time and the resources of those it overshadows, we who enjoy its bitter embrace must refuse its codes and values of ownership and propriety.

Don’t just steal a piece of chalk and write on the sidewalk. We advocate forming autonomous study and affinity groups that build alliances between students, faculty, workers, families, insiders and outsiders. We advocate using the university’s classrooms, spaces, libraries, databases and infrastructure as resources for abolitionist organizing. We advocate repurposing trade unions and student associations as platforms for developing new forms of mutual aid and solidarity within and beyond the university-as-such. We advocate taking time with and taking pleasure in our evolving collective powers. We advocate revolt.

You may accuse us of abandoning the university. Far from it; we would be loath to give the university-as-such the satisfaction. Rather, we recognize the centrality of the university-as-such in the reproduction of contemporary power. It has an unprecedented importance as the supposed key to employment in the extortionist capitalist economy. A large proportion of North Americans feel they have no choice but to seek a “necessary” degree while saddling themselves with debt; for others, even this limited access is out of reach.

The Stakes

We locate our struggle within and against the university-as-such, not in the name of its survival and restoration, but of our own. The university-as-such teems with dangerous social tensions and contradictions that cannot be ignored. These tensions build as the university is used to warehouse whole generations for whom capitalism has little use, as the university increasingly teaches us that we will be made to compete for any chance at a decent life. The university’s criminal contradictions demand our fugitive resistance.

Nevertheless we also know that as the university-as-such accumulates tensions and contradictions these may inspire and catalyze reactionary forces of hatred and violence on the part of others. Already the elites of the university-as-such are closing ranks, with administrators, faculty and complicit students conscripted to defend the idealized, imaginary institution from the barbarian hordes.

Whether they rally behind the tattered banners of “civility”, “excellence”, “collegiality” or “tradition” they are really championing a neoliberal institution that rewards the few while oppressing the many. Incidents of racism, misogyny, transphobia, abuse, rape culture, and hatred on campuses are on the rise and the university-as-such has all but destroyed the elusive academic freedom and job security for those who would challenge power, which faculty and students of the past sought through difficult struggle.

We, by undercommoning together, are slowly building a network of organizers, with members currently located in Anglophone North America, of those eager to link their struggle with others around the world. We, by undercommoning together, want to transform the tensions inherent to the university-as-such into visions, actions and experiments for a radically different world.

We will shout in every common space that the values the university-as-such claims to profess — of knowledge, fairness, inquiry and truth — cannot thrive in our capitalist, white-supremacist, hetero-patriarchal and colonial economy, based as it is on ignorance, greed, sorrow and fear.

We insist that the struggle for a better world and against the university-as-such is necessarily anti-colonial, anti-racist, feminist, queer, trans-liberationist and anti-ableist. We insist that free education is about freedom in these terms, not simply the absence of tuition fees or tokenistic inclusion.

We are already building the thing that will come after the university-as-such. We build it in stolen and redirected classroom discussions. We build through shared cigarettes or small gestures of compassion and solidarity. We build it on the picket lines and in the lunch lines and between the lines of essays and manifestos, in our statements of support and letters of condemnation. It emerges as we capture and liberate our time and thought, together.

The reality of the undercommons is all around us in the reality of our struggle to collectively know ourselves and our power. Our goal is to create the tools and toys by which undercommoners can find one another and make common cause.

To that end we facilitate digital and local discussions with activists working in generative and surprising ways. We collect and broadcast examples of tactics, ideas, inspirations and techniques. In all we do, we seek to sustain alternative institutions seeking to build new forms of research, study and collaborative learning in and outside of the university’s shadow.

The Undercommoning Collective will shortly be issuing a call for a global day of coordinated local meet-ups in September 2016. Please visit our website and sign-up for updates via email or social media.

Undercommoning Collective

The Undercommoning Collective is an evolving network of radical organizers within, against and beyond the neoliberal, (neo)colonial university, presently concentrated in North America. More information can be found at

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