Academic Precarity and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Utopian Hope in a Moment of Crisis

Leigh Bloch

To cite this article: Leigh Bloch (2020) Academic Precarity and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Utopian Hope in a Moment of Crisis, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 76-83, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1761214

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2020.1761214

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global crisis that encompasses both public health, with rising death tolls and the danger of overwhelmed hospital capacity, and livelihood, with unemployment skyrocketing as places of work shut down under quarantine procedures. This moment exposes the violent consequences of the foundational principles that organize the United States as a social and political entity, including the private nature of health insurance, an economy that concentrates wealth in the hands of the few and a housing system governed by private property, which in turn is premised upon a dispossessed Indigenous land base. Mean- while, some government officials seek to return to business as usual, sacrificing elders and other vulnerable communities for the stock market. People are supposed to work for the economy, but the economy is not sup- posed to work for people — and those who cannot work are left with nothing or with barely the means to reproduce life. In the words of the revolutionary Indigenous coalition The Red Nation, “capitalism has proven biologically unsuitable for life.”1

At the same time, the crisis is exposing the real possibility that the world could be  organized differently. As mutual aid networks, rent strikes, labor organizing and direct government payments gain momentum, it is becoming painfully obvious that mechanisms are needed to ensure everyone has access  to basic necessities such as food, water and shelter — and even infrastructure like the internet. The terrain of struggle is shifting, and principles for an alternative economy that could work for people are emerging in mainstream consciousness.

This is just as true in academia. Many professors, myself included, are fortunate to able to teach classes and continue scholar- ship remotely, offering students education and counting on salaries even in pandemic conditions. Yet for precarious and contingent faculty —as for maintenance and food service staff — things are far from secure. With enrollment rates for the fall an open question, universities are freezing hiring processes and limiting short-term positions. At issue here is the total failure of the dominant model organizing scholarship and education to work for us, as scholars and as people.

Here, I make a utopian suggestion of  a world in which the basic needs of each person were met without question — food, water, housing, health care, etcetera. In doing so I draw inspiration from the speculative vision of Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction and the implications of policies and strategies unfolding in the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a world, scholars would have the autonomy (what others call “academic freedom”) to research, write and teach as desired. Researchers would not be forced to create scholarship just for the sake of scholarship, eliminating the “publish or perish” model. Not just professors in elite research institutions but everyone might be able to take the time to think deeply and carefully on projects that they think are fascinating and socially relevant. Junior faculty might be freer to experiment with community-based projects or explore how diverse media can be used to reach different audiences, enhancing public scholarship, without worrying about if or how this would count for tenure.

This also poses an alternative to the false dilemma in which faculty seek to limit graduate enrollments in a moment of diminishing tenure-track positions. I find that this approach reveals an astounding lack of vision. Graduate education is already limited to far too few people in ways that correspond to larger systems of colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism and capitalism. The goal should not be to make graduate education more exclusive but rather to creatively imagine other ways of organizing the university that are more in line with our highest values.

I am calling for a fundamental reorganization of academic institutions to reflect a basic commitment that any person should be able to gain any level of education and con- tribute to scholarship as they desire. This is a question of how scholars can adapt to proliferating catastrophes in a way that still pro- motes well-being without taking the nature of higher education (or capitalism) as a fore- gone conclusion. Reorganizing the university in this way is a social good, but it is also a scholastic and scientific good. It can advance the quality, rigor and public engagement of academic inquiry by making university institutions more accessible, interrupting dominant assumptions, theories, models and ways of doing things that seem self-evident only to narrow in-groups.2 In fact, the skill sets that professors are building by transferring higher education to a remote model could be used to decentralize the university, reconstituting it as dispersed networks of researcher-teachers embedded within (and responsible to) specific places and communities beyond the ivory tower.

I write from the position of a limited-term, precarious faculty member. I write as a settler, and as a white, trans, nonbinary scholar who struggled with whether I should be “out” in the job market or wait until I had secured employment. I write as someone who is usually shielded by whiteness from state violence in my everyday life but who also has been assaulted by police when counter protesting the “straight pride” rally in Boston and evaded tear gas thrown by white supremacists in Charlottesville. This background makes me skeptical of state interventions, although I do suggest that federal relief as direct payments provides a sign of the possibility of a radically different kind of political and economic life. I write as a teacher who encourages students to question the moral authority of settler nation-states. And indeed, COVID-19 is far from unprecedented in the history of colonialism and empire — a point  I return to in the conclusion.

I was fortunate in graduate school to receive a university fellowship and grant funding to complete my degree. I was like- wise fortunate to receive a postdoctoral fellowship at a prestigious university where I have been able to focus on publishing and developing classes with insightful and curious students. But as these fellowships ended and I applied for jobs, I competed for positions against hundreds of applicants — counting the months until I would be without income. The truth is that the brilliance of our world far outstrips the institutional capacity of the existing order. It has always been pure hubris to claim a monopoly on intelligent, thoughtful analysis when academic institutions have long been and continue to be accessible to so few.

As the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a head, I have started to receive  a  growing number of emails from search committees whose universities have instituted hiring freezes. My “home” institution — and I suspect it is far from alone in this — has established barriers for short-term hires in light of the uncertainty of falling enrollments. As contingent positions dry up, can I expect administrative or nonacademic job markets to be different? Plan B and even Plan C are no longer options, and I am coming to terms with the increasingly likely situation that I will join the growing ranks of the indefinitely unemployed. The reality is that having individually “failed” on the job market, limited- term faculty are abandoned and left to our own devices in a crisis.

This is to make a simple point. The precarity in academia exacerbated by COVID-19 is a product of the existing way of organizing institutions. This precarity is also antithetical to producing good scholarship, good science and good life.

Anarchist Science in The Dispossessed

In her novel The Dispossessed,3 Ursula Kroeber Le Guin imagines what scientific practice might look like in an anarchist society in which each person’s basic needs are met. To me it suggests an alternative to the existing model of higher education. The novel follows a theoretical physicist, Shevek, who is raised on Anarres, a moon inhabited by the descendants of labor radicals who abandoned their home world, A-Io.

Conditions on Anarres are difficult. The moon is inhabitable but not particularly hospitable. Cultivating foodstuffs is difficult and famines can be devastating. Anarri people have little, but each person can enter any communal building and expect to  be fed and sheltered — at least to the extent such resources are available at all. Following norms that Anarri people call the “social consensus,” everyone is expected to put in a certain amount of labor toward collective projects in addition to pursuing their own self-determined interests. There are strong social sanctions, including ostracization, against behaviors that Anarri people describe as “egoistic” or “propertarian.” Essentially, these terms refer to acting with only one’s own interests at heart or as if other people and things are possessions. However, there  is no systematic, physical coercion. There are no jails or prisons, no laws or punishment.

Anarres is characterized by informal forms of coercion, bureaucracy and hierarchy. A playwright, for example, suffers mental instability and commits himself to an asylum after years of ostracization when his art is received as contrary to the social consensus. Shevek himself finds his own research obstructed by the informal power of the physics syndicate. As he explores a new and promising theory, Shevek’s mentor derides the paradigm as mere superstition and censors Shevek’s ideas. Shevek eventually  breaks  from  the  physicists’ collective and founds a new publishing press with several of his friends, where he publishes his scholarship autonomously. Shevek does not need to worry about unemployment, food or shelter because these are available to all as a matter of the basic values organizing Anarri society. As a result, he is able to build alternative institutions, exercise greater autonomy and create better scholarship.

To come back to Earth, the limit of political vision cannot be reducing graduate enrollments in an era of dwindling employment options. These strategies are grounded in an implicit value system holding that not everyone deserves as much education as they desire, and by extension that graduate education reflects a private interest and not a public good or right to self-actualization. Moreover, narrowing the scope of who can obtain graduate education betrays talk about diversity as the lip service that it so often is. Academia is already far too exclusive to Indigenous people, to people of color, to women, to LGBTQIA people and to working- class people.

Le Guin envisions a  radically  different  form of academic organization. Imagine institutions premised upon free and public education for all, on autonomy. Imagine a world in which Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA and first-generation students and faculty do not have to worry about food and shelter as they navigate the systemic violence that  permeates  academic  institutions. A world in which everyone is  free  to  practice the kind of deep thinking and scholarly engagement that they desire. For many, this would include more public scholarship and community engagement. And they could do so without worrying about economic insecurity in the face of an outdated tenure system.

Crisis, Care and COVID-19

When Sen. Bernie Sanders ran in the Democratic primary for the 2016 election, I cried.  I never imagined I would see a presidential candidate even describe themselves as a socialist in my lifetime, even though Sanders was not pushing for democratic control of workplaces by workers. I had long since given up faith in electoral politics, but his candidacy offered a sliver of hope for system- wide transformation in a world that so often seems hopeless.

The following election cycle, one of Sanders’ signature policies — universal, single- payer health care — was a major platform advanced by a broad swath of Democratic primary candidates. Another candidate, Andrew Yang, called for a universal basic income. This policy would provide direct payments of $1,000 per month to every adult citizen, which Yang argued would provide economic security in an age of automation and unemployment and ease “environment versus economy” narratives that undermine responding to climate change. Indeed, countries, provinces and cities around the world have experimented with universal basic income programs since the 1970s, including Namibia, Manitoba, São Paulo, Ontario, Nairobi, India, Finland and Uganda’s Fort Portal. However, perhaps the best examples come from parallel policies adopted in several Native American nations. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, for instance, redistributes casino profits by providing direct payments to citizens, ensuring full employment and funding tribal programs such as infrastructure, education, language revitalization, universal health care, elder services, historic preservation and a museum. As anthropologist Jessica Cattelino notes, programs like this enact a “single- generation shift from grinding poverty to relative economic security” and tangibly expand the tribe’s self-governance as a sovereign nation.4 The Seminole Tribe notwithstanding, the actual profitability of most tribal casino ventures is far more uncertain than colonial stereotypes would suggest.5 Nonetheless, this represents an understanding of the function and purpose of governance that departs from Eurocentric models of the (neo)liberal nation-state.

In the spring of 2020, nothing is the same. As nonessential businesses have closed down under quarantine measures, 3.3 million citizens filed for unemployment in a single week.6 As the death toll grows in the United States and abroad, mutual aid networks have sprung up across the country as neighbors organize to help one another within the  gaps of government policies, popularizing  an anarchist tactic in a matter of days. Anarchism isn’t only a dream for the future. It is also something that just happens when it is needed.

It is now becoming painfully obvious that the most essential workers are often those paid the least. This situation was captured well by the U.S.-based Gig Workers Collective in a statement about Instacart, a grocery delivery and pickup service that uses an Uber-like employment model. The Collective wrote, “We will not risk our safety, our health, or our lives for a company that fails to adequately protect us, fails to adequately pay us, and fails to provide us with accessible benefits should we become sick …. They are putting us directly in harm’s way while profiting greatly. We cannot let this be considered normal [bold in original].”7 Strikes are gaining steam in minimum and subliving wage sectors like grocery stores and delivery services — now classified as emergency workers — as workers demand greater safety measures, hazard pay and paid sick leave.

As a result of widespread unemployment, tenants with reduced or zero income are hanging white sheets from windows to signal they are going on rent strikes.8 Departing from the conventional strategy of withholding rent to pressure landlords to make concessions like repairs, strikers are demanding a federal rent and mortgage freeze.9 Mean- while, Congress finally intervened by passing relief legislation. Much of this policy is aimed at providing  corporate  bailouts. However, it also provides each adult citizen with a direct payment of $1,200 plus another $500 per dependent and expands unemployment insurance by including gig workers and independent contractors, offering an additional $600 per week for four months and extend- ing the limit for collecting funds to 39 weeks. Other countries, unsurprisingly, are doing far more by offering greater direct payments on a monthly basis.10

COVID-19 has radically changed the public vision of social possibility by demonstrating principles for  organizing  the  economy  in a way that works for people. While  the call for federal intervention departs from the anarchist principles that Le Guin imagined, it signals hope for a world in which everyone is ensured food, water, housing and health care as a matter of public good.

It is precisely this vision that I believe scholars need to adopt. Imagine a world in which every person is free to pursue as much education as they want without worrying about putting food on the table or incurring devastating debt. Imagine a world in which people are free to create scholarship and organize classrooms without the crushing worry of landing a tenure-track job, the labor drain of applying for hundreds of positions or grinding themselves down in poverty-waged adjunctships. Imagine a world where every- one is free to conduct the scholarship they desire, knowing that if they fail to secure long-term employment, they will still have food on the table and access to medical care.

Would this not lead to better scholarship as well as thriving communities?

An Old Normal

Contrary to popular belief, COVID-19 is not unique or unprecedented but the logical conclusion of colonial practices and institutions. It should be understood in the historical context of epidemics that swept across Indigenous nations with such devastating effects that by the early 17th century, the absent breaths of so many caused a global drop in carbon dioxide levels marked within the geological strata of Earth itself.11

For this reason, while U.S. federal relief policies offer a suggestive outline of another world, I caution to treat such policies with some degree of skepticism. For one thing, the relief bill excludes sex workers12 and undocumented immigrants in a moment when Immigration and Customs Enforcement is taking advantage of stay-at-home orders to conduct raids. While “gig” workers — and those who, like my wife, are illegally classified by employers as independent contractors — are formally included, many states lack the mechanisms to actually process these unemployment claims and cannot respond on a time frame that reflects the immediate pressures posed by the loss of income. In Florida, the unemployment insurance website appears to have been specifically designed to block applicants.13

In a beautiful essay, bodyworker and healing justice organizer Susan Raffo urges readers to reflect on the anxieties and traumas instilled within them to always think that they will be without enough. She describes this as a specifically capitalist logic that interrupts older economic security practices premised upon sharing, connection and care.14 She suggests that those with stable food and housing might pass their direct relief payments on into redistributive and mutual aid networks. While this might be an important stopgap measure, the vision I advance here demands an alternative university system to ensure that everyone has the means to live and do the work they love. This vision is impossible without broad-scale social trans- formation that begins with a basic commitment that every person deserves food, water, shelter and health care. This would be a project inseparable from prison abolition, dismantling of borders established by settler states, ending imperial wars for business interests and returning land to Indigenous peoples.

Even after or if COVID-19 passes, United Nations scientists state that the world only has until 2030 to prevent the worst of irreversible climate disasters.15 As Joe Biden secures the Democratic candidacy, there will almost certainly be no state-initiated program that even approaches the level of substantive change needed. But here again, anxieties of proliferating catastrophes and apocalyptic futures of the collapse of nation-states or “civilization” — betray a specifically colonial vantage point. Indigenous critics point out that, like pandemics, environmental destabilization is nothing new. It is rather the historical outcome of settler colonial ways of relating to the world and extractive projects enacted upon a dispossessed land base.16 Far from a future that might be managed or mitigated, climate change is the slow unfolding of a colonial system of proliferating apocalypses. The deeper question is why scholars have overwhelmingly organized their institutions around the premise that these disasters happened to someone else.

The university system needs a relief plan not just for COVID-19 but also for the ongoing catastrophe that is the past 500 years. Perhaps state institutions may provide needed redistributive mechanisms, although I am skeptical. There is a more foundational question: How might researchers and teachers do scholarship and live in good relation with others within the postapocalyptic worlds we already inhabit, in a way that still prefigures a world that we might ethically want to live in? How might people build academic institutions that reflect a responsibility to communities living in the fractures of empire and a commitment to our collective ability to thrive to think deeply and imaginatively about the world both as it is and as it might be? These are serious questions. I do not pretend to have the answers.

Notes

  1. Editorial Council,  “The  COVID-19 Pandemic: Capitalism  in  Crisis,”  The Red  Nation, March 16, 2020. https://therednation. org/2020/03/16/the-covid-19-pandemic-capital- ism-in-crisis/.
  2. Sandra G. Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” in Yearnings: race, gender, and cul- tural politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1990), 145–54.
  3. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: Harper Voyager, 2011 [1974]).
  4. Jessica Cattelino, High Stakes: Florida Semi- nole Gaming and Sovereignty (Durham,  NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 8–9; David Troyer, Rez Life (New York: Grove Press, 2012), 250–51.
  5. Cattelino, High Stakes, 4–6.
  6. Dominic Rushe and Amanda Holpuch, “Record 3.3m Americans File for Unemployment as the US Tries to Contain Covid-19,” The Guard- ian, March 26, 2020.
  7. Gig Workers Collective, “Instacart Emer- gency Walk Off,” March 27, 2020. https://medium.com/@GigWorkersCollective/instacart-emer gencywalk-off-ebdf11b6995a.
  8. Black Rose Anarchist Federation, “Recom- mended Rent Strike Resources,” April 1, 2020. https://blackrosefed.org/rechttps://blackrosefed. org/recommended-rent-strike-and-organizing- resources/ommended-rent-strike-and-organizing- resources/; It’s Going Down, “Why and How to  Go on a Rent Strike,” March 26, 2020. https:// itsgoingdown.org/why-and-how-to-go-on-a-rent- strike/.
  9. Clio Chang, “Should I Pay My Rent on April 1? We Asked a New York Housing Organizer,” Vice, March 27, 2020.
  10. Matt Apuzzo and Monika Pronczuk, “Cov- id-19’s Economic Pain is Universal. But Relief? Depends on Where You Live,” The New York Times, March 23, 2020.
  11. Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16, no. 4 (2017): 761–  80; Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 13, 318–21.
  12. Alanna  Vagianos,  “Legal  Sex   Workers and Others in Adult Industry Denied Coro-  navirus Aid,” HuffPost. Last modified April 3, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/legal-sex- workers-denied-coronavirus-aid_n_5e86287ac5b 6d302366ca912.
  13. Mary Papenfuss, “‘S**t Sandwich’: Florida GOP Reportedly Rigged Jobless Sit to Block Appli- cants,” HuffPost, April 3, 2020.
  14. Susan   Raffo,   “Time    to    Redistribute Those  Stimulus  Checks,   Baby,”   Susan   Raffo   blog, March 27, 2020. https://www.susanraffo.com/blog/time-to-redistribute-those-stimulus– checks- baby? fbclid=Iw AR0ar Mxs_ cy STU- A51tTkNxCnVcTOE6UmZ65329JLbr11iI-iaV8q Mm4-p6E.
  15. United Nations General Assembly, “Only  11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn During General Assembly High-Level Meeting,” Meetings Cover- age and Press Releases, March 28, 2019. https:// www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm.
  16. Davis and Todd, “On the Importance”; Kyle Powys Whyte, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene,” in Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, ed. Ursula K. Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann (New York: Routledge, 2017), 206–17; Daniel R. Wildcat, Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2009).

Leigh Bloch is a Florence L. Kay Fellow at Brandeis University, a joint position in anthropology and American studies. Their book project, Sweetgum Archaeology: The Unfinished Histories of Mound Landscapes in the Native South (under advance contract with the University Press of Florida), investigates earthen “mound” sites in the South- eastern United States in partnership with members of a small Native American community who claim Muskogee (Creek) ancestry.

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