Ben Rosenzweig Theory of the Offensive blog

International student struggles, or, Causes of the mediated processes of reproduction

Reposted From Theory of the Offensive, by Ben Ross

Anecdotal introduction
A few months ago I was looking for a share-house room in Melbourne, where rents have gone up a lot in the last couple of years. I kept coming across people advertising places who would explain, sometimes with a little laugh, that they were planning on getting an international student in if possible, given the size of the rooms (microscopic, phone booths, walk-in closets, disused bathrooms) and the rent (not microscopic by any means). Most of those I spoke to were not multi-property slum-landlord-types; they were people renting or buying houses, ‘ordinary’ share-house people, even (Australian) other students, who now saw an opportunity to make a chunk of cash.

In very real if broad senses, those in Melbourne on international student visas face not merely employers as exploiters: they face almost the entire array of social relations in Melbourne as a predatory world re-made as a Hobbesian market just for them – the social sweatshop, the war of all against them.

New social objects
…reconstituting areas of accumulation…
The development of these international education economies should be understood as a moment of a restructuring of relations of exploitation, of the social relations of capitalism, for which ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘globalisation’ are common if inadequate terms – the emergence of new forms of subsumption of labour under capital on a planetary basis. In particular, this restructuring has disturbed and attenuated the division of the global cycle of capital into national areas of accumulation, and reconstituted the form and imperatives of states within the expansion of capital and reproduction of capitalism. (If a distinction between centre and periphery persists, it has quite different dynamics; likewise, as I’m hardly the first to argue, experiences of class and of ‘proletarian identity’.)

So far, so banal.

International education economies are the biggest source of export income in Victoria, by a substantial margin. Within Australia, international education economies developed through a number of stages. After being given the ability to charge enormous fees to international students, and as part of a much broader neoliberalising reconstitution of the social relations defining institutions, universities started to become what might be thought of as properly capitalist institutions, selling education and training and the credentials supposed to attest to same, in the sense outlined by Marx in the ‘excluded chapter’ of Das Kapital:

A schoolmaster who educates others is not a productive worker. But a schoolmaster who is engaged as a wage labourer in an institution along with others, in order through his labour to valorise the money of the entrepreneur of the knowledge-mongering institution, is a productive worker.

Even if the institution is “public” (I would argue). At the time Marx noted that such ‘services’, “from the formal point of view, are hardly subsumed formally under capital”, but were instead “transitional forms”, though “capable of being exploited directlyin the capitalist way” (his emphasis). Because this was not really happening at the time – formal or real subsumption – he advised that such activities be treated as “wage labour which is not at the same time productive labour”. Obviously the institutions, the economies and the activitites have gone through many shifts since Marx was writing, very real subsumption.

Marketplace, commodity exchange, wage labor. As the social relations of institutions were reorganised as competitive markets centred on imperatives of income generation, the generation of profit from international markets ran far ahead of the capacity of most institutions to generate income from (the formation of) ‘domestic markets’, from profits from the development of intellectual property, or by contracting out academic research work. A generation of profit made possible by systems of border control – by forms of violent exclusion which make possible new commodifications of mobility and of real and potential access to conditions of social reproduction (at least nominally) available to (some) of those judged to be within the borders of Australian territory and citizenship.

Thus these shifts included the developing ability to sell much more than these limited commodities of knowledge and accreditation, and the development of a massive private sector (colleges and the like founded solely on international students). And as part of these, a shift in who came, and how they got here. And more recently, shifts in the ways in which these economies bleed into surrounding social relations and institutions, the ways in which states and others seek to mediate the reproduction of such economies on a number of levels.

The integration of the Australian state into global political economy is now increasingly organised around integration into precisely these economies, a niche in world markets which re-makes and covertly commodifies the border and citizenship amongst many other things, as a certification point, a transit point, a control point, sometimes a destination, helping to define the movements of people in ever-changing but hardly arbitrary directions.

We know that the emerging socio-economic systems reach into the most ‘private’ of social relations, for example re-creating systems of dowry in India, and making up new flows of people and labour, finance and debt.

And also recreating the activity of police in Victoria, for example, as defenders of the large, fragile profits of the industry.

Social power
Many of the same people who seemed able to wipe out a chunk of ‘our’ international education economies with a few protests in the middle of last year had already taken public collective action. The same people (male Indian students) in the same place (Melbourne streets) about the same thing (violence). Despite being relatively large, wildcat, ‘militant’, disruptive – a very very public spectacle of angry brown men, some with shirts off, occupying a major city street for hours – the earlier actions seemed to have consequences much much smaller than subsequent events (unless understood as a causal precursor to the late events), more-or-less disappearing from “public” view with the cessation of collective disruptive action.

And yet the only substantial difference was in how the event was framed: taxi drivers the first time, international students the second.

The reason was not difficult to spot: the second round of ‘international student’ actions were experienced as a much more direct threat to recruitment to Australia’s largest non-mining “export” industry.

Interestingly, in India a parallel view of media coverage was put forward by a Left party:

Remember that not long ago, taxi drivers of Indian and Pakistini origin had protested in Melbourne against police indifference to a series of attacks on them. That story had not been highlighted much by the corporate Indian media because it made less interest copy for elite India than the attacks on “people like us”.

What are these people? I’m suggesting, now, that it is absurdly procrustean to try to reduce the social positioning of those who took action, or international students, or sub-sections of thereof, to being simply ethnically Indian (Chinese, Nepalese, whatever), or being students, or being generic workers (even ‘migrant workers’).

And not because it is always reductive to force complex individuals into simple categories – I don’t care about that at all.

Rather, all of these ascriptions are inadequate because they arewrong, because they fail to engage with the realities of those under discussions, with the social relations in which they really operate and thus with what they really are. Obviously they may work, study, come from India/China/Nepal.

I’m saying that these are guest consumers in new transnational economies which reach into and redefine Australian territory, border, citizenship, economy and social reproduction – moments of a restructuring of exploitation which reconstitutes the historical experience of work and of (what Theorie Communiste refer to as) ‘proletarian identity’. The imperatives which generated these programs were not to find people who can be made to work, not to generate a pool of hyperexploitable labor, but rather people who can be made to pay. Of course, with the expansion of such economies, these guest consumers now form the basis of multiple economies – producing people defined not as essences or members of some occupational or cultural group, but as conflictually-constituted moments in an ensemble of social relations, an entire social terrain negotiated from a quite different position, if not experienced as external imposition. Legal and immigration status, education, housing, transport, work, healthcare – markets, institutions and conditions collectively making up new and sometimes distinctly separate spaces. Work is the form of economic survival and point of exploitation, but not necessarily, and for quite material reasons, a privileged locus of identity.

A new exclusion is possible
What we might only partially inaccurately refer to as ‘international education economies’ are made up of overlapping, competing and conflicting imperatives and interests – interests of institutions (most obviously universities, private colleges, recruitment agencies) and states (most obviously Australian federal and state governments, Indian and Chinese governments). For a while any conflicts seemed to be attenuated, even swamped, by joy derived from the expansion of capital, but in recent times conflicts have emerged. Resistance led to recruitment problems led to a re-assertion of state management and planning – uneven, ad hoc and sometimes tentative but across the social terrain of these political economies.

If state governments experience these economies primarily as sources of revenue, the federal government occupies a slightly different position, with additional imperatives. As I write the federal government is acting to remake these educational economies, slicing out many of the least wealthy international students and sacrificing some proportion of the private colleges. To some extent it publicly appears as a re-assertion of federal labor market management in immigration policy and border regulation, informing and covering an effort at reconstitution of guest consumer economies alongside (for example) Victorian government efforts to diversify and re-make sources of guest consumers in attempts to ameliorate the fragility of these economies (and undermine the mediated socio-economic power of guest consumers).

The new urgency for expansion, and into new markets, is both an attempt to “replace” those who will no longer choose to come to Australia ie a response to declining recruitment from some places following the protests and publicity surrounding violence against international students and college closures, and a form of risk management.

Many of the problems of the industry are at least implicitly attributed to consequences of one fact: many of the students coming here are not, to put it in a nutshell, rich. Quite the opposite. By developing “new markets” centred on recruitment of elites from a variety of countries, governments can begin a process of regulation and exclusion, over time, without wiping out the guest consumer-based economies.

Thus, the federal government is trying to shift, at least at the edges, the basis of international education economies by changing the content of the commodities (which can be) sold, in order to manage problems experienced by states and capital – problems of the fragility of accumulation and expansion manifest primarily in the struggles of the guest consumers themselves.

But the reconstitution of these commodities is also the redefinition of legitimacy, a redistribution of exclusion and criminalization, and of formal or de facto expulsion – not to mention the creation of a new pattern of massive debt in parts of India and elsewhere, as some guest consumers, now dispensed with, face having virtually destroyed the economic basis of family reproduction for decades to come as payment, on credit, for effectively worthless ‘education’.

Multicultural patriotism
Meanwhile, Victorian police are threatening and intimidating Indians with a view to silencing potential complaints about racially-motivated attacks. Students calling up are threatened with deportation if they give false information by ‘disbelieving’ police. Taxi drivers repeatedly attacked by groups of people are told to shut up, that they can be charged with offences too, that they should just let things go or else. While it is difficult to ascertain exactly why or how frequently this is occurring, and whether this is a quiet directive from on high or the initiative of police not wanting to be held responsible for the loss of millions of ‘export dollars’, or just bigotry, the result is the same: police working hard to minimise problems (for the industry, for government).
The Indian groceries which grew with student numbers are finding it more and more difficult to survive as the Indian students no longer leave their homes at night, and thus no longer shop – at its worst, almost experiencing their lives as a state of siege.

Though they make up less than half of the ‘international students’ in Australia, by the new-found prominence of their protests, victimhood, and subsequent social visibility, male Indian students have become a kind of distorting metonym of those in Australia on student visas in general.

The central axis of this violence is that of citizen against non-citizen, even if in reality this manifests as that of particular (groups of) citizens against particular (groups of) non-citizens. Some have sought to find in any acts of ‘anti-student’ violence committed by non-whites, by non-Anglos, a refutation of any accusation of ‘racism’ against ‘mainstream Australians’ (understood as whites), if not proof of the ‘racism’ of specifically non-white Australians and hence an indication of the ‘failure of multiculturalism’. As if hatred of international students is an ancient hatred imported into this country by migrants – a stubborn persistence of that hatred of Indians so prominent in, say, Somalia.

In reality such violence does exist in relation to the ‘success’ of ‘multiculturalism’ as a state-sponsored project of management and nation-building. People from ‘diverse’ backgrounds can articulate xenophobia in the terms of multicultural patriotism, of the divisions of citizen and non-citizen within which official ‘anti-racism’ is constituted. Black, brown or white, we are all Australians – except for those who aren’t. In this case, the guest consumers.

The resulting fear is directly related to defeat: as consequences of guest consumer struggle turn out to be more harassment and violence and then mass expulsion at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale, the obvious collective actions dissipated, leaving a space of representation which could be seized, by FISA and others, and converted into political capital, and a claim to NGO funding and/or multicultural corporatist ‘inclusion’.

Final remarks
In a very real way the most recent shifts in the role of states in these economies are responses to the resistance of guest consumers. Moreover, in a very real way these shifts have effectively undermined, if not defeated, the movements of guest consumers as they have appeared over the last couple of years.

Resistance has been defeated, at least temporarily, by a combination of increased violence and enhanced fear, and the threat and reality of a wave of expulsions – expulsion, primarily of the least wealthy (literally negative wealth, often), enacted through visa changes of the sort pushed by the CFMEU and regulation and enforcement of the sort pushed by the National Union of Students.

The national regulation of labor and labor-market formation – almost all the ALP has retained from laborist social democracy – has always been compatible (to put it mildly) with xenophobia, and with the overt reduction of ‘foreigners’ to economic utility.

I would suggest that it is not desirable to analyse these developments from narrow perspectives, of the sad loss of the fantasy-university or the need to resuscitate social democracy, for example, which in any case tend to be overtly or not based upon demands for new border policing and exclusion.

Rather these developments should be seen as moments of restructuring, restructuring-as-class-struggle, with conflict defining points of the global flows of capitalist reproduction and accumulation. To understand the restructuring of which our struggles are a part – that would be a worthy goal.