University for Strategic Optimism


A university based on the principal of free and open education, a return of politics to the public, and the politicisation
of public space.
Syllabus Autumn Term 2010

USO 101110 Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism and the State
Autumn Term 2010
Convenor: Dr. Étienne Lantier (
University for Strategic Optimism

Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism and the State

Course Outline
Our basic public services, we are told, are simply too expensive. They must be thrown under the wheels of the megalithic debt that bears down  upon us. They must be privatised, corporatised and commodified. All this so we can ensure the continuation of a system that funnels wealth into the hands of a privileged few. This failed and flailing market system, we are told, is the only one that is possible, drastic cuts the only alternative, the fairest thing to do. Any deviation from the path laid out for us will unleash the worst imaginable, a media-imagined Worst that threatens from our darkened skies.
This course offers an emphatic No! to this description of our current situation, and sees instead a magnificent opportunity, a multiplication of possibilities, the opening of a space in which we might think about, and bring about, a fairer and wealthier society for all. In short: Many good reasons for strategic optimism! High profile economists from all sides tell us that the cuts make no fiscal sense. This course seeks to move
beyond this point, to interrogate how the cuts make sense, to whom,  according to which logic. It urges a rampant questioning of the ideological basis for the relentless privitisation and privation of our lives: Are these cuts incoherent, as some have said? Or is this a specific move/set of moves on the part of neo-liberal capital? Are labour, education,  healthcare, and the environment, mere commodities, to be consumed by those who will redeem them as more capital? Can the opposition to cuts begin moving towards a society ‘fit for purpose’? Is it still easier to imagine The End-of-the-World than The End-of-Capitalism?

Week 1 TBA
Privatised wealth versus public sovereignty – it’s still personal
As a nation we have languished under a false sense of the integrity of our democracy, disavowing the fact it means very little in the face of an  incredible minority that cannibalises revenue from its lands and extends
that operation through expropriating each citizen’s tax into their system of wealth. Its formal inauguration started with the Magna Carta; today the systemic eroding of public agency and public space has found a bedfellow with neo-liberalising tropes of governance. The University of Strategic Optimism’s first lecture will therefore explore the roots of the current  hierarchical system as per the relationship between privatised capital, the British class system and its landed wealth. How does this state of affairs correspond to the still dominant neo-liberal agenda?
Set Readings
Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Zero Books 2009.
Kevin Cahill: Who owns Britain. The hidden facts behind landownership in the UK and Ireland, Canongate Books 2002
Milton Friedman: Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press 2002
Further Readings
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
Paul Bowman: Cut the shock Doctrine. Radicalize Common Sense (
Ben: We’re into Endgame (

Week 2 TBA
Will the Humanities save Us?
In eliminating public funding for arts, humanities and social sciences the government is taking an explicit stance on which kind of education it  considers valuable. That the poets were banned from Plato’s Republic is
common knowledge. But it is the danger the poets embody, not their uselessness that motivated this decision. Yet, the philosophers govern this particular state, thus its power stays firmly within the realm of what we today consider the humanities. In closer detail we will therefore  examine Immanuel Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties from 1798, trying to understand it in its striking actuality. Whereas law, medicine and theology are here envisioned as subordinate to the government, because the government depends on them, a clear distinction is drawn between state-power and philosophy, granting the latter a certain independence.
Moreover, philosophy’s own potency and necessity for the government, Kant argues, is a result of this independence. We will finish the session with an inquiry into the relationship between knowledge and power as described by the late Michel Foucault. This will help us to put this strict division into question again.
Set Readings
Stanley Fish: Will the Humanities Save Us? (
Plato: The Republic
Emmanuel Kant: The Conflict of the Faculties. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality. Vol 1: The Will to Knowledge, Penguin 1998.
Further Readings
Franz Kafka: Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk
The Humanties in American Life (;brand=ucpress)
Ars Industrialis: Manifesto 2010 (
Intellectuals&Power (

Week 3 TBA
No Society – Big Society – What Society?
In his party conference speech Cameron employs the terms ‘liberalism, ’empowerment,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘responsibility.’ This lecture will ask: what is behind the rhetoric of ‘The Big Society’? Is it a return to Thatcher’s “no society” in the guise of empowerment? Is it empowering for communities and individuals? Or just for corporations? What is the role of government in the ‘Big Society’? Does it really entail decentralisation in support of  community initiative? Or is welfare the only responsibility the  government will be delegating to citizens? What does this transformation mean for the way wealth is distributed? Cameron tells us that in the Big Society people will “feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.” This prophecy seems to be  rapidly materialising in response to the proposed society. The practical element of the course will focus on ways of creating a society of equal opportunities. If Cameron’s Big Society is based on the ideas of  privatization and exclusivity, we will think about ‘society’ based on the notion of active communities. Students will write a society diary: over the duration of the course, they will be required to conduct interviews and fieldwork.
Set Readings
The Magna Carta (
Chantal Mouffe: The Democratic Paradox, Verso 2009
Diane Denham and the C.A.S.A. Collective: Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca,
PM Press 2008
Pepi Leistyna, Cultural Studies: From Theory to Action, Blackwell 2005
Brian Morris, Kropotkin: The Politics of Community, Prometheus Books 2004
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Forgotten Books 2008
Malcolm Tight, Higher Education in the United Kingdom Since 1945: An Oral History, Open University Press 2008
Revolution ’68 [Melvyn Bragg, 2008]:

Week 4 TBA
The winners of the prize-questions will present their works, defend them in a public discussion and receive the doctorate (see below for more details). We will proceed to celebrate the completion of the first course.

The successful participation in this course endows you with the M.A. in Strategic Optimism. However, to encourage the very best and in light of the extreme complexities of the subject matter, we have decided to utilise the opportunity this course presents us with and announce a prize-question. We believe its answers will, in due course, assist the public in contesting and the government in adjusting the recently formulated
policies. Answers can be sent to in written, drawn,  photographed or audio-visually recorded form. To be considered, the work must be submitted before the 5th of December. The length should not exceed 2000 words or ten minutes respectively. The winner will be elected by a prize-committee. In addition to the presentation and  discussion of the most convincing works at the graduation ceremony and their publication on the homepage, their authors will be awarded the  honorary curious Mr. or Mrs. daredevil-doctorate of the University for Strategic Optimism and receive a fair trade chocolatebar.

1. Contrary to official statements claiming that the proposed cuts are unfortunate but unavoidable, it becomes increasingly clear that no  inherent necessity is demanding them. Therefore their proposition must be based on a political decision. A critical investigation should most  certainly be able to identify a rational argument at the heart of this  decision and discover why it is being withheld form public inquiry.
What then is the guiding principle to this decision? Are the recent measures related to
immediately preceding ones like the bank bailout and the points-based immigration system, and
if so, how do they add up to an overall political strategy?

2. In eliminating public funding for arts, humanities and social sciences – areas in which the British higher education system has yielded  extraordinary results and successes over the last decades – the government is taking an explicit stance on what kind of education and research it considers valuable.
In contesting this view and insisting on arts, humanities and social sciences as a public assignment rather than a private eccentricity, it must therefore be asked, what arts, humanities and social sciences actually can, should and must contribute to the society as a whole?

University for Strategic Optimism
Nov 2010


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