A Pattern for Reversing Privatization

... and saving our universities from neoliberal economics

The Overall Problem

If people could make democratic decisions, not about representatives, but about issues, our world would be a very different place. Most of the capitalist world is a tyranny: the bosses tell you what to do, and their bosses and investors tell them what to do. Over the past two centuries, communities have decreasing freedom to democratically decide upon issues of time, effort, and nature. That power and freedom lies increasingly in the hands of private capital. The power is sometimes in the hands of a centralized government supportive of private capital accumulation over public interests. The actual public interest quality of all  this activity is an afterthought. The public can sometimes successfully demand that its interests are attended to, or sometimes they get services that pave the way for more exploitation, as capital invades their lives further.

Finding Strategies

There are escapes from this bleak reality. There's one particularly exciting and creativity-inducing pattern, which I detail below: the institution-based public service. Surprisingly, some version of this pattern could go a long way towards resolving this issue. But first, we need to identify the exact moments where the private opportunism can be stopped, so public-interest patterns can be used.

I'm picking cases at a state university, the University of Oregon,  because I know it intimately, and because it's rapidly de-innovated and de-generated through piecemeal privatization and increased managerialism.

When I joined the shared governance institution within the U of O, known as the University Senate, it became very clear that the executive administration had devolved from a role that supported the public institution ("administrative" in the sense of "taking care of details"), to one that ruled, and fought against the students, staff, faculty, and the public, on behalf of capital interests outside of the campus. 

Strategy one: Remove the Crown

Although the U of O has been captured in this way, it's a little difficult for faculty to find a political escape from this situation. The University Senate could certainly run the university in the public interest, far better than the executive administration, and without the expense. But since the faculty are already well-paid, the public would not be politically interested in their plight. One feasible possibility: pass a state ballot measure to limit the high-to-low pay ratio more severely,  so that publicly funded administrators and coaches who get salaries in the many hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per year ... would disappear.

Strategy two: Support the public

The power of the administration can be weakened by building up parts of the university that directly serve the public. Many departments do this actively: the College of Education do this, for example, by engaging the states K-12 education, training and certifying teachers, and hosting a few experimental paid public services.

One of these, known as SWIS, is quite interesting. Although it was certainly not created for radical purposes, it provides a unique Software-as-a-Service (otherwise known as a webapp) that's trusted by over ten thousand schools around the world. The service is privatization-resistant, because the application (which creates a dashboard of school behavior referrals, to give teachers a sense of where and when problems are emerging in their schools) requires absolute dedication to privacy. The private sector cannot guarantee that, and schools would be, or should be, rightly suspicious of a private company trying to do the same. In fact, it would not be profitable enough for a private business to get investment for.

As a result, for about 20 years, a small department has funded its research by hosting this trusted public service "business" within the institution. 

The department has a surprising amount of autonomy (although it must always be on guard) within the university, because it is self-funding. And yet it provides a public service, a platform for research, and essentially prevents the private sector from competing in this area. It gives a hint of what job creation for public good could look like. It's also what more of the university could look like.  It also undermines the private sector, which is a good thing, since the private sector's corrupt, self-serving ideology of power and capital accumulation is destroying the planet, and immiserating almost everyone.

How to use this pattern

I know that power hates this pattern, because I was immediately stopped from trying to create an example of it within the institution. It doesn't matter that it would be fantastic for the institution: it would be "bad" for the absolute power of the pro-capital executive administration. Control is more important than being right, which is why the executives are almost always wrong.

Here was my 2018 proposal:


I was inspired by the increasing neoliberal troubles that museums experience while  raising money for new exhibits. When curators at prominent museums want to put on an interesting show, one that's doesn't include big name artists, they often are stopped by lack of major donor funding. These donors could be corporations or patrons, but the pool is quite limited, so the show is either cancelled or changed radically. I was particularly struck by a case at SFMoMA, which tried to put on an interesting, well-researched exhibition covering the nature of humane design, but ultimately, it warped into a show of consumer products ... because that's what they could get major funding for.

In the absence of government funding, the answer to this dilemma is to involve the public in a much more significant way. Curators, or others, could propose an exhibition, and people would register their interest with a pledge. If the pledge campaign is successful, the exhibit or initiative moves forward. For all the world's public museums, it would be a kind of special-purpose kickstarter social network. 

The proposal was to launch this application from within the museum. The museum's director, and many staff, thought it was a terrific idea. They quickly became enthusiastic about the possibilities of a trusted public-interest web application, one that could really help museums to work together, to serve the public better. 

The museum director was certain that she could raise money to start the project, in the summer of 2018, from donors who were particularly interested in museum innovation. 

We proposed this "win-win" "slam-dunk" to the executive administration. And they said "stop!"

In long emails, they questioned why a department could raise money from donors unavailable to the broader university. Although the administration and their "university advancement" fundraising department continually talked about donor-directed grants, they actually refused to allow a department to arrange these themselves. "Give us those donors", they said. But that was clearly ridiculous.

Secondly, they were consolidating hiring and expansion decisions in the executive administration headquarters. For example, departments could no longer hire faculty without approval of the Provost. Certainly a department could not start their own self-funding public-interest "enterprise", because the hiring decisions were obviously intended to be independent of the administration's control.

In doing this, however, the U of O clearly lost a major research and marketing opportunity. (Two years later, a respected private art gallerist in New York used the title "Museum Exchange" to create a useful, but rather different web application).

The Opening

But if I had tried to use the same strategy in many departments, perhaps not offering to do it myself but simply putting the bug in people's ears, the university administration would not have been able to say "no" to everyone. And politically, the broader university community does have the power to make policy changes. 

This would reverse the privatization of the U of O significantly. Everyone would start to create software for the world they want, based on research in their own departments. 

Now imagine every government department doing the same thing. Start a direct public service that's obviously needed, and then force the useless upper management to allow it, with public demand.

This is a technique used in the computer industry, usually called a "skunkworks" project, which engineers would do in the "back 40" -- that is, the "extra" 40 hours a week past their normal working hours. 

This is also how things actually get done in heavily managerial companies and institutions. The U of O instituted an arbitrary reorg for their IT activities, insisting on more management oversight. As a result, more skunkworks activity had to be created under-the-management's-radar in order to actually get work done. This coöperative work acts as a foundation for our society. Corporate and institutional tyrannies pretend that it doesn't go on, but usually all problems are solved through mutual aid at the grasstroots. 

Which is why these low-level governmental initiatives need to become normalized: so we can actually have workplace democracy that works hand-in-hand with the public. 

Think about how this could be done in your privatizing institutions.  We'll try to make more tools available soon.

And now the pattern ...

Public institutions need to be democratized. Major decisions needs to be made collectively, in public democratic deliberation, and minor ones locally in democratic workplaces. Extreme power and wealth differentials must be reduced. People within the institutions are then free to work with their communities to create:

New Institutional Public Services

The Problem:

Private accumulation of capital is seizing the commons, the means of producing what society needs, through a process known as privatization. It's easy to see this process eat away at public institutions.


Anticipate social needs and use this as an opportunity to start new public services within institutions. There are usually working examples that can be used to make the case, but start enough of them at once so that the enthusiasm of the majority can overwhelm the autocracy of the executives.