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Photo-ops and Goodie Bags: Co-Optation of Student Unions

László Molnárfi


In a sweeping move of radicalism, the Union of Students Ireland called for a national walkout in October 2022, causing tens of thousands of their members to engage in direct action. As this year’s student representatives take power, it seems a return to traditional syndicalism is on the horizon in Ireland. However, when considering the underfunding of the third-level sector in Ireland, it is surprising that so little action was taken since the anti-austerity marches of the 2010s until now. Having more than 15,000 students in fee or rent arrears to their universities (Power, 2022), a high student to staff ratio at 1:20 as compared to a European Union average of 1:15 (Donnelly, 2023), and over 11,200 lecturers on casualized contracts (Delaney, 2020), the Irish academic system has been growing more and more fragile over the past decade. It is timely to examine what exactly led the 246,000 or so third-level students of the Republic of Ireland being trapped in the clutches of apolitical, co-opted and weak leadership. 


This paper argues that structural factors associated with capitalism have a high degree of influence over Irish student unions. The first part of the paper argues that co-optation, the act of governing bodies neutering social movements and making them accept the ‘rules of the game’ instead of engaging in contentious politics (Marcuse, 1965, p.2), is a process that arises from structural factors associated with the ruling mode of production, rather than just being a conscious act by the ruling elite. The second part of the paper offers a discussion of how co-optation occurs in the context of representative organisations with a special focus on student unions.

Co-optation as an Inherent Aspect of Capitalism

In the 1960s, the Situationists, a Marxist philosophical movement, recognized that capitalism co-opts anything dangerous to itself. The concept of recuperation, as they called it, involves the appropriation of radical ideas, symbols, and movements by arms of the bourgeois state, such as mass media, in order to turn them into non-revolutionary imitations (Debord, 1967). The punk style is known as a more innocuous example. The threat of radical organisations becoming domesticated, passive, and increasingly complacent, is constant, leading them to transform into their own simulacra (Ul-Haq et al., 2020). This means that they no longer challenge the fundamental socio-political order of the world, since they have become hijacked by corporate and government interests, and subsumed by capitalist logic  (Ibid).  The reason for this is co-optation, a process of capitalism which allows the ruling classes to control dissent in order to stay in power (Ibid). Posing a serious risk for organisations and movements which seek to make change, co-opted entities risk becoming part of the system and of taking a reformist approach. This means that they do not  challenge the fundamental socioeconomic order of the world, but work within it, thus, restricting the realm of political action by the people to a narrow sectional struggle away from revolution (Lenin, 1913). In the process, they collaborate with rather than confront authorities—for example, it has been shown that trade unions, in becoming institutionally self-serving, can develop aims that are antithetical to their original objectives of standing up for workers (Gilles Deleuze et al., 2014). 


The effect that capitalist ideology has on the perception of contentious politics is noteworthy, but does not explain how co-optation happens. Consider how the mass movements of the past are presented by today’s dominant culture; echoed by the concept of capitalist realism, which describes how the ruling mode of production naturalises itself (Gramsci, 2011; Fisher, 2009). It casts the past as a terrible injustice against which progressives waged a just war, but makes it distant and romanticises it beyond reach. Revolutionary upheaval seems impossible and unjustified today but seems to have been necessary and inevitable yesterday. However, the economic system to which people are subjected to is still a deeply unequal one, and increasingly so. As of 2022, the richest 10% of the global population receive 52% of the global income (World Inequality Lab, 2021). Capitalism’s excesses, such as failing healthcare, bad working conditions, and austerity, continue to result in the social murder of innumerable people every year (Medvedyuk, Govender and Raphael, 2021) and there are less and less organised bodies of people to challenge it. 


Co-optation happens because of economic incentives associated with capitalism, and not just the perception of contentious politics. The environmentalist movement is an illustrative example of a social movement under attack from corporate ideology. One researcher remarks on the differences between earth day in 1970 and in 1990, describing how, in the former, companies were regarded as enemies, whereas in the latter, they were welcomed with open arms (Hoffman, 2009). The difference can be explained by the influence of corporations and the capitalist state (Ibid). This is in spite of capitalism’s incompatibility with ecological transformation (Bernier, 2016). Corporations, looking purely at numbers, are encouraged, due to the profit motive, to partner with groups, and vice-versa. Groups are then subsumed while companies greenwash. The transformation of demands for ecological transformation into consumer choices aptly fits within the ideology of individualisation, where the burden is shifted onto the individual, with encouragement to reduce one’s carbon footprint by buying alternative products, or bringing one’s own cup to work (Stoner, 2020). Similarly, the state enters into partnership with environmentalist groups, setting up youth forums, making reports, calling town halls—essentially directing energy away from transformational change into reformist, incrementalist change. All of this forces environmentalist organisations to take up NGO-like structures. They depoliticise themselves, keep a good public image and make  themselves palatable to companies, the state, or other private donors, so as to keep receiving material support from them (Choudry et al., 2011).  There are, for example, a lot of civil society organisations supported by European Union funds, through Global Europe, and other programmes (Directorate-General for International Partnerships, 2022), which are geared at making change on an institutional level, rather than engaging on the streets with the people. The move away from tackling broader, systemic, and political issues, and a multitude of groups acting this way, prevents a common sense of theory. From a Marxist perspective, this fragments the flaws of capitalism so that the people never perceive the systemic challenges associated with the ruling mode of production.


Rather than there being a direct conspiracy to curtail the power of the environmentalist movement, there is a system of incentives that weaken activist groups.  This sort of power—to pervert, deform, consume radicalism—emanates from obscurity, a web of entities, and falls to the advantage of elites. Neoliberalism has become its own social entity, its own ideology, its own organism with determinism in pursuit of the profit motive (Condon, 2020). It can be thought of as an intensified form of capitalism, and as its consequence. While there is a system of complex social relations guided by the profit motive, made up of bankers, capitalists, profiteers, none of these people are responsible for the economic system. The capitalist mode of production ‘is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’ (Marx, 1848, p.17), and neoliberalism is cast as the ‘as the implacable and irreversible logic of social reality’ (Bauman, 1999, p.127). Neoliberalism is the basis of the economic incentives that co-opt organisations into state structures.


This process is quite similar to the sharp decline of traditional syndicalism and of the trade union (Thompson, 2018). The privatisation and division of bigger publicly-owned corporations starting in the 1970s has meant that much of their base was lost. This was followed by restrictive, anti-union legislation by the ruling classes—a conscious choice—which has led unions to reduce industrial action, and to break up smaller, directly-controlled and democratic unions in favour of amalgamating into big bureaucratic entities, which are safer from legal prosecution (Cushion, 2020). As a result, paid and professionalised staff, not the rank-and-file, controls these large unions. These entities then become institutionalised as they engage in what is called social partnership with companies; essentially sitting in on meetings and engaging in formalised processes of conflict resolution (Dundon, 2015). As such, they practise a very narrow form of struggle, a sectional struggle, within the workplace and isolated to the workplace, purely in economic terms, rather than being political in wider society. Some partnerships even involve funding to unions for training employees, cementing their role as service providers (Robinson, 2009). 


The corporatization of universities, and the co-optation of student unions by exploiting institutional tendencies towards self-preservation illustrates neoliberalism’s heightened power to suppress radical movements. 

Marketisation of Academia and its Influence on Student Unions 

The growing influence of neoliberalism within society deeply affects third-level educational institutions. The marketisation of academia has its roots in the 1980s across the world and has intensified in Ireland since the wave of austerity in the 2010s, as government policies starved universities of public funding (Brooks et al., 2014). In essence, this process refers to the way that universities are ‘adopting corporate models, cutting costs and seeking profit-making opportunities’ (Clay, 2008, p.1). Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this is tuition fee hikes, as administrators try to find ways to make up for the lost money (Wardle, 2017). Market-based reforms also ushered in a shift from democratic governance to top-down, authoritarian, and managerial approaches (Brooks et al., 2014). Other researchers write about the cultural effects, wherein the educational institution starts viewing itself as a corporate entity. For example, treating education as a private good, redefining the role of the student as a consumer rather than as a member of an academic community and branding the university like a product or service to be advertised to potential customers (Steck, 2003).


Marketisation of academia is also shown to affect students' own perceptions of themselves and their third-level institution. The prior decades, namely the 1960s, were characterised by a radical student movement, because they were ready to ‘attack all existing structures, including the university, and to use tactics which alienated the majority, in order to make manifest their contempt, their total rejection of the intolerable world created by their elders’ (Lipset, 1968, p. 3). This movement secured ‘formal student representation’ in a wave of third-level democratisation (Brooks, 2014, p. 169). Subsequent to this democratisation, student unions were affected by the fact of sitting on governing bodies while being in an increasingly neoliberal milieu. Spurred on by the profit motive, students start to identify as consumers—imagine, a student late to a lecture citing that they paid for it to be let-in. Following neoliberal market-based reforms starting in the 1980s, the involvement of student representatives in university governance therefore started to be understood not in a communitarian sense, but in a consumerist sense (Brooks, 2014). These reforms overall led to ‘democracy being understood in economic rather than political terms’ and to the ‘domestication’ of the student voice (Brooks, 2014, p.170).  When surveying student unions in the U.K., from a sample of 10 institutions in 2013, it was found that they increasingly preferred their newfound ‘representative’ role rather than their traditional ‘activist’ role (Brooks, 2014, p.172). The reformed student union understands its place in the university to be akin to that of a consumer representative body, not a radical and mass organisation which seeks to change the world.


Consumerist attitudes will in turn shape the demands which student unions are likely to make. For example, much emphasis has been placed on the ‘student experience’, such as quality assurance, a process that student unions and senior management work on together (Brooks, 2014). Quality assurance, to secure value for money, as an important criterion, being built into grievance procedures and being able to assist students in official structures are ways to dampen radical inclinations and work within the system (Rochford, 2014). This de-emphasising of the political, that is of the wider socioeconomic context, was found to have  eroded the sway of student unions with institutional leaders in universities. In the 2013 study, some senior managers said that co-optation of the student union into official decision-making forums weakened the student voice,  and all student union leaders conceded that power lay in the hands of the third-level institution during the course of the survey (Brooks, 2014). 


Marketisation of academia has also meant that student unions have increasingly begun to take non-adversarial and cooperative approaches when interacting with senior management. The process of ‘bringing them into the tent’ (Rochford, 2014, p.10) or ‘inviting them inside’ (Gevorgyan, 2016, p.7) has been described as a co-optation of what were once politically-active student unions into neutered gears of larger institutional control mechanisms. By bringing student unions into meetings where decisions are made, they become interwoven into the very fabric of the bureaucratic web that is the corporatized institution. As per field theory, a way of looking at political agents as moving around in a field and having the ability to select optimum political strategies such as cooperation or conflict (Bourdieu, 1993), the student union as an actor is drawn to making change within pre-existing structures of the institution because senior management appears more powerful. As this happens, leaders of student unions soon learn the corporate language and the way of making change in meeting rooms (Williams, 2013). The student voice is reduced to mere inputs into a bureaucratic machine. Yet, the partnerial stance of student unions was ‘rarely thought to have been associated with any significant shift of power away from institutional leaders’ (Brooks, 2014, p.176). 


The fact of being ‘in the tent’ also has an impact on the demands made by student unions. Integrated within, student unions will have less of an incentive to publicly challenge systemic grievances stemming from systemic inequalities, and more of an incentive to focus on individual cases as a service provider. Overarching issues will not see the light of day, and the student union will adopt a narrow and sectional outlook to student issues rather than a holistic one that challenges broader socioeconomic factors. 


There is also a self-reported convergence of interests between senior management and student unions due to the fact that they face the same external pressures (Brooks, 2015).  For example, the loss of public funding due to corporatization, coupled with the introduction of explicit performance measurements via league tables, leads both stakeholders to have an incentive to work together. If the student union agitates by seeking to damage the reputation of the university (e.g. through a protest, a petition or talking to the press), then donors may pull out of the university and ranking could fall, damaging the degrees’ worth and thereby the interests of students as consumers in the process (Ibid). In some countries, like in the U.K, university ranking tools even contain questions about satisfaction with the student union, symbolising how institutionalised student unions have become through the expectation that they form part of the commercialised student experience (Brooks, 2015, p. 1218). Finally, an interdependent relationship is then reinforced as the institution gives the student union funding through the block grant, through the collection of fees from the wider student body (Brooks, 2014), and access to membership through data-sharing agreement or mailing lists. 


The mere fact of being in the same room together while these neoliberal reforms were forced upon institutions means that student union leaders and senior management have socialised together. This is also an important factor, as it could lead to student leaders imitating pre-existing authority figures, and not challenging them.  Student unions, through being in the milieu of top-down, autocratic and bureaucratic styles of management that the corporatized university brings, may recreate these structures within their own organisations, thus cutting off rank-and-file engagement on the ground. Taking a Deleuzeian approach: capitalism’s ability to territorialize social entities in the image of capital is unmatched (Gilles Deleuze et al., 2014). The corporate university copies the state structure with its rigidity, bureaucracy and autocracy. The student union copies the university. The process of dissolving the independent values of both the university and the student union into the hegemonic image of the ruling mode of production is thus complete.   


Another essential factor in institutionalisation is the positive spillover effect and the way that unions start behaving like on-campus service providers. Due to neoliberal policies, the institution is forced to cut more and more corners, and the union takes up the slack (Wardle, 2017). A welfare service offered by the union which can refer students to the institution’s psychologist while also easing the administrative stress on the latter means that cooperation takes place (Trinity College Dublin, 2023). One thing leads to another, the institution is also advertising the union’s service. A conversation develops. Then, free ice cream for students is brought in for a ‘International Students’ Day’  organised by the union (Trinity College Dublin, 2021), which the administration authorised and encouraged, as it enhances the student experience. In the process, social links are established between sabbatical officers and senior management. This sort of social capital is what can then be transformed into economic capital, for example project funding. The act of safeguarding this capital leads to an unwillingness to engage in confrontational politics because the student union can only access funds if it positions itself on the political field as being cooperative with senior management (Bourdieu, 1993). 


The marketisation of academia has also led to a shift in the measures of engagement used by student unions which in turn engenders careerism in the ranks of unions and sidelines the interests of underprivileged students. Mimicking the labour market, unions also take up mile-wide and inch-deep methods of engagement, and count student engagement in service numbers, rather than in mobilising capacity. So, for example, how much free food was handed out, how many attended a party, how many times a service was used (NUS, 2011). This is part of a changing set of values, one which also becomes reflected in the way the union markets itself. Extrinsic values, e.g. it looks good on the resumé, have replaced intrinsic values, e.g. fight the collective struggle, a process that researchers have also recognised in trade unions, as they are transformed to serve the labour market (Ibid).  This presents the union as a service one can individually benefit from, rather than as a collective group to take part in. The strongest example of this is student unions presenting opportunities to learn transferable skills and undergo experiences that can be shown to future employers (Trinity College Dublin Students' Union, 2023). As a result of this, individuals will sign up for positions in the union for careerist purposes. While volunteer work is to be celebrated, and it is right to put it on one’s curriculum vitae, the issue is that this culture creates an institutional incentive to avoid engaging in contentious mass politics. Rather than protest, there is a pull towards the types of marketable skills that are acquired through working within the bureaucratized bodies of the institution. Student representatives become ‘good institutional citizens’ (Dolhinow, 2017, p.20). Decline in direct engagement with the membership of the union facilitates the organisational structure of the representative body becoming a hierarchical, elitist, and inaccessible network of power, designed to help those who want to further their careers. In Irish academia, to this day, the class background of those attending skews to the wealthy, specifically for every 10 affluent students there are only 5 disadvantaged at a ratio of 2:1 (Donnelly, 2020). Those better-off will have more time to take part in societies, clubs and student unions, whereas those worse-off will have to take up part-time jobs to afford education, considering the financial barriers in place. This will undoubtedly affect the profile, priorities and objectives of student unions, meaning that material issues may fade into the background, and careerist networks take prominence. 

Value Dissonance and Political Dealignment as the Outcome of Co-optation 

Overall the marketisation of academia makes the union shift towards an alienating model—that of service provision, and the delivering of inner-institutional change professionally for the students, but not anything beyond that with the mass body of students. Due to this, there arises a dissonance within the union’s proposed objectives. The union aims to effect power in such a way that students’ wishes are met (NUS, 2011). This involves, for example, campaigning for public education. However, the union seeks to achieve it by cooperating with those who have diametrically opposed interests to the students, namely senior management and the state. In other words, the values of campaign demands are in direct opposition to the means by which the demands are made. Spaces are created where talking about something means not bringing it into existence; in essence anti-capitalist action that is now submerged in capitalism. The Irish student movement ‘may hold demonstrations and pickets while engaged in a campaign, but direct action is usually confined to fringe groups or, in the case of the national students’ union – the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), a product of planned press management rather than any real attempt to show affinity with radical political action’ (Conlon, 2016). This rings true in light of the fact that following the October 2022 student walkout, momentum died out as no radical follow-up actions were organised. Another example of value dissonance can be seen in student unions in Ireland promoting the ranking tool (, 2022). This is a  tool that in its logic encourages the commercialization of academia, as it seeks to categorise the student experience in cookie-cutter terms (, 2023).  The National Union of Students boycotted the equivalent of the, the National Student Survey in the North of Ireland and the United Kingdom for treating students as consumers rather than learners, its use by senior management to justify layoffs and cutting of courses and for wasting resources (Numminen, 2022). The same student unions in Ireland that profess to be against the commercialization of the sector (Emerson, 2022) promote this tool (Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union President, 2021), thus resulting in value dissonance. Cooperation with this student survey also highlights that student unions may feel like the neoliberal dogma is unchallengeable and so adopt pragmatic approaches (Brooks, 2021). All this serves to further confirm the consumer identity of students rather than challenging it. 


The co-optation of student unions can also be seen to result in political dealignment and the usurpation of their functions by alternative organisations. In 2020, students from U.K. universities went on a series of rent strikes, winning rebates of up to 30% (Hall, 2020). It was not student unions, or their umbrella body which is the national student unions, leading the charge. Grassroots groups led the actions (Petrescu, 2021). As a result of the cosy and markedly non-adversarial relationship of student unions with their institutions, small, decentralised and grassroots student groups are being created. Groups like ‘Demilitarise UCL’, ‘Transform LSE’, ‘Liberate the University’ and others all hold strong anti-commodification, anti-establishment, and anti-capitalist values. These groups are also apt at resisting commodified dissent, the repackaging of social justice in consumerist terms, since they are collectively- and not officer-driven (Dolhinow et al., 2020). The university institution seeks to co-opt the social justice movements and appear politically progressive to potential students, a similar mechanism to corporate ‘greenwashing’.  A classic example is tweeting about International Womens’ Day while taking no institutional steps to reduce the gender wage gap. In a third-level education context, the unwillingness of institutions to tackle the casualization of staff while paying lip-service to gender equality is noteworthy, since 71% of academic workers on insecure contracts in Ireland are women (Younus, 2022).


Overall, the integration of organisations, movements and activists into state structures has been shown to be antithetical to  challenging systemic factors negatively impacting students and to organising resistance to the capitalist mode of production. Systemic change comes from collective movements seeking to make a difference, not from individuals in committees. Cooperating with the forces of capital to such an extent that it ignores the power of the collective will only weaken  organised resistance. Looking at successful movements at Trinity College Dublin, such as Take Back Trinity in 2018 (McGrath, 2018), protests to stop casual staff pay cuts in 2020 (Connolly, 2020) and divestment from the war-industry in 2022 (Wolfe, 2022), it can be seen that pressure from the grassroots can deliver changes which would not be possible via seat-at-the-table politics. Social activism is ever more important in an age where there are so many challenges associated with global capitalism, such as climate change, inequality, and war. It is therefore crucial that activists are equipped with the knowledge to resist the co-optation of their organisations. The power of capitalism, to transform radical movements into harmless versions of themselves, must be heeded by those who wish to fight for change, lest they become a cog of the system they originally sought to abolish.  


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