The Milk Round / by Alex Williamson

Until he went to university, he had never heard the term the milk round, other than to describe the antiquated, and by now redundant, process by which milk used to be delivered. But in his final term, people suddenly started talking about this thing, the milk round, with a great deal of sagacity, as if he should know what it was, when he hadn’t the foggiest. One of his friends, whose elder brother was finishing his law studies, explained that the milk round was a week-long recruitment fair or a week-long piss up, depending on your philosophical inclination.

Officially the milk round marked the arrival on campus of many of the UK’s largest corporate organisations. Their express purpose was to entice the university’s most promising students onto their graduate training programmes. They included, in no particular order, HSBC, Barclays Bank, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Arthur Andersen, Lehman Brothers. The heavyweights of global finance. The swinging dicks of big business.

Some of these he’d heard of. Others he hadn’t. Merrill Lynch for instance. Even if he had no intention of working there he quite liked the name, Merrill Lynch, thinking it apt, reflecting the method by which the company co-opted students onto its graduate programme (lynching) and the type of leisure shoes favoured by those who worked there (Merrells).

Almost all undergraduates treated it as a opportunity to get drunk for free, enduring the lengthy presentations before polishing off the complimentary refreshments. Some went determined to secure the professional career which was the culmination of several years of hard work. It was a mutually agreeable process, funnelling new graduates into the corridors of corporate power while tantalising them with the benefits of employment and the balm of money.

Entry-level employment. Fast-track development. Competitive starting salary. Annual bonus. Gym membership. Possibilities for promotion. Share options. Interest-free mortgage. Final salary pension.

Other than not studying politics, he had no clear idea of what he would do after university. Writing, travelling, earning some money when circumstance called for it. He didn’t see himself as part of anything, much less a cog in a corporate mechanism.

Even the offer of free booze couldn’t persuade him to go. Over that fortnight he remained in the living room of the shared house, watching television and smoking weed, while several people he knew came back from the milk round with a clearly mapped career path.

Where others saw a career path, he saw only a conveyor belt feeding a mincing machine in need of fresh meat. After three or more years of being encouraged to think critically, he couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would throw out that learning to assimilate the practices and operations of some corporate monolith. The very organisations whose political influence and unscrupulous he had spent the better part of his time at university questioning, if not directly challenging.

Few eyebrows were raised when one of their number, a trustafarian from a fee-paying school who renamed himself in the first week and became their dope dealer for the next three years, ended up running counter-terrorist programmes during the War on Terror.

Many years later he encountered the critical pedagogy of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, who came up with the term the banking model of education to describe the process by which children are force fed with the necessary knowledge to make them economically productive citizens. Freire wrote: The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.

He couldn’t help but link Freire’s ideas to Michel Foucault power-knowledge paradigm, the means by which knowledge and power intertwine inextricably, thereby subtly reinforcing the ‘disciplinary society’ which exercises its power through institutions, including schools and universities. Critical thought, the continual questioning of systems and selfhood by interrogating what constituted knowledge, was essential for challenging the mechanisms of power. The only way he knew how to challenge the mechanism of power was to opt out of it, to resist. Je me rebelle donc j’existe.

No one seemed to know the precise origin of the term the milk round. Perhaps it had something to do with skimming cream. Perhaps it was a play on that Shakespearean phrase, the milk of human kindness, reflecting the benign, nourishing generosity of the corporate paymasters.

The very narrative of milk as a substance, from the nurturing, precarious bond between lactating mother and suckling infant, was much like the relationship between state and citizen, underscored by the tropes of separation and detachment. He thought, almost inevitably, about the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the architect of deregulation, who had begun her illustrious political career by scrapping free milk for the country’s schoolchildren.

All which is given charitably can be snatched away. He’d rather be broke than suckle at the corporate teat. Though in the years that followed, as one by one his friends moved to London to forge careers and stake their claim to the city, he wondered if, when he had the chance, he should have milked that sucker for every last drop.