some notes on academic labour and the autonomy of Capital

ONE. Autonomy for whom? Autonomy from what?

William I. Robinson has argued that:

activists and scholars have tended to underestimate the systemic nature of the changes involved in globalisation, which is redefining all the fundamental reference points of human society and social analysis, and requires a modification of all existing paradigms (p. 13).

For Robinson there is no outside of the structuring realities of capitalism, as “the essence of the process is the replacement for the first time in the history of the modern world system, of all residual pre (or non) –capitalist production relations with capitalist ones in every part of the globe.” This echoes Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument that

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

The academic has no autonomy beyond the amelioration of her labour relations with those who direct the University for the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology outsourcing forms, publishers, fee-paying students and so on. Inside higher education, the dominant logic is apparently irresistible and insurmountable, especially when faced by the de-collectivised academic. We might ask whether academics have the capacity to resist Capital as the automatic subject, from the standpoint of collective labour. By reasserting labour-power as the foundation of value and of exploitation, and by seeking collective, social redress.

However, such a reassertion or a recovering demands that academics recognise that the scope and depth of their autonomy is limited to problem-solving inside this totalising logic. Is it possible to imagine that academic skills, practices and knowledges might be shared and put to another use, in common and in co-operation? Is it possible to defend the physical and virtual academic commons as spaces for contribution, or as underpinning solidarity economies? Is it possible to live and tell a different, overtly political story of academic labour? Doing so demands that we recognise and push-back against the limits of academic autonomy. As Tiqqun have argued:

“Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.

TWO. The fallacy of academic freedom

Academics might then consider whether it is possible for their labour to be used to re-organise the University along the lines of The Democratic University: A proposal for university governance for the Common Weal. Might this offer a mechanism for reproducing the University as something other than a State-subsidised actor for Capital? The authors of The Democratic University believe that “there is a not-too-subtle redefinition by university managers of ‘academic freedom’ from meaning ‘freedom of academics from us’ to ‘freedom for us from everyone’.” They argue that thee emergent ‘corporate hegemony model’ for University governance

appears to allocate to the university principal a status similar to that of an owner of an enterprise. It has also occured during a period where it has become routine for university management to merge the concepts of ‘academic freedom’ (the protection of academics from interference by university managers) and ‘institutional autonomy’ (the right of university managers to operate without external interference).

Is the democratisation of governance to reflect the needs and demands of the ‘wider community’ of the University possible, given that power in that wider community is increasingly vested in transnational finance capital? This occurs through bond issues, through the sale of student loans, through outsourced provision. As the university is simply a pivot for the creation of an association of capitals designed for competitive edge, can the idea of the Democratic University contribute to a freedom that enables emancipation or social justice or subjectivity beyond the politics of austerity? If so, should academics be looking elsewhere for solidarity models and alternative organising principles and co-operation?

This focus on politics and organisation is a focus on recovering subjectivity as an academic and a labourer. As Cleaver notes in his final two theses on the Secular Crisis of capitalism, this idea of recovering subjectivity through radical democracy is critical in liberating humanity from the coercive laws of competition and the market. For Cleaver, the creation of a revolutionary subjectivity is entwined with the need to develop:

[a] politics of alliance against capital… not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism.

Here the idea of academic as labourer is central, rather than academic as fetishized carrier of specific skills, practices and knowledges. To situate academic labour inside global labour relations is critical, because then as Ellen Meiksins Wood argues:

We really can begin to look the world not as a relationship between what’s inside and what’s outside capitalism, but as the working out of capitalism’s own internal laws of motion. And that might make it easier to see the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures.’

THREE. Academic labour and the autonomy of Capital

However, increasingly academic labour is revealed as being deliberately framed inside a structure that exists for the autonomy of Capital.

  • It is increasingly depoliticised: for instance, its networks that promote teaching excellence do not focus on critical or radical pedagogy, but rather on employability or the student experience or financial literacy or problem-solving.
  • It is increasingly kettled by money, efficiency and income-generation, and as a result it is incapable of refusing the REF or impact measures. It is increasingly individuated in practice and driven by competition, so that the sale of the student loan book, or the use of secondary legislation to open-up the sector for privatisation, cannot be opposed.
  • It is increasingly regulated by groups whose remit is efficiency or impact or opening-up the sector for profit: thus, the HEFCE focuses on technological deployments for cost-reductions, business-process re-engineering and efficiency gains, which themselves might underpin radical transformation of the University as a global “business”.
  • It is disciplined by the internal policies of universities, which increasingly focus upon: victimisation of dissent; the corporate use of social media; on academic codes of conduct and professionalism; on assessments of workload management and labour intensity of academics; on monitoring research; on strategies for organisational development; on customer relationship management, and so on. These policies are increasingly not negotiated but imposed with an impact on workload and stress. These policies increasingly impinge on the curriculum and pedagogy; the form a disciplinary framework against which academic freedom in teaching and research are redefined; they form a dataset against which academics can be judged.
  • Its power is reduced through the use of internal structures of the University that subvert negotiation with collectivised labour, as they agree decisions that materially affect the role and identity of the academic. The question is whether the management structures, including committees, programme boards, working groups and so on, can enable academic labour to resist its co-option for impact, or for efficiencies, or for student-as-consumer, or for employability, or for piloting curriculum and pastoral innovations that affect workloads and identities? Can teaching excellence awards, which emerge from that management structure, become other-than individuating, to push-back against specific ways of performing inside the University?

In defining a structure that enables academic labour to be renewed as part of a social struggle for subjectivity, and in order to address social, political, economic and environmental crises, collective action, through a renewal of trades unions acting in association with students-as-activists, is critical. This collective action associates collective labour, inside both the University and those associated capitals that form the University’s wider community. Solidarity needs to encompass the University and its outsourced or private partners. As the idea of the academic and her labour, and the labour relations inside the University, is disciplined through outsourcing, restructures, employability agendas, the hosting of open days on weekends, by strike pay not being docked at 1/365, by changes to personal tutoring being imposed, by changes to workload, through the impact of management decisions about fees/debts etc. on material, academic practices, by the removal of academics from decision-making bodies like Senate, such wider associations are needed as part of a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal.

Such projects cannot be developed through management committee structures and external consultancies/organisations and teaching excellence awards that are focused on normalising “the student experience” or on delivering staffing and labour efficiencies through organisational development. Finding mechanisms to renew collective action and collective negotiation and collective organising in associated, co-operative forms is critical if academic labour is to be part of a struggle for subjectivity. If academics are to recognise their solidarity as labour. If academics are to liberate their labour and its products, themselves and their sociability from the market. If academics are to become active in a process of refusal and pushing back.

2 Responses to some notes on academic labour and the autonomy of Capital

  1. “Here the idea of academic as labourer is central, rather than academic as fetishized carrier of specific skills, practices and knowledges.” After reading these recent posts – which I found interesting and challenging – I was left wondering, is this really the only way forward? I couldn’t find in either account a space for joy, for delighting in what we do. I wondered if there’s a space for being an academic, seeing it more as a state, an orientation, a worldview and yes, maybe even a kind of discipline.

    Yes, I work, and some of that work is really mundane; however, some of it’s fascinating, absorbing and sustaining. Part of the issue for me is that the scope for joy in our work is increasingly circumscribed by the rhetoric of efficiency – ironically, since I would probably work better and longer if I enjoyed it more and viewed it less as labour.

  2. Pingback: on academic labour and performance anxiety | Richard Hall's Space

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