on academic labour and plutonomy

In discussing academic labour, Chomsky made the interesting point that:

The university is probably the social institution in our society that comes closest to democratic worker control. Within a department, for example, it’s pretty normal for at least the tenured faculty to be able to determine a substantial amount of what their work is like: what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be. And most of the decisions about the actual work that the faculty is doing are pretty much under tenured faculty control. Now of course there is a higher level of administrators that you can’t overrule or control.

This is a real tension. The perceived academic culture is deliberative yet the rollout of neoliberalism across increasing swathes of public space (utilities, healthcare, schools, universities) is increasingly kettling that academic project. As the Australian Actual Casuals note this disciplinary process emerges as a form of labour arbitrage, a set of organisational innovations designed to attack labour costs and control the capital produced by academics and students. We might view this as organised capital undermining the groundwork of organised labour by attacking the spaces and times, or space-times, available for solidarity and co-operative action.

In this Australian context, this includes the administrative drive for casualization, deprofessionalisation, disincentivising certain collective behaviours, and so on, and it affects not just adjunct academics and postgraduates who teach, but also:

casually hired workers on short contracts in universities contributing to research, administration, project work, IT and maintenance. Unlike salaried staff, casuals are in constant negotiation about their employment, and regularly deal with the insecurity of contract renewal and funding continuation. Casualisation offers flexibility to some, but to others is experienced as underemployment, just-in-time hiring, and a sense of marginalization from the permanent workforce. Casuals typically don’t have access to leave entitlements, often cannot apply for internally advertised positions, and if they can access onsite professional development at all, do so on their own time.

This then mirrors the experience of the 3Cosas movement at the University of London for whom the fight is:

to ensure equality of terms and conditions between the University of London’s direct employees, and its outsourced workers. There are three areas (‘tres cosas’) where the disparity between University and contract workers is greatest – SICK PAY, HOLIDAYS and PENSIONS. The campaign aims to persuade the University to ensure that all workers have the same rights in these three areas. It is eminently affordable, and it is the only right thing to do.

However, the right thing to do runs up against a set of competitive pressures that are defining and redefining (deterritorialising and reterritorialising) the University for the extraction of profit or wealth or value, and which is in the process deliberately dehumanising people. These competitive pressures are in part driven by what, in 2006, Citibank termed Plutonomy. This is the ‘binge on bling’ or the refocusing of growth on the ‘Uber-rich, the plutonomists, [who] are likely to see net worth-income ratios surge, driving luxury consumption.’ This is a socio-cultural war around the mobilisation and maintenance of corporate power: ‘The key challenge for corporates in this space is to maintain the mystique of prestige while trying to grow revenue and hit the mass-affluent market.’ Thus:

Globalization, productivity, a rising profit share and dis-inflation have helped  plutonomy. Beyond war, inflation, the end of the technology/productivity wave and/or financial collapse, which have killed previous plutonomies, we think the most potent and short-term threat would be societies demanding a more ‘equitable’ share of wealth.

The maintenance of economic power then forms a political terrain for the rollout of neoliberalism, which connects to Stephen Ball’s idea of transnational activist networks acting as a cadre to catalyse:

  • The economisation of everyday, social life, in order to realise new opportunities for profit;
  • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the entrepreneurial self, with the State as regulator and market-maker;
  • The State acting transnationally in concert with supranational bodies like the IMF, the European Central Bank and the World Bank, in order to impose the control that a free market desires, and removes impediments to the logic of the market;
  • Several active waves of neo-liberalism: proto (the intellectual project of Hayek and Friedman); roll-back (of Keynesianism); and roll-out (of new state forms, modes of governance and regulation);
  • The creation and extraction of value that is predicated upon mobility and connectivity;
  • The (networked) structures that enable neoliberalism are polymorphic and isomorphic.

Thus, life becomes an entrepreneurial activity, effectively a pedagogic project driven by those in the Plutonomy, designed to transfer the risk for the creation of value/management of risk from the public to the individual. This transfer is driven by instruments like student debt and financialisation, which see a transfer back in the opposite direction of wealth and power to those in the elite. Thus, Andrew McGettigan quotes Chris Hearn, head of education at Barclays, in discussing bond markets and HE:

the sector is ‘under-leveraged’ and could nearly double its borrowing. “Universities currently borrow about £5bn, largely through bank finance,” says Hearn. “But they probably have the capacity to generate close to an additional £4bn to £4.5bn.” “Time and time again we hear back from investors that they would desperately love to get their hands on anything to do with the university sector and it is surprising that no one has gone to that market yet.”

As McGettigan notes:

If the current upheaval in higher education does prompt a new wave of borrowing, then the consequences for universities could be equally huge. For borrowing on this scale comes with strings attached. Experience in the US, where bonds are more common, shows that those strings are capable eventually of transforming not only the daily life of a university but its very purpose.

If anything, the secular crisis of capitalism has quickened the pace of accumulation by the rick from the poor, including through the privatisation of previously public or socialised goods like education. In his Theory of Global Capitalism, William Robinson argues that the elite uses technology, entrepreneurialism and innovation both to globalise production and consumption and to catalyse the flows of capital accumulation, and because of the internal dynamics of the system of capitalism. These dynamics include competition, making the organic composition of capital as efficient as possible through squeezing labour, maintaining the increase in the rate of profit, and class struggle. Internalising performativity and entrepreneurial activity inside academics, precariously-employed post-graduates, outsourced IT workers, students and so on, enables the maintenance of power through Plutonomy. This entrepreneurial turn inside the University is used to lower costs, to drive productivity, to discipline labour and to gain competitive advantage over other capitals/businesses/universities. Innovation is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation.

The secular control by those with power-over is based on the tenets of liberal democracy that are increasingly limited by the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation, least of all inside the University, is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

Thus, inside the university, technological innovation goes hand-in-hand with strategies for capital accumulation and the explosion in proletarian work, unemployment and underemployment across the globe. Much of this immiseration remains hidden from those in the global North who perceive that capitalism and the market offers the only workable solution. This ignores the fact that, as an article on the Network of Global Corporate Control demonstrates, the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations

[identifies] a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy… a core of 1318 companies [representing] 20 per cent of global operating revenues and… the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms… representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues’… a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies … controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth … Most were financial institutions.

This is the world-for-acccumulation, against which Kate Bowles notes universities and academic labour are being restructured.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing. It’s rampant in internal messaging (newsletters, all staff emails) that continuously reinforce the institution’s strategic mission by high-fiving those who win the prizes. It’s the self-justifying logic of casualisation, creating a vast second-tier of precarious and under supported university work for those who don’t get the real jobs. And it’s the immense project of research quantification, that crowds out practices of thinking, collaborating, listening and sharing in the name of picking winners and hothousing them because ultimately they pay off.

Thus in the UK, in the current round of strikes by academic labour, the potential pressures on national pay bargaining, and hence labour rights, are being talked-up. Inside a competitive environment where the core issue is the health of competing businesses rather than the sustainability of the sector, this is only natural. Moreover, it underpins an increasing corporate focus on outsourcing (or euphemistically-termed partnerships) in terms of: IT; HR functions; student services; and so on. It also drives a need to ensure that staff, as well as students, become increasingly entrepreneurial in taking responsibility/becoming accountable for organisational culture change through: increased flexibility of curriculum development and provision; agility in knowledge transfer; engagement with technological innovation; management of the impact of individual research; and in marketing and communicating about the self-as-commodity with an attached academic value (or profit/loss column). As universities are increasingly commercial entities, engaged with a range of commercial partners, working with students-as-consumers as carriers of debt, performativity and internalising a corporate ethos is central to the formal academic project.

The question now is how to resist such horizontalism and network governance, which itself reflects the needs of the University as corporate entity. In the face of the need to generate surpluses and to enhance market share, the only options appear to be to support the co-option of academic labour for this competitive project, to unionise and organise inside the institution and across the sector (and to join protests against austerity), or to seek exodus. Whichever action is taken, there is a broader set of questions for academics about how they approach organisational governance co-operatively, in order to generate solidarity that militates against the practices that devolve corporate leadership and responsibility for actions, and thereby enable performance management to become an internalised disciplinary activity. As Kate Bowles reminds us, this is academic labour as labour that needs to stand against shame and being shamed:

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.

Academic complicity in plutonomy; in the accumulation of wealth; in the mechanics of proletarianisation and dehumanisation. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.


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