three presentations on academic labour

I have three presentations coming-up at really exciting events. The presentations are on academic labour, and I’m pleased that Joss Winn is also involved in two of these.

The first is at the Governing Academic Life conference, which is “oriented by the concern to think critically about the conditions of possibility of the academy today”. There is an amazing list of speakers at this event. I’m speaking about “Academic labour and co-operative struggles for subjectivity’


The academic has no apparent autonomy beyond the temporary amelioration of her labour relations with those who direct the University for the logic of accumulation, commodification, and profit-maximisation. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students. This transnational activist network forms an association of capitals (Ball, 2011; Marx, 1993) that subsumes and disciplines academic labour.

This subsumption of academic labour emerges under “the social tyranny of exchange-value” and the profit motive (Wendling, p. 52). What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarity, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. This focus on production for exchange is then furthered through the cultural imperatives of student-as-consumer, league tables, impact-measures, knowledge exchange and so on. Against this tyranny might the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, be re-evaluated for its social use?

Such a re-evaluation demands that academics imagine that their skills, practices and knowledges might be shared and put to another use, in common and in co-operation. We might ask, is it possible to live and tell a different, overtly political story of academic labour? This focus on politics and organisation is a focus on recovering subjectivity as an academic and a labourer. As Cleaver (1993) 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.

This paper will make three points. First, it will address the mechanisms through which the academic is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University as it is recalibrated as an association of capitals. Second, it will ask whether and how academic labour might be renewed as part of a social struggle for subjectivity? The potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, will be highlighted. Third, the paper will ask whether it is possible to liberate academic labour for use-value that can be used inside and across society?


Ball, S.J. 2012.Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neo-Liberal Imaginary.London: Routledge.

Cleaver, H. 1993. Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism. Available online:

Marx, K. 1993. Capital, Volume 2: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Wendling, A. E. 2009. Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


The second is at the Building Sustainable Societies conference, which aims “to develop collaboratively a definition of social sustainability, we suggest it might include: a society with a more equitable distribution of economic resources; greater equality, rights and social justice; fair and equal access to essential services such as housing, health, transport and education; a renegotiation of the work-life balance; and opportunities for everyone to participate actively in community life and decision-making.” I’m discussing Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University


This presentation considers the interconnections between critical pedagogy and the idea of mass intellectuality, in order to reflect on the current crisis of higher education. The argument will situate the liberationist perspectives of critical pedagogy inside the idea of mass intellectuality, or the process of democratic knowledge production at the level of society. It will be argued that in the face of the secular crisis of capitalism, which is recalibrating the idea of the University and of higher education through marketization and competition, it is the development of mass intellectuality that offers a mechanism for a different, co-operative form of social sustainability. In confronting enforced, structural changes, this approach offers more than the tropes of individual resilience, or of mitigation or adaptation, which emerge from readings of environmental sustainability. In fact, it enables a critical, alternative reading of the social sustainability of higher education strategies for internationalisation, entrepreneurialism, consumerism, and so on. These alternatives pivot around the re-politicising both the curriculum and the University, and are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of higher education inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. As a result, mass intellectuality potentially offers a richer way in to revealing higher education as a key site of struggle over the production and accumulation of value. More importantly, in forcing educators and students to ask “what is to be done?”, a focus on mass intellectuality suggests possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary higher education for capitalist work. As a result we might ask whether alternative forms of social sustainability are desirable and possible.


The third is at the Academic Identities conference. Joss Winn and I will be discussing academic labour.


In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.


Camfield, D. (2007). The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52. 

Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. (2013). What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?, tripleC, 11(2) 237-292.

Hardt, M. and Negri, T. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Krisis-Group (1999). Manifesto against labour. Krisis.

Newfield, C. (2010). The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26. 

Noble, D.F. (2002). Digital Diploma Mills. The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, M.A. and Bulut. E. (2011). Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. New York: Peter Lang.

Postone, M. (1993). Time, Labor and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006). History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18(1).

Robinson, W.I. (2004). A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. (2011). The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scholtz, T. (2013). Digital Labour. The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978). Intellectual and Manual Labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

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