notes on the reserve army of academic labour

In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers – never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best.

Morgan, G. (2016). Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career. The Sydney Morning Herald.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance.

Email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm, 10 March 2014.

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Email from Stefan Grimm to various associates, 21 October 2014.


ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the higher education sector of the global economy. I wrote about how overwork is revealed through academic quitlit, in narratives about bullying, in discussions of mental health and academia, and, shockingly, through reports of suicides. These narratives and histories enable academics and students to be classified as precarious or without status, or lacking human (cognitive) capital, or even lacking emotional resilience. In this focus on academic overwork there is an intersection between academic ego-identity, control of the human capital that is the life-blood of the reproduction of the University as a competing business, and the internalisation of performance management/anxiety.

I note that what emerges, through the social relations of higher education “is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.” This drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, means that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, the domination of our academic clock-time by productivity becomes a means through which academics and students internalise entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.


TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

Overwork is a filament that enables us to reveal the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, and in particular the production of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army of precariously employed, sessional or casualised staff, or those who have become unemployed or under-employed, conditions the work of those who remain employed inside the University. They also condition those who labour in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to positional employment.

Marx argued that overproduction, or the accumulation of unsalable inventories, affected those who work both as labourers and who are the bearers (or sellers) of labour-power as a commodity. Universities require an abundant supply of appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address issues of demand in the delivery of teaching, scholarship, research and knowledge transfer. The key to increasing the rate of valorisation of capital is the ability to generate surplus value, in its absolute or relative forms, and employing labour-power as cheaply as possible is crucial. This then requires a level of overpopulation or a reserve army of labour that can be used to drive down costs (including wages, staff development costs, pensions and so on).

There are a series of processes that can drive costs down further, and maintain competitive edge in a global market. Universities might become more capital-intensive, by investing in technology and organisational development (restructuring, new workload models and so on). This increases the organic composition of capital, by increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital that is deployed. Clearly, this leads to problems in the production and accumulation of surplus value, which can only be generated through the exploitation of people as workers. As more constant capital or means of production (e.g. in terms of technology) are set in motion by an individual labourer, there is a pressure to economise on labour-power (as a commodity) or to discover new markets. If the higher education sector were to maintain employment as a constant, universities would need to expand (to generate a larger capital to support employment) or a higher rate of accumulation (of surpluses) would be required. Yet as more rapid accumulation has concomitant increase in the organic composition of capital, this produces a “relatively redundant working population” which is underemployed or becomes unemployed. As a result, there is an increasing set of pressures on labourers to remain employable in businesses and sectors that are increasing their organic composition, and this is manifest in the need to demonstrate perpetual entrepreneurialism.

One result of these pressures on organisations and individuals is increased proletarianisation, through precarious employment, or employment that is stripped of its intellectual content (for instance where that content is outsourced or managed on-line, or where staff-student relationships are mediated technologically), or employment that carries limited social security or welfare benefits, or through excessive performance-management and performativity. Over time, and certainly across a sector like higher education that operates on a world market, these processes that are driven by intense competition accelerate this proletarianisation.

In Capital, Marx articulates the formation of the reserve army of labour as a necessary component of the relationship between the forces and relations of production.

in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels.

Marx, K. (1867). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1.

The increases in productivity catalysed through processes of subsumption enable the search for both absolute and relative surplus value, and alter the composition of social capital as well as the scale of the terrain over which it functions (witness the competition for international markets amongst universities and the wailing over immigration related to students). Moreover, these changes in productivity draw in “a number of spheres of production” such that the university becomes a node in a wider, transnational association of capitals or joint venture that is seeking out surpluses. In terms of higher education, the labouring population of academics and students produces both the accumulation of capital, and through capital-intensive activities, “the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous”. As Marx notes, economising and developing the forces of production interrelates with the relations of production, which for many academics and students becomes increasingly precarious. As a result contingent, flexible or part-time labour, and the disciplinary effects of performance management, signals the generation a new, growing relative surplus population that emerges on a global scale. Moreover, this global surplus population conditions those in work to overwork or to reduced labour rights, because there’s always someone cheaper to be exploited.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

However, crucially, for Henryk Grossman, the issue is not borne of the organic composition of capital, rather it is a function of imperfect valorisation.

[T]he formation of the reserve army, is not rooted in the technical fact of the introduction of machinery, but in the imperfect valorisation of capital specific to advanced stages of accumulation. It is a cause that flows strictly from the specifically capitalist form of production. Workers are made redundant not because they are displaced by machinery, but because, at a specific level of the accumulation of capital, profits become too small and consequently it does not pay to purchase new machinery and soon profits are insufficient to cover these purchases anyway

Grossman, H. (1929). Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown.


THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

It is in Marx’s analysis of the composition of the relative surplus population that we see the impact on academic labour through three forms of the relative surplus population. First, the floating or those who are precariously employed, and whose employment is affected by cyclical fluctuations in recruitment or funding, or by the deployment of innovations, or the employment of cheaper (younger) workers. Second, the latent form refers to those whose work is easily transferred across sectors, such as those with menial or leverage skills. Third, the stagnant form consists of very irregular employment on very bad terms. Crucially for Marx is the idea that these three elements of the reserve army of labour, alongside paupers and the lumpenproletariat, in their relationship to the working class, then offer a theory of the internal differentiation of the working class.

One might see this in the status distinctions between tenured, non-tenured, contract and sessional teaching staff, or between institutional bureaucracies, academics and professional service staff, or between full-professors, associate professors, lecturing staff, research fellows and research assistants, and so on. However, one might also use these categories to analyse academic and student overwork in response to: first, the threat of more efficient labour that can attract research or teaching excellence funding; second, the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious; and third, senior managers’ demands that they become perpetually efficient and entrepreneurial. Here the content of academic labour, the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, is reinvented entrepreneurially. New forms of the academic division of labour are internalised, and where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified, worthless or made superfluous. Or their inability to mourn their lost academic egos becomes rooted in melancholia.

The attempt to become superhuman, in generating and offering-up surplus labour time, generates overwork just as it responds to and reinforces the surplus, reserve army of academics. In this process overwork or surplus labour, and the generation of a reserve army, enable universities to generate new models for performance and competition, and for engaging in financialised growth and market-based exploitation.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

As Simon Clarke has noted, in order to compete and to stave off any crisis of accumulation, institutions tend towards technological or organisational innovations by:

  1. increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  2. reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  3. cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  4. stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  5. stimulating internationalisation strategies, in order to enable exports and new markets for accumulation, as well as cheapening the elements of constant and variable capital.

What emerges in any discussion of the political economy of academic labour is that competition, as a function of the need to become productive of value and to accumulate surplus value or surpluses, worsens the position of the worker be she academic or student.


FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

What appears worse is that the inability to survive in this increasingly competitive space becomes the fault of the individual who is to be made unemployed or underemployed. It is a moral duty to work and to remain employable, and never to draw down on social welfare. As Anselm Jappe notes:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves.

Jappe, A. 2014. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. 25(2): 11

Thus, the unemployed are workshy or lazy, or lack willpower, or they are stupid. The idea that unemployment is structural and secular, and that it is rooted in a specific form of  political economy, runs secondary to the individual failings that meant Stefan Grimm was unable “to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post”, or which meant that John was forced to inhabit “the zombie zone” beyond HE.

NOTE: there are many accounts of the psychological and embodied damage caused to individuals in this hegemonic, structural narrative.

There is increasing understanding that individuals are placing themselves at risk of harm, where they are forced to respond to narratives of personal failings in relation to work, and where there is a recalibration of work around flexibility (in work and across markets) and competition. As Davies et al. argue, the increasing insecurity that flows from employment inside sectors and business that are responding to austerity negatively effects physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, where agency or autonomy are low or are removed, for instance where performance management is enacted, stress and anxiety are higher.

There is a critical point here for Davis et al. about the internalisation of failings that results in melancholia about the Self rather than mourning for what has been lost. In academia the accumulation of melancholia is catalysed by performance anxiety.

There is an aspect of melancholia that is absent from mourning, an extraordinary reduction in self-esteem, a great impoverishment of the ego. In mourning the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so. The [melancholic] patient describes his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of functioning and morally reprehensible, he is filled with self-reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment… He does not sense that a change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism to cover the past.

Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning & Melancholia. Penguin, pp. 205–206

Correctives to such a view are marginal, and certainly not to be found in the work of institutional occupational therapy or human resources departments that are focused upon emotional resilience or its relationship to the happiness industry. Such correctives again seek to elevate individual, qualitative narratives, and to stress the social and material causes of distress, and the value of solidarity and collective action.

[S]ocial inequalities that exclude or marginalise contribute significantly to the potential for distress. Poverty, impoverished housing and diet, threatening environments, limited resources, restricted choices, demeaning or poorly-paid employment, discrimination, oppression and scapegoating all cause distress… We are more likely to experience distress the more our experiences are invalidated and the more isolated we become from one another. Equally, the further we are from supportive, nurturing relationships, the more that invalidation and isolation will engender distress. People stripped of ameliorative influences such as a loving, supportive family and friends; comfortable, safe environments; and the trust, support and solidarity of others, are increasingly likely to experience diagnosable distress.

Midland Psychology Group. (2012). Draft manifesto for a social materialist psychology of distress. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 12(2): 96-7.

In response to the apparent suicide of precariously-employed John, Karina has argued the following.

We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.

This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?

And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.

Karina. 2016. A few words. CASA: A Home Online For Casual, Adjunct, Sessional Staff and Their Allies in Australian Higher Education

There is a step beyond this, which for The Institute for Precarious Consciousness takes the form of “a machine for fighting anxiety”. They argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside and outside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. Here describing the relationship between overwork and the surplus population of academic labour is simply a starting point.


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