notes on the abolition of the #realworldacademic

ONE. The mobilisation of neo-liberalism

In ‘Remaking the World’: Neo-liberalism and the Transformation of Education and Teachers’ Labour, Susan Robertson argues that the roll-back of education and the expertise of the teacher, in order to roll-out private sector alternatives is key to the development of neoliberalism. She writes (p.2):

the mobilisation of neo-liberal ideas for reorganising societies and social relations, including the key institutions involved in social reproduction, is a class project with three key aims: the (i) redistribution of wealth upward to the ruling elites through new structures of governance; (ii) transformation of education systems so that the production of workers for the economy is the primary mandate; and (iii) breaking down of education as a public sector monopoly, opening it up to strategic investment by for profit firms. To be realised, all three aims must break down the institutionalised interests of teachers, teacher unions, and fractions of civil society who have supported the idea of education as a public good and public sector, and as an intrinsic element of the state-civil society social contract.

What we might see then in the current assault on experts and expertise is also attrition on the idea of the intellectual, or of public intellectualism, operating at the level of society is a possibility. This is precisely because of the ways in which the key traits of liberalism are distilled inside the neo- form that gives us rational utility maximisation, namely: individual agency and independence from others; a libertarian view of responsibility for and development of the individual’s human capital; the pre-eminance of market relations in the organising and governing principles of society; and the rule of private property. As Roberston argues (p. 3) ‘In other words, supreme value is given to individual autonomy, agency and property.’ In this moment what space is there for accepting the human capital of other (experts) with whom we vie for precedence in the market? What space is there for arguing for public or shared expertise that sites beyond ideas of common sense that shape how society functions through reductionist and determinist narratives?

Of interest here is Steve Fuller’s idea that renewed leadership is central in our collective (academic, student, scholarly, public, social) resistance to this reductionism. This resistance relates both to the form of academic work, and the denial of its content as public intellectualism:

the university as an institution is doomed without academic leaders who defend the university as a distinctive institution on its own terms—which is to say, not simply a set of revenue streams from tuitions, grants and patents, but as an organic unity dedicated to systematic inquiry as a public good. The only people with the knowledge, authority and power to defend this ideal are not the rank-and-file academics but the university’s senior administrators. For this reason, I have supported the idea that any aspiring to run a university should receive academic certification. 

What’s Left of the Academy? Leadership, Intellectuality and the Prospects for Mass Change, Steve Fuller interview with Mike Neary

Fuller argues that the roles of academics as disciplinary leaders or public intellectuals, in coding specific fields of study, and the splitting that takes place between teaching and research, all serve to weaken the ability of academics to engage publically. When folded onto the range of sectoral differences that exist between tenured and non-tenured staff, fractional and precariously employed staff, debt-ridden undergraduates, unemployed and under-employed post-graduates, it becomes clear that there is no shared moment of solidarity across the sector that enables a refusal or push-back against the idea that academics are disconnected from reality, or that the conception of social or public goods with which their work engages might be defined outside of the market.

Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world.

Glyn Davies MP.

Nothing more irritating than academics rubbishing the efforts of those operating at the sharp end, without facing up to the hard decisions.

Glyn Davies MP.

For Fuller, one of the issues in managing this debate is the disconnection of academics with the institution, so that disconnection then spills-over into the relationship between functions and disciplines.

[T]hey care more for their discipline or, more to the point, their research network than the university that employs their labour and affirms their status. On the surface, this behaviour may look conformist because it does little to stop the inertial tendencies (call it “new public management”) that these academics nominally oppose. However, it amounts to a radical disengagement with the university as an institution.

What’s Left of the Academy? Leadership, Intellectuality and the Prospects for Mass Change, Steve Fuller interview with Mike Neary

In this moment it is necessary to ask what are the ramifications of such disengagement for the civic role of the academic? How does this disengagement enable academics to respond to everyday performance management? What are the ramifications for the role of the university in civil and political society, and in our collective response to innovations like the Teaching Excellence Framework?


TWO. The #realworldacademic

It strikes me that in this moment of responding to Davies’ attack on the idea of the #realworldacademic, we might push back in terms of (for instance):

However, in responding to the anti-expert position of Davies and others, we might also refocus our work on what this reveals about the nature of intellectual work or academic labour. What does it say about the form and content of that labour? What opportunities are opened-up for generating an alternative narrative about academic work at the level of society, as a form of mass intellectuality or as a deeper connection between the academic and her communities both inside-and-outside the University?

This strikes me as being important for three reasons.

First, because it speaks to issues of (the lack of) solidarity in the academic project, which is being conditioned by the acceptance and amplification of the rule of money, for example through institutional performance management and student-debt. This conditioning is being articulated inside the university and across the sector in a transnational, associational phase of capital. Here there is an interrelationship between commercial and money-dealing capital and productive capital. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include associations of policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students, who form a deterritorialised network. Here, the expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit, and in educational production it is leveraged through the use of finance capital and credit to increase the rate of turnover of specific educational commodities and services-as-commodities. This is achieved through the on-line production and circulation of curriculum resources, and the competitive pressures of open education, MOOCs and learning analytics. The management and sale of the student loan book and corporate engagement both in the funding of research centres and knowledge exchange, and the outsourcing of physical and technological infrastructures, complement these strategies.

Thus, in order to develop alternative, concrete realities it is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed inside the equivalent of joint-stock companies, subject to the coercive logic of competition for research grants and student numbers. What is the impact of the coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice? To what extent does this process reinforce the reification of the student, the entrepreneurial academic, or specific technologies? How does the politicisation of these roles relate to the reproduction of capital? The market, defined by corporate entities operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students/academics are recalibrated not as social learners/teachers but as individual entrepreneurs able to access/produce educational services and products in a global market. Is this abstracted reality a meaningful way to deal with concretes crises of the environment, carbon, access to water, social dislocation, the politics of austerity, and so on, in the real world?

Second, Davies’ anti-academic assertion and the #realworldacademic responses reveal an on-going fetishisation of academic work, rather than an attempt to overcome the alienating realities of academic labour (that impact staff and students). One of the central issues for academics is that, as they labour under the structural domination of commodity capitalists, they have to vie for a place on the market. This makes them vulnerable to crises related to: futures-trading; access to means of production; overproduction; market-saturation; an inability to access credit; or the more general, societal access to debt. This tends both to restructure institutions and to reduce the points of solidarity for academic labour, including with students whose debt they increasingly rely upon.

What might be added to debates about the #realworldacademic is a meaningful discussion about the value of academic labour as social work/activity, rather than as reified exchange-value. What is its use-value as work/activity for society, as opposed to its price as a commodity/as academic labour-power? It is against the tyranny of exchange-value that 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, might usefully be discussed and re-evaluated. What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarious employment, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. Realising the capacity of academics and students as scholars to see their labour in common, in order to think and to act co-operatively, and to overcome that labour, moves us beyond concerns over the fetishised production and atomised ownership of academic labour. 

Third, as Gramsci notes in Workers’ Democracy, at issue is who validates and controls our social wealth:

the social life of the working class is rich with institutions, it articulates itself in multiple activities. Precisely these institutions and these activities need to be developed, organized together, connected in a vast and flexibly articulated system which absorbs and disciplines the whole working class.

The focus on experts/expertise and the lamentation for attacks on the idea of the academic, raises issues of what defines and constitutes common sense? Who carries the idea of public intellectualism, and who judges its validity? Does rhetoric lead academics to occupy disciplinary spaces and organisations that are devoid of any analysis of academic labour? Or does it lead us to re-focus our real-world activities in the competitive logics of student-as-purchaser or teaching/research excellence? Because how can we both share and develop solidarity, and work to develop expertise at the level of society, inside such a competitive environment? Can we only define solidarity actions through staff and student trades unions, or can these enable directional demands across sectors?


THREE. The political content of the #realworldacademic

This raises the importance of the #realworldacademic working politically to situate her work across sectors, in order to dissolve the boundries between those sectors, so that previously-fetishised knowledges, skills and capacities can be shared. Key here is to understand how the #realworldacademic and the university in which she works both support the ways in which neoliberal capitalism intentionally designs, promotes and manages forms of democracy and governance that complement its material objectives, limit participation and power-sharing, and support coercion. Thus we might question how our work enables the rhetoric of student-as-consumer and the marketisation of the sector, in order to open its resources up to the dominant or hegemonic order, and to manufacture consent for its practices. Manufacturing this consent depends upon coercion of the political cadre of organisational leaders. However, it is critical that once economic and productive power has been extended into the educational space, that domination then extends to the political, social and class-based relations in that space, through the implementation of ideological control throughout the mechanisms/institutions and cultures of civil society [including the ideas of open, open data, open education, open educational resources, and openness].

Here there is no potential for stepping beyond the controlling logic of the rights of consumers, which is framed as anti-academic and by extension anti-intellectual. Orwell echoed this dystopian logic; this despairing logic; the logic of anti-hope and anti-humanism; the logic that is their power-to reproduce the world in order to maintain their power-to reproduce the world; the logic of scarcity and not abundance; the logic of the use of technology and information to create a harmonious society.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?

The individual narratives of the #realworldacademic are a testament to the impactful work that is helping to shape and re-shape communities, and to provide solutions to a range of real-world problems. However, it needs to be reconnected to a political economic analysis of the form and content (abstract and concrete) of academic labour, as a means to overcoming/abolishing its fetishisation. Mechanisms for pushing-back focus upon the development of co-operative alternatives that situate expertise socially, rather than in the individual. Whether academics can develop alternative methods of liberating knowing and knowledge and organisation that are beyond the space-time of value production and accumulation then becomes critical.

Our responses are conditioned by the structural domination of wage labour, and the reality that the [co-operative/social/public] space has to exist inside the totalising relations of production of capitalist society. However, responses might act as critical sites in a struggle for mass intellectuality where they: first, contribute to the reclamation of public, open environments that enable the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge; second, connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy; and third, develop governance structures that ground, critique and disseminate the community-building of alternative educational settings like student occupations, co-operative centres or social science centres.


FOUR. On self-abolition

The anti-expert, naïve and dangerous misreading of academic-engagement with the real world (whatever that is) demonstrates a wilful, political antagonism. In my own context, my research is on alternative forms of higher education, with a Marxist flavour. I have worked in academic environments since 1994, writing, speaking, researching and managing projects that engage staff, students, public and private sector partners. However, crucially there is a flow between my engagement inside the University, in higher education, and across the curriculum, and my engagement outside the sector. There is no way that the essence of each can be distilled, because they have developed together and each has infused the other. These engagements outside are detailed here.

However, the point is that in my work inside/outside I am trying to dissolve the boundaries so that new flows of knowledge, skills and capabilities enable the abolition of fetishized roles. Without finding ways to abolish the #realworldacademic we will struggle to overcome our alienation from the things we produce, the relations inside which we produce the, from others and the environment and from ourselves. The point is not to maintain the abstraction of the #realworldacademic but to overcome it through abolition.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relations) 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 within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions 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 since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Marx, K. (1845). The German Ideology, Chapter 1.

We have already shown above that the abolition of a state of affairs in which relations become independent of individuals, in which individuality is subservient to chance and the personal relations of individuals are subordinated to general class relations, etc. — that the abolition of this state of affairs is determined in the final analysis by the abolition of division of labour. We also shown that the abolition of division of labour is determined by the development of intercourse and productive forces to such a degree of universality that private property and division of labour becomes fetters on them. We have further shown that private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-around development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-around fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives. We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. Finally, we have shown that the abolition of private property in the division of labour is itself the association of individuals on the basis created by modern productive forces and world’s intercourse. 

Marx, K. (1845). The German Ideology, Chapter 3.


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