writing about/against/beyond the alienated academic

You have to know what’s wrong before you can find what’s right

Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.

as far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.

Carl Jung

A book against academic labour

I have just submitted my final draft of a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan, in their Marxism and Education series, entitled The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy inside the University. This book reflects my work inside and outside the University over the course of the last decade. In this time, we have witnessed the re-engineering and repurposing of higher education, and the impact this has had on academics, professional services staff and students. In part this catalysed my engagement in a range of protests and occupations in 2010-11, alongside my work in co-operatives like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and Leicester Vaughan College, and with the Open Library of Humanities. This stitches my thinking and my practice into other co-operative movements for dignity, and against the indignity of capitalist work.

However, my thinking and my practice have also been challenged personally, through a decade-long commitment to therapy. On one level, this work represents my attempt to understand, manage and move beyond manifestations of depression and anxiety, including their displacement or appearance as overwork. On a deeper level, it has been fundamental in enabling me to understand my own essence, in terms of how and why I have, at times, been estranged from myself and the world. This book encapsulates a moment and a movement in my recovery of myself in the world.

In terms of the themes of the book, it is meaningless for me to separate out my work inside and outside the University from the work I continue to undertake on myself. It is meaningless for me to separate out my labour as something unique in the practice of my life. As a result, it forms an attempt by me to engage with Marx’s conceptions of estrangement and alienation, in particular focused upon being and becoming, dignity and indignity, objectification and subjectivity, and the possibility for recovering autonomy.

As a result, this is not a book that describes academic life from the perspective of academic labour, in order to recover some idealised or utopian notion of the University. Rather, it is against academic labour, as a case study of the exploitation, expropriation and domination of labour by capital. Rather than reifying or attempting to recover academic labour, I attempt to situate the academic labour process, academic knowledge production, the academic self and academic communities against Marx’s conception of alienation, in order to look towards its abolition. This is influenced by Moishe Postone’s work on capital as a totality that is constituted as the automatic subject through social labour, and in particular the duality of abstract and concrete labour. This refuses the fetishised notion that labour is capital’s opposite and nemesis.

Alienated academic labour and the law of value

I am not using academic labour to critique the crisis of higher education (as a strand of the secular crisis of capital). Rather academic labour is the object of this critique, in order to work towards its abolition. Central to this is an understanding of academic labour in its relation to the structuring reality of the law of value. Understanding how value mediates social reproduction is crucial in understanding whether an alternative form of self-mediation beyond value, rooted in humane values, is possible. Here the work of István Mészáros, Peter Hudis and Simon Clarke are important in enabling me to understand the relationship between alienated labour and second-order mediations that appear to structure the world. This enables us to take a negative dialectical approach, in order to strip back the manifestations of our alienation in anxiety, ill-being, overwork and so on, and to work through their relationship to money and the market, and beyond that to the production of surplus-value, surplus populations and surplus labour, rooted in the division of labour, commodity-exchange and private property, which themselves emerge from alienated labour.

Indignation and dignity

However, in the book I am increasingly drawn towards the relationship between indignation and dignity as a response. Here, the work of John Holloway is important to me as is work around the Zapatista movement. This enables us to connect academic practice to societal, intellectual practice, including that fought for by academic and student activists in occupations and social movements. This is a key connection, and stitches my thinking into intersectional struggles for dignity. As a result, I have been trying to challenge my white, male privilege throughout the book, by connecting to a range of activists fighting for justice. These include: Sarah Amsler; Joyce Canaan; Melonie Fullick; Karen Gregory; Liz Morrish; Sara Motta; Kehinde Andrews; Sara Ahmed; Gurminder Bhambra; Kalwant Bhopal; George Ciccariello-Maher; Nathanial Tobias Coleman; Ana Dinerstein; Emma Dowling; Akwugo Emejulu; Silvia Federici; Priyamvada Gopal; bell hooks; Tressie McMillan Cottom; and Heidi Mirza.

I constantly question whether my thinking, writing and practice has done these inspirational people justice. This also forces me to question constantly my own naïveté in understanding by the positions. Attempting to connect in this way is not a moment of co-option, rather a moment of solidarity. It is an attempt to stitch my own practice into a wider tapestry of refusal, or of the indignation that emerges from capital’s subsumption of our lives and its denial of our dignity. Developing a front of understanding, rooted in a richer understanding of the differential experience of exploitation and domination, is crucial in developing empathy and solidarity, as a movement towards autonomy.

Beyond recent work on the crisis of higher education

This is important because recent work which offers a perspective on the crisis of higher education has tended to focus on the mechanics and ideological underpinnings of marketisation and financialisation, which are often in defence of the ‘public university’ or attempts to discuss public funding, regulation and governance. In general, these focus upon the education sector of the economy, the HE sector as a whole, or make the University the unit of analysis, and several focus on the mechanics or roll-out of neoliberalism. However, there are few books that focus on the academic and her labour as the unit of analysis, and none that do so in the context of the critical terrain of alienation.

Thus, I use a critical social theory of alienation (which has a rich analytical tradition that serves as a heuristic for critiquing academic identity and academic labour). This is a way into a discussion of the abolition of academic labour and the role of public intellectuals in the generation of mass intellectuality, and is framed by the work of Mark Cowling, John Holloway, Peter Hudis, Marcello Musto, Sean Sayers, and Amy Wendling, among others.

The structure of the book

The argument is broken down into three sections and nine chapters. These are as follows (with chapter abstracts).

Chapter 1: Awakenings (structure here)


This chapter scopes and situates academic work against the key themes that underpin that work as alienating practice. It begins by addressing how the idea of academic labour as privilege blinds its practitioners to their estrangement from the products and process of work, alongside the relationships that emerge there, both in terms of the self and with peers. The chapter argues that academic being and becoming is stunted through the divorce of the academic from her labour, which is then overlain by a series of fetishes, including the student experience and ideas of educational value-for-money. This emerges from alienated labour, which is itself hidden by second-order mediations like private property, commodity exchange and the division of labour. This catalyses processes of proletarianisation through commodification, which are addressed in relation to the extant literature on the crisis of academic work.

Section 1: the terrain of academic labour

Chapter 2: Crisis (structure here)


This chapter details the mechanisms through which the secular crisis of capitalism is restructuring academic labour. This is in terms of policy that shapes a competitive environment, the financialisation of academic work through student debt, bond markets and so on, and through the commodification and marketisation of the outputs of academic work. Here, I describe how the incorporation of academic labour into the self-valorisation process of capital through research and pedagogic innovation enables a critique of the proletarianisation of the University.

Chapter 3: Alienation (structure here)


This chapter situates Marx’s analysis of estrangement, alienation, fetishisation and reification against academic labour. It does this through a focus on the activity of production, in its relationship to material and philosophical conceptualisations. As a result, a dialectical understanding of the layers of objectification, separation, mediation and identity-development emerges. This categorical analysis enables an unfolding of capitalism’s mode of social metabolic control, and its relationship to individual essence, human capital theory, and the reality of being othered or negated inside the system. This develops an analysis of the expanding circuit of alienation (A-A’), and the potential for its overcoming through a focus on the richness of human experience.

Section 2: the terrain of academic alienation

Chapter 4: Knowledge (structure here)


This chapter analyses the alienation of the products of the academic’s labour, as teaching or research, which are commodified and marketised for their exchange-value rather than their social utility. This is related to the competitive restructuring processes of research and teaching impact measures. Critical here is a connection to the internalisation by the academic of the disciplinary force of performance management, in the production, ownership and distribution of the products of academic labour. Marx’s conception of the general intellect as a form of alien knowledge and property, and its relationship to the separation of subject curricula and research, is important in describing capitalism as a naturalised system. Here the relationship between subjectivity and objectification, use and exchange, and the potential for new forms of humanism related to the functions of academic knowledge are developed.

Chapter 5: Profession (structure here)


This chapter frames a discussion of whether it is possible for academics to move beyond fetishing their own labour-power as privileged. I ask whether it is possible to reflect at a social-level on the alienation of academic labour-power in terms of the alienation of labour-power in general? The chapter focuses upon the mediated conditions of work, in order to unpick the proletarianisation of academic labour-power. As a result, it becomes possible to describe the autonomy of capital as opposed to labour, and to uncover its ideological basis.

Chapter 6: Weltschmerz (structure here)


This chapter develops the alienation of the academic from herself, as she is increasingly made and re-made as an academic entrepreneur whose labour only has worth where it is value. As a result, the internalisation of specific behaviours that are disciplinary becomes a key outcome for the system of production, with concomitant manifestations of physical and psychological distress. Here ideas of anti-humanism and dehumanism, linked to melancholy, anxiety and ill-being are analysed in relation to the proletarianisation of the University as an anxiety machine. The chapter addresses how formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the reproduction of academic labour in the name of value, feed off and into alienation.

Chapter 7: Identity (structure here)


This chapter address the alienation of the academic from her species through the iron law of competition, reinforced through global academic labour arbitrage, research and teaching metrics, and performance management. The argument connects academic labour to the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape capitalist social relations, in order to discuss the form and the organising principles under which academic labour is subsumed for value. The chapter argues that 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 and alienation from other forms of globalised labour. By refocusing on the form of labour in general, rather than the specific content of academic labour, it becomes possible to move beyond reification towards struggle.

Section 3: the terrain for overcoming alienation

Chapter 8: Indignation (structure here)


This chapter focuses upon the role of intellectual labour in a range of transnational struggles for an alternative form of social metabolic control. Pivoting around counter-hegemony and anti-power, the focus is upon the movement of dignity in the development of revolutionary subjectivity. This chapter discusses the possibilities for autonomous action by academics, which in-turn demonstrates solidarity or association with a range of struggles against labour.

Chapter 9: Autonomy (structure here)


In this chapter, autonomy is critiqued in light of the duality that: first, capital is the automatic subject searching to secure permanent self-valorisation; and second, that our search for autonomy-beyond-labour is the crisis of capital. This struggle pivots around emancipation from labour, and for self-mediation as the key organising principle for life. The chapter focuses on the role of academic work and intellectual labour in developing the realm of autonomy/freedom and reducing the realm of heteronomy/necessity. Here there is a focus upon the richness of human life and the development of alternative forms of social metabolic control. The argument regards alienation and its revelation as a necessity in the transformation to life under communism. Thus, the chapter discusses the potential for the social, collectivised use of academic labour, through the liberation of socialised skills, practices and knowledge from inside the University.

The process of writing as a movement of becoming

The process of writing the book demonstrated to me how far I have come from my PhD, undertaken back when Methuselah was a boy. A year of reading about: academic labour; the labour theory of value; alienation in Marx and Hegel; academic knowledge production and the academic labour process; academic identity and academic being/becoming; and intersectional analyses of labour and the academic experience. This year of reading was distilled down into 300 pages of notes, on top of my already existing, published work on alienation and mass intellectuality. One crucial angle to this was to reflect on my reading through a series of conversations with academics about injustices rooted in (dis)ability, gender, race and sexuality.

This was then distilled down into the nine chapters. I was originally going to have eight, with the last two stitched together. However, I wanted to push myself beyond my usual focus upon explaining (and obsessing about) the crisis through negative critique, and instead to focus upon the possibilities for an alternative mode of becoming rooted in a movement of dignity pointing towards autonomy.

Structuring and restructuring the chapters took a month and underpinned a writing process that mirrored my PhD process – effectively hoover up as much research and reading as possible, structure the notes very closely into a potential argument that speaks to my soul, and then write obsessively. This meant that each chapter was written in around a week, beginning at the start of January. Since then I have written 70,000 words, with two re-drafts/re-readings. In part, using Dragon Naturally Speaking to write/speak/dictate the book has altered the process.

In this moment, I have had to think long and hard about self-care, in the balance between writing and life, and between work and life. Walking and music have been crucial to me.

The scariest moment has been in asking people I trust, including a couple of people I have not met but whose expertise and way of being in the world is an inspiration, to read and provide feedback. This is a moment of high anxiety, to the extent that I tweeted:

You know that moment when you decide to send something to someone who you really admire to read/comment on, when you feel you aren’t fit to lace their boots (professionally)? And that gut-wrenching anxiety? Well that.

This is a moment of baring my soul, of extreme vulnerability, of hope and the fear of despair. As much as I try to sublimate the fear of despair, it often ruptures my being. However, it is important to note that whilst researching and writing I have come off anti-depressants and begun the process of leaving therapy. This is a moment of taking ownership of my life – a movement for autonomy.

It is also important to note that this has happened whilst holding down my role at work, and also attempting to support those leading the Leicester Vaughan College project. This has meant having to work weekends and evenings – there is a conversation here about whether this says something about my estrangement from my wider life. It clearly says something about the integration of my work with my life; the integration of my thinking about my life beyond my labour.

In many respects this has also been a very difficult time for me, and my thinking around alienation has been reflected in my everyday life. A friend asked me what I would do once the book was submitted, given that it has taken up so much of my existence and helped me to redefine myself. She acknowledged that it had helped me to work through and beyond some difficulties, and that it had also served as a distraction. She is right that there is a moment of grief in its submission, and one that mirrors the loss involved in leaving therapy. A loss of the self and my relationship to a fetishised or reified other, to which I have projected bits of myself. However, through this mirroring, there is also a moment of reclamation – of reclaiming my life, potentially with a renewed way of examining it, and the ability to move beyond those things that we fetishise in the world.

A moment of pointing towards values rather than value. This is the real movement.


In the process of writing the book, I have obsessively listened to the following whilst writing and walking and thinking. Maybe they tell us something about the contours of the book.

  1. Mogwai: Every Country’s Sun.
  2. Mogwai: Quay Sessions.
  3. Everything Everything: Night of the Long Knives.
  4. King Creosote: Astroman Meets Appleman.
  5. King Creosote: Diamond Mine.
  6. Jen Cloher: Jen Cloher.
  7. Sharon Van Etten: Glastonbury 2015.
  8. Wild Beasts: Smother.
  9. Wild Beasts: Two Dancers.
  10. Joe Goddard: Electric Lines.
  11. Public Service Broadcasting: Every Valley.
  12. Phoenix: lollapalooza 2013.
  13. This Is The Kit: Moonshine Freeze.
  14. This Is The Kit: Where It Lives.
  15. Sampha: Process.
  16. Shostakovich: symphonies number five, seven and nine.
  17. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell live.
  18. Bon Iver: live on NPR.
  19. Hot Chip: live at Pitchfork, Paris.


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