authoritarian neoliberalism and the alienation of academic labour

I will be developing some of my thinking about HE at a British Educational Research Association symposium, Debating theories of neoliberalism: New perspectives and framings in education research tomorrow.

My abstract and references are here.

The flyer can be downloaded here.

My slides are appended below.

The argument I intend to make pivots around the following points.

Note that references are also appended below.

I will be developing some of my thinking about HE at a British Educational Research Association symposium, Debating theories of neoliberalism: New perspectives and framings in education research tomorrow.

My abstract and references are here.

The flyer can be downloaded here.

My sides are appended below.

The argument I intend to make pivots around the following points.

ONE. The recent history of academic labour articulates its re-engineering in order that it can reproduce value, or at least become productive of value. This history demonstrates the ways in which academic labour has been conditioned to that end, through the disciplinary apparatus of the State, in the form of the deployment of a militarised apparatus (for instance on demonstrations against fees, or with the increase of cops on campus), and in terms of secondary and primary legislation rooted in finance capital. This is a disciplinary reimagining of the University.

TWO. Here, we remember that Marx and Engels wrote that the State is a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. In our academic context, this forces us to imagine the transnational networks that act as a structure for maintaining the circuits and cycles of capital, which act as flows of power. The whole bourgeoisie incorporates vice chancellors, finance capital, credit ratings agencies, educational publishers/service providers, policymakers and so on. In a post-crisis world, the university is being repurposed such that it acts as a vector for the extreme tensions between conditions of production and the forces of production. This incorporates technological and organisational changes, which are materially affecting the technical composition of academic capital. Here, the State represents the normalisation of specific forms of administration that rest upon a legacy of domination, and the exploitative nature of capitalist social relations.

THREE. It is, therefore, important that we remember how the state militarised against student and staff protests in the UK in 2010-11. This is a marker, a backstop, a baseline for what the orderly application of liberties looks like. It describes the refusal of rights.

FOUR. There are certain heuristics or modes of analysis that emerge from literature on authoritarian neoliberalism, which serve to illuminate the relationship between the State and academic labour.

The first is Stephen Ball’s work on the neoliberal terrain for global education, including its philosophical underpinnings and ways in which the state rolls-back existing narratives and structures, ahead of a re-modelling of/as desire. A pivotal moment in this is the maintenance of order, with its focus upon liberal or social democratic interpretations of engagement with mediations like the commodity, the market and the division of labour, which in turn form ordered liberties that maintain risk profiles. These are not the same as a struggle for rights.

A second is Ian Bruff’s focus upon a cultures, relations, work, activities and so on that are for the market. The market mediates flows of power, through flows of surplus, and yet market is not necessarily free. This inevitably focuses upon coercion in maintaining specific risk profiles and in generating forms of data and information, which themselves generate non-democratic ways of working through policies of inclusion and exclusion or marginalisation that reinforce inequality. We are connected to Raewyn Connell’s analysis of social relations that are immanent to the market, such that narratives are framed continuously in asymmetrical relation to the market.

Third, we are reminded of the corporate parasitisation of the State, such that the latter becomes a vector for the former, in particular in terms of the governance, regulation and financing of State-sponsored activities and infrastructures. These are often viewed in pragmatic terms, as a new normal that simply reinforces existing structures, or as forms of elite power that reinforce and are reinforced by specific mediations. Here I refer to the work of Bob Jessop and Will Davies.

A fourth, critical point is about how these activities reinforce marginalisation for specific bodies that are unable to move through social structures, because of the abstract way in which those structures are reproduced for value. Here, the work of Sara Ahmed, Gurminder Bhambra, and Janet Newman on issues of gender and race (and the intersection of those issues) highlights both the ways in which marginalisation is reproduced (and to what ends), and also enables us to analyse how the processes of marginalisation are infecting segments of society previously inoculated, through the politics of austerity.

Finally, we remember how the state creates a disciplinary infrastructure through gag laws, C51 in Canada, by enabling institutions to prohibit demonstrations, through the use of kettling, and so on. This forms a precursor to policy-related authoritarianism. This policy-related restructuring of academic labour includes accountability regimes, focused upon the minutiae of academic work such as Reform’s criticism of grade inflation, alongside the fear generated by immigration regimes. This is a process of enabling forms of autonomy as types of controlled liberty, rooted in risk profiles that relate to the generation of human capital.

FIVE. The experience of crisis, as the violence of abstraction, creates a new normal or a new form of common sense, which is rooted in the desire to make previously unproductive sectors of the economy productive of value. Productivity is everything. Thus, as Marx and Engels understood, universities are at risk of market exit and under the pressure of new market entrants, as well as being forced into competition for new, overseas markets as a new colonialism, and through performance management in debt are forced to exploit existing markets more thoroughly. This includes the exploitation of their own labour force, who are made responsible for the risk to their own position.

SIX. The State defines its relationship to academic labour through a policy narrative that serves a pedagogic function at the level of society. This focuses upon the reification of human capital, which offers a particular mode of attention or orientation from academic labourers made responsible for enriching their own skills, knowledge and capabilities. Moreover, they are made responsible for generating surplus through productive activity. However, this sits in tension with capital’s drive to annihilate the labour component of work, as a result of which that work tends to be proletarianised. Finally, the implementation of policy through league tables and performance management tends to internalise responsibilisation as a form of discipline that stands against wilful behaviour.

SEVEN. The subsumption of HE and the University as a radical restructuring of academic labour serves to generate new forms of competition, as institutions strive for competitive advantage (relative surplus value). However, the implementation of policy through, for instance, the role of the Office for Students, places the academic and the student (and her family) in an invidious position as they are forced to internalise performance, and the generation of data about performance, alongside a liberal perception of the value of learning for its own sake – even though the latter is marginalised. As a result, deep levels of cognitive dissonance erupt, framed by the contention that trust-based relationships can only be mediated in the (unfree, unequal, coercive) market. Moreover, we are told that these relationships can only be mediated inside a properly-functioning market calibrated by meaningful performance data, and this reinforces the transnational activist networks of educational service providers/publishers, policymakers, non-governmental organisations and so on, which act to crack the sector for value. Our lives are folded into these moments, for value.

EIGHT. A crucial set of responses, as stories from inside the University, emerge, pivoting around casualisation/precarious employment, ill-being and ill-health, suicide and quitting. These demonstrate the deep levels of estrangement and alienation at the levels of: academic labour-power; products of academic labour; academic communities; and the individual academic’s humanity. It becomes important to strip away the layers in which such estrangement or alienation are revealed: illness/overwork; precarity and the attrition on labour rights; the role of money; the extraction of value/surplus-value; the control of labour-power; the mediation of private property; and the reality of alienated-labour. From here emerge anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, loss, and our restricted ability to grieve.

NINE. There is a critical point about the differential impacts of this upon different bodies, and the ways in which those differences are reinforced intersectionally. Analyses of the power and privilege of certain bodies enable the alienating whole to be revealed, whilst also enabling narratives of overcoming involving decentring, refusing responsibilisation, solidarity in the face of coercion, listening to/refusing to accept the silencing of certain voices, and the instantiation of humanity/self-actualisation.

TEN. Moments of listening form a movement towards self-actualisation and also focus upon de-fetishising academic labour, in order to re-focus upon its abolition at the level of society. For Marx and Engels, the crucial moment is the reintegration of intellectual work at the level of society, with a focus upon undermining the violence of abstraction and instituting a new form of common sense. This stands against the outsourcing of solutions to boffins or experts or scientists, because those solutions and that expertise exists at the level of society, in forms that have been seized by the authoritarian State acting for capital.

ELEVEN. We need to be against what the University has become. We need to be against what academic labour has become. We need to imagine a new movement that erupts as abolition.


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