for Joyce Canaan

On Sunday I had the deep privilege of attending the funeral of Joyce Canaan. This was a service of celebration led by Joyce’s family who were held in the embrace of her friends as they carried her body to rest in the earth, whilst her heart, soul, dignity, courage, faith, perseverance, care and love are carried through us into new spaces and times. I have never been to a more beautiful and dignified funeral; one which celebrates the individual in the collective; one which enables a fuller and deeper engagement with the lifelong process of mourning; one which reminds us of the pain we are collectively able to bear, and the love we are collectively able to share.

I first met Joyce in 2013 at a critical pedagogy conference that she was keynoting in Edinburgh. For some time I had been reading her work at the intersection of neoliberal higher education, critical pedagogy, protest, developing alternatives and critical hope. At this conference I was speaking about the relationship between technology and the proletarianisation of academic labour, alongside our options for resistance. Her questions to me were also an invitation to conversation – what might we do to move beyond the current state of things? Is another world possible? It was only later that I realised we had been on the same marches and had tried to avoid the same kettles, and that she, like I, was probably ‘a thug’ in the eyes of the establishment.

Her questions formed an opening far removed from others who have asked me subsequently to describe this new world I wish to see, as if we already have the answer. Joyce refused to occupy this fatalistic position and instead saw that we must be indignant about and refuse injustice, and in the moment of refusal, we must also prefigure and then ask questions about how we reproduce our world. In my own thinking and practice, Joyce’s invocation to think prefiguratively has been transformative, and rooted in years of struggle against the same white, male, heterosexual, ableist voices that have brought us to the brink. Joyce helped to open my heart to the violence of silencing, and in the process to the range of voices and experiences that empower our collective search for alternatives.

Joyce amplified my engagement with alternatives from the margins, howsoever these are described, through a rich description, analysis and connection with narratives of dispossession, rooted in the material of our individual and collective identities. As she fell ill, I had the great pleasure of being able to help her prepare her chapter for our edited collection on mass intellectuality and democratising higher education. She was writing about the educational experiences of the Brazilian landless movement, from her first-hand engagement. She was writing about the problems of interpretation and meaning between the marginalised (in this case in the global South) and those with power (those seeking to reinvent life experienced from the global North). She was writing about new forms of critical engagement between people and their material existence, in order to generate knowledge that could challenge and abolish power.

It was a joy to be able to help her finish this chapter, and to be acknowledged in its notes. It was only later that I made the humane connection between our engagement on this writing and why I felt drawn to visiting Joyce as her cancer took hold of her body. It was in several visits to her home and her time in the hospice that I realised what a gift our relationship was to me. This may have developed had she not been ill, or had we met earlier. However, I am not left with the regret of this as a missed opportunity because of the visceral sense of solidarity and justice that flowed between us. This was the sense of being held in a relationship and of being heard. She told me that whilst we had not known each other very long she felt that she knew me; for me this is rooted in the dignity of listening, and the empathy and compassion that emerges where there are tendrils of separate existences that share certain characteristics. It had solidarity at its core. Those visits to see Joyce felt like seminars, as we discussed the crisis of higher education, the alienation of academic labour, and the spaces for critical hope. They felt like moments of breaking bread with a friend, as we discussed family, love and life.

Even whilst she was in the hospice, Joyce was fighting to understand the opportunities for a cooperative existence, which were only ever amplified for me in witnessing the number of people who wanted to sit with her and her family at this time. The last time I saw her in the hospice, she spent the first hour sleep as I tried to understand what it means for us to sit with each other at every stage of our lives; for us to understand our mortality. After she awoke, we spent two hours together and I cannot remember for the life of me what we discussed. What we discussed is irrelevant – the only thing that matters was the relationship, and the connections through that relationship that continue to sustain me. The other relationships, which in-part through Joyce, continue to sustain me. As I reached the door of the ward at the hospice something in my soul overtook me and it became very important to turn and tell her “I love you”.

Over the months that I came to understand Joyce a little more fully, I came to see a cussed, argumentative, wilful, courageous, faithful, anti-fascist seeker of justice, who was so devoted to her family and friends. She struck me as someone who was full of humane contradiction; a woman who reminded me how flawed we all are, and how beautifully human that very fact is. Always challenging in her indignation, she was also a reminder of the possibility for dignity.

This interrelationship between indignation and dignity, played out across society and with those closest to us, never simply emerges from a single life, rather it flows between lives as moments of love and solidarity. Joyce’s funeral demonstrated this fact. The humanist celebration of her life, led by her family, was an absolute joy to attend. A celebration in word and with song; a celebration of memory and adversity and hope; a celebration of cartoons in Chicago; a celebration of “fuck Banner Theatre”; a celebration of climbing hills; a celebration of demonstrations and protests; a celebration of being a partner, an out-law, a grandmother, a friend.

It felt so important that her natural burial was undertaken by those who loved her. That we could each take turns in laying her to rest. The sound of the Earth hitting her coffin as her family and friends sang and shovelled was heartbreaking just as it was energising. The ownership that we took of her body, and the deeply spiritual nature of the moment, mirrored the deep interconnection that her life had with so many others. It was a beautiful moment of dignity, respect, justice and peace. I cannot imagine holding and caring for someone you love in any other way. I cannot imagine being more in touch with one’s own soul, whilst holding those of others, as we collectively suture our broken hearts in the act of both burying and releasing our love. I thank her family for this – the demonstration of their strength, perseverance, love and care was natural and normal and every day. To witness this, and to be accepted as a part of it, was such a gift.

It feels important to me to write this not only to honour Joyce and our relationship. It feels important to write this because her work and her practice brought me to share a very spiritual place with several people who have also been inspirational in my own life and work. Mike, Sarah, Gordon, Joel, Elio and Alpesh have each and collectively been with me in the struggle for a better world, and in prefiguring more humane ways to engage in education. It was a privilege to share Sunday with them, and to be reminded of our shared humanity.

On Monday I found out that my monograph on academic alienation had been published. I like to think that Joyce would have wanted to read it, and to challenge me about my own position and preconceptions, and to call me out about my interpretation of power and privilege and what to do about it. And I would have told her to fuck off because I don’t know. And then we would have discussed it. I know that she would have done this from a position of care, faith and love, and so would I. Because relationships are complicated, but there is always critical hope.

In reflecting on the intersections in time of Joyce’s funeral and the publication of my book (happenstance, I know), I have been forced to consider my own sense of self and self-identity. My friend Michael asked me whether I was pleased with my book, and wanted to use it to help change the world. I rather scornfully said that the book was written for me, so that I could be heard, and that I didn’t care if it was read because the world is fucked and what could I do? I’ve been talking about this stuff for years, protesting for years, doing voluntary work for years, and the world is still borked. Moreover, after a decade in therapy I am tired of fighting. So all I can do is be a good man on an everyday level, and mourn the fact that my writing won’t change anything because collectively we lack the will.

But this isn’t the case, and I apologise to my friend who pointed to the light, although I couldn’t see this until Sunday. I have been forced to consider how I accept myself in the world and how I am connected to others. I have been forced to consider whether this is a closing of sorts – of old and unhelpful ways of thinking about myself rooted in an unkind past – a past in which I was unkind to myself. I have been forced to consider whether this is an opening of sorts – of recovering what I want to keep about myself, and reflecting on the kind of person I want to be, flaws and all. I have been forced to consider how we might believe that another world is possible, and to prefigure it.

Perhaps this is what the commune of the living and the dead teaches us.

RIP Joyce.

Postscript: my friend Gordon noted that I always have a soundtrack for things, and he is right.

There is a collaborative Spotify playist here.

My initial soundtrack for all of this is as follows.

King Creosote: Bats in the Attic

Sufjan Stevens: There is No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross

LUMP: Late to the Flight

Mogwai: Ratts of the Capital

Bon Iver: 33 “God”

Bon Iver: Calgary

Bon Iver: re:stacks

Jon Hopkins: Everything Connected

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Jubilee Street

Let’s Eat Grandma: Falling Into Me

Daughter: Youth

Everything Everything: Ivory Tower

Floating Points: Peroration Six

The Future Sound of London: Plazmatical

Underworld: Two Months Off

James Blake: I Need a Forest Fire

Massive Attack: Unfinished Sympathy

PJ Harvey: The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore

Portishead: Biscuit

Pulp: I love life

Queens of the Stone Age: … Like Clockwork

Sharon Van Etten: Afraid of Nothing

Alison Kraus: Down to the River to Pray

Radical pedagogies: dismantling the curriculum in higher education

I spoke yesterday at radical pedagogies: a humanities teaching forum at the University of Kent. My slides are here.

A recording of my jibber-jabber will be made available at some point via the conference website. However, there is a recording of a similar presentation at Greenwich from last November here.

I have posted some key links and resources that help me analyse or deconstruct or dismantle my approach to the curriculum below. Herewith I have posted some of the fundamental points that I was trying to explore during my talk.

ONE. As Sara Ahmed notes (following Angela Davis) in Living a Feminist Life, acknowledging those who have helped to carry the fire of your argument is important. Whilst I begin from an attempt to understand the reproduction of the world through the application of absolute negativity, or negative dialectics, my focus on rebuilding my understanding as something more productive demands an engagement with the narratives, stories and analyses of those who have been made marginalised. It is impossible for me to believe that those voices which led us into multiple crises of sociability, or social reproduction, are those we should listen to for solutions. They all must go.

TWO. One outcome of this is an attempted dialogue with those who would decolonise or dismantle the alienating contexts in which we are forced to work.

THREE. One such alienating context is the University, which is increasingly toxic. In order to hold on to what I need, I attempt to remember (and sometimes it is very difficult) the words of bell hooks describing learning as a process, rooted in the shared intellectual and spiritual growth of students and teachers, which emerges from conditions of care. Thinking about this in relation to Sara Ahmed’s description of what it means to live a feminist life gives us a starting point for discussing a more humane approach to the curriculum, which is the site of our critical engagement with each other. Ahmed’s description acts as a heuristic, enabling us to test our assumptions about ideals, norms, justice, legitimacy, marginalisation, mobility and so on inside our curricula.

FOUR. I ask whether it is possible for us to go into occupation of a curriculum that has been repurposed as a thing, reinforced by data and underscored by money? Is it possible for us to reclaim the curriculum as a process of becoming and of being, against a hegemonic view of the curriculum as a positional good both for students and institutions? Can we think about the ongoing process of creating social wealth through the curriculum, rather than reducing it to exchange-value and individual positionality?

FIVE. This is such a difficult thing to do, in the face of a policy narrative that shapes higher education for human capital; in the face of a policy narrative that increasingly proletarianises and diminishes academic labour; in the face of the policy narrative that forces us to internalise performativity, at the individual, subject and institutional-level; in the face of policy narrative that demands anxiety as a motive energy. Here we might reflect on our own cognitive dissonance as we are forced to internalise a particular subjectivity or mode of attention in our relationship to power. We might also reflect on the risks it takes to be wilful, or wilfully dissident.

SIX. The consultation for the Office for Students hints at the joy of learning for its own sake, and the public value of higher education. However, this is quickly subsumed under: the imperative to subsume higher education under the dictates of competition in the market; the imperative to justify this subsumption in terms of value-for-money and consumer protection; the need to commodify the processes of higher education, including the curriculum and staff/student relationships, so that better performance data is available for that market; the belief that it is only through competition that curriculum enhancement can be achieved; and, the reduction of trust-based classroom relationships to risk management, rather than acts of care.

SEVEN. I remember that Engels railed against competition because it separated us and set us against each other; that it forces us to deny the existence or subjectivity of others; that it forces us to objectify others; that it is used as a means of control and to impose more work; and our way out of this living death is cooperative and by authentic association with each other.

EIGHT. I am interested in the curriculum as a process of being and becoming. I am interested in how we engage with this process to reveal the layers of alienation that exist inside the University, in order to reveal those layers beyond. This includes recognising issues of ill-being, precarity and depression, and seeing their relationships to performance management and governance, rooted in the need to drive money and surplus as an apparent form of social wealth. However, it is important to analyse these in terms of separation: of student from staff; of student from content; of student from the start and end points of the curriculum; of the student’s life experience from her experience in the classroom; of staff from the ownership of the means of producing the curriculum; and so on. It is important to analyse these in terms of who governs and controls the labour-power inside the classroom. Our experience inside the classroom is mediated for us. We do not mediate our own experience with each other or with the world.

NINE. We have a lot to be pissed off about. I am indignant. I am searching for dignity. If you are not pissed off, then you are not paying attention.

TEN. We might then use our indignation to analyse a commodified curriculum that is stripped back to reveal flows of alienation at the intersections of: self/subject and other/object reflected in it; gender, race, (dis)ability, class reproduced through it; adaptations to socio-environmental crises ignored in it; disciplinary separations demanded by it. The curriculum as a process of being unbecoming that is an ongoing form of social wealth and a process of struggle over our social reproduction. We might ask, what is to be done?

ELEVEN. One moment of dialogue for developing an analysis is an engagement with ideas around dismantling or decolonising the curriculum, starting from an anti-oppressive position grounded in the experiences of those students and staff who have been othered. This enables us to reveal: underlying logics of truth or legitimacy in relation to curriculum design, delivery and assessment; ongoing colonisation in terms of the commodity dumping of open education resources into the global South and the extraction of human capital from those spaces into the global North; the possibilities that are implicit in a curriculum that is opened-out to a range of contributions and a range of starting points, and which is rooted in voice.

TWELVE. This is incredibly hard work, and demands the care for our collective intellectual and spiritual growth, of which bell hooks spoke. It demands that we consider our positions in relation to courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness. These are not unconditional, and they forces to confront issues of whiteness ¦ lack of support ¦ indirect racism ¦ permanence of race ¦ Eurocentric curriculum ¦ false/double consciousness ¦ exceptionalism.

THIRTEEN. Is it possible to develop the wealth of our real connections through the curriculum, and thereby to liberate ourselves? What does this mean for the ways in which we produce and consume the world? Pace Marx, the curriculum can only form a starting point for this where we enable individuals to create their own social interconnections, in order to gain mastery over them, and to develop their conscious knowing, their being and becoming. An alienating, reified or fetishised curriculum ruled by money does not enable the individual to become herself, or to know herself truly in the world beyond her value in a competitive market. It simply objectifies.

FOURTEEN. Such a moment of becoming then enables us to work against the ways in which our experiences are mediated by the market, the division of labour, commodity-exchange, in order to recognise how our collective, social skills, capabilities and knowledge have been stolen from us and sold back to us as knowledge transfer, impact, start-up activity, entrepreneurship and so on. It might then be possible for us to recognise our mass intellectuality, or our common ability to do. Without such recognition, we will only ever outsource the possibility of solutions to crises to the bureaucrats or scientists or technologists. We will not see that the solution lies inside ourselves.

FIFTEEN. We have so many examples of resistance and struggle and indignation, and of collective being and becoming, which emerge from inside and outside of the University. At issue are the ways in which we remove the false binary between inside and outside, in order to dismantle the University or to dissolve the institution into the fabric of society. At issue are the ways in which we use critical pedagogy to abolish the University, so that praxis, knowledge production, useful knowledge emerge at the level of society, rather than inside a fetishised institution.

SIXTEEN. How can we be wilfully engaged? How can we use the classroom as a weapon for wilful engagement, rooted in love? How do we become inter-generationally ungovernable?

SEVENTEEN. Do not fetishise the University. Do not fetishise the curriculum.

Some resources

Ian Clark has been maintaining useful notes on the conference here.

Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, S.(2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ciccariello-Maher, G. 2017. Decolonizing Dialectics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Davis, A.Y. (2016). Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement. London: Haymarket Books.

Dinerstein, A (2015). The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Dismantling the Master’s House (2015). Dismantling the Master’s House, Available at:

Hall, R. (2017). The rise of academic ill-health.

Hall, R., and Winn, J. (eds). (2017). Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury Academic. and

Hall, R., and Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of the Humanities. 2(1), p.e11. DOI:

Hall, R., and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 28, 30-47.

Hall, R. (2014). On the abolition of academic labour: the relationship between intellectual workers and mass intellectuality. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 12 (2), 822-37.

hooks, bell . (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge

Lorde, A. (1988). A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand.

McGettigan, A (2014). Financialising the University. Arena Magazine, Available at:

McGettigan, A (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre. Papers Series 6. Available at:

Mirza, H. (2015). Decolonising Higher Education: Black Feminism and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender, Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 7-8: 1-12.

Neary, M. (2017). A pedagogy of hate. Policy Futures in Education, 15 (5). pp. 555-563. Available at:

Neary, M (2011).Student as Producer: A Pedagogy for the Avant-Garde; Or, How Do Revolutionary Teachers Teach? Learning Exchange 1(1) Available at:

Rhodes Must Fall (n.d.). Rhodes Must Fall. Available at:

The Social Science Centre (n.d.). Available at:

Taylor, K-Y. (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. London: Haymarket Books

The University of Utopia (n.d.). Anti-Curricula: A Course of Action, Available at:

‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ collective (2015). 8 Reasons the Curriculum is White, Available at:

Winn, J (2015). Academic Labour and the Capitalist University: A Critique of HE Through the Law of Value, PhD thesis. University of Lincoln. Available at:

fragments of a gift

There is a Spotify playlist for all these fragments. It’s here.

There are shattered fragments. Projections of what I choose to remember. What I choose to remember framed by what I want to remember. What I want to remember better framed by love.

And I’m thinking about the fragments of our life in those last months together. A set of moments in those months when we drove to the hospital and conversed with consultants. And retreated to the Black Country Arms to distil what was happening. To try to make sense of the despair.

I remember the daily texts from my Dad full of hope and courage, and the faith that it would be okay. That we just had to keep on.

That he would just keep on with dignity was his gift to us all.

I remember the Thursday. Discussing caring and how to help my Dad, in The Crossing at St Paul’s, because we didn’t know how long this would continue. And I remember the conversation with the GP about a separate diagnosis for anxiety and depression, away from the dementia, sparked my my friend Jon’s care and attention.

And I remember that when we arrived at my Dad’s the urgency of that discussion evaporated to be replaced with another.

And I remember the hours sitting under Mom’s gurney and waiting for admittance to a ward. And thinking how tiring it is to keep explaining illness over-and-over-and-over again.

And I remember our exhaustion as we drove home at midnight. And trying not to think what this meant. As the hourglass turned for the final time.

And I remember travelling back there on the train with Andrew on the Saturday to watch the Saddlers draw with the Blades. And how important it was that we could chew the fat about nothing and everything for a few hours. About belief.

And I remember walking the back-streets of Walsall one last time to the Manor Hospital. Walking as a penance or as a pilgrimage, set against the sands running out.

And I remember that it was just she and me there that evening. And for an hour and a half I just told her “I love you”, as I held her hand.

And I remember how relieved I was that Jo was just in network range in the North and could make it back to anchor us all.

Jo’s gift: diligently anchoring us.

And I remember that my friends Joss and Sue came over three weeks later for the funeral. And only now do I realise that they were pointing me towards life.

And I could just remember the catastrophe of it all, but to what end? Because the only thing that counts is the last thing she heard from any of us: “I love you”. And that the last thing she saw of any of us was my eyes, full of love.

And perhaps she did everything she could, in spite of everything. And in spite of everything the truth is that I loved her more than heaven and earth.

And this is triggered by the anniversary that looms, and by a friend telling me unprompted that she loved me. An echo of that final moment with my Mom.

So that the thing I choose to remember is the last beautiful, untroubled smile she gave me. A fragment. A gift. Unconditional.

The evil it spread like a fever ahead
It was night when you died, my firefly
What could I have said to raise you from the dead?
Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?

Well you do enough talk
My little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
Or the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die

Sitting at the bed with the halo at your head
Was it all a disguise, like Junior High
Where everything was fiction, future, and prediction
Now, where am I? My fading supply

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

Well you do enough talk
My little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
Or the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die

Sufjan Stevens. 2015. Fourth of July.


There is no shade in the shadow of the cross

It was Mother’s Day the other day. The most painful day. That is until the anniversary of her death. And every day in-between, I wake up and my heart breaks again.

In an interview Sufjan Stevens says:

Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you.

They always talk about the science of bereavement, and how there is a measurable pattern and cycle of grief, but my experience was lacking in any kind of natural trajectory. It felt really sporadic and convoluted. I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane[.]

And he is right. There is no shade in the shadow of the cross.

Notes on academic labour and co-operative struggles for subjectivity

On 25 June, I’m presenting at the Governing Academic Life conference as part of a panel on co-operative education.

My presentation will be on academic labour and co-operative struggles for subjectivity. The abstract is appended below, and the slides are uploaded here.


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, 2012; Marx, 1993a) that subsumes and disciplines academic labour.

This subsumption of academic labour emerges under “the social tyranny of exchange-value” and the profit motive (Wendling, 2009, 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?

On the University and revolution from within

On Sunday Kate Bowles tweeted that:

The tiny problem for the idea that Coursera will “revolutionize” all of our education systems is that revolution usually comes from within.

This made me think about the inside/outside of education, and the idea that certain spaces might be (falsely) considered to be open/closed irrespective of the dynamics of Capital. For Marx in Volume 1 of Capital, there was increasingly no outside, merely the silent compulsion of competition that drives the constant revolutionising of the forces of production across the system. This latter point is critical to any meaningful analysis of the current crisis – this is a systemic process and not one that is neatly contained inside different tentacles of capitalist production. Marx wrote that:

Modern industry never treats views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labour within society, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another. Thus large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions (Capital, Volume 1, p. 617).

This also impacts the ways in which resistance might be formulated. As Cleaver notes in his theses on the secular crisis the constant revolutionising of different spheres of production is met by a multiplicity of responses. Here, forms of recognition and solidarity across spheres are critical.

When looked at positively, in terms of their struggles for their own interests (beyond mere resistance to the imposition of work), the interests of this complex “working class” are multiple in the sense of not being universally shared. The interests of one group are not exactly the same as those of another even if the realization of those of the one would facilitate the realization of those of the others. Thus there is a problematic relationship between the notion of a working class for-itself and the multiplicity of interests for which different groups of people struggle. “The” working class which struggles against capital, and whose antagonism threatens capital’s survival, is actually a multiplicity moving in a variety of directions made up of equally diverse processes of self-valorization or self-constitution.

In higher education this is important where we identify the spaces through which the sector is being opened up for-profit and for value extraction. Previously I have written about Stephen Ball’s idea of philanthrocapitalism, which drives ‘a move from palliative to developmental giving’, which restructures charity or giving in the name of capitalism. Here benefactors are consumers of social investment and philanthropy for educational ends is geared around entrepreneurialism. There is a clear need to see a business return on cultural or educational giving. Thus, there is an increasing use of commercial or enterprise models of practice as a new generic form underpinning what Ball calls ‘venture philanthropy, philanthropic portfolios, due diligence, entrepreneurial solutions and so on.’ Ball argues that philanthrocapitalists often seek silver bullet solutions to grand challenges, which in turn utilise business partnerships, to develop technical, generic or universally-applicable, and scalable solutions. The idea is that strategic giving that is problem-focused, interdisciplinary, time-limited and high impact will ‘extend leverage’ between the private and public sectors. The Gates’ Foundation and its sponsorship of educational programmes and MOOCs is one such mechanism through which the private cracks open and revolutionises the public space.

Such leverage is also created through policy, as witnessed in the recent Amendments to California State Senate Bill 520 on MOOCs, which promise public funding for the public elements of public/on-line private partnerships. In order to force each segment of California’s public education system (community colleges, state universities and the University) Christopher Newfield argues that Senate President Darrell Steinberg has created a system of “grant programs” for intensifying reliance on online programs and providers, in order “to avoid a serious discussion about [the public/State’s] reinvesting in California’s educational system”:

Steinberg is proposing to impose upon the three segments millions of dollars of new costs. Even if the State does provide funding for these costs that money could be spent in other less speculative ways. Far more likely is that the Segments will be driven into partnerships with online providers so as to share the upfront costs of meeting Steinberg’s timetable.

Nor is there any means set up to assure that no public funds are spent on private interests. Should the segments enter into partnerships with the online providers, they will likely contract out services and use public funds to pay for them. Despite the rhetoric of social justice, venture capital will demand a profitable return on its investments. Moreover, as the for-profit MOOC providers have demonstrated, their business is information and they claim that the information they gather on students is their property. I see no way around the notion that public funds will indeed be diverted to “private aspects” of the partnerships.

This is another mechanism through which the system revolutionises the means of production and division of labour across increasingly intertwined branches of production. The MIT Technology Review makes this point for personal data and the kinds of big data that California wishes to make open and accessible through its educational “grant programs”:

What’s more, the economic importance of products fueled with personal data is growing rapidly. According to the Boston Consulting Group, as methods for basing transactions on a person’s digital records have spread from banks to retailers and other sectors, the financial value that companies derived from personal data in Europe was $72 billion in 2011. The consultants concluded that “personal data has become a new form of currency.”

Access to and control over data and the means by which it can be commodified and marketised therefore becomes one more revolutionary productive force. This is also seen in the recent statements about the Georgia Tech/Udacity/AT&T on-line Master’s Degree partnership about which Inside Higher Ed wrote:

Georgia Tech this month announced its plans to offer a $6,630 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors. Georgia Tech and Udacity, a Silicon Valley-based startup, will work with AT&T, which is putting up $2 million to heavily subsidize the program’s first year. The effort, if it succeeds, will allow one of the country’s top computer science programs to enroll 20 times as many students as it does now in its online master’s degree program, and to offer the degree to students across the world at a sixth of the price of its existing program

Placed alongside policy that proscribes public/private partnerships and the public availability of retention, progression and outcomes-related data that emerges from state-funded programmes, this creates a set of spaces inside which the forces of production are restructured for-profit. These types of partnerships show the deep penetration of the private, for-profit sector of the economy into the public sphere: there is no outside of the systemic need to overcome crises of accumulation and the need to maintain the increase of the rate of profit through a control of the organic composition of capital and the rate of surplus value that can be extracted.

In the UK there is an equal avoidance of a serious discussion about the public/State’s funding of education, in spite of the attempts of groups like Million+, for example in its report Do the Alternatives Add-Up? Elsewhere, Professor David Eastwood, the incoming Chair of the Russell Group of Universities, has argued that the Coalition’s refusal to increase the cap on fees for “public” higher education will lead to “a 16 per cent real cut in the tuition income of institutions.” Eastwood argues that with no increase likely before 2017 “That should put a stop to glib discussions about enhancement and improvement. We are managing pretty massive efficiency gains in the delivery of educational programmes over the next five years.” This underscores a point I made on the University and a revitalised public about how specific policy activities that are located in secondary legislation like the Budget, or in technical consultations over white papers and funding, signal “a cultural shift that sets a direction for marketization through tactical engagement. It is less about fighting the battle for ideas in public than it is about laying markers for marketization. One might argue that it is not about creating a deliberative space to discuss the realities of public or socialised education and what the University is for, but it is about cracking or fracturing what exists, in order to extract value from that system.”Thus, the introduction of fees and the subsequent fee-cap, alongside pressure for outsourcing and public-private partnerships, are being used to constrain and then restructure the work of universities as competing capitals, including with for-profit and on-line providers.

As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to look at the restructuring of higher education as anything other than a revolutionising of the forces of production aimed at overcoming the limits of accumulation in the systemic production process. As Marx notes in the Collected Works (Vol. 5, pp. 431-2), throughout history

some persons satisfied their needs at the expense of others, and therefore some – the minority – obtained the monopoly of development, while others – the majority, owing to the constant struggle to satisfy their most essential needs, were for the time being (i.e., until the creation of new revolutionary productive forces) excluded from any development.

Moreover, Marx argued that it is the mechanisms through which human society could recapture human nature against the profit-motive, which we should seek to reproduce. This is not the human nature of the MOOC-defined, self-made, neo-liberal superman; it is “species life”.

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth… The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life…” [Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 217.]

At issue is how to promote such a species-life through education in ways that recapture production as a social activity. This is more pressing as the policy and practice of austerity threaten to unleash revolutionary social forces. As Reuters reports: “German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble warned on Tuesday that failure to win the battle against youth unemployment could tear Europe apart, and dropping the continent’s welfare model in favor of tougher U.S. standards would spark a revolution.” In-part this is more pressing because, as Jehu argues:

we have achieved a five-fold increase in total material wealth produced annually between 1964 and 2012 in the United States. Yet, for all this increase in material wealth, poverty still exists… real material [agricultural] output rises to 500% overall and labor needed in agriculture falls 88%; yet, despite this improvement in material wealth, 43 million workers still live in poverty… Despite these facts, Washington tells us we cannot afford our current material standard of living. Politicians say either retirement has to be delayed and medical coverage cut, or Washington must go still deeper in debt… Now ask yourself: If you are working twice as long as your parents, producing five times as much material wealth, should you be better or worse off than they were? So where did all that increased wealth go? Since you are, in fact, poorer than your parents, it is obvious none of that increased wealth made its way into your pockets.

Inside this systemic process of revolutionising the forces of production and increasing global output, real wages have collapsed in the face of strategies for accumulation. The issue is whether a “direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 299) might be realised that incorporates increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. This requires that we have a more mature discussion of the possibilities for production that lie beyond for-profit. In higher education this includes recognition that the sector is being restructured (revolutionised?) from within, by outsourcing, philanthrocapitalism, MOOCs etc., and that spaces for resistance and refusal need to be created and supported in solidarity actions so that we recapture our existence and our production as a social activity, for-society  rather than for-profit. It is here, and in celebrating existence for-society, that a revolution from within might begin.