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.