notes on education beyond borders

Jehu has it.

Communists have to decide how they see the next few years unfolding: Are we simply against Trump or the system that made Trump possible as well. The Democrats, who control the movement at present, want to limit the aims of the movement to an anti-Trump agenda. Communists need to sharpen their critique of Trump to go beyond the merely superficial differences between Trump and Pelosi/Schumer.

From the major, surface eruptions of a failing system in inexorable crisis like Trump and Brexit, to the more localised attempts to overcome stagnation and to repatriate social wealth from the public to the private, like the assaults on national, public education, the question is how do we theorise and the dissent, organise and resist on structural/theoretical and concrete/local levels? It is inside and across education that this currently exercises me. What does this mean for those who labour inside schools and universities? What does it mean for the curriculum? How is the field of struggle widened out beyond the classroom?

This recognises the discussions about whether, in the current moment, Trump is weak and incompetent or enacting a frightening escalation that could presage a coup. However, in either analysis we must seek to grapple with Brian O’Neill’s echo of Jehu:

So far, sadly, the opposition to the order has been a kind of unreason, too. It has substituted the cool, tough, political critique of the order that we need with its own brand of fearmongering and the deployment of an ahistorical dread about the return of Nazism.

Our response needs to engage with: the relationship between education and the State; the value and purpose of our everyday interactions with students and their families/communities; the ways in which education enables the social metabolic reproduction of both capitalism and the capital system; and what is to be done as a pedagogic project at the level of society. Simply engaging in refusing the TEF or promoting no borders or whichever rearguard-tactical-response, without a theoretical analysis of why we are in this hateful space, simply leaves us at the mercy of the next demagogue, howsoever they smile whilst issuing kill lists or refusing to disclose whether any detainees have been victims of sexual violence inside Yarl’s Wood or banning visas for refugees from Iraq for six months or wrongly deporting 48,000 students, and on and on and on. And simply looking at Trump as the distilled moment of this excess enables us to continue-on, wilfully ignorant of our own place in the reproduction of oppression.

Moreover, to expect that we can outsource the solution to the next set of politicians is naïve: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Marx, Communist Manifesto). In part this is because the State functions inside-and-for capitalism and is historically and materially contingent on the capital system. However, struggles between states also act as critical moments of antagonism as they vie to become the state of the capital system as a whole. As István Mészáros notes

Thus the reality is not the elimination of nation-state aspirations but an overheating cauldron of perilous contradictions and antagonisms on a variety of levels, ubiquitously asserting themselves among the given and aspiring nation-states and even within the framework of the state formations invented as the projected solution of past inter-state antagonisms, like the—far from unified—European Union…

The overwhelming historical failure of capital was—and remains—its inability to constitute the state of the capital system as a whole, while irresistibly asserting the imperatives of its system as the material structural determination of societal reproduction on a global scale. This is a massive contradiction. Inter-state antagonisms on a potentially all-destructive scale—as presaged last century by two world wars still without the now fully developed weapons of total self-destruction—are the necessary consequence of that contradiction. Accordingly, the state that we must conquer in the interest of humanity’s survival is the state as we know it, namely the state in general in its existing reality, as articulated in the course of history, and capable of asserting itself only in its antagonistic modality both internally and in its international relations.

A response cannot come from accepting the reduction of individuals to their labour-power alone, as is evidenced in State-based proscriptions from both left and right, and in Capital’s desire to subsume all activity under the labour theory of value. Any such response, whether it is about no borders and the free movement of people (as human capital) or the human rights of refugees that are horrifically ignored because they have no market-value (recalling the New Car Recall scene in Fight Club), have to be situated against new forms of social solidarity that are rooted in directional demands and that emerge from new readings of equality, democracy and co-operation.

We can only read issues of equality, democracy and co-operation as they emerge historically and materially from the economic system in which they are subsumed and re-purposed, in this instance the distribution and ownership of labour-power as a commodity. Inside capitalism this then leads to all manner of objectionable ways of categorising individuals based on their human, social, intellectual, cognitive capital, or their being lazy, subhuman or second-class, or their re-composition as skilled/menial workers, whilst all the time we are proletarianised and stripped of our humanity.

Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing else is seen in them, everything else being ignored.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime need; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!

Marx, K. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme.

This is, of course, important in the USA where Yonatan Zunger argues that amongst other groups academics will come under duress (through funding restrictions, issues to do with tenure etc.) ‘because they’re part of those “elites” which are a convenient target for blame, and are also likely to be vocal opponents of the regime.’ Enclosures of academic freedom will be made necessary, in order to decommission the “expertariat” that is seen to threaten the true freedom of the market. And we have already seen Professor Watch-Lists.

We have seen the attack on experts and intellectuals in the UK too, and the denigration of teachers as professionals alongside the reduction of the curriculum to economic outcomes and value-oriented services, which demand performance management and perpetual assessment, and that lead to embodied illness and mental health under siege. And so we might ask, whether being on the streets to question Trump and to push back against State visits is enough? Or whether this is a counter-hegemonic moment when the failing system reveals its antagonism towards humanity as anything other than human capital. And we might ask about the role of educators and students in organising a new social movement, with new directional demands, which lie beyond the organised labour movement and instead coalesce as a new labour movement of the under/over/precariously employed and those who labour for the social reproduction and care of society more widely.

A social movement is a counter-force within an arena of power. At its best a counter-force destabilizes that arena and creates social and political openings, in the moment and in its wake. The longer a crowd exists the more dangerous it becomes. It’s there, in those openings, that we find fertile ground for broad and interpersonal solidarity, trust, dreams of the future, collective desire for anything. That is where we build our positive prescription, our visions. Meaningful, useful dreams are only dreamt in struggle, in the spaces opened and left behind by the fight.

After the fall, Communiqués from occupied California

Such a movement focuses upon critiques of equality, democracy and co-operation in governance, and takes the rejection of the market and of competition, and the mediations of exchange value, private property and the division of labour, as a pedagogic project to be grappled with at the level of society. As such it reinvents the curriculum-as-praxis inside and outside of the classroom. This is the moment at which we attempt to shape a curriculum that is beyond borders, through engagement with the voices of delegitimised academics and students, which make clear how the ongoing colonisation of the curriculum by capital is reflected in its explicit links to colonial repression.

Thus, in responding to social vulnerability, there is a need for those who labour inside the university as academics and students to re-imagine new, public forms of HE. One possibility is through engagement with the voices of delegitimised academics and students, which make clear how the ongoing colonisation of the curriculum by capital is reflected in its explicit links to colonial repression. Such a revelation is a search for radical democracy inside the university, framed by research-engaged teaching and learning that is deliberately militant, public and counter-hegemonic. This positions the curriculum as contingent upon, and sensitive to, societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions, with recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts, and expectations. This is a pedagogical project at the level of society.

Hall, R and Smyth, K. 2016. Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education.

A pedagogical project at the level of society. As a counter-hegemonic project.

Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions

I have a chapter in an edited collection called Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions. The Sense Publishers website contains previews of the first two chapters.

My chapter is entitled: Against Academic Labour and the Dehumanisation of Educational Possibility.

The volume is part of a series on Professional Life and Work, and is edited by Tim Rudd and Ivor Goodson.

The flyer for the volume, with contents, is here.

The context and focus/key areas from the original proposal are appended below.


This edited collection of papers illustrates the continued weaknesses and failings of neoliberal education. It highlights the paradoxes in the broader arguments used to substantiate its perpetuation and intensification, and the striking deficiencies and flaws of its central tenets and mechanisms. The collection provides examples of a range of alternative systems, discourses and action in order to illustrate and re-imagine possible alternatives that can challenge the current ‘orthodoxy’ and taken for granted assumptions that have dominated educational debates in the ‘age of austerity’.

It is argued that the proliferous nature of neo liberalism has seeped into core educational debates and practice to such an extent that mainstream, and arguably ideologically informed, discourse regarding the purpose and direction of education largely ignores, and deflects discussions away from, potentially viable alternatives. This ‘hegemonic newspeak’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 2001) becomes normalised and actualised through discourse symbolically pronouncing a new ‘knowledge society’, which is accompanied by an ideological fetishism surrounding ‘school improvement’, ‘school effectiveness’ and ‘educational change’. However, the concomitant ‘logic’ suggests such goals can only be delivered through dogged adherence to a set of externally imposed ‘standards’, driven by new forms of educational ‘leadership’ and embedded in practice through managerialist practices orientated toward abstract performativity measures.

Yet the paradox in the discourse is clear. Despite decades of policy initiatives aimed at driving up ‘standards’ and delivering ‘educational improvement’, neo liberal policies have served to work to the contrary. Inequalities continue to be reproduced and exacerbated. The extent of system and school improvements and effectiveness remain questionable at best, even when measured against the rigid, limited and abstract measures imposed upon education. Other, potentially more meaningful, signifiers of educational quality have been marginalised in favour of rigid, technicist abstractions that remain incapable of delivering wider change and development. Educators professional autonomy is increasingly being diverted toward an instrumentalist servicing of managerial accountability functions, which ironically have little to do with the qualitative processes of education. As a result we are seeing an increasingly demoralised and de-professionalised workforce. The ‘paradox of performativity’ is that moral and professional commitment and autonomy are eroded, which in turn are detrimental to quality and performance. This in turn raises questions as to whether the wider motivations and dogged pursuit of performativity measures are actually intended to de-professionalise and de-stabilise education as an essential condition to ensure further privatisation is publicly viable. In short, neo liberal education is fundamentally flawed and its logic misplaced, or perhaps misdirected.

Focus and key areas

A range of key elements and aspects that are central signifiers of neo liberal education are explored and critiqued, alongside an exposition of alternative systems, discourse, approaches and practice, and a range of theoretical and conceptual representations.

These include: accountability, performativity and managerialism; forms of measurement, assessment and attainment; critique of learning outcomes and accountability; the marketization and increasing corporate sponsorship of education; privatisation, educational commodification and educational policies; free schools; academies and provider-consumer relationships and ‘logic’ in higher education; profit, labour and surplus; the role of students and educators; dehumanising education and alienation; freedom, choice, commodification; global education reform movements and reproduction; inequality, power, freedom, choice and repressive ideology; historical perspectives on neo liberal education; refraction, variation, neo liberalism and professional knowledge; flexi-schooling; co-operative alternatives; deschooling; and humanist education.

on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

ONE. Universities as tools of economic progress and social mobility.

The HE Bill reaching the Lords has catalysed a fresh discussion around ideas, first, of the University itself, and second, of academic freedom. These are the perceived form/purpose and content of our higher education system. Lord Wolf’s first amendment to the proposed Bill sought to specify what a university is understood to be, and attempted to stitch into this an idea of autonomy and freedom.

UK universities: functions

(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.

(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives.

(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.

(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.

Contestation in the Lords, and between Lords and Commons, reveals the extent to which policymakers are struggling to make higher education fully subservient to the needs of the wider economy. Moreover, it reveals the constrained position of the opposition to the Bill within this dominant, economic narrative. This is a moment in which education as a fulfilling life-activity, or a process of emancipatory self-actualisation is subsumed and then transformed, precisely because that wider economy has been stagnating for almost a decade, with low levels of profitability and investment, and as a result weak growth and productivity. Moreover, it risks further contraction in the face of Brexit.

As the economic base of society weakens, the infrastructure that emerges from it and which helps shape it is damaged. The on-going (historical) narrative that seeks to re-engineer (materially) universities/higher education by subsuming them explicitly under processes for generating economic growth was re-emphasised by Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, in his response to the first Committee day in the Lords.

[T]here is an urgent need for innovation, particularly in the form of flexible programmes with strong employer engagement offering faster routes into work than the traditional three-year residential degree programme.

For too many high quality new institutions able to do just this, however, the path to degree awarding powers is blocked by inherently anti-competitive requirements that force them to find a competitor who will ‘validate’ their provision before they can issue their own degrees.

This Bill will make it easier for a new generation of institutions to cater to the aspirations of a new generation of learners and deliver the skills necessary to keep our economy globally competitive, while maintaining the high standards that underpin its international reputation.

It will also ensure that ensure that our universities are delivering for the students and families who invest so much in a university education. Those paying £9,000 per year deserve value for money and this Bill will deliver it.

We will not tell universities what or how to teach, but we will demand that their teaching delivers good outcomes, in the form of students who complete their degrees and progress to highly skilled employment.

One thing, though, will not change through these reforms and that is our commitment to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, the essential attributes for the enduring success of any system of higher education.

This Bill is no grab for control of an autonomous sector.

This is a Bill that consistently recognises and protects that autonomy. And it does so while removing a regulatory system from a bygone era, and replacing it with framework that can truly respond to the challenges of the 21st Century.

Jo Johnson: We must break open the higher education closed shop. Conservative Home. 10 January 2017.

This is a call for re-engineering the terrain of higher education by: innovating in the creation of new academic commodities through which students and their families, operating as firms, can invest in their own human capital (as self-exploiting entrepreneurs); speeding-up the circulation of those academic commodities by overcoming practices that are inherently anti-competitive; connecting the purpose of higher education and universities to the realities of the global economy, and hence of monopoly finance capital; and focusing teaching on good outcomes, as defined by degree-completion and progress to highly skilled employment. Johnson’s claim to recognise and protect institutional autonomy can only be situated inside these political economic realities, which are themselves shaped by an on-going (secular) crisis of capitalism.

One of the manifestations of that economic crisis is how it continues to leach (toxically) into the politics of higher education, and the social relationships that define the university and its perceived autonomy. Those who argue for maintaining academic autonomy, in terms of the management and governance of standards, regulation and quality, situate that plea against a diverse ecosystem of providers that “can create, develop and teach an incredibly wide range of courses that meet the needs of over 2 million students and responds to the workforce needs of the country.” A struggle over standards and regulation, as mediations of autonomy, is a struggle over power and is a political manifestation of an economic reality that grounds the university in the production, circulation and accumulation of capital. Thus, Lord Stevenson, shadow higher education minister in the House of Lords, argued that:

Universities across the world have multiple and complex roles in society – something from which we all gain. They are at their best when they are autonomous independent bodies, with the freedom to develop a range of missions and practices. While at the same time being public institutions, although not in the public sector, they serve both the knowledge economy and the knowledge society, and are tools of economic progress and social mobility.

Moreover, he then situated academic freedom against that reality of universities as tools of economic progress and social mobility. Stevenson went on:

Universities also use the precious safe harbour of academic freedom to seek for truth wherever it is to be found, and publish it for all to see and discuss. They transmit and project the values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity that are key to civilisation in our increasingly globalised world.

TWO. Objectification for-profit

Those values that universities allegedly transmit and project stand on shaky ground (witness struggles and occupations on campuses that protest: first, labour rights, casualization and precarity; second, the implementation of the TEF; third, rent hikes; fourth, cops on campus; fifth, Rhodes Must Fall; and so on). Those same values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity are framed within a specific capitalist formulation and re-production of the world, which has a limited toleration for dissent. This is made starker as the overall (lack of) profitability of the economy defines what can be tolerated.

This is amplified by a further amendment to the Bill in the Lords. As Andrew McGettigan notes, the second amendment “on the establishment of universities – opens with two clauses that will hurt the government further with their bar on profit.”

(1) UK universities must be bodies corporate, primarily located in the United Kingdom, and established on a not-for-profit basis.

(2) UK universities are public bodies, contributing to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at high levels of excellence.

Johnson continually fudges the main issue – access to public funding. What the new providers want is subsidies for their profit-making.

In the wider political economic realities inside which higher education and universities are reproduced, the first two amendments are inextricably linked. What can autonomy and freedom possibly mean inside organisations that are themselves objectified for-profit, and inside which the logic of money (as debt, surplus, external income, consultancy, spin-off or spill-over and so on) is so dominant?

this process of objectification in fact appears as a process of dispossession from the standpoint of labour or as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital.

Marx, K. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Penguin: London.

The values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity, and the potential for autonomy and freedom, and their social potential rather than their fetishized position inside objectified institutions, ought to aim at the enrichment of the human being, for her inner, socialised wealth rather than her private enrichment.

The need for money… the true need produced by the modern economic system, and it is the only need which the latter produces.

Marx, K. 1844. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Increasingly money replaces the real object and dominates the subject. In it needs and powers coincide in an abstract way: only those needs are recognized as real needs by an alienated society which can be bought by money i.e. which are within the reach and power of money.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 179.

What is hidden, or revealed, depending on the level of analysis is the idea/purpose and content of the university as it is structured through its (academic) labour. As István Mészáros notes in his work on Marx’s theory of Alienation, as capitalistically-structured activity, labour is the ground of all alienation, structured through human activity, the division of labour, commodity exchange and private property. The socio-historical mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour infect the university just as they do any other firm, and education as they do any sector of the economy. What the HE and Research Bill seeks to do is to amplify this process of objectification, such that academic labour is increasingly alienated.

Many of the rebuttals of the proposed Bill are manifestations of moments of alienation, through which productive activity (and hence the development of self-consciousness) is objectified. Thus, Warwick for Free Education stated: “We are at a truly pivotal moment for higher education. This government is set to usher in the full marketisation of the sector, with devastating consequences for both students and staff.” In announcing the NUS’s NSS boycott, Sorana Vieru argued:

there’s one more myth that has to be busted – that this government cares about students. In parliament on Monday, pushed on the link between TEF and fees, Jo Johnson MP said that he had heard no voices in the education sector speaking out against the link between TEF and fees. Either Johnson can’t hear our voices, has forgotten meeting us to talk about the TEF or he doesn’t see us as part of the system.

Not content with dismissing our existence, Johnson has also conceded that these metrics are not perfect and are instead part of a “pilot”. If this doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about this government’s attitude to students I don’t know what will. An experiment with our education, warned against by experts, which will skyrocket fees, change the face of the education sector and potentially close institutions down.

Cares, attitudes and needs are shaped by productive activity, in the form of academic labour, which produces an alienated consciousness that reflects alienated activity. It reflects our labour’s self-alienation.

Thus, throughout much of this discussion there is an idealisation of the abstract (economic, productive, entrepreneurial) individual. As Mészáros argues (ibid., p. 81), ‘In place of man’s [sic.] “consciousness of his species” we find a cult of privacy and an idealization of the abstract individual.’ This idealisation is rooted in the governing mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour, through which, first the university is being re-engineered (subsumed), and second, the cares, attitudes and needs of students and staff (as forms of autonomy) are further alienated. Overcoming these alienated mediations and transcending, overcoming or suppressing alienation depends not on abstracted ideals of academic freedom or institutional autonomy, or fetishized values locked inside institutions that are being made unsustainable, but concrete practices aimed at:

The supersession of alienation through the abolition of “alienated mediation” (i.e. from capitalistically institutionalized second order mediation) through the liberation of labour from its reified subjection to the power of things, to “external necessity”, and through the conscious enhancing of man’s “inner need” for being humanely active and finding fulfilment for the powers inherent in him in his productive activity itself as well as in the human enjoyment of the non-alienated products of his activity [sic.]

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 91-2.

Or as Lenin argued (General Works, Vol 38), this work aims at transforming the practically alienated relation of man to his objective essence, revealed though private property – commodity exchange – division of labour.

THREE. Paradise lost

So our responses to these processes are the revelation of the objectification and alienation of our work as they are intensified through capitalist crisis. Our screams of outrage at the lack of attention to our cares or needs are a function of the enclosure of this field of possibility. Such enclosure is described for the natural sciences in the process of industrialisation by Mészáros, and we might also reflect on how this academic life is subsumed inside the circuits of capitalist reproduction.

The role of social needs and preferences in scaling down the infinite to the finite is extremely important. However – and this is the point Marx is making – in an alienated society the process of scaling down itself, since it is “unconsciously” determined by a set of alienated needs, is bound to produce further alienation: the subjection of man to increasingly more powerful instruments of his own making. The structure of scientific production is basically the same as that of fundamental productive activity in general (all the more because the two merge into one another to a considerable extent): a lack of control of the productive process as a whole; an “unconscious” and fragmented mode of activity determined by the inertia of the institutionalised framework of the capitalistic mode of production; the functioning of “abstractly material” science as a mere means to predetermined, external, alienated ends. Such an alienated natural science finds itself between the Scylla and Charibdis of its “autonomy” (i.e. the idealisation of its “unconscious”, fragmentary character) and its subordination as a mere means to external, alien ends (i.e. gigantic military and quasi-military programmes, such as lunar flights). Needless to say, the subjection of natural science as a mere means to alien ends is by no means accidental but necessarily connected with its fragmented, “autonomous” character, and, of course, with the structure of alienated productive activity in general. Since science develops in a fragmented, compartmentalised framework, it cannot conceivably have overall aims which, therefore, have to be imposed on it from outside.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 102-03.

This lack of control, fragmentation and abstraction of possibility, through which capital defines and repurposes autonomy as alienated activity (private property – commodity exchange – division of labour) is contrasted with the ‘twofold alienation of the sphere of speculative thinking’, such as philosophy. Here we might think of the ways in which autonomy and freedom are constricted through the fragmentation and abstraction of disciplines and institutions, under the iron law of competition. Thus, alienation extends:

(1) from all practice – including the, however alienated, practice of natural science – and (2) from other theoretical fields, like political economy, for instance. In its speculative “universality” philosophy becomes an “end in itself” and “for itself”, fictitiously opposed to the realm of means: an abstract reflection of the institutionalised alienation of means from ends. As a radical separation from all other modes of activity philosophy appears to its representatives as the only form of “species-activity”, i.e. as the only form of activity worthy of man as a “universal being”. Thus instead of being a universal dimension of all activity, integrated in practice and in its various reflections, it functions as an independent (“verselbständigt”) “alienated universality”, displaying the absurdity of this whole system of alienations by the fact that this fictitious “universality” is realised as the most esoteric of all esoteric specialities, strictly reserved for the alienated “high priests” (the “Eingeweihten”) of this intellectual trade.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 103.

Thus, as described for the natural sciences and philosophy under industrial production, so we might analyse the entrepreneurial university and the teaching excellence of fragmented disciplines. As a result, we see the private property of intellectual or cognitive capital, made productive through commodity exchange, and reinforced through the division of labour that is reproduced as precarious employment or performance management or teaching-only contracts. The lack of a theoretical position taken by those who practice academic labour (and the general lack of praxis that emerges inside universities except in specific, exceptional circumstances) leaves discussions over autonomy, freedom, and the values that universities allegedly transmit and project as a form of academic labour’s self-alienation.

If the “abstractly material” character of the particular natural sciences is linked to a productive activity fragmented and devoid of perspectives, the “abstractly contemplative” character of philosophy expresses the radical divorce of theory and practice in its alienated universality. They represent two sides of the same coin: labour’s self-alienation manifest in a mode of production characterised by Marx and Engels as “the unconscious condition of mankind”.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 103.

This position is reinforced because the form of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour that is reproduced through academic labour reinforces what Marx called ‘Movable property’s civilised victory’. This is the uncontested truth that the increasingly globalised world, shaped by transnational competition and dominated by monopoly finance capital, demands the production and circulation of material and immaterial commodities as the pure expression of capital. Marx argued that this process reveals capital’s strong points (beyond its weak ones, such as its surface immorality like the reduction of student life to employability) but that in the process of its becoming fully-developed labour is more fully estranged or alienated.

This underpins the possibility of overcoming such an estrangement from what it means to be human, in particular where alienation is revealed as ways of living that are being made unsustainable. This might include the increases in student debt, the increase in precarious employment or casualization, the reduction in costs (wages) of teaching at the expense of investment in capital infrastructure and buildings, the intolerance of dissenting positions on campus, and so on. For Marx, this reveals the tensions between marketised, economised existence that is predicated on the ‘increasing value of the world of things’ at the expense of the ‘devaluation of the world of men’. The questions are whether that world can be superseded, and what is the role of the University in that overcoming?

FOUR. Sociality: overcoming a terrain of alienation?

Human nature (“sociality”) liberated from institutionalized egoism (the negation of sociality) will supersede “reification”, “abstract labour”, and “imaginary appetites”. it is not difficult to see that as long as competition is the governing power of production, or in other words, so long as “cost-effectiveness” is the overriding principle of productive activity, it is quite impossible to consider the worker as a man at the various stages and phases of the cycle of production. Human activity under the conditions of competition is bound to remain wage-labour, a commodity submitted to the “natural law” of the objective, independent needs of competition. Similarly, it is easy to see the relevance of the supersession of competition to the achievement of the human requirements of the self-fulfilling activity (as opposed to “abstract labour”, the negation of sociality) and to the elimination of “imaginary appetites”.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 149-50.

The life of the university is increasingly regulated and governed as coerced activity. It is against this reality that thinking of academic freedom or university autonomy becomes meaningless through its particularity rather than its universality. This is because projecting such states or values into a wider society that is itself grounded in coerced activity is meaningless. Moreover, what is being projected into society is the value of abstract labour (for entrepreneurship or employability or knowledge economy) rather than concrete, human activity (to tackle crises of social reproduction like climate change or poverty). The key is less fetishized autonomy and freedom inside universities, and more a struggle for universal overcoming ‘in the political form of the emancipation of the workers’ (Marx).

Freedom, academic or otherwise, needs to be focused on a transcendence of alienation in social practice, and a recognition that achieving freedom or autonomy can only be derived from sociality constructed through social processes and activities. This is our common ability to do and our comprehensive social practice. It is only by overcoming the mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour across a social terrain, rather than in the objectified setting of reified academic practice, that something more socially-useful might be enacted. This means opening-up a terrain for directional demands and the social strike, rooted in association and negating the idea that freedom is either transcendental or exists by the grace of another human being. What we strive for here is the ‘self-mediated being of nature and of man’ (Marx).

This self-mediated being stands against the mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour.

‘privatization’ means abstracting (in practice) from the social side of human activity. If, however, the social activity of production is an elementary condition for the human existence of the individual (with his increasingly complex and socially embedded needs), this act of abstracting – whatever form it might take – is necessarily alienation, because it confines the individual to his ‘crude solitariness’. Society is man’s ‘second nature’, in the sense in which the original natural needs are transformed by it and at the same time integrated into an enormously more extensive network of needs which are all together the product of socially active man. To abstract therefore from this aspect of man in the cult of the self as opposed to social man amounts to the cult of an oversimplified alienated self, because the true self of the human being is necessarily a social self, whose nature is ‘outside itself’, i.e. it defines itself in terms of specific and immensely complex interpersonal, social  relations.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 174-5.

This is defined through forms of sociality that refuse the spiritual and physical dehumanisation of commodity production. Here the praxis of those who labour in higher education (staff and students) matters because the space needs to open-out to bleed into society beyond the commodity production for the knowledge economy, the fragmented division of academic labour and the subsumption of academic life inside private property and intellectual property. This is a practical task of generating and sustaining self-conscious human activity, as opposed to alienation from our work, its products, nature and the world, our species-being or our peers, and ourselves.

the fight against alienation is the struggle to rescue humans from ‘the extension of products and needs falls into contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites.’ This alienated state which is characterized not only by the artificial ‘refinement of needs’ but also by ‘their artificially produced crudeness’, makes a mockery of man’s desires to extend his powers in order to enable himself to realize human fulfilment, because this increase of power amounts to the ‘extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected’.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 179.

For Mészáros , teaching is central to this project of becoming self-mediating because it expresses a specific relation to a specific, historically concrete alienated object. The practice of teaching, and enabling anyone to teach, raises consciousness (as opposed to alienated consciousness of commodity production) as a human society. This is not the consciousness of a negation (of alienation) but of a positivity (of human nature divorced from the mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour).

At the moment the realization of academic freedom as academic purpose is impossible because it is simply the means to an abstract, financialised end. Overcoming this is rooted in forms of sociality that are grounded in social wealth and the ‘rich human being’ and ‘rich human need’. This is a totality of life-activities, the realisation of which exists as an inner necessity, as need (Marx). This is also the integration of the private and public in ways that resist objectification and alienation, in order to overcome ways of being that are made increasingly unsustainable through hegemonic economic directives. This is a world for:

the real human individual and the unity of opposites (public/private, production/consumption, doing/thinking, means/ends), without which there can be no overcoming of alienation. Private life has to acquire the practical consciousness of its social embeddedness, but also that personal life has to be personalised; also creative/productive/enriching consumption, and enjoyable production; subjectless, abstract having must acquire a concrete being; practical thinking related to the real (non-alienated) need of humans; doing that has lost its unconscious coercive character and become self-conscious free activity.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 185-6

It is here that the struggles for university autonomy or academic freedom matters because education is the critical terrain for self-mediation. Such self-mediation embraces and relates first, activities that give life meaning across a social context, and second, the needs, attitudes and cares that reinforce that meaning as self-consciousness. This takes the form of self and social educating; it is the overcoming of the domination of externality (private property – commodity exchange – division of labour). Thus, these struggles matter where they are related to social forms of autonomy and freedom as universal self-mediation. They matter where they are the beginning of a refusal of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour, rather than an affirmation.

DMU Research Seminar: Immanence in learning

You are warmly invited to the next DMU IEF (Institute for Education Futures) Research Seminar

Title: Immanence in learning

Researcher: Jason Eyre

Date: 18th January 2017, 4.00 – 5.00pm

Location: Hawthorn Building, Room 0.07

Immanence in learning

This paper represents a work in progress. It seeks to present an account of learning which places the emphasis not on the content of what is learned, but rather on the context in which that learning takes place – the when, where and who. Taking a philosophical approach, the paper will argue that the goal of a marketised higher education sector has largely been achieved. However, conceptualising higher education as a commodity requires a stable and predictable ‘product’ that can be standardised and measured to enable its marketing, sale and consumption. Higher learning, by contrast, is highly contested with the various actors (institutions, disciplines, learners) all approaching the learning process with their own motivations and values.

What emerges is an educational milieu characterised by the interplay of forces (Nietzsche), each of which enters into relation with the others based on its own genealogical context (its past), and with an anticipation of its own telos (its future). The domain in which these forces come into relation with one another is the here and now, a spatio-temporal present that constitutes an ever-emerging plane of immanence (Deleuze). We can thereby begin to understand learning in higher education not as the simple transfer and accumulation of knowledge or know-how, but rather as a perpetual negotiation of what emerges as the present. This conceptual shift in turn may permit new and potentially fruitful ways of engaging with the idea of learning in the contemporary university.

Social co-operatives and the democratisation of higher education

With Joss Winn, I’m presenting at the Co-operative Education and Research Conference 2017. The abstract is presented below.

Higher education in the UK is in crisis. The idea of the public university is under assault, and both the future of the sector and its relationship to society are being gambled. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is resolutely instrumental. Moreover, the intellectual leadership of HE is situated within a competitive, transnational political and economic context, and this reproduces academic practices through marketization and financialisation.

This paper develops a critical analysis of ‘intellectual leadership’ in the University, and identifies on-going efforts from around the world to create alternative models for organising HE and the production of knowledge. It offers the potential for developing an alternative conception of the role and purpose of HE that is rooted in the idea of ‘mass intellectuality’. This takes experiences and views from inside and beyond the structures of mainstream HE, in order to reflect critically on efforts to create really existing alternatives.

In the process the authors ask if it is possible to re-imagine the University democratically and co-operatively? If so, what are the implications for leadership not just within the University but also in terms of higher education’s relationship to society? The authors argue that an alternative role and purpose is required, based upon the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge. Thus, the paper concludes with a critical-practical response grounded in the form of ‘co-operative higher education’. This rests on the assertion that ‘social co-operatives’ offer an organizational form that values democratic participation and decision-making and would constitute the university as a social form of mass intellectuality re-appropriated by the producers of knowledge.

The really open university: working together as open academic commons

I have been asked to speak at the Brookes Learning Teaching Conference 2017. I love this kind of invite, which enables a testing of ideas and a lot of listening to the practices, activities and hopes of others. My abstract is detailed below. The talk enables me to return to that practical work I was engaged with in 2010-12, around the idea of/re-imagining the university. It also enables me to reflect on my recent work inside the University, on commons and co-operative practices.

This talk questions the role of pedagogic scholarship and innovation in addressing global crises of social reproduction. It argues that working together has both possibilities and impossibilities, which need a richer discussion inside the University.

In the past decade, fall-out from the Browne Review has given birth to a number of alternative education projects. These alternatives focused on creating spaces and curricula that prefigure more democratic ways of doing higher education, in which the boundaries between student and teacher are dissolved and where co-operation and peer-projects between scholars become fundamental. Examples include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Really Open University in Leeds. These projects developed grounded, co-participatory scholarly communities, which acted as incubators for pedagogies like Student-as-Producer (Neary and Winn 2011; Pusey 2016).

However, they also share characteristics with transnational platforms like #RhodesMustFall and#Whyismycurriculumwhite, in attempting to push back against the structuring logics represented by the curriculum (Hall and Smyth 2016). These platforms also connect to co-operative forms of higher education like Mondragon University in the Basque country, the Little Schools of the Zapatista Movement, and the education sector of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

Reflecting on these alternative forms is helpful in analysing our responses to the crisis of higher education, in order to locate spaces for truly progressive pedagogies inside the university. If such spaces do exist, on what are they based and what is their relationship to the curriculum? How do they enable academics and students to respond to issues of inclusivity and diversity, collaboration and peer production? Three responses may be considered:

  • open, academic commons supporting a sharing economy inside and across a porous interdisciplinary curriculum;
  • safe, scholarly communities of practice, perhaps forming solidarity economies that refuse enclosure; and
  • positioning the university and curriculum within (and against?) the development of ‘mass intellectuality’, or socially-useful knowledge produced outside the university.


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

Neary, M., & Winn, J. (2011). The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In M. Neary & J. Winn (Eds.), The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience (pp. 192–210). Continuum. Retrieved from

Pusey, A. (2016). Pusey, A. (2016). Strike, occupy, transform! Students, subjectivity and struggle. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 26(2), 214-32. Retrieved from:

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

<for some to succeed, some have to fail>

The government is trying to create a market in the education system. This … is the right track for reform, but at the moment there’s a risk that we’re building in the potential for market failures too. A functioning market needs enough genuinely new entrants to challenge existing providers, enough capacity for competition to be meaningful, enough information for providers and users alike, ways of breaking up failing or monopolistic providers, and exit points for providers that aren’t doing a good enough job. The direction of travel is the right one, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done.

Nick Timothy. 2016. Talk at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.

<higher education and market downgrades>

Moody’s considers that policy predictability and effectiveness of economic policy-making — an important aspect of institutional strength – might be somewhat diminished as a consequence of the [Brexit] vote. The UK government will not only need to negotiate the UK’s departure from the EU but will likely also aim to embark on significant changes to the UK’s immigration policy, broader trade policies and regulatory policies. While we consider the UK’s institutional strength to be very high, the challenges for policymakers and officials will be substantial.

As a consequence of the weaker GDP growth outlook and institutional strength, the UK’s public finances will also likely be weaker than Moody’s has assumed so far. In Moody’s view, the negative effect from lower economic growth will outweigh the fiscal savings from the UK no longer having to contribute to the EU budget.

Moody’s changes outlook on UK sovereign rating to negative from stable, affirms Aa1 rating

“We would downgrade the UK’s sovereign rating if the outcome of the negotiations with the EU was a loss of access to the Single Market as this would materially damage its medium-term growth prospects”, said Kathrin Muehlbronner, a Moody’s Senior Vice President and the report’s co-author. “A second trigger for a downgrade would be if we were to conclude that the credibility of the UK’s fiscal policy had been tarnished as a result of Brexit or other reasons.”

Moody’s: UK sovereign rating would be downgraded if the UK was unable to conclude an agreement with the EU that protected core elements of its access to the Single Market.

Overall, the forecasts demonstrate a continuation of the themes raised in previous analysis.

<financial capital, volatility and competition>

a. The latest forecasts, for the period 2015-16 to 2018-19, show a widening gap between the lowest- and highest-performing institutions and increasing volatility of forecasts in the sector.

<tightening margins>

b. Sector surpluses are projected to be between 2.3 per cent and 4.3 per cent of total income in the forecast period; these are relatively small margins in which to operate. However, at institutional level, these range from a deficit of 28.6 per cent to a surplus of 21.5 per cent in 2017-18, equivalent to a range of 50.1 per cent (compared with 30.4 per cent in 2014-15).

These are relatively small margins in which to operate, and mean that even small changes in income or costs could have a material impact on the financial performance of institutions and the sector.

<a looming crisis of liquidity and debt>

c. The trend of falling liquidity (cash) and increasing sector borrowing continues in this forecast period. Borrowing levels are expected to exceed liquidity levels in all forecast years, by £49 million at 31 July 2016, increasing to £3.9 billion at 31 July 2019. This trend of increasing borrowing and reducing liquidity is unsustainable in the long term.

Strong liquidity is particularly important given the growing level of uncertainty and risk in the sector and wider economy.

<the rule of recruitment, retention and progression>

d. The sector is projecting fee income from non-EU students to rise from £3.7 billion in 2015-16 to £4.8 billion in 2018-19 (equivalent to 14.9 per cent of total income). Increasing competition from other countries and proposed changes to student immigration rules suggest these projections may be difficult to achieve. This would have a significant adverse impact on the sector’s financial projections. However, the weaker pound may assist the recruitment of overseas students.

e. The sector is projecting high levels of growth in numbers of total home and EU students (10.3 per cent over the forecast period). This level of growth may be a challenge given the decline in the 18 year-old English population, uncertainties over the impacts of Brexit and increases in alternatives to undergraduate courses, such as degree apprenticeships.


f. Significant increases in capital investment are projected. At over £17.8 billion, this represents an average annual investment of £4.5 billion (2015-16 to 2018-19), 51 per cent higher than the previous four-year average. Despite this, nearly a quarter of HEIs in the sector are planning to reduce capital expenditure over the forecast period.

<never-ending fixed capital lulz: surplus, investment, competition>

g. Investment in infrastructure is particularly important given that, in July 2015, the sector estimated that it still needed to invest £3.6 billion into its non-residential estate to upgrade it to a sound baseline condition.

At a time of lower public capital funding, institutions must deploy more of their own resources or raise finance through external borrowing in order to maintain and enhance their infrastructure. This places greater pressure on HEIs to generate higher surpluses to maintain their sustainability.

<tightening of liquidity/access to capital>

h. The uncertainties faced by the sector as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, coinciding with increasing competition in the global HE market, will lead to a greater focus from investors on the underlying financial strength of HEIs. Consequently, any fall in confidence levels could restrict the availability of finance in the sector and put significant elements of the investment programme at risk. Falling confidence levels are also likely to lead to a rise in the cost of borrowing.

It is also important to recognise that the forecasts assume that the capital markets continue to have confidence in the sector, which depends upon their risk assessment of the sector and individual HEIs.

<contexts for labour arbitrage>

i. Aside from the challenges associated with income generation, the sector will face inflationary pressures on costs, particularly staff costs, operating costs and capital investment costs. j. Pension liabilities are expected to increase from £4.9 billion at 31 July 15 to £7.2 billion at 31 July 2016; an increase of 45.8 per cent. This is due to FRS102 which requires liabilities relating to the deficit recovery plans for multi-employer pension schemes to be reflected in institutional balance sheets. However, the latest estimated valuation of the sector’s largest pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), indicates a significant worsening of the deficit, implying further increases in liabilities are likely

<stranded capital and market exit: thanks for playing>

The significant level of uncertainty in the HE sector and UK economy, as well as the need to sustain a higher level of capital investment to respond to growing competition, will require institutions to aim for higher surpluses in future.

This uncertainty is likely to lead to continued volatility and growing variability in the financial performance of institutions, together with a widening gap between the lowest and highest performing HEIs.

HEFCE. 2016. Financial health of the higher education sector: 2015-16 to 2018-19 forecasts.

<de-regulated and beholden to the financial markets>

The report is damning, and the irony won’t be missed that it comes at a time when the role of the funding council in safeguarding the financial sustainability of the sector is being replaced by a ‘let the market decide’ approach. While the government has its oen [sic.] logic for this approach and is implementing some measures to protect students in the case of ‘market exit’, it will come as a shock to universities that the oversight, guidance and practical – financial – support previously offered by HEFCE may no longer be available in their hour of need.

Indeed, it is new for HEFCE to use such strong and foreboding language about the overall state of HE. Previous iterations of these forecasts have been far more positive about the sector’s financial situation and have smoothed over cracks with reasonable rhetoric. But HEFCE is either no longer willing, or no longer able, to spin such a rosy picture.

The HEFCE report shows the grim state of affairs in which universities find themselves: the short-term diagnosis is one of stability – the 2014-15 numbers were healthy enough – but the prognosis is poor. Expect a need for some serious remedial action in board rooms across the land.

Bagshaw. A. 2016. Getting worse: HEFCE’s bleak prognosis for university finances.

<global labour arbitrage>

Insecure working practices now permeate every section of our society. Although students probably don’t realise it, most of them are taught at some point, perhaps even for majority of their time at university, by people on insecure casual contracts. Some universities have been accused of trying to ape the worst practices of the likes of Sport Direct.

The exploitative use of casualised contracts – including hourly-paid, part-time and even zero-hours ones – breeds insecurity and stress, and forces people to work long hours for poor pay. Many work for more than one university to make ends meet. It cannot be right that the people teaching our students are constantly anxious, not knowing from year-to-year, term-to-term, or even month-to-month, whether they will have a job or how much they might earn.

Inevitably, casualisation has an impact on education. US research demonstrates that students who take large numbers of courses with teachers employed on insecure contracts, or who are in institutions with large numbers of non-permanent staff, tend to graduate at a lower rate and are more likely to drop out of college.

Hunt, S. 2016. Tef: dump the pointless metrics and take a hard look at casualisation.

<fuck college>

as the terms innovation and disruption become mainstream there are still pockets of discovery value for investors in the world today. From curing cancer with the cloud to solving space to creating an alternative to fossil fuel in lithium, opportunities abound for those willing to look beyond today’s headlines. The world is changing as a new generation (Gen-Z) is poised to take the mantle from Millennials while the payback for college becomes harder to justify.

The average return on going to college is falling. For the typical student the number of years to break even on the cost of college has grown from 8 years in 2010 to 9 years today. If current cost and wage growth trends persist then students starting college in 2030/2050 will have to wait 11/15 years post college to break even. 18 year olds starting college in 2030 with no scholarship or grants will only start making a positive return when they turn 37.

Graduates studying lower paying majors such as Arts, Education and Psychology face the highest risk of a negative return. For them, college may not increasingly be worth it.

<enterprising human capital>

Corporates may have to do more themselves and develop their own talent identification systems. New entrants and business models are emerging to meet some of these challenges.

the vacancy rate does imply that the increased need for specialization is a factor and that the labor market is moving faster than education can respond. Arguing against this is the threat from artificial intelligence to pattern recognition and human decision making jobs (47% of total US employment is at risk from computerization according to a recent Oxford University study). This hollowing out of the labor market risk makes future-proofing very difficult, but there is a clear growth opportunity in professional training.

When it comes to money and finances, Gen-Z and Millennials hardly resemble one another. While Millennials are often cast as the “follow your dreams at all costs” generation, Gen-Z appears acutely focused on the financial consequences of their decisions. TD Ameritrade’s 2nd Annual Generation Z survey, for example, revealed that 46% are worried about accruing student loan debt while a study by Adecco showed that Gen-Z’ers are more concerned about the cost of education than Millennials. Meanwhile, sixty percent of Gen-Z believes that “a lot of money” is evidence of success, while only 44% of Millennials believe the same (Cassandra Report).

In combination with their financial conservatism, Gen-Z is also entrepreneurial.

Boroujerdi, R.D., and Wolf., C. 2015. Themes, Dreams and Flying Machines. Goldman Sachs Equity Research.

<against the stagnation of immobile capital>

We’ve written before that despite the protestations of academic insiders, MOOCs have real promise—not just as supplements to brick-and-mortar degree programs, but as viable alternatives for large numbers of students. And a “new system of signaling and talent identification” is sorely needed. A national exam system, in particular, would help level the playing field for students who didn’t want to attend an elite college, or couldn’t afford to.

The current American higher education regime is not working for a huge number of students, and, as this report suggests, those who continue to cling to the status quo are in denial. The system has to change, and it will.

The American Interest. 2016. Goldman Sachs: Higher Ed Ripe for Disruption.

on world-weariness

The reflection in the water showed an iron man still trying to salute
People from a time when he was everything he’s supposed to be
Everything means nothing to me
Everything means nothing to me

Elliott Smith. 2000. Everything means nothing to me.

I’d forgotten that I wrote about academic hopelessness eighteen months ago.

[I]ncreasingly we face an intense sense of Weltschmertz; a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects our deeper sense of hopelessness. Our recognition that the world we hoped for may never be. That the concrete world abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. That the struggle we face to enact kindness is made in the face of those traits that we detest and that we are forced to internalise, lest we be abandoned or worse.

I ended by refusing to look at the positives. I ended by refusing to ignore my refusal. I ended by attempting to validate hopelessness rather than believing against all the odds that somehow it will all work out okay, if we just try harder or push for our shared humanity. If only we believed in higher education.

Instead I wondered:

If only we can learn to sit with our hopelessness. To internalise it. To grieve for it. To move beyond it. To teach it.

It struck me on my walk to work today that I have refused my refusal in the past few months. I have refused to teach myself about my hopelessness. I have ignored the voice inside me which believes that we are fucked. I have attempted to think that our work and our way of living more humanely will eventually save us. Or even if they won’t, and if barbarism or the Age of Kali is all we have, then I will die fighting. And this morning I woke with that sense of Weltschmertz alive inside. That sense of world-weariness or of despair reframing what it means to be angry and frustrated and indignant about the injustice that is all around. A sense of hopelessness that enables me to rethink what it means when I say that I refuse to be indifferent (c.f. Mike Neary). That I might instead be indignant. A sense that indignation might stem from hopelessness.

For a while I have felt that I need to temper my indignation at local, UK issues like the implementation of the teaching excellence framework, with the pragmatics of going into occupation of it in my own institution, in order to effect some work that is participative and about our social life and our relationships rather than exchange-value and the market. I have written about being indignant about the imposition of the TEF and how pedagogic leaders should be refusing it, rather than helping to shape it from the inside. And about how such indignation is exhausting.

And it is exhausting being against this wide-ranging assault on academic labour, academic practice, academic development, and academic identity. It is exhausting realising that their assault on the fabric of what we might refer to as public or social, and then later as a good, is the dismantling of the spaces that we once regarded as autonomous. Equally, it is exhausting bearing the brunt of their anger about our social, cultural, intellectual or oppositional capital. Knowing that their anger kettles our academic practice as staff and students. Knowing that their anger reshapes the funding, regulation and governance of the space, so that what we do has to be restructured so that it performs. Knowing that the marketisation of the space and the on-going demand for competition will force managers inside universities to recalibrate these as places for the expansion of value, and the production of surpluses, and the production of educational commodities.

And as a result, any attempt to push-back, so that education becomes an act of care, or a form of wider moral, pedagogic responsibility beyond the market, and beyond human capital theory, becomes increasingly difficult.

On the HE white paper and academic practice

However, I have also written about how pedagogic leaders should be refusing, and yet they are not. Even worse they are in the game. Defining the game. Situating the game against the student experience or teaching quality or learning environment, rather than going into occupation of those terms/spaces or refusing their co-option for performance management and marketised outcomes.

And I am reminded of Peter Scott’s The Weapons of the Weak, in which he argues for generating currents of ideological resistance that: are collective and organised rather than private and unorganised; are principled and selfless rather than opportunistic and selfish; must have revolutionary consequences; and must negate rather than accept the basis of domination.

It is this last point that increasing vexes me in terms of higher education. Where is the space for the curriculum-as-praxis as a means of negating the basis of domination? Where is the space to critique the governance and content of higher education that is simply more efficiently marketised and financialised? Where is the space to refuse the performance management and performance data and curriculum-for-the-market? Where is the space to refuse the domination of monopoly finance capital over the curriculum and the classroom? And this matters because the conversations that we have still speak of openness and the student experience and our classroom relationships and students-as-partners and co-creation and even emancipation. And yet how strong must the cognitive dissonance be, at whatever level, in order for us to carry on believing that these are ever possible inside the politics of austerity? That these are ever possible inside the rule of money that perverts pedagogic practice?

Inside the toxic domination of the rule of money that perverts pedagogic practice and classroom relationships.

These things we desire.

They. Are. Impossible.

Worse, they are co-opted and occupied and polluted. Expropriated for value.

And yet this is not the seat of my hopelessness. Our compact with the relationships that frame our domination. Our reproduction of the basis of our own domination. These are a reflection of a wider hopelessness rooted in our inability to effect any meaningful engagement in civil society with global emergencies. These are a reflection of a wider hopelessness that is rooted in our inability to overcome the separation of our identities as academic or student, or tenured and non-tenured, or status-whatever and status-whatever, rather than as humans.

And our status-driven lives, insecurities, compromises mean that we are stripped of our ability to work co-operatively (rather than being coerced into competition by an increasingly authoritarian State) on social emergencies, if we engage with these at all. The backdrop to the enclosure of our pedagogical lives and the foreclosure of our futures is situated against the closing-down of our ability through the University to engage with social crises of reproduction. The closing-down of our ability to effect any discussion of environmental crises or the secular crisis of capitalism, or the relations of production that form the basis of our domination. The closing-down of our wider connections to civil society, so that we are unable to discuss #Delhismog and #Delhichokes, or #standingrock, or Larsen A, or Syria, or the prevalence of food banks, or the crisis in children’s mental health, or #blacklivesmatter, or #whyisthecurriculumwhite, or whatever.

The closing-down of the University as a space for civics; as a space for a public pedagogy that refuses demonization; the closing-down of the University as a space for anything except value-creation or human capital. So that if we do discuss these things it is in the context of value, enterprise, employability, capitalised student experience. So that we attempt to dance to the tune of political society and the (integral?) State, rather than effecting change in civil society. Or even worse, effecting change in the latter where that contributes to our own performance management.

And this is the space in which my hopelessness emerges. A world-weariness that is beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui. A deeper hopelessness that questions whether we will ever be able to answer “What is to be done?” A deeper hopelessness that believes all I can do is refuse and apply negative critique. A deeper hopelessness in the realisation that our subversion and occupation are not enough, and that in fact they are exhausting. A deeper hopelessness which appreciates that maybe lamentation is required. Sitting with lamentation whilst the anger and frustration and indignation is reproduced and reformed inside. Sitting with the hopelessness and lamentation in order to decide how to address how I might refuse to be indifferent.

Because for the moment there is no space inside higher education to generate alternatives to the basis of our domination, or for the social strike, or for the production and circulation of directional demands. And playing in the margins feels hopeless. And hoping that it will turn out okay feels hopeless. And playing the game according to their rules is hopeless.

So that maybe my hopelessness is the only way in which I can address the world.

So maybe it is only through hopelessness that I can address the world.

What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see
That all I want now is happiness for you and me

Elliott Smith. 2000. Happiness.

notes on the abolition of the #realworldacademic

ONE. The mobilisation of neo-liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glyn Davies MP.

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

Glyn Davies MP.

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

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

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

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

TWO. The #realworldacademic

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

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

This strikes me as being important for three reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE. The political content of the #realworldacademic

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR. On self-abolition

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

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

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relations) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

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

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

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

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers – never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best.

Morgan, G. (2016). Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career. The Sydney Morning Herald.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance.

Email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm, 10 March 2014.

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Email from Stefan Grimm to various associates, 21 October 2014.

ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the higher education sector of the global economy. I wrote about how overwork is revealed through academic quitlit, in narratives about bullying, in discussions of mental health and academia, and, shockingly, through reports of suicides. These narratives and histories enable academics and students to be classified as precarious or without status, or lacking human (cognitive) capital, or even lacking emotional resilience. In this focus on academic overwork there is an intersection between academic ego-identity, control of the human capital that is the life-blood of the reproduction of the University as a competing business, and the internalisation of performance management/anxiety.

I note that what emerges, through the social relations of higher education “is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.” This drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, means that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, the domination of our academic clock-time by productivity becomes a means through which academics and students internalise entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.

TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

Overwork is a filament that enables us to reveal the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, and in particular the production of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army of precariously employed, sessional or casualised staff, or those who have become unemployed or under-employed, conditions the work of those who remain employed inside the University. They also condition those who labour in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to positional employment.

Marx argued that overproduction, or the accumulation of unsalable inventories, affected those who work both as labourers and who are the bearers (or sellers) of labour-power as a commodity. Universities require an abundant supply of appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address issues of demand in the delivery of teaching, scholarship, research and knowledge transfer. The key to increasing the rate of valorisation of capital is the ability to generate surplus value, in its absolute or relative forms, and employing labour-power as cheaply as possible is crucial. This then requires a level of overpopulation or a reserve army of labour that can be used to drive down costs (including wages, staff development costs, pensions and so on).

There are a series of processes that can drive costs down further, and maintain competitive edge in a global market. Universities might become more capital-intensive, by investing in technology and organisational development (restructuring, new workload models and so on). This increases the organic composition of capital, by increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital that is deployed. Clearly, this leads to problems in the production and accumulation of surplus value, which can only be generated through the exploitation of people as workers. As more constant capital or means of production (e.g. in terms of technology) are set in motion by an individual labourer, there is a pressure to economise on labour-power (as a commodity) or to discover new markets. If the higher education sector were to maintain employment as a constant, universities would need to expand (to generate a larger capital to support employment) or a higher rate of accumulation (of surpluses) would be required. Yet as more rapid accumulation has concomitant increase in the organic composition of capital, this produces a “relatively redundant working population” which is underemployed or becomes unemployed. As a result, there is an increasing set of pressures on labourers to remain employable in businesses and sectors that are increasing their organic composition, and this is manifest in the need to demonstrate perpetual entrepreneurialism.

One result of these pressures on organisations and individuals is increased proletarianisation, through precarious employment, or employment that is stripped of its intellectual content (for instance where that content is outsourced or managed on-line, or where staff-student relationships are mediated technologically), or employment that carries limited social security or welfare benefits, or through excessive performance-management and performativity. Over time, and certainly across a sector like higher education that operates on a world market, these processes that are driven by intense competition accelerate this proletarianisation.

In Capital, Marx articulates the formation of the reserve army of labour as a necessary component of the relationship between the forces and relations of production.

in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels.

Marx, K. (1867). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1.

The increases in productivity catalysed through processes of subsumption enable the search for both absolute and relative surplus value, and alter the composition of social capital as well as the scale of the terrain over which it functions (witness the competition for international markets amongst universities and the wailing over immigration related to students). Moreover, these changes in productivity draw in “a number of spheres of production” such that the university becomes a node in a wider, transnational association of capitals or joint venture that is seeking out surpluses. In terms of higher education, the labouring population of academics and students produces both the accumulation of capital, and through capital-intensive activities, “the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous”. As Marx notes, economising and developing the forces of production interrelates with the relations of production, which for many academics and students becomes increasingly precarious. As a result contingent, flexible or part-time labour, and the disciplinary effects of performance management, signals the generation a new, growing relative surplus population that emerges on a global scale. Moreover, this global surplus population conditions those in work to overwork or to reduced labour rights, because there’s always someone cheaper to be exploited.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

However, crucially, for Henryk Grossman, the issue is not borne of the organic composition of capital, rather it is a function of imperfect valorisation.

[T]he formation of the reserve army, is not rooted in the technical fact of the introduction of machinery, but in the imperfect valorisation of capital specific to advanced stages of accumulation. It is a cause that flows strictly from the specifically capitalist form of production. Workers are made redundant not because they are displaced by machinery, but because, at a specific level of the accumulation of capital, profits become too small and consequently it does not pay to purchase new machinery and soon profits are insufficient to cover these purchases anyway

Grossman, H. (1929). Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown.

THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

It is in Marx’s analysis of the composition of the relative surplus population that we see the impact on academic labour through three forms of the relative surplus population. First, the floating or those who are precariously employed, and whose employment is affected by cyclical fluctuations in recruitment or funding, or by the deployment of innovations, or the employment of cheaper (younger) workers. Second, the latent form refers to those whose work is easily transferred across sectors, such as those with menial or leverage skills. Third, the stagnant form consists of very irregular employment on very bad terms. Crucially for Marx is the idea that these three elements of the reserve army of labour, alongside paupers and the lumpenproletariat, in their relationship to the working class, then offer a theory of the internal differentiation of the working class.

One might see this in the status distinctions between tenured, non-tenured, contract and sessional teaching staff, or between institutional bureaucracies, academics and professional service staff, or between full-professors, associate professors, lecturing staff, research fellows and research assistants, and so on. However, one might also use these categories to analyse academic and student overwork in response to: first, the threat of more efficient labour that can attract research or teaching excellence funding; second, the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious; and third, senior managers’ demands that they become perpetually efficient and entrepreneurial. Here the content of academic labour, the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, is reinvented entrepreneurially. New forms of the academic division of labour are internalised, and where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified, worthless or made superfluous. Or their inability to mourn their lost academic egos becomes rooted in melancholia.

The attempt to become superhuman, in generating and offering-up surplus labour time, generates overwork just as it responds to and reinforces the surplus, reserve army of academics. In this process overwork or surplus labour, and the generation of a reserve army, enable universities to generate new models for performance and competition, and for engaging in financialised growth and market-based exploitation.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

As Simon Clarke has noted, in order to compete and to stave off any crisis of accumulation, institutions tend towards technological or organisational innovations by:

  1. increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  2. reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  3. cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  4. stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  5. stimulating internationalisation strategies, in order to enable exports and new markets for accumulation, as well as cheapening the elements of constant and variable capital.

What emerges in any discussion of the political economy of academic labour is that competition, as a function of the need to become productive of value and to accumulate surplus value or surpluses, worsens the position of the worker be she academic or student.

FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

What appears worse is that the inability to survive in this increasingly competitive space becomes the fault of the individual who is to be made unemployed or underemployed. It is a moral duty to work and to remain employable, and never to draw down on social welfare. As Anselm Jappe notes:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves.

Jappe, A. 2014. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. 25(2): 11

Thus, the unemployed are workshy or lazy, or lack willpower, or they are stupid. The idea that unemployment is structural and secular, and that it is rooted in a specific form of  political economy, runs secondary to the individual failings that meant Stefan Grimm was unable “to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post”, or which meant that John was forced to inhabit “the zombie zone” beyond HE.

NOTE: there are many accounts of the psychological and embodied damage caused to individuals in this hegemonic, structural narrative.

There is increasing understanding that individuals are placing themselves at risk of harm, where they are forced to respond to narratives of personal failings in relation to work, and where there is a recalibration of work around flexibility (in work and across markets) and competition. As Davies et al. argue, the increasing insecurity that flows from employment inside sectors and business that are responding to austerity negatively effects physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, where agency or autonomy are low or are removed, for instance where performance management is enacted, stress and anxiety are higher.

There is a critical point here for Davis et al. about the internalisation of failings that results in melancholia about the Self rather than mourning for what has been lost. In academia the accumulation of melancholia is catalysed by performance anxiety.

There is an aspect of melancholia that is absent from mourning, an extraordinary reduction in self-esteem, a great impoverishment of the ego. In mourning the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so. The [melancholic] patient describes his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of functioning and morally reprehensible, he is filled with self-reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment… He does not sense that a change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism to cover the past.

Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning & Melancholia. Penguin, pp. 205–206

Correctives to such a view are marginal, and certainly not to be found in the work of institutional occupational therapy or human resources departments that are focused upon emotional resilience or its relationship to the happiness industry. Such correctives again seek to elevate individual, qualitative narratives, and to stress the social and material causes of distress, and the value of solidarity and collective action.

[S]ocial inequalities that exclude or marginalise contribute significantly to the potential for distress. Poverty, impoverished housing and diet, threatening environments, limited resources, restricted choices, demeaning or poorly-paid employment, discrimination, oppression and scapegoating all cause distress… We are more likely to experience distress the more our experiences are invalidated and the more isolated we become from one another. Equally, the further we are from supportive, nurturing relationships, the more that invalidation and isolation will engender distress. People stripped of ameliorative influences such as a loving, supportive family and friends; comfortable, safe environments; and the trust, support and solidarity of others, are increasingly likely to experience diagnosable distress.

Midland Psychology Group. (2012). Draft manifesto for a social materialist psychology of distress. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 12(2): 96-7.

In response to the apparent suicide of precariously-employed John, Karina has argued the following.

We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.

This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?

And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.

Karina. 2016. A few words. CASA: A Home Online For Casual, Adjunct, Sessional Staff and Their Allies in Australian Higher Education

There is a step beyond this, which for The Institute for Precarious Consciousness takes the form of “a machine for fighting anxiety”. They argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside and outside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. Here describing the relationship between overwork and the surplus population of academic labour is simply a starting point.