On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality

I have just submitted a manuscript, “On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality” to tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society. The abstract is given below, but the MS is part of a special issue on academic labour, digital media and capitalism. 

Situated in this economic and political context, the overall task of this special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique is to gather critical contributions examining universities, academic labour, digital media and capitalism. We are thus particularly interested in articles focusing on (1) the context, history and theoretical concepts underlying academic labour, (2) the relationship between academic work and digital media/new information and communication technologies/the Internet/social media and (3) the political potentials and challenges within higher education.

My submission focuses upon the links between: the proletarianisation of the university; the life-wide mediations of our alienated labour; the hopelessness that such alienation catalyses; and the possibilities that mass intellectuality offers for new forms of sociability. This connects to the book that I am working on for Palgrave Macmillan on the alienated academic.

In particular, I have been drawn to the following work through this submission:

  • Clarke, Simon. 1991. Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology: From Adam Smith to Max Weber. London: Palgrave. [Thanks Mike!]
  • Dyer-Witheford, Nick. 2015. Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. London: Pluto Press.
  • Federici, Sylvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. Comments on James Mill. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/
  • Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Marx, Karl. 1866. Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/08/instructions.htm
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 1846/1998. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Prometheus.

Abstract: As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, encumbered by precarious employment, overwhelming debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of any autonomy. Increasingly the labour of those academics and students is subsumed and re-engineered for value production, and is prey to the vicissitudes of the twin processes of financialisation and marketization. At the core of understanding the impact of these processes and their relationships to higher education is the alienated labour of the academic, as it defines the sociability of the University. The article examines the role of alienated labour in academic work, and relates this to feelings of hopelessness, in order to ask what might be done differently. The argument centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour.

Keywords: academic labour, alienation, higher education, mass intellectuality, proletarianisation

a manifesto for academic citizenship

A piece in the Times Higher Education by Liz Morrish on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside is very powerful testimony. She argues that “Academia badly needs a manifesto for academic citizenship to counteract the project of managerial colonisation”. Liz is such an important role model and a point of solidarity.

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.

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: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

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 http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/1675/

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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08841241.2016.1240133

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.

Adam Curle: Education for Liberation and the potential for mass intellectuality

On Monday I’m at the University of Bradford speaking at a panel session at the Peaceful Relations and the Transformation of the World: An Academic-Practitioner Dialogue on Peace in the 21st Century. The panel is on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era. In order to ground my work at the intersection of peace studies, the idea of the University, and the concept of mass intellectuality, I have written an essay, attempting to connect Adam Curle’s Education for Liberation from 1973 with our current condition in higher education in the global North. The essay ends by pointing to our work on mass intellectuality inside-against-and-beyond the neoliberal university.

I wrote it whilst listening to Annie Mac Presents.

ONE. A shared humanity

We do not need education without needing a world that is being destroyed.

Our emphasis is on education: within the reality of our social relations, confined by the struggle of daily life, against the hierarchical relations between institutions, academics and students.

We share our work in education so that one day we might become free through education. It can feel like a hopeless act of hope yet as a conscious act of anti-alienation, sharing can be emancipatory.

We have been objectified as Teachers and Learners. These are illusory concepts. Sharing is to resist the commodification of our lives and escape the measures of Capital, its controls of ‘quality’ and its life-support machine of ‘efficiency’.

Sharing brings curricula to life as a flow of ideas, an unstoppable, irrepressible mass intellectuality that recognises no disciplines and responds to every act of discipline.

The University of Utopia (n.d.). Anti-Curricula. A Course of Action.

In Education for Liberation, Adam Curle argues for the creation of new educational conditions that refuse the ongoing deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of everyday life, in order to enable individuals (and families, communities, societies) to address themselves.

we try to create conditions in which the fewest obstacles are placed in the way of people coming to terms with themselves.

Curle, A. (1973). Education for Liberation. London: Tavistock, p. v.

NOTE: hereafter reference to this volume is given simply by ‘Curle’ and the relevant page number.

What Curle laid bare in 1973 was the intersectional realities of poverty, oppression, exploitation, hunger, disease and emotional sickness, and a recognition that ‘if all these things were abolished’ then what would be left is our shared humanity. This idea of a shared humanity picks up our utopian desire to connect, not through the exchange-value of our education commodified as a service or financialised and marketised through debt and performance metrics, but by sharing what is socially-useful. This process of sharing knowledge, skills and literacies both inside and outside the formal institution, dissolves the boundaries of that institution. As a result, it resists the enclosure of the university and its knowledge, and pushes back against the idea that the market is the sole arbiter of access to that knowledge.

Moreover, the sharing that rests on dissolving the boundaries that exist: between the inside and outside of the university; between students and teachers; and between those who know and those who do; forms a moment of resistance to the idea that the market is the only way that we can address global emergencies. These emergencies demand social action taken at the level of society. For Curle there is a sense of needing to overcome this restricting alienation because:

Education enslaves: men and women become free through their own efforts. (p. 1)

TWO. The structuring realities of value

The historical context for Curle’s work on education and liberation is important. He is writing shortly after Nixon unilaterally ended the Bretton Woods international monetary system, and as the post-war Keynesian compromise was ending. These are way-markers on the path to neoliberalism that placed an aesthetic appreciation of (economic) value, rather than (humane) values, centre stage. Yet for Curle, ‘the keystone is justice rather than wealth’ (p.1), and this opens-up potential connections between social justice movements and those looking for post-capitalist alternatives, as a response to the emergent, globalised phase of capitalist development. However, this work of connection frames the problems of justice and wealth through political economy, and one that reclaims wealth as social, and specifically as a collective power-to do or to create the world, separated out from accumulated, individualised forms of wealth (as money or financial assets). This is the material and immaterial wealth of art, science, technology and knowledge, which rest on social relationships that themselves refuse to be organised through private property, wage labour and the market.

As Curle was writing, Autonomist Marxism emerged as a conglomerate of different perspectives, drawing on the Italian Operaismo or Workerist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Autonomist Marxism enabled a focus on the question of why capital moved beyond national boundaries in the post-war years and how it was transformed into a globalised, transnational apparatus for accumulating wealth. Critically, this tradition sought to understand the changing nature of the structure and agency of the working class as the neoliberal phase of capitalism intensified. In this analysis, education is crucial in examining the ways in which labour could form oppositional spaces or cracks through which to resist and push-back against the alienation of exchange and the market. Thus, Autonomist critiques of education focus upon the ability of the student/teacher to develop her own self-awareness and to utilise technology to act for herself. This emancipatory project is revealed as in-against-beyond, which questions the structures that reproduce capitalism’s domination, like the State and its educational institutions. These questions emerge from inside those structures and from perspectives that are against them, so that alternatives that lie beyond might be opened up. This recognises that capitalism is a totalising, social universe, and opens-up a global terrain of struggle for autonomy that includes education.

The struggle to control labour presents the working class (including in the roles of student and teacher) with potential educational tools to develop new points of resistance. In developing such alternatives, there are a number of key ideas that emerge from the Autonomist tradition that are useful in addressing how education relate to the agency of the working class, acting for itself:

Each of these concepts forces a reconceptualisation of how we address the production and circulation of social wealth, materialised not as money or surplus-value, but as our social needs and capacities. For Curle (p. 4) this approach, if not the conceptualisation, was central to a project of overcoming the competitive materialism that emerges from global networks of exploitation. That Curle was able to identify and analyse such networks can be traced forwards to the work of Stephen Ball on transnational activist networks that seek to open-up the terrain of education for-profit. These networks of private equity, publishers, policy-makers, pedagogues, think-tanks, educational technology corporations, venture capitalists, and so on, help to deterritoriaise and reterritorialise education, so that only surplus-value can be liberated. As a result:

Accumulated value, and the power that flows from it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised.

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

As Curle argues (p. 5), as these asymmetrical power relations flood through education, ‘one party to a relationship, the weaker, is impeded through the quality of a relationship, from achieving his [sic.] human potential.’ Thus, formal, institutionalised education (and it is such that supplies much of the context for Education for Liberation) ‘reinforces unpeaceful situations’ (p. 6), rooted in belonging-identity and competitive materialism (pp. 7-8). Here Curle’s work traces the outlines of later analyses of the dehumanization inherent in capitalist social relations and the law of value, in particular the impact of capitalism as a totalising system on individual and collective self-worth. For Curle this emerges as guilt and shame. As 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

Yet Curle’s work on situating education for liberation inside dominant ideologies or the system, also connects to alternative possibilities outlined in more mainstream thinking.

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.

social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Keynes, J.M. 1930. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

THREE. On prefiguration and a new education

In responding to this clash of value and values, Curle emphasizes the need for a new education, which demands ‘an alien form of society’ that values the human, or our shared humanity. This is the possibility of personal evolution, or ‘higher-awareness (awareness-identity)’, formed inside a counter-system of education rooted in altruism (or #solidarity) (pp. 8, 9). This counter-system has echoes of Gramsci’s work on hegemony and counter-hegemony, rooted in acknowledging, analysing and abolishing power. For Curle (p. 10), such a counter-system would have higher levels of (social) awareness (beyond value). It would be grounded in awareness-identity (social connections against-and-beyond the market), and as such it would be altruistic and empathetic with peaceful relation that are loving and supportive. Moreover, it would be based on co-operative and egalitarian democracy.

In addressing how education relates to the creation of such a counter-system, Curle (p. 17) diagnoses that we need to reveal the reality of the system as is. Here, hegemony rests on imparting the knowledge needed by the system to reproduce itself by establishing within us the goals that are also of value to the system. In the UK we can witness this in the HE White Paper and the emerging HE and Research Bill, with its focus on human capital theory in education, to be implemented through teaching intensity, productivity, teaching excellence and performance management.

Curle’s responses echo those academic-activists who continue to resist, refuse and push-back against the on-going assault on the idea of higher education. These responses are rooted in prefiguration. For Curle, the existence and celebration of ‘Different values jeopardize what they have, thus endangering their belonging-identity’ (p. 21, emphasis added). As Sarah Amsler notes, prefiguring the kind of world we wish to see is an on-going process that is generative, iterative and educative. It is the governance and organisation of life as a pedagogical project, which enables the negation of that which is dehumanising or alienating. Connecting to Curle’s hope for justice, this is the negation of our negation.

Moreover, such prefigurative and utopian engagements also enable and share moments of solidarity. In developing Curle’s counter-system, this means thinking through the potential for waves of struggle, which demonstrate solidarity between various groups of workers and others across society impacted by austerity. Points of solidarity include: the embodied toll that neoliberal restructuring and austerity takes on mental and physical health, including in families; the control of performance and activity; the reduction of life to work; and, the inability of the curriculum to manage issues of crisis concerning poverty, climate change, on-going colonialism and so on. Points of solidarity connect:

  • Academic staff who are subject to increased workload and performance management;
  • Academic staff whose workload requirements are marginalising the rest of their lives, as parents, carers, partners, friends, so that never-ending, entrepreneurial work dominates;
  • Students whose work is defined by debt as a commodity or purchased as a service, rather than being regarded as work that should be reimbursed through a wage;
  • Students whose education is solely predicated on productivity and employability, with contributions to social or care work being marginalised;
  • Student of colour, who are protesting and refusing the on-going colonisation of the curriculum;
  • Precariously-employed graduate teaching assistants, or those for whom tenure is becoming an impossibility;
  • Professional services staff for whom the restructuring of back-office functions entails outsourcing or an attrition on labour rights, and amplifies forms of social dumping;
  • Graduates saddled with increasing amounts of debt and weak job prospects, in the face of automation, on-going recession, and so on;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is covered by the Educational Excellence Everywhere White paper, which promises the privatisation and data-driven commodification of pre-HE education;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is also affected by the Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Act (2015), which enables metrics and longitudinal data to be collated about individuals to drive the production of economic value;
  • Community groups fighting for social justice, for instance in refugee, housing or gender rights; and
  • Workers in notionally public-facing industries, where ideas of public service or the public good (contested as those terms are) are being lost, and for whom the realities of austerity are disciplinary (such as the campaign for an NHS Reinstatement Bill).

Here there is a need to redefine the terms of resistance as cross-sectoral, acting communally or socially, precisely because those communal or social aspects of our identities are being marginalised or reduced, as work and productivity becomes totalising. There is a need to see this work as educational, rooted in a governance framework and organisation that prefigures what we desire. For Curle this is a constant practice of revealing and resisting minor oppressions that gradually erode our awareness, such as the symbolic racialised nature of the curriculum. Thus, resistance offers the potential for re-humanizing activities (p. 87).

Such forms of resistance also question the very nature of our curricula, and raise the issue of whether our work should be on dismantling the curriculum. Curle wished to see a curriculum that strengthened justice and peace, so that individuals could self-actualise, rather than instantiating a curriculum that is mindless, dehumanizing and intellectually worthless for so many with ‘subtly obnoxious hidden’ elements. Here there is resonance with Rhodes Must Fall and campaigns like #whyismycurriculumwhite, which force us to consider how to connect the inside and outside of the classroom to everyday oppression, and to consider an engaged pedagogy that is infused critically.

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge, p. 13.

Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy”… emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge, p. 15.

FOUR. Against power inside and outside the classroom

The power relations reinforced through the market, wage labour and property relations deny the essential humanity of the teacher-student relationship. Moreover they deny the self-actualisation (awareness-identity) of the individuals in that relationship, both inside and outside the classroom.

Curle (p. 35) hints at this issue of power, referenced above in terms of hegemony and counter-hegemony (the counter-system), when he refers to the altered psychological reality in which authority is shared. He writes that ‘the best way of promoting an appreciation of social justice may be through building a just and equal society in the classroom’ (p. 42). This reminds us of the work of John Holloway on how to change the world without taking power. Here the altered psychological state is not one of taking power, in order to reproduce both it and its injustices. Rather we refuse to reproduce power relations that disable our self-determination. They key is to focus co-operatively on creating a society in which people determine its development.

Like Curle, Holloway is clear that we have to change the world. However, there is no focus on taking State power. Instead he points towards new structures shaped by our agency and autonomy in doing socially-useful things. This concept of doing socially-useful things again relays back to Curle’s awareness-identity and refusal of competitive materialism. However, for Holloway there is a clear distinction between our power to do things (our creative power), and other’s power-over us or over our power to do things. Wage labour and debt (Holloway’s rule of money) offer others the power to command, and they reveal the structuring logic and power of capital, including across the terrain of higher education. The crucial thing for Holloway, as it was for Curle, is that this power to create and to command is a social power. In Holloway’s terms:

Our power to do is always a social power, is always a collective power, our doing is always part of the social flow of doing.

[In its co-option by capital] the social power to do becomes broken, it becomes transformed into its opposite, which is the power of the capitalist to command the doing of others.

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

The problem for educators is that inside the classroom and through the curriculum peace can only ever be an aspiration, because our educational work is alienated from us by capital. What we produce as educators or students is commodified as knowledge transfer or in the form of credits. How we produce as educators or students is governed by performance management or made efficient through technology and organisational development. The relationships that we produce as educators or students are governed by metrics and ideas of consumption and purchase, so that our relationship to ourselves becomes framed by enterprise or employment or future earnings. In this, as staff and students we are objectified because we are commanded.

In moving against these flows of educational alienation, our struggle is to build up our power to do differently and socially.

Our logic is just the contrary, it is the logic of coming together, it is a logic of recovering the subjectivity, which is denied by capital. Subjectivity not as an individual subjectivity, but as a social subjectivity.

if we think of the struggle to change society as class struggle, then it is fundamental to see this struggle as being asymmetrical. And once we start to reproduce their forms, and once we start to think of our struggle as being the mirror image of their struggle, then all that we are doing is reproducing the power of capital within our own struggles.

revolution is a question rather than an answer, because the revolutionary process in itself has to be understood as a process of asking, as a process of moving out, not of telling peoples what the answers are, but actually as a process of involving people in a movement of self-determination.

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

Here then, prefigurative activity as an educational process, operating inside and outside the classroom is central, and it rests on autonomous forms and spaces for action. This means developing confidence in our own structures, in our own time, and in our own space, and as a result develop new ways of (re-)imagining society. As Curle notes (p. 62), it is a process of re-learning the Self.

An ideal society would be self-creating. If it is self-creating, if it is self-determining, then in a sense it doesn’t make sense to project an ideal organization, because the ideal organization would be created by the society itself. 

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

This process of idealisation, self-determination or community self-actualisation (awareness-identity rooted in altruism and solidarity) is a pedagogical project. Moreover, it is developed at the level of the community (i.e. it is not grounded in the institutions of the State that support the system that Curle speaks against). Here, the community is the educating subject and the whole person (cognition, emotion and body) are forged in a process of subjectification rather than commodification. As Curle identifies (p. 67) this requires liberation from educational roles and pedagogic relations of power. It is reflected in writings about the Little Schools from Below.

The Zapatista schools, in which more than a thousand of us set foot in autonomous communities, was a different mode of learning and teaching, without classrooms or blackboards, without teachers or professors, without curriculum or grades. The real teaching begins with the creation of a climate of kinship among a multitude of subjects instead of dividing educators with power and knowledge from naïve students that need to be inculcated with knowledge.

The pedagogic principles are rooted in:

  • the social politics of counterinsurgency;
  • autonomy that is seated in community control;
  • collective work as a foundation of autonomy;
  • the new cultural politics, which is rooted in family relations and is diffused throughout Zapatista society.

Zibechi, R. 2012. The Schools From Below: “A non-institutional education, where the community is the educating subject”.

This has a more insurgent and overtly post-capitalist flavour than that sketched by Curle. However, the latter still identified the concept of school or of schooling as enabling ‘a highly individual exploration by children of themselves and their world.’ Bound by the need to work, Curle highlights that such an exploration would lead to specialisation and training, although the genesis would be interest rather than position or status. Moving beyond a world of capitalist work, for the abolition of wage labour, takes a transformation of mind. Thus, Curle questions ‘Is there any point of working within the system; and can we work outside it?’ (p. 43).

FIVE. Towards mass intellectuality: higher education and responses to the secular crisis of capitalism

One response to this is Curle’s work on awareness and identity through social action or praxis (c.f. Curle, A. Mystics and Militants: Study of Awareness, Identity and Social Action. London: Tavistock). What he calls for is material, cultural and social development that enables:

a coherent philosophy of the relationship of education to society which would make it possible for the real strength of affective education to be directed towards transforming the social setting which neutralizes so much good contemporary work in education. (p. 62)


Education for liberation must, in fact, include instruction in the techniques for creating social change, for building the counter-system. (p. 80)

Education building a peaceful society through connection to our humanity. Liberation from habits of thought, action, and feeling that make us less than human, and that transform the system into a counter-system. Against the institutionalised (though the network) nature of low awareness, belonging-identity and competitive materialism. The human spirit rather than distorted psychological needs. (p. 127)

We know that the secular crisis of capitalism has generated a structural adjustment policy across the terrain of higher education, which reshapes the relationships between academics and students. We know that in this crisis is revealed the ‘means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’ (See: Keynes, J.M. 1930. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren). We know that the system’s counter-measures cannot resolve its underlying problems, rooted in expansion and accumulation, and that those very counter-measures undermine capitalism’s legitimacy (See: Cleaver, H. 1993. Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism: The Insurpassability of Class Antagonisms). We know that the heart of the issue is the collapse in the production for profit by the private owners of the means of production, which has led to deleveraging, liquidation, reduced investment, austerity, indenture and so on. We know that even the authors of the neoliberal moment speak of systemic stagnation (with demographic and educational imbalances, inequality and debt), the failure of monetary policy; below-trend aggregate demand/growth and chronic under-investment, and a need to re-focus on Human Capital Theory, entrepreneurialism, the family as the unit of investment, and future earnings potential (See: Summers, L (2014). Reflections on the ‘New Secular Stagnation Hypothesis’ In: Tuelings, C and Baldwin, R eds.  Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research Press, pp. 27–38). This secular crisis swamps socio-environmental and socio-cultural crises that have disproportionately affected the global South, and which have amplified the impacts of the on-going coloniality and patriarchy of power. As we know, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

In this context it is clear that higher education 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 overwhelmingly instrumental. What are the alternatives? As Curle asks, ‘Is there any point of working within the system; and can we work outside it?’

One way of addressing this is by relating education to the concept of mass intellectuality, which emerges from Marx’s work in the Grundrisse on the ‘general intellect’. Marx argued that the dynamics of capitalism meant:

the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].

Through innovation and competition, the technical and skilled work of the social individual, operating in factories, corporations or schools, is absorbed into the things she produces. It is alienated from her, and therefore, the ‘general intellect’ of society, i.e. its general capacity for science in the broadest sense, is absorbed into capitalised technologies and techniques, in order to reduce labour costs and increase productivity.

With the crisis of funding, regulation and governance of higher education, there is a need to understand: first, the mechanisms through which the general intellect is absorbed into the total social production process of value, to which universities contribute; and second, how academic practice enables or resists such co-option. This calls attention to the proliferation of alternative educational practices, which are themselves re-imaginings of the idea of the University as a site for the production of knowledge. These alternatives are rooted in the desire and potential for reclaiming the knowledge, skills, practices and techniques that form the general intellect, in order to produce and circulate new forms of socially-useful knowledge or ways of knowing, being in and creating the world.

From this reclaiming or liberation of the general intellect, away from the valorisation of capital, emerges ‘mass intellectuality’ as a direct, cognitive and social force of production that exists as an increasingly diffuse form of intellectuality. In this form it circulates as a ‘commons’ that is pregnant with critical and practical potential but still remains marginal in the face of general commodity production. As a result, it is constantly being recuperated by capital in the form of the ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’. Virno (2001) argues that

Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity.

The concept of mass intellectuality refers to knowledge and forms of knowing that can be and are being valorised by capital, but also refers to that same knowledge’s immanent (negative) and pre-figurative (positive) critical and re-constructive potential for new forms of sociality. In this way, mass intellectuality implies a struggle over the proletarianisation of cognitive and affective forms of labour, and its emancipatory implications, as the embodiment of the cumulative history of science.

The process of liberating and reclaiming the knowledge, skills, practices and techniques that are produced inside higher educational contexts is central to moving beyond exploitation and valorisation in the market, and in creating democratic, co-operative alternatives. This implies a critique of subjectivity, in its relationship to the prevalent mode of (knowledge) production. As a result, the critical-practical solutions to global, socio-environmental problems need not be framed around economic growth and business-as-usual. This enables a refocusing on the potential for the democratic or co-operative reproduction of the University, and a level of productive, scientific and social knowledge that exists as an immanent, transgressive potential across capitalist societies.

This process argues for the democratisation of higher education as an emancipatory project that must re-appropriate the means of knowledge production in the labour process, and nurture the co-operation of academics and students. By uncovering the widespread, objective conditions for the alienation of the products and processes of higher education from their social utility, it is possible to describe actually-exiting alternatives that identify the material conditions for new democratic models of knowledge production and education.

SIX. Uncovering collective, pedagogic potential

In our collective work on Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, student- and academic-activists have attempted such an uncovering, in order to situate higher education against the ongoing crisis of capitalism with responses from inside and outside the University. We articulate the limits of formal HE, including the binaries of public and private, in a range of national contexts, with a connection to traditions of critical pedagogy in which critical knowing has always been existential, collective and transformative. We challenge the hegemonic framing of learning as separate from society and everyday life.

Our opening section focuses on Power, History and Authority inside formal higher education, and asks what and who has led us to this crisis of higher education? What forms of resistance are taking place inside the University? Here we focus our attention on the following.

  • Struggles inside the classroom over the labour of students and academics, and the potential responses that are enabled through critical pedagogy.
  • The lessons to be taken from the development of co-operative higher education.
  • A theoretical understanding of academic practice by students and staff as public intellectualism, as a form of mass intellectuality.
  • The co-option of open access, which questions the societal value of business-as-usual models for public, higher education.

Our second section examines Potentialities for change and radical experiment in various transnational contexts. We ask whether it is possible to re-imagine the University democratically and co-operatively? Case studies here include the following.

  • Engagement with Brazilian resistance to extreme neoliberalism in the pedagogic practices of the Landless Movement. This discusses the impossibility of being an intellectual worker in the neoliberal university.
  • Discussion of Scottish higher education with reference to case studies of environmental justice, resistance to gender-based violence and trades union activity. This situates the experience of the knowledge worker against that emerging from within social movements.
  • An engagement with strands of mass intellectuality as they emerged historically in Bradford University’s Peace Studies curriculum and the CommUNIty project, as they were infused with a material and cultural analysis of sociability in Latin America.
  • A reflection on the meaning and purpose of arts education in its relationship to societal leadership as it emerges in the global North.

Our final section is rooted in Praxis, and looks at practical, alternative initiatives that are rooted in critical pedagogy and physical places beyond the University.

  • The Birmingham Autonomous University declare six theses on the collective failings of the hegemonic, methodological University, and the possibility that exists for creating a co-operative form of societal engagement.
  • An auto-ethnography of an alternative education project in Oxford, UK, the People’s Political Economy, which is framed by the idea of the organic intellectual in society.
  • A critique of the Lincoln Social Science Centre, UK, which offers a means of analysing the governing principles of transnational alternatives, in order to frame questions about their co-operative and democratic, practical and theoretical viability.
  • An eco-critical, thematic approach to mass intellectuality, rooted in the ethics of environmentalism. This enables the alternatives discussed in this book to connect to a wider environmental and transition/resilience agenda and its relationship to formal higher education.
  • A comparative analysis of indigenous communities and women of colour in the Escuela Política de Mujeres Pazifica, and the Family Inclusion Strategy Hunger collective based in the Hunter Valley, Australia. This analysis specifically relates co-operative, inclusive educational practices of creating ourselves, our relationships and communities differently.

Our work is rounded off with an evaluation and systematic critique of the collaborative approach adopted in its production. How might co-operative writing and publishing inside the University enable voices to be heard that are against and beyond the valorisation of academic labour?

SEVEN. Postscript

These struggles for mass intellectuality are an attempt to build solidarity and sharing (as forms of awareness-belonging) rather than to enable commodification, exchange and accumulation (as competitive materialism and belonging-identity). Thus, liberating science and technology from inside-and-against capital’s competitive dynamics is central to moving beyond exploitation. This is a pedagogical project and therefore education is central to society’s potential to re-imagine.

Radical alternatives rooted in co-operative practice offer mechanisms through which new forms of social power might challenge, resist and push back against the marketisation of public education, indentured study, and the hidden curriculum that asserts the primacy of value-for-money, impact metrics, productivity and efficiency. This helps to reveal how the effects of financialisation and marketisation across an increasingly global, social field like education might be inverted and resisted. This begins by revealing the objective, material realities of social life, so that we might give voice to possible, prefigurative alternatives. Mass intellectuality as a frame of reference enables those alternatives, pace Adam Curle, to encourage different ways of thinking about the role, value and form of higher education institutions in society. This is one possible route to the peaceful, liberated social relations that Curle imagined.

Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education

Working with 20 co-authors, Joss Winn and I have just submitted the manuscript for Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. The edited collection forms part of Bloomsbury Academic’s series on Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education. Assuming that the review process goes to plan, the book is slated for publication in early 2017.

The original summary, description and key features of the book are noted below. The proposed table of contents is appended thereafter.


Drawing on the activism of academics and students working in, against and beyond the neo-liberal university, this book critiques academic leadership through the concept of mass intellectuality, with an analysis of the crisis of higher education and the alternative forms that are emerging from its ruins.


Higher education 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. What and who have led us to this crisis? What are the alternatives? To whom do we look for leadership in revealing those alternatives?

This book brings together critical analyses of ‘intellectual leadership’ in the University, and documents on-going efforts from around the world to create alternative models for organising higher education and the production of knowledge. Its authors offer their experience and views from inside and beyond the structures of mainstream higher education, in order to reflect critically on efforts to create really existing alternatives. In the process the volume asks is it 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 mass higher education is at the point where it no longer reflects the needs, capacities and long-term interests of global society. An alternative role and purpose is required, based upon ‘mass intellectuality’ or the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge.

Key features

  1. The book critiques the role of higher education and the University as an institution for developing solutions to global crises that are economic and socio-environmental. In this way it offers an analysis of the idea that there is no alternative for higher education but to contribute to neoliberal agendas for economic growth and the marketisation of everyday life. The restrictions on the socio-cultural leadership that emerge inside the University are revealed.
  2. The book describes and analyses concrete, alternative forms of higher education that have emerged from worker-student occupations, from academic engagements in civil society, and from the co-operatives movement. These projects highlight a set of co-operative possibilities for demonstrating and negotiating new forms of political leadership related to higher learning that are against the neo-liberal university.
  3. The book argues that the emergence of alternative forms of higher education, based on co-operative organising principles, points both to the failure of intellectual leadership inside the University and to the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge. The concept of ‘Mass Intellectuality’ as a form of social knowledge that is beyond the limitations of intellectual leadership inside the University is critically developed in order to frame socially-useful responses to the crisis.



  1. Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education ~ Richard Hall and Joss Winn

Section One: Power, History and Authority

  1. Pedagogical Labour in an Age of Devalued Reproduction ~ Stevphen Shukaitis
  2. Co-operation, leadership and learning: Fred Hall and the Co-operative College before 1939 ~ Tom Woodin
  3. Academic Voices: from Public Intellectuals to the General Intellect ~ Mike Neary
  4. Openness, Politics and Power ~ Martin Paul Eve

Section Two: Potentialities

  1. The (im)possibility of Mass Intellectuality: Viewing Mass Intellectuality through the lens of the Brazilian Landless Movement ~ Joyce E Canaan
  2. Still spaces in the academy? The dialectic of university social movement pedagogy ~ Eurig Scandrett
  3. Bradford’s Community University: From ‘Constellations of Knowledge’ to Liberating the ‘General Intellect’? ~ Jenny Pearce
  4. Aesthetic Education, Critical Pedagogy and Specialist Institutions ~ Jonathan Owen Clark and Louise H. Jackson

Section Three: Praxis

  1. Six Theses In, Against and Beyond the University ~ Birmingham Autonomous University
  2. Reconciling mass intellectuality and higher education: lessons from the PPE experience ~ Joel Lazarus
  3. Somewhere Between Reform and Revolution: Alternative Higher Education and ‘The Unfinished’ ~ Gary Saunders
  4. Permaculture education as ecology of mind: the head, hands and heart of transformation ~ Tom Henfrey
  5. Mass Intellectuality from the Margins ~ Sara C. Motta

Conclusion: Politics, Aesthetics and Democracy

  1. Practicing What We Preach? Writing and Publishing In, Against and Beyond the Neoliberal University ~ Gordon Asher

the Alternative HE White Paper

Via a listserv email, and specifically in my role as a National Teaching Fellow, I was asked earlier today to consider applying to be a member of a Teaching Excellence Framework panel. As an act of solidarity with precariously employed or casualised staff, alongside staff who are under threat of increased performance management, or those who are concerned about our collective pay and conditions, and with those staff who see the Government’s HE agenda as threatening the idea of public higher education, I lay out my refusal below. It is also referenced in posts here and here and here and here.


It feels important for me as an NTF neither to consider nor to do this work.

In part this is because I refuse to have my work as an NTF, and my professional practice, co-opted by a Government that is seeking to damage further the idea of public higher education. The TEF is a means to further the twin agendas of marketisation and privatisation in the sector, which emerging through the White Paper fundamentally damage social mobility and social justice. I simply cannot lend my intellectual and social capital to it. Some of this rationale is set out in the Alternative White paper: https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/awp-introduction/

My second reason issue is that UCU is currently in dispute over pay, including working to contract. This dispute is focusing our attention on issues of overwork and anxiety/mental health problems amongst staff, increasing casualisation and precarious employment, and gender disparities in remuneration. Many of us resigned as external examiners in support of this campaign (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/26/why-we-are-resigning-as-external-examiners). Out of solidarity with colleagues on the HE single pay spine fighting for better pay and conditions I cannot justify doing this work.

The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.


One space for action/refusal is the Alternative White Paper, In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society, which will be launched at the Houses of Parliament on Monday 13th June, 4.30-6.00. This Alternative White Paper has been produced though the Second Convention for Higher Education.

It argues that the Government’s White Paper presents a major challenge to the idea of a university and its essential role in the public sphere in the creation and dissemination of knowledge and debate about common objectives. It narrowly views higher education as an investment in human capital and as a contributor to economic growth. It acknowledges that UK universities are world-leading in teaching and research, while destroying the framework of regulation and support that produced that success.

The Government’s plans propose to open the sector to private for-profit teaching providers, notwithstanding the history of for-profit higher education littered with poor student outcomes, and with spending concentrated on marketing and profit-sharing. It calls this the creation of a level playing field, while private providers will be relieved (by impending legislation on degree-awarding powers and the title of university) of the wider functions of a university. These moves will undermine the role that universities play in their local communities by opening them to competition for revenue from providers that have no such role.

The government’s proposed “Office for Students” is not about supporting students. It is structured to ensure market competition, to give private providers access to high tuition fees. Its board members will have “the experience of fostering choice and competition, and of robust financial control”. Supposedly “at the heart of the system”, students will instead be short-changed. The Teaching Excellence Framework includes no direct measures of teaching quality. It is designed to facilitate fee increases, with the possibility of abolishing the fee cap in the future.

In contrast, the Alternative White Paper makes the case for higher education as a public good and explains in detail why the present proposals are so damaging and dangerous. You might usefully lobby your MP, to ask her/him to engage with this debate and to challenge the proposals as they begin their legislative journey.