anthropological regression and education futures

I’ve been reading the proofs for our forthcoming book on mass intellectuality and alternative forms of higher education. In particular, I have been taken by this snippet from our introductory chapter.

The positions taken in the book are plural, emerging from critical feminism and radical pedagogy, alongside the politics of subaltern resistance, as well as from critical theory that is informed by Marxism and anarchism. However, as a whole, the book takes forward a programme that is deliberately counter-hegemonic in conception and theoretical framing. While utilizing a number of different theoretical positions, in its analysis, the book provides a collective voice that calls for a radically different engagement with intellectual leadership. Throughout the book, such an engagement can be categorized politically as being from the left. However, in its intention, the focus of the book is on forms of leadership for social justice and liberation.

Thus, a number of the authors argue that mass HE is at the point where it no longer reflects the needs, capacities and long-term interests of global society. An alternative role and purpose are engaged with critically based upon ‘mass intellectuality’: the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge, including the ways in which we know ourselves and our relationships with others.

Hall, R, and Winn, J. (forthcoming, 2017). Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 2.

In this, I have returned to Anselm Jappe’s notion of anthropological regression, and our ability to frame something different in the face of our toxic and violent approach to those who have been marginalised, in a society framed by narratives of scarcity.

we could have the impression that the veritable “anthropological regression” triggered by capital, especially during the last few decades, has also affected those who can or who want to oppose capitalism. This is a major transformation that is not always given sufficient attention… Capitalism is, in an increasingly more obvious way, a society governed by the anonymous, blind, automatic and uncontrollable mechanisms of value production. Everyone seems to be simultaneously participants in and victims of this mechanism, even though, of course, the various roles assumed and the compensations received are not the same.

Jappe, A. (2011). Are Free Individuals the Necessary Prerequisites for a Successful Struggle for Freedom?

If there is anthropological regression, which reflects human nature in this society of scarcity, is it possible for us to do the following things which are so urgently required? (pace Peter Hudis)

  • Extend democracy, cooperatively into the workplace and beyond, into our thinking about planning for the distribution of surplus.
  • Uncover our roles as participants and victims in relation to our own alienated labour. This involves discussing private property, the division of labour, and commodity exchange, as second-order mediations grounded in labour as the source of value. How do we do this in order to reveal the kinds of societies we wish to enact, and the values on which they are based?
  • Eliminate the social division of labour between owners and non-owners, such that all have a direct stake in working, doing and being. Are we able to abolish alienated labour?
  • Create less alienating and harmful relations of production. In turn we able to create less alienating and harmful global environments?
  • Support coordination between public, cooperative actions and activities, with new democratic forms of planning that subordinates the state to society.
  • Validate the kinds of social relationships that do not enable the toxic use of surplus product.

In this I am thinking about our social metabolism and our means of social reproduction, and these are issues I need to address in my work on academic alienation.

Against the fetishisation of the porous university


I’m speaking on Monday and Tuesday next week at a Porous University event in Inverness. My provocation is below.

In addressing the question of the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’, this provocation takes as its starting-point the proletarianisation of higher education. 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. This provocation examines the role of alienated labour in academic work, and relates this to the idea that the University is or may become porous, 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. The idea of mass intellectuality cracks the University from the inside so that its porosity increases, in order to abolish the very idea of the University.

Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues, seminar

Lifted from the Marxism and Education Renewing Dialogues Facebook feed: final notice of Marxism and Education Renewing Dialogues (MERD) Seminar, Education from Brexit to Trump… Corbyn and beyond?

Wednesday 3rd May 2017, 10am-4pm

University of East London, Stratford Campus, Cass School of Education, room ED4.02.

At this 19th MERD seminar we will review the emergent contemporary crises of capitalism. In this context, we will focus on education and educating across the social spectrum of institutional and wider social formation to progress class struggle, critique and action. Our four speakers have provided the following blurbs about their presentations.

Tony Green (UCL Institute of Education)

Educating the Educators and the Emergent Secular Crises of Contemporary Capitalism: From Brexit to Trump and Corbyn… to Snap Election … and Beyond?

The introduction aims to draw attention to a collection of issues and themes likely to occupy us during the day. The broad and open-ended agenda is intended to be suggestive of potentially ‘educative’ contexts about how exchange values dominate use values, and where systemic shifting of value and power upwards in support of structures of global oligarchy and plutocratic elite class hegemony, is concurrent with ongoing secular crises of capitalism. Is the apparent ever-rising tide of ‘prosperity’ contributing to human emancipation and flourishing? We need to address the global capitalist system, and metabolism in its, tensions and contradictions, with complex and dynamic ramifications at local, regional, national and international levels. The aim of these introductory remarks is to remind ourselves of current events and possible underlying dynamics that set analytic, strategic and tactical challenges… not least, the performative … during these ever-interesting times. Huge and urgent questions have to be addressed in specific and local contexts: Are all the cards being thrown into the air? Are there inbuilt legitimation crises playing out across the institutional forms of politics? What are the prospects for the anthropocene? Time to act … now! What is to be done…?

Hillary Wainwright (Red Pepper Magazine Editor)

The importance of practical knowledge to the possibility of a new politics from the left

I’ll draw on themes associated with socialist humanist work of Gramsci, Williams and, Thompson, and against a background of recognising that evocations of the organised working class were thwarted too many times, including by leaderships that did not actually believe in the capacity of the supporters, to convince me. Radical social change is surely more than workplace organisation, radical leadership and a conventional political party of the left.

Terry Wrigley (Visiting Professor at Northumbria University, editor International Journal Improving Schools, and co- coordinator of Reclaiming Schools network)

England is an epicentre and laboratory for neoliberal education policy in advanced econo-mies, with a unique mix of neoconservative ingredients. It has the tightest accountability framework (tests, league tables, Ofsted, performance pay etc), extensive privatisation, a curriculum which systematically excludes critical social knowledge, and hegemonic dis-courses around ‘choice’, ‘standards’, ‘leadership’ and ‘social mobility’. For critical educators, the pressing challenges include:

  • making critical theory and research knowledge available to a teaching profession increasingly restricted to short-term pragmatics;
  • rethinking curriculum, assessment and pedagogy beyond binaries of ‘academic / vocational’ and ‘knowledge / practice’;
  • protecting spaces for critical understanding and creativity;
  • critiquing the distortions of ‘social mobility’ and ‘closing the gap’ in socially just ways;
  • finding educative responses to the social futures facing young people (Austerity, precarity, migration, militarism).

Richard Hall (De Montfort University)
On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality

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 produc-tion, and is prey to the vicissitudes of the twin processes of financialisation and marketiza-tion. 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. This paper 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 argu-ment centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour.

Organised by Tony Green and Alpesh Maisuria

The seminar is free and open to all, no registration required. Please circulate widely and feel free to attend as much of the day as you possibly can.

Stratford campus is walkable from the nearest stations: Stratford / Stratford International, and Maryland. More travel information can be found here:

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.
  • 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.
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program.
  • 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:

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

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

notes on 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.