Notes on pandemic and the proletarianisation of academic labour

NB. this is not a blog-post. It is an essay. It is too long, so probably best not reading it. Do something else, less boring instead.

There is a PDF version here.


ONE. The political economy of transition and separation

We know that higher education institutions are relying upon staff to own the risk of transitioning their working lives online and to refocus upon remote working. We know that this transition is overlain on top of extreme uncertainty about families and friends, potentially alongside fears or anxieties about their own well-being. This transition is structured around separation from loved ones, from peers and collaborators, from students, and from union representatives. This separation and estrangement, as our self-managed reaction to the virus that has infected our society, has revealed the weaknesses of our existence inside our political economy.

This political economy wants us individuated, atomised, separated out, and estranged from each other, in order to prevent collective organising and the sharing of experiences. Through such isolation, the managers of Capital can constantly reframe the relations of production that bind us to the machine, and use new forces or technologies of production, or new organising principles for productive activity, to discipline our work and drive efficiencies or overwork. For Capital this is a question of life and death, because without access to and control over our living labour, it is nothing. Yet it demands that we are made more efficient, or that we bring more infrastructure or resources into productive activity, and that we empty-out our time of our existing activities through acceleration or speed-up. In this way, we are called to expand our available time into new recruitment markets, accelerated programmes, public engagement or impact activities, or the need to subsume our lives under work because workload allocations are bullshit and how else will we do research?

Thus, we face the intensification of work, or our redundancy from it, because of Capital’s contradictory bipolarity that demands that it annihilate labour time on the one-hand, whilst at the same time it measures its wealth in relation to that labour time. The exhaustion of this constant movement of contradiction is borne by those condemned to labour.

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.

Marx, K. (1857/1993). Grundrisse: foundations of the critique of political economy.

Institutions act as containers or nodes for the development of the general intellect, or those co-operative powers of science and nature, which are taken from individual academics through commercialisation or intellectual property or publishing agreements. They do so in association with educational technology firms, venture capital, private equity, corporate partners who have commissioned spoke programs, credit ratings agencies, publishers and philanthro-capitalists. They do so whilst regulated by governmental bodies focused upon competition and value-for-money, and this reproduces an HE system in which individuals, disciplines and institutions are individuated, atomised, separated out, and estranged from each other. The lack of symbiosis and mutualism places additional stress upon a system threatened by the interrelationship between medical and financial pandemics.

This led Bryan Alexander to write about COVID-19 versus higher ed: the downhill slide becomes an avalanche. Arguing that the pandemic accelerates privatisation, financialisation and cuts to public funding for education as a key service, Alexander writes of potential crises for institutional funding in relation to: the reprioritisation of limited local and national funding for community projects, social care, welfare and healthcare, rather than education; the potential for defunding allegedly unproductive strands of the HE sector (and in the UK pre-Covid-19, we know that there have already been restructuring proposals focused upon career-focused degrees, a Treasury focus upon productivity and human capital, and the use of longitudinal educational outcomes data to question the value of the Arts); a risk to endowments and advancement projects; new forms of philanthro-capitalism, which aim at forms of structural adjustment; the rejection of higher education as an investment opportunity for families, leading to a decline in enrolment, including from international students; and the need to refund existing students.

The pandemic exacerbates the ongoing secular crisis of capitalism, through which: stable forms of accumulation cannot be found; austerity is normalised at the level of society; there is a lack of profitability and productive investment, and a concomitant obsession with productivity; a focus upon economic populism in the face of declining output; quantitative easing replenishes the balance sheets of banks and finance capital rather than of citizens to enable compensatory consumption; and on and on. This infects the University as it is subsumed under the law of value, which demands that its activities are recalibrated through performance management, commodification, marketisation and competition written into law and underpinned by regulation. Thus, inside our institutions there is a constant clamour for surplus labour, time, value and wealth materialised as money in this persistent secular crisis of the University.


TWO. Frozen surplus populations

Capital’s question of life and death bleeds into the corporeality of the institution, in which there is a constant clamour for the proletarianisation of labour-power, through an attrition on labour rights, work intensification, unbundling and deskilling, and the generation of surplus populations. This latter issue is picked-up by Colleen Flaherty in discussing frozen searches in the USA in response to coronavirus. She notes that this includes delayed start times for some new roles, and she quotes the University of Minnesota, HR department:

to allow time to plan a productive onboarding and orientation processes, and to make needed adjustments to responsibilities to ensure new employee productivity and likelihood for success.

For Flaherty, these are signals of the risk of systemic collapse. However, we might question whether instead we will witness the collapse of unproductive capitals or businesses, in the shape of weaker universities. Those universities will lack the financial, intellectual or social capital, because they are overleveraged against particular income streams or levels of debt. Ensuring productivity and centring valuable, or commodity-based, human capital is the key, as adjustments are made by institutions, including freezing or furloughing, to mitigate against the risk of institutional collapse.

The mechanics of this are important because HE is riven by interlocking dynamics that reinforce separation and estrangement, and through which the medical crisis of the pandemic infects both the social by enforcing distancing, and the political economic by enabling a recalibration of the market for students, competition between individual academics, subjects and institutions, and the broader market for valuable and productive human capital. These interlocking dynamics feed off the quantification of academic value through the time spent on curriculum delivery or assessment, or the production of knowledge transfer and exchange, or the commercialisation of research, or the excellence of teaching or research. The quantification of academic value enables further separation between individuals, disciplines and institutions, such that the health of the sector is secondary to the health of individual institutions (NB this mirrors the political economy of association football, which is separated from its historical communities and overleveraged against debt and specific broadcast media revenue streams).

As a result, the sector is increasingly unwilling to support the staff who are a cost to it, rather than the students who are a source of revenue for it and the infrastructure around which it bases its activity. It increasingly demands unreasonable amounts of time from people who are scared, ill, overwork, precarious, caring, committed and professional, because it can impose discourses of efficiency, entrepreneurship excellence, impact and satisfaction, conditioned by the threat of precarity. Moreover, it does so in the knowledge that there is a vast, surplus population of available labour in the form of postgraduates who teach, graduate teaching assistants, unemployed PhD graduates, existing casualised staff, upon whom it can draw.

This threatens further casualisation of the academic labouring population, and enables it to extract surpluses by driving down its costs and weakening its labour rights. In response to these dynamics, Karen Kelsky has generated a crowdsourced list of institutions freezing the hiring of staff, including tenure-track jobs where ‘verbal offers that had progressed to negotiation have been revoked.’ In relatively uncertain times, or where working practices have to be re-engineered, it is easier to rely upon casualised or precarious labour that can compete for potential tenure opportunities at a later date.


THREE. Against leadership around casualisation

I wrote about this, arguing they all must go. But you will need another pot of tea for that one.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has a differential impact, in terms of security for the most precarious, and the impact on labour rights through increased workload, bureaucracy and technological discipline. On 2 March, just prior to the UK coronavirus lockdown (such as it is) in the UK, an Open Letter to Students from Casualised Academics at UAL was published, with a particular focus upon the UCU strike #fourfights against: pay devaluation; pay inequality, based on gender and race; excessive workloads; and casualisation. The open letter points out how at the University of the Arts London, there is a population of 2,500 hourly-paid Associate Lecturers and Visiting Practitioners, responsible for the majority of frontline teaching.

The letter argues that for some this means precarious, fixed-term work with no prospect for promotion, tenure or funding for research, limited professional development opportunities, and the risk of receiving reduced hours over time. This also includes a lack of autonomy over workload, and a separation from departmental decision-making and peers. Such uncertainty and anxiety are amplified by the amount of unpaid work that is required to fulfil work commitments, alongside struggles to pay rent and bills, and put food on the table, let alone focus upon pension payments or savings. The knock-on is an explosion of ill-being for second-class academic citizens, who tend not to be white and male.

As the UAL casualised academics note: ‘the casualised, underpaid and insecure workforce who keep the university going on a day-to-day basis.’ Of course, this is not simply restricted to academic colleagues. We also witness ongoing protests about outsourcing of estates, cleaning and security staff in a range of institutions, alongside a range of struggles for pension rights, holiday and sick pay, and maternity/paternity rights. The composition of struggle and protest across the sector demonstrates how HE relies upon separated, estranged, proletarianised labour across academic and professional services staff. Moreover, the treatment of students-as-consumers or purchasers, and their weaponisation by management against academics, reinforces the separation and fragmentation of those who labour inside the University. Thus, far from the pandemic catalysing crisis, it simply illuminates the ongoing secular crisis of the University, and reveals the inner political economy of the institutional and sector-wide assault on labour-power.

Here, we are drawn to the leaked UK Russell Group minutes of March 2020 about the need to show leadership around casualisation, in particular to stop critics (democratically-mandated trade unions) shaping the agenda. These minutes include (3.2) the following drivers of casualisation: economies of scale in the curriculum; the split between teaching and research; research funding; and uncertain financial planning. It is noticeable that the minutes highlight the failure of teaching practices to evolve as a cause of increased pressure on staff, which then causes a run towards to fixed-term, teaching-only roles. This can be read as victim-blaming, with the argument not around over-recruitment or work-intensification, rather around ineffective or inefficient assessment regimes. Research Council demands around funding are blamed for proliferation of fixed-term research contracts. In terms of financial planning, the minutes move beyond coronavirus and Brexit to the flawed assertions around USS pension contributions and UCU disputes.

Here, institutions are simply dealing with the manifestations of inefficient processes imposed from outside or erupting from within. This leads towards the view from this privileged fraction of the sector that (5.1) the group must ‘ensure that our working practices and employment models are fit for purpose, recognising the diverse needs of staff, students and institutions themselves.’ Of course, those diverse needs are not equal and do not carry equal weight, and in this context, working practices and employment models have to be fit for the purpose of value-for-money, as stipulated by the Office for Students. Whilst the appendix to the minutes highlights how in 2017/18 the group had 11,435 zero hours contracts and 8,620 hourly paid staff, there was also an increase since 2012/13 in fixed term, part-time contracts. These numbers represent a lot of lives spent struggling for security. Elsewhere, it has been argued that institutions through UCEA have attempted to exclude fixed-term staff in turnover figures, in order to show the stability of the sector.

As noted by casualised academics at UAL, it appears that the sector relies upon a disposable workforce that its bosses wish to hide, and this includes those on student experience or short-term graduate roles. This brutal precarity has been signalled over and over as a symptom of the secular crisis as it infects the University, and that has been accelerated in the current Covid-19 pandemic. This has led to a campaign around #CoronaContract, with casualised staff demanding universities guarantee two years’ work. In this campaign, casualised staff argue that they are a way for universities to distance themselves from taking responsibility for the academic labour that enables them to function. They argue that this is devastating at the time when those staff cannot seek out new contracts elsewhere because they are in lockdown. They argue that this has ‘devastating consequences’, including amplifying the already ‘unsustainable requirements for survival in this sector’.


FOUR. Never waste a crisis

in this, we might argue for solidarity across academic labour, between casualised, tenured and senior academics. However, an analysis of the class composition academic labour demonstrates how privilege and status, alongside normalised performance imperatives, infect the possibility for solidarity. During the #fourfights action I was especially critical of professors, who are responsible for maintaining the motive, anxious and competitive energy of the academic peloton.

In the context of a lack of solidarity, Capital has the ability to weaken academic labour further. The inestimable Audrey Watters has noted how those who wish to disrupt or transform higher education, including venture capitalists, silicon valley entrepreneurs, policymakers, and institutional senior managers will always seek to make capital from a crisis.

Here, the focus upon the lesser-value of watching college lectures online maps across to the lack of discussion around the use of educational technology and its implications for labour relations and working practices. Capital uses technology to strip labour of its intellectual content, and to commodify the general intellect of society, or to claim it as its own inside new forces of production. This tends to reduce the value of labour. Yet there has been next to no discussion of guiding principles around the accelerated move to online teaching, assessment and student support, in terms of no detriment to staff (as opposed to students in relation to assessment) and best endeavours by staff in working under conditions of extreme stress. Equally, there has been next to no discussion framed by care and compassion towards staff as they seek to transform their own practice and pedagogy in short-order.

Thus, staff are at risk of further proletarianisation of their working conditions, and a rise in the organic composition of their work (the relationship of their labour-power to new and intensified forms of technology, flows of data, algorithmic management, digital and physical infrastructure). Already, we hear stories of excessive workloads, overwork and a lack of self-care, as academics ensure that they can meet institutional demands for business continuity or business-as-usual. Some of this anxiety is grounded in uncertainty over the future, and the need to conform to potentially punitive, institutional policy frameworks, which place risks at the feet of the individual rather than the institution.

This amplifies already existing concerns over workload intensification for HE labourers. Moreover, it amplifies already existing concerns over workplace monitoring and management that have been flagged in terms of facial recognition and the end of privacy, sentiment analysis on campus, and the use of phone tracking on campus. Now we have institutional responses that couple in engagement withnew pandemic edtech power networks’, which state that technologies are palliative rather than for critical care, alongside the acceleration of cost-cutting across institutions in relation to precarious staff.

For Marx, analyses of crisis are complex and highlight interrelationships between consumption, production and profitability. Issues to do with profitability, labour’s share of social wealth, the anarchy of competition, and disconnections between the forces and relations of production mean that ‘[t]heories of pure disproportion are as wrong as those of pure under consumption’ (Grundrisse, 1993, p. 751). Contradictions immanent to capitalist growth emerge from the demand for ‘a rising rate of profit and an expanding market’, which cannot be sustained because ‘revolutions in technology and organisational development’ both increase average labour productivity and subsequently reduce the amount of labour embedded in each commodity (ibid.). As a result, periodic crises of value are reflected in ‘[a]ccelerated capital accumulation’, ‘an increase in organic composition’ of capital, ‘a decline in the rate of profit’, and weak investment (ibid.). It is no wonder that families might question the value of a degree predicated upon watching lectures online. It is no wonder that institutions feel this work can be done at a lower cost.

In this, performance measurement and management bring the relationships that emerge in the classroom into stark relation to the market. The key moment in this process is the need to generate surplus value, through exchange and enterprise. HE policy points towards the importance of improving the quality of marketable data, in order to enable employers, institutions and credit agencies to make more informed judgements about individuals through risk-based analyses of past, present and potential performance. What happens inside the classroom, or the bedroom, the kitchen table, the space under the stairs, or wherever you are forced to work from home, becomes a primary, societal concern that is dominated by exchange rather than social use, and governed by quality regimes rooted in the management of risk.

Need to care for your children? You also need to demonstrate the value of your human capital. It is probably best if you do not have caring responsibilities, or if you cannot offload those somewhere else. And definitely try not to get ill. In this way, the medical pandemic catalyses the crisis of capital, which acts as a predatory mechanism for renewing regimes of value accumulation. Unproductive capitals, including unproductive human capital, can be eviscerated or decomposed, and their component commodities, or the surplus that their decomposition releases, can be recombined or accumulated in new forms, technologies or modes of organisational development. Equally, they can simply be deployed by cheaper capitals, including those whose human capital is cheaper.

Never waste a crisis.


FIVE. The pandemic, overwork and being rendered surplus

It was ever thus.

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.

 

We ought to be acting on it. We ought not to be leaving staff thinking they are alone in being unable to manage their workload and that there’s some particular weakness on their behalf that they can’t do it. Because in the end that is what you are left feeling.

Professor Victoria Wass, commenting in 2019 after the inquest into the suicide of Dr Malcolm Anderson at Cardiff University Business School.

It was ever thus.

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the HE 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.

Don’t be a carer. Don’t be ill. Don’t render yourself surplus. Do overwork.

Universities require an abundant supply of flexible and appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address fluctuating 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.

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.

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, bureaucratised and digitally-enabled. As a result, in spite of the best endeavours of academic staff under the pandemic, 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).

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 [human], degrade [them] to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in [their] work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from [them] 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 [they] works, subject [them] during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform [] life-time into working-time, and drag [dependents] 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 [their] payment high or low, must grow worse.

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

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:

  • increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  • reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  • cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  • stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  • 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.


SIX. The pandemic and academic asphyxiation

Our labour acts as an expanding circuit of alienation. It is a withering form of living death rooted in personal losses that expels caring responsibilities or the concerns of the precarious from its own orbit, forcing those who labour inside the University to internalise the costs of caring or precarity. The truth is that academia is not privileged and that it is not a labour of love and that in the process of fetishising it we diminish ourselves. This idea that academics fetishise and universalise their own labour as an objective, public good does nothing but cripple any hopes of self/social-care or renewal.

Academics have been nudged towards accepting these forms of crippling enslavement by focusing upon the alleged privilege of working in education, and the self-sacrifice of public service. This has been a way in which capital has been able to compel overwork and exhaustion across a social terrain… Estrangement from the self emerges from the loss of subjectivity and sensuous, creative practice, inside relations of production with increased technical composition.

Hall, R. (2018). The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 169.

As a growing surplus population drags the experience of exploitation and immiseration from the margins of academic society into its core, through performance management and precarious employment, there is potential for indignation and degradation to be generalised. At issue is how to place transformation of the mode of production at the heart of the matter, rather than amplifying hopelessness. As practices from the racialised, gendered, disabled, homosexual and queer margins of the global North and the global South move back to the centre of production, engagement in survival programmes as a precursor to dismantling the mode of production, are crucial for academics. Academic privilege and hegemonic, alienating academic norms need to be checked by learning from alternative life experiences. This demands a new war of position in the name of survival pending revolution, rooted in co-operation and accepting of the reality that Keynesian, welfare capitalism cannot be reinstalled. Instead, academic hopelessness needs to stimulate an alternative social function as the basis for abolishing wage labour.

Hall, ibid., p. 181

Through the pandemic, it is not enough to discuss academics as a homogenous group or with an ability to work collectively to confront their conditions of production, in order to challenge the relations of production that are so clearly toxic to so many. It is clear that academics exist in a range of constantly shifting, determinate conditions, which are re-shaping the ways in which academic labour functions through the application of new forms of organisation, precarious employment, rounds of voluntary severance and reorganisation, the imposition of new technologies, policy edicts which drive competitive demands, and so on.

Moreover, these conditions are different for a range of sub-groups and communities of whatever academia is or might be. Where the experience is defined by norms set against the idea of the successful White, male, heterosexual, able Professor, the rest of the academic peloton is forced to recalibrate itself will be recalibrated by this privilege. What this then means if you are an academic of colour, female, have a caring responsibility, are ill, whatever, is that you have to suck it up or take that next course on mindfulness or resilience, or decide that perhaps this isn’t the place for you.

The duality of the medical and financial pandemic signals the depth of the structural crisis of capitalism, and it has implications for the class composition of University workers as more and more people are dragged towards proletarian working conditions. This reminds us of the argument of István Mészáros in The Structural Crisis of Capital (2010, p. 172) that such crises reveal ‘the activation of the absolute limits of capital as a mode social metabolic reproduction’. Capital is unable to reproduce itself without asphyxiating those upon whose labour its subjectivity relies. Without access to ready markets for recruitment, commercialisation and impact -related possibilities, or escape routes grounded in public engagement and knowledge transfer, the University becomes unable to reproduce itself without asphyxiating those upon whose labour its subjectivity relies.


SEVEN. For humanity?

The Institute for Precarious Consciousness calls for the addition 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.

The editorial collective of Society and Space indicate the importance of pressing pause at this time. They indicate the importance of slowing the system, is a more ethical and tenable response. This enables us to think about the interrelationship between our broken healthcare and education systems, and how care and compassion are marginalised by the demand that we return to the market to sell our alienated labour-power. Instead, tentatively and modestly, they point towards the different ethos in the future post-pandemic(s). Ioana Cerasella Chris amplifies this in thinking about uncertainty at the level of society and our sociability. Here, the current conjuncture sees labour rights, economic populism, austerity politics, eco-fascism, and on and on, erupting from structural crises. As a result, the exploited core needs to reflect upon the expropriated margins of the global economy, in order to refocus solidarity with:

 low-paid workers across the globe are the ones who are keeping everyone safe, and whose jobs are ‘key’ and socially necessary; we can also see how trade unions and disabled people’s organisations are at the very heart of the struggle for better safety measures and protections for all.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally, by pushing back against the division of labour and recovering the humanity of their material powers. This is only possible through association, and in cooperation, and with guiding principles that are mutual, and through the community. Where community is mediated by the State or institution, personal freedom and autonomy is a function of one’s relationship to privilege, status and power.

It is the proletariat who, for Marx, act as the revolutionary class. Inside the University, it seems that the potential for change stems from those workers with nothing left to lose. This means that such a workerist analysis of the condition of academic work needs to consider how that work is integrated into capitalist social relations and relations of production. It needs to consider the divisions that exist between academics, and how those divisions or separations are maintained. Moreover, such a(n academic) workers’ enquiry might connect academic labour to the idea of autonomous activity outside the University and whether they offer moments of subversion or transgression against the value-relation. This demands that academics see their conditions of labour as continually-changing, and that the only redemption lies in accepting the hopelessness of a compact with a system of exploitation.

Without such a theorisation it becomes impossible to negate the capital-relation through the expansion of the realm freedom and autonomy. Instead, the focus becomes about issues of free speech, academic autonomy, resistance to casualisation, and other tactical reforms of an otherwise brutalising system. [Revolutionary praxis] entails a focus upon the production of the self as a pedagogic moment grounded in self-mediation as the key organising principle for life.

Hall, ibid., p. 248


Notes on what passes for University leadership in an age of crisis

¡Que se vayan todos!

They all must go.

Enough is enough. These people who claim to lead. These people have no moral authority. These people who are making decisions that affect our lives and the lives of those who are vulnerable and the lives of those whom we hold dear.

Enough is enough.

They all must go.


In the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, we realise just how pathological is the University. We realise just how diseased are its forms and its content, in terms of its cultures and its activities. The University creates a morbidity that is replicated in physical and mental ill-being and distress amongst those who labour inside it. University responses to the pandemic, claiming validity from the response of the UK Government, which itself lacks moral authority and that appears out-of-step globally, increasingly creates suffering. This is amplified because being out-of-step has been echoed by contradictory statements or no statements at all. These (non-)statements are being interpreted as failures by international staff and students, as well as those from the UK, who are well aware of alternative responses to the crisis.

Yet, we know from our reading of Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, that States, and the institutions that reside within them and relate to them, prioritise economic value, profit and surplus over people, and seek to maintain infrastructures upon which Capital can flourish. There is no place for morality or humane values unless they lie in the service of value-production.

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

We know that capitalist institutions only care for family or caring responsibilities, or communities, where they do not conflict with the production, circulation and accumulation of surplus-value. Relationships of care and love will always be secondary to the generation or sustainability of surplus. Thus, Marx and Engels write:

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

This is one of the reasons why academic and professional services’ staff have been on strike over the unsustainable, intensification of workloads, the casualisation and making precarious of so many lives, and the toxic inequality in pay and conditions for academics of colour and women in the Academy (and we might extend this to those who are disabled or queer, or who define themselves intersectionally).

On a global terrain, individual institutions are relatively powerless. The operation of the bourgeoisie occurs transnationally as a class project, and to expect an individual institutions to act against the interests of the class that governs them, is nonsensical. Moreover, Marx and Engels go on to highlight how crisis is at the centre of this project:

uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and [humans are] at last compelled to face with sober senses [their] real condition of life and [their] relations with [their] kind.

Inside capitalist social relations, crises are normalised at the level of society, be they financial, human, involving war, famine, flooding, and so on. These are constant moments for working out ways in which living labour and human lives can be further exploited, as the very essence of Capital – as its means of life.

Individual institutions, managed as joint ventures with a range of commercial partners, educational publishers, technology providers, consultants, and so on, reflect the fact that:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.

The dynamics of capitalist social relations mean that people as living labour are always subsumed under the need to expand surplus, or to maintain systems designed for the extraction of surplus through the exploitation of labour-power. We know that the impact of the financial crisis of 2007/08 has been work intensification, precarious employment, internationalisation strategies that threaten the climate, increased commodification and financialisation. University life has been accelerated with all spare capacity turned over to surplus and the rule of money.


We have seen the institution really subsumed under these logics, to the extent that they have become anxiety machines or pressure vessels. Increasingly then, the University is seen to be operating as a collection of spaces in which suffering, anxiety, ill-being are normalised, and where immunosuppression or compromised immune systems are further compromised, in the name of value-for-money, impact, entrepreneurialism, efficiency and now business-as-usual. Working inside such compromising labour conditions is increasingly a sociopathically-enforced, culturally acceptable self-harming activity. It is governed by extreme and unacceptable sets of behaviours, which themselves coalesce as pathological forms of managerialism.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we are advised by WHO experts that speed trumps perfection, and that leaders need to act and to move, rather than be paralysed by the fear of failure.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we see the British Society for Immunology arguing the two things that UniversitiesUK and the leaders of our institutions ought to have been calling for, or responding to, rather than offering a fractured and fragmented and separated set of responses, which simply amplify fear and anxiety.

Firstly, we feel more needs to be done to ensure social distancing to limit the number of COVID-19 cases in the short term, especially for vulnerable members of our communities. This will enable us to buy time until we understand the virus better and can begin to develop therapeutics.  Secondly, to aid efforts, we call on the government to release their modelling data to allow scrutiny from the scientific community to better predict the course of this outbreak.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear stories of immunocompromised members of staff being told that they have to be on-campus rather than able to deliver materials online, because the priority is business-as-usual.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear stories of the health of estates’ staff being compromised.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear of vice chancellors emailing staff to ask them to encourage students to be on campus, despite the institution delivering its programmes remotely in other locations

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear of international students upset at their College’s lack of planning, which materially affects their well-being and possibility of returning to their families and loved ones.

And we hear stories of institutions not paying close attention to Guidance on immigration provisions made by the Home Office for individuals affected by travel restrictions associated with coronavirus (COVID-19).

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we note that there is a struggle for institutional and sector-wide reputation over responsibility, where ‘slow and inactive universities … [are] leaving frontline staff unable to provide clear answers to distressed students’. Institutions are failing in terms of student and staff welfare and the deployment of their research expertise.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we crowdsource a list of institutional responses, which highlights how abject is the moral geography of UK higher education.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we watch as institutional leaders refuse to question the sagacity of herd immunity precisely because it is a narrative that underpins their need for a hypothetical, surplus-driven future, whilst others query that very focus upon a hypothetical future.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we understand this as academia’s shock doctrine, as we are placed in the front line of risk management in a crisis, where our responses are conditioned by student fees, service-delivery, business-as-usual, learning and teaching and assessment, rather than student and staff well-being and care. Thus, we understand how crisis intensifies academic work through a suggestion and then a demand for online education, without revealing the modelling or risk assessment behind this. This turns a temporary exertion into a permanent expectation, and to a permanent state of exception inside higher education. This risks further defunding, casualisation, monitoring and surveillance, and unbundling of the curriculum into the future. Because if we can do this now, in exceptional circumstances, then further revolutionising is possible. By moving online, institutions and their paymasters have a new precedent for casualised working, precarious labour, changing the relations of production based upon new forces of production, and so on, which have differential impacts on intersectional communities.

Moreover, in maintaining business continuity in the face of personal crises for those who must care, or who are sick, or who are immunocompromised, or who are precarious, our institutions work against a duty of care. As Audrey Watters argues:

Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s particularly true for the most vulnerable students — for Black and Latino students, for those with lower GPAs, for low-income students, for younger students. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s under “normal” circumstances. These are not normal circumstances.

The crisis reminds us what we knew about our leaders and their lack of care for us, or it reveals to us how we have duped ourselves, or it shows us how much cognitive dissonance we have to deploy in order to survive their intensification of our lives, and it shows us to whom or what they give their loyalty. And it is not us.

It is not us.


Thus, the daily, repetitive, symptomatic illnesses of University labour, normally revealed as performance anxiety, overwork, hopelessness, and uncertainty are amplified in this crisis of Covid-19. The ways in which University workers attempt to cauterise or ignore their wounds usually focuses on the maintenance and reproduction of privilege and status and surplus masquerading as a labour of love, and this becomes more apparent in this urgent call for business-as-usual. We are told that we must continue to self-harm, and that this is culturally-acceptable, because this is a service of love inside the University-as-family.

We are told this as other bodies in sport and entertainment and professional networks demonstrate their clear connection to, rather than separation from society, by cancelling and postponing and maintaining social distancing. Yet inside institutions whose governance and regulation is allegedly predicated upon the student experience, this appears impossible. Our labour of love has crashed into their need for surplus and the extraction of surplus, and the dependence upon particular income streams or modes of student and institutional debt

As the Italian communist Bordiga argued, there is no control here, in spite of our leaders claims that they are responding to Government control with carefully-managed approaches to risk reduction, and it was ever thus.

[W]hen the ship goes down, so too do the first class passengers… The ruling class, for its part incapable of struggling against the devil of business activity, superproduction and superconstruction for its own skin, thus demonstrates the end of its control over society, and it is foolish to expect that, in the name of a progress with its trail indicated by bloodstains, it can produce safer ships than those of the past.

Of course, it is the commodification of University life, and the competing, corporate reality of the University that has led us here. And for some institutions, this is worsened because they are leveraged through bond financing and refinancing. What happens to those institutions and their ability to make repayments on bond yields, or to maintain surpluses given immediate revenue restrictions and potential long-term reputational damage? What happens to the maintenance of investment-grade credit ratings? What happens to student fees? How are they communicating their risk assessments and contingencies to their staff and students?

And what of the regulatory and parasitical need for league tables, and the ability to position funds and institutions around the REF, TEF, KEF, NSS? How are these to be managed now? What power do they have over our present and our future? Why have these not been postponed? Can we use our renewed struggle to call for their abolition?

And we ask, what is the point of the Office for Students and its value-for-money strategy in all this? In a world in which study is enmeshed inside financial markets, how can institutional leaders provide leadership for us? When they are pulled by the competition and markets authority, by student protection plans, by access and participation plans, and by league tables? How do we enact humane values in the face of economic value?

As some institutions move to focus upon the intensification of labour through online teaching, what is to be done? For some of us, we have spent the last month organising around four fights and strike action, and this has been joyous and a mark of association and solidarity. For some of us, this has been exhausting, and we have people to care for, and people who are vulnerable in our lives, and we deeply care about our institutions, our peers, our students and our friends. Yet this move to intensify and to continue as usual, is a potential moment of struggle for a different, more humane world. If we can find the energy.

Because all of a sudden, our institutional response has been shown to be mediated by the market, by the division of labour which tells us that some must lead and some must follow, by the reduction of all of pedagogical life to the commodity, and by the reduction of our lives to the power of the commodity. Such that our knowing, doing, and being are all subsumed to the commodity, and to surplus, intensification, productivity, value and the rule of money.

And all of a sudden there is a very bitter taste to those discussions around value in higher education.


The capitalist University-as-is cannot halt the systemic devouring of our present lives, in the face of the desperate institutional need to accumulate surplus in the future. The capitalist University cannot save us, because it is driven by short-term economic interests, rather than the long-term conditions of life. It is pathological; it is diseased; it functions through cultures of silence, obfuscation, paranoia, intensification, wait and see. It has lost control of the anxiety that gave it form and content through overwork and ill-being. This very anxiety has tipped beyond uncertainty into contempt, fear, anger, disbelief. This anxiety has made real the undercommons of the University as a moment of survival and of fugitive planning.

Crises are the very material of capitalist expansion, predicated upon the renewed exploitation of life and living labour. The moment of crisis and the individual and collective disasters that follow are the site of working class struggle. We are in a very real struggle in the University. We have generated new energy and new organising power through the strike. What do we do now with our indignation at the handling of Covid-19?

And I am reminded that years ago I spoke and wrote about whether universities care enough about students, or whether universities care too much about students. I argued:

as the corporate university tries to develop the characteristics of the entrepreneur in its students, it cares to discipline its labour-force through performance management and the rate of profit. However, inside and against this fragmented space, groups of academics and students are attempting to move beyond the pedagogy of debt, to define something more care-full, where the staff/student relationship can become the beating heart of an alternative vision for higher education as higher learning beyond the University and inside the fabric of society. This is the true psycho-social scope of care in these educational relationships.

Beyond the organisation of the strike, we make possible a movement for self-and communal-care. They cannot do this, because their power and privilege and status is predicated upon our everyday, ongoing, alienated labour-power. It is predicated upon our everyday estrangement from ourselves through exploitation. And so we ask, can we use this moment for emancipatory ends?

And we learn to remember ourselves.

¡Que se vayan todos!

They all must go.


Re-engineering Education: the University as Anxiety Machine

Next Tuesday I’m speaking at the Safeguarding Students: Addressing Mental Health Needs Conference. My slides are available below, and from Slideshare.

The intention is to frame this around:



Social Epistemology: On Authoritarian Neoliberalism and Poetic Epistemology

I have an article accepted for publication in a special issue of Social Epistemology: a Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy that picks up on some work I have been doing previously on authoritarian neoliberalism (see presentations and notes from a BERA Special Interest Group symposium here and here). The article also attempts to maintain some momentum around academic labour, academic practice, knowledge formation and the critical terrain of decolonisation. In this, I explicitly connect to Audre Lorde’s work on life as a poetic existence.

The special issue as whole looks at the intersections of higher education and the University, neoliberalism as a contested terrain/heuristic, technologies and technocratic forms of management, and subjectivities. My abstract and references are appended below. The other contributors and pieces are as follows.

Robert Antonio: ‘Ethnoracial Populism: An alternative to Neoliberal Globalization?’

John Holmwood and Chaime Marcuello-Serovs: ‘Challenges to Public Universities: Digitalisation, Commodification and Precarity’

Elio di Muccio: ‘Core HR in British Higher Education: For a Technological Single Source and Version of the Truth?’

Justin Cruikshank: ‘Economic Freedom and the Harm of Adaptation: On Gadamer, Authoritarian Technocracy and the Re-Engineering of English Higher Education’

Liz Morrish: ‘The Accident of Accessibility: How the Data of the TEF creates Neoliberal Subjects’

Ross Abbinnett: ‘The Anthropocene as a Figure of Neoliberal Hegemony’

Jana Bacevic: ‘Knowing Neoliberalism’

ABSTRACT

As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students are shorn of autonomy beyond the sale of their labour-power. One heuristic for analysing this response is authoritarian neoliberalism, imposed as a means of enacting disciplinary practices in the name of the market with an anti-democratic rationale. This has a distinctly technocratic focus, rooted in techniques of performativity, including audits and assessments of teaching, research and scholarship, grounded in productivity, the management of time and value-creation. However, there are a range of intersectional and geogra- phical responses to such an imposition, through which it is possible to describe alternatives to these architectures of subsumption. In particular, a second heuristic emerges which  challenges the restructuring of  the University in the global North, erupting from struggles for decolonisa- tion. Here, Audre Lorde’s invocation to an integrated, poetic existence that situates bodies in places, and respects feelings and emotions as the site of epistemological development and understanding, underpins the possibility for dismantling hegemonic knowledge production. The article examines whether humanist  narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse their alienated labour and to imagine that another world is possible.

KEYWORDS

Academic labour; authoritarian neoliberalism; decolonisation; poetic epistemology

REFERENCES

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Amsler, M. 2017. “Responsibilisation and Leadership in the Neoliberal University: A New Zealand Perspective.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 38 (1): 123–137.

Andrews, K. 2018. Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the Twenty-First Century. London: Zed Books.

Arvin, M., E. Tuck, and A. Morrill. 2013. “Decolonising Feminism: Challenging Connection between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations 25 (1): 8–34. doi:10.1353/ff.2013.0006.

Azar, R. 2015. “‘neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism.” New Politics XV (3). https://newpol.org/issue_post/neoliberalism-austerity-and-authoritarianism/

Barnett, R. 2016. Understanding the University: Institution, Idea, Possibilities. London: Routledge.

Bhambra, G., D. Gebrial, and K. Nisancioglu, eds. 2018. Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

Bhambra, G. 2017. “Brexit, Trump, and ‘methodological Whiteness’: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class.” The British Journal of Sociology 68 (1): 214–232. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12317.

Bruff, I. 2012. “Authoritarian Neoliberalism, the Occupy Movements, and IPE.” Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies 1 (5): 114–116.

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Bruff, I., and C. B. Tansel. 2018. “Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Trajectories of Knowledge Production and Praxis.” Globalizations. doi:10.1080/14747731.2018.1502497.

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Hall, R. 2018. The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy inside the University. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harney, S., and F. Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions.

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Tuck, E., and K. W. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1 (1): 1–40.

Tuhiwai Smith, L., E. Tuck, and K. W. Yang, eds. 2018. Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. London: Routledge.

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Podcast episode seven and alienated knowledge production

Episode seven is up over on the podcast channel, I’ve been talking with John Coster about coffee, documentary media and the boundaries between us, with a particular focus upon academic work and public engagement.

I’ve also been speaking at Academics, Professionals and Publics: Changes in the Ecologies of Knowledge Work. My slides on alienated knowledge production are below. Next week, I will give a fuller write-up of this event, with my takeaways in terms of academic identity and the abolition of academic labour.


Conference call: Radical Pedagogies: Macpherson 20 years on

Radical Pedagogies: Macpherson 20 years on

Thursday 19th September 2019

De Montfort University, Leicester

#RadicalDMU19

Call for papers

In November 2018 the University of Kent hosted the first event organised by Radical Pedagogies: The Humanities Teaching Network in Higher Education. This group was established as “a forum for Lecturers, Educators, Administrators and students to share resources and discuss innovative pedagogy and praxis.”

It is with great pleasure that De Montfort University (DMU) will be hosting the second Radical Pedagogies event in conjunction with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre and the Freedom to Achieve project at DMU. The main focus of the event will be on how radical pedagogies can be used to highlight and address issues relating to race and institutional discrimination. This event is not constrained by subject area, discipline or geographical location and is not just open to academics. We hope that researchers, PhD students, learning technologists, library professionals, academics, teachers, parents, students, educational activists and anyone interested in radical pedagogies, both within the UK and internationally, will consider contributing to and attending the event.

We are therefore looking for proposals for papers and interactive sessions (the more interactive the better!) or more innovative and radical session proposals for this one-day event.

On the 20th anniversary of the publication of Macpherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, we are reminded that Macpherson made reference to organisations and areas beyond merely the police force when he was referring to the problem of institutional racism.  Paragraphs 6.54 and 45 state that:

6.54 Racism, institutional or otherwise, is not the prerogative of the Police Service. It is clear that other agencies including for example those dealing with housing and education also suffer from the disease. If racism is to be eradicated there must be specific and co-ordinated action both within the agencies themselves and by society at large, particularly through the educational system, from pre-primary school upwards and onwards.

45.15 There was a weight of opinion and concern in relation to two specific aspects of education. First the failure of the National Curriculum to reflect adequately the needs of a diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. Secondly the number of exclusions from schools which were apparently disproportionate to the ethnic mix of the pupils.

What followed were recommendations 67 and 68:

67. That consideration be given to amendment of the National Curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism, in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society.

That Local Education Authorities and school Governors have the duty to create and implement strategies in their schools to prevent and address racism. Such strategies to include: that schools record all racist incidents; that all recorded incidents are reported to the pupils’ parents/guardians, school Governors and LEAs; that the numbers of racist incidents are published annually, on a school by school basis; and that the numbers and self-defined ethnic identity of “excluded” pupils are published annually on a school by school basis.

This event is an opportunity to explore and discuss issues such as (although not exclusively):

  • how far recommendations 67 and 68 have been implemented and had an impact, not just in schools, but across the education sector;
  • whether a focus on the curriculum goes far enough in addressing institutional racism in education;
  • has the focus on working class white boys shifted the attention/discourse away from institutional racism in education?
  • what needs to be done to close the attainment gap?

We therefore welcome proposals for sessions which address some of the above broad themes. Other indicative areas are:

  • Anti-oppressive teaching practices;
  • Punk pedagogy;
  • The role of the marketisation of Higher Education on radical pedagogies;
  • Critical Race Theory, intersectionality and pedagogy;
  • The role of radical pedagogies in reducing attainment gaps;
  • Institutional discrimination and radical pedagogy;
  • Student experiences in the classroom; and
  • The role of parents/carers as educational activists.

The aim of this event is to encourage participants to push the boundaries of current educational and pedagogic practices.

Please submit a 500-word abstract, or a 2-minute video clip by the 19th June 2019 to RadicalDMU@dmu.ac.uk

This event is a free, one-day, event.  Travel bursaries are available. Please contact us for further details.

Radical Pedagogies Call for papers


Slides for Bath Spa Presentation: The Alienated Academic

On Wednesday I’m presenting at Bath Spa in an open discussion of my book, The Alienated Academic.

The slides are appended below.

NOTE: I will only speak for 20 minutes but wanted to present a full slide-deck.


alienated academic book review

Over at the new PostDigital Science and Education journal Joss Winn has a review of my monograph, The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. Joss plays around with the review style, in order to highlight some of the alienating realities of academic (over)work and time. He makes several important points about the book that resonate for me as follows.

  • Categorical critique: “Where Hall’s book differs from much of the literature on the marketisation of higher education and threats to professional identity, is his thoroughgoing, relentless attempt to explain what is happening at a categorical level that cuts through (i.e. intersects) the differences in professional experience in order to find what is common among us.”
  • The hopelessness of labour: “The alienation that Hall identifies at work goes beyond estrangement and hopelessness and is rooted, he argues, in the critical category of labour. In fact, to see the problem as marketisation, metrics or managerialism is to mistake the manifestation for the cause of our problems. Such an approach tends towards an unreflexive resistance to our own objective conditions and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. That helplessness breeds hopelessness, a recurring theme throughout Hall’s book. What is required (and this is key to the whole book) is a categorical critique of academic labour; one which perceives labour in the university through the basic critical categories of wage labour.”
  • A productive synthesis: “The Alienated Academic is structured in three parts over nine densely written and heavily referenced chapters. It covers a lot of ground in 270 pages, drawing widely from contemporary Marxist theory as well as an extensive engagement with Marx’s original work. It provides a useful survey of the concept of alienation and argues for the continuing and contemporary relevance of Marxist theory and its basic categories of labour, value, the commodity, subsumption and so on. What is likely to make this sometimes difficult book both intriguing and more broadly appealing is that Hall extends his contemporary Marxism with the literature of feminism, (de)colonialism, identity politics and intersectionality. It is a productive synthesis that is set in the context of contemporary changes in English higher education, while recognising that the alienating features of English university life can be found across the world. For these reasons, this is a unique and ground-breaking monograph in the field of critical university studies.”

I think that it is only right to thank Joss for this very kind review, and to accept that it is densely written and heavily referenced, drawing upon a range of theoretical positions. A friend who has engaged with the book questioned whether it was to0 theoretical, although in the acknowledgements I do point to a range of primers and readers about Marxist theory, and the book is part of a Marxism and Education series. One of the reviewers also argued that it was perhaps over-referenced, whilst another wondered whether my voice got lost in my citation of others.

What interested me in the process of writing was my attempt to understand my own work and academic practice. I could not do this without accepting and drawing upon a range of positions. This is why the literature on feminism, critical race theory, identity politics and intersectionality were so important. It is nice to read that this is received by some as a productive synthesis when I feel that I am simply trying to find my way by listening to a range of alternative positions, and in so doing hopefully enabling others to do likewise. However, in order to find my way I had to read a lot of things, and it feels only right to cite those authors who shape my own position.

One of the critical issues for me now is to think through how a categorical critique of academic experience, practice and work, rooted in the estrangement of the person employed as an academic or fractured as an academic, from her academic self, her academic identity, her academic community, and her academic products, can enable us to overcome the hopelessness of labour. How can sitting with and processing a hopeless position enable us to develop useful alternatives? How can accepting the hopeless university enable us to reimagine and reignite our humanity in the name of another world?

I’ll be speaking about the book at Bath Spa on 23rd January, and also at a University of Sheffield Ed.D. residential on 15th February.


on abolishing the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance

There has been so much discussion of potential job losses across institutions; there has been so much discussion of how negotiations over the USS Pension Scheme will play out; there has been so much discussion of the impacts of the ONS review of the decision of how to treat student loans in the public accounts; there has been so much discussion of the impact of the Augar Review of post-18 education. There has been so little discussion of what this means politically for academic labour.

That isn’t to say that there has not been an on-going statement of how academic work is adversely, toxically, negatively disassembling what it means to be human inside the University. For instance, a recent tweet from an academic at Leeds, liked almost 5,200 times, points to the impact on mental health of the apparent disregard that management have for their academic labourers.

Only, in the thread that follows, academics are not regarded as labourers, rather their fetishised status as privileged knowledge workers takes on the usual, depressing and reified narrative in which individuals who have worked for doctorates are commodified as assets. This represents an ongoing failure to engage with the political economy of academic work, and to see it for what it is: the everyday, coercive re-sale of alienated labour-power, which results in the everyday estrangement of the individual from herself and her community. This community includes the students whom she must sort and separate and grade, her peers against whom she must compete for status and privilege and resources, and her Commons whom she must use as an asset or develop as a market for knowledge transfer or exchange.


Describing the depressive position of academic life is one thing; analysing and moving beyond it demands socially-useful theory, rooted in the ongoing reproduction of alienating capitalist social relations. Academic impact and the public good are socially-useful for capital, and demand a different kind of analysis. Instead praxis demands that rather than fetishising academic labour, we see it for what it is – brutally alienating. As Ansgar Allen wrote in his review of The Alienated Academic, my argument is a:

critique of the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance, its role in their enslavement to a work ethic built on alienation, and their participation in wider flows of capitalist destruction. Though many in the academy may think otherwise: another world is not possible, at least not a world that issues from the labour of the current academic, however radically inclined.

Thus, my opening chapter focuses upon the academic labourer becoming awakened.

This is a book about estrangement and alienation in academic life; about being a stranger to the nature of your own scholarly work, to yourself and to your peers. This is a book about moving beyond the surface perception of academic work as a labour of love or privilege, in order to understand its essence inside increasingly alienating contexts.

Hall, R. 2018. The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 1.

In expanding upon this idea that work is a withering form of living death rooted in personal losses, and that academia is not privileged and that it is not a labour of love and that in the process of fetishising it we diminish ourselves, I argue that this stops us from seeing the inability of the University to address global emergencies.

Proletarianisation renders institutions hopeless spaces for addressing the wider ramifications of the crisis of value. The University framed by a secular crisis of the value-form remains unable to address fundamental global problems like climate change, because its interaction with the world is mediated through the market, the division of labour and commodity-exchange.

It is increasingly unclear how these institutions and their curricula enable global societies to adapt through collective, educational repair. This is precisely because HE institutions are limited to their ability to coerce individuals in placing their labour-power for sale in the market.

ibid., p. 57

This idea that academics fetishise and universalise their own labour as an objective, public good does nothing but cripple any hopes of self/social-care or renewal.

Academics have been nudged towards accepting these forms of crippling enslavement by focusing upon the alleged privilege of working in education, and the self-sacrifice of public service. This has been a way in which capital has been able to compel overwork and exhaustion across a social terrain… Estrangement from the self emerges from the loss of subjectivity and sensuous, creative practice, inside relations of production with increased technical composition.

As a process of reproduction the labour process forms a motive power underpinning the expanding circuit of alienation, A-A’. This expansion shapes subjugation, because the potential of the labour-power inside each individual labourer cannot be realised except through the objective conditions of capitalist work for value.

Ibid., p. 169

The question is then possibly Lenin’s, what is to be done? Or perhaps Nietzsche’s what next? Later in the book, I argue that individual academics must confront alienating conditions of work that reproduce estrangement across social and personal terrain, at the level of society.

As a growing surplus population drags the experience of exploitation and immiseration from the margins of academic society into its core, through performance management and precarious employment, there is potential for indignation and degradation to be generalised. At issue is how to place transformation of the mode of production at the heart of the matter, rather than amplifying hopelessness. As practices from the racialised, gendered, disabled, homosexual and queer margins of the global North and the global South move back to the centre of production, engagement in survival programmes as a precursor to dismantling the mode of production, are crucial for academics. Academic privilege and hegemonic, alienating academic norms need to be checked by learning from alternative life experiences. This demands a new war of position in the name of survival pending revolution, rooted in co-operation and accepting of the reality that Keynesian, welfare capitalism cannot be reinstalled. Instead, academic hopelessness needs to stimulate an alternative social function as the basis for abolishing wage labour.

Ibid., p. 181


It is not enough to discuss academics as a homogenous group or with an ability to work collectively to confront their conditions of production, in order to challenge the relations of production that are so clearly toxic to so many. It is clear that academics exist in a range of constantly shifting, determinate conditions, which are re-shaping the ways in which academic labour functions through the application of new forms of organisation, precarious employment, rounds of voluntary severance and reorganisation, the imposition of new technologies, policy edicts which drive competitive demands, and so on.

Moreover, these conditions are different for a range of sub-groups and communities of whatever academia is or might be. Where the experience is defined by norms set against the idea of the successful White, male, heterosexual, able Professor, the rest of the academic peloton is forced to recalibrate itself will be recalibrated by this privilege. What this then means if you are an academic of colour, female, have a caring responsibility, are ill, whatever, is that you have to suck it up or take that next course on mindfulness or resilience, or decide that perhaps this isn’t the place for you.

This means that uncovering political composition needs more attention by academics as they try to work for solidarity and collective action. This composition is effectively the ways in which labour organises and resists the labour process itself, in part generated through struggles over pensions or workload or whatever, and which is aimed at refusing the imposition of a new technical composition of capital across the terrain of academic work, which can only ever aim at reproducing exploitation. This technical composition is the ability of capital to annihilate the costs of labour-power whilst enforcing productivity gains or longer working hours upon those who remain. It is no wonder that we see an increase in the academic gig-economy, increasingly technological performance management, a rise in the reserve army of PhD labour with no apparent future, and a narrative that fetishises human capital development with the risk owned by the individual academic.


Of course, one of the issues here is that labour-power is the source of value inside capitalism, and so by annihilating labour capital undermines itself though a crisis of profitability. Yet in order to overcome the political composition of labour, capital has constantly to innovate its technical composition. Is it possible then to use this as a moment to challenge alienating work? Is it possible to analyse the political composition of academic labour, in order to refuse a technical recomposition designed to extend the universe of value?

The theory of class composition restates the problem of power in a perspective where recomposition is not that of a unity, but that of a multiplicity of needs, and of liberty.

Negri, A. (1979). Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. London: Pluto Press, p. 14.

The problem with not being able to do this analytical work, is that the academic has no starting point for refusal, other than a lamentation or a scream against the latest indignity. One result is that there may be anger, but there can be no indignation. For whilst Marx argued that the individual worker would only ever become “an appendage” and mutilated or fragmented, with her family thrown under the juggernaut of capital acting as a werewolf or a vampire, too many academics still cling to the ideas of status and privilege are themselves underpinned by hope rather than hopelessness. This means that there can only be space for anger rooted in powerlessness at the latest excellence framework or demand for impact or research audit or student evaluation or workload plan. And anger rooted in powerlessness leads to a depressive position.

And so the question becomes how to decompose academic labour. How do academics analyse their own social organisation in relation to capital? How do they unpack the conditions and relations of production, where they are employed inside the University acting as a means for the production of value, in concert with transnational finance capital, global educational technology/publishing firms underwritten by venture capital, and policymakers working in partnership with transnational bodies like the World Bank or IMF, and where their work is conditioned by student debt? It is important that this work is done, because the particular situation of the academic is her starting point for analysing the lack of solidarity amongst academics as a group, and for realising the relative solidarity between sub-groups of academics who continue to be made marginal inside the system of hegemonic production. Moreover it is a starting point for realising the relative solidarity between subgroups of academics and a movement beyond the University of groups and individuals made marginal.


Here, class is not enough. As a result, it is important to look at the differential conditions of labour for: Professors; tenured staff; professional services staff; students; postgraduate teaching assistants; precariously employed staff; and to do this in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on. Because it is clear that in order to leverage change inside the Academy, as a moment of prefiguring change outside the Academy, or perhaps where change inside the Academy is immanent to change outside, some people have too much to lose. Too much privilege, too much status, too many resources, and for some, the process of proletarianisation has not impacted enough to spark their solidarity.

It is the proletariat who, for Marx, with a revolutionary class, and the potential for change then stems from those (academics) with nothing left to lose. This means that such a workerist analysis of the condition of academic work needs to consider how that work is integrated into capitalist social relations and relations of production. It needs to consider the divisions that exist between academics, and how those divisions or separations are maintained. This includes disciplinary separations reinforced through league tables and excellence frameworks, as well as separations of status and privilege.

Moreover, such a(n academic) workers’ enquiry might connect academic labour to the idea of autonomous activity outside the University and whether they offer moments of subversion or transgression against the value-relation. Do they enable hegemonic social relations to be subverted? Moreover, is there space for decomposing academic labour, such that the divisions noted above might be dissolved as a stage in moving towards the abolition of that labour, rather than its fetishisation and accompanying hopes that a Utopian state can be restored? Instead, this recognises that academic labour, like all other forms of labour, is not privileged. It is always in a process of being dominated, exploited, reengineered and repurposed for-value, as capital struggles to annihilate its own dependency upon labour-power. This demands that academics see their conditions of labour as continually-changing, and that the only redemption lies in accepting the hopelessness of a compact with a system of exploitation.

The power therefore lies in attempting to see that individuals working collectively makes the world, and need to be alive to both its historical and current, material realities, in order to develop new forms of struggle. Capital’s ongoing struggle to decompose and recompose academic labour means that there can be no Happy New Year, in which a system of exploitation governed through competition and mediated through private property (in the form of knowledge), the division of labour, commodity-exchange and the market, is given away by those with power-over us. There will be no Happy New Year, which is better for our fragmented physical and mental health, precisely because just like the old year, the New Year will be built upon alienated labour-power. Understanding the political economy of academic work is a starting point for establishing our own power-over the world, our own weaknesses, our own associations and spaces of solidarity, such that we might decide what next or what is to be done?

However, this cannot be disaggregated from wider struggles in the world to decolonise, or for gendered rights, or for disability rights, or for environmental rights, or for whatever. This means that different forms of organisation might be needed inside the University and beyond, which also recognise the historical and social specificity of those contexts, whilst working towards dissolving the boundaries between them. This dissolution is the recognition by the academic that she is a socialised worker, and that in this dissolution lies her ability for self-actualisation as a form of self-mediating activity not conditioned by competition, excellence, impact, entrepreneurship, employability, the market, whatever.


If you have no engagement with political economy, good luck with that, because the system wishes to reduce you to your alienated labour-power. And what is worse, it wishes to annihilate the value of that labour-power in every moment of every day, through competition with others on your administration, teaching, assessment, scholarship, research, public engagement, impact, excellence, unemployability, and it wishes to do this transnationally. It is no wonder that your physical and mental health is fragmented, commodified, made toxic.

labour increasingly struggles to be integrated into a global, alienating, social metabolic control, with ramifications for domination and subordination. Thus, a primary aim for revolutionary practice rooted in revolutionary pedagogy is not simply to overthrow capital, but to abolish it as the means of regulating society.

The critical moment for alienated academic labour, is to treat the University as context for radical research that might produce living knowledge capable of revolutionary practice at the level of society (Roggero 2011). It has no revolutionary moment beyond this position, and instead can only act for the recuperation and reproduction of the capital relation. An academic, workers’ enquiry is a departure point for enabling ‘the worker to develop the capabilities of [her] species’ (Marx 2004, p. 447), which will dissolve the capitalist mode of production inside a new, non-alienated mode.

Without such a theorisation it becomes impossible to negate the capital-relation through the expansion of the realm freedom and autonomy. Instead, the focus becomes about issues of free speech, academic autonomy, resistance to casualisation, and other tactical reforms of an otherwise brutalising system. [Revolutionary praxis] entails a focus upon the production of the self as a pedagogic moment grounded in self-mediation as the key organising principle for life.

Ibid., pp. 232, 234, 248

Merry Christmas.


Episode 6: in which I blather on about care, material relations, and the fact that being kettled is a pain in backside

This is the Q&A session from my book launch. For the opening conversation with Sarah Amsler, check out Episode 4. 

The Alienated Academic is available from the Palgrave site, or it’s a little cheaper via institutional access to Springer Link.

The questions that I was pre-emailed are appended below.


Would be interesting to hear you(se) talk about the tensions of publishing mainstream academic book in contexts of tyranny of contemporary neoliberal academic research, writing and publishing regime 

Here’s a question – open ended, really – about whether the possibility of mass intellectuality is possible without a degree of alienation and disfunction. I remember thinking when I read your and Joss’s book that there is a paradox there about inequality and alienation being a forcing ground for mass intellectuality e.g. the pensions strikes.

In the book you write: “Narratives from academics of colour, precariously employed academics, academics who have been made ill through overwork, marginalised academics with caring responsibilities, each need to be elevated and presented, in order to demonstrate how the system shames and needs to be dismantled”. I wonder how this might be achieved, especially in those universities where dissent on these matters is immediately quelled with charges of gross misconduct.

How for me your detailed blog about the book, especially first and last paragraphs, made a great link for me between the book itself and your proposal for a more personalised follow-up piece. I think you’ve it right there. And I think that too is the basis for a piece for the “lay” – non-Marxist – reader. (You remember how hard I had to work at the embedded conceptualisation!)

I love your courage in atomising the academy as you do in the book, and stitching your own personal (therapeutic) process into the weave.

The power of the work for me was mediated by (1) the Marxist conceptual tool-box (2) your capacity to work to a place beyond the analysis to a place characterised by care, “dignity as a new form of wealth”(p217), “indignation as a motive force”(p204)… Glad you gave us chapter 9!

Powerful also for me was your use of language (as far as I can tell) outside the Marxist toolbox: loved “the academic peloton”(p197), and even better somewhere the alliterative “professorial peloton”.

I’m intrigued by the piece on The Hopeless University, and as in Kleinian therapy, having to go into the depressive position to a new realistic integration.

I’m also intrigued by your passing allusion to “human essence” (p190) – tantalisingly undefined, and perhaps better so, but reminiscent of our conversations of something beyond, undefined, untouched even by the material conditions of our existences under capitalism.