notes on the cybernetic hypothesis

I spoke last night at an event hosted by the Breaking the Frame collective. Breaking The Frame is based on the idea that everyone has the right to take part in decisions about technology. The collective aims to break the frame that conceals the politics of technology — to expose the common roots of the wide-ranging social and environmental problems caused by technologies.

My talk followed that of Ursula Huws of the University of Hertfordshire who described the terrain that defines the relationship between the digital and capitalism. There are details of the event, and other events in this series, here.

I was asked to speak about The Cybernetic Hypothesis, which was published by the collective that produced Tiqqun (reparation, restitution, redemption), a French journal with two issues in 1994 and 2015. It was argued that Tiqqun was a space for experimentation (pace The Situationists). It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. At issue was how to recreate the conditions of another community. See The Theory of Bloom and Introduction to Civil War for more information about Tiqqun’s philosophical basis.

Joss Winn’s notes on Reading the Cybernetic Hypothesis are especially helpful in unpacking the concepts developed in this short-ish tract (published in Tiqqun 2, and 43pp in eleven sections). Below, I detail the core themes I wished to open-out, alongside some further reading.

Cybernetics and control

It is important to situate the Cybernetic Hypothesis against the history and development of cybernetics, which was amplified in the aftermath the Second World War across a range of (inter-)disciplines. In particular, it focused upon structures, constraints and possibilities for homeostasis/regulation across specific systems. This focused around work involving to designate what was hoped would be a new science of control mechanisms, in which the exchange of information, four flows of data as real-time feedback mechanisms, would play a central role.

In discussing the cybernetic vision, Peter Galison argues that ‘Cybernetics, that science-as-steersman, made an angel of control and a devil of disorder.’ As a result, resistance (developed in the final three sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis) has pointed to mechanisms that increase disorganisation, noise, and uncontrollability, such as capacity, panic and fog, as ways to resist silence and control.

Here it is worth reflecting on Brian Holmes’ work on control, in terms of the continuous adjustment of an apparatus, or an environment, according to feedback data on its human variables. The environment is overcoded with an optimizing algorithm, fed by data coming directly from you and me. In this way we might view our use of social media, search engines and the Internet of things is a way of mapping ourselves both into a wider value-chain (with differential spatial and temporal aspects) and into a new political terrain. See Holmes’ work on Do Cybernetics Dream of Digital Resistance?, and this video on the society of Control: The Neoliberal Civilization.

What emerges in this analysis is a complex architecture the lies beyond the surveillant-architecture of the panopticon, where transnational activist networks (operating as geographies of neoliberalism) continually attempt to manipulate the environments in which individuals exist. This takes the form of ensuring risk-management by focusing on governing networks (as opposed to network governance) exerting hegemonic forms of social authority in a new ways. It also ensures that the system acts as a form of semi-autonomous ‘piloting’ (according to Tiqqun), through which new forms of accumulation can be generated rooted in the circulation of value. One key outcome is control of the future for consumption, and smoothing out outliers, which may form a terrain for resistances and rupture (in the form of reparation, restitution and redemption). For Tiqqun:

It is no longer a question of static order, but of dynamic self-organisation. The individual is no longer credited with any power at all: his knowledge of the world is imperfect, he doesn’t know his own desires, he is opaque to himself, everything escapes him, as spontaneously co-operative, naturally empathetic, and fatally interdependent as he is. He knows nothing of all this, but THEY know everything about him.

Thus, we might see the role of cybernetics in the interlocking systems that congeal as capitalism as enabling a set of holistic, self-regulating, self-organising processes, which in turn underpin a stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. It should be noted that the original hopes for cybernetic theory were in part grounded in systems as self-organising, although this potentially leads to increased complexity and noise, and the possibility for rupture. Such ruptures stand against the production of an objectively-controlled, stable society; such ruptures are amplified by slowing or breaking the flows of information and data. This is important because, as Tiqqun note:

That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine.


In her brilliant MIT PhD, Jessica Eden Miller Medina described the use to which the Chilean state, under Presidents Frei and Allende (and then repurposed under Pinochet), put computers as technologies of the state. She refers to these technologies as “state machines.”

These new record-keeping technologies and practices, including early computers and tabulating machines, in turn allowed state officials to plan economic policies and simulate their effects; map the national population statistically with increasing accuracy; and keep detailed inventories of national resources. The resulting databases in turn shaped future economic policies and their underlying theoretical frameworks, the behavior of international lending agencies, perceptions of government efficacy, and levels of public satisfaction. They also created new forms of state control.

Rationalization, organization, coordination, and, at bottom, tecnificacion not only played a crucial role in Frei’s economic policies for development, but also the social changes outlined in the “revolution in liberty” and the president’s dream for modernizing the state so that he might create a better society.

Crucial here was the focus on the relationship between technical relations of production and political vision. Miller Medina quotes President Allende’s speech welcoming visitors to the Cybersyn Operations Room:

We set out courageously to build our own system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

However, inside Chile, there were problems in realising a new social terrain, because of: the relationship between deliberative democracy and the realpolitik of power relations; the messiness of economic planning and information at different levels of state and society, from the factory/community to central government; and because of the messy relationship between economic planning and social revolution. That said, analysing examples like CyberSyn, the involvement of the FLOK Society in delivering Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living, and the Lucas Plan, each offer alternative ways of exploring the relationships between human activity, human needs and technology.

Relationship to capitalism

The development of cybernetics is a systemic, structural and secular response to the issue of maintaining stable forms of accumulation and avoiding crisis inside capitalism. It is a response to the question of how to develop new forms of value without a fatal disequilibrium arising? For Tiqqun:

It is the tool by which capitalism has adjusted its capacity for disintegration and its quest after profit to one another. A society threatened by permanent decomposition can be all the more mastered when an information, an autonomous “nervous system” is in place allowing it to be piloted.

As a result, cybernetics acts as a lubricant for circulating and extracting value, using control devices to maximize commodity flows by eliminating (or at least reducing towards zero) risk and slow-down. One key issue is the relationship between value and machinery (or state machines), which tends to generate surplus population and to generate popularisation/proletarianisation. Harry Cleaver argues that this forces us to consider the conditions under which people become surplus to a capitalist system based on the imposition of work both waged and unwaged. As Amy Wendling notes this is crucial because “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made […] Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.”

One way of reframing this, which we can imagine emerging from an analysis of cybernetics in Chile or Ecuador, is to recognise how productivity reduces people to appendages of the machine through Capital’s autonomy over the General Intellect. As Marx writes in volume 1 of Capital:

The productive forces… developed [by] social labour… appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them.

We may consider resisting through the recognition of our collective knowledge, skills and capabilities as forms of mass intellectuality, which might be liberated in those unalienated areas of our lives yet to be colonised by capital. This leads us towards a struggle against work. As Moishe Postone argues, this is fundamental because the machining realities of the world we are in

opens the possibility of large-scale socially-general reductions in labor time and fundamental changes in the nature and social organization of labor. Yet these possibilities are not realized in capitalism.


In discussing a co-operative pedagogy of struggle, I argue:

The fight against forms of cybernetic control is not one of destroying or refusing high technology, but rather focuses upon using technology and technique to reveal the internal, totalising dynamics of capitalism. From this position, alternatives rooted in self-organisation and a societal complexity based on variety, improbability, and adaptability emerge. For Tiqqun, this forms the negation of the cybernetic hypothesis through a return to what it means to be human. A critical role for educationalists using technology inside-and-against the cybernetic hypothesis is to develop educational opportunities that highlight the development of counter-narratives of commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, and against the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition. As Tronti (p. 105) argued, at issue is the extent to which the forms of control that pervade human existence inside the social factory can be revealed and alternatives critiqued so that ‘capital itself [] becomes uncovered, at a certain level of its development, as a social power’.

Here we remember that Kautsky in discussing the class struggle argued:

The economic machinery of the modern system of production constitutes a more and more delicate and complicated mechanism; its uninterrupted operation depends constantly more upon whether each of its wheels fits in with the others and does the work expected of it.

Here there is an argument that the complexity of the wheels make up the capitalist machine offer moments of slow-down and machine-breaking. For Tiqqun, this did not mean a better, or more democratic use of technology inside capitalism. It meant a different set of social and humane formations:

a cascade of devices, a concrete government-mentality that passes through [inter-subjective] relations. We do not want more transparency or more democracy. There’s already enough. On the contrary – we want more opacity and more intensity.

Attacking the cybernetic hypothesis – it must be repeated – doesn’t mean just critiquing it, and counterposing a concurrent vision of the social world; it means experimenting alongside it, actuating other protocols, redesigning them from scratch and enjoying them.

For the collective moments of reparation, restitution and redemption were to be sought: in the increase in moments of panic disequilibrium; in the generation of noise; in becoming invisible inside the system; in the duality of sabotage and retreat; through deliberate slow-down; through humane, rather than technologically-mediated encounters; by increasing the space for opaqueness and fog. It was argued that “Speed upholds institutions. Slowness cuts off flows.”

This reminds us of Marx’s conception in the Grundrisse of the social cost of productivity and technological intensification:

The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time. (If labour time is regarded not as the working day of the individual worker, but as the indefinite working day of an indefinite number of workers, then all relations of population come in here; the basic doctrines of population are therefore just as much contained in this first chapter on capital as are those of profit, price, credit etc.) There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production.

For Tiqqun, then, the point was widening the space for autonomy.

It gives itself the means of lasting and of moving from place to place, means of withdrawing as well as attacking, opening itself up as well as closing itself off, connecting mute bodies as bodiless voices. It sees this alternation as the result of an endless experimentation. “Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.

There are some outstanding issues which need to be addressed as part of this discussion.

  • Issues of intersectional oppressions, which are reinforced cybernetically, including the emotional and psychological toll this takes. This is then related to reproduction of white, male, hetero-normative power.
  • The role of accelerationism: see Jehu’s discussions over at The Real Movement.
  • An engagement with issues of proletarianisation, and working class composition, autonomy and power. This leads to a discussion of the abolition of alienated-labour, across the wider social terrain.
  • How do we use narratives to generate forms of solidarity, and in order to offer examples of rupture and alternatives? Here I am interested in the tactics offered by PlanC in generating a machine for fighting anxiety.

NOTE: I have written about cybernetics in the context of the relationship between Autonomist Marxism and eduction, and also in terms of emerging technologies and commodification. There are useful resources in the reference lists.

on the (im)possibility of speaking

Do you want to be afraid?
Do you want to be afraid?
For life in the cage where courage’s mate runs deep in the wake
For the scariest things are not half as enslaved

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

I came off mirtazapine on May 28th. After almost six years of pouring chemicals into my soul to stay in the game I was so bored. And so ready. There is no moment in which this shift in readiness became apparent. Four years on from a second breakdown and from my Mom’s death, it is just time to get well, and to do so clean. To finish therapy clean. To try to exist a little more on my own terms. To try to excavate and own my life. Because being ill and covered-up and false is so fucking dull.

<NOTE: my mirtazapine journal features 1 year on 15mg, 1 year on 30mg, 2 years on 45mg, 1 year on 30mg, 6 months on 15mg, 2 months on 10mg, 1 month on 7.5mg, 1 month on 5mg. All of this in close dialogue with my GP. How I loathe it for the weight-gain. How I miss its ability to help me sleep.>

Increasingly the black cloud is less depression, because I am able to recognise the shades of sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto melancholia. There is something so humanising about sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto a dehumanising melancholia. However, what has been left is an acute awareness, or perhaps an acute reawakening, of levels of chronic anxiety in spaces where I should feel safe.

I have described elsewhere how, in the face of my second breakdown in 13 years “the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.” I went on:

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.

And I was in some mutually-reinforcing shit-storm of anxiety about travelling and anxiety about speaking. About being out-of-control. About being unsafe. So that travelling became a problem because getting on trains and sitting on them waiting for the doors to close was too painful. Not that I ever failed to get on one and to stay on it. But still, with cortisol flooding into your marrow, it wears your soul thin.

Always looking for exits.

Praying that my mind would just reboot.

And wanting to be asked to speak, because it’s the only way to reboot myself. And because people ask you when they want to listen to you, and that is lovely and hopeful, and needs respecting. And there is hope wrapped around finding some faith and some courage in myself. To find some peace, if I can find my voice. Is this self-care?

And dreading being asked to speak. Because I’m a Professor and it’s expected, and this reframes the relationship between pressure and anxiety. And because what if I can’t do it and have to run? And what if I let people down? And what if I fail? Is this self-harm?

Stuck in an apparently unresolvable quantum position. Voice/silenced. Self-care/self-harm.

Schrödinger’s academic: neither dead nor alive; both dead and alive.

Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all
Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to speak at all

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

Since 2013 I have spoken at 59 academic events, and yet each one was a trial. Lost sleep. Panic attacks. Occasionally on the phone to my therapist 90 seconds before I was due to speak. A test of faith and courage. A test of survival. Each one an act of defiance. Each one a refusal. Each one a moment of excavating my soul. In retrospect.

Excavating my soul from the compacted layers of trauma.

A few months ago I was asked to keynote the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. A few weeks later a second request came in to keynote the University of Worcester Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference. Both conferences were slated for this week. Back-to-back. Amazing to be asked. A privilege. Having to say yes. Wanting to say yes. Fearing saying yes.

Trying to forget them and hoping that I would be well in time.

Trying not to voice the fear in my head that was trying to make my perceived failure concrete.

Ignoring that they might in themselves be healing.

Unclear that they might in themselves be healing.

Lacking the ability to comprehend that they might in themselves be healing.

Forgetting to live in the present, to be present, rather than to be entombed by future fears.

In retrospect the pattern of hope/self-care plus dread/self-harm was different. Being awake at 3am the night before was different, because whilst the anxiety felt the same my mind was also fixated on what I was going to say. Visualising what needed to be said; what wanted to be said; what I had to say. Now this is exhausting, this duality of chronic anxiety gripping the chest and also rehearsing the act of living. But the anxiety wasn’t in my stomach, and so hadn’t reproduced itself as panic. An alternative possibility. A normal possibility: to be normally anxious. Because I always remember Mike Atherton stating that the day you aren’t nervous walking out to bat for England is the day to quit, because it doesn’t matter enough.

And speaking really matters. And I spoke. With a normal level of anxiety. A normal act of solidarity. My speaking is always an act of solidarity.

And I remembered that years ago I wrote:

As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And as I sat on platform 2 at Worcester Foregate Street yesterday, I processed why I was so close to tears after I speak. Why speaking and its aftermath enabled so much of my life to be processed and mourned, and as a result to be liberated. During the afternoon I had written:

emotion // anxiety // exhaustion // soul // projection // give everything // all played out // being heard // solidarity // worn thin // weeping // do I matter? // do I have a voice? // will it be okay? // mourning // liberation

And I texted a friend to say:

My urge to weep after I speak has really affected me this week. Something about being heard/solidarity, and something about how I’m all-in emotionally when I present. How much of myself I need to give.

How much of myself I need to give, in order to recover myself.

And there are a set of timelines that converged these past few weeks. Feeling physically stronger, as I remember that it took me 4 years to recover my strength from my first breakdown, and from chronic fatigue, and to trust my body. And kicking the chemicals because qualitatively, in my soul, something had shifted. And now travelling first to Inverness, and then to Oxford and to Worcester, and speaking. Telling out my soul.

And the tears are for finding my voice. For persevering whilst the trauma was unpicked, and the scabs formed, and then the scars. For knowing, in my soul, that it won’t always be like this.

And there will always be an opening in my soul for Inverness and Oxford and Worcester.

Boy, we can do much more together it’s not so impossible
It’s not so impossible

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

This is the playlist I made along the way.

notes against educational ‘managerialism’

Yesterday I wrote that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’ yesterday, and with ‘managerialism’ today.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.


Managerialism is now operating much more intensively inside increasingly corporate educational institutions. It rests on a belief that traditional, public-sector organisations are inefficient and lack the organisation and leadership to maximise student learning outcomes or teaching quality (Friedman 1962; Gates Foundation 2014). New forms of public management, like deliverology (Devarajan 2013) or the World Bank’s science of delivery, are implemented to rationalise and quantify processes and goals that are grounded in techniques of performance management. Often these processes are crystallised inside individuals and institutions as performativity, or the incorporation of hegemonic practices and beliefs (Ball 2003; Butler 2015). Across educational domains, managerialism reshapes the curriculum around commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of teacher/student performance, like income generation, research outputs, employability metrics, or student outcomes and progression rates (Hoareau McGrath et al. 2015). Any hope for those opposed to new forms of managerialism that radical subjectivity might emerge from the messy realities of the curriculum are lost in the processes of performance that subvert the concrete work that teachers and students do inside and outside the classroom.

In theorising these processes, Ball (2012) writes of three stages of neoliberalism, as a governance project that seeks the managerial control of everyday life. The first proto stage refers to the intellectual genesis and maturation of the neoliberal project. This stage witnesses a cultural attack on the everyday reality of the public and of the State, and it lays the groundwork for managing a consensus around the value of the market in defining the production of everyday life. In the second, rollback stage, social life that was hitherto experienced as public, and which included free-at-the-point-of-delivery education, is broken-up. Rollback connects to the third, rollout stage of the new neoliberal normal, through for instance: public policy that enables privatisation; the insuring or indenture of access to public goods like higher education; and, opening-up access to public, educational data for private gain.

Inside education in the global North, these processes are reinforced through new public management techniques (Davies 2014), which accelerate the quantification of academic practices through performance metrics related to teaching quality, learning environment, student outcomes, and research impact (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) 2015). Managerial processes that are grounded in the quantified academic self are amplified by competition, which forces individual universities: to restructure using bond finance to enable capital investment; to rebrand themselves for international markets; to engage in labour arbitrage, or the reduction in labour costs, through precarity and outsourcing; to drive strategies for entrepreneurialism or social enterprise, which refocus academic work on spin-out companies and intellectual property or generate new brand identities; to engage explicitly in corporate partnerships with publishers and finance capital that pivot around the production of value. Here the proto phase of the marketization of higher education meets the rollback of State funding and regulation, and the rollout of opportunities for marketization and accumulation, in a messy and contested set of spaces (Mazzucato 2013).

Such contestation demands the imposition of managerialism inside the corporate university, in order to regulate the institution and those who labour within it. This is imposed through: techniques of co-ordination, like service development plans and workload management that identify academics and students as resources (Ball 2003; McGettigan 2015); performance management techniques that seek to optimise outcomes or impact (DBIS 2015); and the imposition of systems of command, such as those which emerge from more nuanced analysis of the data produced by academics and students, including learning analytics (Crawford 2014) and ‘liquid information’ (Manyika et al. 2013). As a result, managerialism signals appropriate behaviours amongst academic communities, so that obedience is reproduced (Foucault 1975; Tiqqun 2001). For Foucault (1975), such forms of regulation crystallise disciplinary management by: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. Disciplinary managerialism enables a qualitative shift in the types of outcomes accumulated, whether they are framed as student satisfaction, research impact, institutional surpluses, teaching excellence, and so on.

A critical moment in the generation of managerialism across higher education is the entrepreneurial turn inside the University, as that working space mirrors the generation of the creative-commodity economy outside. This turn recasts the academic as innovator whose formation inside-and-outside the University can be witnessed and judged as creative and valuable, not because it is useful but because it can be exchanged and can generate a surplus or a profit (Hall and Smyth 2016). This is not about the relationships that the academic has either with her peers, her students, or most importantly herself (Amsler 2015; bell hooks 1994). It is about the enclosure and commodification of that life under the organisation of the market.

A critical managerial impact of this internalisation of performance is the reduction of academic autonomy, which is accompanied by new, systemic myths that prioritise ‘resilience’ as key performance characteristics (Plan C 2014). An individual’s resilience inside an organisation is here defined as a positive emotional and cognitive adaptation despite experiences of significant adversity. As managerialism generates academic alienation, for instance through targets for external income generation, faster turnaround times for assessment feedback, and new workload models, the resilient individual has to adapt to survive. Managerialism enables the restructuring of the University as a business through the alienated academic self (Tokumitsu 2015). Target-driven fears and anxieties form the internalised boundaries of a structural and structuring performance management (Ball 2003; Hall and Bowles 2016). In education, such internalised managerialism reifies certain forms of work because they are intellectual, creative or social, whilst also internalising the demand to be competitive and outcomes-focused. Thus, as managerialism enforces the routinisation and proletarianisation of educational work (Cleaver 2002), academic labour becomes subsumed inside a structure that exists for the autonomy of Capital alone (Hall 2014; Marx 1993).

One crucial rupture point in this struggle between Capital and Labour for autonomy is the raising of voices that are systemically marginalised. Processes of managerialism tend to increase the pressures on subjects who are female, feminised and/or racialised, in workplaces that function as white, male hegemonies (Alexander and Arday 2015; Gallant 2014; James 2013). Managerialism re-produces educational practice through a white curriculum that is rooted in colonial power, and inside institutions where it is exceptionally difficult for individuals racialised as black to attain high status positions, like professorships (Rhodes Must Fall 2016; Why is my curriculum white? collective 2015). The managerial recalibration of institutions around specific forms of performance that are productive of value amplifies methods of exclusion, because the construction of educational settings is framed by those who have the power to voice in those spaces, and to co-author those spaces. The underlying, on-going logics of colonialism are revealed inside educational institutions that reflect a power structure rooted in further colonisation that serves the purposes of value production, circulation and accumulation.

In responding to the on-going colonisation of education by managerialism, it is important that educators and students contest the democratic deficit inside their own institutions, which is revealed in day-to-day performance management and governance practices (McGettigan 2014). Emergent themes connected to personal narratives need to highlight the local, regional and transnational impacts of managerialism on the bodies and souls of educators and students (Hall and Bowles 2016). This is important because managerialism that is designed to open-up and connect datasets around academic performance, like progression, the repayment of student fees, and future earnings profiles for graduates, stitches education into global geographies of financialisation and marketisation (Ball 2012). As educational performance becomes a tradable commodity, and as curriculum inputs are re-engineered to enhance futures trading in educational outcomes and earnings (McGettigan 2015), there is a need to think through how the management and governance of education might be liberated as a form of open, co-operative, common property that is itself rooted in social struggle beyond the University. Might educators and students build something that is engaged and full of care, and where they no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage their own alienation?


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McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Plan C (2014). We Are All Very Anxious. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Rhodes Must Fall. (2016) Rhodes Must Fall. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Tiqqun. (2001). The Cybernetic Hypothesis. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Tokumitsu, M. (2014). In the Name of Love. Jacobin Magazine, Issue 13. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ collective (2015) 8 Reasons the Curriculum is White. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

notes on educational ‘immiseration’

At 4.30am this morning I remembered that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’. The other two will follow.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.


Educational immiseration emerges from the processes through which the academic lives of students and academics are subsumed under the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and are thereby inexorably worsened (Hall and Bowles 2016; Marx 2004). It is underscored by social and economic impoverishment, and the on-going alienation of the academic and student: first from their own labour-power and the products of their own labour, which are disciplined through performance management and debt; second, from the university as a self-critical scholarly community, which is now on the search for competitive edge and surplus value; and third from other academics and students, with whom they must now compete, with such competition made explicit in league tables and performance indicators (Hall 2015a; Wendling 2009). Immiseration is then a function of the on-going privatisation and alienation of the conditions for social reproduction, alongside the demand for labour to be productive (i.e. to expand capital). It benefits a transnational capitalist class that is restructuring educational institutions, and which consists of academics and think-tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance and venture capital and private equity, educational publishers, and philanthropists or philanthrocapitalists.

Innovations in pedagogy, such as student-as-partner, or in the delivery of the curriculum, for instance through open education, might fruitfully be analysed against these potential constrictions or barriers to the social reproduction of capital. Reproduction must maintain an increase in the rate of profit and leverage further investment, in order to avert crises of over-accumulation, overproduction or under-consumption. At the same time labour rights, time and costs are forced down, to increase the rate at which surplus value is produced and accumulated It is increasingly reinforced through: first, competition between institutions and disciplines, through league table metrics, and between people in terms of enterprise and employability; and, second, through new forms of financialisation, such as debt-driven study, bond-financed, university expansion, or the connection of datasets relating to student loans, educational outcomes and taxation (McGettigan 2015; Rolling Jubilee 2016). The increase in student or institutional debt, and the linking of that debt to performance data is a means to bring education into the reproduction cycles of capitalism, and to re-engineer it to meet the demands for economic growth.

These processes of re-engineering higher education inside the logics of capitalism, known as subsumption, also works to modify the processes of accumulation, which enable academic labour, in the form of student labour-power or staff teaching or shared research, to be immiserated through its proletarianisation (Newfield 2010). Such proletarianisation is global, and is influenced by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy. It is also amplified transnationally through institutional internationalisation strategies and innovations like MOOCs that commodify educational content and assessment across global markets (Hall 2015b). The technological and organisational innovations being implemented across higher education by a transnational capitalist class are an outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and attrition on its costs. This affects the labour of students and academics, and drives universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation, as a response to the need to increase financial surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates and services rises, and through the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing, teaching or publishing compared to competitor institutions. One tendency is to further the consumerisation of higher education, such that educational relationships become contractual or transactional.

Changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. For instance, the increased use of technology to deliver curriculum content and assessment reduces the demand for teaching staff, while increasing the amount of digital content available for new markets. The end result of these changes is an increase in the number of precariously-employed academic labourers, in the form of postgraduates who teach, adjuncts, casual teachers, and even associate/full professors, and crucially students, who are struggling for some control over the means of production (CASA 2016; CUPE 2016; Morris 2015). Precarity means that students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal and are forced to contend and compete globally, including with private HE providers or alternative service providers. Immiserated labourers are forced to compete as self-exploiting entrepreneurs, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards (Richmond 2014).

In each of these cases individual labourers survive by selling their labour-power in the market, including students selling their future labour-power (as their potential employability) for credit that is obtained through loans. The process of immiseration entails the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The educational autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The educational time that is dispossessed is both the indentured present, which must be focused around becoming employable or entrepreneurial, and the future that is foreclosed because it must be described by the repayment of student loans (Postone 1996, 2012). This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by future employability, and research impact and student satisfaction metrics. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level. This process of alienation is an echo of Marx and Engel’s (2002) argument that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would immiserate and proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Policy statements also recalibrate higher education inside national export strategies, and strengthen immiserating tendencies, by re-focusing educational practice on high value-added, non-routine jobs (Australian Government 2015; Newfield 2010; Willetts 2013). Here, there is an acceptance that for vast swathes of the global population the reality is only immiseration and low-skilled, low value-added, routine jobs in a transnational market. Policy tends to accelerate competition and the incorporation of HE inside that logic, so that competition drives precarity and casualisation, and competition between entrepreneurs (Davies 2014; Mazzucato 2013).

Critically, the effects of such a policy mean that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, research impact, technological innovation and so on. A central issue for academics and students as labourers then becomes the creation of circulation of commodity services that are compensated through institutional profits or surpluses (Marx 1993). Thus, those who labour to provide a service, alongside those who labour to produce surplus value, are faced by capital’s drive to expand and accumulate value, and to reduce costs in the face of maximising profit. Profit is key in disciplining and exploiting (productive) labour and in driving down labour costs.

As capital looks for new spaces in which to invest the surpluses it has accumulated (in the form of new technology, intellectual property, finance and so on), it drives labour-saving innovations or technologies in all sectors of the economy. Thus, the growth of technological and entrepreneurial activity inside and against the University forms a way for capital to leverage the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested. Educational innovation also enables a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive. Therefore, it becomes important for educational activists to analyse the role of educational innovation in revolutionising the means of production and in generating social relations and modes of production that are immiserating. In the face of this assault on academic identity, enacted through time and performance, it is important for educators and students to ask whether it is possible to imagine a more general transformation of social relations for educational abundance? Such a reimagining must work for the abolition of academic labour, and of labour in general, as a way of overcoming immiseration.


Australian Government, Department of Education and Training (2015). Draft National Strategy for International Education. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

CASA (2014). A home online for casual, adjunct, sessional staff and their allies in Australian higher education. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

CUPE3903 (2015). Representing, Organizing and Activating the Contract Faculty, Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, and Research Assistants @ York University, Toronto, Canada. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Davies, W. (2014). The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE.

Hall, R., and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 28.

Hall, R. (2015a). The University and the Secular Crisis. Open Library of the Humanities, 1(1). DOI:

Hall, R. (2015b). For a Political Economy of Massive Open Online Courses. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(3), 265-286.

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Marx, K. (1993). Grundrisse: Outline of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Marx, K. (2004). Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2002). The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin

Mazzucato, M. (2013). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. London: Anthem Press.

Morris, A. (2015). The Rise of ‘Quit Lit’: What It Is and Why It Matters [Opinion]. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Newfield, C. (2010). The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal, 0, 10-26. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Postone, M. (1996). Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2012). Exigency of Time: A Conversation with Harry Harootunian and Moishe Postone, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 38(2), 7-43.

Richmond, M. (2014). Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs. The Occupied Times. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Rolling Jubilee. (2016). Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Wendling, A. E. (2009). Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Willetts, D. (2013). Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education. London: Social Market Foundation.

anthropological regression and education futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

I presented at the Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues seminar on Wednesday. My paper is based on a submission under review to a forthcoming special issue of TripleC on academic labour, and underpins work that I am doing towards a monograph on the alienated academic, for Palgrave Macmillan.

The key points from my paper and the subsequent discussion are noted below.

ONE. Individual stories

Individual stories and narratives matter in lifting and sharing our everyday experiences, and enabling us to theorise those narratives and then to uncover the structures and processes that dominate our everyday. This includes: the ways in which human capital theory and productivity dominates our lives, including beyond work; how families have to endure the breaking of shared social forms of care, wealth or practice, and have to be responsive and “resilient” as if they were competing businesses; the disciplinary power of institutional and transnationally-networked structures like debt over our lives, in the everyday; the projection of pain across intergenerational terrains, and a questioning of our ability to self-care. There are others, but these were live in the room. The question is how to understand these things and reveal their causes, as an immanent or negative critique, in order to pre-figure something different.

TWO. Academic labour in crisis

The subsumption of higher education (HE) under the structuring logic of value, as a response to a global, secular crisis of capitalism, has highlighted that there can be no autonomy for the academic labourer beyond the temporary amelioration of her labour relations with those who direct the HE for the logic of accumulation, commodification, and profit-maximisation. This leads to a contradiction between: first, the fetishisation of specific capabilities related to human capital, and in particular entrepreneurialism and employability: and second, the proletarianisation of academic labour through organisational development and technological rationalisation. One result of the internalisation of performativity is an increasing number of published narratives of academic and student ill-health or of their quitting the academy, and in particular of a rise in anxiety.

There is a rupture in the academic psyche, as an outcome of the alienation of the academic labourer from: first, her labour-power, which is made precarious as it is sold in the market; second, the products of her labour, which are financialised and marketised for their exchange-value rather than their social utility; third, herself as she becomes a self-exploiting entrepreneur; and fourth, her humanity as a species-being, reinforced through global competition. In order to cope with such alienation, academics increasingly employ forms of cognitive dissonance, which in turn reshapes scholarship and research as knowledge transfer, spillover activity and impact, and redefining teaching as excellence.

THREE. The proletarianisation of HE

Higher education is also caught up in cyclonic processes of production, consumption and financialisation. In particular, the instantiation of data/debt/money for our social relations drives competition between academics, between subject teams across universities, between HE institutions. Competition exists for student numbers, over the quality of scholarly publications measured in research excellence exercises, and over quality of teaching measured in student satisfaction and teaching quality excellence frameworks. As a result, competition instantiated through metrics and league tables dominates academic labour time.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on HE demand the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on its costs. The increased technical composition of an individual university is a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). As a result, the focus becomes human capital theory as a theory of productivity that is made manifest in the intensification of labour time. This now operates in policy and in practice inside higher education for instance through: technological and organisational innovation; the ability of a university to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing, so that it can maintain competitive advantage; the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, with individuals becoming self-exploiting entrepreneurs; the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on).

Thus, there are: reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; struggles led by postgraduate researcher-led committees that push the University to honour the essential role of teaching assistants in the form of fair pay and labour rights; quitlit reports of academics leaving the profession; individuals who witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; reports of the suicides of those who are classified as precarious, or for whom status is being removed; and networks reporting on the processes and pains of casualization.

Reports of overwork as a form of proletarianisation is a filament that enables us to trace the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, in particular the idea of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army not only conditions the work of those employed inside the University, but also those beyond it, in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to paid employment. Before questioning whether it is possible to develop a critical political economy of HE, it is important to delve below the surface reality of proletarianisation, to uncover its roots in alienated labour.

FOUR. Alienated labour

In the wider political economic realities inside which HE and universities are reproduced, the starting point is alienated labour and the endpoint its overcoming or abolition. As Marx (1857/1993, 831) noted in reaching below the surface of competition and value production, we need to address how ‘this process of objectification in fact appears as a process of dispossession from the standpoint of labour or as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital.’ Thus, as Simon Clarke argued:

Marx’s critique of liberalism sought to recover, both in theory and in practice, the constitutive role of human subjectivity behind the immediacy of objective and constraining social relations within which our social identity confronts us in the form of an external thing. (Clarke 1991, viii-ix.)

At the root of Marx’s critique of capital was the analysis of how such activity was alienated under capitalism, underscoring the ‘devaluation of the human world’ (Marx 1844/2014, 82) and the domination of the ‘object produced by labor, its products, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer’ (Marx 1844/2014, 83). The labourer’s activity is alienated from her precisely because it cannot satisfy her intrinsic needs. At best it provides means of subsistence. At worst it requires increasing amounts of cognitive dissonance in order both to re-enter the market to resell her labour-power, and to believe that she loves/likes what she does. This takes the form of further self-alienation.

Whilst the arguments for entrepreneurialism, employability and the development of human capital inside HE are situated superficially in the development of the individual and her capabilities, as wants that emerge from inside her, they are a function of the desire to expand value production. This is witnessed in the ongoing disciplining of that academic labour-power through performance management and metric-based monitoring. In the process, alienated labour forms the basis of competition and the separation of the individual from her species being/community of humans through the confrontation that emerges in the sale of labour-power (Marx, 1844/2014).

Crucially, Clarke argues (1991, 54) that it is important to base an analysis of alienation on the relations of production inside capitalism, and to ‘penetrate beneath the alienated form of labour to see the fundamental contradiction between labour, as the active agent of production, and its alienated (commodity) form which explains both its foundation and the possibility of its overcoming.’ Here one of the most important outcomes for academic labour is that a critique of political economy demonstrates how its focus on status underpins liberal society’s preoccupation with private property (including intellectual property and intellectual/social capital). As a result, the foundation of private property is shown to be social and historical, rather than naturalistic, and this opens-up possibilities for challenging the neoliberal obsession with abstract, superhuman individuality. Instead it reveals the specific, historical, relations of production which characterise the nature of academic work.

FIVE. Weltschmerz

Increasingly, academics face an intense world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects a deeper sense of hopelessness (the pain of the world) about the academic project. This is a recognition that the world once hoped for may never be, and that the concrete world now abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. In fact, in our abstracted world such hopelessness is connected to a loss of autonomy/freedom that is itself rooted in the inability to escape from capital’s domination. Much worse is the fact that the cultural terrain upon which capital works reinforces within us a sense that we are not productive enough, and that this is a sin. Moreover, our life choices emerge inside a system of structural domination that increasingly alienates us both from ourselves and from our place in the social and natural world.

In response to the revelation that under austerity, academic labour is increasingly a site of alienation, new ideas of good/public and bad/private are projected onto the University. It is hoped that the idea of the public good of HE can be recovered against the market. Inside the politics of austerity, academics can either incorporate performativity and control, or internalise the loss of what they hoped the university might become. However, this risks the development of a new depressive position through which despair restricts autonomy and where the overwhelming feeling is one of hopelessness. Addressing such a depressive position requires a different level of grief and mourning to be internalised, so that academics can address their alienation and lack of autonomy in an authentic manner, and in relation to wider society.

The critical issue is that academic alienation is rooted in enforced compliance and coercion, and in a refusal to locate solidarity across a wider social terrain. Marx (1844) knew that this is the logic of capitalism that defenestrates labour, in order that it can accumulate autonomy:

Is then only the semblance of an activity, only a forced activity, imposed upon me only by an external and accidental necessity and not by an internal and determined necessity… My labour, therefore, is manifested as the objective, sensuous, perceptible, and indubitable expression of my self-loss and my powerlessness.

With the formal subsumption of higher education under capitalist social relations, this sense of hopelessness is reinforced as we witness just how far the limits to our alienation from space, society and nature can be pushed. What this entails for the academic/student is an end to self-care; of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds; of the apparent impossibility of scaling-up kindness. It also demands a culture of omertà, or the silence of those in the know, who must co-operate even as they compete, and thereby generate complex inter-relationships rooted in uncertainty and anxiety. Is it then possible to define a new form of sociability across the social factory?

SIX. The Possibilities for Mass intellectuality

Marx (1857/1993, 694) argued that the dynamics of capitalism meant ‘the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].’ As a result, the craft and technical skills, capabilities, and knowledge of the social individual are absorbed into the things she produces. Therefore, the ‘general intellect’ of society, i.e. its general capacity for natural science fused with philosophy in the broadest sense, is absorbed into capitalised technologies and techniques. This reduces labour costs and increases productivity. Moreover, the relationship between natural science and philosophy, and the ability to think critically about human experience, are corrupted, such that the two are divorced from one another.

It is important to understand the mechanisms through which the general intellect is co-opted for value production, so that it might be reclaimed. Mass intellectuality refers to knowledge and forms of knowing that capital seeks to valorise, and also points towards the immanent (negative) and pre-figurative (positive) potential of new forms of sociality. Mass intellectuality implies a struggle over the proletarianisation of labour, and its emancipatory implications, as the embodiment of the cumulative history of natural science and philosophy. As Postone (1996, 373) argues:

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital… at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it.

A critique that is based upon alienated labour, enables a focus on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge, or ‘mass intellectuality’, as a direct, social force of production. This is an attempt to reclaim the concept of living knowledge as useful work and to reimagine sociability or to define activities that reproduce society against-and-beyond value production; it forms a critique of subjectivity, in its relationship to the prevalent mode of (knowledge) production. Here there must be a refocusing of the academic as a socialised worker, in her relationship to the social factory and social reproduction. As a result, situating the reproduction of the University and of academic labour against intersectional resistances, in particular the gendered and racialised nature of the relationship between HE and society, forms a moment in the development of counter-narratives that point towards ‘the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers’ (Marx 1866).

SEVEN. What Is To Be Done?

The generation of resistances, across an intersectional set of terrains and which acknowledge issues of privilege and powerlessness, require us to move beyond the triptych of private property, commodity exchange and division of labour, to uncover the realities of alienated labour. This is to work against the reconceptualization of academic labour by advocating solidarity inside and outside universities so that academic labour, including that of students, is recognised as having the same fundamental characteristics as other forms of labour and is therefore subject to the same crises of capitalism that are the focus of other social movements. This does not argue for the militant defence of academic labour, but sees it for what it is: wage labour subject to the alienation of the capitalist valorisation process, and to be abolished. Resistance to the processes of work intensification are all the while necessary, but the discovery of new forms of social solidarity and large scale transformation (rather than reformation) of political economy are the end goals.

Here the terrain of personal narratives grounded in alienation, which have yet to reveal their root in alienated labour, open-up the possibility that we might discuss an overcoming of academic competition and overwork. However, developing a counter-hegemonic solidarity requires that such narratives are connected to both a critique of academic labour, and a focus upon social solidarity and the social strike. This situates the exploitation of academic labour against the wider exploitation of paid and unpaid labour in the social factory. Not only must the academic labourer overcome her own competition with other academics to reduce her exploitation, but she must situate this cognitively and emotionally against the abolition of wage-labour more generally.

Of course, this must be attempted in association, so that an alternative intellectual, physical and humane existence might offer new forms of sociability that are grounded in autonomy over time. This requires praxis at the level of society, rather than within specific institutions like universities or inside specific, commodified curricula. As Marx (1844/2014, 115) argues, ‘The resolution of the theoretical contradictions are possible only through practical means, only through the practical energy of man.’

Against the fetishisation of the porous university


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

In addressing the question of the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’, this provocation takes as its starting-point the proletarianisation of higher education. Its academics and students, encumbered by precarious employment, overwhelming debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of any autonomy. Increasingly the labour of those academics and students is subsumed and re-engineered for value production, and is prey to the vicissitudes of the twin processes of financialisation and marketization. At the core of understanding the impact of these processes and their relationships to higher education is the alienated labour of the academic, as it defines the sociability of the University. This provocation examines the role of alienated labour in academic work, and relates this to the idea that the University is or may become porous, in order to ask what might be done differently. The argument centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour. The idea of mass intellectuality cracks the University from the inside so that its porosity increases, in order to abolish the very idea of the University.

Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues, seminar

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

Wednesday 3rd May 2017, 10am-4pm

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

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

Tony Green (UCL Institute of Education)

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

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

Hillary Wainwright (Red Pepper Magazine Editor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organised by Tony Green and Alpesh Maisuria

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

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

Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

I have a chapter in a new open access e-book. The book is entitled: Education and Technology: Critical Approaches. The book is in Portuguese and English, and can be accessed here.

My chapter is: Hall, R. (2017). Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety. In eds L.A da Silva Rosado and G.M. dos Santos Ferreira, Education and Technology: critical approaches. Rio de Janeiro: University Estácio de Sá Press, pp. 185-205.

The abstract for my contribution is as follows.

This chapter argues that data is the bleeding edge of educational innovation. By following the traces and trails of data, it is possible to uncover where education is being cracked open for the production, circulation and extraction of surplus value. In part these processes of cracking are amplified by the on-going financialisation and marketisation of higher education that continue to kettle academic practices of teaching and research. By uncovering the flows of value, it is also possible to demonstrate the transnational associations of capital that are profiting as a result of the data-driven reimagining of higher education. This uncovers mechanisms grounded in: enforced, public and open, educational data production; the enclosure and commodification of open and public data for-profit; the selling and re-selling of newly-commodified and technology-rich services back into open and public spaces; the generation of a rentier higher education economy rooted in high technology; the use of secondary legislation or policy related to employment and entrepreneurial activity, alongside primary legislation, to drive change; the exacerbation of debt and indentured study; and, the use of technology in performance management of academic labour. The chapter articulates these processes in the context of global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises and their symptoms, and in particular the generation of academic anxiety. Such anxiety emerges against the on-going precarity described by students and academic staff through technologically-mediated performance management. As a result, the chapter asks what can be learned from counter-hegemonic projects, in order to describe alternative uses for educational data?

Keywords: Big Data; Commodification of Education; Academic Labour; Academic Anxiety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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