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:https://www.uel.ac.uk/About/Finding-us


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. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/
  • Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Marx, Karl. 1866. Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/08/instructions.htm
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 1846/1998. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Prometheus.

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

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


a manifesto for academic citizenship

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


book project: The Alienated Academic

I have an agreement with Palgrave Macmillan for a monograph with the title The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. It builds on writing here, and has the following aims.

  1. The book applies Marx’s concept of alienation to the realities of academic life in the Global North, in order to explore how the idea of public education is subsumed under the law of value.
  2. The book situates academic labour as a form of productive labour, in order to connect alienation to the ongoing secular crisis of higher education and responses to that crisis.
  3. The book critiques academic responses to the secular crisis, first as struggles to overcome alienation, and second to reassert autonomy and forms of radical subjectivity.

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting [her] own behavior to [her] as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame…

Anthony Wallace. 1961. Culture and Personality.


Education and radical subjectivity

The materialist doctrine that men are the product of circumstances and education, that changed men are therefore the products of other circumstances and of a different education, forgets that circumstances are in fact changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.

Karl Marx. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

For the proletariat can only be liberated from its dependence upon the life-forms created by capitalism when it has learnt to act without these life-forms inwardly influencing its actions. As motive forces they must sink to the status of matters of complete indifference. Needless to say, this will not reduce by one iota the hatred of the proletariat for these forms, nor the burning wish to destroy them. On the contrary, only by virtue of this inner conviction will the proletariat be able to regard the capitalist social order as an abomination, dead but still a lethal obstacle to the healthy evolution of humanity; and this is an indispensable insight if the proletariat is to be able to take a conscious and enduring revolutionary stand. The self-education of the proletariat is a lengthy and difficult process by which it becomes ‘ripe’ for revolution, and the more highly developed capitalism and bourgeois culture are in a country, the more arduous this process becomes because the proletariat be-comes infected by the life-forms of capitalism.

The need to establish just what is appropriate to revolutionary action coincides fortunately-though by no means adventitiously-with the exigencies of this educational task.

Georg Lukács. 1920. History and Class Consciousness: Legality and Illegality.


Education and substantive equality

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

bell hooks. 1994. Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge.


Choose life

Going to university is still a big decision, and it’s a choice which more and more of you are making. We want that decision to pay off, to set you up for life, and our reforms will make sure universities do just that.

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students.

What if we’re actually not crazy? What if wanting to work one full-time job and have the ends not only meet but actually overlap a little is NOT an entitled pipe dream?

The sheer stress of existing in today’s world is enough to give anybody an anxiety disorder. Add the fact that we’re told over and over again how we need to just bootstrap it, because generations before us handled life just fine, and you have a recipe for disaster. The generations before us could afford college tuition on minimum wage and didn’t have bosses who expect us to be tied to our devices at all hours.

Born Again Minimalist. 2016. The gaslighting of the millennial generation.

the job wasn’t yet on offer to me. I was wanted for another trial shift on Thursday, and perhaps the weekend, to see if I could keep up on a busy night and then I’d get paid for any time over the unpaid 2 hours of each shift at the weekend when they pay all staff weekly, cash-in-hand, avoiding tax and, of course: no sick pay, no set hours.

So far, so exploitative. But the part of the conversation that most stood out was the guy’s pathetic attempt to make me beg for this below-minimum wage kitchen porter job. “You have to show us that you really want this,” he challenged me, like he was an X Factor judge and I the contestant desperately seeking his endorsement. “Do you just want the work, to earn your money and go home? Or do you want a career here?” I had to repress laughter at this point. The guy clearly didn’t even believe in this spiel, it’s just the kind of crap that he was supposed to say but he was awful at it. Perversely, I almost felt sorry for him for being such a shit capitalist.

The point here is that you’re not just supposed to be paid nothing and get treated like garbage, you have to act like this is all part of your career plan. The demand here is a performative one. I had to “show him that I wanted it” – a demand that is largely unquantifiable but nevertheless psychically demoralising, designed perhaps to differentiate the boss from their staff affectively, even morally, in an industry of surprising equality of immiseration between the ostensible capitalist and the worker.

Michael Richmond. 2016. Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs


Choose dissonance

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Franz Fanon. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks.

If providers are unable to provide courses that students want in a financially sustainable way it is in the long-term interests of students and the taxpayer that they close down. This is of course compatible with government subsidies of certain courses, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), that are deemed necessary for economic growth.

Andrea Coscelli. 2016. Competition in higher education is in the interests of students

For choice and competition to work, students need access to reliable and comparable information on HE courses. Changes made to the provision of information must not undermine students’ ability to make choices.

Like you, we consider that the TEF should be made as effective as possible in supporting student choice and providing incentives for providers to compete on quality. Students choosing between courses at different institutions are likely to be most interested in the quality of the specific course for which they are applying, rather than the institution generally, and as such are likely to derive significantly more value from a TEF award that relates to specific disciplines. We therefore welcome your proposals to run “disciplinary pilots” of the TEF, and we recommend that you move to a disciplinary level TEF as soon as practically possible.

Andrea Coscelli. 2016. CMA recommendations on the Higher Education and Research Bill.


Choose excellently

Perhaps it’s just that the government doesn’t actually want to measure teaching excellence. Maybe we really want to measure learning outcomes and someone got the name wrong. Maybe teaching excellence is just one of a myriad of things that we want to measure, and TEF was just the catchiest acronym. Either way, I think it’s time that we ask ourselves, “what is it that we actually want to measure?”

Collette Cherry. 2017. Why my friend’s dog will never be Professor of Economics at Oxford, and other problems with TEF

For there to be any confidence in TEF, there must be acceptance that the metrics, their benchmarks, and the weight attached to them give valid results. We have heard that the TEF assessment panel will operate with all the  necessary contextual information, which gives some comfort. But what is in the metrics, what is benchmarked, and what is flagged are crucial.

Jackie Njoroge. 2016. Three important questions about TEF metrics.


Choose what you internalise and re-produce

as billions of young people based in least developed countries might encounter much greater difficulty than the 1970s- 90s generation in integrating into the global economy. In a world of ‘declining returns on humans’ having too many young people might be a recipe for social and political dislocation rather than growth, even if the business climate is improved. In our view, it is quite likely that when historians examine the last one hundred years, they would classify 1950s-1990s as the ‘golden age’. Although there would be inevitable academic disputes about exact boundary (i.e. whether the golden age ended in 1980s or whether there were two golden ages, i.e. 1950s-mid 1960s and 1980s-90s), however, as an overall period, we think it was time of increasing opportunities and generally rising returns on human capital. However, 2000-2030s will likely be classified distinctly differently.

Macquarie Research. 2016. What caught my eye? v.61 ‘Lumpenproletariat’ & deglobalization.

If there is no price signal, complex reforms have to be put in place to replicate its function or the market is no more efficient as an allocator of resources than an alternative form of organisation such as central planning. And there would be no point in engaging in extensive reforms to university funding.

The Teaching Excellence Framework is best understood then as an effort to create a proxy signal to indicate quality to potential students and rival institutions through its gold, silver and bronze badges. (In contrast to this consumer intervention, the Research Excellence Framework is a public procurement tendering exercise where future research is funded on the basis of past results).

As a concluding aside, if ‘neoliberalism’ is to be more than a shibbloleth when discussing HE reforms, then its more substantive meanings are to be found by understanding why markets are desired and what impediments there are to their implementation. This then makes the contours of future struggle clear – only by eroding the subsidy in student loans can tuition fees (as they rise and differentiate) become the prices they are so obviously meant to be.

Andrew McGettigan. 2017. Why undergraduate tuition fees are not prices when backed by SLC loans.


Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions

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

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

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

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

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

Context

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

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

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

Focus and key areas

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

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


on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

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

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

UK universities: functions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO. Objectification for-profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE. Paradise lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Sociality: overcoming a terrain of alienation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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