Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

I’m speaking at the University of Worcester Teaching and Learning and Student Experience Conference  on June 15th. The title of my talk is Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education, and will be based on this Open Library of the Humanities paper. The abstract is appended below.

The higher education curriculum in the global North is increasingly co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes, framed by determinist narratives of employability and enterprise. Such co-option is immanent to processes of financialisation and marketisation, which encourage the production of quantifiable curriculum activities and tradable academic services. Yet the university is also affected by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. As the labour of academics and students is increasingly driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of performance, the ability for academics and students to respond to crises from inside the university is constrained by the market. This keynote argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the bounded nature of the curriculum is central. One possible way to address this crisis is by re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Masters House community and the Social Science Centre. Such an exploration, rooted in the organising principles of the curriculum, asks educators to consider how their curriculum reproduces forms of colonisation. It is argued that such work enables a re-imagination of higher education that is rooted in an engaged and co-operative curriculum, with a focus on praxis.

The day before I’ll be speaking at the Oxford Brookes Learning Teaching Conference on The really open university: working together as open academic commons. The two papers will complement each other.

notes on education beyond borders

Jehu has it.

Communists have to decide how they see the next few years unfolding: Are we simply against Trump or the system that made Trump possible as well. The Democrats, who control the movement at present, want to limit the aims of the movement to an anti-Trump agenda. Communists need to sharpen their critique of Trump to go beyond the merely superficial differences between Trump and Pelosi/Schumer.

From the major, surface eruptions of a failing system in inexorable crisis like Trump and Brexit, to the more localised attempts to overcome stagnation and to repatriate social wealth from the public to the private, like the assaults on national, public education, the question is how do we theorise and the dissent, organise and resist on structural/theoretical and concrete/local levels? It is inside and across education that this currently exercises me. What does this mean for those who labour inside schools and universities? What does it mean for the curriculum? How is the field of struggle widened out beyond the classroom?

This recognises the discussions about whether, in the current moment, Trump is weak and incompetent or enacting a frightening escalation that could presage a coup. However, in either analysis we must seek to grapple with Brian O’Neill’s echo of Jehu:

So far, sadly, the opposition to the order has been a kind of unreason, too. It has substituted the cool, tough, political critique of the order that we need with its own brand of fearmongering and the deployment of an ahistorical dread about the return of Nazism.

Our response needs to engage with: the relationship between education and the State; the value and purpose of our everyday interactions with students and their families/communities; the ways in which education enables the social metabolic reproduction of both capitalism and the capital system; and what is to be done as a pedagogic project at the level of society. Simply engaging in refusing the TEF or promoting no borders or whichever rearguard-tactical-response, without a theoretical analysis of why we are in this hateful space, simply leaves us at the mercy of the next demagogue, howsoever they smile whilst issuing kill lists or refusing to disclose whether any detainees have been victims of sexual violence inside Yarl’s Wood or banning visas for refugees from Iraq for six months or wrongly deporting 48,000 students, and on and on and on. And simply looking at Trump as the distilled moment of this excess enables us to continue-on, wilfully ignorant of our own place in the reproduction of oppression.

Moreover, to expect that we can outsource the solution to the next set of politicians is naïve: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Marx, Communist Manifesto). In part this is because the State functions inside-and-for capitalism and is historically and materially contingent on the capital system. However, struggles between states also act as critical moments of antagonism as they vie to become the state of the capital system as a whole. As István Mészáros notes

Thus the reality is not the elimination of nation-state aspirations but an overheating cauldron of perilous contradictions and antagonisms on a variety of levels, ubiquitously asserting themselves among the given and aspiring nation-states and even within the framework of the state formations invented as the projected solution of past inter-state antagonisms, like the—far from unified—European Union…

The overwhelming historical failure of capital was—and remains—its inability to constitute the state of the capital system as a whole, while irresistibly asserting the imperatives of its system as the material structural determination of societal reproduction on a global scale. This is a massive contradiction. Inter-state antagonisms on a potentially all-destructive scale—as presaged last century by two world wars still without the now fully developed weapons of total self-destruction—are the necessary consequence of that contradiction. Accordingly, the state that we must conquer in the interest of humanity’s survival is the state as we know it, namely the state in general in its existing reality, as articulated in the course of history, and capable of asserting itself only in its antagonistic modality both internally and in its international relations.

A response cannot come from accepting the reduction of individuals to their labour-power alone, as is evidenced in State-based proscriptions from both left and right, and in Capital’s desire to subsume all activity under the labour theory of value. Any such response, whether it is about no borders and the free movement of people (as human capital) or the human rights of refugees that are horrifically ignored because they have no market-value (recalling the New Car Recall scene in Fight Club), have to be situated against new forms of social solidarity that are rooted in directional demands and that emerge from new readings of equality, democracy and co-operation.

We can only read issues of equality, democracy and co-operation as they emerge historically and materially from the economic system in which they are subsumed and re-purposed, in this instance the distribution and ownership of labour-power as a commodity. Inside capitalism this then leads to all manner of objectionable ways of categorising individuals based on their human, social, intellectual, cognitive capital, or their being lazy, subhuman or second-class, or their re-composition as skilled/menial workers, whilst all the time we are proletarianised and stripped of our humanity.

Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing else is seen in them, everything else being ignored.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime need; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!

Marx, K. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme.

This is, of course, important in the USA where Yonatan Zunger argues that amongst other groups academics will come under duress (through funding restrictions, issues to do with tenure etc.) ‘because they’re part of those “elites” which are a convenient target for blame, and are also likely to be vocal opponents of the regime.’ Enclosures of academic freedom will be made necessary, in order to decommission the “expertariat” that is seen to threaten the true freedom of the market. And we have already seen Professor Watch-Lists.

We have seen the attack on experts and intellectuals in the UK too, and the denigration of teachers as professionals alongside the reduction of the curriculum to economic outcomes and value-oriented services, which demand performance management and perpetual assessment, and that lead to embodied illness and mental health under siege. And so we might ask, whether being on the streets to question Trump and to push back against State visits is enough? Or whether this is a counter-hegemonic moment when the failing system reveals its antagonism towards humanity as anything other than human capital. And we might ask about the role of educators and students in organising a new social movement, with new directional demands, which lie beyond the organised labour movement and instead coalesce as a new labour movement of the under/over/precariously employed and those who labour for the social reproduction and care of society more widely.

A social movement is a counter-force within an arena of power. At its best a counter-force destabilizes that arena and creates social and political openings, in the moment and in its wake. The longer a crowd exists the more dangerous it becomes. It’s there, in those openings, that we find fertile ground for broad and interpersonal solidarity, trust, dreams of the future, collective desire for anything. That is where we build our positive prescription, our visions. Meaningful, useful dreams are only dreamt in struggle, in the spaces opened and left behind by the fight.

After the fall, Communiqués from occupied California

Such a movement focuses upon critiques of equality, democracy and co-operation in governance, and takes the rejection of the market and of competition, and the mediations of exchange value, private property and the division of labour, as a pedagogic project to be grappled with at the level of society. As such it reinvents the curriculum-as-praxis inside and outside of the classroom. This is the moment at which we attempt to shape a curriculum that is beyond borders, through engagement with the voices of delegitimised academics and students, which make clear how the ongoing colonisation of the curriculum by capital is reflected in its explicit links to colonial repression.

Thus, in responding to social vulnerability, there is a need for those who labour inside the university as academics and students to re-imagine new, public forms of HE. One possibility is through engagement with the voices of delegitimised academics and students, which make clear how the ongoing colonisation of the curriculum by capital is reflected in its explicit links to colonial repression. Such a revelation is a search for radical democracy inside the university, framed by research-engaged teaching and learning that is deliberately militant, public and counter-hegemonic. This positions the curriculum as contingent upon, and sensitive to, societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions, with recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts, and expectations. This is a pedagogical project at the level of society.

Hall, R and Smyth, K. 2016. Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education.

A pedagogical project at the level of society. As a counter-hegemonic project.

Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Focus and key areas

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

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

Social co-operatives and the democratisation of higher education

With Joss Winn, I’m presenting at the Co-operative Education and Research Conference 2017. The abstract is presented below.

Higher education in the UK is in crisis. The idea of the public university is under assault, and both the future of the sector and its relationship to society are being gambled. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is resolutely instrumental. Moreover, the intellectual leadership of HE is situated within a competitive, transnational political and economic context, and this reproduces academic practices through marketization and financialisation.

This paper develops a critical analysis of ‘intellectual leadership’ in the University, and identifies on-going efforts from around the world to create alternative models for organising HE and the production of knowledge. It offers the potential for developing an alternative conception of the role and purpose of HE that is rooted in the idea of ‘mass intellectuality’. This takes experiences and views from inside and beyond the structures of mainstream HE, in order to reflect critically on efforts to create really existing alternatives.

In the process the authors ask if it is possible to re-imagine the University democratically and co-operatively? If so, what are the implications for leadership not just within the University but also in terms of higher education’s relationship to society? The authors argue that an alternative role and purpose is required, based upon the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge. Thus, the paper concludes with a critical-practical response grounded in the form of ‘co-operative higher education’. This rests on the assertion that ‘social co-operatives’ offer an organizational form that values democratic participation and decision-making and would constitute the university as a social form of mass intellectuality re-appropriated by the producers of knowledge.

The really open university: working together as open academic commons

I have been asked to speak at the Brookes Learning Teaching Conference 2017. I love this kind of invite, which enables a testing of ideas and a lot of listening to the practices, activities and hopes of others. My abstract is detailed below. The talk enables me to return to that practical work I was engaged with in 2010-12, around the idea of/re-imagining the university. It also enables me to reflect on my recent work inside the University, on commons and co-operative practices.

This talk questions the role of pedagogic scholarship and innovation in addressing global crises of social reproduction. It argues that working together has both possibilities and impossibilities, which need a richer discussion inside the University.

In the past decade, fall-out from the Browne Review has given birth to a number of alternative education projects. These alternatives focused on creating spaces and curricula that prefigure more democratic ways of doing higher education, in which the boundaries between student and teacher are dissolved and where co-operation and peer-projects between scholars become fundamental. Examples include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Really Open University in Leeds. These projects developed grounded, co-participatory scholarly communities, which acted as incubators for pedagogies like Student-as-Producer (Neary and Winn 2011; Pusey 2016).

However, they also share characteristics with transnational platforms like #RhodesMustFall and#Whyismycurriculumwhite, in attempting to push back against the structuring logics represented by the curriculum (Hall and Smyth 2016). These platforms also connect to co-operative forms of higher education like Mondragon University in the Basque country, the Little Schools of the Zapatista Movement, and the education sector of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

Reflecting on these alternative forms is helpful in analysing our responses to the crisis of higher education, in order to locate spaces for truly progressive pedagogies inside the university. If such spaces do exist, on what are they based and what is their relationship to the curriculum? How do they enable academics and students to respond to issues of inclusivity and diversity, collaboration and peer production? Three responses may be considered:

  • open, academic commons supporting a sharing economy inside and across a porous interdisciplinary curriculum;
  • safe, scholarly communities of practice, perhaps forming solidarity economies that refuse enclosure; and
  • positioning the university and curriculum within (and against?) the development of ‘mass intellectuality’, or socially-useful knowledge produced outside the university.


Hall, R., & Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI:

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

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

notes on the abolition of the #realworldacademic

ONE. The mobilisation of neo-liberalism

In ‘Remaking the World’: Neo-liberalism and the Transformation of Education and Teachers’ Labour, Susan Robertson argues that the roll-back of education and the expertise of the teacher, in order to roll-out private sector alternatives is key to the development of neoliberalism. She writes (p.2):

the mobilisation of neo-liberal ideas for reorganising societies and social relations, including the key institutions involved in social reproduction, is a class project with three key aims: the (i) redistribution of wealth upward to the ruling elites through new structures of governance; (ii) transformation of education systems so that the production of workers for the economy is the primary mandate; and (iii) breaking down of education as a public sector monopoly, opening it up to strategic investment by for profit firms. To be realised, all three aims must break down the institutionalised interests of teachers, teacher unions, and fractions of civil society who have supported the idea of education as a public good and public sector, and as an intrinsic element of the state-civil society social contract.

What we might see then in the current assault on experts and expertise is also attrition on the idea of the intellectual, or of public intellectualism, operating at the level of society is a possibility. This is precisely because of the ways in which the key traits of liberalism are distilled inside the neo- form that gives us rational utility maximisation, namely: individual agency and independence from others; a libertarian view of responsibility for and development of the individual’s human capital; the pre-eminance of market relations in the organising and governing principles of society; and the rule of private property. As Roberston argues (p. 3) ‘In other words, supreme value is given to individual autonomy, agency and property.’ In this moment what space is there for accepting the human capital of other (experts) with whom we vie for precedence in the market? What space is there for arguing for public or shared expertise that sites beyond ideas of common sense that shape how society functions through reductionist and determinist narratives?

Of interest here is Steve Fuller’s idea that renewed leadership is central in our collective (academic, student, scholarly, public, social) resistance to this reductionism. This resistance relates both to the form of academic work, and the denial of its content as public intellectualism:

the university as an institution is doomed without academic leaders who defend the university as a distinctive institution on its own terms—which is to say, not simply a set of revenue streams from tuitions, grants and patents, but as an organic unity dedicated to systematic inquiry as a public good. The only people with the knowledge, authority and power to defend this ideal are not the rank-and-file academics but the university’s senior administrators. For this reason, I have supported the idea that any aspiring to run a university should receive academic certification. 

What’s Left of the Academy? Leadership, Intellectuality and the Prospects for Mass Change, Steve Fuller interview with Mike Neary

Fuller argues that the roles of academics as disciplinary leaders or public intellectuals, in coding specific fields of study, and the splitting that takes place between teaching and research, all serve to weaken the ability of academics to engage publically. When folded onto the range of sectoral differences that exist between tenured and non-tenured staff, fractional and precariously employed staff, debt-ridden undergraduates, unemployed and under-employed post-graduates, it becomes clear that there is no shared moment of solidarity across the sector that enables a refusal or push-back against the idea that academics are disconnected from reality, or that the conception of social or public goods with which their work engages might be defined outside of the market.

Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world.

Glyn Davies MP.

Nothing more irritating than academics rubbishing the efforts of those operating at the sharp end, without facing up to the hard decisions.

Glyn Davies MP.

For Fuller, one of the issues in managing this debate is the disconnection of academics with the institution, so that disconnection then spills-over into the relationship between functions and disciplines.

[T]hey care more for their discipline or, more to the point, their research network than the university that employs their labour and affirms their status. On the surface, this behaviour may look conformist because it does little to stop the inertial tendencies (call it “new public management”) that these academics nominally oppose. However, it amounts to a radical disengagement with the university as an institution.

What’s Left of the Academy? Leadership, Intellectuality and the Prospects for Mass Change, Steve Fuller interview with Mike Neary

In this moment it is necessary to ask what are the ramifications of such disengagement for the civic role of the academic? How does this disengagement enable academics to respond to everyday performance management? What are the ramifications for the role of the university in civil and political society, and in our collective response to innovations like the Teaching Excellence Framework?

TWO. The #realworldacademic

It strikes me that in this moment of responding to Davies’ attack on the idea of the #realworldacademic, we might push back in terms of (for instance):

However, in responding to the anti-expert position of Davies and others, we might also refocus our work on what this reveals about the nature of intellectual work or academic labour. What does it say about the form and content of that labour? What opportunities are opened-up for generating an alternative narrative about academic work at the level of society, as a form of mass intellectuality or as a deeper connection between the academic and her communities both inside-and-outside the University?

This strikes me as being important for three reasons.

First, because it speaks to issues of (the lack of) solidarity in the academic project, which is being conditioned by the acceptance and amplification of the rule of money, for example through institutional performance management and student-debt. This conditioning is being articulated inside the university and across the sector in a transnational, associational phase of capital. Here there is an interrelationship between commercial and money-dealing capital and productive capital. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include associations of policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students, who form a deterritorialised network. Here, the expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit, and in educational production it is leveraged through the use of finance capital and credit to increase the rate of turnover of specific educational commodities and services-as-commodities. This is achieved through the on-line production and circulation of curriculum resources, and the competitive pressures of open education, MOOCs and learning analytics. The management and sale of the student loan book and corporate engagement both in the funding of research centres and knowledge exchange, and the outsourcing of physical and technological infrastructures, complement these strategies.

Thus, in order to develop alternative, concrete realities it is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed inside the equivalent of joint-stock companies, subject to the coercive logic of competition for research grants and student numbers. What is the impact of the coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice? To what extent does this process reinforce the reification of the student, the entrepreneurial academic, or specific technologies? How does the politicisation of these roles relate to the reproduction of capital? The market, defined by corporate entities operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students/academics are recalibrated not as social learners/teachers but as individual entrepreneurs able to access/produce educational services and products in a global market. Is this abstracted reality a meaningful way to deal with concretes crises of the environment, carbon, access to water, social dislocation, the politics of austerity, and so on, in the real world?

Second, Davies’ anti-academic assertion and the #realworldacademic responses reveal an on-going fetishisation of academic work, rather than an attempt to overcome the alienating realities of academic labour (that impact staff and students). One of the central issues for academics is that, as they labour under the structural domination of commodity capitalists, they have to vie for a place on the market. This makes them vulnerable to crises related to: futures-trading; access to means of production; overproduction; market-saturation; an inability to access credit; or the more general, societal access to debt. This tends both to restructure institutions and to reduce the points of solidarity for academic labour, including with students whose debt they increasingly rely upon.

What might be added to debates about the #realworldacademic is a meaningful discussion about the value of academic labour as social work/activity, rather than as reified exchange-value. What is its use-value as work/activity for society, as opposed to its price as a commodity/as academic labour-power? It is against the tyranny of exchange-value that the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, might usefully be discussed and re-evaluated. What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarious employment, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. Realising the capacity of academics and students as scholars to see their labour in common, in order to think and to act co-operatively, and to overcome that labour, moves us beyond concerns over the fetishised production and atomised ownership of academic labour. 

Third, as Gramsci notes in Workers’ Democracy, at issue is who validates and controls our social wealth:

the social life of the working class is rich with institutions, it articulates itself in multiple activities. Precisely these institutions and these activities need to be developed, organized together, connected in a vast and flexibly articulated system which absorbs and disciplines the whole working class.

The focus on experts/expertise and the lamentation for attacks on the idea of the academic, raises issues of what defines and constitutes common sense? Who carries the idea of public intellectualism, and who judges its validity? Does rhetoric lead academics to occupy disciplinary spaces and organisations that are devoid of any analysis of academic labour? Or does it lead us to re-focus our real-world activities in the competitive logics of student-as-purchaser or teaching/research excellence? Because how can we both share and develop solidarity, and work to develop expertise at the level of society, inside such a competitive environment? Can we only define solidarity actions through staff and student trades unions, or can these enable directional demands across sectors?

THREE. The political content of the #realworldacademic

This raises the importance of the #realworldacademic working politically to situate her work across sectors, in order to dissolve the boundries between those sectors, so that previously-fetishised knowledges, skills and capacities can be shared. Key here is to understand how the #realworldacademic and the university in which she works both support the ways in which neoliberal capitalism intentionally designs, promotes and manages forms of democracy and governance that complement its material objectives, limit participation and power-sharing, and support coercion. Thus we might question how our work enables the rhetoric of student-as-consumer and the marketisation of the sector, in order to open its resources up to the dominant or hegemonic order, and to manufacture consent for its practices. Manufacturing this consent depends upon coercion of the political cadre of organisational leaders. However, it is critical that once economic and productive power has been extended into the educational space, that domination then extends to the political, social and class-based relations in that space, through the implementation of ideological control throughout the mechanisms/institutions and cultures of civil society [including the ideas of open, open data, open education, open educational resources, and openness].

Here there is no potential for stepping beyond the controlling logic of the rights of consumers, which is framed as anti-academic and by extension anti-intellectual. Orwell echoed this dystopian logic; this despairing logic; the logic of anti-hope and anti-humanism; the logic that is their power-to reproduce the world in order to maintain their power-to reproduce the world; the logic of scarcity and not abundance; the logic of the use of technology and information to create a harmonious society.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?

The individual narratives of the #realworldacademic are a testament to the impactful work that is helping to shape and re-shape communities, and to provide solutions to a range of real-world problems. However, it needs to be reconnected to a political economic analysis of the form and content (abstract and concrete) of academic labour, as a means to overcoming/abolishing its fetishisation. Mechanisms for pushing-back focus upon the development of co-operative alternatives that situate expertise socially, rather than in the individual. Whether academics can develop alternative methods of liberating knowing and knowledge and organisation that are beyond the space-time of value production and accumulation then becomes critical.

Our responses are conditioned by the structural domination of wage labour, and the reality that the [co-operative/social/public] space has to exist inside the totalising relations of production of capitalist society. However, responses might act as critical sites in a struggle for mass intellectuality where they: first, contribute to the reclamation of public, open environments that enable the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge; second, connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy; and third, develop governance structures that ground, critique and disseminate the community-building of alternative educational settings like student occupations, co-operative centres or social science centres.

FOUR. On self-abolition

The anti-expert, naïve and dangerous misreading of academic-engagement with the real world (whatever that is) demonstrates a wilful, political antagonism. In my own context, my research is on alternative forms of higher education, with a Marxist flavour. I have worked in academic environments since 1994, writing, speaking, researching and managing projects that engage staff, students, public and private sector partners. However, crucially there is a flow between my engagement inside the University, in higher education, and across the curriculum, and my engagement outside the sector. There is no way that the essence of each can be distilled, because they have developed together and each has infused the other. These engagements outside are detailed here.

However, the point is that in my work inside/outside I am trying to dissolve the boundaries so that new flows of knowledge, skills and capabilities enable the abolition of fetishized roles. Without finding ways to abolish the #realworldacademic we will struggle to overcome our alienation from the things we produce, the relations inside which we produce the, from others and the environment and from ourselves. The point is not to maintain the abstraction of the #realworldacademic but to overcome it through abolition.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relations) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Marx, K. (1845). The German Ideology, Chapter 1.

We have already shown above that the abolition of a state of affairs in which relations become independent of individuals, in which individuality is subservient to chance and the personal relations of individuals are subordinated to general class relations, etc. — that the abolition of this state of affairs is determined in the final analysis by the abolition of division of labour. We also shown that the abolition of division of labour is determined by the development of intercourse and productive forces to such a degree of universality that private property and division of labour becomes fetters on them. We have further shown that private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-around development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-around fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives. We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. Finally, we have shown that the abolition of private property in the division of labour is itself the association of individuals on the basis created by modern productive forces and world’s intercourse. 

Marx, K. (1845). The German Ideology, Chapter 3.

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers – never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best.

Morgan, G. (2016). Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career. The Sydney Morning Herald.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance.

Email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm, 10 March 2014.

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Email from Stefan Grimm to various associates, 21 October 2014.

ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the higher education sector of the global economy. I wrote about how overwork is revealed through academic quitlit, in narratives about bullying, in discussions of mental health and academia, and, shockingly, through reports of suicides. These narratives and histories enable academics and students to be classified as precarious or without status, or lacking human (cognitive) capital, or even lacking emotional resilience. In this focus on academic overwork there is an intersection between academic ego-identity, control of the human capital that is the life-blood of the reproduction of the University as a competing business, and the internalisation of performance management/anxiety.

I note that what emerges, through the social relations of higher education “is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.” This drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, means that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, the domination of our academic clock-time by productivity becomes a means through which academics and students internalise entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.

TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

Overwork is a filament that enables us to reveal the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, and in particular the production of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army of precariously employed, sessional or casualised staff, or those who have become unemployed or under-employed, conditions the work of those who remain employed inside the University. They also condition those who labour in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to positional employment.

Marx argued that overproduction, or the accumulation of unsalable inventories, affected those who work both as labourers and who are the bearers (or sellers) of labour-power as a commodity. Universities require an abundant supply of appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address issues of demand in the delivery of teaching, scholarship, research and knowledge transfer. The key to increasing the rate of valorisation of capital is the ability to generate surplus value, in its absolute or relative forms, and employing labour-power as cheaply as possible is crucial. This then requires a level of overpopulation or a reserve army of labour that can be used to drive down costs (including wages, staff development costs, pensions and so on).

There are a series of processes that can drive costs down further, and maintain competitive edge in a global market. Universities might become more capital-intensive, by investing in technology and organisational development (restructuring, new workload models and so on). This increases the organic composition of capital, by increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital that is deployed. Clearly, this leads to problems in the production and accumulation of surplus value, which can only be generated through the exploitation of people as workers. As more constant capital or means of production (e.g. in terms of technology) are set in motion by an individual labourer, there is a pressure to economise on labour-power (as a commodity) or to discover new markets. If the higher education sector were to maintain employment as a constant, universities would need to expand (to generate a larger capital to support employment) or a higher rate of accumulation (of surpluses) would be required. Yet as more rapid accumulation has concomitant increase in the organic composition of capital, this produces a “relatively redundant working population” which is underemployed or becomes unemployed. As a result, there is an increasing set of pressures on labourers to remain employable in businesses and sectors that are increasing their organic composition, and this is manifest in the need to demonstrate perpetual entrepreneurialism.

One result of these pressures on organisations and individuals is increased proletarianisation, through precarious employment, or employment that is stripped of its intellectual content (for instance where that content is outsourced or managed on-line, or where staff-student relationships are mediated technologically), or employment that carries limited social security or welfare benefits, or through excessive performance-management and performativity. Over time, and certainly across a sector like higher education that operates on a world market, these processes that are driven by intense competition accelerate this proletarianisation.

In Capital, Marx articulates the formation of the reserve army of labour as a necessary component of the relationship between the forces and relations of production.

in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels.

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

The increases in productivity catalysed through processes of subsumption enable the search for both absolute and relative surplus value, and alter the composition of social capital as well as the scale of the terrain over which it functions (witness the competition for international markets amongst universities and the wailing over immigration related to students). Moreover, these changes in productivity draw in “a number of spheres of production” such that the university becomes a node in a wider, transnational association of capitals or joint venture that is seeking out surpluses. In terms of higher education, the labouring population of academics and students produces both the accumulation of capital, and through capital-intensive activities, “the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous”. As Marx notes, economising and developing the forces of production interrelates with the relations of production, which for many academics and students becomes increasingly precarious. As a result contingent, flexible or part-time labour, and the disciplinary effects of performance management, signals the generation a new, growing relative surplus population that emerges on a global scale. Moreover, this global surplus population conditions those in work to overwork or to reduced labour rights, because there’s always someone cheaper to be exploited.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

However, crucially, for Henryk Grossman, the issue is not borne of the organic composition of capital, rather it is a function of imperfect valorisation.

[T]he formation of the reserve army, is not rooted in the technical fact of the introduction of machinery, but in the imperfect valorisation of capital specific to advanced stages of accumulation. It is a cause that flows strictly from the specifically capitalist form of production. Workers are made redundant not because they are displaced by machinery, but because, at a specific level of the accumulation of capital, profits become too small and consequently it does not pay to purchase new machinery and soon profits are insufficient to cover these purchases anyway

Grossman, H. (1929). Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown.

THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

It is in Marx’s analysis of the composition of the relative surplus population that we see the impact on academic labour through three forms of the relative surplus population. First, the floating or those who are precariously employed, and whose employment is affected by cyclical fluctuations in recruitment or funding, or by the deployment of innovations, or the employment of cheaper (younger) workers. Second, the latent form refers to those whose work is easily transferred across sectors, such as those with menial or leverage skills. Third, the stagnant form consists of very irregular employment on very bad terms. Crucially for Marx is the idea that these three elements of the reserve army of labour, alongside paupers and the lumpenproletariat, in their relationship to the working class, then offer a theory of the internal differentiation of the working class.

One might see this in the status distinctions between tenured, non-tenured, contract and sessional teaching staff, or between institutional bureaucracies, academics and professional service staff, or between full-professors, associate professors, lecturing staff, research fellows and research assistants, and so on. However, one might also use these categories to analyse academic and student overwork in response to: first, the threat of more efficient labour that can attract research or teaching excellence funding; second, the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious; and third, senior managers’ demands that they become perpetually efficient and entrepreneurial. Here the content of academic labour, the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, is reinvented entrepreneurially. New forms of the academic division of labour are internalised, and where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified, worthless or made superfluous. Or their inability to mourn their lost academic egos becomes rooted in melancholia.

The attempt to become superhuman, in generating and offering-up surplus labour time, generates overwork just as it responds to and reinforces the surplus, reserve army of academics. In this process overwork or surplus labour, and the generation of a reserve army, enable universities to generate new models for performance and competition, and for engaging in financialised growth and market-based exploitation.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

As Simon Clarke has noted, in order to compete and to stave off any crisis of accumulation, institutions tend towards technological or organisational innovations by:

  1. increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  2. reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  3. cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  4. stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  5. stimulating internationalisation strategies, in order to enable exports and new markets for accumulation, as well as cheapening the elements of constant and variable capital.

What emerges in any discussion of the political economy of academic labour is that competition, as a function of the need to become productive of value and to accumulate surplus value or surpluses, worsens the position of the worker be she academic or student.

FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

What appears worse is that the inability to survive in this increasingly competitive space becomes the fault of the individual who is to be made unemployed or underemployed. It is a moral duty to work and to remain employable, and never to draw down on social welfare. As Anselm Jappe notes:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves.

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

Thus, the unemployed are workshy or lazy, or lack willpower, or they are stupid. The idea that unemployment is structural and secular, and that it is rooted in a specific form of  political economy, runs secondary to the individual failings that meant Stefan Grimm was unable “to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post”, or which meant that John was forced to inhabit “the zombie zone” beyond HE.

NOTE: there are many accounts of the psychological and embodied damage caused to individuals in this hegemonic, structural narrative.

There is increasing understanding that individuals are placing themselves at risk of harm, where they are forced to respond to narratives of personal failings in relation to work, and where there is a recalibration of work around flexibility (in work and across markets) and competition. As Davies et al. argue, the increasing insecurity that flows from employment inside sectors and business that are responding to austerity negatively effects physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, where agency or autonomy are low or are removed, for instance where performance management is enacted, stress and anxiety are higher.

There is a critical point here for Davis et al. about the internalisation of failings that results in melancholia about the Self rather than mourning for what has been lost. In academia the accumulation of melancholia is catalysed by performance anxiety.

There is an aspect of melancholia that is absent from mourning, an extraordinary reduction in self-esteem, a great impoverishment of the ego. In mourning the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so. The [melancholic] patient describes his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of functioning and morally reprehensible, he is filled with self-reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment… He does not sense that a change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism to cover the past.

Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning & Melancholia. Penguin, pp. 205–206

Correctives to such a view are marginal, and certainly not to be found in the work of institutional occupational therapy or human resources departments that are focused upon emotional resilience or its relationship to the happiness industry. Such correctives again seek to elevate individual, qualitative narratives, and to stress the social and material causes of distress, and the value of solidarity and collective action.

[S]ocial inequalities that exclude or marginalise contribute significantly to the potential for distress. Poverty, impoverished housing and diet, threatening environments, limited resources, restricted choices, demeaning or poorly-paid employment, discrimination, oppression and scapegoating all cause distress… We are more likely to experience distress the more our experiences are invalidated and the more isolated we become from one another. Equally, the further we are from supportive, nurturing relationships, the more that invalidation and isolation will engender distress. People stripped of ameliorative influences such as a loving, supportive family and friends; comfortable, safe environments; and the trust, support and solidarity of others, are increasingly likely to experience diagnosable distress.

Midland Psychology Group. (2012). Draft manifesto for a social materialist psychology of distress. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 12(2): 96-7.

In response to the apparent suicide of precariously-employed John, Karina has argued the following.

We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.

This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?

And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.

Karina. 2016. A few words. CASA: A Home Online For Casual, Adjunct, Sessional Staff and Their Allies in Australian Higher Education

There is a step beyond this, which for The Institute for Precarious Consciousness takes the form of “a machine for fighting anxiety”. They argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside and outside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. Here describing the relationship between overwork and the surplus population of academic labour is simply a starting point.

on academia and life

(It might be over soon, two two)
Where you gonna look for confirmation?
And if it’s ever gonna happen
So as I’m standing at the station
It might be over soon

Bon Iver. 2016. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)

Academia can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You’re not alone. #WorldMentalHealthDay

Shit Academics Say

This is for my Nan and Granddad.

It’s complicated.

A while back I wrote about depression and alienation, and a boy who spent a lifetime trying to recover.

And a while after, after we had cared for and lost my Mom, I wrote about being Inside. Through. Beyond. Me., and about searching for an alternative Self or for the fix because the inside is too broken to be mended on its own.

And a while after I wrote about chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety hardened, and how I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. Until I did.

And a while after I wrote about the impossibility of getting on trains and of speaking, and the rupture that was my unbearable anxiety.

And if you know me, then it’s no surprise that I have written about alienation, and the university as an anxiety machine, and capitalism, academic labour and ill-health. And that I wrote about the way that our work compresses what is valued and valuable, until it is either stolen or neglected (for Kate). In an abstract way, grounded by my ill-health.

And all the time multiple tracks are playing out. Track one is the history of a boy locked in a room suffering loss after loss, and trying to survive (although he never knew it). And track two is a boy trying to acclimatise to outside, and trying to understand how the world worked. So that he wouldn’t be left again. And so that he would never feel the same amount of loss. Because the loss was is everything. And track three is the man collecting all the badges, every last one, in order to feel something positive, rather than the unremitting, bleak, sherry-stained loss. And track four is the pain of remembering all this, and especially the room and the loss, in every moment of every day. And track five is the details of every day; of living. So that each track is compacted, one on top of the other. Compacted and compounded. The compound interest of a dysfunctional past represented in the present.

So the man sits in meetings and speaks at events and attends concerts and eats curry and reads books and walks and mentors, and has to do these things whilst analysing these things and working on not analysing these things. And it is exhausting. No wonder I had a second breakdown. For the lulz.

And this is where the weird mix of academia kicks in. With its empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You are in the academic peloton, with its cultures of omertà, or the silence of those who know that they are being forced to compete, and that to do so they must co-operate. And with its culture both of dietrologia, or the desperate search for hidden dimensions to surface reality. And when you grasp some meaning, some enlightenment, or some hoped for engagement, or when you speak and gain some sense of empowerment, you feel lifted. Like life might be possible.

You do it to yourself, you do. And that’s what really hurts.

And it becomes difficult to separate out academia as an anxiety machine, whose perpetual motion risks wearing you (r soul) through, and the past that has compounded that issue. So that your past plays and replays itself out in a space that feeds off the constant doubts, and the constant need to perform, and the constant need to re-produce yourself as someone more productive.

What it is to be anxious inside the anxiety machine.

And this is why I have spoken and joked that what I want is to abolish myself. Politically, it is why I am pointed towards concepts like mass intellectuality, or the dissolution of the academic at the level of society, in order to become something more. Someone more. Someone less concerned with the status and intellectual capital that gives academia its motive power. Because when academics are only concerned with shoring-up status, for whatever reason, rather than abolishing it, our collective work for liberation is lost. The refusal to become anonymous is where we are lost.

And I wrote about the fear of performing. That just as I received the badge I wanted the most, my Mom died, and the wheels came off. And of a sudden my universe contracted so that the singularity was my home and the road to my work, and maybe the road to Walsall. But it was very little else. And I described my panic on trains, and my panic when speaking, and my panic when travelling. A panic that had much earlier origins, an echo of a long-lost and apparently never-lost past. A panic that had origins in a first, previous breakdown. A panic that had never been healed so that after her death came a second breakdown.

All five tracks working in unison. Compounded in unison. Their singing in unison was is the tinnitus that walks with me.

And I decided that maybe all I could do was write. That I would become mute, unable to speak, to present, to have a voice. Ever again. That I would not be able to travel unless we drove places. That I wouldn’t be able to go to away games or take trains or accept speaker invites or go to the workshops in Lincoln that I so desperately wanted to attend.

And all the while I wrote. And all the while I did accept speaker invites. And all along I made myself speak in university committees. And all the while I did get on trains.

Because of the boy in the room, who kept a candle alight.

“You have to carry the fire.”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is the fire real? The fire?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.

And once upon a time I wrote about how, in the aftermath of my first breakdown, it took five years to recover myself, to a position where I had some trust in my body and my mind (for what that was worth). And the moment I knew, was on the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck (a proper, full-on panic-inducing moment); then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects.




Just patched-up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go.

Only it was a puncture repair. A pretty good one, as the Lyke Wake Walk will attest. But a repair that began to fail in the Fall of 2008 and was blown by 2011. A repair that was fucked by 2013.

And all the time, work. A safe space. A perpetual motion machine. Trying to manage a team and manage the projects and produce the reports and plan the programmes of work and support the Ph.D. students and publish the journal articles and edit the book and think about the next grant and plan the new job and survive in networks and engage with communities of practice and speak at conferences and laugh with friends and console friends and be.

The space between work and Self. The space between work and Self and the past. The space between work and Self and the past and the everyday. The tinnitus.

And this is a story that recognises the self-care and the self-harm in keeping the fire burning. So that the boy lit the way for the man. By cherishing a role as an independent visitor for a looked-after child. And loving being asked to become a trustee of the open library of humanities. By accepting invitations to speak, in spite of myself. Of doing what I can, whilst fighting the panic. Of setting up a new institute. Of submitting the next book proposal.

Self-harm and self-care. Self-harm or self-care. It’s complicated.

And then there was a new Moel Siabod moment. Because the boy had lain the groundwork, in keeping the man going, and in being productive as well as keeping up appearances. And the moment that the shape of recovery became discernible was on being invited to speak in Bradford. Of the reduced anxiety about travelling so far from home. On a therapy day. And the anxiety about speaking being utterly forgotten in a wonderful workshop about embodiment and trust in conflict arenas. So that by the time I came to speak an amazing calm had descended.

And the result was sitting at Derby Station at 9pm, waiting for the connection from Sheffield, and remembering how it used to be. How it was all those previous times I had travelled and looked at the world and spoken with a nervous excitement. And to travel home tired but feeling like the day had been worth something. A productive day. A day in which a voice was heard. A day that justified reflection with four tracks turned off, so that I could just focus on the day itself. The content of the day itself.

It’s imperceptible, knowing that being well and recovery and well enough not to be in therapy and well enough to have turned the tracks off and well enough to have distilled the anxiety and to want to purge it, are possible. And the feeling is almost impossible to describe. The shape of it being impossible to describe, but forming inside me nonetheless. I have no compass for being well. I have never been well, which is why the puncture repairs have always failed. I can describe the old anxieties and fears and panics and self-loathing. I can still feel them. But they feel disconnected, sitting there in my gut. Dissociated. A remnant of a past life, still real and painful, and yet so dissociated from the everyday.

They are a dissociation which mirrors that I felt in a previous moment of this life. That I needed in a previous moment. A mirrored dissociation which now makes possible a purging of anxiety. So that arguments and disagreements and failings don’t self-harm so much. And I sense these feelings being purged, so that the scars of the self-harm are simply birthmarks. So that my potential for self-harm is slipping away. Forgiveness.

And it feels so fucking weird. Letting go of the past and reframing the present, and letting sleights go, because there is too much in the bank. We’ve been through too much. We’ve self-harmed enough.

Maybe I have just decided to get well. Maybe I have walked far enough to be able to discern wellness ahead of me. And I laugh out loud about being well, out of a feeling that I cannot describe because it feels incredible to me. Indescribable because it’s not in my DNA. Faintly ridiculous, but I’m going to do it anyway.

And I discuss with a friend the relationship between our labour and our pasts and our mental health. And how Academia/life can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. How academia/life can be a weird mix.

About how it’s complicated.

About how realising the shape of my/your life depends on the courage and the faith that emerge from our collective work and solidarity, in labour and life. And especially in our bearing witness for each other.

Courage is love’s miraculous face. It achieves its miracles through transformation. It allows the impossible to become possible; the unendurable to be endured; trust to be renewed; and the unexpected to become the inevitability that opens you to unprecedented insights about who you are, about what life is. When courage stirs, it delivers the strengths you need but didn’t know you had

Stephanie Dowrick. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. London: Viking, p. 24.

writing about academic labour

I have three things recently published or forthcoming that are about academic labour and its relationship to society. These pick-up on two themes that have been increasingly important to me: first, academic alienation and anxiety, or the idea that the University is an anxiety machine; and second, the potential for mass intellectuality as a form of liberatory praxis.

The first piece focuses on the processes of subsumption that are reshaping academic labour, and the resultant impact on individual’s subjectivity and health. Co-written with Kate Bowles, this takes the idea of the University as an anxiety machine, and is called Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. The abstract is as follows:

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the re-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.

The article is published in a special issue of Workplace: A journal for Academic Labor, edited by Karen Gregory and Joss Winn, on Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

The second is a book chapter in a collection entitled The Philosophy of Open Learning: Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons, edited by Markus Deimann and Michael A. Peters. My chapter is called Another World is Possible: The Relationship between Open Education and Mass Intellectuality.

This piece critiques the promise of open education through the concept of mass intellectuality that I have discussed elsewhere, and which is becoming increasingly important to me as a way of analysing the idea of higher education in an age of crises. In the chapter I connect open education to the proletarianisation of higher education, and go on to ask the following.

  1. How is it possible to re-imagine open education, in order to overcome proletarianisation through technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?
  2. How might open education broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond HE, as a pedagogic project?

My response is rooted in sharing and grounding collective practices for open and co-operative education through democratic pedagogy and organising principles.

The third is the book Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, which I have co-edited with Joss Winn. The summary, description and chapter/author list is given here. It’s good to see this work moving towards fruition, precisely because it’s a discussion of the potential for actually existing liberation.

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. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, 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.

(Postone, M. 1996. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 373)

notes on peace education and indignation

On Monday I contributed to a panel discussion on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era, as part of the Adam Curle Symposium hosted by the Peace Studies Division at University of Bradford. I made the following points..

ONE. The essay I produced ahead of the event situates the historical context for Curle’s Education and Liberation against the collapse of the post-war Keynesian compromise. In the West that compromise had ushered in a view of the State as guarantor of the production and distribution of certain forms of socialised wealth, grounded in access to healthcare, welfare benefits, social housing and free education. Yet by 1973 that political moment was under stress, as issues of profitability that had affected the major economies since the 1950s led to Nixon decoupling the dollar from gold. This was a critical way-marker in the development of neoliberal governance and the hegemony of monopoly finance capital, framed by the petro-dollar. Maybe, as Jehu questions, this was the moment when we reiterated our choice of barbarism over socialism.

TWO. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement would amplify Curle’s criticism of a dominant, global system rooted in competitive materialism and belonging-identity (rather than awareness-identity). Instead, Curle argued for an education counter-system rooted in a societal counter-system that was borne of a different formation of social wealth. This focus on wealth is central to the argument of his book, because it is situated asymmetrically against value as the dominant structuring form of society that is reproduced under capitalism. Here John Holloway’s focus on the first sentence of Marx’s Capital is important because it emphasises how capitalist social relations abstract and corrupt our concrete world, including how we relate to each other and the values that we embody (such as peace, justice, trust, faith, tolerance and so on). The first line of Capital reads as follows:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[1] its unit being a single commodity.

Holloway argues:

It is easy to skip over the significance of the first sentence precisely because of what the sentence itself asserts. It is the very fact that wealth appears as a collection of commodities to us who live in capitalist society that makes us take this appearance for granted. We are used to seeing wealth in that way. When we think of wealth we usually think of material wealth, of the things that a person has, probably of money, the general equivalent of commodities. If we refer to someone as being wealthy, we generally mean that she or he has a lot of money, and can therefore dispose of an immense amount of commodities. In other words, the form in which wealth appears leads us to establish an identity between wealth and the immense collection of commodities, to treat them as being identical. And if this were so, then it would indeed be right to treat the first sentence as curtain-raiser, as a sentence that has significance only in leading us on to the central issue, the commodity.

However, wealth does not have to be thought of in this way. For English-speakers, this is perhaps easier to see if we go back to the original German term that Marx uses, Reichtum, which could just as easily have been translated as “richness”: in capitalist society, richness appears as an immense collection of commodities. There is certainly no sharp difference in English between the concepts of richness and wealth, but richness strikes us as having a broader meaning: a rich tapestry, an enriching conversation, a rich life or experience, a rich diversity of colours.

THREE. In the current moment this rich diversity of colours has been corrupted (like corrupt computer code) precisely because the history and materiality of our social and cultural lives has been distorted through the reality of economic crisis. I refer to this as a secular crisis of capitalism. Our enriching conversations are corroded through the toxicity of an on-going and immanent crisis of economic reproduction that catalyses debt, privatisation and financialisation, and the demonization of the powerless, whose lives are made precarious. The counter-measures that are required to maintain the system that Curle pushed against are not working, and they are delegitimising that system whilst they shore it up. This is the terrain upon which our ongoing cognitive dissonance, or even worse our dissociation, is borne.

NOTE: As a result we cannot face the ecological rift that has occurred in the metabolic relationship between humans and the planet: we are unable to do anything meaningful about carbon emissions as they breach 400ppm; we are unable to do anything meaningful about the assault on biodiversity and ocean acidification, or damage to the nitrogen cycle, the overuse of phosphates, and so on. How can we find peace when we are so embedded inside capitalism’s war on the planet?

FOUR. This war also threatens to become inter-generational. There is a looming disconnect between those who benefitted from the aftermath of Bretton Woods and millenials, although following Milton Friedman in The Role for Government in Education many of the arguments made in the global North now stress the importance of student debt being a family investment in human capital. Thus, the UK Government’s focus on future earnings and employability, and the Treasury’s explicit demand for tax data to be linked to student outcome/loan repayment data, de-territorialise and then re-territorialise the system through metrics, debt and risk. Here Curle’s fears around the development of competitive materialism and belonging-identity are realised as families become the very fabric of competition rather than of societal co-operation. And this is amplified because, as Oskar Negt states:

The labor power that capital can tie down by dint of Taylorism is markedly decreasing in both capitalist countries and Third World countries. More and more living labor power is slipping out of capital- ist production processes. This must have political consequences, which will also affect the formation of theories… Today, by comparison, we have a structurally growing industrial reserve army that is tending toward including the whole of society and, increasingly, threatening to cut labor power off from reality…

The fewer opportunities a subject has to appropriate these productive forces, the more often the latter turn into destructive forces. This is one of the core issues in our theory of labor power. It is not only that a growing number of work- ers—and also a growing number of labor characteristics—are unemployed in capitalist labor conditions; it is also that in the long term, these characteristics are being scrapped by being deobjectified.

We are forced to compete so that our alienation becomes more manageable.

FIVE. This secular crisis is political and economic and is rooted in an ideological position that has generated monstrosities in UK higher education like the White Paper’s proposed teaching excellence framework, and the obsession with teaching intensity and productivity in the Green Paper. As our educational lives are subsumed under the structuring realities of value, rather than alternative conceptions of social wealth, one outcome is the disconnection of our educational souls. As our curricula are restructured around performance management, progression, retention, student-as-purchaser, education commodified as a service, learning analytics, employability, and so on, our conversations with our students, our peers and ourselves are in tension with our desire to care. The rule of money places us in conflict with our desire to care, and so we dissociate, rage or employ cognitive dissonance as defences. For Curle, such a world was rooted in psychological alienation that itself emerges from social, political and economic violence. For Marx, in the German Ideology, such alienation was fourfold: from the process of production; from the things that we produce; from our society; and from ourselves. In the incorporation of all forms of education inside the production processes of capitalism, in the damaging realities of over-testing,  monitoring, permanent technological and organisational restructuring, precarious employment and so on, those very spaces that set out to be rooted in care, justice and peace are reproduced as anxiety machines.

SIX. Inside our anxiety machines, time is weaponised against us. We are forced to internalise the system’s demands around contact hours, workload planning, absence management, imposed deadlines for impact relating to teaching and research, and so on. As a result, both space and time are made unsafe for staff and students, who must also contend with the boundaries of relationships that at once appear to be rooted in care/contract and use/exchange. These are the contested qualities of being that are embodied in our formal educational institutions. We might then wonder what else we can set in-motion inside-and-outside the school or university that refuses this reality? Here, our learning is enriched through engagement with the struggles of campaigns against the ongoing re-colonisation of the university’s history and material realities, grounded in its organising principles, financing and curricula, like Rhodes Must Fall or Black Lives Matter. It is also enriched through the educational work rooted in co-operative values and organisation. These examples force us to consider how to frame a richness of life or experience, or how to stitch a rich tapestry, which prefigures the world we wish to see. Such prefiguration is educational, iterative and generative of new possibilities. However, crucially it is also inter-generational, open and public, radical in that it stresses the need to find alternative forms of value that works to create the society we would wish to live in, and democratic. Such prefigurative activity is borne of a realisation: that our current forms of social reproduction are in crisis; that new forms of solidarity across indebted generations and between those suffering in healthcare or education or social services or housing are needed; and, that these new forms of social solidarity might coalesce around directional demands, like the social strike that stops the system and forces conversations.

SEVEN. It is in co-operatively-negotiated, solidarity actions that peace might re-emerge as a possibility or as a guide to our direction of travel. For solidarity enables us to move across boundaries between contexts and disciplines to examine

the real object of knowledge, which is the social phenomenon as a whole.

Schmidt, A. (1968). On the Concept of Knowledge in the Critique of Political Economy, p. 93.

Yet peace is grounded in: individual and collective courage to act; faith in each other and ourselves; justice for the wronged, othered and alienated; and, hope for setting in motion a different world. Peace emerges through education as a form of social wealth that is against-and-beyond capitalist social relations. It emerges as indignation with the present state of things, where we recognise that it cannot emerge through private property and wage slavery, or through the State taking control of production. As Jehu argues:

We do need to think about how the immediate seizure of what we need to live (in places like the UK this would also mean mass non-payment campaigns) could open into new forms of social organisation; also about how import-export relations can be sustained in industries that are necessary to social reproduction once the power of capitalist owners has been annulled… Capital is vulnerable to radical approaches that emphasize real relations over material relations. Our approach should be guided by the desire to address issues in a way that does not make capitalist categories our starting point.

Only when we have recognised and held the tension of the values inside us, which are revealed as embodied or psychological illness, can we begin to be and to create anew, by prefiguring the world we wish to see. Prefiguring this world is situated against challenge and struggle.

We do need to think about this; but the question of how to re-organise the world market along ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ lines is meaningless without an acceptance that mass movements can only succeed by making severe inroads into bourgeois property relations.

it is in the middle-term of active struggle that a movement against capital must necessarily arrive at the stage of greatest tension and uncertainty. It is a moment in which the most fundamental contradictions of class and ownership cannot be ‘knitted together’ into a woolly hegemony and then handed over to a ‘future’ which can scarcely mask its ingratitude.

De-Arrest Editorial Services (2016). Demeaning the Future.

Thus, peace is contingent on the development of mass intellectuality as a force for the production of Curle’s counter-system, rooted in new relations of production, where our co-operative engagement might recuperate the social brain from its co-option solely for the production and accumulation of value. We need to be disinhibited from seeing peace education as an on-going, day struggle, which is enacted at the level of society.