notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

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

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

ONE. Individual stories

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

TWO. Academic labour in crisis

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

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

THREE. The proletarianisation of HE

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Alienated labour

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE. Weltschmerz

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

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

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

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

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

SIX. The Possibilities for Mass intellectuality

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

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

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

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

SEVEN. What Is To Be Done?

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

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

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

Against the fetishisation of the porous university


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

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

Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education

Working with 20 co-authors, Joss Winn and I have just submitted the manuscript for Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. The edited collection forms part of Bloomsbury Academic’s series on Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education. Assuming that the review process goes to plan, the book is slated for publication in early 2017.

The original summary, description and key features of the book are noted below. The proposed table of contents is appended thereafter.


Drawing on the activism of academics and students working in, against and beyond the neo-liberal university, this book critiques academic leadership through the concept of mass intellectuality, with an analysis of the crisis of higher education and the alternative forms that are emerging from its ruins.


Higher education 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. What and who have led us to this crisis? What are the alternatives? To whom do we look for leadership in revealing those alternatives?

This book brings together critical analyses of ‘intellectual leadership’ in the University, and documents on-going efforts from around the world to create alternative models for organising higher education and the production of knowledge. Its authors offer their experience and views from inside and beyond the structures of mainstream higher education, in order to reflect critically on efforts to create really existing alternatives. In the process the volume asks is it 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 mass higher education is at the point where it no longer reflects the needs, capacities and long-term interests of global society. An alternative role and purpose is required, based upon ‘mass intellectuality’ or the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge.

Key features

  1. The book critiques the role of higher education and the University as an institution for developing solutions to global crises that are economic and socio-environmental. In this way it offers an analysis of the idea that there is no alternative for higher education but to contribute to neoliberal agendas for economic growth and the marketisation of everyday life. The restrictions on the socio-cultural leadership that emerge inside the University are revealed.
  2. The book describes and analyses concrete, alternative forms of higher education that have emerged from worker-student occupations, from academic engagements in civil society, and from the co-operatives movement. These projects highlight a set of co-operative possibilities for demonstrating and negotiating new forms of political leadership related to higher learning that are against the neo-liberal university.
  3. The book argues that the emergence of alternative forms of higher education, based on co-operative organising principles, points both to the failure of intellectual leadership inside the University and to the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge. The concept of ‘Mass Intellectuality’ as a form of social knowledge that is beyond the limitations of intellectual leadership inside the University is critically developed in order to frame socially-useful responses to the crisis.



  1. Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education ~ Richard Hall and Joss Winn

Section One: Power, History and Authority

  1. Pedagogical Labour in an Age of Devalued Reproduction ~ Stevphen Shukaitis
  2. Co-operation, leadership and learning: Fred Hall and the Co-operative College before 1939 ~ Tom Woodin
  3. Academic Voices: from Public Intellectuals to the General Intellect ~ Mike Neary
  4. Openness, Politics and Power ~ Martin Paul Eve

Section Two: Potentialities

  1. The (im)possibility of Mass Intellectuality: Viewing Mass Intellectuality through the lens of the Brazilian Landless Movement ~ Joyce E Canaan
  2. Still spaces in the academy? The dialectic of university social movement pedagogy ~ Eurig Scandrett
  3. Bradford’s Community University: From ‘Constellations of Knowledge’ to Liberating the ‘General Intellect’? ~ Jenny Pearce
  4. Aesthetic Education, Critical Pedagogy and Specialist Institutions ~ Jonathan Owen Clark and Louise H. Jackson

Section Three: Praxis

  1. Six Theses In, Against and Beyond the University ~ Birmingham Autonomous University
  2. Reconciling mass intellectuality and higher education: lessons from the PPE experience ~ Joel Lazarus
  3. Somewhere Between Reform and Revolution: Alternative Higher Education and ‘The Unfinished’ ~ Gary Saunders
  4. Permaculture education as ecology of mind: the head, hands and heart of transformation ~ Tom Henfrey
  5. Mass Intellectuality from the Margins ~ Sara C. Motta

Conclusion: Politics, Aesthetics and Democracy

  1. Practicing What We Preach? Writing and Publishing In, Against and Beyond the Neoliberal University ~ Gordon Asher

Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety

With Kate Bowles, I have an article coming out in volume 28 of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, entitled:

Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety

The article looks at the psychological impacts on academics and students of the re-engineering of HE, and of concomitant academic overwork. It undertakes this from a transnational perspective, with a focus both on anxiety amongst academic workers including students, and on the idea of the University as an anxiety machine. The article is in a special issue that employs Marx and Engels’ critical categories of labor, value, the commodity, capital, etc. in reflexive ways which illuminate the role and character of academic labor today and how its existing form might be, according to Marx, abolished, transcended and overcome (aufheben). Our focus is on the concept of subsumption.

The abstract is appended herewith.

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 there-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.

Notes from a place of resistance

These notes were written whilst listening to Rave Tapes by Mogwai and this alt-J performance on npr.

I attended a seminar in Brighton on Thursday called Resisting Neoliberal Education: Alternative Systems, Discourse and Practice. My notes and thoughts from the event follow.

ONE. In the round-table introductions I realised that of the 15 attendees, I only knew three people. That means there are 11 other stories of resistance in the room. That’s a lot of new potential energy and possibility for #solidarity and association, and also hope.

TWO. In the roundtable Stephen O’Brien from Cork spoke about how he had written a triptych on learning outcomes, and made a point about how certain language and meaning and ways of working in the world get written into culture so that resistance becomes difficult. Contesting the hegemonic power of learning outcomes in educational practice and theory situates us asymmetrically against Pearson Education and their absolute obsession with learning outcomes as an educational business model. It situates us against the idea that aligning high stakes testing and educational improvement is a form of economic patriotism. It situates us against the commodification of educational relationships through data-mining and learning analytics. It situates us with Walter Stroup and his “rebellion” against standardisation. In this I am reminded that the detail is really important, and that life histories of specific technologies (follow the technology), fiscal innovations (follow the money), and pedagogical innovations (follow the technique), enable us to see who has voice and power. Pace Marx (footnote 4, Chapter 15, Volume 1 of Capital), we might note:

[a specific innovation] reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

Critical in understanding and critiquing capitalist social relations and alternatives to it, is a focus on how learning appears to us, and how it appears to those with power [or their power-over our power-to-do].

TWO. In the roundtable, someone, and it’s remiss of me to forget who, spoke of the “unattractive nature of academic life” in its current anxiety-hardened, precarious form. I think that collectively we were questioning the representation and formation of the University and the consequences for learning and teaching (as opposed to the student experience).

THREE. Several people spoke about the idea of the public good. Rarely did we mention co-operativism or the Commons. I think that in re-imagining the University inside a new form of sociability, this is a rich space of potential and possibility. Joss Winn’s blog-post on re-imagining pulls a lot of this together, including Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer and the genesis of the Social Science Centre. There is also work to be done for us in thinking through and living the possibilities for transitional alternatives. I think that it is important to see alternative forms as transitional and pedagogic, and not to be fetishized. I reconsidered this in the face of Nadia Edmond’s (firm-but-fair) challenge to me about whether spaces like the Social Science Centre were alternatives that were sustainable or whether they are (my words) simply academic philanthropy. I also reconsidered this in light of remembering that the Really Open University had deliberately used the phrase “re-imagining the University.” The critical thing for me about the Social Science Centre is that it forms a laboratory for co-operative production, consumption and distribution that is about democratic organising principles (governance) for both the Centre and its activities, and its content (e.g. childcare arrangements, curricula, events). Whilst the current Know-How course might be represented inside some universities and through some courses, there are some “scholars” who do not wish to/cannot undertake such a course inside. Equally, the content and curriculum is co-negotiated and produced in a way that is different from the bulk of curricula inside. Finally, the production, consumption and distribution of the curriculum circulates inside-and-through the organisation of the Social Science Centre and informs its governance.

FOUR. A sense of work inside/outside the University was seen as pivotal in resisting or defining something different. This reminded me of Elise Thorburn’s brilliant article on autonomy and the Edufactory, in which she writes about the power-to-do that is situated in three strands: first, inside general assemblies as democratic governance and organisation; second, through militant research done in partnership; finally, through work done in public. I think this is the key to much of our re-imagining; that it is done in public as a democratic act of militant research. Someone at the seminar spoke of activist knowledge that “rows in behind”, as an act of solidarity and love. Through such acts, as a kind of solidarity economy, we might enable the amplification of alternatives as an asymmetrical definition of possible forms of sociability beyond the market. Here we might engage with the idea that no alternative is beyond the structural domination of capitalist social relations, but that we might take them to be transitional through a pedagogic appreciation of what it is to be in/against/beyond. But this takes courage and faith. Not to fetishise the institution, which is itself alienating, but to look for points of solidarity.

FIVE. Over lunch Steve O’Brien used the word monastic to describe much of his recent academic work. I love that term. I feel that in the aftermath of the moments of rage and impotence in the academic (staff and student) protests of 2010-11, for personal and academic reasons I became monastic, returning to theory and harvesting historical and material and global stories of resistance and alternatives and mending myself. There is something here about asking whether it is possible to rebuild oneself in the face of systemic alienation, as a brutal form of therapy, in order to embody one’s position. In order to return to a room where people can meet to listen and speak and voice effective demands.

SIX. Throughout I was reminded of fellowship and the links between fellowship, liberation and de/legitimation. This made me reconsider why I keep returning to this quote about liberation, the individual, the community and association, from Marx in The German Ideology:

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.

This is about collective and invisible work in the name of counter-narratives and not fixed alternatives.

SEVEN. Ciaran Sugrue spoke about the defence mechanisms that individuals have as “multiple scripts” that are played out differentially depending on context. Steve O’Brien reminded me that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” These two interventions made me reconsider our defences against a world that is increasingly abstract and polarised around inequality and agony. This is especially so where Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK, the Labour Party, accept an hour-glass economy and the fact that some people will be losers in a globalised economy. Here we might again ask what does it mean to be inside/outside and how are our multiple scripts or defences, acts of self-harm or self-care? The work of Frantz Fanon on cognitive dissonance is important for me here, especially in Black Skin, White Masks.

EIGHT. Throughout I had the work of Anselm Jappe on my mind, and the asymmetry between humane values and the production and accumulation of value. In spite of my knowing that sociability, solidarity, fidelity, courage, hope, whatever, are produced and reproduced inside-and-against private property and value, I am reminded that Jappe wrote:

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 (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”). (p. 11)

But that in spite of this historically, material formation of values:

even value itself is not a “total” structure. It is “totalitarian” in the sense that it aspires to turn everything into a commodity. But it will never be able to because such a society would be completely unliveable (there would no longer, for example, be friendship, love, the bringing up of children, etc.). The necessity for value to expand pushes it towards destroying the entire concrete world and at every level, economic, environmental, social and cultural. The critique of value does not only foresee an economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions but also the end of an entire “civilisation” (if one can call it that). Even so, human life has not always been based on value, money and labour, even if it seems that some kind of fetishism has existed everywhere. (p. 12)

NINE. It feels important to me to have access to what someone called “resources for resistance”, to situate my work fixed in space-time, against those of others. I hope we can create such a collective thing. Someone else spoke of sharing stories and building life histories as a means of “keeping each other’s fire burning.” These are forms of Luddism. Forms of hacking. Forms of re-imagining.

TEN. I was reminded of Allyson Pollack’s work on an NHS Reinstatement Bill, as an act of courage, public justice and hope. I wondered about the possibility less for a manifesto, and more for a free, public Higher Education Re-instatement Bill.

ELEVEN. I read of Chris Hedges’ work on capitalism’s sacrifice zones, and the idea that “There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” Moreover, these zones are deliberately sacrificed in the pursuit of profit: “These are areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed”. This reminded me that as Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued:

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

In this she saw hope because:

the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

This forced me to re-think:

  • Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
  • In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
  • Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
  • How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  • What is to be done?

TWELVE. I don’t think I used the word neoliberalism once. I realised that I have dropped it from my vocabulary as inappropriate. For me the issue is Capital and Labour, and neoliberalism was just a global, political economic, phase we were going through. This is about hegemony and counter-narratives. Here the work of William Robinson on global capitalism is important to me. Equally important is finding ways in which we can take the energy of the dominant discourse and (akin to a form of t’ai chi) displace it or use it against itself, by revealing stories of inhumanity and inequality and courage. Through an appeal to what it is to be a concrete human rather than an abstraction.

Presentations on academic alienation, academic labour and academic activism

I have a number of presentations coming up that focus upon academic alienation, academic labour and academic activism. The connection between alienation and work, revealed in normative responses to the triple crunch of climate change, peak oil and austerity, leads me to question the ways in which academics enable the hegemonic reproduction of the University for value. I’ll be speaking about academic work/activism and the triple crunch here. However, the following abstract has been accepted for the Academic Identities conference 2014. I will be co-presenting with Joss Winn(from the University of Lincoln and the Social Science Centre).

A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Academic Labour.

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx’s mature writing to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of virtual labour or digital work.

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations. In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality.

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed. Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness. If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour, rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.

On circuits of affect and resistance

This post was written whilst listening to LCD Soundsystem’s last concert at Madison Square Garden.

ONE. Circuits of affect and resistance

Yesterday I attended an ESRC seminar series on Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights. The seminar was on Affective Digital Economy: Intimacy, Identity and Networked Realities. One of the key points that emerged from the day was the need to reconnect a political critique into the lived realities of social spaces like the Allsorts Youth Project, or in work related to transnational communications amongst a diaspora, or where we are thinking about the relationships between spaces, surveillance and mental health. In particular the event had me considering how we abstract the specificities of our individual or community-based struggles, in order:

  1. To find sites of solidarity that enable us to push back against the alienation of capitalist work and the marginalisation or labelling of our identities;
  2. To recognise how we might resist capital as the automatic subject, from the standpoint of labour;
  3. To understand and analyse the relationships between affects, cognition and kinaesthetics, and how they are captured and then subsumed under the circuit of production.

One outcome of this is the extent to which we might see the social circuits of affect or emotion, not as a means for converting immaterial labour into the commodity form, but as a mechanism for refusing and then interrupting the circuits of production, commodity or money capital. This might be done by revealing our systemic alienation from the products of our labour, from our labour itself, from ourselves and from our species-being. Or it might be done by opening-out spaces for sharing rather than trading, and for use-value rather than exchange-value. Or it might be done by redefining the organising principles on which technological systems, technologies and data are used, so that they are co-operative rather than marketised and securitised. Or resistance and pushing-back might be something else entirely.

TWO. Some notes on affect, immaterial labour and cognitive capital

One of the points of contention during the day was whether affect or emotion was a commodity or could be commodified. From my perspective, there was a large amount of confusion around this point, and it connects affect, cognitive capital and immaterial labour. For Beradi, a focus on affect or emotion reveals the mechanisms through which the human soul is commodified through data, databases, being always-on, perceived speed-up, network-centrism and so on, and can thereby be put to work. In this Autonomist tradition, the autonomy or ability of globalised labour to develop its own self-awareness and to utilise technology to act for-itself is critical. Thus, feeling is critical. Here there is no outside of capitalism, and overcoming the alienation of capitalist work demands mechanisms that push back against it, and structures that are beyond its value-form. This idea of negating capital from the point-of-view of the working class as revolutionary social subject is revealed in the epithet in-against-beyond, and predicates critiques of the structures that reproduce capitalism’s domination, like the State and its educational institutions. It is important to recognise that in this view capital needs labour in order to be valorised, but labour does not need capital and is therefore potentially autonomous. This self-awareness or subjectivity is not automatic and demands a co-operative species-being that is cognitively, affectively and kinaesthetically aware.

In classical Marxism, material production forms the basis of all social life and drives the objective history of capitalist social relations. However, radical shifts in technology are important because they revolutionise the valorisation process. For Marx, the magnitude of the value of labour is driven by the labour-time that is socially necessary to produce a specific commodity ‘under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society’ (Marx 2004, p. 129). Thus, academic labour is particularly valuable as a result of the amount of socially-necessary labour-time embedded in its products, which integrate specialised cognitive and material means of production. This promises the capitalist high rates of surplus value extraction or rental income from patents or licenses. However, the people and skills that support such high-end commodity capitalism, are both menial and leverage, and can be made precarious or be outsourced. One outcome of this cognitive work is a view that the material, objective world is replaced by a subjective immateriality that is increasingly inscribed digitally, and which suggests a limitless expansion of the system across the social factory.

Therefore, inside education a focus on immateriality encourages an analysis of the struggle between labour and capital in the creation and commodification of what is termed cognitive capital. Technology is a critical force in the production and accumulation of cognitive capital because it as Žižek notes, it ‘reduces everything to functions and raw materials’, with the result that individual emotions and affects, cultural cues and mores, and the construction of the relations between individuals ‘are themselves the very material of our everyday exploitation’. Educational contexts are vital in enabling capital to find circuits for extracting value from socio-emotional or personalised learning, using technologies like smartphones or personal learning networks. These mechanisms enable capital to enclose and commodify an increasingly fluid and identity-driven set of social relations, which themselves form the basis of further exchange. These processes of exchange are catalysed by, for example, the sharing of personal information on cloud-based social networks that can be aggregated and data-mined. Thus, all activity or work inside the social factory, including the processes of learning serve as the basis for developing new services and applications. For Beradi (2009, p. 90) this construct emerges across the length, breadth and depth of cyberspace from the immaterial labour of knowledge-workers who

move to find signs, to elaborate experience, or simply to follow the paths of their existence. But at every moment and place they are reachable and can be called back to perform a productive function that will be reinserted into the global cycle of production. In a certain sense, cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it. In this way, workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular. Info-producers can be seen as neuro-workers. They prepare their nervous system as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible. The entire lived day becomes subject to a semiotic activation which becomes directly productive only when necessary.

In this view, social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

Thus, constant innovation becomes a central pedagogic project, for instance in: monitoring and stimulating cognition through pervasive technology and mobility; enforcing private property rights through intellectual property and patent law so that a knowledge-rent economy can take hold; opening-up public data and knowledge so that new cloud-based services based on learning analytics can be developed and marketised; amplifying innovations around internationalisation like MOOCs and open educational resources so that world markets of consumption and production of commodities and cognitive capital are opened-up; and organising, disciplining and exploiting an immaterial workforce, orcognitariat’. This is a terrain of conflict, especially as the processes that deliver cognitive capital involve the development of cyborgs or the fusing of objectivised, fixed machinery and human subjects. Instead of the promised technologically-fuelled reduction in toil and labour-time, technology ‘suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorisation’ (Marx, 1993, p. 532).

In the Autonomist tradition, the concept of immateriality is tied to the production of living knowledge, or the general intellect, which offers a theoretical tool to analyse the transformation of labour and knowledge production through the integration of science and technology across society. Thus, it is important that the immaterial world of capital, in which it is believed that accumulation can occur without material production, is inverted so that the fetishised myth of technology as the creator of value is replaced by an analysis of co-operative, socialised labour-power. This can be revealed through a critique of Marx’s (1993) concept of the general intellect, inside-and-against a networked, globalised production/consumption process, as it emerges as mass intellectuality.

THREE. Some criticisms of immateriality or affective capital

Criticisms of Autonomist Marxism have focused on its apparent network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality. The same is also true of those who would make claims for affect or emotion as commodity, or themselves as the source of value (see below Camfield, 2007; Davies, 2011; Robinson, 2004). In particular, there is a tendency to forget the realities of privatisation and outsourcing to the global South, and for the accumulation of natural resources, like rare earth metals, oil and coal, and human capital from that same space, alongside cataclysmic environmental despoilation. Thus, as Camfield (2007, p. 31) argues

biopolitical labour… fails to make distinctions between the different forms of production involved in the production of all that falls within the scope of ‘social life itself ’. In a highly abstract sense, it is possible to talk of labour producing goods, services, social relations, and human subjectivities. Yet it is essential to be able to distinguish the production of ourselves as human subjects through our relationships with nature and each other in determinate socio-material conditions and particular historical moments from the production by humans of, say, microprocessors. Very different kinds of production processes and products are involved. Labour is at the heart of them all, but at different levels of abstraction and in different social forms.

Moreover, entrepreneurial education and the promise of technology in the global North support precarious work and hyper-exploitation for those without proprietary skills, alongside reinforcing transnational hierarchies. Thus King (2010, p. 287) notes that ‘From a structural perspective, even with the transformative powers of digital technology, we are not moving into a post-capitalist age. The fundamental property relationships that underpin the class structure remain intact and have sharply intensified.’ The question is whether and how the connections between sites of exploitation including education and technology can be made.

What might be noted of the Autonomist approach is that its broader categories enable a critique of capitalist work in the networked society, which point to how the whole of human life is systemically enclosed and mined for new services. The connections between immaterial or affective labour in the production of cognitive capital, and their connections to the broadening and deepening of the accumulation of value across the whole of society restructured as a factory, point towards the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work.

When we use the term capital, we might reflect on how it is not only value-in-motion, but also an alienating social relation based on specific, totalising organising principles that are themselves coercive. Any notion of choice, ethics, morals, identity, empowerment, agency and so on, can only emerge as objectified or alienated inside and subjugated through this totality. So affective capital points to asymmetrical power relations, separation, alienated labour and being, and fetishized relations. For example, for a community forced out of its homeland by war, that maintains contact via a synchronous technology like skype, we might ask how they and those of us who tolerate this state-of-being are alienated at each point by capital: in the geographical struggles for means of production that drive war; in the struggle for self-worth and betterment that force us to migrate to earn a wage to subsist; in the promise of a better life that can only exist as capitalist work and the entrepreneurial or neoliberal self; in the fetish of familial or communal connection through the use of technology. In each case, those communities are separated from the land, from their labour, from their society and ultimately from themselves.

One problem of the use of terms like affective capital is that it risks reducing people to human capital or means of production, which are themselves dehumanising. We risk accepting our alienation through its temporary and marginal technological amelioration. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity/war that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic/exchange value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring all of life as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity, including through the co-option and subsumption of affect or emotion or “the subject”.

FOUR. Some references on Autonomia or affect or immateriality

Amsler, S., and M. Neary. 2012. Occupy: a new pedagogy of space and time? The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 10, no. 2: 106-38.

Arviddson, A. 2007. Ethical Economy. P2P News 156.

Beradi, F. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Transl. F. Cadel and G. Mecchia, with preface by J.E. Smith. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Bonefeld, W. 2010. What is the alternative? Shift Magazine 11.

Burston, J., N. Dyer-Witheford, and A. Hearn. 2010. Digital labour: Workers, authors, citizens. ephemera 10, no. 3/4: 214-221

Camfield, D. 2007. The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52.

Casarino, C. and A. Negri. 2008. In Praise of the Common: a conversation on philosophy and politics. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press.

Cleaver, H. 1992. The Inversion of Class Perspective in Marxian Theory: From Valorisation to Self-Valorisation. In Open Marxism, Vol. 2, Theory and Practice, ed. W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn, and K. Psychopedis, 106-44. London: Pluto Press.

Cleaver, H. 2002. Reading capital politically. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Davies, J.S. 2011. Challenging Governance Theory: From Networks to Hegemony. London: Policy Press.

Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus. London: Penguin.

Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum.

Dyer-Witheford, N. 1999. Cyber-Marx: cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. 2004. Autonomist Marxism and the Information Society. Canberra: Treason Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. 2010. Digital labour, species-becoming and the global worker. ephemera 10, no. 3/4: 484-503.

Dyer-Witheford, N., and G. de Peuter. 2009. Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minnesota, MI: University of Minnesota Press.

EduFactory (2013). EduFactory.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. 1990. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon.

Guattari, F., and A. Negri. 1985. Communists Like Us: New Spaces of Liberty, New Lines of Alliance. New York, NY: Semiotext(e).

Hall, R., and B.C. Stahl. 2012. Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies. tripleC: Cognition, Communication and Co-operation 10, no. 2: 184-202.

Hardt, M., and A. Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M., and A. Negri. 2004 Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: Penguin.

Holloway, J. 2002. Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.

King, B. On the new dignity of labour. ephemera 10, no. 3/4: 285-302.

The London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group. 1980. In and against the state. London: Pluto Press.

Marazzi. 2008. Capital And Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext.

Manzerolle, V. 2010. The Virtual Debt Factory: Towards an Analysis of Debt and Abstraction in the American Credit Crisis. tripleC: Cognition, Communication and Co-operation 10, no. 2: 221-36.

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

Miller Medina, J.E. 2005. The State Machine: politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, MIT.

Neary, M. 2010. Student as producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde? Learning Exchange, 1 (1).

Neary, M. 2012. Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University. The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 10, no. 2: 233-57.

Negri, A. 1988. Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects, 1967-83, trans. E. Emery and J. Merrington. London: Red Notes.

Negri, A. 1989. The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Negri, A. 1991. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. New York, NY: Autonomedia.

Newfield, C. 2010. The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26.

Novara Media. 2013. Immaterial Labour Isn’t Working. NovaraFM 2 (38).

Robinson, W.I. 2004. A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. 2011. The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Thorburn, E. 2012. Actually Existing Autonomy and the Brave New World of Higher Education. Occupied Studies.

Tiqqun. 2001. The Cybernetic Hypothesis.

Tronti, M. 1971. Operai e Capitale. Einaudi: Turin.

Tronti, M. 1979, Lenin in England. Red Notes Working Class. Autonomy and the Crisis. London: Red Notes.

Vercellone, C. 2007. From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect. Historical Materialism 15: 13-36

Virno, P. 2001. General Intellect.

Virno, P. 2004. A Grammar of the Multitude. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

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

Winn, J. 2012. Open Education: From the Freedom of Things to the Freedom of People. In Towards Teaching in Public, ed. M. Neary, H. Stevenson, and L. Bell, 133-47. London: Continuum.

Winn, J. 2013. Tag Archive: Immaterial Labour.

On Autonomist Marxism and the affective economy

I’m speaking on 29th November at an ESRC seminar series on Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights. The seminar is on Affective Digital Economy: Intimacy, Identity and Networked Realities.

Whilst Josie Fraser will be speaking about our Digital Literacy Leicester Framework Project, I will briefly develop a critique rooted in political economy. My own thinking in this area is derived from a reflection on the autonomist Marxist position that relates the affective domain and network governance to core concepts of the social factory, immaterial labour and cognitive capital, the general intellect and mass intellectuality, and the cybernetic hypothesis. I am interested in how these concepts enable a critical reading of socio-economic developments in information and communication technology. This is particularly important in enabling a critique of the place of education and technology inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism, which is too easily defined as frictionless and networked in the face of the hegemonic realities of hierarchical, transnational forces of production. So my take is that we might use these categories of affective labour etc. to critique how technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work, in order that possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of life for capitalist work might be developed.

The seminar offers a space to discuss this theoretical framework/the development of alternatives in the context of the following two questions:

*  Who are the major actors currently shaping this economy and how?
*  What are the major dangers and risks in affective digital economy?

This is especially so in the context of the intention of the ESRC seminar series that: “At this moment of potentially profound changes in policy and practice, it is crucial to bring together actors with contrasting interests and perspectives to help inform and stimulate further debate and research.”

NOTE: the Occupied Times provides quite a nice description of how our consumption of technologies, and our disengagement or anaesthetised view of them as empowering, is totally disconnected from the material realities of their production. So our circuit in space-time of the consumption of technologies and the affective production of digital artefacts, fails to connect or recognise the everyday realities of the appropriation of lives and livelihoods that exists either in the mines that produce the raw materials (Tin, Coltan etc.) that go into our consumer technologies or the factories that build them. The clean outer shells of our hardware and software tools distance us from the immiseration of other human beings and forms a layer of false consciousness. Beneath the cloud and inside the tablet lies a proletarianised hell, reinforced with every click.

For the citizen and end-user, the experience of technology throughout post-WWII decades has been one of increasing degrees of separation between the internal blood and guts of the machine – from hardware to code – and the soft, alluring outer shell of the commodity form. All the traces of isolation and alienation that stem from this formula place an increasing number of steps between the immediate sensory encounter and the reality of the machine.

To catch a glimpse of the world removed at the heart of this machine, consider this century’s resources warfare in Congo. With the tech sector operating on the back of corporate appetite, the pressure to produce is carried from the drawing boards of Silicon valleys to the point of production’s material origin. In Congo, where demand for hi-tech device resources such as Tantalum has escalated in recent years beyond the capacity to supply, this pressure has only served to fuel the wider conflict over the control and appropriation of these resources. This situation is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 5 million people, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since the second world war.

Here we can trace commodified communications technology born from the arse-end of violence to the mouth of your receiver. From ass to mouth – the food chain of 21st century technology production crosses gulfs, from violence to exploitation, until reaching civility; a history revealed only through the will to examine the world beneath the shimmering electronic propaganda of the new Samsung or Apple device.

We find ourselves removed from the very tools we use, encountering an unarticulated domain between production and use. The space-time contours of everyday social life are dramatically revised. This is especially true in our use of technology and how we mediate our relationships with the ‘real world’, as it becomes harder and harder to define and separate our technological identities from the idea that we also exist ‘in real life’. Our agency, as political beings, flows in between these spaces; interacting and composing itself from the vast caches of information that circulate on the network while at the same time being coerced by the near-universal grammar of our state of technology.

Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education

I have a new paper published over at the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies (JCEPS). The Journal is non-profit making and open, and is a space for Marxist and other Left analysis of education.

My article picks up some of the themes I have been playing around with here, and is titled: Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education. The abstract is appended below.

Across higher education in the United Kingdom, the procurement and deployment of educational technology increasingly impacts the practices of academic labour, in terms of administration, teaching and research. Moreover the relationships between academic labour and educational technology are increasingly framed inside the practices of neoliberal, transnational activist networks, which are re-defining UK higher education as a new model public service. This paper highlights the mechanisms through which educational technologies are used to control, enclose and commodify academic labour. At issue is whether academics and academic staff developers have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, and whether such a critique might enable technologies to be deployed for the production of socially-useful knowledge, or knowing, beyond monetization in the knowledge economy.

On the co-operative University as a field of opportunity

Yesterday @chunkymark interviewed @aaronjohnpeters. Peters made the important point at 12.31 in the video that the lead-into and beyond the next General Election in 2015 offers a relatively unique “field of opportunity” for recasting a politics of opposition and alternative to those of austerity. The question Peters then poses is: “how do we respond to that [field of opportunity]?” He goes on to state that we need to find “sustainable forms of opposition”, which lie inside-against-and-beyond traditional party and union structures and that refuse to outsource renewal and change to those in power. If we are to delegitimise those who have delineated a politics of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession, then we need alliances and allegiances of “constructive engagement” that enable us collectively to define our power-to create the world. At least this is my interpretation.

Peters reinforces this with the cry of “They all must go!” (¡Que se vayan todos!) that emerged from the social struggles againstArgentina’s debt crisis a decade ago, including protest, outing represssion, delegitimising of those in-power and relegitimising other forms of working and co-operating, the recovered factories movement, neighbourhood assemblies, and so on. Naomi Klein sought to stich a sense of global solidarity into that movement by making explicit connections for instance to the Icelandic protests against transnational elites of politicians and CEOs in 2002. She argues that “governments that respond to a crisis created by free-market ideology with an acceleration of that same discredited agenda will not survive to tell the tale.”

The social struggles against the restructuring of Argentina have been mapped in an edition of affinities from 2010 on The New Cooperativism. It is clear that Central and South America provide a rich-veing of possible stories of solidarity, democracy, and autonomy, which are themselves predicated upon different organising principles of production. As Lebowitz notes for Venezuela this is then predicated upon the interests of a whole society and not those in-power, and it demands that we find ways to critique private property, the exploitation of labour, and production solely for profit, in order to redefine units of social property, forms of social production organised by workers, and production for the needs of communities. Lebowitz argues for co-management between workers in enterprises or firms, and society/communities.

Co-management implies a particular kind of partnership–a partnership between the workers of an enterprise and society. Thus, it stresses that enterprises do not belong to the workers alone–they are meant to be operated in the interest of the whole society. In other words, co-management is not intended only to remove the self-interested capitalist, leaving in place self-interested workers; rather, it is also meant to change the purpose of productive activity. It means the effort to find ways both to allow for the development of the full potential of workers and also for every member of society, all working people, to be the beneficiaries of co-management.

We might also take something here from the experiences of Cuba, in raising healthcare (witnessed in Haiti and Venezuela) and educational attainment, at lower levels of GDP and environmental impact. As George Lambie (p. 35) notes in his deconstruction of the Cuban Revolution in the Twenty-First Century ‘The problem is that territorially restricted capital is less able to compete with its transnationally mobile counterpart.’ Thus, in the face of the neoliberal refrain of social mobility communities need new ways to exit the drive to compete with transnationally mobile capital, and to define new methods of working and producing life. This includes the role of the University in supporting those communities and societies in widening their own field of opportunity and inscribing sustainable forms of opposition and alternative.

Lambie (p. 47) argues that this is crucial because purchasing power parities now show global inequality to be significantly greater than the most pessimistic had thought. Poverty in tied to a lack of mobility and opportunity, limited access to social services, deteriorating working conditions, insecure employment etc., and a disconnect with politics that is framed corporately and where power is located in supra-national classes of actors. For De Peuter and Dyer-Witheford this means that we might refocus the core institutions of everyday life around “an organizational commons, [where] the labour performed is a commoning practice, and the surplus generated, a commonwealth.” They argue for “an acknowledgement of the contribution to collective productivity of every life” and forms of “self-organised associated labour” that can enable a circulation of the commons and the value of commoning.

At issue is the governance of the University as a form of self-organising associated labour, which is able to create sustainable forms of opposition and alternative, in the face of the politics of austerity and dispossession, and more long-term, in the face of the crisis of accumulation. Is it possible for the University to be a public good that helps to legitimise and reterritorialise local forms of social production? On what basis might the University as co-operative endeavour help to liberate communities from the corporate power-over them?