In, against and beyond the Co-operative University

We’re decadent beyond our means, we’ve a zeal

We feel the things they’ll never feel

They’re solemn in their wealth, we’re high in our poverty

We see the things they never see

Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck

Wild Beasts. 2014. Wanderlust.

Yesterday I was in Manchester for the Building the Cooperative University conference, which is an outcome of the work of the Co-operative University Working Group (hosted by the Co-operative College). The objectives for the day were:

  • to bring together those interested in ideas and practices around a Co-operative University, co-operative higher education and alternative approaches to learning;
  • to facilitate a mutually supportive environment which enables challenges, issues and solutions to be explored and discussed; and
  • to establish a Co-operative Higher Education Forum to promote cooperative and related adult and higher education initiatives.

We heard about a range of actually existing co-operative projects, including the Centre for Human Ecology, the Govan Folk University, the Brighton Free University, RED learning Co-op, Students for Cooperation, the Social Science Centre, Mondragon University and Leicester Vaughan College. There were a range of other projects, and historical, material alternatives that were voiced from the floor, in particular during the morning session. Each of these were situated against the work of Neary and Winn in co-operation, with the opening out of discussions on membership/governance, pedagogy/curriculum/knowledge, validation and accreditation, and finance. There is more at #coopuni.

I hold my hands-up that I have been involved for years in actual, material, radical/alternative education, through occupations/teach-ins, discussions of the governance of the Social Science Centre and Vaughan College, in educational work through the Walsall/Leicester City Supporters Trusts, and in educational work related to homelessness. Yet I found a day that should have been inspiring somewhat odd.

It had a revivalist feeling, yet a revival of co-operativism situated inside a pragmatically-accepted view of the market and profit. I understand and connect with the need to create something that prefigures a better world, and that is rooted in co-operative values and practices, but from the start I had a sense that we were there to receive wisdom that was almost pre-defined (as a better capitalism). I struggled throughout the day with understanding to what the Co-operative University is the answer. Now I guess this might be because I struggle with my own place both inside and outside formal higher education. It is also because we are witnessing the real subsumption of higher education inside transnational capitalism, and the inability of that system to reproduce stable forms of accumulation. As we wait for the next financial crisis I wonder what happens to indebted Co-operative University students when that hits? At the same time I realise that a Co-operative University inside a Co-operative College inside Co-operatives UK inside a world market and framed by co-operative consumption, has everyday realities of planned revenue streams and loans. And this simply amplifies by cognitive dissonance around what is to be done?

This shapes and reshapes how I view alternatives, in their perceived relationship to formal, corporate, control structures enacted through regulation and statute. In short, I found myself questioning why we are building an alternative model of the higher education institution, rooted in an outdated model of educational practice and governed in a way that perpetuates that outdated model. I found myself questioning whether this was a real alternative.

In part my questioning is situated against my own weltschmerz, in particular in the face of ongoing, secular capitalist crisis with its attendant punishing and disciplinary austerity. However, my questioning extends the nature of this socio-economic crisis, which is destroying the lives/futures of millions of people, into the terrain of socio-environmental crisis. I also wonder why we are building a model in this way that is deliberately connected to a hegemonic system of oppression, and which is rooted in contradictions and tensions around the ongoing nature of work and the availability of employment that is increasingly predicted to be marginalised/made redundant by technology in so many sectors. So in building for an unstable world that is increasingly governed by debt as a moment of social discipline, I found myself asking why are we building in this way for a capitalist world that is collapsing? Is building an alternative form of sociability impossible? I found myself questioning how to enact Rosa Luxemburg’s idea (on socialism or barbarism) that ’to push ahead to the victory of socialism we need a strong, activist, educated proletariat, and masses whose power lies in intellectual culture as well as numbers.’

Much of the day returned less to ideas around co-operative pedagogy and co-operative governance/values, and instead to issues of co-operative capital and finance. This reminded me of Mészáros’s critique of the dehumanising reality of the capital system, which reduces life to second-order mediations that maintain alienated-labour as the primary mediation of our lives. This was amplified when someone with the conch stated that he wished for such co-operative practices to realise a return on their investment. In that moment it felt impossible to escape from the gravitational pull of capital, and I was reminded that if another world is possible it will have to be built from the ruins of our present, inhuman situation, through our voluntary labour being liberated or repatriated from inside the corporate university and ploughed into a co-operative alternative instead. Without liberating time or stealing time in the name of co-operation, we will simply reproduce our existing alienation ad nauseam.

We have internalised capitalism’s value-set, rooted in productivity/intensity and where any alternative is seen as sinful. As Gorz argues in farewell to the working class, we need to realise something different. Tactical and affective autonomy reduces the acceptance of hierarchical discipline, and increases demands for the quality and content of work that is both necessary/in the sphere of heteronomy and free/in the sphere of autonomy. What we require is less a masculine, engineered, corporate life driven by technique, and instead one rooted in humane values where individuals rather than capital are sovereign. Anything otherwise makes capital/exploitation/appropriation central to a productive life, and diminishes the space for a useful life.

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx describes the sphere of freedom or autonomy beginning beyond the sphere of necessity or heteronomy. Freedom consists of being able to work with as much dignity and efficiency as possible (in the sphere of necessity) for as brief a time as possible. It is important that a heteronomous sphere is subordinate to the sphere of autonomy, with the maximum efficiency and the least expenditure of effort and resources. The key is to make it possible for individuals to move from heteronomous, wage-based social labour effected in the general interest and requiring little time or intense involvement, to autonomous activities which carry their end in themselves. Can a Co-operative University help facilitate this as an alternative model, or only extend the apparently necessary labour based on production for exchange rather than use?

This is crucial as labour is increasingly proletarianised and jobs are abolished, and it demands a re-evaluation of the sphere of necessity, what is necessary in order to sustain life, and an end to bullshit work and bullshit jobs that are unnecessary and simply flood the market with useless use-values or exchange-values. Quite how we get to this is another matter, yet during the day I was constantly reminded of the work of more militant and radical, social movements, which had focused upon general assemblies, militant research, and work done in public, as actually-existing autonomy. Connections between such social movements, enacted through solidarity mechanisms and solidarity economies, and focused upon the generation of forms of mass intellectuality that can in turn act as counter-narratives, seem increasingly important in the struggle against the corporate university and marketised higher education.

In this, the reality that the new Office for Students can only drive a market agenda, rooted in strengthening the forces of production of knowledge, rather than democratising the relations of production of knowledge, acts as a brake on the alternative positions that any Co-operative University can develop. Where such associational, democratic positions sit in asymmetrical relation to governance and regulation that amplifies the power of marketised solutions, and which drive value-creation rather than humane values, they have little opportunity to counter hierarchy, power and hegemony rather than point towards horizontal, democratic solutions. Here I am left wondering what will be the practical orientation of a Co-operative University to society? Inside a competitive regulatory, governance and funding system, operating across global terrain, in which universities act as nodes in transnational capitalist networks (transnational associations of capital), how is it possible for a Co-operative University not to be co-opted? In a world where there is no monolithic institution, and no outside of capital, where pedagogy gets reformed and repurposed as excellence, what is a Co-operative University regulated by the office for students for? Moreover, inside such governance, what is it possible for a Co-operative University to be? Inside these structuring realities, how can co-operative values survive against the law of value? Years ago I wrote, pace John Holloway, about activism and exodus and the relationship between capital and the University:

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

There was one final point that emerged through the day and it was rooted in co-operative pedagogy, and co-operative classroom practices. I found the day exhausting because I was talked at for so long, and there was relatively little space for participation. It was almost as if the structure of the day was set up in order to drive a particular set of processes, which were neither co-operative nor recuperative. I am not sure what the structure of the day prefigured. This added to my confusion about the purpose of the day, and the nature of what was given/heteronomous/necessary versus where we had freedom/autonomy to define both the issues around co-operative education and the question to which the co-operative University was the answer.

In the afternoon session I attended the pedagogy, curriculum and knowledge break-out group, and one of the attendees highlighted that we should be talking about dialogue, praxis and the development of the critical consciousness. There was a real dialectical tension in the room as participants attempted to strip back the layers of co-operative pedagogy, curriculum and knowledge, and a general refusal to engage with questions around what is knowledge for and how should the curriculum be governed. Instead interventions pointed towards the nature of socially-useful knowledge, and its relationship to inside/outside the corporate university. There was a focus on the production of such knowledge through practices that were constantly prefiguring something more democratic, as moments of struggle or rupture. In these ways it felt like there was an urgency around dissolving the practices of producing socially-useful knowledge and that knowledge itself inside the fabric of society. Throughout there was an unfolding of why, and a desire to engage with Neary’s question of how do revolutionary teachers teach in a time of crisis?

Is it possible to reconnect co-operative relations of production and values, to co-operative projects, to the co-operative College and into a federated co-operative University? Moreover I wonder how it is possible to connect these activities and moments of becoming to the development of a solidarity federation across a range of other sectors of civil society, in order to develop counter-narratives? It strikes me that the conversations that happen in the margins are key. Conversations that happen in counter-positions, like Rhodes Must Fall, are key. Conversations that happen in spaces that are not white and male and privileged are key. Here, I do not wish to discuss becoming a challenger institution or a moment of disruption, where those challengers and those disruptors simply enable capital to reinvent itself through forms of de-/re-territorialisation.

Rather, I continue to wonder, how is it possible to reimagine the University? How can the Co-operative University enable us to believe that another world is possible?

Or am I just a Cassandra; a Jeremiah; anti-everything?


slides and notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

I presented at the DMU Institute for Education Futures seminar yesterday. My paper is based on a forthcoming article in a 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 slides are appended below.

There are a fuller set of notes here.


Dismantling the curriculum in higher education

On 22 November I’ll be speaking at the University of Greenwich Open Lecture Series, on the issue of dismantling the curriculum in higher education. I will build on my work on academic alienation, mass intellectuality and decolonising the curriculum. The abstract is appended herewith.

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 discussion argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the commodification of the curriculum is central. This enables us to discuss the possibility that an open curriculum rooted in ideas of mass intellectuality might enable new forms of social wealth to emerge in opposition to a curriculum for private/positional gain. One possible way to reframe the curriculum 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.


notes on the cybernetic hypothesis

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

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

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

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


Cybernetics and control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chile/CyberSyn

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

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

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

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

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

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


Relationship to capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


on being in-and-against the TEF

For there to be winners, there have to be losers.

Truth is an act of love.

I’ve been writing about against the TEF forever. In order to celebrate yesterday’s TEF results, I thought I would see just how much I had written as a recognition that resistance may appear futile but what else are we going to do? The list of posts is given below, but there are three bits that stood out on re-reading, alongside the positions of UCU and NUS.


The lynchpin of our subordination: my availability for my students; my teaching preparation; my relationship to my precariously-employed peers; my turnaround times; my willingness to sit on committees; my NSS scores; my TEF scores; my REF scores; my on-line presence; my impact; my scholarly outputs; my innovation; my everything. My desperate everything, including the subordination of life to work, as a means for the internalised production of anxiety that will help me to re-produce the desires of the machine for productivity and intensity.

Anxiety, alienation, desire, competition, subordination. A machinic whole.


The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.


A key issue is where does our limited energy go in all this? Resisting on all fronts is an exhausting impossibility. Resisting whilst we try to live is also potentially exhausting. Can we resist where we have a lack of agency or control? How do we push back against the normalisation of metrics that feeds into the violence of aspiration, or the internalised desire to optimise our personal and familial outcomes, as they are set by the market?

How do we work collectively inside and across institutions, and between teachers and students, to refuse the TEF? Or must we simply attempt to occupy and recompose the TEF?

How do we build a movement against standardised testing and metrics-driven education? How do we recover our humanity through connection to other campaigns?

How do we connect our work inside institutions to other, concrete and local, social campaigns against austerity?


Elsewhere, Sally Hunt of UCU has stated:

‘If the government is serious about improving teaching quality it should improve the working conditions of the tens of thousands of teaching staff employed on insecure, often zero-hours contracts and the impact this has on students’ learning experience.’


Elsewhere, Sonia Vieru of NUS has written that:

We do not believe that the Teaching Excellence Framework accurately measures teaching quality. The NSS Boycott has shaken one of the core metrics of the Framework and exposed its manipulability and fragility. Students’ unions across eleven institutions have confirmed to NUS that they successfully lowered their fill out rate to below 50 per cent, rendering the data unusable for one year of the next TEF award.

The NSS Boycott has shown that mass student mobilisation around what some would have considered a complex policy issue is possible and effective. The widespread impact of the NSS Boycott campaign will go further than one year of data destabilisation. Thousands of students have taken part in the campaign and have demonstrated their opposition to an assessment regime which is carried out in students’ names, but not to our benefit or to the benefit of higher education as a whole.

The TEF and its results today have opened up a conversation about the quality of teaching across the sector: but it is not a conversation which has been for the good of students or higher education.


’cause we all need heart and we all need courage/In these times

In no particular chronological or thematic order, these are some of the things I have written. They focus upon policy, practice-based implications, resistance, the proletarianisation of the University, and the emotional impact on/of academic labour.

notes on saying “no” to the TEF

notes on metricide

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

on world-weariness

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

notes on education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’

the Alternative HE White Paper

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

on resistance to the HE White Paper

on the HE White Paper and academic practice

notes on academic overwork

against the HE Green Paper


anthropological regression and education futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

  • Clarke, Simon. 1991. Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology: From Adam Smith to Max Weber. London: Palgrave. [Thanks Mike!]
  • Dyer-Witheford, Nick. 2015. Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. London: Pluto Press.
  • Federici, Sylvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. Comments on James Mill. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/
  • Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Marx, Karl. 1866. Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/08/instructions.htm
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 1846/1998. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Prometheus.

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

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


social co-operatives and the democratisation of higher education

Yesterday, Joss Winn and I presented the following paper at The Co-operative Education and Research Conference, 5-6 April 2017, Manchester. A link to download the paper is below the abstract. It is a version of our Introduction to the forthcoming book, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. The slides are also available below the abstract.

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.

Download the paper.


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-as-gaslighting

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

Anthony Wallace. 1961. Culture and Personality.


Education and radical subjectivity

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

Karl Marx. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

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

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

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


Education and substantive equality

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

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

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

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


Choose life

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

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Choose dissonance

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

Franz Fanon. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks.

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

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

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

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

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


Choose excellently

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

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

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

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


Choose what you internalise and re-produce

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

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

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

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

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

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