Weaving other worlds with, against and beyond Marx

Back in December 2021 I began working with Inny Accioly (Fluminense Federal University, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and Krystian Szadkowski (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland), on a Palgrave International Handbook of Marxism and Education. We hope that the Handbook will be published in late 2023.

Our overview noted that:

The Handbook to Marxism and Education is an international and interdisciplinary volume, which provides a thorough and precise engagement with emergent developments in Marxist theory in both the global South and North. Drawing on the work of authoritative scholars and practitioners, the Companion explicitly shows how these developments enable a rich historical and material understanding of the full range of education sectors and contexts.

The manuscript has now been delivered, with 30 chapters that seek to weave together stories, critiques, ways of knowing, and potential lines through, which address the starting point, in our introduction:

What is the role of education in the reproduction of the world? What is its role in capitalism’s valorization process? How do educational structures, cultures and practices reproduce the ways in which capitalism mediates everyday life for-value, through private property, commodity exchange, the division of labor and the market? In response to the alienating realities of twenty-first century life, how might we reimagine education for another world? These questions have gestated inside a space and time of polycrisis, or interconnecting crises of capitalist reproduction, ecosystem collapse and climate forcing, and misrepresentation and marginalization for some communities. In response, there is a renewed need for critiques that can unfold authentic and humane educational possibilities, beyond the commodity form.

Our intention has been to respect and reflect traditions of Marxist humanism, through the rich diversity of interpretation and applications of Marx in differing contexts. As a result, the chapters weave through the following.

  1. Core organizing and explanatory categories used by Marxists, including: abolition; abstract labor; abstraction; accumulation; alienation, class struggle; commodification; competition; dialectics; exploitation; expropriation; general intellect; historical materialism; human capital; labor-power; reproduction schemas; social reproduction; socially-necessary labor time; struggle; and, valorization.
  2. Theoretical and conceptual discussions of: the abolition of higher education; adult education; alienation and education; academic labor; the classroom; critical pedagogy; decolonizing the school; dialectical materialism; the educational Commons; educational reforms; feminist pedagogies; financialization of education; fixed capital and infrastructures; green Marxism, eco-socialism and pedagogy; Liberation Theology and education; Marxist-Humanism and women of color; measurement in education; needs in the capitalocene; onto-epistemologies and world changing; polytechnic education; queer Marxism as pedagogy; redistribution and public policy; research and commercialization in education; student movements; subsumption of education; workers’ education; and, value in education.
  3. Contextual discussions from Australia, Bhutan, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, England, Finland, India, Latin America, Mozambique, Poland, Romania, South America, Spain, and the United States of America.

I. In: Marxist modes and characteristics of analysis in education

A set of 12 chapters that develop thinking around core terms like dialectical materialism, value, subsumption and alienation, and which set those up theoretically, or in relation either to specific areas of practice, like liberation theology and adult education, or to Marxist authors, like Althusser. 

  1. Introduction: the Relevance of Marxism to Education (Richard Hall, Inny Accioly and Krystian Szadkowski)
  1. Marx, Materialism and Education (Richard Hall)
  1. Value in Education: Its web of social forms (Glenn Rikowski)
  1. Breaking bonds: How academic capitalism feeds processes of academic alienation (Mikko Poutanen)
  1. The Class in Race, Gender, and Learning (Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab)
  1. Foundations and challenges of polytechnic education (Marise Nogueira Ramos)
  1. Liberation Theology, Marxism and Education (Luis Martínez Andrade and Allan Coelho)
  1. Marxism and Adult Education (John D Holst)
  1. In-Against-Beyond metrics-driven University: A Marxist critique of the capitalist imposition of measure on academic labour (Jakub Krzeski)
  1. Classroom as a site of class struggle (Raju J. Das)
  1. Science Communication, Competitive Project-based Funding and the Formal Subsumption of Academic Labour Under Capital (Luis Arboledas-Lérida)
  1. Commodification, the Violence of Abstraction, and Measuring Socially Necessary Labor Time: A Marxist Analysis of High-Stakes Testing and Capitalist Education in the United States (Wayne Au)
  1. The reproduction of capitalism in education: Althusser and the educational Ideological State Apparatus (Toni Ruuska) 

II. Against: Emerging currents in Marxism and education

Chapters that place critique in context, as being Against: Emerging currents in Marxism and education. These chapters develop their analyses globally or regionally, in relation to key themes like financialization, decoloniality and Green Marxism or Environmentalism, and also by queering our engagement with Marxism or focusing on student movements.

  1. Critique of the Political Economy of Education: Methodological Notes for the Analysis of Global Educational Reforms (Inny Accioly)
  1. The beginnings of Marxism and Workers’ Education in the Spanish-speaking Southern Cone: The case of Chile (María Alicia Rueda)
  1. Commodification and Financialization of Education in Brazil: trends and particularities of dependent capitalism (Roberto Leher and Hellen Balbinotti Costa)
  1. Critical environmental education, Marxism and environmental conflicts: Some contributions in the light of Latin America (César Augusto Costa and Carlos Frederico B. Loureiro
  1. Green Marxism, Ecocentric Pedagogies and De-capitalization/Decolonization (Sayan Dey)
  1. Indian Problem to Indian Solution: Using a Racio-Marxist Lens to Expose the Invisible War in Education (Linda Orie)
  1. Re-reading socialist art: the potential of queer Marxism in education (Bogdan Popa)
  1. Making sense of neoliberalism’s new nexus between work and education, teachers’ work, and teachers’ labor activism: Implications for labor and the Left (Lois Weiner)
  1. Contemporary Student Movements and Capitalism. A Marxist Debate (Lorenzo Cini and Héctor Ríos-Jara)

III. Beyond: Marxism, education and alternatives

Chapters that focus our attention Beyond: Marxism, education and alternatives. These chapters lead us into dialogue with human needs and the idea of social reproduction, and thinking about these issues in public policy and HE. We deliberately end by discussing the world otherwise, in relation to feminist counter-geographies from the South, decolonial feminisms, and a deep, relational activism

  1. Revisiting and revitalizing need as non-dualist foundation for a (r)evolutionary pedagogy (Joel Lazarus)
  1. Reproduction in Struggle (David I. Backer)
  1. State and Public Policy in Education: From the Weakness of the Public to an Agenda for Social Development and Redistribution (Felipe Ziotti Narita and Jeremiah Morelock)
  1. Marxism, (Higher) Education and the Commons (Krystian Szadkowski)
  1. Marx, Critique, and Abolition: Higher Education as Infrastructure (Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein)
  1. Toward a Decolonial Marxism: Considering the Dialectics and Analectics in the Counter-Geographies of Women of the Global South (Lilia D. Monzó and Nidžara Pečenković)
  1. The (im)possibilities of revolutionary pedagogical-political kinship (m)otherwise: The Gifts of (Autonomous) Marxist Feminisms and Decolonial/Abolitionist Communitarian Feminisms to pedagogical-political projects of collective liberation (Sara C. Motta)
  1. Marxism in an Activist Key: Educational Implications of an Activist-Transformative Philosophy (Anna Stetsenko)

There is also a Series Editor’s Afterword: weaving other worlds with, against and beyond Marx (Richard Hall).

Whilst the Handbook criticizes capitalist education, and attempts to present the reader with perspectives for overcoming its alienating realities, it is also subject to its effects. In inviting authors and curating the chapters, sickness and work overload have disproportionately affected women and groups systemically made marginal. It grieves us that these invited voices are not present, because of the everyday realities of survival inside capitalism. This reiterates the importance of the work that we must undertake, of liberation through mutuality and dignity in action. It reiterates the importance of material and historical solidarity, as a pedagogical process emanating from within and across society.

A more diverse spread of chapters was commissioned but proved impossible to deliver. This would have included more work: from national liberation struggles in the Middle East and North Africa; in theory generated from Sub-Saharan Africa; in the praxis of community struggles in alternative cultural systems, like that of India; and, from the development of Marxism in China. Such analyses would also have drawn in thinkers not represented here in detail.

However, as editors, we encourage readers to engage with our Handbook as a contribution to the rich archive detailing how Marx’s work has been infused with concrete, material struggles. In so-doing, we ask readers to reflect upon their own work in relation to what Marx and Engels called communism, which, as the infinite process of critique, is ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.’

In reflecting upon the gift of sitting with these 30 chapters, I infer that they offer a consensus that our ontological, epistemological and methodological horizons must push against the law of value. Yet they also unfold myriad ways of analyzing with Marx how we might move through intellectual work in society, such that a new form of becoming accepts and shapes the individual as a many-sided being (in dialogue with other, many-sided beings). At the heart of the matter then is our ability in-common to tell stories of dignity and mutuality that generate the courage and faith to imagine and make concrete the voices of the dispossessed:

Everything for everyone. Until this is true, there will be nothing for us.


Ill-Being and the Hopeless University

Image of lichen-covered nodule on tree branch.

On June 14th, 2023, I am leading an Ends of Knowledge reading group and seminar.

The blurb for the event is pasted below, and you can sign-up via Eventbrite.

Ill-being and the Hopeless University

Faced by the realities and lived experiences of intersecting crises, the University has become hopeless, in two respects. First, it has become a place that has no socially-useful role beyond the reproduction of capital, and has become an anti-human project devoid of hope. Second, it is unable to respond meaningfully with crises that erupt from the contradictions of capital. Thus, in its maintenance of business-as-usual, the University remains shaped as a tactical response to these contradictions. 

In spite of the uncertainties of life inside the pandemic, these demands increasingly reproduce precarious and proletarianised working conditions. Alienation, anxiety, estrangement unfold inside University workers, through their work, their relationships and their very selves. Whilst institutions focus upon well-being through symptomatic responses related to resilience, mindfulness and well-being. Yet, this is entangled with the reality that University work, like all labour, tends to catalyse ill-being.

Through crises of finance or epidemiology, or at the intersection of both, it is possible to trace how the intersection of socio-economic and socio-environmental crises both enable the structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures, and damage bodies and psychologies. As institutional forms develop high plasticity, cultures become pathologies, and activities are defined methodologically, individuals and communities are scarred. In the pandemic, the scars are made visible, in terms of reports of overwork, self-sacrifice and feelings of precariousness, underpinned by a sense of hopelessness and Weltschmerz, with physical and psychological manifestations, including headaches, fatigue, anxiety and depression. In spite of the pandemic, the University demands the internalisation of specific behaviours that become culturally-acceptable, self-harming activities. These subsume the humanity of intellectual work under economic determinations.

This anti-humanist terrain and its resulting, widening circuit of ill-being, serve as an opening for discussion.

Sign up link here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ends-of-knowledge-richard-hall-ill-being-and-the-hopeless-university-tickets-603704575637.

Required Reading:


Notes on leaving UCU

I joined NATFHE in 1994. When it merged with the AUT and formed UCU, I migrated across. I had never not been on strike when called. I had never not picketed. Even on my own. Even in the rain. Even with senior managers walking past and telling me what a good job I was doing.

After being put at risk through a restructure under a new Pro Vice-Chancellor in 2005, I joined the UCU committee and became a health and safety rep. I stepped down in 2009 as my emotional health worsened. However, I remained on the committee. For the next few years, alongside caring for my Mum before she passed away and continued work, I was involved with the committee, occasionally in meetings with management. At that time, I was much more involved with student social movement activity, through occupations, and in a range of alternative education projects, detailed at http://www.richard-hall.org/beyond-work/

I miss those days. Somethings felt possible.

In 2018, my own position in University came under renewed stress, as a new Pro Vice-Chancellor looked to co-opt an Institute I was directing for a different purpose than that which we had agreed institutionally and previously. This was the most incredibly messy and stressful experience I have had in my working life. The conduct of this was inexcusable. However, I remain grateful to two members of senior leadership in the institution at that time who gave me incredible support.

This is also a period in which I finalised The Alienated Academic. And that gave birth to The Hopeless University.

In my description of this, my own trade union, UCU, is missing. The limitations of union power within a branch and an institution became very clear to me at this time. Whilst caseworkers and members were sympathetic, there was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness should I be threatened with redundancy. I remember other professors who were members expressing dismay in their fear that this could be visited on them. It was clear that this was a branch with limited organisation, which had to focus resources upon being service-based, and that, in extremis, one was on one’s own.

NB the limits of labour solidarity is also the lesson that I take from my Dad’s work in precarious circumstances on factory floors. Note – this is not human or civil solidarity, or that in social movements (well, not necessarily, although it might be), but the limits erupting from within the compulsion to resell one’s alienated labour day-after-day within a prestige economy. At this time, I was supported by wonderful and beautiful people from the ground, like Sarah Amsler and Liz Morrish and Mike Neary and Keith Smyth.

In spite of these limits, or despite them, I became much more involved as an activist once the Vice-Chancellor at the time left their position. I authored DMU Renewed: a Manifesto, which drew upon work from the Branch Solidarity Network. I was involved in trying to renew and preserve the committee, as it tried to find its balance with an influx of new members. Again, this work was incredibly, emotionally trying and tiring, because it was haunted by egos and competing strategies and agendas. In hindsight, any meaningful articulation of change always felt secondary to tactical engagements with management.

And I was culpable. Up to a point.

And sometimes, when you work at the intersection of pragmatism and libertarian communism, the only answer is ¡Que se vayan todos! But that isn’t always clear at the time.

NB egos and competing strategies and agendas. These are lessons that I also project onto UCU nationally.

¡Que se vayan todos!

As the union branch became more active, I undertook casework (2018 – 22), and some negotiation, especially during Covid-19 (2019 – 22). This was a time when I was adjusting to having left long-term therapy (after a decade), and was also caring for my Nan, who passed away in April 2020, and then my Dad, who passed away suddenly in January 2022. I had intended to step down from the committee in late 2021, but was persuaded by some committee members to stay on. As a result, I was heavily involved in negotiation and casework during proposed redundancies in late Spring/Summer 2022. As with many union activists, and as was the case since I joined the committee, I had no time for this work allocated.

So, as with so many others, it took over evenings and weekends. And hearts and souls. And tended to be de-generative, and rarely re-generative. Alienation, reproduced over-and-over.

NB I must note how amazing the caseworkers and negotiators were during this dispute. I salute them. I remember discussing with the other negotiators how vulnerable we all felt. And how we had to return to negotiate, because what else was possible?

And, I should have been grieving my Dad.

I stood down from the committee in Autumn 2022. I had served on it in one form or another (often limited) since 2005, had always been active in meetings, had always been on strike and picketed, had written and negotiated and undertaken casework, had done work on health and safety. When I stood down I had one email from a current committee member thanking me for my time and energy. I had a second from a regional official. I am so grateful for their messages.

They also throw into stark relief that I had no other recognition of this work. Nothing from the committee or its officers. This local silence resonates with how I view the union nationally.

NB I understand the cry that this is thankless work, and that mine is just another representation of the weakness of (white, male, straight)(academic) egos. Yes, maybe. I have to sit with that. And yet, it was not thanks that I thought might be appropriate. Rather, an acknowledgement, a nod, a wish to go well. Something.

On New Year’s Eve I was in a local pub that was closing that evening. With friends, I was celebrating what the pub had meant to me/us. The evening was recalibrated when an angry former colleague confronted me about some casework that happened whilst I was caring for my Nan.  In the crucial moment for that part of the story I was bedridden with a migraine. And in that moment in the pub I was reminded that, during that case, a senior, national UCU activist had slandered me on email. I remember that nothing came of this following conversations with region. And I remember how overworked that office is as well.

What a mess the alienation and estrangement and egos of this labour makes of us, and of our relationships. What a mess it makes of our histories, presents and futures.

And this in the midst of the current dispute. I remember feeling uneasy that our branch, like others, had no discussion about the dispute in late summer 2022, and that I felt that we were bounced into a ballot for industrial action. Moreover, our branch was tired from a struggle over redundancies, which for some staff was still ongoing. There was an issue of organisation. And energy, both emotional and physical.

However, there was also an issue of our not having built an organisation around the 4 Fights nationally, in particular since the collapse of the (in hindsight) pointless action of 2020. Here, it is interesting to see the comments of national negotiators when analysing the recent UCEA/UCU negotiations, in which they did not take part as a group. Did we now understand what our disputes meant, or what winning meant inside the institution/nationally? Was this simply a campaign around pay, for which we would have no public support? Were post-92s being bounced into a struggle where the power/core dispute was over USS Pensions?

NB of course, that pensions dispute is fundamental and needs to be won. It deserves the support of all University workers, working (directly) democratically to liberate these deferred wages/benefits. To liberate future time. Future free time. For these workers.

I felt that aggregating the vote was risky for some institutions that remain less well-organised, and appearing to connect 4 Fights and Pensions, whether the disputes were separate on the ballot paper or not, was a problematic strategy. Moreover, when the ballot result came out and there were triumphalist statements made about an 80-odd per cent vote for strike action, based upon a low 50 per cent turnout, my heart sank. This meant that less than half of members had said they would take strike action, and this in a sector with relatively low union density, and next to no history of militancy.

Strike action and next-to-nothing else. Except our usual ASOS. Whatever that is, in such an ill-defined role that is never a trade. Where the labour of love trumps all else. And union legal notes said that National would support branches if management docked 100% pay, but which also reiterated that they could do so. And in places they have. All the pressure back on exhausted branches and individuals. And in-fighting and factions and vanguardism increasingly apparent when what we needed was leadership.

And anyway, we stop nothing with those numbers taking action. Or saying that they will take action. It is impossible to reimagine the university with those numbers.

Of course, it is difficult to know what we actually do stop, given that we are not a trade. Given that we are deeply stratified and fragmented, set against each other in a positional war of prestige operating at the institutional, disciplinary and individual-level. Given that we tend to overwork, and make-up lost time and activities in our own precious time. Given that we are brutalised (self-harm) inside our labour of love. These aren’t train services or postal deliveries. And it’s almost time for the NSS.

I also felt dispirited that our only apparent connection with sister unions, like Unison, was to ask them to contribute to our strike funds. The labour of academics is predicated upon of a range of professional services staff. The lack of cross-union solidarity, reinforcing privilege and hierarchy, goes on and on and on.

And all I could see was, at a National level, the Union maintaining a financial analysis that neglected the restricted and limiting financial health of individual institutions in any pay claim, and instead making claims about the reserves of the sector as a whole. As if they could be deployed equally. Moreover, there was a disengagement from the political economy of higher education, and the funding, governance and regulatory terrain upon which academic labour is forced to compete. Unless I had missed something, without any renewed funding settlement, and without any commitment for cross-sector bailouts, individual institutions were at risk from unfunded pay claims.

I ask myself, is that Russell Group institution down the road really going to bail us out when the shit hits the fan?

So what was the strategy to be? For academic labour across competing institutions?

This remains compounded for me by a lack of national organising and strategy that can resist the demands of transnational capital, and it is reinforced by a disconnect between national organising and horizontal, branch-based organising. A disconnect with sister unions. A disconnect with wider struggles in communities and society for other social goods. With factionalised, national decision-making exacerbating problems in the aggregation of separate demands (like pay equality, workload, and pensions), employers appear increasingly able to set class fractions of University labour in opposition. Operating in this context feels increasingly hopeless, with branches tending to build transactional rather than relational organisation locally.

Yet, I tried to remember that, for instance during the pandemic, University labour was increasingly placed at-risk, through proposed moves to fully-online degrees, or proposed salary cuts and promotion freezes for staff. There were also reports of significant lay-offs for fixed-term contract staff across the sector. I know that local branches did amazing work at this time.

Amazing work.

At the same time, I see that nationally we appear to have learned nothing from past struggles. We appear to have learned nothing from 2018 or 2020, and that latter capitulation in the face of epidemiological crisis. As we headed into this new struggle, it appeared clear that we did not have the base, the networks of solidarity, nor the strategy, to define what winning might look like, in particular for those made most marginal.

This point feels hugely relevant to me. In my lifetime inside institutions, I have never been involved in a project struggling for equality, in relation to gender, disability, race and ethnicity, or decolonising, that has been catalysed by trade unions. These have tended to come from individuals inside institutions defining or leading projects, or from pressure from without (for instance, in relation to sexual violence on campus). As a result, it is increasingly clear to me that trade unions cannot add meaningful momentum or energy into these struggles in a generative way, precisely because they are locked into and limited by a particular understanding of, and focus upon, labour relations.

NB I come back to this issue of what is generative, below. However, my engagement in the 2010s in alternative education projects offered possibility. My engagement with trade unions throughout my working life should have been relational, and instead it was transactional, based upon an idealised, universal and reductionist conception of workload, casualisation and pay.

At a national level, the reproduction of the struggle appeared to pivot over the form in which decisions might be made, and upon which strategy might be set, based upon the desires of competing factions. I found this overwhelmingly demoralising. I know that this is set into a personal, post-pandemic context in which I am carrying a lot of grief. However, it feels like union members have no agency, or are kettled by constitutional/communicative designs that (deliberately?) limit agency. Of course, the work of, for instance, comrades from Notes from Below, helps us to see the possibilities and horizons for more democratic, horizontal working. I just don’t see how it is enacted. Co-opted, yes. Enacted, no.

This feels stymied by the claims made by Higher Education Committee and counter-claims made by those around the General Secretary about who has a democratic mandate, and what form that mandate might take. It is exacerbated in manoeuvring around who has a mandate to negotiate, and what is the role of branches, and the relentless use of social media to make up for a lack of an organised base. I increasingly felt the abject pointlessness of that manoeuvring in my soul. How was this actually going to provide material solutions or even possibilities for marginalised workers?

NB I was also, at this time, in solidarity with members of Unite at UCU who were in dispute over pay.

I wouldn’t mind if those asserted democratic mandates were based on significant turnouts, and gave an appropriate platform/foundation for the decisions that have been made. But I just can’t see that they do. Whether it is claims for 18 days of strike action, or for such action to be indefinite. Constant, direct democracy is needed. And is apparently impossible. Instead, I have seen posts about procedures by members of Committees, about why they voted as they did. All this simply highlights the broken politics of the union. And It is utterly dispiriting to watch.

Moreover, I know that strategy and organisation in the post-pandemic University, has enabled management to place more and more workers at-risk or potentially surplus to requirements. This has become an explicit management weapon in the class conflict now normalised across academia. During 2022-23, we have seen a range of redundancies proposed, alongside the ongoing use of casualised and precarious contracts for staff. Of course, this gave energy to long-standing campaigns against casualisation (#coronacontract), and significant local organising, which led to anti-casualisation agreements at the University of Bath, the Open University, and Sheffield Hallam University amongst others.

I salute these.

However, against the pandemic shock doctrine and struggles in the post-pandemic institution, it appears almost impossible for University labour to develop a counter-hegemonic project that pushes back against the transnational, capitalist and activist networks that oppose them. University labour, fragmented, with weak strategy, disorganised, and lacking wider solidarity, lacks the power to push back against finance capital as it associates with Vice-Chancellors, consultancies, venture capitalists working in educational technology, credit rating agencies, bond markets, and so on.

Increasingly, University labour appears unable to address: first, the divisions between fractions of that labour working in a prestige economy and looking to accrue intellectual capital; and second, the lack of class solidarity between academics, and both professional services’ staff and students. As Marx (1873) noted, ‘while the class struggle remains latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena’, capital will maintain its power. This is particularly the case where capital acts as a joint-stock company or association of capitals, able to mobilise significant resources in any class conflict.

And I am aware of autonomous struggles that erupt from within these divisions, demonstrating the deep antagonism between University labourers and their institutions and sectors. These include trade unions. However, and crucially, mirroring the teacher strikes in Chicago and Wisconsin in the last decade, we have witnessed unionised labour taking action from below and democratically, in spite of tentative agreements with management by union leadership. Having to take action autonomously, and horizontally, and democratically.

We have seen solidarity actions at the University of East Anglia. We also continue to see brilliant work against outsourcing, for instance in IWGB struggles at the University of London. Elsewhere, graduate students at the University of Michigan and Temple University in the USA are demanding living wages, in spite of tentative agreements with management by unions. We have also seen a range of student occupations protesting rent increases, and demanding cost-of-living support for students and staff. We have also seen movements against sexual violence on campuses, including the work of the 1752 Group based in the UK, which catalysed regulatory changes.

NB here, I remember and show solidarity with the Survivors Justice UCU network, who campaigned for an independent investigation and justice for the victims of sexual harassment at UCU, including in the handling of their Rule 13 complaint on sexual harassment within the union.

Rather than a reliance upon historic and formal, labour organisations, increasingly I see generative actions that point towards the validity of organising as a social movement. For generating networks that reinforce relations of mutuality and dignity between plural individuals and groups, engaged in struggles within the same terrain. I simply cannot see how the bureaucratic hegemony and privilege of the University itself can be challenged by the bureaucratic hegemony and privilege of the trade unions that claim to oppose it.

This thread by Working Class History, demonstrates the limitations of unions that “are not pure organisations which represent the will and economic interests of their members. They are large, bureaucratic organisations, which exist within capitalist economies and within legal frameworks built by capitalist states.” That is their condition. I can work with it if we are working beyond it. But we aren’t.

In this, and in spite of claims that student learning conditions are staff teaching conditions and labouring conditions, there has been much less evidence of activist forms of mutuality between academic labourers and students. I remember going on demonstrations in 2010 and 2011, and being kettled, alongside a minority of academic teaching staff. I remember going on demonstrations against austerity, alongside a minority of academic teaching staff. I remember being in alternative education projects, alongside a minority of academic teaching staff.

And in spite of the global education struggles of the early 2010s, the strikes occurring in UK higher education since 2018 have produced limited anti-capitalist content, and almost no discussion of what might lie beyond labour relations in the toxic University. In this, the abolition of the University, and of (academic) labour inside capitalism is nowhere on the agenda.

Increasingly, I cannot see how the structures, cultures and practices of the labour organisations open to me, which are so entangled with the alienating realities of the capitalist University, make it possible for University workers to imagine another type of institution, let alone another world. The transactional nature of unions militates against a deeply relational, alternative way of producing knowledge. It appears increasingly to me that trade unions, like universities themselves, merely reproduce hopelessness.

And this is my current position. It is not a permanent position. All positions are conditional and open. As Subcamandante Marcos argued, ‘[a]ll final options are a trap.’ When I reflect back now, in all my years of trade union activity, it never felt generative or possible, or opening out of a new horizon of possibility. The spaces and places that have felt possible have been outside the University and outside of labour unions, in the struggle within social movements that seek to imagine the world otherwise. These spaces and places have felt relational, rather than transactional.

I come back to that, because it is how I feel about how I have been treated in relation to the free labour that I have given to my union over the years, which went unrecognised as it passed. If we are going to treat each other transactionally, rather than relationally, as we claim that the university is ours, and if we refuse to honour the care and dignity that individuals bring to their work, then we are lost. A university that is not grounded in the mutuality of dignity as an act of love is not enough. Never enough.

And I write this in response to a committee member having a student whom I was teaching deliver me two UCU stickers, on a strike day. Not handing them to me directly. But sending a student as a messenger. Carrying the equivalent of a white feather, perhaps. Of course, this person didn’t know that I had left the union a month before. This person didn’t know that I could not cross the picket line whilst I was a member of the union, and that I was so utterly dispirited by how this campaign and this dispute were being run, and the claims made about it. That I was so dispirited by how I saw previous failings being replicated over and over and over again.

Of course, I recognise and still process that I was part of one UCU branch and its committee for years. Make of that what you will. Clearly, some of those failings are my failings, in particular, in our inability to build something predicated upon mutuality, solidarity and relationality.

And in this, I am reminded that Notes from Below remarked:

We hope this scrutiny is accepted as a good faith attempt to build a better, more equitable union that is run from its roots.

I am also reminded of the words of a very dear friend who said to me back in 2018:

I bloody love trade unions. I just don’t like them very much.

I will try to hold these entangled positions as I find my way. For now, that cannot be within UCU.

Peace be with you.


A conversation at the Documentary Media Centre for #16DaysOfActivism

I spoke with John Coster yesterday (yeah, yeah, I know it was a UCU strike day) for Day 6 of #16DaysOfActivism from across the Parallel Lives Network. The programme takes a look at the range of takes on activism and what it means in practice. It runs from Friday 25th November – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – through to Human Rights Day on Saturday 10th December.

Our discussion focused on hopelessness and hope in-and-against the University. It spoke to issues of voice, grief, hospicing and abolition, in our intellectual work. It reminded me that when I wrote about courage, faith, justice, hope and peace, those values and their interrelationships are still important to me. You can access the full programme from the Parallel Lives Network site, and our discussion is available for Day 6, or below.

 


Online seminar and slides: on alienation, hopelessness and the abolition of the University

On Wednesday October 5th, 2022, at 15-18.00 (EEST) and 13-16.00 (BST), I’ll be facilitating an online session on:

“The Alienated academic and the Hopeless University with Professor Richard Hall”

My slides are appended below and available on my Slideshare, with a focus on alienation, hopelessness and abolition.

The Zoom link for the event is at: https://tuni.zoom.us/j/66510029426?pwd=MzVRQW1aaitYS1RXdjZqemkwUmo5QT09

The session is being hosted by the research group of Assembling Postcapitalist International Political Economies (POSTCAPE), at the University of Tampere, Finland. For more details about the event, see the POSTCAPE site. The group’s background to the event is given below.

I am very grateful to Mikko Poutanen, who is a PhD researcher in Political Science at Tampere, for this invitation ands his support, and for his ongoing work on academic and intellectual alienation.

Background

The research group of Assembling Postcapitalist International Political Economies (POSTCAPE) welcomes you to join us in an online seminar with professor of education and technology Richard Hall from De Montfort University Leicester (UK). Professor Hall has written extensively on the changes of UK higher education from a distinctly critical point of view, noting that academics are becoming alienated. Academic work as a “labor of love” is increasingly commodified, not only challenging but arguably damaging the conditions of intellectual work.

Writing in the context of the United Kingdom, Professor Hall’s work argues that the neoliberalization of universities has already progressed to the point that the university has become “hopeless”. Yet, within this hopelessness, there is also radical potential for new imaginaries for future intellectual work and mass intellectuality. Only when academics are ready to acknowledge the university is hopeless, can we begin salvage work of the university which is not and cannot be looking back for solutions.

The new imaginary for a university and intellectual work in general has to address questions of economic, gendered, racialized and environmental problems that the current university, mired in late-stage capitalism, is able to identify but to do very little to solve.

In this combined lecture and seminar, Professor Hall will first outline his diagnosis of the alienated academic and the hopeless university, and potential ways forward and then open for questions and comments in a seminar discussion. There will be a break between the lecture and the seminar.


Relevant works

Hall, Richard & Kate Bowles. 2016. “Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety.” Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor 28: 30-47.

Hall, Richard. 2018a. “On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality.” tripleC 16(1): 97-113.

Hall, Richard. 2018b. The Alienated academic – The struggle for autonomy inside the university. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hall, Richard. 2019. ”On authoritarian neoliberalism and poetic epistemology.” Social epistemology 33(4): 298-308.

Hall, Richard. 2021. The Hopeless University: Intellectual work at the end of The End of History. Leicester: Mayfly Books.



‘Whiteness is an immoral choice’: The idea of the University at the intersection of crises

With Raj Gill at DMU, and Sol Gamsu at Durham, I have a paper accepted in Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education Research, entitled ‘Whiteness is an immoral choice’: The idea of the University at the intersection of crises.

It is in a Special Issue on Higher Education in the Eye of the Covid-19 Storm, edited by Jason Arday and Vikki Boliver.

In it, we argue that whiteness has historical and material legitimacy, reinforced through policy and regulation, and in English HE this tends, increasingly, to reframe struggle in relation to culture wars. This article argues that the dominant articulation of the University, conditioned by economic value rather than humane values has been reinforced and amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic. The argument pivots around UK Government policy and guidelines, in order to highlight the processes by which intellectual work and the reproduction of higher education institutions connects value-production and modes of settler-colonial and racial-patriarchal control.


There is no way out but through

At a couple of recent discussion events around The Hopeless University, I have been asked what is to be done? For a variety of reasons, I didn’t give the answers that I perhaps might have done. Instead, I pushed the idea that this was about revealing stories of trauma, denying the validity of externally-imposed recommendations, blueprints, and utopias, and developing new forms of relationality.

After the fact, and thinking this through in a little more detail, I realise that there is some safety for me in focusing upon the critique of the University, which is contained in the first five chapters of my book. This is a classic academic safety mechanism and learned behaviour. Now, I realise that I was denying people the opportunity (potentially) to discuss ways through the morass and hopelessness. Perhaps I was conditioned by the safety and security of a hopeless position. Perhaps I was also conditioned by my general tendency to feel alone in any room, left to pointing out what is wrong, rather than developing a sense of belonging that might help us walk elsewhere.

Anyway, this is what I now think, and I’m grateful to those who asked questions, and who have forced me to rethink what I think.

There is no way out but through

The final two chapters of the book position how I feel about our work in our universities. My position is that I have to work through my despair at the state of the world, and the structures, cultures and practices, which we have created, and that re-purpose themselves pathologically and methodologically to deny our agency. Doing this work takes courage and faith, not only in myself, but also in my relationships. Doing this work enables me to mourn the world we have created and reproduce, and thereby to yearn for something different, and to be indignant.

In this, I take heart from the return of history, and a sense that we have material agency in the world. I take heart from those who are building social networks around food banks, whilst I am indignant that they are needed. I take heart from those protesting in Hungary for LGBTQIA+ rights, whilst I am indignant that this work must be done. I take heart from those communities in Namibia protesting for reparations rather than simply reconciliation from Germany for its genocidal colonialism, whilst I am indignant that this work must be done. And on, and on, and on. And in this I recognise the skills, knowledges, capacities, capabilities, and humane values that enable the struggles, and that show us alternative ways of knowing the world.

I see a range of collective, lived experiences, which push against the capitalist notion that we are at the end of history, and that enforces particular forms of abstraction as limited, indirect or one-sided ways of knowing and experiencing the world. I see a range of collective, lived experiences, which shine a light upon an ability to sit with trauma and to push beyond it, and the ways in which our dominant political economy demands that we suture or cauterise our wounds in the name of business-as-usual.

These collective, lived experiences of trauma highlight the entangled nature of our subjectivities and beings, beyond their reduction to labour-power. Here, the idea of composting, decomposing and recycling appeals to me, because it is about acknowledging that we have created this system of social reproduction that denies humanity-in-nature. Therefore, we have the power to create something else. In the book I note:

Decomposing opens-up the struggle for plural worlds. Multiple, mutual ways of knowing erupt from the theorisation of singular, lived experiences, which themselves set the grounds upon which the manifestations of our exploitation, expropriation and extraction are made common. Whilst suffering is absolutely relative, situating the cause, rather than the effects, of that suffering in critiques of our mode of social reproduction, enable us to move beyond symptomatic responses, and address the ways in which our differences, fed upon and exacerbated by capital’s social metabolic control, also offer us a potential moment for mutuality and unity.

Here, a focus upon direct democracy between all individuals helps us to invert associations of capitals that deny humanity for-value. Decomposing these associations offers a way of constructing ecosystems that can recycle the nutrients of social goods into local communities. Communication across communities, or communes, such that a commune of communes acts as the basis for such ecosystems, is pivotal in defining and meeting universal social needs. Universities and their infrastructures are central to this process, including in their decomposition and recycling. They have the ability to help in the diffusion of technological and organisational solutions for reducing the realm of necessity, for generalising access to the means of production, and for refusing the extractive relationship between humans and nature. This requires a significant cognitive and psychological movement amongst individuals and communities. However, in asking those communities to discuss what is necessary for their existence, and how might they live in a world facing the intersection of crises, it is life-affirming.

The metaphor of decomposing enables me to see that capital and its institutions created mycorrhizal networks that infect and inflect our lives for the extraction of surplus. They make us redundant beyond our labour-power and become toxic to us because they internalise exploitation and expropriation in our very beings. Can we decompose this, remove the toxins produced by value, and recycle our skills, knowledges, ancestries, lands, capacities and hearts for another world?

We make our own history

We make our own history, and we have the ability to do so in every moment, and to do so collectively. In the book I write:

The present is pivotal, and the process of healing is one of questioning, and then mobilising or moving. This reproduces the potentiality of preguntando caminamos, or asking, we walk (Marcos 2002), as a recovery of the idea that we make our own history and our own paths through collective dialogue, based upon where we find ourselves. We can only move towards ‘our true heart’ (ibid.: 268) in the next moment, by understanding our modes of knowing, doing and being in the present moment. This teaches ‘how the world was born and show where it is to be found’ (ibid.: 276), as a movement of dignity. The struggle for movement delineates life as pedagogic practice, and erupts from our present, hopeless situation as a demand for generalised, intellectual engagement with alternative ways of making the world, and being in it. It is predicated upon abolishing separation, for instance between teacher and student, and transcending roles, such that each individual articulates their intellectual capabilities as a social activity.

This is a process of reintegration, in particular of self and other.

As history returns, this is also a struggle for reintegrating hope and hopelessness, such that we can be courageous and faithful in articulating our yearnings. This is a yearning beyond the forms, pathologies and methodologies of University labour. It is for intellectual work in society, which takes self-determination as its content and thereby opens-out new forms that give everyone free access to human intellectuality: everything must be for everyone. As a deeply relational practice (Yazzie Burkhart 2004), its starting point cannot be reform of the University and its crisis-driven existence. Like our ignorance, the search for a cure merely prolongs our agony. Instead, we must speak and listen, question and make paths, guided by those ‘who continue without hearing the voices of the powerful and the indifferent’ (Marcos 2002: 32).

Here, thinking about being guided by those who continue without hearing the voices of the powerful and the indifferent, I consider my own practice. How I can contribute to a new universal conception of life, framed around a counter-narrative to the universe of value. How I can help by listening to shared stories of trauma, and finding ways to build mutuality and new forms of relationality. How I can help those stories find new audiences. How I can help us recover our mass intellectuality at the level of society, rather than reproducing the general intellect as commodified knowledge from within the University.

I am also thinking about how such sharing might enable us to build a new qualitative experience of life, beyond its current quantification as human capital, commodity, surplus everything. Our ability to share and relate singular experiences of exploitation, expropriation and extraction, and to bring that into relations with the particular, colonial and patriarchal demands of our political economy, is a starting point for taking a step in a new direction.

This requires a different quality of relationship that points beyond power and prestige. It requires that we call out what we see and experience, and bring any privilege that we have to the use of others, in order that they can share their stories and we can build empathy. It requires that we remember what we have built collectively, and seek to dissolve that into the fabric of society, rather than seeking to extract rents from it.

It also demands that I focus upon building a base for a counter-narrative, through my work in a trade union, in committees, in mentoring, in projects, and also outside the University, in my relationships and voluntary work. Moreover, this needs to be grounded in care and dignity. It needs to be grounded in a collective discussion of the world for which we yearn, and pointed in a direction beyond the toxicity of capitalist reproduction and its institutions.

This discussion needs to accept that not everybody will chain themselves to a pipeline, be able to withstand being kettled on demonstrations, be able to teach, be able to write, be able to lobby, be able to bake, be able to care whilst others are protesting, and so on. However, we might accept that it is okay to bring our own selves to our collective struggles in those ways that nurture us. It took the system that we are in centuries to unfold as it has, and that will not be reversed overnight. The work of moving through painful and differential for different bodies, and will take time. But there is nothing else other than living death.

And in this ongoing, tortuous struggle, we might accept that whilst we act inside the University, we are also acting for a world beyond the University-as-is. We are looking to link our narratives of trauma to those elsewhere. We are looking to build solidarity across institutions, communities, networks and sectors, in order to describe other worlds. We are looking to accept the many-sidedness of life, and the many-sidedness of ourselves. We are looking to realise the end of the end of history.


Published, The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the end of The End of History

The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the end of The End of History has been published by MayFly Books, and is available as a download from the MayFly website. If you do read/download from there please consider donating to support this valuable, radical open access press. NB it can be purchased from Amazon, although it is print on demand, so other retailers should be available.

Endorsements can be viewed here.

There is a synopsis here.

There is a podcast here.

I presented some ideas, with a recording and Q&A here.

A video dialogue with Joel Lazarus on his Agent of History site will follow.

There is a published article here.

There is music by Rae Elbow and the Magic Beanhere. NB a wonderful, full album in partnership with Rae Elbow will be released with the book. It’s a multimedia sensation.

I’m presenting on this in June at both Durham University and also Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. You will be able to sign-up for the latter from the Philosophy of Higher Education website.


A bunch of decolonising stuff

I’m pleased to be contributing to a Decolonising Critical Thought Workshop on 5 May. My position statement is given below.

Through my own practice as research and evaluation lead for the Decolonising De Montfort University (DDMU) project, I am drawn to your question on: What are the risks of institutionalisation, co-optation, etc. and how can they be avoided?, and a related question: what is the purpose of the University in an age of intersecting crises?

DDMU attempts to make sense of EDI work (e.g. Race Equality Charter), in terms of more radical movements. This brings the University into relation with individual and communal issues of whiteness, double and false consciousness, and behavioural code switching. Inside formal structures, built upon cultures and practices with historical and material legitimacy, engaging with such issues is challenging. The tendency is for formal accreditation, managed through established methodologies, risk management practices and data reporting.

I am interested in how we might open-out discussions that situate the communal articulation of the institution against the development of authentic relationships as a movement of dignity. This connects to post- and anti-colonialism, making visible subaltern or subordinate identities, black power and indigeneity, and critical race or anti-racist studies, alongside critiques of education, including critical university studies and the abolition of the University. At the intersection of critical for and decolonising, I am interested in thinking through whether another University is possible, or even desirable.


In other news, I have a co-authored paper forthcoming in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education,  on Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis. Our paper is a critical analysis of the work of DDMU, in relation to the structures, cultures and practices of universities. The abstract and structure are given below.

Hall, R., Ansley, L., Connolly, P., Loonat, S., Patel, K., and Whitham, B. (2021). Struggling for the anti-racist university: learning from an institution-wide response to curriculum decolonisation. Teaching in Higher Education, Special Issue, Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.1911987 and https://dora.dmu.ac.uk/handle/2086/20773

Abstract: Increasingly, institutions are amplifying work on race equality, in order to engage with movements for Black lives and decolonising. This brings universities into relations with individual and communal issues of whiteness, white fragility and privilege, double and false consciousness, and behavioural code switching. Inside formal structures, built upon cultures and practices that have historical and material legitimacy, engaging with such issues is challenging. The tendency is to engage in formal accreditation, managed through engagement with established methodologies, risk management practices and data reporting. However, this article argues that the dominant articulation of the institution, which has its own inertia, which reinforces whiteness and dissipates radical energy, needs to be re-addressed in projects of decolonising. This situates the communal work of the institution against the development of authentic relationships as a movement of dignity.

Keywords: Black Lives Matter; critical race; decolonising; institutional change; whiteness; university

Structure: Introduction: an intersecting critique; Decolonising DMU: a critique of the University; Cultures of whiteness; Structures of dissipation; Practices of inertia; Decolonising the idea and practice of the University.


With Raj Gill and Sol Gamsu, I am working on A paper for a special issue of higher education, entitled Higher Education in the Eye of the COVID-19 Storm. Our paper has the working title:

‘Whiteness is a moral choice’: The idea of the University at the intersection of crises.

The proposed abstract is below.

Since the acceleration of a commodified higher education environment in England under the Coalition and successive Conservative governments, funding, regulation and governance of universities has become a contested terrain. Such contestation reveals a rupture in the very idea of the University, which makes clear the contingencies underpinning both the student-as-consumer in a deregulated market, and a renewed, fetishized, public university. These symbolic ideas of the institution have been cracked by the everyday realities of a confluence of crises.

Beyond existential crises like climate forcing, specific ruptures have led to a fundamental questioning of social institutions, cultures and practices. In particular, the conjuncture of Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matters have exposed the limitations of dominant and alternative imaginaries of higher education, which tend to be framed by whiteness. At a time when university workers were already engaged in industrial action over #fourfights, this conjuncture highlighted deep, intersectional injustices at the centre of these institutions, in spite of institutional engagement with standardised forms of accreditation, like Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter. Struggles against structural inequalities erupted at the intersection of: first, differential workload, casualisation and pay; second, the marginalisation of black communities and communities of colour, in social outcomes through Covid-19; and third, the ongoing brutalisation of black communities and communities of colour, when they address state institutions.

Working through documentary and policy analyses, this paper articulates the ways in which these injustices are imminent to the idea of the University. This questions how this allegedly liberal institution is reproduced through whiteness as a site of othering. As a process of separation, divorce, alienation and estrangement between people, othering pivots around whiteness as a moral choice. As a result, this paper describes how the idea of the University has been explicitly revealed through this conjuncture as a means of distorting the subjectivities of all those who labour inside it, for inhuman ends. In critiquing, for instance, the Department for Education’s recent Restructuring Regime, this argument highlights the ideological positioning of economic value, productivity and surplus as mirrors that make certain bodies, cultures and practices visible and reinforces structural inequalities. Yet, in an age of crisis, this ideological positioning is in conflict with new social movements pushing to break the mirrors of whiteness and look for alternative pathways. Here, we question whether the University is able to move beyond the reproduction of structural inequality, in order to contribute to the abolition of the present state of things?


Ill-being and the University

I’m presenting on Ill-being and the University, at the NNMHR Congress 2021: Medical Humanities: In(Visibility)

My abstract and slides are appended below. My work will build upon some thoughts in my forthcoming book on The Hopeless University, connected to work on the reproduction of hopelessness in the University in this article in post digital science and education.

For some earlier work on ill-being, the University as an anxiety machine, alienation and Weltschmerz, see the list available at this post on the rise of academic ill-health.

Felicity Callard’s keynote has helped me to remember my own experiences of cycles of chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety. Her conversation took me back to feel the edges of my grief, and how the duality of my forgetting/remembering remains entangled with my soul. It was a stark reminder of how the individualised experiences of life through illness are related to the dominant political economy that demands overwork and productivity as culturally-acceptable self-harming activities. It was a stark reminder of the need to share individual lived experiences, in order to generate a collective front against capital’s social metabolic control, which dehumanises and wastes lives.

My remembering is detailed in a blogpost on academic and life, which also links to other posts at the intersection of corporeal, cognitive and psychological breakdown. The trauma of my remembering makes me want to puke. It brings me to tears. It is an echo.

Abstract

Covid-19 has amplified feelings of alienation amongst those who learn, teach, provide professional services, and research inside the University. In spite of the uncertainties of life inside the pandemic, institutional demands for the maintenance of business-as-usual increasingly reproduces precarious and proletarianised working conditions. Whilst institutions focus upon resilience, mindfulness and well-being, this is entangled with the reality that University work, like all labour, tends to catalyse ill-being. Through the pandemic, it is possible to trace how the intersection of socio-economic and socio-environmental crises both enable the structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures and damage bodies and psychologies. As institutional forms develop high plasticity, cultures become pathologies, and activities are defined methodologically, individuals and communities are scarred. In the pandemic, the scars are made visible, in terms of reports of overwork, self-sacrifice and feelings of precariousness, underpinned by a sense of hopelessness and Weltschmerz, with physical and psychological manifestations, including headaches, fatigue, anxiety and depression. In spite of the pandemic, the University demands the internalisation of specific behaviours as culturally-acceptable, self-harming activities. These subsume the humanity of intellectual work under economic determinations. This anti-humanist terrain and its resulting, widening circuit of ill-being, will be sketched in this paper.

Keywords: anxiety; hopelessness; ill-being; pandemic; University