alienated academic book review

Over at the new PostDigital Science and Education journal Joss Winn has a review of my monograph, The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. Joss plays around with the review style, in order to highlight some of the alienating realities of academic (over)work and time. He makes several important points about the book that resonate for me as follows.

  • Categorical critique: “Where Hall’s book differs from much of the literature on the marketisation of higher education and threats to professional identity, is his thoroughgoing, relentless attempt to explain what is happening at a categorical level that cuts through (i.e. intersects) the differences in professional experience in order to find what is common among us.”
  • The hopelessness of labour: “The alienation that Hall identifies at work goes beyond estrangement and hopelessness and is rooted, he argues, in the critical category of labour. In fact, to see the problem as marketisation, metrics or managerialism is to mistake the manifestation for the cause of our problems. Such an approach tends towards an unreflexive resistance to our own objective conditions and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. That helplessness breeds hopelessness, a recurring theme throughout Hall’s book. What is required (and this is key to the whole book) is a categorical critique of academic labour; one which perceives labour in the university through the basic critical categories of wage labour.”
  • A productive synthesis: “The Alienated Academic is structured in three parts over nine densely written and heavily referenced chapters. It covers a lot of ground in 270 pages, drawing widely from contemporary Marxist theory as well as an extensive engagement with Marx’s original work. It provides a useful survey of the concept of alienation and argues for the continuing and contemporary relevance of Marxist theory and its basic categories of labour, value, the commodity, subsumption and so on. What is likely to make this sometimes difficult book both intriguing and more broadly appealing is that Hall extends his contemporary Marxism with the literature of feminism, (de)colonialism, identity politics and intersectionality. It is a productive synthesis that is set in the context of contemporary changes in English higher education, while recognising that the alienating features of English university life can be found across the world. For these reasons, this is a unique and ground-breaking monograph in the field of critical university studies.”

I think that it is only right to thank Joss for this very kind review, and to accept that it is densely written and heavily referenced, drawing upon a range of theoretical positions. A friend who has engaged with the book questioned whether it was to0 theoretical, although in the acknowledgements I do point to a range of primers and readers about Marxist theory, and the book is part of a Marxism and Education series. One of the reviewers also argued that it was perhaps over-referenced, whilst another wondered whether my voice got lost in my citation of others.

What interested me in the process of writing was my attempt to understand my own work and academic practice. I could not do this without accepting and drawing upon a range of positions. This is why the literature on feminism, critical race theory, identity politics and intersectionality were so important. It is nice to read that this is received by some as a productive synthesis when I feel that I am simply trying to find my way by listening to a range of alternative positions, and in so doing hopefully enabling others to do likewise. However, in order to find my way I had to read a lot of things, and it feels only right to cite those authors who shape my own position.

One of the critical issues for me now is to think through how a categorical critique of academic experience, practice and work, rooted in the estrangement of the person employed as an academic or fractured as an academic, from her academic self, her academic identity, her academic community, and her academic products, can enable us to overcome the hopelessness of labour. How can sitting with and processing a hopeless position enable us to develop useful alternatives? How can accepting the hopeless university enable us to reimagine and reignite our humanity in the name of another world?

I’ll be speaking about the book at Bath Spa on 23rd January, and also at a University of Sheffield Ed.D. residential on 15th February.


on abolishing the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance

There has been so much discussion of potential job losses across institutions; there has been so much discussion of how negotiations over the USS Pension Scheme will play out; there has been so much discussion of the impacts of the ONS review of the decision of how to treat student loans in the public accounts; there has been so much discussion of the impact of the Augar Review of post-18 education. There has been so little discussion of what this means politically for academic labour.

That isn’t to say that there has not been an on-going statement of how academic work is adversely, toxically, negatively disassembling what it means to be human inside the University. For instance, a recent tweet from an academic at Leeds, liked almost 5,200 times, points to the impact on mental health of the apparent disregard that management have for their academic labourers.

Only, in the thread that follows, academics are not regarded as labourers, rather their fetishised status as privileged knowledge workers takes on the usual, depressing and reified narrative in which individuals who have worked for doctorates are commodified as assets. This represents an ongoing failure to engage with the political economy of academic work, and to see it for what it is: the everyday, coercive re-sale of alienated labour-power, which results in the everyday estrangement of the individual from herself and her community. This community includes the students whom she must sort and separate and grade, her peers against whom she must compete for status and privilege and resources, and her Commons whom she must use as an asset or develop as a market for knowledge transfer or exchange.


Describing the depressive position of academic life is one thing; analysing and moving beyond it demands socially-useful theory, rooted in the ongoing reproduction of alienating capitalist social relations. Academic impact and the public good are socially-useful for capital, and demand a different kind of analysis. Instead praxis demands that rather than fetishising academic labour, we see it for what it is – brutally alienating. As Ansgar Allen wrote in his review of The Alienated Academic, my argument is a:

critique of the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance, its role in their enslavement to a work ethic built on alienation, and their participation in wider flows of capitalist destruction. Though many in the academy may think otherwise: another world is not possible, at least not a world that issues from the labour of the current academic, however radically inclined.

Thus, my opening chapter focuses upon the academic labourer becoming awakened.

This is a book about estrangement and alienation in academic life; about being a stranger to the nature of your own scholarly work, to yourself and to your peers. This is a book about moving beyond the surface perception of academic work as a labour of love or privilege, in order to understand its essence inside increasingly alienating contexts.

Hall, R. 2018. The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 1.

In expanding upon this idea that work is a withering form of living death rooted in personal losses, and that academia is not privileged and that it is not a labour of love and that in the process of fetishising it we diminish ourselves, I argue that this stops us from seeing the inability of the University to address global emergencies.

Proletarianisation renders institutions hopeless spaces for addressing the wider ramifications of the crisis of value. The University framed by a secular crisis of the value-form remains unable to address fundamental global problems like climate change, because its interaction with the world is mediated through the market, the division of labour and commodity-exchange.

It is increasingly unclear how these institutions and their curricula enable global societies to adapt through collective, educational repair. This is precisely because HE institutions are limited to their ability to coerce individuals in placing their labour-power for sale in the market.

ibid., p. 57

This idea that academics fetishise and universalise their own labour as an objective, public good does nothing but cripple any hopes of self/social-care or renewal.

Academics have been nudged towards accepting these forms of crippling enslavement by focusing upon the alleged privilege of working in education, and the self-sacrifice of public service. This has been a way in which capital has been able to compel overwork and exhaustion across a social terrain… Estrangement from the self emerges from the loss of subjectivity and sensuous, creative practice, inside relations of production with increased technical composition.

As a process of reproduction the labour process forms a motive power underpinning the expanding circuit of alienation, A-A’. This expansion shapes subjugation, because the potential of the labour-power inside each individual labourer cannot be realised except through the objective conditions of capitalist work for value.

Ibid., p. 169

The question is then possibly Lenin’s, what is to be done? Or perhaps Nietzsche’s what next? Later in the book, I argue that individual academics must confront alienating conditions of work that reproduce estrangement across social and personal terrain, at the level of society.

As a growing surplus population drags the experience of exploitation and immiseration from the margins of academic society into its core, through performance management and precarious employment, there is potential for indignation and degradation to be generalised. At issue is how to place transformation of the mode of production at the heart of the matter, rather than amplifying hopelessness. As practices from the racialised, gendered, disabled, homosexual and queer margins of the global North and the global South move back to the centre of production, engagement in survival programmes as a precursor to dismantling the mode of production, are crucial for academics. Academic privilege and hegemonic, alienating academic norms need to be checked by learning from alternative life experiences. This demands a new war of position in the name of survival pending revolution, rooted in co-operation and accepting of the reality that Keynesian, welfare capitalism cannot be reinstalled. Instead, academic hopelessness needs to stimulate an alternative social function as the basis for abolishing wage labour.

Ibid., p. 181


It is not enough to discuss academics as a homogenous group or with an ability to work collectively to confront their conditions of production, in order to challenge the relations of production that are so clearly toxic to so many. It is clear that academics exist in a range of constantly shifting, determinate conditions, which are re-shaping the ways in which academic labour functions through the application of new forms of organisation, precarious employment, rounds of voluntary severance and reorganisation, the imposition of new technologies, policy edicts which drive competitive demands, and so on.

Moreover, these conditions are different for a range of sub-groups and communities of whatever academia is or might be. Where the experience is defined by norms set against the idea of the successful White, male, heterosexual, able Professor, the rest of the academic peloton is forced to recalibrate itself will be recalibrated by this privilege. What this then means if you are an academic of colour, female, have a caring responsibility, are ill, whatever, is that you have to suck it up or take that next course on mindfulness or resilience, or decide that perhaps this isn’t the place for you.

This means that uncovering political composition needs more attention by academics as they try to work for solidarity and collective action. This composition is effectively the ways in which labour organises and resists the labour process itself, in part generated through struggles over pensions or workload or whatever, and which is aimed at refusing the imposition of a new technical composition of capital across the terrain of academic work, which can only ever aim at reproducing exploitation. This technical composition is the ability of capital to annihilate the costs of labour-power whilst enforcing productivity gains or longer working hours upon those who remain. It is no wonder that we see an increase in the academic gig-economy, increasingly technological performance management, a rise in the reserve army of PhD labour with no apparent future, and a narrative that fetishises human capital development with the risk owned by the individual academic.


Of course, one of the issues here is that labour-power is the source of value inside capitalism, and so by annihilating labour capital undermines itself though a crisis of profitability. Yet in order to overcome the political composition of labour, capital has constantly to innovate its technical composition. Is it possible then to use this as a moment to challenge alienating work? Is it possible to analyse the political composition of academic labour, in order to refuse a technical recomposition designed to extend the universe of value?

The theory of class composition restates the problem of power in a perspective where recomposition is not that of a unity, but that of a multiplicity of needs, and of liberty.

Negri, A. (1979). Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. London: Pluto Press, p. 14.

The problem with not being able to do this analytical work, is that the academic has no starting point for refusal, other than a lamentation or a scream against the latest indignity. One result is that there may be anger, but there can be no indignation. For whilst Marx argued that the individual worker would only ever become “an appendage” and mutilated or fragmented, with her family thrown under the juggernaut of capital acting as a werewolf or a vampire, too many academics still cling to the ideas of status and privilege are themselves underpinned by hope rather than hopelessness. This means that there can only be space for anger rooted in powerlessness at the latest excellence framework or demand for impact or research audit or student evaluation or workload plan. And anger rooted in powerlessness leads to a depressive position.

And so the question becomes how to decompose academic labour. How do academics analyse their own social organisation in relation to capital? How do they unpack the conditions and relations of production, where they are employed inside the University acting as a means for the production of value, in concert with transnational finance capital, global educational technology/publishing firms underwritten by venture capital, and policymakers working in partnership with transnational bodies like the World Bank or IMF, and where their work is conditioned by student debt? It is important that this work is done, because the particular situation of the academic is her starting point for analysing the lack of solidarity amongst academics as a group, and for realising the relative solidarity between sub-groups of academics who continue to be made marginal inside the system of hegemonic production. Moreover it is a starting point for realising the relative solidarity between subgroups of academics and a movement beyond the University of groups and individuals made marginal.


Here, class is not enough. As a result, it is important to look at the differential conditions of labour for: Professors; tenured staff; professional services staff; students; postgraduate teaching assistants; precariously employed staff; and to do this in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on. Because it is clear that in order to leverage change inside the Academy, as a moment of prefiguring change outside the Academy, or perhaps where change inside the Academy is immanent to change outside, some people have too much to lose. Too much privilege, too much status, too many resources, and for some, the process of proletarianisation has not impacted enough to spark their solidarity.

It is the proletariat who, for Marx, with a revolutionary class, and the potential for change then stems from those (academics) with nothing left to lose. This means that such a workerist analysis of the condition of academic work needs to consider how that work is integrated into capitalist social relations and relations of production. It needs to consider the divisions that exist between academics, and how those divisions or separations are maintained. This includes disciplinary separations reinforced through league tables and excellence frameworks, as well as separations of status and privilege.

Moreover, such a(n academic) workers’ enquiry might connect academic labour to the idea of autonomous activity outside the University and whether they offer moments of subversion or transgression against the value-relation. Do they enable hegemonic social relations to be subverted? Moreover, is there space for decomposing academic labour, such that the divisions noted above might be dissolved as a stage in moving towards the abolition of that labour, rather than its fetishisation and accompanying hopes that a Utopian state can be restored? Instead, this recognises that academic labour, like all other forms of labour, is not privileged. It is always in a process of being dominated, exploited, reengineered and repurposed for-value, as capital struggles to annihilate its own dependency upon labour-power. This demands that academics see their conditions of labour as continually-changing, and that the only redemption lies in accepting the hopelessness of a compact with a system of exploitation.

The power therefore lies in attempting to see that individuals working collectively makes the world, and need to be alive to both its historical and current, material realities, in order to develop new forms of struggle. Capital’s ongoing struggle to decompose and recompose academic labour means that there can be no Happy New Year, in which a system of exploitation governed through competition and mediated through private property (in the form of knowledge), the division of labour, commodity-exchange and the market, is given away by those with power-over us. There will be no Happy New Year, which is better for our fragmented physical and mental health, precisely because just like the old year, the New Year will be built upon alienated labour-power. Understanding the political economy of academic work is a starting point for establishing our own power-over the world, our own weaknesses, our own associations and spaces of solidarity, such that we might decide what next or what is to be done?

However, this cannot be disaggregated from wider struggles in the world to decolonise, or for gendered rights, or for disability rights, or for environmental rights, or for whatever. This means that different forms of organisation might be needed inside the University and beyond, which also recognise the historical and social specificity of those contexts, whilst working towards dissolving the boundaries between them. This dissolution is the recognition by the academic that she is a socialised worker, and that in this dissolution lies her ability for self-actualisation as a form of self-mediating activity not conditioned by competition, excellence, impact, entrepreneurship, employability, the market, whatever.


If you have no engagement with political economy, good luck with that, because the system wishes to reduce you to your alienated labour-power. And what is worse, it wishes to annihilate the value of that labour-power in every moment of every day, through competition with others on your administration, teaching, assessment, scholarship, research, public engagement, impact, excellence, unemployability, and it wishes to do this transnationally. It is no wonder that your physical and mental health is fragmented, commodified, made toxic.

labour increasingly struggles to be integrated into a global, alienating, social metabolic control, with ramifications for domination and subordination. Thus, a primary aim for revolutionary practice rooted in revolutionary pedagogy is not simply to overthrow capital, but to abolish it as the means of regulating society.

The critical moment for alienated academic labour, is to treat the University as context for radical research that might produce living knowledge capable of revolutionary practice at the level of society (Roggero 2011). It has no revolutionary moment beyond this position, and instead can only act for the recuperation and reproduction of the capital relation. An academic, workers’ enquiry is a departure point for enabling ‘the worker to develop the capabilities of [her] species’ (Marx 2004, p. 447), which will dissolve the capitalist mode of production inside a new, non-alienated mode.

Without such a theorisation it becomes impossible to negate the capital-relation through the expansion of the realm freedom and autonomy. Instead, the focus becomes about issues of free speech, academic autonomy, resistance to casualisation, and other tactical reforms of an otherwise brutalising system. [Revolutionary praxis] entails a focus upon the production of the self as a pedagogic moment grounded in self-mediation as the key organising principle for life.

Ibid., pp. 232, 234, 248

Merry Christmas.


Episode 6: in which I blather on about care, material relations, and the fact that being kettled is a pain in backside

This is the Q&A session from my book launch. For the opening conversation with Sarah Amsler, check out Episode 4. 

The Alienated Academic is available from the Palgrave site, or it’s a little cheaper via institutional access to Springer Link.

The questions that I was pre-emailed are appended below.


Would be interesting to hear you(se) talk about the tensions of publishing mainstream academic book in contexts of tyranny of contemporary neoliberal academic research, writing and publishing regime 

Here’s a question – open ended, really – about whether the possibility of mass intellectuality is possible without a degree of alienation and disfunction. I remember thinking when I read your and Joss’s book that there is a paradox there about inequality and alienation being a forcing ground for mass intellectuality e.g. the pensions strikes.

In the book you write: “Narratives from academics of colour, precariously employed academics, academics who have been made ill through overwork, marginalised academics with caring responsibilities, each need to be elevated and presented, in order to demonstrate how the system shames and needs to be dismantled”. I wonder how this might be achieved, especially in those universities where dissent on these matters is immediately quelled with charges of gross misconduct.

How for me your detailed blog about the book, especially first and last paragraphs, made a great link for me between the book itself and your proposal for a more personalised follow-up piece. I think you’ve it right there. And I think that too is the basis for a piece for the “lay” – non-Marxist – reader. (You remember how hard I had to work at the embedded conceptualisation!)

I love your courage in atomising the academy as you do in the book, and stitching your own personal (therapeutic) process into the weave.

The power of the work for me was mediated by (1) the Marxist conceptual tool-box (2) your capacity to work to a place beyond the analysis to a place characterised by care, “dignity as a new form of wealth”(p217), “indignation as a motive force”(p204)… Glad you gave us chapter 9!

Powerful also for me was your use of language (as far as I can tell) outside the Marxist toolbox: loved “the academic peloton”(p197), and even better somewhere the alliterative “professorial peloton”.

I’m intrigued by the piece on The Hopeless University, and as in Kleinian therapy, having to go into the depressive position to a new realistic integration.

I’m also intrigued by your passing allusion to “human essence” (p190) – tantalisingly undefined, and perhaps better so, but reminiscent of our conversations of something beyond, undefined, untouched even by the material conditions of our existences under capitalism.


Book launch: The Alienated Academic in conversation with Sarah Amsler

On Wednesday, I had the privilege of holding a book launch for The Alienated Academic at DMU. Over on my podcast, there is a recording of the first half of this event, in which I was in conversation with Sarah Amsler from Nottingham. There is a second podcast, which focused upon the Q&A with the audience.

The slides that were rolling in the background can be accessed on my Slideshare.


Episode 4: in which I blather on with John Coster about Ming the Merciless, value in higher education, and my book launch

So, mid-week I have an invite-only book launch for The Alienated Academic here at DMU. I needed to test the AV kit that we are going to use for recording my conversation with Sarah Amsler from the University of Nottingham, and what better way than having some jibber-jabber with John Coster?!

John is a lecturer in media production here at DMU, but I have known him for 9 years through our engagement in community work and community media. John set-up and ran Citizens’ Eye and then the Documentary Media Centre, he coordinated social media cafés, reportage clubs, conflict-media discussions, and work at the Leicester Centre for inclusive Living.

John and I always find a space for discussing the relationship between theory and practice, and developing forms of praxis. In this podcast, we discuss the weather (because we are archetypally English), the colour of the sky, early-budding Magnolia bushes, whether I’m looking forward to the book launch, the judging of academics and their labour, and the ongoing obsession with value/value-added/value-for-money.

There will be an edited version of the book launch uploaded as a podcast towards the end of this week, hopefully. Or maybe early next. Actually, probably early next.

Peace out, peaceniks.

Ooh, and FYI, there is an Open and Collaborative Spotify Playlist for TAA.


Episode 3: in which I blather on about failing, not-failing and liberal democracy as a circle

In this podcast I decided to try not to use the words interesting and important too often. Instead, I got a little vexed by listening to Sam Gyimah and Michael Barber at the recent WonkHE event, with their standard focus upon normalising the relationship between education and economic growth, competition, value for money, the imposition of methodological control through things like trust-based governance, and situating this inside a specific, positivist narrative of liberal democracy.

So I probably bang on a little bit too much about the circle of liberal democracy. My apologies if this seems a little snarky. But, you know, I wonder if this is the same liberal democracy that has bought us inequality, poverty of philosophy, food banks, debt-fuelled and consumption-driven economic growth, a disconnect between economic production and the planet’s health, geopolitics focused upon the petro-dollar, Hillsborough, Orgreave, Grenfell, UN reports criticising austerity as social engineering, and on and on and on.

In other news, this podcast is mainly focused upon answering a question from one of my first year students, Kate, who asked me:

Is politics and austerity an excuse for the alleged failings of the British education system? Is the British education system really failing the young people we have? Do we look at the positives of teaching? Best of all: is there a revolution brewing? [Whooooooa! #revolution #klaxon! NOTE: in the podcast there is also a #Marx #klaxon]

So I try to address that, and I mainly do this by not addressing it. I mainly raise lots of caveats, lots of problems and a few more questions.

However, I do try to connect this to my solidarity with my friends over in Brazil, struggling to make sense of the election of Bolsonaro, and to generate responses that make sense in this new environment. In particular, one of my friends told me:

At the moment, I attend carefully to important little things, moving even as I wait to see how it pans out.

So, I am trying to think about how we attend carefully to important little things, and how we do this cooperatively and collectively and with love and courage and faith and solidarity. And how do we do this in such a way that we widen our space for panning things out differently?

Finally, and quite importantly, my good friend and comrade Rob Weale has taken pity on me after my pathetic pleading in the last podcast for some music, so the bits and bobs you hear on this one are all provided by him. You can check him out over at his portfolio place.

I have also ripped the title track from Rae Elbow and the Magic Beans’ album the human species. This is available on SoundCloud.

Remember to love yourself so that you can love others. Peace out.


Presentation on the Co-operative University and anti-technocracy

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology seminar series, at the University of Birmingham. My talk was on the idea/reality of the Co-operative University and anti-technocracy. The issues that I was interested in raising were as follows.

  • What is the relationship between the proposed Co-operative University and the regulatory environment predicated upon competition between providers, at the level of the individual, the subject and the institution?
  • How might the historical and material reality of co-operatives unable this relationship to be critiqued? How might the historical and material reality of co-operatives generate lessons for the Co-operative University?
  • What is the governance and management relationship between the proposed the Office for Students as the regulator, the Co-operative University, and any federated curriculum delivery organisations?
  • Is it possible to align the hopes and aspirations of the staff and students committed to the Co-operative University, who are brutalised inside the academic peloton, to the reality of an organisation that has to compromise with/exist within this competitive environment?
  • What is the role of technology in enabling such an alignment? In particular, what is the relationship between platform co-operativism and the Co-operative University?
  • How might the experiences of actually-existing co-operatives, and the example of the Co-operative University, enable us to dismantle and then abolish the University?

The slides for this are available on my SlideShare.

There is a recording over at the CPT YouTube channel. This is too depressing for me to watch, so I won’t watch it. If it’s full of factual inaccuracies let me know and I’ll make amends. Promise.


On authoritarian neoliberalism and poetic epistemology

Back in June I spoke at the BERA social theory and education SIG symposium about authoritarian neoliberalism and the alienation of academic labour. My focus was on authoritarian neoliberalism as a heuristic for analysing the idea of the University, and in particular knowledge production as a means of reproducing the capital-relation, and the possibility for developing alternative conceptions. These alternative conceptions erupt from an analysis of voices made marginal inside the capital-relation, including indigenous communities. This leads towards a set of spaces and histories composed by methodologies that are new and challenging and exciting to me.

This work is also new and challenging and exciting to me, because it demands an engagement with the literature around the problematic of neoliberalism, and the imposition of authoritarian modes of coercion and discipline, which are punitive on specific communities, individuals and bodies. My focus in this has tended to be on the capital-relation, picking up on the work of Simon Clarke in his neoliberal theory of society. However, my focus has also been shaped by my engagement with the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at DMU, including its focus on governance and austerity, and resistance and mobilisation under austerity.

My conversation with participants at the BERA symposium was followed by an invitation from Justin Cruickshank at Birmingham to contribute to a forthcoming special issue for Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, on neoliberalism, higher education and technology. This was the first major thing I had written since I submitted my manuscript for The Alienated Academic, and it forced me to re-engage with the process of research and writing. It was an important step, to take a breath and refocus, and to consider how to move my thinking in a fresh direction.

I am really grateful to Justin for this invitation, because since I submitted The Alienated Academic I had been all played out. This was a function of needing to recalibrate my institutional role and repositioning myself as an academic, but also the fact that for 15 months I had been reading, researching and then intensively writing 70,000 words. In that time I had been trying to get my head around intersectional issues and narratives, the work of Hegel and Feuerbach, the eruption of literature around alienation in the 1960s and 70s, and the relationship of each of these to both Marx and academic labour. By the time I’d submitted in early May I was dreading the peer review process, partially because I was scared of what would be said about my work and partially because I simply didn’t have the energy to rewrite chapters, sections or even paragraphs.

Yet, this new work on authoritarian neoliberalism enabled me to develop some thinking about knowledge production and the use of knowledge, the role of higher education, and some emergent and naïve engagement with indigenous and aboriginal methodological approaches. It has coincided with the emergence of some new energy, for teaching, for educational practice, for my work outside the University, the podcasting, and for writing. It may be happenstance or coincidence that this invitation came at this point; but I’m grateful nonetheless.

The structure for the article is noted immediately below, and is followed by the abstract and references. I hope that the article is good enough, but I wanted to celebrate both the process and the community that supports it.

Structure

  • Authoritarian neoliberalism and academic labour
  • Authoritarian higher education in the global North
  • An emergent appreciation of more humane knowledge
  • Dismantling knowledge production in higher education

Abstract

As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, increasingly encumbered by precarious employment, debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of autonomy beyond the sale of their labour-power. One heuristic for analysing this response is authoritarian neoliberalism, imposed as a means of enacting disciplinary practices in the name of the market with an anti-democratic rationale. This has a distinctly technocratic focus, rooted in techniques of performativity, including audits and assessments of teaching, research and scholarship, grounded in productivity, the management of time and value-creation. However, there are a range of intersectional and geographical responses to such an imposition, through which it is possible to describe alternatives to these architectures of subsumption. In particular, a second heuristic emerges which challenges the restructuring of the University in the global North, erupting from struggles for decolonisation. Here, Audre Lorde’s invocation to an integrated, poetic existence that situates bodies in places, and respects feelings and emotions as the site of epistemological development and understanding, underpins the possibility for dismantling hegemonic knowledge production. The article examines whether humanist narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse their alienated labour and to imagine that another world is possible.

References

Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Amsler, M. 2017. “Responsibilisation and leadership in the neoliberal university: a New Zealand perspective.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 38 (1): 123-37.

Andrews, K. 2018. Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the Twenty-First Century. London: Zed Books.

Arvin, M., E. Tuck, and A. Morrill. 2013. “Decolonising feminism: Challenging connection between settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations, 25 (1): 8-34.

Azar, R. 2015. “Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism.” New Politics XV (3).

Aztlán, A. 2017. “Trumpism, Authoritarian Neoliberalism, and Subaltern Latina/o Politics.” Journal of Chicano Studies 42 (2): 147-64.

Ball, S. 2012. Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Barnett, R. 2016. Understanding the University: Institution, Idea, Possibilities. London: Routledge.

Bhambra, G. 2017. “Brexit, Trump, and ‘methodological whiteness’: on the misrecognition of race and class.” The British Journal of Sociology. 68 (1): 214-32.

Bhambra, G., D. Gebrial, and K. Nisancioglu, eds 2018. Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

Bruff, I. 2012. “Authoritarian neoliberalism, the Occupy movements, and IPE.” Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies 1 (5): 114-16.

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Published… the alienated academic: the struggle for autonomy inside the University

I have a new monograph out with Palgrave Macmillan, entitled The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University

The book’s abstract is as follows: Higher education is increasingly unable to engage usefully with global emergencies, as its functions are repurposed for value. Discourses of entrepreneurship, impact and excellence, realised through competition and the market, mean that academics and students are increasingly alienated from themselves and their work. This book applies Marx’s concept of alienation to the realities of academic life in the Global North, in order to explore how the idea of public education is subsumed under the law of value. In a landscape of increased commodification of higher education, the book explores the relationship between alienation and crisis, before analysing how academic knowledge, work, identity and life are themselves alienated. Finally, it argues that through indignant struggle, another world is possible, grounded in alternative forms of organising life and producing socially-useful knowledge, ultimately requiring the abolition of academic labour. This pioneering work will be of interest and value to all those working in the higher education sector, as well as those concerned with the rise of neoliberalism and marketization within universities.

I have written about this project, including the abstracts for each of the nine chapters here.

If you would like a copy for review, please contact Palgrave Reviews and/or drop me a line. Equally, if you would like me to come and discuss the book at seminars/workshops, students or staff, or with union representatives/members, please let me know. There will be a book launch here at DMU in the autumn.

 


neoliberalism, the capital-relation and education

I spoke at the BERA social theory and education SIG symposium yesterday. My slides and initial thoughts are here.

These are the thoughts I had when statements and people stopped or challenged me during the day.

ONE. Analyses of neoliberalism enable us to position ourselves in terms of democratic engagement or the de-democratising of life-activity, in the face of mediations (and in particular the market). Such analyses offer neoliberalism as an omnipresent and omnipotent form of habitus. In return, we see neoliberalism as a threat to common sense, and we believe that if we can decode it, then we can move beyond its refusal of our humanity, and that we can move to less harmful social relations inside capitalism. This discounts the reality that neoliberalism is the latest (potentially) instantiation of the capital-relation – the latest instantiation of capital’s domination and exploitation of our labour-power. It needs to be addressed in such terms. Critique must be anti- or post-capitalist or it can offer no hope.

TWO. Neoliberalism is not a threat to common sense. It is the new, abstracted common sense that is the reinterpretation of capital, in order to maintain capital’s subjectivity and autonomy. If we are critiquing neoliberalism or seeking new ways of understanding it, we are moving towards a new common sense. A new common sense that reflects an alternative way of producing society. However, inside a totalising, hegemonic system the tendency is that such alternatives will be co-opted for the reproduction of that system. In imagining a new common sense, we have to situate this against the violence of abstraction imposed by capitalist social relations. Waged work reduces our activity to abstraction, through exchange, the market, commodification, division of labour, private property and the role of money. A new common sense is required that situates our life activity against these mediations, in order that we can describe and move beyond them. And, of course, we have examples of alternative forms of common sense, in autonomous centres in Latin America, in the little schools of the Zapatista movement, in the community work of the Black Panthers, in family inclusion groups in indigenous communities, in the co-operative movement.

THREE. Our work makes us ill. Our work makes us precarious. Our work dominates and exploits our lives. In our analyses of neoliberalism, and the ways in which they infect our educational relationships and settings, we must move beyond the analysis of symptoms. We must move towards a deeper uncovering of the bastardisation of social relationships, which exist in order to generate flows of surplus labour, time, value and power that can be commodified. Social or liberal democracy lies at the heart of this process. It is inextricably entwined with neoliberalism, as the development of the autonomy of capital. It will not save us, however deep our analysis of and resentment towards neoliberalism.

FOUR. If we are exemplary neoliberals, we need to examine how that relates to our academic or educational labour, in order to refuse that labour. This work must be done at the level of society, through intellectual work that refuses to fetishise specific forms of knowledge, or specific spaces for knowledge production, like schools and universities.

FIVE. This means that we can, of course, reflect upon how neoliberalism works to govern through ideas of market freedom and the individual autonomy of market actors, operating cybernetically through ready access to performance information. We can reflect upon how neoliberalism works to discipline us through our internalisation of self-government, responsibility, human capital enrichment and close attendance to our personal risk profiles. We can reflect upon how neoliberalism instantiates itself through discourses of impact, excellence, efficiency, employability, entrepreneurship, productivity, and so on. However, as we chase neoliberalism in its authoritarian, promiscuous, libertarian appearances, we risk losing sight of how it masks the deeper, substantive matter of the capital-relation.

SIX. So we need to engage with the history and heuristics of neoliberalism, as they relate to the circuits and cycles of capital, in particular in their historical development following the Nixon Shock and the end of the Bretton Woods agreement of the early 1970s, the role of oil and the development of the petrodollar, responses to collapses in the global rate of profit, the need to recalibrate global economic output in terms of services and manufacturing, changes in the technical composition of capital through the deployment of technology, the collapse of state socialism and a socialist market economy, and so on. Clearly, we also need to engage with the material and geographical differences in the deployment of, and responses to, neoliberalism, for instance in terms of resistance in Latin and South America, and the role of the State alongside transnational organisations in that process. We do this work because of what it enables us to hear, voice and see.

SEVEN. This historical, material, geographical set of narratives around the deployment of neoliberal governance and resistance to it, enables us to map the relationship between capital and labour, and to engage with issues of economic populism, in particular as they relate to the socio-economic core of specific economies/nations and their margins. This core and margin exist both inside the nation-state and globally for specific economies, and affect the ideological positions taken by populist leaders. One issue is how to bring these positions into the classroom/curriculum, in order that we move beyond demonising, and in order to show how these are vectors of exploitation on a global scale. This returns our educational relations to an engagement with capitalist social relations, and the relationship between work and surplus, capital and labour, autonomy and domination. This is a process of refusing colonisation by certain narratives, and of generating new forms of humanist identity.

EIGHT. Here, the intersections of race, gender, ability, sexuality and class are fundamental to any analysis of alternatives. Finding spaces (that are safe and which respect power-relations and asymmetries) to share is central to this process. Deliberation, taking time, being critical, being anti-algorithmic, being optimistic, confirming/legitimating/hearing others, are crucial. These disrupt the flows that reproduce capital through its subordination of labour. This is a deeply anti-capitalist, and post-capitalist approach, because it creates spaces that are against commodification, and which are rooted in the kinds of humanism denied systemically in the market. This is a risky strategy precisely because of the system’s ability to morph and reproduce itself anew. Here we may question whether there are responses to new repositionings of patriarchy. How do we engage with issues of agency and voice? How do we move beyond the fetishisation of salvation or redemption inside the system that is toxic to us? How do we find spaces to grieve and manage negative emotions or perception, rather than accepting the system’s desire to performance manage them to the periphery? How do we use grief as a step in a movement?

NINE. Is it possible to have hope inside institutions that are hopeless? Is it possible to have hope inside institutions that are abject? Is it only possible to hold Gramsci’s position of the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will? In particular, inside institutions grounded in manufactured and manufacturing consent, is it possible to develop critical hope, beyond market-based, ordered liberties? As we see our very selves colonised by the commodity, how do we generate hope and action?

TEN. So focusing upon a critique of neoliberalism(s) and its characteristics, as an explanatory critique of the state we are in, enables resistance to be minimalised, where we focus upon values like trust, or a return to social democracy and a better capitalism, or the hunt for new forms of democratic leadership, or where we think that a fight for autonomy inside the current system can be won. Instead, I am interested in engaging with those characteristics as heuristics that reveal the deeper reality of our sociability, or ability to reproduce society. Performance, market, competition, liberties/rights, cybernetic management of risk, governance theory, coercion, corporate parasitisation, shadow/parallel governance and finance structures, each point towards forms of revelation around illness, precarious employment, overwork, labour relations, and then onto issues to do with the way in which society is reproduced through the organisation of work. Here, we begin to think about critiques of power, domination and exploitation in the generation of surplus. Moreover, we begin to think about these symptoms and their causes as ontological or pedagogical at the level of society, because they place certain discourses at the heart of who we are.

ELEVEN. Movement is everything. Is our current appreciation of neoliberalism simply a light critique of capital? Might it be something more in using the visible, theorised characteristics of neoliberalism as a means to reimagine the capital-relation? Might it be something more in moving to a position where we can critique neoliberalism as a moment in a movement against capital?

TWELVE. What does this mean for education? What does this mean for the re-imagination of the curriculum? What does this mean for the relationship between student, teacher, administrator, bureaucrat, school, university, State and so on? What does this mean for the abolition of education, the abolition of status and bureaucratic educational structures, the abolition of the curriculum, such that intellectual work happens at the level of society, in order to move beyond the violence of abstraction and to address crises? How do we do this work humanely, when capital (whether in its neoliberal form or some other guise) seeks to eviscerate our humanity?


The day promoted me to consider some key issues for one of my PhD students who is working on the lived experiences of primary school communities under neoliberal policy. I wrote to her that “I think the following concepts/issues are interesting. I do not intend to unpack them here, rather to leave them as things for you to investigate or ignore. You are perfectly at liberty to ignore.” There is a shout-out here to the work of the Manchester School here, and especially Steve Courtney, Helen Gunter and Carlo Raffo. These questions/points are stream-of-consciousness and not fully formed. Like most of my work, tbh…

  1. Is neoliberalism the new common sense? Or is it a threat to common sense? Check out the work of Stuart Hall on this. Is neoliberalism anything other than promiscuous capital, able to reshape and reproduce itself depending upon historical and material conditions of production?
  2. How does neoliberalism (if there is such a thing), and its contested characteristics (if there are such things), relate to capitalist social relations?
  3. Our communities simply exemplary neoliberal structures for governance?
  4. What does individual autonomy, in particular in relation to constitutional rights and market-based liberties/freedoms, mean?
  5. In terms of community, what does disciplinary control, responsibility and self-government mean in practice?
  6. How is the lived experience of primary school communities affected by economic populism (Brexit, Trump etc)? How does this affect the relationship between race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and their intersections?
  7. Can community ever be a safe space? How can new narratives be developed that challenge patriarchy?
  8. Does neoliberal feminism(s) affect your research?
  9. Do communities struggling inside neoliberal governance have any space for hope? Or are they simply hopeless? Is there a place for critical hope, in particular in relation to school cultures, choices, governance/governmentality, managed consensus and manufactured consent?
  10. What is the role of teacher professionalism and pupil agency in the creation of neoliberal subjects, or their refusal?
  11. Under neoliberalism, what does voice mean inside/outside the classroom, or inside/outside the curriculum? How does voice relate to the commodification of the community and its activities?
  12. What does it mean for communities to be simply coping and surviving rather than thriving, inside a mediated life-activity, governed by performance management, competition in the market?
  13. How do communities interact and interrelate with algorithmic-control mechanisms and the domination of performance data? How do cybernetic forms of control enable, disable, reform and deform communities? Are they simply vectors for colonisation?
  14. Our explanatory critiques of neoliberalism simply means for reproducing a refined neoliberal project, in which resistance can be minimalised?
  15. In terms of understanding the lived experience of communities, how does internalised performance management and self-governance do the job of the State?
  16. How do we explain the bastardisation of values in the face of value as it is enabled through neoliberal governance? How is trust dehumanised in the face of risk? How is generosity dehumanised in the face of the commodity and commodity-exchange? How is courage dehumanised in the face of competition in the market?
  17. What is the relationship between accountability and autonomy, when policy is affected by transnational activist networks operating as geographies of neoliberalism, encompassing policymakers, educational leaders, finance capital, credit ratings agencies, educational publishers, and so on?
  18. Is it possible to repopulate and re—agent spaces for alternative imaginings of society?
  19. Is it possible to humanise our managers? Or must they all go?
  20. Neoliberal leadership in all its forms (relational, distributed, heroic) is simply the operation of governance at a distance, and the imposition of managerial discipline. How does this impact the lived experience of primary school communities? How does this relate to school refusal, homeschooling, deschooling?
  21. What is the impact of corporate school leadership, infected by the corporation, with its imposition of signature pedagogies, performance management, performance data and cybernetic control, on the school community?
  22. Is the primary school community curated by or a curator of neoliberalism? Is the market at the core of who/what the community is and stands for?
  23. What would a post-neoliberal primary school community look like?
  24. Steve Courtney spoke about being on or off the bus – those who fit in, and are common/shared travellers on a neoliberal journey can stay on the bus. What does this mean for communities that most fitting, fall off or fall out of the bus? How do bodies ensure that they are aligned with the local delivery of national reforms, rather than being wilful in refusing those reforms?
  25. Can we see neoliberalism as an habitus, comprising vectors of choice and non-choice, voice and non-voice, value and non-value, core and periphery?
  26. Where is it possible to intervene? Or are we being ontologically reshaped by forms of neoliberal engagement that are pedagogical and operating at the level of society?
  27. How do you relate your lived experience of primary school communities that are English and rooted in the global North, albeit containing individuals and cultures from the global South, to conceptually a morph is definitions of neoliberalism?
  28. To what extent does neoliberalism depend upon our conviction that positivism, which is theory free and evidence-based, and inside which certain voices are sanctioned, is the most appropriate response to the politics of austerity and the crisis of value?
  29. How is this maintained through the politics of desire? (c.f. Spinoza) How does the characterisation of leadership maintain desire? How does the fetishisation of desire_the fetishisation of leadership?
  30. What is the relationship between the lived experience of primary school communities and macroeconomic trends?
  31. Steve Courtney spoke about the role of theory, and in particular the relationship between functionalist and social critical theory. The former is designed to remove dysfunctions, to be based on “science” and “evidence” cometary positivist, cybernetic and theory-free. The latter relates to power, context and theory. Here we see the rise of the leadership industry, which maintains a harder distinction between leaders and followers – see work on network governance and governing networks. This enables functionalism to do the discursive work of neoliberalism in maintaining impact, excellence, efficiency, entrepreneurship, in the face of educational values. This is the triumph of marketisation and authoritarianism.
  32. What are the roles of the subaltern and subordinate in this analysis?
  33. How do we use this analysis, embedded in critical social theory, to render visible the differential and differing effects of power? How do we use theory to expose power, in order to recontextualise and in order to avoid ontological or epistemological closure?
  34. How do we engage with the reality that neoliberalism offers the promise of mobility and individual/familial agency, in the face of narratives of welfarism that stress its disabling effects?
  35. What metaphors does the individual/community used to describe itself? What metaphors does the individual/community use to describe the educational setting?
  36. Is it possible to dismantle neoliberalism without coming into asymmetrical relation with capital? Is a focus on neoliberalism a safe option, which denies the ability to decode the capital-relation?

References

Burman, E & Miles, S 2018, ‘Deconstructing supplementary education: From the pedagogy of the supplement to the unsettling of the mainstream‘Educational Review.

Courtney, S 2018, ‘Privatising educational leadership through technology in the Trumpian era‘ Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50.

Courtney, SJ & Gunter, HM 2015, ‘Get off my bus! School leaders, vision work and the elimination of teachers‘ International Journal of Leadership in Education, 18(4): 395-417. DOI: 10.1080/13603124.2014.992476

Courtney, S & Gunter, H 2017, Privatizing leadership in education in England: The multiple meanings of school principal agency. in D Waite & I Bogotch (eds), The Wiley International Handbook of Educational Leadership. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Inc., pp. 295-310.

Davies, J 2011, Challenging governance theory: from networks to hegemony. Bristol: Policy Press.

Raffo, C & Gunter, H 2008, ‘Leading schools to promote social inclusion: developing a conceptual framework for analysing research, policy and practice’ Journal of Education Policy, 23(4): 397 – 414. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930801923799

Rayner, S, Courtney, S & Gunter, H 2017, ‘Theorising systemic change: learning from the academisation project in England‘ Journal of Education Policy. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1327084

Rowlands, J & Rawolle, S 2013, ‘Neoliberalism is not a theory of everything: a Bourdieuian analysis of illusio in educational research’ Critical Studies in Education, 54(3): 260 – 72. https://doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2013.830631

Social Theory Applied: https://socialtheoryapplied.com/