notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

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

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

ONE. Individual stories

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

TWO. Academic labour in crisis

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

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

THREE. The proletarianisation of HE

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Alienated labour

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE. Weltschmerz

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

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

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

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

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

SIX. The Possibilities for Mass intellectuality

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

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

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

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

SEVEN. What Is To Be Done?

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

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

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