Notes on mental health in the age of Covid-19

“What if things are going to be absolutely fine?”

Me to myself, sometime towards the end of therapy, after years of asking “are we okay?”

 

Sticker on street furniture near the Pompidou Centre. It took me a while to remember that I exist. It took me a while to believe that I deserve to exist.


NB It feels important to note that there are some alternative routes you can take around managing your own mental health, and that support is available from a range of organisations including Mind (I had a good experience of therapy in 2000 with Mind in Darlington), Relate and Samaritans. Of course, there will be a range of possibilities for people with a range of life experiences. My point here is not to advise.


ONE. Sharing the wealth?

I left therapy after a decade in May 2019. It was the right thing to do and happened on my own terms, although it was negotiated over a long period with my therapist. This integrative and humanist therapeutic relationship helped me to save my life. It enabled me to hold and contain myself as I relived past trauma, and as I experienced a second breakdown after my Mom’s passing.

I have been thinking about what I have taken from therapy into the world as we now experience it. I have also been thinking about how I would have coped/not coped had I still been in the eye of the storm (I would have found the switch to virtual therapy incredibly difficult, in part because the human is so important in the therapy room and I feel that is missing online).

This morning I saw a retweet about how difficult it is for many to access therapy, either because NHS-funded therapy is time-limited, focused upon cognitive behavioural methodologies (a herd immunity for the soul), and has long waiting lists, or because private therapy is too expensive (although some therapists will undertake pro bono work). The original tweet focused upon crowdsourcing advice for people who are struggling, and a call to ‘share the wealth’, as if the assets that define good mental health are resources to be accessed like those on the Commons.

I have always struggled with this kind of call, although I completely respect the intention that lies behind it. In the same way, I struggle with calls for people to focus upon a positive mental attitude, or to be mindful or resilient (or to engage in mindfulness so they can be more resilient), inside a world that is alienating, and where a corporeal and physical, viral, destabilising force has infected that world. Too often, I see these calls as short-termist, or as an attempt to suture an alienated Self so that it can cope in a world that is increasingly unliveable and toxic.

When I was in therapy, I had a sense that the work was operating on multiple levels. First, my embodied trauma and what had been, because we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Second, the everyday, alienating reality of an unjust world, in which we have to sell ourselves over and over again, and watch as others are brutalised, exploited or expropriated. Third, the closing down of the horizon of possibility for life, given the politics of austerity, climate heating, ecosystem collapse, economic populism, and so on. Fourth, how to struggle for the alternative, at the level of myself, my communities and the world.

Now each of these levels have been infected and recalibrated by the virus. Whilst I give thanks that I have worked through my embodied trauma, and I am able to find the courage and faith to struggle against an unjust world, and to accept the enclosure of our futures whilst attempting to do the right thing, I grieve that this is not universally or equally experienced. This brings me back to the idea that we can share the wealth in terms of mental health, in-part because the process and journey through therapy is so individual (although hopefully experienced in a wider, communal ecosystem of friends, carers, families, communities), and in-part because the idea of equality or equal access under capitalist social relations is nonsensical because we are individuated (and measured in competition with each other).

For instance, we know that many precarious members of our communities, or those who are black or minority ethnic, are anxious about the role of the State during any lockdown as they are at other times. We know that, in spite of the work of mutual aid groups, local councils, voluntary action groups, and so on, people are separated and isolated, and lack the day-to-day support they need. We know that the State and corporate response is on business continuity, business resilience, maintaining some form of capital circulation through monetary intervention, so that productive capacity can be shored-up in the medium term. We know that care has been marginalised because we see how the State fails care-workers and health-workers. We know that those who are regarded as economically unproductive, with apparently lesser human capital (in terms of productive skills, knowledge and capabilities) or social capital (in terms of access to networks), and who are marginalised by dint of race, gender, disability, sexuality, will be further disciplined or ignored.


TWO. A struggle for hope.

With less access to private property, money and social resources, the idea that these individuals or groups can become more resilient through mindfulness or our sharing of well-being or mental health resources, ignores the question: resilient for what and for whom? Whose narrative is being centred? Whose narrative is being heard? These questions feel important because my experience of long-term therapy is that a more positive mental attitude can only emerge from a long period of denial, anger, sadness/depression/melancholia, grief or mourning, and acceptance, in a process that can take years. And as a white man working in academia, I did not have to struggle with everyday micro aggressions or forms of battle fatigue/PTSD on top of my past and present experiences.

So, when I think about sharing the wealth, I think about my own experience as someone who needed intensive therapy (sometimes multiple times a week), with a consistent (flawed) human being, over a decade. It is my own experience of unpacking those layers of self, self in an unjust-capitalist-world, self in a world with an enclosed future, and self-in-struggle. What I write below is not designed to make the situation seem hopeless for those experiencing or living with distress under Covid-19, or those attempting to help. We have to struggle for hope in a world that has been made hopeless. Rather, it is my own stock-check of what I have taken from my own experiences, in no particular order. I have carried these into the world as-is. I completely recognise that for many of us the future is not what it used to be, and that for many others the future was an impossibility.

Billboard near Oxford Road, Manchester. Says it all, really.


THREE. Some things that emerged along the way

  1. Therapy is the most painful and exhausting thing I have ever done Rethinking my life exhausts me and gives me hope. In this corona-crisis I remember that exhaustion and pain. I know that we have been here before. If I could survive my life to this point, I can survive the Corona-crisis.
  2. Therapy demands courage and persistence. I went through a long and tortuous process of giving up and re-finding the hope that I would recover myself. At times, all I had was the courage to persist and to believe that it might be different. It feels no different now as I continue to redraft how I remember the past and how I imagine the future.
  3. I am amazed at what I continue to learn about myself, as I reflect. In this corona-crisis I am learning anew about my body, my mind, my relationships and networks, my community, and the world as it turns. I continue to learn about how to be at home with myself. I continue to think about intimacy and solitude, as opposed to despair and loneliness. It took a decade to get to this, and there is no algorithm for it, just a persistent self-awareness.
  4. Therapy enabled me to remember to internalise how caring my therapist is, and thereby to try to care for myself. The therapeutic relationship helped me to reveal the various sides of my self as they moved through space and time, and to change my life. I learned to self-soothe and to contain how I felt, rather than allowing it to overflow and overwhelm me. Sometimes I find this reality overwhelming, but it has enabled me to centre self-care as much as I can, because if I am not going to care for me in this moment, then I cannot care about others. Self-care includes understanding how and why I have a tendency to self-harm, including obsessing and overworking. I am always trying to remember that I am responsible for how I feel in every moment of my life, and to contain that feeling.
  5. The revelation of my life makes me weep. In each of these life experiences, I remember myself, and call myself out, and call how I feel to my attention, and I respect my humanity, so that I can respect the humanity of others. The corona-crisis is an opportunity for revelation about myself, my relationships, and how I see the world and then struggle for another. I know that I am privileged in this, and I attempt to share my wealth by helping others to hold themselves and their feelings. This is the site of my struggle for another world – to communalise my experience in therapy through my relationships as a long-term process.
  6. Sometimes you meet the most amazing people who hold you whilst you rage; and whilst you weep; and whilst you disintegrate. Because therapy is about disintegration and reintegration. And in processing the fear and rage and grief and disintegration, the reintegration has no blueprint. Some stuff will be reintegrated and some will be discarded or stored. This moment is no different to that of a year ago, notwithstanding I cannot hug my friends or see my Nan or go to a football match. This is still life, and recognising and valuing who is in my heart, or over a wall, or at the end of the phone, or in the pub or coffee shop in nine months time, is important. This helps me to do the work of sharing my wealth by holding others, metaphorically and emotionally and dialectically.
  7. Feeling is everything. Acknowledging feeling is everything. Reducing the cognitive content, and respecting how I feel is everything. It took a long time for me to go with the feeling, and to sit with the feeling, and to trace its contours and its lineages. Sometimes staying with the feeling is fucking impossible, because it hurts too much. My Mom’s death taught me this in spades. For too long in my life, the fear, anxiety, grief, anger were displaced. In spite of this, I make sure that I acknowledge and respect and listen to how I feel. Those around me have to get used to my occasionally drawing their attention to their feelings.
  8. Even though I had to manage my way through various crises in therapy, I always needed to recover my six year-old self. My six year old self kept me safe for a long time. Therapy was about honouring him. I remember him throughout this Corona-crisis. He is my guiding light.
  9. Therapy reminded me that I love being hugged, and to hug. I know that this will be possible once more, and that I must persevere – to persevere is everything.
  10. Therapy reminded me that I needed constant reassurance. I have to give myself reassurance, although perhaps not quite so much these days, because I accept that the future was never some fixed utopia. And I accept now that I am (good) enough.
  11. Therapy taught me about loss, and had a pedagogy focused upon recovery from loss by making sense of it, so that I can live. I am so glad that I was in therapy with this therapist during my Mom’s illness and passing. I take those practices into this Corona-crisis, and as a result I remember not to frame everything around loss. There is so much more to life than loss.
  12. Therapy taught me not to abandon myself. I deserved to be the world after therapy. It is important not to abandon myself, my values and my struggles in this Corona-crisis. In particular, it is important not to abandon myself because I feel forgotten. I try to let others know that they are not forgotten and that they are in my heart.
  13. Therapy is a process and it is not linear. Life is not linear. I did not know this in my heart until I was in very deeply. Now I see my life as a process, unfolding in countless, indeterminate and determinate ways, through myself, my loved ones, my communities and this world. What matters is the concrete: the lived reality of place and people. The Corona-crisis is part of that unfolding, and we must struggle for what makes sense to us, rather than the abstract ways in which people and institutions (including families) exercise power. This means a rejection of certainty, a weighing up of options, and an ability to live with the consequences of my own decisions (be they going to a pharmacist for a friend or not seeing my Nan or approaching my work in a different manner). Moreover, as my life unfolds in a non-linear way and is a process, I work to trust that good enough is good enough.
  14. Because this is an ongoing process of life, acknowledging a shifting feeling is everything. It is okay for me to be anxious or depressed, although I have worked through much of that now. Moreover, it is okay to remember where this anxiety or depression might take me, and it is okay for me to feel my way out of those feelings, rather than being anchored in melancholia. I try to do this by remembering and knowing myself. This is why the reductionism of a positive mental attitude or mindfulness is a struggle for me. I always struggled with the idea that behavioural practices could work on their own. Therapy taught me that my most important doing was related to knowing, remembering, honouring and respecting my being as I tell it out. The process of my life is doing, knowing and being as a movement.
  15. Therapy taught me that sometimes all I can do is hold on for tomorrow, even when sometimes existing from minute-to-minute feels fucking impossible. Persevere.
  16. Therapy taught me about my networks and relationships, that it is okay to give some up when they are not nurturing and are one-sided, and do not give to us. However, it also taught me to keep doors open wherever possible, and to accept the shades of grey, the give-and-take, the imbalance at times. It taught me about my friendships, and who I need to be there at 3am. This is no different now.
  17. Therapy is about love. In these times it is important to remember love, and even in our anger at the situation and the injustices and the exclusions and the marginalisations and the pain, to situate our response around our love for ourselves and the world we wish to create. There is no possibility without love.

THREE. Reconciliation.

Remembering these things, and in particular centring myself and the love I have felt in my life feels crucial in making decisions. These include the decision not to visit my Nan again. She is 60 miles away and extremely vulnerable. She brought me up for a while and is the light of my life. I have had 18 extra months with her since her fall and as her dementia worsens, and I see this extra time as a blessing. I mourn not being able to visit her, but I have been grieving her for a while. In missing her, I celebrate our relationship anew.

Likewise, my Dad and my Father-in-Law who are also extremely vulnerable. They are also too far away and need to self-isolate. They also need networks around them, which is an impossibility in the world we have made. This world we have made and the ways in which it exacerbates vulnerability are part of the reason I am so angry about this Government’s response to the Corona-crisis, and in recognising how our leaders condemn our families through their actions and omissions and carelessness, I remember what we must struggle for.

This also gives me the courage to refuse the implication to be productive. To learn new skills that will make us better human beings. Instead, being in long-term therapy whilst holding down my job and doing some voluntary work, taught me to find ways to prioritise mourning or grieving. I recognise my privilege in this, and that others will be drawn towards anxiety. I use my time in therapy to draw attention to this: How can there be business-as-usual? As my self comes under strain, and the virus infects and inflects my relationships, I am constantly reminded that the strains are secondary to my work, and they are potentially additive to my concerns over our ecosystem. Therapy taught me to have the courage to weep and shake my head, and to have faith in the validity of that response.

I know that there is much grief coming. Yet, I also know that this carries a significant potential energy. This energy will be driven by how I feel, but it will also be centred around relationships that I have kept open, when they might have been closed down. This energy is not simply negative and in relation to loss. It also means maintaining the potential for love beyond loss and grief and apparently hopeless positions. It means weeping and shaking my head as acts of solidarity.

The Reconciliation Statue at Coventry Cathedral. This is all there is.


FIVE. From each, to each.

It is through the courage of my six year old in staying in the game that I can validate my faith in myself, and move towards some form of justice in this world. Through therapy, justice was centred around being heard and validated; upon reconciliation rather than reparation. In each of the crises in my life, there has been no chance of hope or opportunity for peace, because there has been no justice and no reconciliation with the past or present. As a result, I can accept that the future is not what it used to be. The world-as-is, is not the world we thought it would be. Maybe it is not the world we wanted or hoped. My struggle will be for the hope that this world becomes more possible for more people, rather than more austere and impossible for most. However, I am reconciled to the improbability of this possibility.

One of the outcomes of therapy was an understanding of how far I had come, not only in the present and how I live my life, but also in reconciling myself with my past. Moreover, this is a constant reminder to think through what power I do have, and how to use it for self-care as a process of collective care. Having had two breakdowns and long periods of chronic fatigue, in which my body forced my mind to stop making me run and run, I realised that I had to acknowledge what power is available to me. I only give up this limited power when I think I don’t have any at all, and in this moment my doubts swamp my belief. I had to learn to forgive myself a few things.

And so, what might be termed a positive mental attitude took a decade to coalesce or to take a form through which I could leave an intensive and intimate therapeutic relationship. In this coalescing or reforming, I took the energy of the therapeutic relationship as a mode of hope in my own life. Yet I recognise in this my own privilege in being able to pay for this work and the expertise that enabled it. It was an expensive, painful and exhausting decade that enabled me to feel and then to realise that whilst I had never been scared to die, I was no longer scared to live.

I am not sure how sharing the wealth helps with this for those who are isolated, made marginal, suffering structural oppression or exploitation, or in abusive relationships. Perhaps it is all we have in these days of social isolation, when we cannot hold each other physically close and we have limited mental stimulation. We know that the uncertainty is incredibly stressful, and that the psychology of isolation is damaging to our physiology as well as our psychology. Finding any port in a storm demands new connections, possibilities and hopes, and some form of mental and physical activity. Finding any mechanisms for controlling our existence, like establishing a routine, however limited in nature, is crucial. And here I am privileged again because I have a yard in which to sit, a partner, a mutual aid group, a roller for my bike, some t’ai chi I can do, I have books and writing, and 10 years of therapy in the bank. I have resources, activities and some control.

Maybe mindfulness or CBT techniques are better than nothing; that said, over time our collective and individual PTSD will require much more. When we have moved to our new position, we also need to recognise how our way of building the world and our social metabolism with the world has left us so mentally and physically vulnerable. This capitalist society has left shockingly paid people to keep the wheels turning, and to cope with deaths in hospitals and care homes. It has left people with limited resources to have to make decisions that put themselves and others at risk. It has left us divorced and separated from each other and the world, in a dystopian solitary confinement. It has left us so depleted that we are sharing CBT tricks on Twitter and building from the bottom as a just-in-time form of social solidarity. This demands our recognition now so that after-the-fact we can struggle for an intercommunal, intersectional and intergenerational alternative, centred around our humanity and celebrations of our differences. Because the virus has amplified the horrendous, alienating reality of capitalist social relations, and we deserve to live rather than to scrabble for survival.

It is the power of long-term, collective commitments that offers a new hope and a new shared wealth based on unequal individual and collective lives. In this way, I see my therapeutic experience as part of a wider ecosystem that I hold and to which I contribute, and that is shifting and moving. In this way, my thinking about mental health, ill being and moving beyond, replicates some kind of facilitated, mutual aid, in which survivors, self-help groups, voluntary organisations, friendships and professionals develop some alternative practices for-life that can be open to all. From each according to their ability. To each according to their needs.

Hold on to the love that you know//You don’t have to give up to let go

Deadmau5 feat. Cascade, I remember.

Banner, Finsbury Square, Occupy LSX.


Notes on what passes for University leadership in an age of crisis

¡Que se vayan todos!

They all must go.

Enough is enough. These people who claim to lead. These people have no moral authority. These people who are making decisions that affect our lives and the lives of those who are vulnerable and the lives of those whom we hold dear.

Enough is enough.

They all must go.


In the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, we realise just how pathological is the University. We realise just how diseased are its forms and its content, in terms of its cultures and its activities. The University creates a morbidity that is replicated in physical and mental ill-being and distress amongst those who labour inside it. University responses to the pandemic, claiming validity from the response of the UK Government, which itself lacks moral authority and that appears out-of-step globally, increasingly creates suffering. This is amplified because being out-of-step has been echoed by contradictory statements or no statements at all. These (non-)statements are being interpreted as failures by international staff and students, as well as those from the UK, who are well aware of alternative responses to the crisis.

Yet, we know from our reading of Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, that States, and the institutions that reside within them and relate to them, prioritise economic value, profit and surplus over people, and seek to maintain infrastructures upon which Capital can flourish. There is no place for morality or humane values unless they lie in the service of value-production.

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

We know that capitalist institutions only care for family or caring responsibilities, or communities, where they do not conflict with the production, circulation and accumulation of surplus-value. Relationships of care and love will always be secondary to the generation or sustainability of surplus. Thus, Marx and Engels write:

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

This is one of the reasons why academic and professional services’ staff have been on strike over the unsustainable, intensification of workloads, the casualisation and making precarious of so many lives, and the toxic inequality in pay and conditions for academics of colour and women in the Academy (and we might extend this to those who are disabled or queer, or who define themselves intersectionally).

On a global terrain, individual institutions are relatively powerless. The operation of the bourgeoisie occurs transnationally as a class project, and to expect an individual institutions to act against the interests of the class that governs them, is nonsensical. Moreover, Marx and Engels go on to highlight how crisis is at the centre of this project:

uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and [humans are] at last compelled to face with sober senses [their] real condition of life and [their] relations with [their] kind.

Inside capitalist social relations, crises are normalised at the level of society, be they financial, human, involving war, famine, flooding, and so on. These are constant moments for working out ways in which living labour and human lives can be further exploited, as the very essence of Capital – as its means of life.

Individual institutions, managed as joint ventures with a range of commercial partners, educational publishers, technology providers, consultants, and so on, reflect the fact that:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.

The dynamics of capitalist social relations mean that people as living labour are always subsumed under the need to expand surplus, or to maintain systems designed for the extraction of surplus through the exploitation of labour-power. We know that the impact of the financial crisis of 2007/08 has been work intensification, precarious employment, internationalisation strategies that threaten the climate, increased commodification and financialisation. University life has been accelerated with all spare capacity turned over to surplus and the rule of money.


We have seen the institution really subsumed under these logics, to the extent that they have become anxiety machines or pressure vessels. Increasingly then, the University is seen to be operating as a collection of spaces in which suffering, anxiety, ill-being are normalised, and where immunosuppression or compromised immune systems are further compromised, in the name of value-for-money, impact, entrepreneurialism, efficiency and now business-as-usual. Working inside such compromising labour conditions is increasingly a sociopathically-enforced, culturally acceptable self-harming activity. It is governed by extreme and unacceptable sets of behaviours, which themselves coalesce as pathological forms of managerialism.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we are advised by WHO experts that speed trumps perfection, and that leaders need to act and to move, rather than be paralysed by the fear of failure.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we see the British Society for Immunology arguing the two things that UniversitiesUK and the leaders of our institutions ought to have been calling for, or responding to, rather than offering a fractured and fragmented and separated set of responses, which simply amplify fear and anxiety.

Firstly, we feel more needs to be done to ensure social distancing to limit the number of COVID-19 cases in the short term, especially for vulnerable members of our communities. This will enable us to buy time until we understand the virus better and can begin to develop therapeutics.  Secondly, to aid efforts, we call on the government to release their modelling data to allow scrutiny from the scientific community to better predict the course of this outbreak.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear stories of immunocompromised members of staff being told that they have to be on-campus rather than able to deliver materials online, because the priority is business-as-usual.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear stories of the health of estates’ staff being compromised.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear of vice chancellors emailing staff to ask them to encourage students to be on campus, despite the institution delivering its programmes remotely in other locations

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we hear of international students upset at their College’s lack of planning, which materially affects their well-being and possibility of returning to their families and loved ones.

And we hear stories of institutions not paying close attention to Guidance on immigration provisions made by the Home Office for individuals affected by travel restrictions associated with coronavirus (COVID-19).

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we note that there is a struggle for institutional and sector-wide reputation over responsibility, where ‘slow and inactive universities … [are] leaving frontline staff unable to provide clear answers to distressed students’. Institutions are failing in terms of student and staff welfare and the deployment of their research expertise.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we crowdsource a list of institutional responses, which highlights how abject is the moral geography of UK higher education.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we watch as institutional leaders refuse to question the sagacity of herd immunity precisely because it is a narrative that underpins their need for a hypothetical, surplus-driven future, whilst others query that very focus upon a hypothetical future.

And in the Covid-19 crisis, we understand this as academia’s shock doctrine, as we are placed in the front line of risk management in a crisis, where our responses are conditioned by student fees, service-delivery, business-as-usual, learning and teaching and assessment, rather than student and staff well-being and care. Thus, we understand how crisis intensifies academic work through a suggestion and then a demand for online education, without revealing the modelling or risk assessment behind this. This turns a temporary exertion into a permanent expectation, and to a permanent state of exception inside higher education. This risks further defunding, casualisation, monitoring and surveillance, and unbundling of the curriculum into the future. Because if we can do this now, in exceptional circumstances, then further revolutionising is possible. By moving online, institutions and their paymasters have a new precedent for casualised working, precarious labour, changing the relations of production based upon new forces of production, and so on, which have differential impacts on intersectional communities.

Moreover, in maintaining business continuity in the face of personal crises for those who must care, or who are sick, or who are immunocompromised, or who are precarious, our institutions work against a duty of care. As Audrey Watters argues:

Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s particularly true for the most vulnerable students — for Black and Latino students, for those with lower GPAs, for low-income students, for younger students. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s under “normal” circumstances. These are not normal circumstances.

The crisis reminds us what we knew about our leaders and their lack of care for us, or it reveals to us how we have duped ourselves, or it shows us how much cognitive dissonance we have to deploy in order to survive their intensification of our lives, and it shows us to whom or what they give their loyalty. And it is not us.

It is not us.


Thus, the daily, repetitive, symptomatic illnesses of University labour, normally revealed as performance anxiety, overwork, hopelessness, and uncertainty are amplified in this crisis of Covid-19. The ways in which University workers attempt to cauterise or ignore their wounds usually focuses on the maintenance and reproduction of privilege and status and surplus masquerading as a labour of love, and this becomes more apparent in this urgent call for business-as-usual. We are told that we must continue to self-harm, and that this is culturally-acceptable, because this is a service of love inside the University-as-family.

We are told this as other bodies in sport and entertainment and professional networks demonstrate their clear connection to, rather than separation from society, by cancelling and postponing and maintaining social distancing. Yet inside institutions whose governance and regulation is allegedly predicated upon the student experience, this appears impossible. Our labour of love has crashed into their need for surplus and the extraction of surplus, and the dependence upon particular income streams or modes of student and institutional debt

As the Italian communist Bordiga argued, there is no control here, in spite of our leaders claims that they are responding to Government control with carefully-managed approaches to risk reduction, and it was ever thus.

[W]hen the ship goes down, so too do the first class passengers… The ruling class, for its part incapable of struggling against the devil of business activity, superproduction and superconstruction for its own skin, thus demonstrates the end of its control over society, and it is foolish to expect that, in the name of a progress with its trail indicated by bloodstains, it can produce safer ships than those of the past.

Of course, it is the commodification of University life, and the competing, corporate reality of the University that has led us here. And for some institutions, this is worsened because they are leveraged through bond financing and refinancing. What happens to those institutions and their ability to make repayments on bond yields, or to maintain surpluses given immediate revenue restrictions and potential long-term reputational damage? What happens to the maintenance of investment-grade credit ratings? What happens to student fees? How are they communicating their risk assessments and contingencies to their staff and students?

And what of the regulatory and parasitical need for league tables, and the ability to position funds and institutions around the REF, TEF, KEF, NSS? How are these to be managed now? What power do they have over our present and our future? Why have these not been postponed? Can we use our renewed struggle to call for their abolition?

And we ask, what is the point of the Office for Students and its value-for-money strategy in all this? In a world in which study is enmeshed inside financial markets, how can institutional leaders provide leadership for us? When they are pulled by the competition and markets authority, by student protection plans, by access and participation plans, and by league tables? How do we enact humane values in the face of economic value?

As some institutions move to focus upon the intensification of labour through online teaching, what is to be done? For some of us, we have spent the last month organising around four fights and strike action, and this has been joyous and a mark of association and solidarity. For some of us, this has been exhausting, and we have people to care for, and people who are vulnerable in our lives, and we deeply care about our institutions, our peers, our students and our friends. Yet this move to intensify and to continue as usual, is a potential moment of struggle for a different, more humane world. If we can find the energy.

Because all of a sudden, our institutional response has been shown to be mediated by the market, by the division of labour which tells us that some must lead and some must follow, by the reduction of all of pedagogical life to the commodity, and by the reduction of our lives to the power of the commodity. Such that our knowing, doing, and being are all subsumed to the commodity, and to surplus, intensification, productivity, value and the rule of money.

And all of a sudden there is a very bitter taste to those discussions around value in higher education.


The capitalist University-as-is cannot halt the systemic devouring of our present lives, in the face of the desperate institutional need to accumulate surplus in the future. The capitalist University cannot save us, because it is driven by short-term economic interests, rather than the long-term conditions of life. It is pathological; it is diseased; it functions through cultures of silence, obfuscation, paranoia, intensification, wait and see. It has lost control of the anxiety that gave it form and content through overwork and ill-being. This very anxiety has tipped beyond uncertainty into contempt, fear, anger, disbelief. This anxiety has made real the undercommons of the University as a moment of survival and of fugitive planning.

Crises are the very material of capitalist expansion, predicated upon the renewed exploitation of life and living labour. The moment of crisis and the individual and collective disasters that follow are the site of working class struggle. We are in a very real struggle in the University. We have generated new energy and new organising power through the strike. What do we do now with our indignation at the handling of Covid-19?

And I am reminded that years ago I spoke and wrote about whether universities care enough about students, or whether universities care too much about students. I argued:

as the corporate university tries to develop the characteristics of the entrepreneur in its students, it cares to discipline its labour-force through performance management and the rate of profit. However, inside and against this fragmented space, groups of academics and students are attempting to move beyond the pedagogy of debt, to define something more care-full, where the staff/student relationship can become the beating heart of an alternative vision for higher education as higher learning beyond the University and inside the fabric of society. This is the true psycho-social scope of care in these educational relationships.

Beyond the organisation of the strike, we make possible a movement for self-and communal-care. They cannot do this, because their power and privilege and status is predicated upon our everyday, ongoing, alienated labour-power. It is predicated upon our everyday estrangement from ourselves through exploitation. And so we ask, can we use this moment for emancipatory ends?

And we learn to remember ourselves.

¡Que se vayan todos!

They all must go.


DMU Critical University Studies Reading Group

With Rosi Smith in Education and James Evans in Strategic Planning at DMU, I am planning to kick-start a Critical University Studies Reading Group at DMU.

The first meeting will be 12.30-13.30 on Wednesday 25th March, in Hugh Aston 1.47.

The draft parameters for the group are appended below, and these are up-for-grabs.

  • The higher education sector and its institutions, is being restructured and repurposed, both in terms of policy and practice. Restructuring has affected the idea of the University, in terms of corporate forms, cultures and practices.
  • The imposition or evolution of changes to the forms, cultures and practices of the University has implications for those who work and study in it, including on their professional identity, workload, and mental and physical health.
  • The purpose of this reading group is to generate discussion of the scholarship relating to higher education, the University and the work of students, academics and professional services staff. This will critique scholarship and analysis across intersections, geographies and histories, in order to understand life inside the contemporary university.
  • The reading group provides a forum for understanding the consequences of university reforms, and in this it emphasises the perspectives, communities and individuals who have been othered or silenced in the debate.
  • The reading group will meet twice a term, and will negotiate its curriculum. This curriculum might include: the idea of the University; well-being and ill-being inside the University; work in the contemporary university; the impact on student learning; leadership, management and metrics; the governance, regulation and funding of higher education; intersectional, critical feminist and critical race readings of the University.
  • Meetings will be predicated upon a short reading, video, podcast that will be shared in advance. The key will be discussion rather than lecture, although sessions may be briefly introduced by individuals, in order to facilitate dialogue.
  • The reading group will proceed in a spirit of openness and dialogue within and between various conceptions of higher education.
  • The essential feature of the series is that critique can provide inspirational resources for renewing educational practices and producing new knowledge that can support action.

For our first meeting, the initial reading is this review of The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and Neoliberal Ideology by John Smyth: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2018/01/19/book-review-the-toxic-university-zombie-leadership-academic-rock-stars-and-neoliberal-ideology-by-john-smyth/


Episode 8: in which I blather on about hopeless professors and abject universities

It’s been a while – my energy has been elsewhere, caring for my Nan (102!), reading Hegel, thinking about dialectical materialism and historical materialism, and philosophy and science, and trying to get my head around the next book project (The hopeless university: intellectual work at the end of the end of history). Anyway, my energy for this appears to be back, so let’s give it a whirl.

In this jibber-jabber, I set-up a few forthcoming episodes that I am hoping to record with some compadres, to discuss their lives inside the University and their practice, and to hear their take on hopelessness. I hope to start next Monday by talking to Rob Weale, who made the music I use on the podcast. Check out his work on SoundCloud, as Rae Elbow and the Magic Beans.

I also revisit some work I did with Kate Bowles, who works and exists over in Australia, on the idea of the University as an anxiety machine. In part, this has been kick-started because I spoke at an event on student mental health earlier this week, and the pivot was that paper. Connected to this, I call out professors whose own working practices reinforce the self-harming activities of the academic peloton. This includes those who overwork and those who cross picket lines, as examples of behaviours that damage academic and intellectual citizenship.

One of the things that has kept me from podcasting has been listening to other podcasts, and in particular my thinking and reading and writing and speaking have been influenced by:

I commend these to you.

Peace.


Re-engineering Education: the University as Anxiety Machine

Next Tuesday I’m speaking at the Safeguarding Students: Addressing Mental Health Needs Conference. My slides are available below, and from Slideshare.

The intention is to frame this around:



New book project: The hopeless university

In other, exciting news, I have agreed with Mayfly books, based in Leicester, to produce a new monograph on academic life. Mayfly are extending their work on critical university studies, and have also published Ansgar Allen’s The Cynical Educator and Toni Ruuska’s Capitalism, Higher Education and Ecological Crisis. Mayfly also publishes the journal ephemera: theory and politics in organization.

Working with Mayfly is important because I am particularly interested in supporting radical publishing houses that are open, or that resist the subsumption of academic work by corporate publishers. Transparent, democratic engagement is very important to me, and in my role is something I can help celebrate and support. It is why I have been a trustee of the Open Library of Humanities.

Anyway, the book has the working title:

The hopeless university: intellectual work at the end of the end of history

The book will integrate some thinking I have been doing since the publication of The Alienated Academic. I guess its starting point is that I want to tell my story beginning from the last story I told. So, it continues to develop some of the common themes I play around with, including: hopelessness and helplessness inside the University; University as an anxiety machine; the almost overwhelming sense of Weltschmerz felt inside educational institutions; the University predicated upon alienated academic labour-power; and, the University as an abject space, unable to engage meaningfully with crises of social reproduction. It asks whether it is possible to refuse the University as is, as a trans-historical space that can only exist for capital?

I want to think through the re-emergence of engagement with ideas of hope, and their relationship to progressive politics and horizons of educational possibility. In part, I do this because I believe the current situation to be hopeless. I have written about this here. Or you could also read the chapter on Weltschmerz in The Alienated Academic. Or check out some of my other writing here.

So, the structure will focus upon: terrains of hopelessness; hopeless struggle; forms and structures of hopelessness; cultures and pathologies of hopelessness; practices and methodologies of hopelessness; hopeful despair; and the potential for hope at the end of the end of history.

I have shamelessly stolen the idea of the end of the end of history from the guys at Aufhebungabunga: The global politics podcast at the end of the End of History. From a left perspective. The idea of the end of the end of history exposes the fraud at the heart of narratives of the end of history, and of the inevitable, timeless, transhistorical victory of capitalism. This is a narrative generated from a North Atlantic context, which lays out space-time as a capitalist entity, and forecloses on all possible historical, material futures. No new history of struggle or resistance can emerge, precisely because all such struggles and resistances are subsumed as Capital, and its institutions re-purpose all of social life in the name of value, production, profit and surplus. In this subsumption of social life, the University is a critical node precisely because it provides a constant funnelling of individuals into a normalised existence framed by debt and work. In this way, it is hopeless to imagine any other form of historical and material existence beyond the freedom offered through an individual’s sale of labour power in the free market. Beyond the institutions of capitalist society, life has limited meaning.

Yet, in analysing the place of the University at the end of history, we note that it is situated inside a terrain of global, socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which have been amplified during the ongoing secular crisis of capitalism. Once more, capitalism as a means of social organisation is under threat from ruptures both inside and outside of work, grounded in intersectional, temporal and geographical injustices that erupt from points of labour and points where labour touches society. A range of indigenous resistances, struggles grounded in race, gender, disability and class, emergent revolts against toxic ecological policies, resistance to economic and political populism, each place the institutions of capital in stark opposition to the everyday, lived experiences of individuals and communities struggling for life. The historical and material realities of existence, of social reproduction, of struggle, have returned with a vengeance.

So, the plan for the book is predicated upon the following precepts. This is its current direction of travel. Although I have some Hegel and Marcuse to read first, alongside a bunch of stuff on rage, courage, justice, faith, and solidarity movements that are indigenous, identity-driven and intersectional. I have to revisit some stuff on hope too…

  1. The University 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. It projects and protects a condition that is irredeemable. It is hopeless in all senses, and this reflects its inability to respond meaningfully with crises that erupt from the contradictions of capital, including that between capital and climate. Yet in its maintenance of business-as-usual, the University remains shaped as a tactical response to these contradictions.
  2. The book describes and analyses this position against the terrain of higher education (HE) in the global North. It does so in relation to the ways in which the University has been re-engineered in relation to the law of value. This process of subsumption situates the University inside a transnational geography of accumulation. This changes the very idea of the University, and what it means to work inside the Academy, such that they are emptied of political, democratic content, and instead reorganised around surplus. The University has become a key site for reproducing the separation of polity and economy.
  3. The fixation on surplus, efficiency, enterprise, excellence, impact, and so on reinforces a turn away from intellectual practice as a use-value for individuals, such that it has a focus upon the creation of commodities that have exchange-value. This relentless process can only be met by hopeless struggles inside the University, or a retreat into helplessness by academics and students, in the face of authoritarian performance management.
  4. These hopeless struggles are analysed in terms of: first, forms of hopelessness imposed by institutional structures: second, the diseased, pathological hopelessness that the University represents through its normalisation of cultures of ill-being, overwork and privilege; and third, the methodological, process-based hopelessness engendered by everyday academic practices that are enforced by toxic managerialism.
  5. Emerging from an analysis of the intersection of these forms, pathologies and methodologies of hopelessness is a moment of hopeful despair, grounded in the ability of labour to awaken to its predicament both inside a crisis-driven institution, and at the level of society. In this way, the book calls for the dissolution, dismantling or detonation of institutions that engender hopelessness and helplessness, including the University.
  6. The book closes with a discussion of the idea of hope, and its intersection with institutions of formal HE or informal higher learning, at the end of the end of history. The realisation of the impossibility of recovering stable forms of capitalist accumulation, the collapse of socio-environmental systems, widespread forms and structures of inequality and inequity, and the rise of political and economic populism, have foreclosed upon our collective inability to imagine that another world is possible. We are no longer living at the end of history. Rather we need to imagine the idea of the intellectual work at the end of the end of history.
  7. Therefore, the book addresses the following questions. How have we been betrayed by the University? In this sense, what is the University not capable of becoming, being, knowing and doing? Can mapping the University as an anxious, abject, hopeless space, distorted and exploited by Capital, enable us to define a counter-cartography? Is another education possible?

A New Vision for Further and Higher Education

With Sol Gamsu, I have co-edited A New Vision for Further and Higher Education, published by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies. Launched at the recent UCU conference, the report is available from the CLASS website.

The abstract is as follows.

Our systems of further and higher education are no longer fit for purpose. After decades of marketisation and years of austerity cuts, recent high-profile strikes in the education sector signified a service at breaking point. But what to do? How do we pursue education, not as a commodity, but as ‘the practice of freedom’?

How can we dismantle the elitism of higher education, the degradation of further education and create a system that promotes the values of justice, hope and solidarity? There are no easy answers but this collection of essays hopes to start a conversation about how we move forward.

The report was discussed at a recent West London Socialist Educational Association meeting. A report of that meeting, entitled Education and Wandsworth Transformed, can be found here.


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.


on therapy and praxis and critical hope

Elsewhere, I write:

it is meaningless for me to separate out my work inside and outside the University from the work I continue to undertake on myself. It is meaningless for me to separate out my labour as something unique in the practice of my life.

After a decade in therapy I am moving to sessions every other week. For a long time I was having weekly sessions; for a long time I was having twice-weekly sessions; for some time I needed three sessions a week. The memory of all of this resonates; remembering why I needed this resonates. Who I was is who I am is who I will be.

I have written about this here, and here, and here, and here, and in all my writing about anxiety and the anxiety machine and alienation.

So it feels important to mark this agreement to move to sessions every other week. I feel compelled to sit with the importance of this. It is a very significant moment for me in my movement towards myself, and it carries with it all sorts of emotions, rooted in loss, grief, possibility, hope and peace. I see the early years of therapy about discovering or recovering or witnessing my courage and faith in myself, with the middle years doing some things that were focused upon finding justice for myself, and it is now that I can work through hope towards finding some peace. And this is repetitive in new ways and is never linear. In all this I continue to draw from my stories, and the emotional, relational, spiritual and cognitive knowledge they enable, as a well. I continue to reproduce those stories and new knowledge about myself in the world.


I also want to recognise the mutuality of this – I am very mindful of sitting with, and respecting my therapist’s position, care and love. I am mindful that there is a strong relational accountability between us. I am mindful of how this resonates across my relationships. Increasingly, I feel that I can recognise and respect this mutuality and solidarity, including with myself. I feel that the core of me lies in being accountable to my relations where that is possible, and that is a very beautiful thing.

I feel that there is a different moment of reconnection between me and the world. I see this in terms of the stories that have emerged through my work on myself. I also see this in terms of the places that I have sat in, the lanes that I have walked down, the roads that I have cycled, and the music that I have listened to, amplified in the last decade. This reconnection demonstrates to me that my work, practice, customs, values, life is not linear and that they are moving away from their assumptions.

Because I am letting go, I see the futility in my previous attempts to re-inhabit my own soul with the idea of being better or well; a newly-enclosed or commodified self. Rather, I understand why that belief or assumption was necessary for me for a while, in order to survive, but now I want to let go of my past assumptions and fetishes, and instead to think about myself in my relationships to me and others. There is something here about my sovereignty over my own story. There is also something here about my wanting to understand other people’s sovereignty over their own stories, and to try to learn from those. In this I take great strength from (indigenous and non-indigenous) stories and struggles for decolonising and dismantling and being inside-and-against-and-beyond (settler) colonialism.

So much of the therapeutic relationship is imminent to my life, my writing, my everyday practice, and the values that I carry forward. The decision to change the frequency of sessions has amplified this for me. To respect my position and my self-understanding, alongside my engagement with the complexity of the world and the communities/friends that I live and work alongside; I think that is enough.


I come back to stories because I remembered this quote from King (p. 32):

the truth about stories is that that’s all we are. You can’t understand the world without telling a story. There isn’t any centre to the world but a story.

I love this, because it articulates the validity of our own experience (and I am in acceptance of mine), and also what we have to learn from other people’s stories – it helps to understand our incompleteness and to create a richer, more storied relationship, rooted in dignity. This is trust in the sacred nature of journeying with others – to accept the risks, anxieties, possibilities. To honour relationships where possible; and also to accept that some relationships cannot work, and that I cannot be accountable to or in them.

And this is inextricably tied to my work as I consider my teaching. I will be working with first-year undergraduates on a new module, on evidenced-based teaching and learning.

In treating this module as a process, as being and becoming, I hope that we can generate new stories for people that respect the humanity of their places, philosophies, practices/practise, values and epistemologies.

I hope that the process we engage in will be focused upon knowledge production from the ground up, as lived experience, which connects people, stories and places in concrete ways.

I hope that we can understand how people and place form relationships that are accountable to each other in some way, which is constantly in negotiation rooted in care, dignity, duality, respect and responsibility.

I hope that we can engage with forms of thinking, acting, and being that emerge in relationship with decolonisation, so that we can imagine and embody our humanity, rather than enclosing and severing ourselves inside abstracted relations of domination.

I hope that we can generate thinking that refuses the assumptions of linear history, and of teleological, positivist narratives of development. In this, I hope that we can give voice to the ebb-and-flow between the past, present and future, and understand how this is rooted in ideological positioning that needs to be decolonised before it can be abolished.

I hope that we can create a module as a process that resonates with our lives, giving participants the power to make change, and to refuse the colonisation of other people’s lived experience, in particular through the imposition of idealised, white, male, able, cisnormative positions.

I hope that we can reflect on how our thinking and activity carries the possibility of care and/or harm, and potentially silences or gives voice to individuals and groups who are included/othered.

I hope that we are able to draw attention to dominant positions and modes of power, the ways in which hegemony is reproduced and recaptured as an ethical moment, so that we can hold a mirror up to power. This involves an engagement with knowledge, language, relationships, culture, so that we recognise our responsibilities as intellectuals, our positioning and that of others, so that intersections of privilege and non-privilege can be outed and reworked.

I hope that I am able to do the work necessary to enable my students to understand my story, in terms of this module, and that I am able to do the work necessary to understand their position. It is not good enough for us to demand that our students must do the work of travelling to our position. It is enough for us to engage with our students on their own terms, and to help them to find their own pathways that intersect their past, present and future.

I hope that we can be against utopian readings of the world. I hope that we can push towards “the next now”, which itself prefigures a better world. I hope that we can bear witness to each other’s legitimate movement in this process.

I hope that we can situate the reciprocity of relationships, and a variety of cultural positionalities, through storytelling and a recognition of the non-neutrality of language in its relationship to power and domination. Some of this is about memory and remembering; some of it is about generating new stories as we experience the module as a process.

I hope that we can experience the module as a decolonising pedagogic praxis; as a journey that refuses the inhumane reduction of our relationships to a risk-based approach to commodified pedagogic development.

I hope that we can develop epistemic range rather than epistemic enclosure, and enable each other to produce and recognise knowledge with the whole of our being – emotion, cognition, experience.

I hope that we can refuse deficit thinking about ourselves and others.

As Castenell and Pinar argue (p. 4):

we are what we know. We are, however, also what we do not know. If what we know about ourselves – our history, our culture, our national identity – is deformed by absences, denials, and incompleteness, then our identity is fragmented. Such a self lacks access both to itself and to the world. Its sense of history, gender and politics is incomplete and distorted.


My therapy playlist is here.

The bibliography that underpins this post is rooted in my attempts to appreciate narratives for decolonising and of indigeneity.

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

Arday, J., and Mirza, H.S. (eds 2018). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Bhopal, K. (2018). White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society. Bristol: Policy Press.

Byrd, J.A. (2011). The transit of empire: Indigenous critiques of colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Calderon, D. (2014). Speaking back to manifest destinies: A land education-based approach to critical curriculum inquiry. Environmental Education Research, 20 (1): 1-13.

Clark, I. (2018). Tackling Whiteness in the Academy. https://tinyurl.com/yct8qvp8

Goeman, M. (2013). Mark my words: Native women mapping our nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The Human, Social, Political Sciences (HSPS) Cambridge Graduates and Current Students (2018). Decolonial Reading List (2018-2019). https://tinyurl.com/yd2se387

Joseph, Tiffany and Laura Hirshfield. 2011. ‘Why don’t you get somebody new to do it?’ Race and cultural taxation in the academy. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34 (1): 121-41.

Salmón, E. (2012). Eating the landscape: American Indian stories of food, identity, and resilience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Smith, L.T. 1999/2012. Decolonising methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Lyndon: Zed Books.

Steinþórsdóttir, F.S., Heijstra, T.M. and Einarsdóttir, P.J. (2017) The making of the ‘excellent’ university: A drawback for gender equality. ephemera: theory and politics in organization, 17 (3): 557-82.

Tuck, E., and Guishard, M. (2013). Un-collapsing ethics: Racialised sciencism, settler coloniality, and an ethical framework of the colonial participate treat action research. In T.M. Kress, C.S. Malott, and B.J. Portfilio (eds), Challenging status quo retrenchment: New directions in critical qualitative research. Charlotte: information age publishing, 3-27.

Tuck, E. And Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, 1 (1), 1-40.

Tuck, E. And Yang, K.W. (2018). Series Editor’s Introduction. In Tuhiwai Smith, L., Tuck, E., and Yang, K.W. (eds), Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. London: Routledge, x-xxi.

Tuhiwai Smith, L., Tuck, E., and Yang, K.W. (eds 2018). Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. London: Routledge.

Wilson, S. 2008. Research as ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Blackpoint: Fernwood Publishing.


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.