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.

 


writing about/against/beyond the alienated academic

You have to know what’s wrong before you can find what’s right

Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.

as far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.

Carl Jung


A book against academic labour

I have just submitted my final draft of a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan, in their Marxism and Education series, entitled The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy inside the University. This book reflects my work inside and outside the University over the course of the last decade. In this time, we have witnessed the re-engineering and repurposing of higher education, and the impact this has had on academics, professional services staff and students. In part this catalysed my engagement in a range of protests and occupations in 2010-11, alongside my work in co-operatives like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and Leicester Vaughan College, and with the Open Library of Humanities. This stitches my thinking and my practice into other co-operative movements for dignity, and against the indignity of capitalist work.

However, my thinking and my practice have also been challenged personally, through a decade-long commitment to therapy. On one level, this work represents my attempt to understand, manage and move beyond manifestations of depression and anxiety, including their displacement or appearance as overwork. On a deeper level, it has been fundamental in enabling me to understand my own essence, in terms of how and why I have, at times, been estranged from myself and the world. This book encapsulates a moment and a movement in my recovery of myself in the world.

In terms of the themes of the book, 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. As a result, it forms an attempt by me to engage with Marx’s conceptions of estrangement and alienation, in particular focused upon being and becoming, dignity and indignity, objectification and subjectivity, and the possibility for recovering autonomy.

As a result, this is not a book that describes academic life from the perspective of academic labour, in order to recover some idealised or utopian notion of the University. Rather, it is against academic labour, as a case study of the exploitation, expropriation and domination of labour by capital. Rather than reifying or attempting to recover academic labour, I attempt to situate the academic labour process, academic knowledge production, the academic self and academic communities against Marx’s conception of alienation, in order to look towards its abolition. This is influenced by Moishe Postone’s work on capital as a totality that is constituted as the automatic subject through social labour, and in particular the duality of abstract and concrete labour. This refuses the fetishised notion that labour is capital’s opposite and nemesis.


Alienated academic labour and the law of value

I am not using academic labour to critique the crisis of higher education (as a strand of the secular crisis of capital). Rather academic labour is the object of this critique, in order to work towards its abolition. Central to this is an understanding of academic labour in its relation to the structuring reality of the law of value. Understanding how value mediates social reproduction is crucial in understanding whether an alternative form of self-mediation beyond value, rooted in humane values, is possible. Here the work of István Mészáros, Peter Hudis and Simon Clarke are important in enabling me to understand the relationship between alienated labour and second-order mediations that appear to structure the world. This enables us to take a negative dialectical approach, in order to strip back the manifestations of our alienation in anxiety, ill-being, overwork and so on, and to work through their relationship to money and the market, and beyond that to the production of surplus-value, surplus populations and surplus labour, rooted in the division of labour, commodity-exchange and private property, which themselves emerge from alienated labour.


Indignation and dignity

However, in the book I am increasingly drawn towards the relationship between indignation and dignity as a response. Here, the work of John Holloway is important to me as is work around the Zapatista movement. This enables us to connect academic practice to societal, intellectual practice, including that fought for by academic and student activists in occupations and social movements. This is a key connection, and stitches my thinking into intersectional struggles for dignity. As a result, I have been trying to challenge my white, male privilege throughout the book, by connecting to a range of activists fighting for justice. These include: Sarah Amsler; Joyce Canaan; Melonie Fullick; Karen Gregory; Liz Morrish; Sara Motta; Kehinde Andrews; Sara Ahmed; Gurminder Bhambra; Kalwant Bhopal; George Ciccariello-Maher; Nathanial Tobias Coleman; Ana Dinerstein; Emma Dowling; Akwugo Emejulu; Silvia Federici; Priyamvada Gopal; bell hooks; Tressie McMillan Cottom; and Heidi Mirza.

I constantly question whether my thinking, writing and practice has done these inspirational people justice. This also forces me to question constantly my own naïveté in understanding by the positions. Attempting to connect in this way is not a moment of co-option, rather a moment of solidarity. It is an attempt to stitch my own practice into a wider tapestry of refusal, or of the indignation that emerges from capital’s subsumption of our lives and its denial of our dignity. Developing a front of understanding, rooted in a richer understanding of the differential experience of exploitation and domination, is crucial in developing empathy and solidarity, as a movement towards autonomy.


Beyond recent work on the crisis of higher education

This is important because recent work which offers a perspective on the crisis of higher education has tended to focus on the mechanics and ideological underpinnings of marketisation and financialisation, which are often in defence of the ‘public university’ or attempts to discuss public funding, regulation and governance. In general, these focus upon the education sector of the economy, the HE sector as a whole, or make the University the unit of analysis, and several focus on the mechanics or roll-out of neoliberalism. However, there are few books that focus on the academic and her labour as the unit of analysis, and none that do so in the context of the critical terrain of alienation.

Thus, I use a critical social theory of alienation (which has a rich analytical tradition that serves as a heuristic for critiquing academic identity and academic labour). This is a way into a discussion of the abolition of academic labour and the role of public intellectuals in the generation of mass intellectuality, and is framed by the work of Mark Cowling, John Holloway, Peter Hudis, Marcello Musto, Sean Sayers, and Amy Wendling, among others.


The structure of the book

The argument is broken down into three sections and nine chapters. These are as follows (with chapter abstracts).

Chapter 1: Awakenings (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter scopes and situates academic work against the key themes that underpin that work as alienating practice. It begins by addressing how the idea of academic labour as privilege blinds its practitioners to their estrangement from the products and process of work, alongside the relationships that emerge there, both in terms of the self and with peers. The chapter argues that academic being and becoming is stunted through the divorce of the academic from her labour, which is then overlain by a series of fetishes, including the student experience and ideas of educational value-for-money. This emerges from alienated labour, which is itself hidden by second-order mediations like private property, commodity exchange and the division of labour. This catalyses processes of proletarianisation through commodification, which are addressed in relation to the extant literature on the crisis of academic work.

Section 1: the terrain of academic labour

Chapter 2: Crisis (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter details the mechanisms through which the secular crisis of capitalism is restructuring academic labour. This is in terms of policy that shapes a competitive environment, the financialisation of academic work through student debt, bond markets and so on, and through the commodification and marketisation of the outputs of academic work. Here, I describe how the incorporation of academic labour into the self-valorisation process of capital through research and pedagogic innovation enables a critique of the proletarianisation of the University.

Chapter 3: Alienation (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter situates Marx’s analysis of estrangement, alienation, fetishisation and reification against academic labour. It does this through a focus on the activity of production, in its relationship to material and philosophical conceptualisations. As a result, a dialectical understanding of the layers of objectification, separation, mediation and identity-development emerges. This categorical analysis enables an unfolding of capitalism’s mode of social metabolic control, and its relationship to individual essence, human capital theory, and the reality of being othered or negated inside the system. This develops an analysis of the expanding circuit of alienation (A-A’), and the potential for its overcoming through a focus on the richness of human experience.

Section 2: the terrain of academic alienation

Chapter 4: Knowledge (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter analyses the alienation of the products of the academic’s labour, as teaching or research, which are commodified and marketised for their exchange-value rather than their social utility. This is related to the competitive restructuring processes of research and teaching impact measures. Critical here is a connection to the internalisation by the academic of the disciplinary force of performance management, in the production, ownership and distribution of the products of academic labour. Marx’s conception of the general intellect as a form of alien knowledge and property, and its relationship to the separation of subject curricula and research, is important in describing capitalism as a naturalised system. Here the relationship between subjectivity and objectification, use and exchange, and the potential for new forms of humanism related to the functions of academic knowledge are developed.

Chapter 5: Profession (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter frames a discussion of whether it is possible for academics to move beyond fetishing their own labour-power as privileged. I ask whether it is possible to reflect at a social-level on the alienation of academic labour-power in terms of the alienation of labour-power in general? The chapter focuses upon the mediated conditions of work, in order to unpick the proletarianisation of academic labour-power. As a result, it becomes possible to describe the autonomy of capital as opposed to labour, and to uncover its ideological basis.

Chapter 6: Weltschmerz (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter develops the alienation of the academic from herself, as she is increasingly made and re-made as an academic entrepreneur whose labour only has worth where it is value. As a result, the internalisation of specific behaviours that are disciplinary becomes a key outcome for the system of production, with concomitant manifestations of physical and psychological distress. Here ideas of anti-humanism and dehumanism, linked to melancholy, anxiety and ill-being are analysed in relation to the proletarianisation of the University as an anxiety machine. The chapter addresses how formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the reproduction of academic labour in the name of value, feed off and into alienation.

Chapter 7: Identity (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter address the alienation of the academic from her species through the iron law of competition, reinforced through global academic labour arbitrage, research and teaching metrics, and performance management. The argument connects academic labour to the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape capitalist social relations, in order to discuss the form and the organising principles under which academic labour is subsumed for value. The chapter argues that academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness and alienation from other forms of globalised labour. By refocusing on the form of labour in general, rather than the specific content of academic labour, it becomes possible to move beyond reification towards struggle.

Section 3: the terrain for overcoming alienation

Chapter 8: Indignation (structure here)

Abstract

This chapter focuses upon the role of intellectual labour in a range of transnational struggles for an alternative form of social metabolic control. Pivoting around counter-hegemony and anti-power, the focus is upon the movement of dignity in the development of revolutionary subjectivity. This chapter discusses the possibilities for autonomous action by academics, which in-turn demonstrates solidarity or association with a range of struggles against labour.

Chapter 9: Autonomy (structure here)

Abstract

In this chapter, autonomy is critiqued in light of the duality that: first, capital is the automatic subject searching to secure permanent self-valorisation; and second, that our search for autonomy-beyond-labour is the crisis of capital. This struggle pivots around emancipation from labour, and for self-mediation as the key organising principle for life. The chapter focuses on the role of academic work and intellectual labour in developing the realm of autonomy/freedom and reducing the realm of heteronomy/necessity. Here there is a focus upon the richness of human life and the development of alternative forms of social metabolic control. The argument regards alienation and its revelation as a necessity in the transformation to life under communism. Thus, the chapter discusses the potential for the social, collectivised use of academic labour, through the liberation of socialised skills, practices and knowledge from inside the University.


The process of writing as a movement of becoming

The process of writing the book demonstrated to me how far I have come from my PhD, undertaken back when Methuselah was a boy. A year of reading about: academic labour; the labour theory of value; alienation in Marx and Hegel; academic knowledge production and the academic labour process; academic identity and academic being/becoming; and intersectional analyses of labour and the academic experience. This year of reading was distilled down into 300 pages of notes, on top of my already existing, published work on alienation and mass intellectuality. One crucial angle to this was to reflect on my reading through a series of conversations with academics about injustices rooted in (dis)ability, gender, race and sexuality.

This was then distilled down into the nine chapters. I was originally going to have eight, with the last two stitched together. However, I wanted to push myself beyond my usual focus upon explaining (and obsessing about) the crisis through negative critique, and instead to focus upon the possibilities for an alternative mode of becoming rooted in a movement of dignity pointing towards autonomy.

Structuring and restructuring the chapters took a month and underpinned a writing process that mirrored my PhD process – effectively hoover up as much research and reading as possible, structure the notes very closely into a potential argument that speaks to my soul, and then write obsessively. This meant that each chapter was written in around a week, beginning at the start of January. Since then I have written 70,000 words, with two re-drafts/re-readings. In part, using Dragon Naturally Speaking to write/speak/dictate the book has altered the process.

In this moment, I have had to think long and hard about self-care, in the balance between writing and life, and between work and life. Walking and music have been crucial to me.

The scariest moment has been in asking people I trust, including a couple of people I have not met but whose expertise and way of being in the world is an inspiration, to read and provide feedback. This is a moment of high anxiety, to the extent that I tweeted:

You know that moment when you decide to send something to someone who you really admire to read/comment on, when you feel you aren’t fit to lace their boots (professionally)? And that gut-wrenching anxiety? Well that.

This is a moment of baring my soul, of extreme vulnerability, of hope and the fear of despair. As much as I try to sublimate the fear of despair, it often ruptures my being. However, it is important to note that whilst researching and writing I have come off anti-depressants and begun the process of leaving therapy. This is a moment of taking ownership of my life – a movement for autonomy.

It is also important to note that this has happened whilst holding down my role at work, and also attempting to support those leading the Leicester Vaughan College project. This has meant having to work weekends and evenings – there is a conversation here about whether this says something about my estrangement from my wider life. It clearly says something about the integration of my work with my life; the integration of my thinking about my life beyond my labour.

In many respects this has also been a very difficult time for me, and my thinking around alienation has been reflected in my everyday life. A friend asked me what I would do once the book was submitted, given that it has taken up so much of my existence and helped me to redefine myself. She acknowledged that it had helped me to work through and beyond some difficulties, and that it had also served as a distraction. She is right that there is a moment of grief in its submission, and one that mirrors the loss involved in leaving therapy. A loss of the self and my relationship to a fetishised or reified other, to which I have projected bits of myself. However, through this mirroring, there is also a moment of reclamation – of reclaiming my life, potentially with a renewed way of examining it, and the ability to move beyond those things that we fetishise in the world.

A moment of pointing towards values rather than value. This is the real movement.


Music

In the process of writing the book, I have obsessively listened to the following whilst writing and walking and thinking. Maybe they tell us something about the contours of the book.

  1. Mogwai: Every Country’s Sun.
  2. Mogwai: Quay Sessions.
  3. Everything Everything: Night of the Long Knives.
  4. King Creosote: Astroman Meets Appleman.
  5. King Creosote: Diamond Mine.
  6. Jen Cloher: Jen Cloher.
  7. Sharon Van Etten: Glastonbury 2015.
  8. Wild Beasts: Smother.
  9. Wild Beasts: Two Dancers.
  10. Joe Goddard: Electric Lines.
  11. Public Service Broadcasting: Every Valley.
  12. Phoenix: lollapalooza 2013.
  13. This Is The Kit: Moonshine Freeze.
  14. This Is The Kit: Where It Lives.
  15. Sampha: Process.
  16. Shostakovich: symphonies number five, seven and nine.
  17. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell live.
  18. Bon Iver: live on NPR.
  19. Hot Chip: live at Pitchfork, Paris.