on weltschmerz and academic ill-being

In part because I am working on a book on academic alienation, and in part because this week has focused upon the relationship between alienation, overwork, illness and well-being ill-being, the damaging effects of academic labour on both the academic Self as s/he becomes a self-exploiting entrepreneur, and on her humanity as a species-being, have been live for me. I’ve written about this over at WonkHE in terms of academic ill-health. However, more theoretically this might be situated in the relationship between Hegel’s work on particularity and universality, and extended through a more dialectical focus on the internal relations that reveal our subjectivity. Here the realities of an academic life framed by the violence of abstraction are laid bare:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations. Marx, Grundrisse.

I wrote previously how this violence of abstraction leads to a sense of academic hopelessness or academic world-weariness. I have developed this into an article for tripleC on the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality. One of the sections of my draft, which I shortened in the accepted version was on weltschmerz, a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects a deeper sense of hopelessness about the academic project. Increasingly, in line with Marx’s focus on subjectivity in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the German ideology, I view the importance of this in terms of what it reveals about the particularity of the Self and the universality of the individual as a species-being in the current crisis of capitalism.

What is this world of capitalist work doing to us and can we imagine anything different? The issue, of course, is how to see this as a dynamic process, in order to move beyond alienation, hopelessness, world-weariness. I have reproduced the original section on weltschmerz, below.

Increasingly, academics face an intense sense of weltschmerz; a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects a deeper sense of hopelessness about the academic project. This is a recognition that the world once hoped for may never be, and that the concrete world now abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. In fact, in our abstracted world such hopelessness is connected to a loss of autonomy/freedom that is itself rooted in the inability to escape from capital’s domination. Much worse is the fact that the cultural terrain upon which capital works reinforces within us a sense that we are not productive enough, and that this is a sin (Jappe 2013, Kierkegaard 1981). Moreover, our life choices emerge inside a system of structural domination that increasingly alienates us both from ourselves and from our place in the social and natural world.

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

The critical issue is that academic alienation is rooted in enforced compliance and coercion, and in a refusal to locate solidarity across a wider social terrain (The Institute for Precarious Consciousness 2014). Instead of loss or grief, competition and entrepreneurial activity are internalised (Kelman 1958), and the induced behaviour is made congruent with the inner, academic self through the signalisation and dressage of performance management (Foucault 1975). As a result, refusal or mourning reflect the incongruence between performance management and a deeper set of personal, educational values.

Our hopelessness is rooted in the academic’s apparent loss of her labour, as it is brought into the service of value. Marx (1844) knew that this is the logic of capitalism that defenestrates labour, in order that it can accumulate autonomy:

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

Such powerlessness is a reflection of how social or communal spaces, places, identities, and relationships are all means of extracting value or hoarding private wealth. Moreover, with the formal subsumption of higher education under capitalist social relations, this sense of hopelessness is reinforced as we witness just how far the limits to our alienation from space, society and nature can be pushed. As Berardi (2009, 73) argues:

To be recognized in the networked universe one must become compatible with the generative logic of the matrix. What does not belong to a codified domain is not socially recognizable or relevant, although it still exists in the domain of irrelevance, of residuality. It then reacts with rage and despair, in order to violently reassert its existence.

For academics, this is the alienation and subsequent hopelessness of intellectual dispossession that Stiegler (2010, 125-126) argued forms a

toxic economy of regressive tendencies, implemented by consumerism exercising the psychopower of its cultural hegemony through the intermediary of psychotechnologies, in this way controls the becoming of individual and collective behavior, as well as the dynamic processes of the technical system.

Our atomisation and automisation cannot enable liberation, agency or the reassertion of academic autonomy. The technological system that valorises capital itself co-opts and reproduces social relationships that it then attempts to modify or destroy. We are constantly torn between social (re)combination and individual atomisation/entrepreneurialism. The social relations of production extend their domination beyond the space-time of our work, into the space-time of our life, in order to occupy and valorise humanity and kindness. Control enacted through the internalisation and adoption of automatic operational systems forces us to incorporate negative internal objects. The anxieties of capital as a machine, and the anxieties of the University as a node in our machinic whole, are incorporated and projected onto others.

What this entails for the academic/student is an end to self-care; of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds; of the apparent impossibility of scaling-up kindness. This demands a culture of omertà, or the silence of those in the know, who must co-operate even as they compete, and thereby generate complex inter-relationships rooted in uncertainty and anxiety (Hall and Bowles 2016). The question is how to negate rather than accept the basis of domination, through the academic fails to realise her potential for happiness. Is it possible to define a new form of sociability? For Marx (1844/2014, 82), this reveals the tensions between marketised, economised existence that is predicated on the ‘increasing value of the world of things’ at the expense of the ‘devaluation of the world of men’. The questions are whether that world can be superseded across the social factory (Federici, 2012), and what is the role of the university in that overcoming?


Berardi, Franco. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Translated by Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia, with preface by Jason Smith. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

CDBU. 2017. Council for the Defence of British Universities. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://cdbu.org.uk/

CPU. 2017. Campaign for the Public University. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://publicuniversity.org.uk/

Federici, Sylvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Hall, Richard and Bowles, Kate. 2016. Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labor 28, 30-47. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://bit.ly/2dQMx8X

The Institute for Precarious Consciousness. 2014. We Are All Very Anxious. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://bit.ly/1KnFiOi

Jappe, Anselm. 2013. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 25 (2): 25–37. Accessed April 10, 2017. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2014.906820

Kelman, Herbert. 1958. Compliance, identification and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1): 51-60. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://scholar.harvard.edu/hckelman/files/Compliance_identification_and_internalization.pdf

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1981. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin (Kierkegaard’s Writings, VIII) (v. 8). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1844. Comments on James Mill. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/

Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.

Stiegler, Bernard. 2010. For a New Critique of Political Economy. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The rise of academic ill-health

Over on WonkHE I’ve just had a piece published on academic ill-health, which touches on some issues I have raised previously about anxiety, the University as an anxiety machine, overwork and alienation. It complements these things I have previously written about academic labour:

on the University as anxiety machine

on academic labour and performance anxiety

Notes on the University as anxiety machine

on academic hopelessness

on world-weariness

notes on academic overwork

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety (with Kate Bowles)

on being in-and-against the TEF

For there to be winners, there have to be losers.

Truth is an act of love.

I’ve been writing about against the TEF forever. In order to celebrate yesterday’s TEF results, I thought I would see just how much I had written as a recognition that resistance may appear futile but what else are we going to do? The list of posts is given below, but there are three bits that stood out on re-reading, alongside the positions of UCU and NUS.

The lynchpin of our subordination: my availability for my students; my teaching preparation; my relationship to my precariously-employed peers; my turnaround times; my willingness to sit on committees; my NSS scores; my TEF scores; my REF scores; my on-line presence; my impact; my scholarly outputs; my innovation; my everything. My desperate everything, including the subordination of life to work, as a means for the internalised production of anxiety that will help me to re-produce the desires of the machine for productivity and intensity.

Anxiety, alienation, desire, competition, subordination. A machinic whole.

The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.

A key issue is where does our limited energy go in all this? Resisting on all fronts is an exhausting impossibility. Resisting whilst we try to live is also potentially exhausting. Can we resist where we have a lack of agency or control? How do we push back against the normalisation of metrics that feeds into the violence of aspiration, or the internalised desire to optimise our personal and familial outcomes, as they are set by the market?

How do we work collectively inside and across institutions, and between teachers and students, to refuse the TEF? Or must we simply attempt to occupy and recompose the TEF?

How do we build a movement against standardised testing and metrics-driven education? How do we recover our humanity through connection to other campaigns?

How do we connect our work inside institutions to other, concrete and local, social campaigns against austerity?

Elsewhere, Sally Hunt of UCU has stated:

‘If the government is serious about improving teaching quality it should improve the working conditions of the tens of thousands of teaching staff employed on insecure, often zero-hours contracts and the impact this has on students’ learning experience.’

Elsewhere, Sonia Vieru of NUS has written that:

We do not believe that the Teaching Excellence Framework accurately measures teaching quality. The NSS Boycott has shaken one of the core metrics of the Framework and exposed its manipulability and fragility. Students’ unions across eleven institutions have confirmed to NUS that they successfully lowered their fill out rate to below 50 per cent, rendering the data unusable for one year of the next TEF award.

The NSS Boycott has shown that mass student mobilisation around what some would have considered a complex policy issue is possible and effective. The widespread impact of the NSS Boycott campaign will go further than one year of data destabilisation. Thousands of students have taken part in the campaign and have demonstrated their opposition to an assessment regime which is carried out in students’ names, but not to our benefit or to the benefit of higher education as a whole.

The TEF and its results today have opened up a conversation about the quality of teaching across the sector: but it is not a conversation which has been for the good of students or higher education.

’cause we all need heart and we all need courage/In these times

In no particular chronological or thematic order, these are some of the things I have written. They focus upon policy, practice-based implications, resistance, the proletarianisation of the University, and the emotional impact on/of academic labour.

notes on saying “no” to the TEF

notes on metricide

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

on world-weariness

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

notes on education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’

the Alternative HE White Paper

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

on resistance to the HE White Paper

on the HE White Paper and academic practice

notes on academic overwork

against the HE Green Paper

on the (im)possibility of speaking

Do you want to be afraid?
Do you want to be afraid?
For life in the cage where courage’s mate runs deep in the wake
For the scariest things are not half as enslaved

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

I came off mirtazapine on May 28th. After almost six years of pouring chemicals into my soul to stay in the game I was so bored. And so ready. There is no moment in which this shift in readiness became apparent. Four years on from a second breakdown and from my Mom’s death, it is just time to get well, and to do so clean. To finish therapy clean. To try to exist a little more on my own terms. To try to excavate and own my life. Because being ill and covered-up and false is so fucking dull.

<NOTE: my mirtazapine journal features 1 year on 15mg, 1 year on 30mg, 2 years on 45mg, 1 year on 30mg, 6 months on 15mg, 2 months on 10mg, 1 month on 7.5mg, 1 month on 5mg. All of this in close dialogue with my GP. How I loathe it for the weight-gain. How I miss its ability to help me sleep.>

Increasingly the black cloud is less depression, because I am able to recognise the shades of sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto melancholia. There is something so humanising about sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto a dehumanising melancholia. However, what has been left is an acute awareness, or perhaps an acute reawakening, of levels of chronic anxiety in spaces where I should feel safe.

I have described elsewhere how, in the face of my second breakdown in 13 years “the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.” I went on:

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.

And I was in some mutually-reinforcing shit-storm of anxiety about travelling and anxiety about speaking. About being out-of-control. About being unsafe. So that travelling became a problem because getting on trains and sitting on them waiting for the doors to close was too painful. Not that I ever failed to get on one and to stay on it. But still, with cortisol flooding into your marrow, it wears your soul thin.

Always looking for exits.

Praying that my mind would just reboot.

And wanting to be asked to speak, because it’s the only way to reboot myself. And because people ask you when they want to listen to you, and that is lovely and hopeful, and needs respecting. And there is hope wrapped around finding some faith and some courage in myself. To find some peace, if I can find my voice. Is this self-care?

And dreading being asked to speak. Because I’m a Professor and it’s expected, and this reframes the relationship between pressure and anxiety. And because what if I can’t do it and have to run? And what if I let people down? And what if I fail? Is this self-harm?

Stuck in an apparently unresolvable quantum position. Voice/silenced. Self-care/self-harm.

Schrödinger’s academic: neither dead nor alive; both dead and alive.

Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all
Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to speak at all

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

Since 2013 I have spoken at 59 academic events, and yet each one was a trial. Lost sleep. Panic attacks. Occasionally on the phone to my therapist 90 seconds before I was due to speak. A test of faith and courage. A test of survival. Each one an act of defiance. Each one a refusal. Each one a moment of excavating my soul. In retrospect.

Excavating my soul from the compacted layers of trauma.

A few months ago I was asked to keynote the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. A few weeks later a second request came in to keynote the University of Worcester Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference. Both conferences were slated for this week. Back-to-back. Amazing to be asked. A privilege. Having to say yes. Wanting to say yes. Fearing saying yes.

Trying to forget them and hoping that I would be well in time.

Trying not to voice the fear in my head that was trying to make my perceived failure concrete.

Ignoring that they might in themselves be healing.

Unclear that they might in themselves be healing.

Lacking the ability to comprehend that they might in themselves be healing.

Forgetting to live in the present, to be present, rather than to be entombed by future fears.

In retrospect the pattern of hope/self-care plus dread/self-harm was different. Being awake at 3am the night before was different, because whilst the anxiety felt the same my mind was also fixated on what I was going to say. Visualising what needed to be said; what wanted to be said; what I had to say. Now this is exhausting, this duality of chronic anxiety gripping the chest and also rehearsing the act of living. But the anxiety wasn’t in my stomach, and so hadn’t reproduced itself as panic. An alternative possibility. A normal possibility: to be normally anxious. Because I always remember Mike Atherton stating that the day you aren’t nervous walking out to bat for England is the day to quit, because it doesn’t matter enough.

And speaking really matters. And I spoke. With a normal level of anxiety. A normal act of solidarity. My speaking is always an act of solidarity.

And I remembered that years ago I wrote:

As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And as I sat on platform 2 at Worcester Foregate Street yesterday, I processed why I was so close to tears after I speak. Why speaking and its aftermath enabled so much of my life to be processed and mourned, and as a result to be liberated. During the afternoon I had written:

emotion // anxiety // exhaustion // soul // projection // give everything // all played out // being heard // solidarity // worn thin // weeping // do I matter? // do I have a voice? // will it be okay? // mourning // liberation

And I texted a friend to say:

My urge to weep after I speak has really affected me this week. Something about being heard/solidarity, and something about how I’m all-in emotionally when I present. How much of myself I need to give.

How much of myself I need to give, in order to recover myself.

And there are a set of timelines that converged these past few weeks. Feeling physically stronger, as I remember that it took me 4 years to recover my strength from my first breakdown, and from chronic fatigue, and to trust my body. And kicking the chemicals because qualitatively, in my soul, something had shifted. And now travelling first to Inverness, and then to Oxford and to Worcester, and speaking. Telling out my soul.

And the tears are for finding my voice. For persevering whilst the trauma was unpicked, and the scabs formed, and then the scars. For knowing, in my soul, that it won’t always be like this.

And there will always be an opening in my soul for Inverness and Oxford and Worcester.

Boy, we can do much more together it’s not so impossible
It’s not so impossible

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

This is the playlist I made along the way.

notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

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

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

ONE. Individual stories

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

TWO. Academic labour in crisis

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

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

THREE. The proletarianisation of HE

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Alienated labour

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE. Weltschmerz

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

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

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

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

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

SIX. The Possibilities for Mass intellectuality

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

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

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

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

SEVEN. What Is To Be Done?

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

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

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

Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

I have a chapter in a new open access e-book. The book is entitled: Education and Technology: Critical Approaches. The book is in Portuguese and English, and can be accessed here.

My chapter is: Hall, R. (2017). Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety. In eds L.A da Silva Rosado and G.M. dos Santos Ferreira, Education and Technology: critical approaches. Rio de Janeiro: University Estácio de Sá Press, pp. 185-205.

The abstract for my contribution is as follows.

This chapter argues that data is the bleeding edge of educational innovation. By following the traces and trails of data, it is possible to uncover where education is being cracked open for the production, circulation and extraction of surplus value. In part these processes of cracking are amplified by the on-going financialisation and marketisation of higher education that continue to kettle academic practices of teaching and research. By uncovering the flows of value, it is also possible to demonstrate the transnational associations of capital that are profiting as a result of the data-driven reimagining of higher education. This uncovers mechanisms grounded in: enforced, public and open, educational data production; the enclosure and commodification of open and public data for-profit; the selling and re-selling of newly-commodified and technology-rich services back into open and public spaces; the generation of a rentier higher education economy rooted in high technology; the use of secondary legislation or policy related to employment and entrepreneurial activity, alongside primary legislation, to drive change; the exacerbation of debt and indentured study; and, the use of technology in performance management of academic labour. The chapter articulates these processes in the context of global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises and their symptoms, and in particular the generation of academic anxiety. Such anxiety emerges against the on-going precarity described by students and academic staff through technologically-mediated performance management. As a result, the chapter asks what can be learned from counter-hegemonic projects, in order to describe alternative uses for educational data?

Keywords: Big Data; Commodification of Education; Academic Labour; Academic Anxiety.

a manifesto for academic citizenship

A piece in the Times Higher Education by Liz Morrish on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside is very powerful testimony. She argues that “Academia badly needs a manifesto for academic citizenship to counteract the project of managerial colonisation”. Liz is such an important role model and a point of solidarity.

book project: The Alienated Academic

I have an agreement with Palgrave Macmillan for a monograph with the title The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. It builds on writing here, and has the following aims.

  1. The 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.
  2. The book situates academic labour as a form of productive labour, in order to connect alienation to the ongoing secular crisis of higher education and responses to that crisis.
  3. The book critiques academic responses to the secular crisis, first as struggles to overcome alienation, and second to reassert autonomy and forms of radical subjectivity.

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting [her] own behavior to [her] as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame…

Anthony Wallace. 1961. Culture and Personality.

Education and radical subjectivity

The materialist doctrine that men are the product of circumstances and education, that changed men are therefore the products of other circumstances and of a different education, forgets that circumstances are in fact changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.

Karl Marx. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

For the proletariat can only be liberated from its dependence upon the life-forms created by capitalism when it has learnt to act without these life-forms inwardly influencing its actions. As motive forces they must sink to the status of matters of complete indifference. Needless to say, this will not reduce by one iota the hatred of the proletariat for these forms, nor the burning wish to destroy them. On the contrary, only by virtue of this inner conviction will the proletariat be able to regard the capitalist social order as an abomination, dead but still a lethal obstacle to the healthy evolution of humanity; and this is an indispensable insight if the proletariat is to be able to take a conscious and enduring revolutionary stand. The self-education of the proletariat is a lengthy and difficult process by which it becomes ‘ripe’ for revolution, and the more highly developed capitalism and bourgeois culture are in a country, the more arduous this process becomes because the proletariat be-comes infected by the life-forms of capitalism.

The need to establish just what is appropriate to revolutionary action coincides fortunately-though by no means adventitiously-with the exigencies of this educational task.

Georg Lukács. 1920. History and Class Consciousness: Legality and Illegality.

Education and substantive equality

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

bell hooks. 1994. Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge.

Choose life

Going to university is still a big decision, and it’s a choice which more and more of you are making. We want that decision to pay off, to set you up for life, and our reforms will make sure universities do just that.

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students.

What if we’re actually not crazy? What if wanting to work one full-time job and have the ends not only meet but actually overlap a little is NOT an entitled pipe dream?

The sheer stress of existing in today’s world is enough to give anybody an anxiety disorder. Add the fact that we’re told over and over again how we need to just bootstrap it, because generations before us handled life just fine, and you have a recipe for disaster. The generations before us could afford college tuition on minimum wage and didn’t have bosses who expect us to be tied to our devices at all hours.

Born Again Minimalist. 2016. The gaslighting of the millennial generation.

the job wasn’t yet on offer to me. I was wanted for another trial shift on Thursday, and perhaps the weekend, to see if I could keep up on a busy night and then I’d get paid for any time over the unpaid 2 hours of each shift at the weekend when they pay all staff weekly, cash-in-hand, avoiding tax and, of course: no sick pay, no set hours.

So far, so exploitative. But the part of the conversation that most stood out was the guy’s pathetic attempt to make me beg for this below-minimum wage kitchen porter job. “You have to show us that you really want this,” he challenged me, like he was an X Factor judge and I the contestant desperately seeking his endorsement. “Do you just want the work, to earn your money and go home? Or do you want a career here?” I had to repress laughter at this point. The guy clearly didn’t even believe in this spiel, it’s just the kind of crap that he was supposed to say but he was awful at it. Perversely, I almost felt sorry for him for being such a shit capitalist.

The point here is that you’re not just supposed to be paid nothing and get treated like garbage, you have to act like this is all part of your career plan. The demand here is a performative one. I had to “show him that I wanted it” – a demand that is largely unquantifiable but nevertheless psychically demoralising, designed perhaps to differentiate the boss from their staff affectively, even morally, in an industry of surprising equality of immiseration between the ostensible capitalist and the worker.

Michael Richmond. 2016. Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs

Choose dissonance

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Franz Fanon. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks.

If providers are unable to provide courses that students want in a financially sustainable way it is in the long-term interests of students and the taxpayer that they close down. This is of course compatible with government subsidies of certain courses, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), that are deemed necessary for economic growth.

Andrea Coscelli. 2016. Competition in higher education is in the interests of students

For choice and competition to work, students need access to reliable and comparable information on HE courses. Changes made to the provision of information must not undermine students’ ability to make choices.

Like you, we consider that the TEF should be made as effective as possible in supporting student choice and providing incentives for providers to compete on quality. Students choosing between courses at different institutions are likely to be most interested in the quality of the specific course for which they are applying, rather than the institution generally, and as such are likely to derive significantly more value from a TEF award that relates to specific disciplines. We therefore welcome your proposals to run “disciplinary pilots” of the TEF, and we recommend that you move to a disciplinary level TEF as soon as practically possible.

Andrea Coscelli. 2016. CMA recommendations on the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Choose excellently

Perhaps it’s just that the government doesn’t actually want to measure teaching excellence. Maybe we really want to measure learning outcomes and someone got the name wrong. Maybe teaching excellence is just one of a myriad of things that we want to measure, and TEF was just the catchiest acronym. Either way, I think it’s time that we ask ourselves, “what is it that we actually want to measure?”

Collette Cherry. 2017. Why my friend’s dog will never be Professor of Economics at Oxford, and other problems with TEF

For there to be any confidence in TEF, there must be acceptance that the metrics, their benchmarks, and the weight attached to them give valid results. We have heard that the TEF assessment panel will operate with all the  necessary contextual information, which gives some comfort. But what is in the metrics, what is benchmarked, and what is flagged are crucial.

Jackie Njoroge. 2016. Three important questions about TEF metrics.

Choose what you internalise and re-produce

as billions of young people based in least developed countries might encounter much greater difficulty than the 1970s- 90s generation in integrating into the global economy. In a world of ‘declining returns on humans’ having too many young people might be a recipe for social and political dislocation rather than growth, even if the business climate is improved. In our view, it is quite likely that when historians examine the last one hundred years, they would classify 1950s-1990s as the ‘golden age’. Although there would be inevitable academic disputes about exact boundary (i.e. whether the golden age ended in 1980s or whether there were two golden ages, i.e. 1950s-mid 1960s and 1980s-90s), however, as an overall period, we think it was time of increasing opportunities and generally rising returns on human capital. However, 2000-2030s will likely be classified distinctly differently.

Macquarie Research. 2016. What caught my eye? v.61 ‘Lumpenproletariat’ & deglobalization.

If there is no price signal, complex reforms have to be put in place to replicate its function or the market is no more efficient as an allocator of resources than an alternative form of organisation such as central planning. And there would be no point in engaging in extensive reforms to university funding.

The Teaching Excellence Framework is best understood then as an effort to create a proxy signal to indicate quality to potential students and rival institutions through its gold, silver and bronze badges. (In contrast to this consumer intervention, the Research Excellence Framework is a public procurement tendering exercise where future research is funded on the basis of past results).

As a concluding aside, if ‘neoliberalism’ is to be more than a shibbloleth when discussing HE reforms, then its more substantive meanings are to be found by understanding why markets are desired and what impediments there are to their implementation. This then makes the contours of future struggle clear – only by eroding the subsidy in student loans can tuition fees (as they rise and differentiate) become the prices they are so obviously meant to be.

Andrew McGettigan. 2017. Why undergraduate tuition fees are not prices when backed by SLC loans.

on world-weariness

The reflection in the water showed an iron man still trying to salute
People from a time when he was everything he’s supposed to be
Everything means nothing to me
Everything means nothing to me

Elliott Smith. 2000. Everything means nothing to me.

I’d forgotten that I wrote about academic hopelessness eighteen months ago.

[I]ncreasingly we face an intense sense of Weltschmertz; a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects our deeper sense of hopelessness. Our recognition that the world we hoped for may never be. That the concrete world abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. That the struggle we face to enact kindness is made in the face of those traits that we detest and that we are forced to internalise, lest we be abandoned or worse.

I ended by refusing to look at the positives. I ended by refusing to ignore my refusal. I ended by attempting to validate hopelessness rather than believing against all the odds that somehow it will all work out okay, if we just try harder or push for our shared humanity. If only we believed in higher education.

Instead I wondered:

If only we can learn to sit with our hopelessness. To internalise it. To grieve for it. To move beyond it. To teach it.

It struck me on my walk to work today that I have refused my refusal in the past few months. I have refused to teach myself about my hopelessness. I have ignored the voice inside me which believes that we are fucked. I have attempted to think that our work and our way of living more humanely will eventually save us. Or even if they won’t, and if barbarism or the Age of Kali is all we have, then I will die fighting. And this morning I woke with that sense of Weltschmertz alive inside. That sense of world-weariness or of despair reframing what it means to be angry and frustrated and indignant about the injustice that is all around. A sense of hopelessness that enables me to rethink what it means when I say that I refuse to be indifferent (c.f. Mike Neary). That I might instead be indignant. A sense that indignation might stem from hopelessness.

For a while I have felt that I need to temper my indignation at local, UK issues like the implementation of the teaching excellence framework, with the pragmatics of going into occupation of it in my own institution, in order to effect some work that is participative and about our social life and our relationships rather than exchange-value and the market. I have written about being indignant about the imposition of the TEF and how pedagogic leaders should be refusing it, rather than helping to shape it from the inside. And about how such indignation is exhausting.

And it is exhausting being against this wide-ranging assault on academic labour, academic practice, academic development, and academic identity. It is exhausting realising that their assault on the fabric of what we might refer to as public or social, and then later as a good, is the dismantling of the spaces that we once regarded as autonomous. Equally, it is exhausting bearing the brunt of their anger about our social, cultural, intellectual or oppositional capital. Knowing that their anger kettles our academic practice as staff and students. Knowing that their anger reshapes the funding, regulation and governance of the space, so that what we do has to be restructured so that it performs. Knowing that the marketisation of the space and the on-going demand for competition will force managers inside universities to recalibrate these as places for the expansion of value, and the production of surpluses, and the production of educational commodities.

And as a result, any attempt to push-back, so that education becomes an act of care, or a form of wider moral, pedagogic responsibility beyond the market, and beyond human capital theory, becomes increasingly difficult.

On the HE white paper and academic practice

However, I have also written about how pedagogic leaders should be refusing, and yet they are not. Even worse they are in the game. Defining the game. Situating the game against the student experience or teaching quality or learning environment, rather than going into occupation of those terms/spaces or refusing their co-option for performance management and marketised outcomes.

And I am reminded of Peter Scott’s The Weapons of the Weak, in which he argues for generating currents of ideological resistance that: are collective and organised rather than private and unorganised; are principled and selfless rather than opportunistic and selfish; must have revolutionary consequences; and must negate rather than accept the basis of domination.

It is this last point that increasing vexes me in terms of higher education. Where is the space for the curriculum-as-praxis as a means of negating the basis of domination? Where is the space to critique the governance and content of higher education that is simply more efficiently marketised and financialised? Where is the space to refuse the performance management and performance data and curriculum-for-the-market? Where is the space to refuse the domination of monopoly finance capital over the curriculum and the classroom? And this matters because the conversations that we have still speak of openness and the student experience and our classroom relationships and students-as-partners and co-creation and even emancipation. And yet how strong must the cognitive dissonance be, at whatever level, in order for us to carry on believing that these are ever possible inside the politics of austerity? That these are ever possible inside the rule of money that perverts pedagogic practice?

Inside the toxic domination of the rule of money that perverts pedagogic practice and classroom relationships.

These things we desire.

They. Are. Impossible.

Worse, they are co-opted and occupied and polluted. Expropriated for value.

And yet this is not the seat of my hopelessness. Our compact with the relationships that frame our domination. Our reproduction of the basis of our own domination. These are a reflection of a wider hopelessness rooted in our inability to effect any meaningful engagement in civil society with global emergencies. These are a reflection of a wider hopelessness that is rooted in our inability to overcome the separation of our identities as academic or student, or tenured and non-tenured, or status-whatever and status-whatever, rather than as humans.

And our status-driven lives, insecurities, compromises mean that we are stripped of our ability to work co-operatively (rather than being coerced into competition by an increasingly authoritarian State) on social emergencies, if we engage with these at all. The backdrop to the enclosure of our pedagogical lives and the foreclosure of our futures is situated against the closing-down of our ability through the University to engage with social crises of reproduction. The closing-down of our ability to effect any discussion of environmental crises or the secular crisis of capitalism, or the relations of production that form the basis of our domination. The closing-down of our wider connections to civil society, so that we are unable to discuss #Delhismog and #Delhichokes, or #standingrock, or Larsen A, or Syria, or the prevalence of food banks, or the crisis in children’s mental health, or #blacklivesmatter, or #whyisthecurriculumwhite, or whatever.

The closing-down of the University as a space for civics; as a space for a public pedagogy that refuses demonization; the closing-down of the University as a space for anything except value-creation or human capital. So that if we do discuss these things it is in the context of value, enterprise, employability, capitalised student experience. So that we attempt to dance to the tune of political society and the (integral?) State, rather than effecting change in civil society. Or even worse, effecting change in the latter where that contributes to our own performance management.

And this is the space in which my hopelessness emerges. A world-weariness that is beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui. A deeper hopelessness that questions whether we will ever be able to answer “What is to be done?” A deeper hopelessness that believes all I can do is refuse and apply negative critique. A deeper hopelessness in the realisation that our subversion and occupation are not enough, and that in fact they are exhausting. A deeper hopelessness which appreciates that maybe lamentation is required. Sitting with lamentation whilst the anger and frustration and indignation is reproduced and reformed inside. Sitting with the hopelessness and lamentation in order to decide how to address how I might refuse to be indifferent.

Because for the moment there is no space inside higher education to generate alternatives to the basis of our domination, or for the social strike, or for the production and circulation of directional demands. And playing in the margins feels hopeless. And hoping that it will turn out okay feels hopeless. And playing the game according to their rules is hopeless.

So that maybe my hopelessness is the only way in which I can address the world.

So maybe it is only through hopelessness that I can address the world.

What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see
That all I want now is happiness for you and me

Elliott Smith. 2000. Happiness.