Covid-XX and the idea of the University

Yesterday, I spoke at a DMU Education Research seminar. The slides and the paper upon which I based my talk are available here.

I made a subsequent recording of my presentation, which can be accessed here. Please note that this is an hour-long. It is overlong. I apologise. One day, I will learn.

Anyway, following the session, I copied the text chat/questions, and I have pasted those with my responses below.

Peace and love.


Q: Another metaphor – panopticon?

A: yes, potentially. In particular, in relation to the reality that our relations of production are estranged and separated during the pandemic, as we all work at home or in our offices, mediated by screens and through masks. It becomes easier for institutions and networks/associations to monitor us against particular modes of performance and behaviours. It is easier for those institutions to measure us against norms that are morphed and shift through the pandemic, but which are always shaped through dominant perspectives. The Panopticon in all its forms, managed in the image of white men with no or limited caring responsibilities and symbolic access to means of production, reinforces what Foucault argued were signalisation and dressage.

Q: It would be interesting to hear more on alternative that you did not want to talk. I still wonder what suggestion you have for alternative. Actually, what alternative do you propose at the face of covid-19? If you do have then how and with what means to utilise to materialise that alternative?

A: I am not interested in finding alternatives or utopias or blueprints. I am interested less in the future, and more in the present, and in a focus upon both questioning and moving or mobilising. I like the idea of “asking, we walk” or preguntando caminamos. I like the idea that we make our own history and our own paths through collective dialogue and questioning, and that this demands engagement with alternative ways of knowing the world and doing or making the world, and therefore being in the world. I am against the idea that white men with privilege define alternatives.

Q: Can you say something about the university and the State, perhaps the university as an expression of State hopelessness?

A: Marx and Engels argued that the state is an organising committee for the bourgeoisie, which emerged as a governance and regulatory power following the Treaty of Westphalia, and that there is no reason why it should be seen as transhistorical. Mariana Mazzucato has argued extensively about the ways in which the state creates an infrastructure for capital. I see a deep interrelationship between capitalist institutions, be they State-funded, cooperative, governed as charities or companies limited by guarantee, or whatever, the State that creates the terrain from which the universal value can expand, and how we feel about our lives and their possibilities. So, yes, in my argument the university is an expression of a wider state of hopelessness, and in response, I want to discuss intellectual work at the level of society. I want to discuss the potential for mass intellectuality at the level of society. I want to discuss how we liberate our ways of knowing and doing, in order to respect the ways in which we have built the world and how that building has been co-opted and taken from us. This enables us to see how hopeless things are, and not to outsource solutions to boffins, or wonks or the State, but instead to see our own agency at the level of society. I want us to dissolve the institution and its hopelessness into the fabric of society.

Q: Yep, to that need to move beyond both capitalism and the nation state – and the need to appreciate the positioning of the university as an institution within that state-corporate nexus?

A: yes – there is a need to understand the relationship between value and value-production, institutions of the state, corporate forms, and transnational organisations. Then, there is a need to engage with our own individual and collective agency, in order to enable/imagine the potential for new forces and relations of production, beyond the universe of value. This agency is historical, but it must be now.

Q: You paint a very gloomy picture and I wonder what you would say to our younger colleagues and those just entering the profession as to what they can do to remain positive about themselves and their work and their relationships with students?

A: you should try living with me. It must be awful. I would say I am sorry that it is constructed in this way with these pathological cultures and these methodological ways of working. I would say seek solidarity inside the institution, and look to make common cause, whilst keeping yourself safe. This means the ability to put food on the table and pay rent, without overworking and becoming ill. Social reproduction, values, humanity, dignity are so important and need to be protected. I would say try to find ways to limit the necessary labour of the bureaucracy of the institution, in order to widen your freedom for the work that energises you, potentially in relation to public engagement, your particular field/discipline, classroom-based engagement. I would say try to find ways of making your work useful in society, rather than valuable in the market.

Q: It seems to me that the concept of value is at the heart of this discussion, but value is almost always in the eye of the beholder. Our students and their future employers will inevitably define value differently, as will we. What I struggle with at present is the tendency for too many universities to destroy their value proposition by tactics that damage institutional reputations that took decades to build. The damage is caused in several ways that include reducing course entry requirements (for fee income) and making it harder to find time or resources for research. Can we spend more time exploring the nature of our value as academics? I guess we’d all feel less hopeless if we felt more valuable.

A: my problem is that the concept of values defined specifically in relation to capitalism, in terms of being a productive worker from whom surplus-value can be extracted. This is an exploitative arrangement, and it denies the ways in which we might mediate our lives directly between us as different individuals who share a common humanity. Instead, value enforces second-order mediations, like the market, divisions of labour and so on. Too often, value is defined in relation to excellence, satisfaction, money, impact and so on. I would say that we need to discuss whether the institutions inside which we live our fit-for-purpose, in engaging with intersecting crises, which materially affect people’s ability to live. As part of that we can discuss value or values, but we need to play on our terrain and build a narrative around our needs.

Q: We are so privileged, and we work so hard to get here, surely we greatly value the university and all that accrues to us through it. While we need to be guarded against the dreadful concerns and threats and that you very eloquently outline and explain, surely there are more reasons to be cheerful. 😎

A: there are so many contradictions that flow through the institution – it is beautiful and it is damaging, it enables and disables, it is a labour of love and it causes us ill-being, we see work intensification and precarious employment and at the same time many of us gain promotion and tenure. All labour is exploitative, and it tends to expropriate many lives, and extract resources from across the globe. My own take is that a limited number of our global society are able to access that privilege, which is made scarce and commodified, and the status of those roles and their appearance as high-status, reinforces exploitation, expropriation and extraction. At issue is, what is to be done? The reasons to be cheerful that I see are the potential for revealing hopelessness and sitting with it, in terms of the lived experiences of those who are denied privilege. From there, we might discuss mutuality, dignity and solidarity.

Comment: I agree that we are very privileged to be able to earn a living discussing and analysing in detail the subjects we care about with young (usually) and enthusiastic learners. Those of us who do research love the feeling of generating new knowledge that benefits mankind. However both our teaching and research are always under attack from micromanagers and bureaucrats who seem to insist on measuring and counting it all. Theirs (the micromanagers) is a hopeless task but they expect us all to join them in it. We must resist, for the sake of our students and our own humanity.

Q: The university and education are part of the superstructure supporting the dominant ideology of capitalism, in this sense, it is what Malcolm X suggested the chicken coming home to roost. Unis have been a place of privilege and actually within that excluded groups. The market has always been oppressive the minoritized have always know that, it is not unexpected that the mode of production turns it focus to HE and I am wondering if people are feeling oppressed by it and clutching at straws for hope. We all become the petty bourgeoise even if they don’t want to admit it and display false consciousness.

In the end it is our humanity and inter personal relationships that cannot be marketized everything else will.

A: thank you. Here, I returned to the idea that alienating conditions have been experienced differentially, but now the experiences of those of the periphery are being generalised amongst those with privilege and status. The system seeks to colonise all of our lives, and to make our lives, hopes, cares, relationships unliveable by commodifying them, or by squeezing out the time we have to develop them. Hope, if such thing exists, is an act of love for ourselves and each other, which recognises the asymmetrical relations we have to the autonomy of capital.

Q: Cussed = the pedagogy of arsiness 😉 Much needed form of such?

A: Mike Neary once asked that our struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become. In this, we need different strategies.

Q: Diane Fassel wrote in 1990 “Everywhere I go it seems people are killing themselves with work, busyness, rushing, caring, and rescuing. Work addiction is a modern epidemic and it is sweeping our land.” Doesn’t sound like much has changed in 30 years (if not longer). Matthew Fox addressed the potential to reinvent work – back in 1994; Frederic Laloux with “Reinventing Organizaions” in 2014; and many other. As you’ve mentioned this stuff goes back well further into the past, yet we’re highly resistant to any change. Do you think the same conversations today be heard in 2060 (if we don’t kill each other in the mean time)?

A: I do not know. However, precisely because the intersection of crises is making the world unliveable, we need to discuss our work and our intellectual engagement in society, in relation to a collapse in the nitrogen cycle, climate forcing, austerity governance, the pandemic, or whatever. This feels hopeless, and indeed, inside capitalist social relations, it is hopeless, but new ways of existing or new paths are opening. We need to believe that we have the power to make those paths together.

Comment: I help my students by reflecting the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work then step back. The only path to serenity… He who clings to his work creates nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”

Comment: It is the humanity we need to hold on to totally agree…. our humanity as staff and students

Comment: I came across this: carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/public-policy-and-the-infrastructure-of-kindness-in-scotland can universities be ‘kind’?

Comment: I felt less hopeless by engaging in the hopelessness of it all.


slides for Covid-19 and the idea of the University

My slides for tomorrow’s Education Research seminar at DMU are available below from my Slideshare.

Drawing upon my recently published article in Postdigital Science and Education, on The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the End of the End of History, I am presenting the first in a new series of Education Research Webinars.

Date/time: Wednesday 28 October, 2020, 1.30-2.30pm

Access: via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, https://eu.bbcollab.com/guest/f5220dae6a104f46bae508215ef4a844

Abstract
The University is being explicitly restructured for the production, circulation and accumulation of value, materialised in the form of rents and surpluses on operating activities. The pace of restructuring is affected by the interplay between financial crisis and Covid-19, through which the public value of the University is continually questioned. In this conjuncture of crises that affect the body of the institution and the bodies of its labourers, the desires of Capital trump human needs. The structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures as forms, cultures as pathologies, and activities as methodologies enacts scarring. However, the visibility of scars has led to a reawakening of politics inside and beyond the University. The idea that History had ended because there is no alternative to capitalism or its political horizon, is in question. Instead, the political content of the University has reasserted itself at the end of The End of History. In this presentation, the idea that the University at The End of History has become a hopeless space, unable both to fulfil the desires of those who labour within it for a good life and to contribute solutions to socio-economic and socio-environmental ruptures, is developed dialectically. This enables us to consider the potential for reimagining intellectual work as a movement of sensuous human activity in the world, rather than being commodified for value.


COVID-19 and the idea of the University

Drawing upon my recently published article in Postdigital Science and Education, on The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the End of the End of History, I am presenting the first in a new series of Education Research Webinars.

Date/time: Wednesday 28 October, 2020, 1.30-2.30pm

Access: via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, https://eu.bbcollab.com/guest/f5220dae6a104f46bae508215ef4a844

Abstract
The University is being explicitly restructured for the production, circulation and accumulation of value, materialised in the form of rents and surpluses on operating activities. The pace of restructuring is affected by the interplay between financial crisis and Covid-19, through which the public value of the University is continually questioned. In this conjuncture of crises that affect the body of the institution and the bodies of its labourers, the desires of Capital trump human needs. The structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures as forms, cultures as pathologies, and activities as methodologies enacts scarring. However, the visibility of scars has led to a reawakening of politics inside and beyond the University. The idea that History had ended because there is no alternative to capitalism or its political horizon, is in question. Instead, the political content of the University has reasserted itself at the end of The End of History. In this presentation, the idea that the University at The End of History has become a hopeless space, unable both to fulfil the desires of those who labour within it for a good life and to contribute solutions to socio-economic and socio-environmental ruptures, is developed dialectically. This enables us to consider the potential for reimagining intellectual work as a movement of sensuous human activity in the world, rather than being commodified for value.


Fergal Finnegan of The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside University

I am pleased that, over at Power and Education, There is a review by Fergal Finnegan of: The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside University. Fergal’s review was very generous and insightful, and connects to those of Joss Winn and Enja Helmes. He notes:

To accurately describe the university and what it means to be an academic today calls for a completely different set of coordinates. Hall takes up this theoretical challenge and sets out with clarity and force how this might be envisaged from a Marxist perspective (the book is the most recent publication in Palgrave Macmillan’s Marxism and Education series). The result is a thought-provoking and genuinely fresh perspective on the nature of academic work and the politics of contemporary HE.

It has an urgency of tone and frank passion which marks it out as different from many of the other lamentations about the decline of the university. Hall is pinning his theses on the door of an institution which he believes can no longer see what it does and that it in fact stands in the way of freedom.

However, Fergal also makes a very valid points about: how I might have used alienation as a bridge between critical moments and critical tendencies (including the work of Friere); the need for empirical detail (which I have forsaken for a while because my mind has been in a more abstract, philosophical space); the messiness of higher education (I guess that I set up a straw person for the purposes of the argument); and the relationship between class and the University (rendered secondary to a fuller, intersectional and humanist analysis).

In particular, this point that Fergal makes has stuck with me:

These gaps reflect the fact that TAA does not address class (de)composition and class formation – and the role of HE in these processes – in enough fine-grained detail.

I am hoping that I can begin to address this issue in the book upon which I am currently focused, which takes the University as its unit of analysis (as opposed to academic labour, which was central to TAA): The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at The End of The End of History.

Given what I have been reading and writing about, and my own struggles as a union negotiator and also in our institutional, decolonising project, I would not now have written TAA as I did then. Of course, this seems a little obvious, but much of my thinking recently has been about the structures/forms, cultures/pathologies and activities/methodologies of the institution, and the ways in which status, privilege, alienation, ill-being and so on accelerate class decomposition, and the possibilities for new class formations.

I also feel that I had a particularly naïve view of alienation, and hadn’t engaged with Hegel enough. Alongside critical theorists and radical pedagogues, this would also be a gap. In my defence, I feel that I had to curate my reading in particular ways, and I wanted my argument to take a particular route.

The very valid points Fergal makes about TAA have given me some stimulation towards re-engaging with The Hopeless University. I have a journal article forthcoming on this in Postdigital Science and Education, and I think my voice/writing are shifting (a function of a more confident position), including the nuance he speaks of around the messiness of the University. I had lost some momentum on this, And needed to sit with our current conjuncture, in order to make sense of myself in this space and time. I hope to use his words to kick-start my thinking again.

 


Decolonising DMU

I direct the evaluation for the Decolonising DMU Project.

With Kaushika Patel and Chris Hall (no relation), I am presenting on the project at the Advance HE Learning and Teaching Conference next week. If you have registered for the conference there will be a recording (.mp4) available. However, the slides are here.

You may also be interested in the project’s draft working position on building the anti-racist university, with which I was heavily involved. This connects to our research question: how does decolonising (its symbolism and reality) impact the idea of the university?

We are also presenting on Building the anti-racist University at a forthcoming event at the University of Bradford. The movement is (hopefully) growing.

Afterword

At Bradford I spoke about white privilege, and my own role in a process of decolonising. I argued following.

  1. Gurnam Singh spoke about white allyship Requiring an openness to building sustainable, democratic partnerships. I echoed this, in terms of horizontal forms of democracy, and building from below is a movement of dignity.
  2. I pointed back to a statement that Gurnam had made at the Radical DMU conference last year. He asked, how is it that in the most liberal institutions in the land in 2019, we are having to ask what it means to build the anti-racist University, or to decolonise? In fact, he forces us to ask whether these institutions can ever be described as liberal, and, if they can, whether that is a badge of dishonour that furthers particular forms of privilege.
  3. I argued the importance of challenging how structures/forms, cultures/pathologies, and activities/methodologies inside institutions, mirror governance, regulation and funding of the sector. The UK Conservative Government’s new Restructuring Regime for institutions in financial difficulty, reinforces the hegemony of the market and of human capital in dehumanising educational experiences.We have to find ways of refusing these pathological methodologies simply reinforce the power of people with no caring responsibilities, who over-perform, and who represent white, male, able power.
  4. In particular, we need to do this because University is implicated in a series of global crises, through the networks inside which it operates, its pathological search for surplus, its reinforcement of the performance ideals of the global North. It symbolises particular forms of life. It does not enable us to address climate forcing, a collapse in the nitrogen cycle, austerity governance, global poverty, whatever, unless those modes of addressing can be mediated through the commodity, the market, private property and money.
  5. Therefore, decolonising is a challenge to myself and my white, male privilege, just as it is a challenge to the very idea of the University grounded in the status and power are people who look like me. The voices that got us into this mess are not the voices I wish to centre as we build dialogue and look for potential routes towards another world or set of worlds.
  6. I see the process of decolonising not as the description of a utopia, rather as an attempt to situate this institution as a transitional moment, centring care, hope and dignity beyond the market, and focused upon equality rather than liberal tropes of equality of opportunity. It centres dialogue and reflection, and it grounds the University in its communities and its place.
  7. Peace be with you.

enough is enough

I am tired. In my heart and in my bones. I have been trying to sit with George Floyd, and to understand how to be in this world. It has felt beyond important to contact my black peers, colleagues and friends, and my peers, colleagues and friends of colour, to offer them what I can. I am constantly trying to acknowledge my privilege as a white, male professor, and that role’s reproduction of whiteness, and to find ways to redistribute that privilege. Being deliberate in reaching out felt like one strand of this.

Earlier in the week I had been ripped by Musa Okwonga’s testimony of his experiences of the police and the State as a teenager, and the subsequent, ongoing denial of his identity and expertise. He articulated how specific, racist forms of difference were imprinted and imposed upon him at an early age from without. He articulated how, even though he had written the critically acclaimed book on football in 2007, he was rarely asked to speak about football tactics, cultural history. Rather as a black man, he was forced constantly to re-articulate his and society’s position on race.

This constant, emotional labour made me feel exhausted, exasperated, frustrated, angry, tearful. A constant, emotional labour, which denies or detracts from the ability to grieve the murder of yet another black man or woman at the hands of the State and its institutions. The constant, emotional labour required to struggle against whiteness as it demands the generation of a double consciousness. And the part that had me in tears was when Musa made me internalise the reality that those struggles I have had with chronic anxiety and depression, two breakdowns, managing the death of my mother, chronic family illness, and on and on, were managed without the additional layers of navigation, compromise, fear, denial demanded of those with black skins. As he noted, he cannot leave his black skin at the door.

I am tired. But it feels as nothing compared to the exhaustion of this constant, emotional labour. Of a life that has to be justified against the power and privilege of others over and over.

Beyond Musa’s careful and considered and emotional and humane response, a second moment of tearful clarity came when Mark replied to my contact, specifically in response to the idea that I was trying to sit with George. He wrote, ‘Please tell him I am breathing.’ Fucking hell. I am in tears every time I read that. And I am reminded that Akwugo Emejulu writes of the eruption and exhaustion of protest that:

This is a gathering of the ghosts of our past, present and future. They assemble to watch us and wonder when and how this will end. We scream, we shout and we march because we are haunted by those we could not save and by the terrifying knowledge that these violent deaths at the hands of the state – or those who know they have the full support of the state – could happen to any of us. They couldn’t breathe because existing while Black is a threat to the everyday order of things – to the mundane organisation of American society that demands Black people’s subjugation.

‘Please tell him I am breathing.’ A gathering of ghosts. Sitting with me as I question, what have we become? What do we allow? How are we complicit? How, as Musa writes elsewhere, do I help others ‘not to be those who point at injustice and then stand by.’

And Mark wanted me to ‘Tell [George] that he has moved me closer to so many people including you. Tell him he has made me realise I need to have more uncomfortable conversations.’ And I think, how do I help to build upon the hope that centres upon Mark’s lived experience that he is still breathing? Building hope. This is our truth.


Rik replied to my contact and sent me this reminder from Stephen Garner.

The power talked of here is of unchecked and untrammelled authority to exert its will; the power to invent and change the rules and transgress them with impunity; and the power to define the ‘Other’, and to kill him or her with impunity. The arbitrary imposition of life and death is one end of the spectrum of power relations that whiteness enacts, across the parts of the world where white people are preponderant in positions of power. From Ida Wells’s anti-lynching crusade, through Malcolm X’s comment that ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock: that rock landed on us’, to Carmichael and Hamilton’s pioneering and striking claims about the way structural racism functions as a compound of class and ‘race’ (1967), the recurrent theme is of African-Americans developing an ethnographic gaze of which the subject is the way power is wielded by White America and how it impacts painfully on them.

Steve Garner. 2007. Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge, p. 14.

I see that I have access to some of that power wielded through white privilege, and that this potentially impacts painfully on others made marginal. I have long contended that my work inside the University is to abolish that power and that privilege, and to abolish the idea of the University as it enables and is enabled by that power and that privilege. Increasingly I see that the structures or forms of the University, the cultures that act as pathologies grounded in white privilege, and the activities that reproduce whiteness methodologically, are unable to deal with the conjuncture of crises. That they simply re-enact separation, divorce, exhaustion, exploitation, expropriation.

The voices that have been enabled over and over and over at the political economic core of our world, and which have brought us to the brink environmentally and socially, are not the voices that I wish to listen to in the search for another world. Instead, I need to do all I can to centre the voices of those made marginal, and the identities of those exploited, expropriated, extracted and exchanged. This is the only way I can see for us to push beyond the reproduction of exploitation, expropriation, extraction and exchange as the basis for our alienating existence. This feels like the struggle of our lives. I wonder if this is the real movement that will abolish the present state of things.


I have to consider this in the context of my own work, in particular in my institution’s engagement with decolonising. Elsewhere, Akwugo has noted, ‘To decolonise is to imagine that another university is possible.’ I am trying to relate the idea of the University, to its realities in its structures, cultures and activities, through conversation with particular experiences of black staff and students, and students and staff of colour. How do we bring the symbolism of the institution into conversation with how we imagine it, and our lived experiences of it, in order to be better?

I have written a working position for this:

In response to this, Decolonising DMU is an insistent movement towards a pluralist experience of the University, so that each individual and her communities feel more at home there. It works against the reality that some staff and students feel that they are not able to fit in, because they are alienated by institutions that are structured by whiteness and white privilege. We wish to elevate and bring to the front alternative experiences, stories, narratives and relationships, such that those who engage with the University do not have to give up their own identities and subjectivities. Our work refuses the idea that some should have to develop a double consciousness (or the daily reality of having to reconcile one’s own identity and heritage with the judgement of a dominant, Eurocentric identity), in order to survive in the institution.

This is a process of transformation or venturing beyond, which links strategy and action. It has a focus upon generating new knowledge about the University, its governance, internal regulation, management and organisation, technologies and information flows, and its relationships. In broad terms, the idea of Decolonising DMU challenges exploitation and dispossession, silencing, othering and marginalisation.

In this moment, my ghosts tell me that this is my real movement. And in that, I have to consider, as Oli Mould clearly and publicly articulates, what I can do as a white, male academic, to be better.

As the Particles for Justice collective note in their call for a #strike4blacklives, this involves a willingness to:

acknowledge the ways in which the effects of anti-Black racism are compounded for people who are also, for example, women, trans, non-binary, queer, Indigenous to the lands occupied by the United States and Canada, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, and/or undocumented. We demand justice, reform, and accountability now.

And so I have to reflect and refuse the ways in which my practice reinforces pathological white privilege, whitewash and whiteness.

  • How does my research, teaching, administration, mentoring, widen the spaces and times in which black students and staff, and staff and students of colour can tell out their souls?
  • How do I contribute to the struggle for authenticity and legitimacy beyond whiteness, in institutional committees, trade union committees, governing bodies, institutional strategy, trade union campaigns, academic workloads?
  • How do I struggle for the rights of others, and their equality? What does this mean for me, in terms of student and staff attainment, advancement, personal development, workload?
  • How do I struggle against the monitoring and profiling of certain communities, and the measuring of everyone by a colonial and patriarchal yardstick?
  • How do I struggle against privileged forms of knowledge, and for multiple and interconnected ways of knowing, being and doing?
  • How do I struggle against experiences of microaggressions, harassment, hostility and hate crime that differentially impact mental and physical health? How do I fight for services for those who need them, inside and outside the University?

My work has to commit to deconstructing my practice and the alienating structures/forms, cultures/pathologies, and activities/methodologies that it enables. I have to centre the lived experience of those occupying subaltern positions, or those traditionally occupying second- order or subordinated status. I have to demand empathy from myself with the experiences of those made marginal or silenced. I have to do this work. Me, not those we have othered.

I have to be accountable for these statements. We who have benefited must be held to account for these statements.

I am tired. But it feels as nothing compared to the exhaustion of this constant, emotional labour.

This is my personal reckoning. A reckoning is coming.

And I will bear this tiredness because I refuse to be complicit in the reproduction of another’s toxic exhaustion.

Enough is enough.


Notes on mental health in the age of Covid-19

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

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

 

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


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


ONE. Sharing the wealth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TWO. A struggle for hope.

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

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

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


THREE. Some things that emerged along the way

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

THREE. Reconciliation.

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

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

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

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

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


FIVE. From each, to each.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadmau5 feat. Cascade, I remember.

Banner, Finsbury Square, Occupy LSX.


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

¡Que se vayan todos!

They all must go.

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

Enough is enough.

They all must go.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not us.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

And we learn to remember ourselves.

¡Que se vayan todos!

They all must go.


DMU Critical University Studies Reading Group

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I commend these to you.

Peace.