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.


notes on the reserve army of academic labour

In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers – never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best.

Morgan, G. (2016). Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career. The Sydney Morning Herald.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance.

Email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm, 10 March 2014.

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Email from Stefan Grimm to various associates, 21 October 2014.


ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the higher education sector of the global economy. I wrote about how overwork is revealed through academic quitlit, in narratives about bullying, in discussions of mental health and academia, and, shockingly, through reports of suicides. These narratives and histories enable academics and students to be classified as precarious or without status, or lacking human (cognitive) capital, or even lacking emotional resilience. In this focus on academic overwork there is an intersection between academic ego-identity, control of the human capital that is the life-blood of the reproduction of the University as a competing business, and the internalisation of performance management/anxiety.

I note that what emerges, through the social relations of higher education “is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.” This drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, means that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, the domination of our academic clock-time by productivity becomes a means through which academics and students internalise entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.


TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

Overwork is a filament that enables us to reveal 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, and in particular the production of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army of precariously employed, sessional or casualised staff, or those who have become unemployed or under-employed, conditions the work of those who remain employed inside the University. They also condition those who labour in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to positional employment.

Marx argued that overproduction, or the accumulation of unsalable inventories, affected those who work both as labourers and who are the bearers (or sellers) of labour-power as a commodity. Universities require an abundant supply of appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address issues of demand in the delivery of teaching, scholarship, research and knowledge transfer. The key to increasing the rate of valorisation of capital is the ability to generate surplus value, in its absolute or relative forms, and employing labour-power as cheaply as possible is crucial. This then requires a level of overpopulation or a reserve army of labour that can be used to drive down costs (including wages, staff development costs, pensions and so on).

There are a series of processes that can drive costs down further, and maintain competitive edge in a global market. Universities might become more capital-intensive, by investing in technology and organisational development (restructuring, new workload models and so on). This increases the organic composition of capital, by increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital that is deployed. Clearly, this leads to problems in the production and accumulation of surplus value, which can only be generated through the exploitation of people as workers. As more constant capital or means of production (e.g. in terms of technology) are set in motion by an individual labourer, there is a pressure to economise on labour-power (as a commodity) or to discover new markets. If the higher education sector were to maintain employment as a constant, universities would need to expand (to generate a larger capital to support employment) or a higher rate of accumulation (of surpluses) would be required. Yet as more rapid accumulation has concomitant increase in the organic composition of capital, this produces a “relatively redundant working population” which is underemployed or becomes unemployed. As a result, there is an increasing set of pressures on labourers to remain employable in businesses and sectors that are increasing their organic composition, and this is manifest in the need to demonstrate perpetual entrepreneurialism.

One result of these pressures on organisations and individuals is increased proletarianisation, through precarious employment, or employment that is stripped of its intellectual content (for instance where that content is outsourced or managed on-line, or where staff-student relationships are mediated technologically), or employment that carries limited social security or welfare benefits, or through excessive performance-management and performativity. Over time, and certainly across a sector like higher education that operates on a world market, these processes that are driven by intense competition accelerate this proletarianisation.

In Capital, Marx articulates the formation of the reserve army of labour as a necessary component of the relationship between the forces and relations of production.

in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels.

Marx, K. (1867). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1.

The increases in productivity catalysed through processes of subsumption enable the search for both absolute and relative surplus value, and alter the composition of social capital as well as the scale of the terrain over which it functions (witness the competition for international markets amongst universities and the wailing over immigration related to students). Moreover, these changes in productivity draw in “a number of spheres of production” such that the university becomes a node in a wider, transnational association of capitals or joint venture that is seeking out surpluses. In terms of higher education, the labouring population of academics and students produces both the accumulation of capital, and through capital-intensive activities, “the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous”. As Marx notes, economising and developing the forces of production interrelates with the relations of production, which for many academics and students becomes increasingly precarious. As a result contingent, flexible or part-time labour, and the disciplinary effects of performance management, signals the generation a new, growing relative surplus population that emerges on a global scale. Moreover, this global surplus population conditions those in work to overwork or to reduced labour rights, because there’s always someone cheaper to be exploited.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

However, crucially, for Henryk Grossman, the issue is not borne of the organic composition of capital, rather it is a function of imperfect valorisation.

[T]he formation of the reserve army, is not rooted in the technical fact of the introduction of machinery, but in the imperfect valorisation of capital specific to advanced stages of accumulation. It is a cause that flows strictly from the specifically capitalist form of production. Workers are made redundant not because they are displaced by machinery, but because, at a specific level of the accumulation of capital, profits become too small and consequently it does not pay to purchase new machinery and soon profits are insufficient to cover these purchases anyway

Grossman, H. (1929). Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown.


THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

It is in Marx’s analysis of the composition of the relative surplus population that we see the impact on academic labour through three forms of the relative surplus population. First, the floating or those who are precariously employed, and whose employment is affected by cyclical fluctuations in recruitment or funding, or by the deployment of innovations, or the employment of cheaper (younger) workers. Second, the latent form refers to those whose work is easily transferred across sectors, such as those with menial or leverage skills. Third, the stagnant form consists of very irregular employment on very bad terms. Crucially for Marx is the idea that these three elements of the reserve army of labour, alongside paupers and the lumpenproletariat, in their relationship to the working class, then offer a theory of the internal differentiation of the working class.

One might see this in the status distinctions between tenured, non-tenured, contract and sessional teaching staff, or between institutional bureaucracies, academics and professional service staff, or between full-professors, associate professors, lecturing staff, research fellows and research assistants, and so on. However, one might also use these categories to analyse academic and student overwork in response to: first, the threat of more efficient labour that can attract research or teaching excellence funding; second, the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious; and third, senior managers’ demands that they become perpetually efficient and entrepreneurial. Here the content of academic labour, the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, is reinvented entrepreneurially. New forms of the academic division of labour are internalised, and where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified, worthless or made superfluous. Or their inability to mourn their lost academic egos becomes rooted in melancholia.

The attempt to become superhuman, in generating and offering-up surplus labour time, generates overwork just as it responds to and reinforces the surplus, reserve army of academics. In this process overwork or surplus labour, and the generation of a reserve army, enable universities to generate new models for performance and competition, and for engaging in financialised growth and market-based exploitation.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

As Simon Clarke has noted, in order to compete and to stave off any crisis of accumulation, institutions tend towards technological or organisational innovations by:

  1. increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  2. reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  3. cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  4. stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  5. stimulating internationalisation strategies, in order to enable exports and new markets for accumulation, as well as cheapening the elements of constant and variable capital.

What emerges in any discussion of the political economy of academic labour is that competition, as a function of the need to become productive of value and to accumulate surplus value or surpluses, worsens the position of the worker be she academic or student.


FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

What appears worse is that the inability to survive in this increasingly competitive space becomes the fault of the individual who is to be made unemployed or underemployed. It is a moral duty to work and to remain employable, and never to draw down on social welfare. As Anselm Jappe notes:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves.

Jappe, A. 2014. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. 25(2): 11

Thus, the unemployed are workshy or lazy, or lack willpower, or they are stupid. The idea that unemployment is structural and secular, and that it is rooted in a specific form of  political economy, runs secondary to the individual failings that meant Stefan Grimm was unable “to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post”, or which meant that John was forced to inhabit “the zombie zone” beyond HE.

NOTE: there are many accounts of the psychological and embodied damage caused to individuals in this hegemonic, structural narrative.

There is increasing understanding that individuals are placing themselves at risk of harm, where they are forced to respond to narratives of personal failings in relation to work, and where there is a recalibration of work around flexibility (in work and across markets) and competition. As Davies et al. argue, the increasing insecurity that flows from employment inside sectors and business that are responding to austerity negatively effects physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, where agency or autonomy are low or are removed, for instance where performance management is enacted, stress and anxiety are higher.

There is a critical point here for Davis et al. about the internalisation of failings that results in melancholia about the Self rather than mourning for what has been lost. In academia the accumulation of melancholia is catalysed by performance anxiety.

There is an aspect of melancholia that is absent from mourning, an extraordinary reduction in self-esteem, a great impoverishment of the ego. In mourning the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so. The [melancholic] patient describes his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of functioning and morally reprehensible, he is filled with self-reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment… He does not sense that a change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism to cover the past.

Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning & Melancholia. Penguin, pp. 205–206

Correctives to such a view are marginal, and certainly not to be found in the work of institutional occupational therapy or human resources departments that are focused upon emotional resilience or its relationship to the happiness industry. Such correctives again seek to elevate individual, qualitative narratives, and to stress the social and material causes of distress, and the value of solidarity and collective action.

[S]ocial inequalities that exclude or marginalise contribute significantly to the potential for distress. Poverty, impoverished housing and diet, threatening environments, limited resources, restricted choices, demeaning or poorly-paid employment, discrimination, oppression and scapegoating all cause distress… We are more likely to experience distress the more our experiences are invalidated and the more isolated we become from one another. Equally, the further we are from supportive, nurturing relationships, the more that invalidation and isolation will engender distress. People stripped of ameliorative influences such as a loving, supportive family and friends; comfortable, safe environments; and the trust, support and solidarity of others, are increasingly likely to experience diagnosable distress.

Midland Psychology Group. (2012). Draft manifesto for a social materialist psychology of distress. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 12(2): 96-7.

In response to the apparent suicide of precariously-employed John, Karina has argued the following.

We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.

This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?

And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.

Karina. 2016. A few words. CASA: A Home Online For Casual, Adjunct, Sessional Staff and Their Allies in Australian Higher Education

There is a step beyond this, which for The Institute for Precarious Consciousness takes the form of “a machine for fighting anxiety”. They argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside and outside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. Here describing the relationship between overwork and the surplus population of academic labour is simply a starting point.


on academia and life

(It might be over soon, two two)
Where you gonna look for confirmation?
And if it’s ever gonna happen
So as I’m standing at the station
It might be over soon

Bon Iver. 2016. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)

Academia can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You’re not alone. #WorldMentalHealthDay

Shit Academics Say

This is for my Nan and Granddad.


It’s complicated.

A while back I wrote about depression and alienation, and a boy who spent a lifetime trying to recover.

And a while after, after we had cared for and lost my Mom, I wrote about being Inside. Through. Beyond. Me., and about searching for an alternative Self or for the fix because the inside is too broken to be mended on its own.

And a while after I wrote about chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety hardened, and how I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. Until I did.

And a while after I wrote about the impossibility of getting on trains and of speaking, and the rupture that was my unbearable anxiety.

And if you know me, then it’s no surprise that I have written about alienation, and the university as an anxiety machine, and capitalism, academic labour and ill-health. And that I wrote about the way that our work compresses what is valued and valuable, until it is either stolen or neglected (for Kate). In an abstract way, grounded by my ill-health.


And all the time multiple tracks are playing out. Track one is the history of a boy locked in a room suffering loss after loss, and trying to survive (although he never knew it). And track two is a boy trying to acclimatise to outside, and trying to understand how the world worked. So that he wouldn’t be left again. And so that he would never feel the same amount of loss. Because the loss was is everything. And track three is the man collecting all the badges, every last one, in order to feel something positive, rather than the unremitting, bleak, sherry-stained loss. And track four is the pain of remembering all this, and especially the room and the loss, in every moment of every day. And track five is the details of every day; of living. So that each track is compacted, one on top of the other. Compacted and compounded. The compound interest of a dysfunctional past represented in the present.

So the man sits in meetings and speaks at events and attends concerts and eats curry and reads books and walks and mentors, and has to do these things whilst analysing these things and working on not analysing these things. And it is exhausting. No wonder I had a second breakdown. For the lulz.

And this is where the weird mix of academia kicks in. With its empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You are in the academic peloton, with its cultures of omertà, or the silence of those who know that they are being forced to compete, and that to do so they must co-operate. And with its culture both of dietrologia, or the desperate search for hidden dimensions to surface reality. And when you grasp some meaning, some enlightenment, or some hoped for engagement, or when you speak and gain some sense of empowerment, you feel lifted. Like life might be possible.

You do it to yourself, you do. And that’s what really hurts.

And it becomes difficult to separate out academia as an anxiety machine, whose perpetual motion risks wearing you (r soul) through, and the past that has compounded that issue. So that your past plays and replays itself out in a space that feeds off the constant doubts, and the constant need to perform, and the constant need to re-produce yourself as someone more productive.

What it is to be anxious inside the anxiety machine.

And this is why I have spoken and joked that what I want is to abolish myself. Politically, it is why I am pointed towards concepts like mass intellectuality, or the dissolution of the academic at the level of society, in order to become something more. Someone more. Someone less concerned with the status and intellectual capital that gives academia its motive power. Because when academics are only concerned with shoring-up status, for whatever reason, rather than abolishing it, our collective work for liberation is lost. The refusal to become anonymous is where we are lost.


And I wrote about the fear of performing. That just as I received the badge I wanted the most, my Mom died, and the wheels came off. And of a sudden my universe contracted so that the singularity was my home and the road to my work, and maybe the road to Walsall. But it was very little else. And I described my panic on trains, and my panic when speaking, and my panic when travelling. A panic that had much earlier origins, an echo of a long-lost and apparently never-lost past. A panic that had origins in a first, previous breakdown. A panic that had never been healed so that after her death came a second breakdown.

All five tracks working in unison. Compounded in unison. Their singing in unison was is the tinnitus that walks with me.

And I decided that maybe all I could do was write. That I would become mute, unable to speak, to present, to have a voice. Ever again. That I would not be able to travel unless we drove places. That I wouldn’t be able to go to away games or take trains or accept speaker invites or go to the workshops in Lincoln that I so desperately wanted to attend.

And all the while I wrote. And all the while I did accept speaker invites. And all along I made myself speak in university committees. And all the while I did get on trains.

Because of the boy in the room, who kept a candle alight.

“You have to carry the fire.”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is the fire real? The fire?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.


And once upon a time I wrote about how, in the aftermath of my first breakdown, it took five years to recover myself, to a position where I had some trust in my body and my mind (for what that was worth). And the moment I knew, was on the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck (a proper, full-on panic-inducing moment); then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects.

No.

Ill.

Effects.

Just patched-up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go.

Only it was a puncture repair. A pretty good one, as the Lyke Wake Walk will attest. But a repair that began to fail in the Fall of 2008 and was blown by 2011. A repair that was fucked by 2013.

And all the time, work. A safe space. A perpetual motion machine. Trying to manage a team and manage the projects and produce the reports and plan the programmes of work and support the Ph.D. students and publish the journal articles and edit the book and think about the next grant and plan the new job and survive in networks and engage with communities of practice and speak at conferences and laugh with friends and console friends and be.

The space between work and Self. The space between work and Self and the past. The space between work and Self and the past and the everyday. The tinnitus.


And this is a story that recognises the self-care and the self-harm in keeping the fire burning. So that the boy lit the way for the man. By cherishing a role as an independent visitor for a looked-after child. And loving being asked to become a trustee of the open library of humanities. By accepting invitations to speak, in spite of myself. Of doing what I can, whilst fighting the panic. Of setting up a new institute. Of submitting the next book proposal.

Self-harm and self-care. Self-harm or self-care. It’s complicated.

And then there was a new Moel Siabod moment. Because the boy had lain the groundwork, in keeping the man going, and in being productive as well as keeping up appearances. And the moment that the shape of recovery became discernible was on being invited to speak in Bradford. Of the reduced anxiety about travelling so far from home. On a therapy day. And the anxiety about speaking being utterly forgotten in a wonderful workshop about embodiment and trust in conflict arenas. So that by the time I came to speak an amazing calm had descended.

And the result was sitting at Derby Station at 9pm, waiting for the connection from Sheffield, and remembering how it used to be. How it was all those previous times I had travelled and looked at the world and spoken with a nervous excitement. And to travel home tired but feeling like the day had been worth something. A productive day. A day in which a voice was heard. A day that justified reflection with four tracks turned off, so that I could just focus on the day itself. The content of the day itself.


It’s imperceptible, knowing that being well and recovery and well enough not to be in therapy and well enough to have turned the tracks off and well enough to have distilled the anxiety and to want to purge it, are possible. And the feeling is almost impossible to describe. The shape of it being impossible to describe, but forming inside me nonetheless. I have no compass for being well. I have never been well, which is why the puncture repairs have always failed. I can describe the old anxieties and fears and panics and self-loathing. I can still feel them. But they feel disconnected, sitting there in my gut. Dissociated. A remnant of a past life, still real and painful, and yet so dissociated from the everyday.

They are a dissociation which mirrors that I felt in a previous moment of this life. That I needed in a previous moment. A mirrored dissociation which now makes possible a purging of anxiety. So that arguments and disagreements and failings don’t self-harm so much. And I sense these feelings being purged, so that the scars of the self-harm are simply birthmarks. So that my potential for self-harm is slipping away. Forgiveness.

And it feels so fucking weird. Letting go of the past and reframing the present, and letting sleights go, because there is too much in the bank. We’ve been through too much. We’ve self-harmed enough.

Maybe I have just decided to get well. Maybe I have walked far enough to be able to discern wellness ahead of me. And I laugh out loud about being well, out of a feeling that I cannot describe because it feels incredible to me. Indescribable because it’s not in my DNA. Faintly ridiculous, but I’m going to do it anyway.

And I discuss with a friend the relationship between our labour and our pasts and our mental health. And how Academia/life can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. How academia/life can be a weird mix.

About how it’s complicated.

About how realising the shape of my/your life depends on the courage and the faith that emerge from our collective work and solidarity, in labour and life. And especially in our bearing witness for each other.

Courage is love’s miraculous face. It achieves its miracles through transformation. It allows the impossible to become possible; the unendurable to be endured; trust to be renewed; and the unexpected to become the inevitability that opens you to unprecedented insights about who you are, about what life is. When courage stirs, it delivers the strengths you need but didn’t know you had

Stephanie Dowrick. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. London: Viking, p. 24.


writing about academic labour

I have three things recently published or forthcoming that are about academic labour and its relationship to society. These pick-up on two themes that have been increasingly important to me: first, academic alienation and anxiety, or the idea that the University is an anxiety machine; and second, the potential for mass intellectuality as a form of liberatory praxis.

The first piece focuses on the processes of subsumption that are reshaping academic labour, and the resultant impact on individual’s subjectivity and health. Co-written with Kate Bowles, this takes the idea of the University as an anxiety machine, and is called Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. The abstract is as follows:

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the re-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.

The article is published in a special issue of Workplace: A journal for Academic Labor, edited by Karen Gregory and Joss Winn, on Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

The second is a book chapter in a collection entitled The Philosophy of Open Learning: Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons, edited by Markus Deimann and Michael A. Peters. My chapter is called Another World is Possible: The Relationship between Open Education and Mass Intellectuality.

This piece critiques the promise of open education through the concept of mass intellectuality that I have discussed elsewhere, and which is becoming increasingly important to me as a way of analysing the idea of higher education in an age of crises. In the chapter I connect open education to the proletarianisation of higher education, and go on to ask the following.

  1. How is it possible to re-imagine open education, in order to overcome proletarianisation through technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?
  2. How might open education broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond HE, as a pedagogic project?

My response is rooted in sharing and grounding collective practices for open and co-operative education through democratic pedagogy and organising principles.

The third is the book Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, which I have co-edited with Joss Winn. The summary, description and chapter/author list is given here. It’s good to see this work moving towards fruition, precisely because it’s a discussion of the potential for actually existing liberation.

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. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, 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.

(Postone, M. 1996. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 373)


notes on peace education and indignation

On Monday I contributed to a panel discussion on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era, as part of the Adam Curle Symposium hosted by the Peace Studies Division at University of Bradford. I made the following points..

ONE. The essay I produced ahead of the event situates the historical context for Curle’s Education and Liberation against the collapse of the post-war Keynesian compromise. In the West that compromise had ushered in a view of the State as guarantor of the production and distribution of certain forms of socialised wealth, grounded in access to healthcare, welfare benefits, social housing and free education. Yet by 1973 that political moment was under stress, as issues of profitability that had affected the major economies since the 1950s led to Nixon decoupling the dollar from gold. This was a critical way-marker in the development of neoliberal governance and the hegemony of monopoly finance capital, framed by the petro-dollar. Maybe, as Jehu questions, this was the moment when we reiterated our choice of barbarism over socialism.

TWO. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement would amplify Curle’s criticism of a dominant, global system rooted in competitive materialism and belonging-identity (rather than awareness-identity). Instead, Curle argued for an education counter-system rooted in a societal counter-system that was borne of a different formation of social wealth. This focus on wealth is central to the argument of his book, because it is situated asymmetrically against value as the dominant structuring form of society that is reproduced under capitalism. Here John Holloway’s focus on the first sentence of Marx’s Capital is important because it emphasises how capitalist social relations abstract and corrupt our concrete world, including how we relate to each other and the values that we embody (such as peace, justice, trust, faith, tolerance and so on). The first line of Capital reads as follows:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[1] its unit being a single commodity.

Holloway argues:

It is easy to skip over the significance of the first sentence precisely because of what the sentence itself asserts. It is the very fact that wealth appears as a collection of commodities to us who live in capitalist society that makes us take this appearance for granted. We are used to seeing wealth in that way. When we think of wealth we usually think of material wealth, of the things that a person has, probably of money, the general equivalent of commodities. If we refer to someone as being wealthy, we generally mean that she or he has a lot of money, and can therefore dispose of an immense amount of commodities. In other words, the form in which wealth appears leads us to establish an identity between wealth and the immense collection of commodities, to treat them as being identical. And if this were so, then it would indeed be right to treat the first sentence as curtain-raiser, as a sentence that has significance only in leading us on to the central issue, the commodity.

However, wealth does not have to be thought of in this way. For English-speakers, this is perhaps easier to see if we go back to the original German term that Marx uses, Reichtum, which could just as easily have been translated as “richness”: in capitalist society, richness appears as an immense collection of commodities. There is certainly no sharp difference in English between the concepts of richness and wealth, but richness strikes us as having a broader meaning: a rich tapestry, an enriching conversation, a rich life or experience, a rich diversity of colours.

THREE. In the current moment this rich diversity of colours has been corrupted (like corrupt computer code) precisely because the history and materiality of our social and cultural lives has been distorted through the reality of economic crisis. I refer to this as a secular crisis of capitalism. Our enriching conversations are corroded through the toxicity of an on-going and immanent crisis of economic reproduction that catalyses debt, privatisation and financialisation, and the demonization of the powerless, whose lives are made precarious. The counter-measures that are required to maintain the system that Curle pushed against are not working, and they are delegitimising that system whilst they shore it up. This is the terrain upon which our ongoing cognitive dissonance, or even worse our dissociation, is borne.

NOTE: As a result we cannot face the ecological rift that has occurred in the metabolic relationship between humans and the planet: we are unable to do anything meaningful about carbon emissions as they breach 400ppm; we are unable to do anything meaningful about the assault on biodiversity and ocean acidification, or damage to the nitrogen cycle, the overuse of phosphates, and so on. How can we find peace when we are so embedded inside capitalism’s war on the planet?

FOUR. This war also threatens to become inter-generational. There is a looming disconnect between those who benefitted from the aftermath of Bretton Woods and millenials, although following Milton Friedman in The Role for Government in Education many of the arguments made in the global North now stress the importance of student debt being a family investment in human capital. Thus, the UK Government’s focus on future earnings and employability, and the Treasury’s explicit demand for tax data to be linked to student outcome/loan repayment data, de-territorialise and then re-territorialise the system through metrics, debt and risk. Here Curle’s fears around the development of competitive materialism and belonging-identity are realised as families become the very fabric of competition rather than of societal co-operation. And this is amplified because, as Oskar Negt states:

The labor power that capital can tie down by dint of Taylorism is markedly decreasing in both capitalist countries and Third World countries. More and more living labor power is slipping out of capital- ist production processes. This must have political consequences, which will also affect the formation of theories… Today, by comparison, we have a structurally growing industrial reserve army that is tending toward including the whole of society and, increasingly, threatening to cut labor power off from reality…

The fewer opportunities a subject has to appropriate these productive forces, the more often the latter turn into destructive forces. This is one of the core issues in our theory of labor power. It is not only that a growing number of work- ers—and also a growing number of labor characteristics—are unemployed in capitalist labor conditions; it is also that in the long term, these characteristics are being scrapped by being deobjectified.

We are forced to compete so that our alienation becomes more manageable.

FIVE. This secular crisis is political and economic and is rooted in an ideological position that has generated monstrosities in UK higher education like the White Paper’s proposed teaching excellence framework, and the obsession with teaching intensity and productivity in the Green Paper. As our educational lives are subsumed under the structuring realities of value, rather than alternative conceptions of social wealth, one outcome is the disconnection of our educational souls. As our curricula are restructured around performance management, progression, retention, student-as-purchaser, education commodified as a service, learning analytics, employability, and so on, our conversations with our students, our peers and ourselves are in tension with our desire to care. The rule of money places us in conflict with our desire to care, and so we dissociate, rage or employ cognitive dissonance as defences. For Curle, such a world was rooted in psychological alienation that itself emerges from social, political and economic violence. For Marx, in the German Ideology, such alienation was fourfold: from the process of production; from the things that we produce; from our society; and from ourselves. In the incorporation of all forms of education inside the production processes of capitalism, in the damaging realities of over-testing,  monitoring, permanent technological and organisational restructuring, precarious employment and so on, those very spaces that set out to be rooted in care, justice and peace are reproduced as anxiety machines.

SIX. Inside our anxiety machines, time is weaponised against us. We are forced to internalise the system’s demands around contact hours, workload planning, absence management, imposed deadlines for impact relating to teaching and research, and so on. As a result, both space and time are made unsafe for staff and students, who must also contend with the boundaries of relationships that at once appear to be rooted in care/contract and use/exchange. These are the contested qualities of being that are embodied in our formal educational institutions. We might then wonder what else we can set in-motion inside-and-outside the school or university that refuses this reality? Here, our learning is enriched through engagement with the struggles of campaigns against the ongoing re-colonisation of the university’s history and material realities, grounded in its organising principles, financing and curricula, like Rhodes Must Fall or Black Lives Matter. It is also enriched through the educational work rooted in co-operative values and organisation. These examples force us to consider how to frame a richness of life or experience, or how to stitch a rich tapestry, which prefigures the world we wish to see. Such prefiguration is educational, iterative and generative of new possibilities. However, crucially it is also inter-generational, open and public, radical in that it stresses the need to find alternative forms of value that works to create the society we would wish to live in, and democratic. Such prefigurative activity is borne of a realisation: that our current forms of social reproduction are in crisis; that new forms of solidarity across indebted generations and between those suffering in healthcare or education or social services or housing are needed; and, that these new forms of social solidarity might coalesce around directional demands, like the social strike that stops the system and forces conversations.

SEVEN. It is in co-operatively-negotiated, solidarity actions that peace might re-emerge as a possibility or as a guide to our direction of travel. For solidarity enables us to move across boundaries between contexts and disciplines to examine

the real object of knowledge, which is the social phenomenon as a whole.

Schmidt, A. (1968). On the Concept of Knowledge in the Critique of Political Economy, p. 93.

Yet peace is grounded in: individual and collective courage to act; faith in each other and ourselves; justice for the wronged, othered and alienated; and, hope for setting in motion a different world. Peace emerges through education as a form of social wealth that is against-and-beyond capitalist social relations. It emerges as indignation with the present state of things, where we recognise that it cannot emerge through private property and wage slavery, or through the State taking control of production. As Jehu argues:

We do need to think about how the immediate seizure of what we need to live (in places like the UK this would also mean mass non-payment campaigns) could open into new forms of social organisation; also about how import-export relations can be sustained in industries that are necessary to social reproduction once the power of capitalist owners has been annulled… Capital is vulnerable to radical approaches that emphasize real relations over material relations. Our approach should be guided by the desire to address issues in a way that does not make capitalist categories our starting point.

Only when we have recognised and held the tension of the values inside us, which are revealed as embodied or psychological illness, can we begin to be and to create anew, by prefiguring the world we wish to see. Prefiguring this world is situated against challenge and struggle.

We do need to think about this; but the question of how to re-organise the world market along ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ lines is meaningless without an acceptance that mass movements can only succeed by making severe inroads into bourgeois property relations.

it is in the middle-term of active struggle that a movement against capital must necessarily arrive at the stage of greatest tension and uncertainty. It is a moment in which the most fundamental contradictions of class and ownership cannot be ‘knitted together’ into a woolly hegemony and then handed over to a ‘future’ which can scarcely mask its ingratitude.

De-Arrest Editorial Services (2016). Demeaning the Future.

Thus, peace is contingent on the development of mass intellectuality as a force for the production of Curle’s counter-system, rooted in new relations of production, where our co-operative engagement might recuperate the social brain from its co-option solely for the production and accumulation of value. We need to be disinhibited from seeing peace education as an on-going, day struggle, which is enacted at the level of society.