on abolishing the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance

There has been so much discussion of potential job losses across institutions; there has been so much discussion of how negotiations over the USS Pension Scheme will play out; there has been so much discussion of the impacts of the ONS review of the decision of how to treat student loans in the public accounts; there has been so much discussion of the impact of the Augar Review of post-18 education. There has been so little discussion of what this means politically for academic labour.

That isn’t to say that there has not been an on-going statement of how academic work is adversely, toxically, negatively disassembling what it means to be human inside the University. For instance, a recent tweet from an academic at Leeds, liked almost 5,200 times, points to the impact on mental health of the apparent disregard that management have for their academic labourers.

Only, in the thread that follows, academics are not regarded as labourers, rather their fetishised status as privileged knowledge workers takes on the usual, depressing and reified narrative in which individuals who have worked for doctorates are commodified as assets. This represents an ongoing failure to engage with the political economy of academic work, and to see it for what it is: the everyday, coercive re-sale of alienated labour-power, which results in the everyday estrangement of the individual from herself and her community. This community includes the students whom she must sort and separate and grade, her peers against whom she must compete for status and privilege and resources, and her Commons whom she must use as an asset or develop as a market for knowledge transfer or exchange.


Describing the depressive position of academic life is one thing; analysing and moving beyond it demands socially-useful theory, rooted in the ongoing reproduction of alienating capitalist social relations. Academic impact and the public good are socially-useful for capital, and demand a different kind of analysis. Instead praxis demands that rather than fetishising academic labour, we see it for what it is – brutally alienating. As Ansgar Allen wrote in his review of The Alienated Academic, my argument is a:

critique of the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance, its role in their enslavement to a work ethic built on alienation, and their participation in wider flows of capitalist destruction. Though many in the academy may think otherwise: another world is not possible, at least not a world that issues from the labour of the current academic, however radically inclined.

Thus, my opening chapter focuses upon the academic labourer becoming awakened.

This is a book about estrangement and alienation in academic life; about being a stranger to the nature of your own scholarly work, to yourself and to your peers. This is a book about moving beyond the surface perception of academic work as a labour of love or privilege, in order to understand its essence inside increasingly alienating contexts.

Hall, R. 2018. The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 1.

In expanding upon this idea that work is a withering form of living death rooted in personal losses, and that academia is not privileged and that it is not a labour of love and that in the process of fetishising it we diminish ourselves, I argue that this stops us from seeing the inability of the University to address global emergencies.

Proletarianisation renders institutions hopeless spaces for addressing the wider ramifications of the crisis of value. The University framed by a secular crisis of the value-form remains unable to address fundamental global problems like climate change, because its interaction with the world is mediated through the market, the division of labour and commodity-exchange.

It is increasingly unclear how these institutions and their curricula enable global societies to adapt through collective, educational repair. This is precisely because HE institutions are limited to their ability to coerce individuals in placing their labour-power for sale in the market.

ibid., p. 57

This idea that academics fetishise and universalise their own labour as an objective, public good does nothing but cripple any hopes of self/social-care or renewal.

Academics have been nudged towards accepting these forms of crippling enslavement by focusing upon the alleged privilege of working in education, and the self-sacrifice of public service. This has been a way in which capital has been able to compel overwork and exhaustion across a social terrain… Estrangement from the self emerges from the loss of subjectivity and sensuous, creative practice, inside relations of production with increased technical composition.

As a process of reproduction the labour process forms a motive power underpinning the expanding circuit of alienation, A-A’. This expansion shapes subjugation, because the potential of the labour-power inside each individual labourer cannot be realised except through the objective conditions of capitalist work for value.

Ibid., p. 169

The question is then possibly Lenin’s, what is to be done? Or perhaps Nietzsche’s what next? Later in the book, I argue that individual academics must confront alienating conditions of work that reproduce estrangement across social and personal terrain, at the level of society.

As a growing surplus population drags the experience of exploitation and immiseration from the margins of academic society into its core, through performance management and precarious employment, there is potential for indignation and degradation to be generalised. At issue is how to place transformation of the mode of production at the heart of the matter, rather than amplifying hopelessness. As practices from the racialised, gendered, disabled, homosexual and queer margins of the global North and the global South move back to the centre of production, engagement in survival programmes as a precursor to dismantling the mode of production, are crucial for academics. Academic privilege and hegemonic, alienating academic norms need to be checked by learning from alternative life experiences. This demands a new war of position in the name of survival pending revolution, rooted in co-operation and accepting of the reality that Keynesian, welfare capitalism cannot be reinstalled. Instead, academic hopelessness needs to stimulate an alternative social function as the basis for abolishing wage labour.

Ibid., p. 181


It is not enough to discuss academics as a homogenous group or with an ability to work collectively to confront their conditions of production, in order to challenge the relations of production that are so clearly toxic to so many. It is clear that academics exist in a range of constantly shifting, determinate conditions, which are re-shaping the ways in which academic labour functions through the application of new forms of organisation, precarious employment, rounds of voluntary severance and reorganisation, the imposition of new technologies, policy edicts which drive competitive demands, and so on.

Moreover, these conditions are different for a range of sub-groups and communities of whatever academia is or might be. Where the experience is defined by norms set against the idea of the successful White, male, heterosexual, able Professor, the rest of the academic peloton is forced to recalibrate itself will be recalibrated by this privilege. What this then means if you are an academic of colour, female, have a caring responsibility, are ill, whatever, is that you have to suck it up or take that next course on mindfulness or resilience, or decide that perhaps this isn’t the place for you.

This means that uncovering political composition needs more attention by academics as they try to work for solidarity and collective action. This composition is effectively the ways in which labour organises and resists the labour process itself, in part generated through struggles over pensions or workload or whatever, and which is aimed at refusing the imposition of a new technical composition of capital across the terrain of academic work, which can only ever aim at reproducing exploitation. This technical composition is the ability of capital to annihilate the costs of labour-power whilst enforcing productivity gains or longer working hours upon those who remain. It is no wonder that we see an increase in the academic gig-economy, increasingly technological performance management, a rise in the reserve army of PhD labour with no apparent future, and a narrative that fetishises human capital development with the risk owned by the individual academic.


Of course, one of the issues here is that labour-power is the source of value inside capitalism, and so by annihilating labour capital undermines itself though a crisis of profitability. Yet in order to overcome the political composition of labour, capital has constantly to innovate its technical composition. Is it possible then to use this as a moment to challenge alienating work? Is it possible to analyse the political composition of academic labour, in order to refuse a technical recomposition designed to extend the universe of value?

The theory of class composition restates the problem of power in a perspective where recomposition is not that of a unity, but that of a multiplicity of needs, and of liberty.

Negri, A. (1979). Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. London: Pluto Press, p. 14.

The problem with not being able to do this analytical work, is that the academic has no starting point for refusal, other than a lamentation or a scream against the latest indignity. One result is that there may be anger, but there can be no indignation. For whilst Marx argued that the individual worker would only ever become “an appendage” and mutilated or fragmented, with her family thrown under the juggernaut of capital acting as a werewolf or a vampire, too many academics still cling to the ideas of status and privilege are themselves underpinned by hope rather than hopelessness. This means that there can only be space for anger rooted in powerlessness at the latest excellence framework or demand for impact or research audit or student evaluation or workload plan. And anger rooted in powerlessness leads to a depressive position.

And so the question becomes how to decompose academic labour. How do academics analyse their own social organisation in relation to capital? How do they unpack the conditions and relations of production, where they are employed inside the University acting as a means for the production of value, in concert with transnational finance capital, global educational technology/publishing firms underwritten by venture capital, and policymakers working in partnership with transnational bodies like the World Bank or IMF, and where their work is conditioned by student debt? It is important that this work is done, because the particular situation of the academic is her starting point for analysing the lack of solidarity amongst academics as a group, and for realising the relative solidarity between sub-groups of academics who continue to be made marginal inside the system of hegemonic production. Moreover it is a starting point for realising the relative solidarity between subgroups of academics and a movement beyond the University of groups and individuals made marginal.


Here, class is not enough. As a result, it is important to look at the differential conditions of labour for: Professors; tenured staff; professional services staff; students; postgraduate teaching assistants; precariously employed staff; and to do this in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on. Because it is clear that in order to leverage change inside the Academy, as a moment of prefiguring change outside the Academy, or perhaps where change inside the Academy is immanent to change outside, some people have too much to lose. Too much privilege, too much status, too many resources, and for some, the process of proletarianisation has not impacted enough to spark their solidarity.

It is the proletariat who, for Marx, with a revolutionary class, and the potential for change then stems from those (academics) with nothing left to lose. This means that such a workerist analysis of the condition of academic work needs to consider how that work is integrated into capitalist social relations and relations of production. It needs to consider the divisions that exist between academics, and how those divisions or separations are maintained. This includes disciplinary separations reinforced through league tables and excellence frameworks, as well as separations of status and privilege.

Moreover, such a(n academic) workers’ enquiry might connect academic labour to the idea of autonomous activity outside the University and whether they offer moments of subversion or transgression against the value-relation. Do they enable hegemonic social relations to be subverted? Moreover, is there space for decomposing academic labour, such that the divisions noted above might be dissolved as a stage in moving towards the abolition of that labour, rather than its fetishisation and accompanying hopes that a Utopian state can be restored? Instead, this recognises that academic labour, like all other forms of labour, is not privileged. It is always in a process of being dominated, exploited, reengineered and repurposed for-value, as capital struggles to annihilate its own dependency upon labour-power. This demands that academics see their conditions of labour as continually-changing, and that the only redemption lies in accepting the hopelessness of a compact with a system of exploitation.

The power therefore lies in attempting to see that individuals working collectively makes the world, and need to be alive to both its historical and current, material realities, in order to develop new forms of struggle. Capital’s ongoing struggle to decompose and recompose academic labour means that there can be no Happy New Year, in which a system of exploitation governed through competition and mediated through private property (in the form of knowledge), the division of labour, commodity-exchange and the market, is given away by those with power-over us. There will be no Happy New Year, which is better for our fragmented physical and mental health, precisely because just like the old year, the New Year will be built upon alienated labour-power. Understanding the political economy of academic work is a starting point for establishing our own power-over the world, our own weaknesses, our own associations and spaces of solidarity, such that we might decide what next or what is to be done?

However, this cannot be disaggregated from wider struggles in the world to decolonise, or for gendered rights, or for disability rights, or for environmental rights, or for whatever. This means that different forms of organisation might be needed inside the University and beyond, which also recognise the historical and social specificity of those contexts, whilst working towards dissolving the boundaries between them. This dissolution is the recognition by the academic that she is a socialised worker, and that in this dissolution lies her ability for self-actualisation as a form of self-mediating activity not conditioned by competition, excellence, impact, entrepreneurship, employability, the market, whatever.


If you have no engagement with political economy, good luck with that, because the system wishes to reduce you to your alienated labour-power. And what is worse, it wishes to annihilate the value of that labour-power in every moment of every day, through competition with others on your administration, teaching, assessment, scholarship, research, public engagement, impact, excellence, unemployability, and it wishes to do this transnationally. It is no wonder that your physical and mental health is fragmented, commodified, made toxic.

labour increasingly struggles to be integrated into a global, alienating, social metabolic control, with ramifications for domination and subordination. Thus, a primary aim for revolutionary practice rooted in revolutionary pedagogy is not simply to overthrow capital, but to abolish it as the means of regulating society.

The critical moment for alienated academic labour, is to treat the University as context for radical research that might produce living knowledge capable of revolutionary practice at the level of society (Roggero 2011). It has no revolutionary moment beyond this position, and instead can only act for the recuperation and reproduction of the capital relation. An academic, workers’ enquiry is a departure point for enabling ‘the worker to develop the capabilities of [her] species’ (Marx 2004, p. 447), which will dissolve the capitalist mode of production inside a new, non-alienated mode.

Without such a theorisation it becomes impossible to negate the capital-relation through the expansion of the realm freedom and autonomy. Instead, the focus becomes about issues of free speech, academic autonomy, resistance to casualisation, and other tactical reforms of an otherwise brutalising system. [Revolutionary praxis] entails a focus upon the production of the self as a pedagogic moment grounded in self-mediation as the key organising principle for life.

Ibid., pp. 232, 234, 248

Merry Christmas.


on therapy and praxis and critical hope

Elsewhere, I write:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Castenell and Pinar argue (p. 4):

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


My therapy playlist is here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published… the alienated academic: the struggle for autonomy inside the University

I have a new monograph out with Palgrave Macmillan, entitled The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University

The book’s abstract is as follows: Higher education is increasingly unable to engage usefully with global emergencies, as its functions are repurposed for value. Discourses of entrepreneurship, impact and excellence, realised through competition and the market, mean that academics and students are increasingly alienated from themselves and their work. This book applies Marx’s concept of alienation to the realities of academic life in the Global North, in order to explore how the idea of public education is subsumed under the law of value. In a landscape of increased commodification of higher education, the book explores the relationship between alienation and crisis, before analysing how academic knowledge, work, identity and life are themselves alienated. Finally, it argues that through indignant struggle, another world is possible, grounded in alternative forms of organising life and producing socially-useful knowledge, ultimately requiring the abolition of academic labour. This pioneering work will be of interest and value to all those working in the higher education sector, as well as those concerned with the rise of neoliberalism and marketization within universities.

I have written about this project, including the abstracts for each of the nine chapters here.

If you would like a copy for review, please contact Palgrave Reviews and/or drop me a line. Equally, if you would like me to come and discuss the book at seminars/workshops, students or staff, or with union representatives/members, please let me know. There will be a book launch here at DMU in the autumn.

 


writing about/against/beyond the alienated academic

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

Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.

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

Carl Jung


A book against academic labour

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

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

In terms of the themes of the book, it is meaningless for me to separate out my work inside and outside the University from the work I continue to undertake on myself. It is meaningless for me to separate out my labour as something unique in the practice of my life. As a result, it forms an attempt by me to engage with Marx’s conceptions of estrangement and alienation, in particular focused upon being and becoming, dignity and indignity, objectification and subjectivity, and the possibility for recovering autonomy.

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


Alienated academic labour and the law of value

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


Indignation and dignity

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

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


Beyond recent work on the crisis of higher education

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

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


The structure of the book

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

Chapter 1: Awakenings (structure here)

Abstract

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

Section 1: the terrain of academic labour

Chapter 2: Crisis (structure here)

Abstract

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

Chapter 3: Alienation (structure here)

Abstract

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

Section 2: the terrain of academic alienation

Chapter 4: Knowledge (structure here)

Abstract

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

Chapter 5: Profession (structure here)

Abstract

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

Chapter 6: Weltschmerz (structure here)

Abstract

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

Chapter 7: Identity (structure here)

Abstract

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

Section 3: the terrain for overcoming alienation

Chapter 8: Indignation (structure here)

Abstract

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

Chapter 9: Autonomy (structure here)

Abstract

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


The process of writing as a movement of becoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music

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

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

 


On the Alienation of Academic Labour and the Possibilities for Mass Intellectuality

There is a great new issue of TripleC (communication, capitalism and critique) out on Academic Labour, Digital Media and Capitalism.

I have an article in there on academic alienation, which scopes the terrain for the book on which I am working for Palgrave Macmillan. The article also points towards some work I have done on Mass Intellectuality.

The abstract is given below. I have then appended my thinking about the structure for my book.

Abstract

As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, increasingly encumbered by precarious employment, debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of autonomy beyond the sale of their labour-power. Incrementally, the labour of those academics and students is subsumed and re-engineered for value production, and is prey to the twin processes of financialisation and marketisation. At the core of understanding the impact of these processes and their relationships to the reproduction of higher education is the alienated labour of the academic. The article examines the role of alienated labour in academic work in its relationship to the proletarianisation of the University, and relates this to feelings of hopelessness, in order to ask what might be done differently. The argument centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour.

The alienated academic

Alienation is a means of critiquing academic identity and academic labour, and of providing insights into the development of alternative forms of praxis. This is a critical way into a discussion of the abolition of academic labour and the role of public intellectuals in the generation of mass intellectuality. In order to connect the realities of the transnational restructuring of higher education in the Global North to academic labour as it is revealed in response to the secular crisis of capitalism, this book offers a mechanism both for articulating what alienation inside the University looks like from the perspective of the academic, and for developing alternative forms of autonomy. This takes the contested idea of the University as a public good one step further, by focusing on the Marxist term of alienation, in order to tie academic autonomy to co-operative alternatives through critical theory. In this way, the book enables student-activists, academics and practitioners in worker and informal education spaces to critique their own practices and to reveal their struggle against objectification or their struggle for subjectivity.

The structure of the book is in three parts. The first part considers the terrain of academic labour, and consists of chapters on Crisis and Alienation. The first details the mechanisms through which the secular crisis of capitalism is restructuring academic labour. The second situates Marx’s analysis of estrangement, alienation, fetishisation and reification against academic labour. It does this in terms of a focus on the activity of production, in its relationship to material, metaphysical and philosophical conceptualisations. As a result, a dialectical understanding of the layers of objectification, separation, mediation and identity-development will emerge.

In the second part, the terrain of academic alienation is analysed, in terms of: Knowledge (the products of academic labour); Profession (academic labour-power); Weltschmerz (academic self); and Identity (species-being). Here the relationship between subjectivity and objectification, use and exchange, and the potential for new forms of humanism related to the functions of academic knowledge are developed. One focus is on the internalisation of specific behaviours that are disciplinary and which become a key outcome for the system of production, with concomitant manifestations of physical and psychological distress.

In the final, concluding section on a terrain for overcoming alienation, there are two chapters on Indignation and Autonomy. Indignation focuses upon the role of intellectual labour in a range of transnational struggles for an alternative form of social metabolic control. Pivoting around counter-hegemonic and anti-power, the focus is upon the movement of dignity in the development of revolutionary subjectivity. In Autonomy, this is developed in order to critique the idea of autonomy, in light of the duality that, first, Capital is the automatic subject searching to secure permanent self-valorisation, and second, that labour’s search for autonomy-beyond-labour – the abolition of itself – makes it the crisis of capital. This work questions the potential for the social, collectivised use of academic labour, through the liberation of socialised skills, practices and knowledge from inside the University.


slides and notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

I presented at the DMU Institute for Education Futures seminar yesterday. My paper is based on a forthcoming article in a 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 slides are appended below.

There are a fuller set of notes here.


on weltschmerz and academic ill-being

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The rise of academic ill-health

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

on the University as anxiety machine

on academic labour and performance anxiety

Notes on the University as anxiety machine

on academic hopelessness

on world-weariness

notes on academic overwork

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

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


on being in-and-against the TEF

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

Truth is an act of love.

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


Elsewhere, Sally Hunt of UCU has stated:

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


Elsewhere, Sonia Vieru of NUS has written that:

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

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

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


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

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

notes on saying “no” to the TEF

notes on metricide

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

on world-weariness

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

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

the Alternative HE White Paper

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

on resistance to the HE White Paper

on the HE White Paper and academic practice

notes on academic overwork

against the HE Green Paper


on the (im)possibility of speaking

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

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always looking for exits.

Praying that my mind would just reboot.

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

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

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

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

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

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.


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

Excavating my soul from the compacted layers of trauma.

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

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

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

Ignoring that they might in themselves be healing.

Unclear that they might in themselves be healing.

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

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

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

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

And I remembered that years ago I wrote:

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

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

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

And I texted a friend to say:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.


This is the playlist I made along the way.