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.

 


US(S) v Them, over and over again

So it’s us v. them/Over and over again

Us v. them/Over and over again

Us v. them/Over and over again

LCD Soundsystem, Us V Them.

‘An age of crisis, such as the present, is an age of rage. It is an age of frustrated expectations, frustrated hopes, frustrated life. We want to study at the university, but it is too expensive and there are no grants. We need good health care, but we do not have the money to pay for it. We need homes, we can see homes standing empty, but they are not for us. Or quite simply, for the millions and millions of people in the world who are starving: we want to eat: we can see that the food is there, that there is plenty of food for everyone in the world, but something stands between us and the food – money, or rather the fact that we don’t have enough of it.’

‘That does not mean that we do not want money, necessarily. Money is the form that wealth takes in this society, and as the producers of that wealth, we all want to participate in it. In the present society, no matter how austerely we may (or may not) like to live, we need money to live and to realise our projects. So yes, we want more money, for ourselves, for the universities, for schools and hospitals, for gardens and parks, for projects that point towards a different world, and so on. But we do not want a world that is ruled by money, we do not want a world in which the richness that we produce takes the form of money, we do not want a world in which money is the dominant form of social cohesion, the medium through which our social relations are established.’

John Holloway, Rage Against the Rule of Money.


Want to do something about the USS strike? Follow the money. Do not see this as incompetent institutional or sector-wide managers needing to be brought to heel. This is class struggle; it is the asymmetrical struggle between a fraction of total labour encompassing some academics (with support from some students), and capital operating as a transnational activist network, working to reproduce power. Reproducing hegemony through exploitation and domination. Our struggle has to be seen inside-and-against the ongoing re-engineering of higher education – its real subsumption. This is the struggle by an association of capitals to extract value from education through commodification, and to ensure that our educational lives become defined by productivity and human capital theory.

Elsewhere, I write:

This idea of the subsumption of academic labour inside the circuits of capital is increasingly important in light of Marx’s (1992; 1993a) focus on the associational phase of capital, in which development emerges on a global terrain, with an interrelationship between commercial and money-dealing capital and productive capital. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include associations of policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students, who form a deterritorialised network (Ball 2012; Deem et al. 2007; McGettigan 2013; 2014; Robinson 2004). Here, the expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit, and in educational production it is leveraged through the use of finance capital and credit to increase the rate of turnover of specific educational commodities and services-as-commodities (Gartner 2013; Lipman 2009).

Through the USS strike we witness the assault on life by money. This is the commodification of working lives that we say that we love (and that we tell our students we love), and which we are told that we should love (a love that defines our being). And we have seen this coming. Andrew McGettigan has been writing about this for almost a decade. Back in 2011 he wrote about bond finance, making connections between the United States and United Kingdom as the latter began a process of engagement with finance capital through private placements. In it, he quotes an academic and union leader at the University of California commenting on the relationship between bond finance, credit ratings and university strategy:

Moody’s slipped into its bond rating for the UC system the need for the institution to restrain labour costs, increase tuition, diversify revenue streams, feed the money-making sectors, and resist the further unionisation of its employees.

Not only is this a strategy of diminishing a sense of collective, educational use-value, it forms part of the process of dissolving the fabric of the University as a concrete social institution, such that it becomes open to generating tradable services. The rule of money and the role of finance capital has a solvent effect on the relationship between academic labour and the University. The idea is to ensure that high-value academic commodities, including skills and knowledge, can generate exchange-value. Moreover, in the process of dissolving the fabric of the institution, this transfers a significant portion of the risk around performance in the market from the institution to the academic. In this way we see a twin-assault on academic labour: first, in the ramping up of student fees and the ideological repositioning of education around entrepreneurialism and employability; and second, in the assault on pensions, which is the bleeding edge of a wider assault on staff labour rights.


Clearly, this offers a point of potential refusal and struggle, because it is the moment in which student and staff struggles over the alienation of their (academic) labour come into alignment. The terrain of alienation focuses upon control over the labour-process and the products of that labour, alongside conceptions of the self and relationships with others. For too long there has been a denial of solidarity between staff and students and limited push-back against conceptions of students as consumers or purchasers, and education solely for impact, excellence, employability, entrepreneurship and the production of performance metrics. Of course, the ability to push-back depends upon the ability to theorise the position we now find ourselves in, and the extent to which we are able to use this theorisation to imagine that another world is possible. This means that settling solely for reform of institutional governance is a non-starter.

The pensions struggle demands a recognition that our society increasingly pivots around the transfer of risk to individuals as entrepreneurs, in order to support policy directives for productivity. It is about commodification of life, hidden behind an ideological sheen of austerity-inspired entrepreneurialism, employability and human capital development. It is the reduction of life to human capital, and this is reprehensible. It is the de-leveraging or de-risking of society from the individual. The disconnection of the individual from society as the latter is defined solely in terms of value, to the point of denying our common humanity beyond the market. It is the de-leveraging of humane values from institutional meaning, unless they are able to generate value.

Thus, we read that the governance issues around the valuation of the USS fund connect Cambridge colleges, Universities UK and consultants focused upon de-risking. As etymologic notes on Twitter:

The plot thickens: UUK surveys from Cambridge & its colleges were CREATED by a consultant from Xafinity. Xafinity’s work includes “de-risking” Defined-Benefit pension schemes – the company tell investors that this brings additional revenue.

The emerging struggle over the life-blood of the University, and of the power of merchant, credit and finance capital as they insinuate competition inside the logic of education, must pivot around what we want from academic production as a social activity. Do we envisage that it can only serve the market and money? Do we envisage that this is no way to address the range of crises that afflict the planet? This is important because the pensions struggle reflects an ongoing crisis of value, which has been described elsewhere as a secular crisis of capitalism.


Those staff who have faced the threat of large-scale redundancies, including in the present moment at Liverpool, and those casualised and precarious staff, have already faced this reality (including professional services and graduate teaching assistant colleagues who have been fighting for labour rights, maternity/paternity and pensions for years). It is also been clear to many of us that the drive towards metrics is rooted in the commodification of individual, institutional and subject-based performance, from which debt and debt-servicing can form an ongoing income stream, against which to hedge performance in this crisis of value.

The generation of value and the denial of values is a function of stratification and separation, which is amplified where corporations control the surplus value that is produced through commodification. In such moments, they can discipline and divide production through labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with collectivised academic labour. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers fulfilling a range of roles, solidarity and co-operation are under threat because of ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation.

This process needs a market, and if one doesn’t already exist it must be created. This means market exit looms large, and has been written into policy for almost a decade. This need for a market is also extended to potential students who carry debt, and who are encouraged to purchase commodities or services-as-commodities, as positional goods. Thus, the material circumstances of the production, purchase and circulation of educational commodities are critical, and they catalyse policy as a means of restructuring intellectual work or academic labour.

That some academics’ futures are being hedged can only be the beginning for this struggle. The USS strike is about the reproduction of capital on a global terrain. Therefore, responses to it cannot simply be about individual vice-chancellors or institutional governance failings. Responses to cannot simply come from self-appointed spokesman (and they are generally always white, middle-aged men – I note the irony here). We need a set of responses that originate horizontally and collectively, and which seek to remove academic privilege, and to remove the allegedly privileged position of academic labour. We need a set of responses that focus upon intellectual work at the level of society. There are three strands to where we possibly take this moment of revelation and uncovering.


ONE. The University and the capital-relation

In How to Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway argues that we deceive ourselves if we believe that the structures that have developed and which exist in order to reproduce capitalist social relations can be used as a means to overcome its alienating organisation of work. Holloway makes this point for the structure of the democratic state as a symbol of failed revolutionary hope. We might argue the same for the University.

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

The USS strike has to be stitched into the reproduction of the University as a node in the reproduction of capital, and more especially in the reproduction of transnational finance capital. This brings academic collectives, including students, into asymmetrical relation with hegemonic power. The struggle has to reflect these asymmetrical power relations, and be geared across a front of solidarity rooted in an alternative form of society, otherwise it will break. This is why I previously wrote about the strike in terms of a wider social strike.

TWO. Breaking the circulation of academic capital

The value of pushing for prefigurative, co-operative and alternative forms of governance for higher education institutions is that they then act as a replicable cell across society as a whole, which potentially draws in students and their communities, academics and professional services staff and their communities, and other groups fighting for social/collective goods. There is a long history of co-operative governance, and inside higher education Joss Winn has maintained a list of writing and projects about co-operation. This is a fundamental starting place for work related to alternative governance. It is crucial work inside organisations, but the ability to affect corporate governance is limited by the range of associated capitals in opposition. The staff and students of any one institution are not simply ranged against that institution, but also against its partners-as-vested-interests, which tend to include finance capital, policymakers, philanthrocapitalists. This is therefore a struggle defined by power, and that is why a reformist agenda that points towards a better or more inclusive capitalist project is destined to fail.

The strength of academic labour in refusing co-option, coercion and exploitation, lies in the fact that capital relies on labour for its reproduction through valorisation and commodification. Academic labour, working in solidarity, has the potential to refuse that reproduction. One of the most important features of the current strike has been an engagement with academic labour, beyond the commodities that it produces, through a reconsideration of the academic labour-process. It is in our ability to disrupt the circulation of value emerging from academic labour that our own strength lies. This is why the UCU call for external examiners to resign their positions is so important, and it is also why action short of a strike or working to contract is so important. The University relies upon an excess of surplus-labour being poured into it because academics continually tell themselves they love what they do, despite the fact that this makes their souls bleed, increases overwork, generates ill-being and mental health issues, and insinuate competition inside each of us.

What is required is a wholesale description of the circulation of value inside the University, and the replication of that across society. Time then becomes critical, because it flags how policymakers do not see the concrete nature of academic work, and instead focus upon its abstract, general properties as evinced through exchange. At some point we need to find strategies for demonstrating an alternative way of imagining academic labour that is not governed by abstract time. However whilst we address this, it becomes important to use managements workload planning in position to demonstrate to students and their communities, families and carers, how much surplus labour is being poured into the institution. This means flagging how much time is allotted for assessment, feedback, curriculum design, lesson design and so on, and what that means for academic lives, workloads and abilities to meet student needs. We need to demonstrate the collective implications of the imposition of overwork and the domination of time over academic practice, in order that we might collectively describe another world.

It is crucial that we focus upon academic labour as a collective endeavour, with its connection across institutions that are either on strike or not on strike, and working inter-generationally between tenured and non-tenured staff and with students/professional services staff, and working inter-communally beyond the University into society. The strength here lies in describing a broad movement of solidarity and dignity, which situates narratives of exploitation that have differential and intersectional impacts. These descriptions of lived experience of the crisis of value can then be used to question our abstract, alienating reality.

THREE. Histories of resistance

It is important to remember that we have countless examples of resistance that have a lineage in praxis back to the eruption of occupations, demonstrations and protests following the Browne review. One of the interesting things for me in the recent pensions strike has been how some academics have become ‘woke’ and yet have not been able to engage with a rich history of academic activism. I think that it is very important that we question why we failed collectively to act when the government, with collusion from vice chancellors, was able to impose huge rises in student tuition fees. It is important that we question why we failed collectively to speak out when the state was brutalizing our students as they marched through London and were kettled on countless occasions earlier in this decade. I think that it is very important for us to question what we will do differently now, in support of our students and their communities, alongside other struggles at the level of society, rather than seeing a pension strike as our soul focus. In this moment we have to move beyond narrow self-interest.

NB I state that we failed collectively, not that we failed individually. I know full-well that many of us did not fail individually.

There are links to a range of alternative education projects on the sociological imagination website, and each of these projects points to a range of strategies and tactics for disrupting the University in its relation to capital, or for disrupting the University as means of production for the capital-relation. We do still have a range of projects looking at the development of alternative forms of governance, including the Social Science Centre in Lincoln in discussions over a Co-operative University being facilitated by the Co-operative College. We also have a series of student-produced, documentary resources about the realities of occupation and the ability to reimagine the University, such as the Really Open University, the Roundhouse Journal’s Reimagining the University and Guy Aitchison’s work on the occupation of UCL, which Connects to the political content of the occupy movement.


I guess what I’m pointing to here is the re-imagination of the pension strike, in terms of what academic labour can learn from social movements and social movement theory.

This is a movement against stratification, separation, divorce and alienation. This is a movement against estrangement from self and other, and it is a movement for solidarity and dignity.

 


On the social (pensions) strike

The traditional university produces knowledge as distinct from society, and does not consider the production of truth is itself a social, practical and material activity. In conceiving critical knowledge in the abstract, the University denies the place of social, practical and material activity as a mode of critique. The University cannot conceive of itself as a practical-critical activity.

It is essential to educate the educator. The professor should not be respected according to status but only praxis. Until the professor deigns to speak to the student as equal, academic critiques can only be conceived as something to be necessarily overcome in practice.

If the students ever seriously threaten to take over the University, we predict that the overwhelming majority of professors will side with the bureaucratic guardians of the status quo: vice chancellors, wardens, senior management and boards of directors.

University for Strategic Optimism. 2011. Undressing the Academy, or the Student Handjob

As intellectual workers we prefer to share our work with others inside and outside of the university. As intellectual workers we refuse the fetishised concept of widening participation, and engage with teaching, learning and research only so far as we are able to dissolve the institutional boundaries of the university. Not mass education or education for the masses but mass intellectuality. Mass education is based on the assumption that people are stupid and must be made not-stupid (i.e. Educated). Mass intellectuality recognises that education maintains the population in a condition of stupidity (i.e. Intelligence Quotient) regulated through examinations and other forms of humiliations (i.e. Grades and Assessments). Mass intellectuality is based on our common ability to do, based on our needs and capacities and what needs to be done. What needs to be done raises doing from the level of the individual to the level of society. In the society of doing, based on what needs to be done, my own needs are subsumed with the needs of others and I become invisible (i.e. Free).

The University of Utopia. n.d. Anti-Curricula. A Course of Action.


LOCATION.

The pensions strike feels like it is everywhere, and yet it is nowhere. It feels like it could be a movement, and yet it feels static. It feels like it must win, and yet networks of power threaten to negate it.

BEYOND AN ISSUE; A MOVEMENT OF DIGNITY.

The pensions strike is a movement of indignation about the past, present and future of academic occupations. As a result, it has inspired student occupations: a crack. Yet I wonder the extent to which it is a movement of dignity that shows how tenured academics can open themselves up to their precariously-employed peers, how academics can open themselves up to students in-debt, and to their overworked colleagues in professional services, so that the University might be reimagined.

I remember the demonstrations in London in 2010, and the occupations and the teach-ins, and the discussions of co-operative universities, and I remember the kettles, and the students ending up in hospital, and the freezing night on Westminster Bridge. And I remember thinking, where are academics in this? Where are we in this, as their present and their futures are dissolved in debt? Not all academics, I know. But most.

DOTS BEING JOINED; BEYOND SELF-INTEREST.

And I note the reports from institutional UCU branches of students joining picket lines, of students refusing to cross picket lines, of students going into occupation, and of students pushing an anti-commodification and anti-marketisation and anti-financialisation agenda. And of dots being joined. Students joining staff; not all students; not all staff; but a start.

So I guess my question is how do we overcome the polarisations and quantifications and measurements that management wish to impose upon us, of those students versus these staff? Of staff diminishing the value of the student experience, and of staff needing to be punished for action short of a strike, and of management using a fetishised conception of the student to punish staff?

From where is solidarity born, in order to escalate this action? Because if this is not an action that can be escalated from pensions, to university governance and executive control, to the use of data to manage performance in the name of an abstract truth, to the assault on labour rights through casualisation and precarious employment, to the assault on the mental health of staff and students through the law of value and value-for-money, to the performance management of staff and students and the imposition of overwork, to individualised risk for staff and students, to the imposition of debt, and to the annihilation of collective engagement in the face of the market, then it stands for nothing.

Except self-interest.

AGAINST MARKET SEGMENTATION.

This cannot be a single issue protest. How can this connect into the idea of the University and of higher education at the level of society? How is this to be theorised, in order to engage in a battle of ideas, and to roll-out an alternative, collective conception of higher learning and teaching?

How do we amplify and escalate the political content of this strike, to reinforce the bonds between tenured and precarious academics, between academics and students and professional services staff, and between academic labour and society? This is important because the connection between academics, professional service staff and students is their shared, alienated labour. It is not the hope for tenure and status that catalyses performance anxiety throughout the academic peloton. The status distinctions between professors, teaching assistants, students, service staff, which management need us to fetishised and reinforce. We need to imagine a world in which the use of difference for exploitation can be abolished. We must start from recognising the solidarity in our own and our peers’ alienation.

[I]s there any voice today that has the political credibility and intellectual capacity to offer an alternative vision for universities in England? Will one emerge from within the sector? […] As custodians of our universities [leaders] need to think about what is best for higher education in England. Is it really the end of the post-war dispensation of public institutions and public service and the opening up of those institutions to global equity capital? There is a choice to be made here and it is a more profound one than our next mobile phone provider

McQuillan, M. 2015. Goodbye to all that.

THE SOCIAL (PENSIONS) STRIKE.

There is a need to join in solidarity beyond the University, to other struggles against a life mediated by money, commodity-exchange and the market. Through the pensions strike, this is crucial in our pointing towards collective rather than individual insurance against the future, and in describing what a good life might look like. It seeks to redress the loss of autonomy that we suffer under the rule of money, but it can only do this at the level of society.

If we cannot imagine this is a social problem, and can only see it in terms of this single issue, power-vested-in-money will flow so that it kettles us elsewhere. The worst excesses of the market will kettle us elsewhere.

We believe people should not go into debt for basic necessities like education, healthcare and housing. Strike Debt initiatives like the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual offer advice to all kinds of debtors about how to escape debt and how to join a growing collective resistance to the debt system. Our network has the goal of building a broad movement, with more effective ways of resisting debt, and with the ultimate goal of creating an alternative economy that benefits us all and not just the 1%.

Rolling Jubilee. 2016.

making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles… Most obviously this involves striking (or otherwise acting) in ways that maximise feelings of collectivity and enhance general levels of sociability.

Milburn, K. (2015). On Social Strikes and Directional Demands.

The idea of striking at the level of society, rather than simply in one industry, amplifies resistance across multiple, complex terrains and spaces, by a range of different subjects. Because we are not simply professors or teaching assistants or postgraduates or whatever. We are mothers, carers, brothers, social service users, friends, singers, dancers, community organisers, volunteers, whatever. And we exist in a world where care, love, faith, courage, generosity, respect, dignity are being kettled by the market. We are being told that our relationships are conditional and risk-based. And this is squeezing the life out of us.

As Marx knew, we need to aid movements that push in the same direction. We might begin with pensions, and take our indignation from the picket line and the teach-in, back into the institution, into our lecture theatres and our teaching spaces. And we might take our indignation into the ongoing use of zero-hour and casualised contracts, to support our colleagues without tenure. And we might take our indignation back into our relationships with our students, to fight for their futures. And we might be more active in the trade union, and across trades unions. And we might continue to organise. And we might take our indignation to the Office for Students and to policymakers who wish to define our educational lives through value rather than our shared, humane values. And we might take our indignation beyond the governance, regulation and funding of higher education, and beyond the ways in which our futures are being structurally adjusted, to enable us to fight for social justice.

The demand is, of course for our futures, perhaps with pensions as the spark. But it must also be the demand for dignity.


It doesn’t have to be like this. (The Really Open University. n.d.)


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.


In, against and beyond the Co-operative University

We’re decadent beyond our means, we’ve a zeal

We feel the things they’ll never feel

They’re solemn in their wealth, we’re high in our poverty

We see the things they never see

Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck

Wild Beasts. 2014. Wanderlust.

Yesterday I was in Manchester for the Building the Cooperative University conference, which is an outcome of the work of the Co-operative University Working Group (hosted by the Co-operative College). The objectives for the day were:

  • to bring together those interested in ideas and practices around a Co-operative University, co-operative higher education and alternative approaches to learning;
  • to facilitate a mutually supportive environment which enables challenges, issues and solutions to be explored and discussed; and
  • to establish a Co-operative Higher Education Forum to promote cooperative and related adult and higher education initiatives.

We heard about a range of actually existing co-operative projects, including the Centre for Human Ecology, the Govan Folk University, the Brighton Free University, RED learning Co-op, Students for Cooperation, the Social Science Centre, Mondragon University and Leicester Vaughan College. There were a range of other projects, and historical, material alternatives that were voiced from the floor, in particular during the morning session. Each of these were situated against the work of Neary and Winn in co-operation, with the opening out of discussions on membership/governance, pedagogy/curriculum/knowledge, validation and accreditation, and finance. There is more at #coopuni.

I hold my hands-up that I have been involved for years in actual, material, radical/alternative education, through occupations/teach-ins, discussions of the governance of the Social Science Centre and Vaughan College, in educational work through the Walsall/Leicester City Supporters Trusts, and in educational work related to homelessness. Yet I found a day that should have been inspiring somewhat odd.

It had a revivalist feeling, yet a revival of co-operativism situated inside a pragmatically-accepted view of the market and profit. I understand and connect with the need to create something that prefigures a better world, and that is rooted in co-operative values and practices, but from the start I had a sense that we were there to receive wisdom that was almost pre-defined (as a better capitalism). I struggled throughout the day with understanding to what the Co-operative University is the answer. Now I guess this might be because I struggle with my own place both inside and outside formal higher education. It is also because we are witnessing the real subsumption of higher education inside transnational capitalism, and the inability of that system to reproduce stable forms of accumulation. As we wait for the next financial crisis I wonder what happens to indebted Co-operative University students when that hits? At the same time I realise that a Co-operative University inside a Co-operative College inside Co-operatives UK inside a world market and framed by co-operative consumption, has everyday realities of planned revenue streams and loans. And this simply amplifies by cognitive dissonance around what is to be done?

This shapes and reshapes how I view alternatives, in their perceived relationship to formal, corporate, control structures enacted through regulation and statute. In short, I found myself questioning why we are building an alternative model of the higher education institution, rooted in an outdated model of educational practice and governed in a way that perpetuates that outdated model. I found myself questioning whether this was a real alternative.

In part my questioning is situated against my own weltschmerz, in particular in the face of ongoing, secular capitalist crisis with its attendant punishing and disciplinary austerity. However, my questioning extends the nature of this socio-economic crisis, which is destroying the lives/futures of millions of people, into the terrain of socio-environmental crisis. I also wonder why we are building a model in this way that is deliberately connected to a hegemonic system of oppression, and which is rooted in contradictions and tensions around the ongoing nature of work and the availability of employment that is increasingly predicted to be marginalised/made redundant by technology in so many sectors. So in building for an unstable world that is increasingly governed by debt as a moment of social discipline, I found myself asking why are we building in this way for a capitalist world that is collapsing? Is building an alternative form of sociability impossible? I found myself questioning how to enact Rosa Luxemburg’s idea (on socialism or barbarism) that ’to push ahead to the victory of socialism we need a strong, activist, educated proletariat, and masses whose power lies in intellectual culture as well as numbers.’

Much of the day returned less to ideas around co-operative pedagogy and co-operative governance/values, and instead to issues of co-operative capital and finance. This reminded me of Mészáros’s critique of the dehumanising reality of the capital system, which reduces life to second-order mediations that maintain alienated-labour as the primary mediation of our lives. This was amplified when someone with the conch stated that he wished for such co-operative practices to realise a return on their investment. In that moment it felt impossible to escape from the gravitational pull of capital, and I was reminded that if another world is possible it will have to be built from the ruins of our present, inhuman situation, through our voluntary labour being liberated or repatriated from inside the corporate university and ploughed into a co-operative alternative instead. Without liberating time or stealing time in the name of co-operation, we will simply reproduce our existing alienation ad nauseam.

We have internalised capitalism’s value-set, rooted in productivity/intensity and where any alternative is seen as sinful. As Gorz argues in farewell to the working class, we need to realise something different. Tactical and affective autonomy reduces the acceptance of hierarchical discipline, and increases demands for the quality and content of work that is both necessary/in the sphere of heteronomy and free/in the sphere of autonomy. What we require is less a masculine, engineered, corporate life driven by technique, and instead one rooted in humane values where individuals rather than capital are sovereign. Anything otherwise makes capital/exploitation/appropriation central to a productive life, and diminishes the space for a useful life.

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx describes the sphere of freedom or autonomy beginning beyond the sphere of necessity or heteronomy. Freedom consists of being able to work with as much dignity and efficiency as possible (in the sphere of necessity) for as brief a time as possible. It is important that a heteronomous sphere is subordinate to the sphere of autonomy, with the maximum efficiency and the least expenditure of effort and resources. The key is to make it possible for individuals to move from heteronomous, wage-based social labour effected in the general interest and requiring little time or intense involvement, to autonomous activities which carry their end in themselves. Can a Co-operative University help facilitate this as an alternative model, or only extend the apparently necessary labour based on production for exchange rather than use?

This is crucial as labour is increasingly proletarianised and jobs are abolished, and it demands a re-evaluation of the sphere of necessity, what is necessary in order to sustain life, and an end to bullshit work and bullshit jobs that are unnecessary and simply flood the market with useless use-values or exchange-values. Quite how we get to this is another matter, yet during the day I was constantly reminded of the work of more militant and radical, social movements, which had focused upon general assemblies, militant research, and work done in public, as actually-existing autonomy. Connections between such social movements, enacted through solidarity mechanisms and solidarity economies, and focused upon the generation of forms of mass intellectuality that can in turn act as counter-narratives, seem increasingly important in the struggle against the corporate university and marketised higher education.

In this, the reality that the new Office for Students can only drive a market agenda, rooted in strengthening the forces of production of knowledge, rather than democratising the relations of production of knowledge, acts as a brake on the alternative positions that any Co-operative University can develop. Where such associational, democratic positions sit in asymmetrical relation to governance and regulation that amplifies the power of marketised solutions, and which drive value-creation rather than humane values, they have little opportunity to counter hierarchy, power and hegemony rather than point towards horizontal, democratic solutions. Here I am left wondering what will be the practical orientation of a Co-operative University to society? Inside a competitive regulatory, governance and funding system, operating across global terrain, in which universities act as nodes in transnational capitalist networks (transnational associations of capital), how is it possible for a Co-operative University not to be co-opted? In a world where there is no monolithic institution, and no outside of capital, where pedagogy gets reformed and repurposed as excellence, what is a Co-operative University regulated by the office for students for? Moreover, inside such governance, what is it possible for a Co-operative University to be? Inside these structuring realities, how can co-operative values survive against the law of value? Years ago I wrote, pace John Holloway, about activism and exodus and the relationship between capital and the University:

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

There was one final point that emerged through the day and it was rooted in co-operative pedagogy, and co-operative classroom practices. I found the day exhausting because I was talked at for so long, and there was relatively little space for participation. It was almost as if the structure of the day was set up in order to drive a particular set of processes, which were neither co-operative nor recuperative. I am not sure what the structure of the day prefigured. This added to my confusion about the purpose of the day, and the nature of what was given/heteronomous/necessary versus where we had freedom/autonomy to define both the issues around co-operative education and the question to which the co-operative University was the answer.

In the afternoon session I attended the pedagogy, curriculum and knowledge break-out group, and one of the attendees highlighted that we should be talking about dialogue, praxis and the development of the critical consciousness. There was a real dialectical tension in the room as participants attempted to strip back the layers of co-operative pedagogy, curriculum and knowledge, and a general refusal to engage with questions around what is knowledge for and how should the curriculum be governed. Instead interventions pointed towards the nature of socially-useful knowledge, and its relationship to inside/outside the corporate university. There was a focus on the production of such knowledge through practices that were constantly prefiguring something more democratic, as moments of struggle or rupture. In these ways it felt like there was an urgency around dissolving the practices of producing socially-useful knowledge and that knowledge itself inside the fabric of society. Throughout there was an unfolding of why, and a desire to engage with Neary’s question of how do revolutionary teachers teach in a time of crisis?

Is it possible to reconnect co-operative relations of production and values, to co-operative projects, to the co-operative College and into a federated co-operative University? Moreover I wonder how it is possible to connect these activities and moments of becoming to the development of a solidarity federation across a range of other sectors of civil society, in order to develop counter-narratives? It strikes me that the conversations that happen in the margins are key. Conversations that happen in counter-positions, like Rhodes Must Fall, are key. Conversations that happen in spaces that are not white and male and privileged are key. Here, I do not wish to discuss becoming a challenger institution or a moment of disruption, where those challengers and those disruptors simply enable capital to reinvent itself through forms of de-/re-territorialisation.

Rather, I continue to wonder, how is it possible to reimagine the University? How can the Co-operative University enable us to believe that another world is possible?

Or am I just a Cassandra; a Jeremiah; anti-everything?


Leicester Vaughan College, a co-operative Community Benefit Society

I’ve been asked to be a Board Member for Leicester Vaughan College, as it is being re-founded as an independent higher education college and governed as a co-operative Community Benefit Society. LVC aims to provide university-level education dedicated to the needs of part-time learners and to those wanting ‘a second chance’ to study.

The College currently has a non-accredited programme and is working towards offering fully-accredited degrees in various forms of counselling and in arts, humanities and social sciences. There is more information on the LVC site, including information about membership and governance, with a membership form at the foot of the page (your share in the co-operative is £1), or here.

The objects of LVC are to:

  • provide university-level education [Higher Education] to those over 18 in Leicester and beyond
  • offer education which is centred on fully-accredited face-to-face, part-time learning and is open to anyone who can benefit from it professionally, personally or intellectually
  • continue and expand the Vaughan tradition of providing adult learners in Leicester with high quality university-level education, which is compatible with the requirements of working and personal lives
  • develop courses which reflect local needs, and our local and economic context
  • build, through the values and ethics of co-operation, an institution which prioritizes education over profit

LVC supports:

  • the provision of education and opportunities for a broad range of students from diverse communities.
  • an equitable and sustainable working context for adult educators and all who work and learn as part of the College.
  • an alternative and sustainable model of Higher Education focused on the needs of students, staff and the wider community delivered through co-operation.

Tristram Hooley has recounted why and how this has been fought for once the University of Leicester decided to close the Vaughan Centre for lifelong learning. There is more information on the Save Vaughan Facebook page.

It is also important to situate this work against wider discussions about the potential for a Co-operative University, including a forthcoming Making the Co-operative University conference in Manchester. For more discussion on this see Joss Winn’s recent blogpost and his list of resources relating to co-operative higher education. Also see Mike Neary’s praxis in relation to co-operation across-and-beyond higher education, and its impact on students and staff.

The Leicester Vaughan College Twitter feed is here.

The membership form is here.


quit moaning about the TEF

The Role specification: Subject Pilot and Year Three Panel members and assessors for the TEF has been published. As ever, HEFCE claims that TEF “is a scheme for recognising excellent teaching, in addition to existing national quality requirements… It provides information to help prospective students choose where to study.” Now, as we move towards subject-level TEF, HEFCE is looking to recruit another 100 academics and students to work on subject pilot panels. I assume that they will also provide some form of deliberative, distributed leadership on the on-going implementation of the TEF in their own institutions.

I mention this move to widen academic labour’s complicity in the implementation of the TEF, because it reminds me that last year, in response to a call on the National Teaching Fellow listserv for positive engagement, I wrote about resistance: “It feels important for me as an NTF neither to consider nor to do this work.”

In part this is because I refuse to have my work as an NTF, and my professional practice, co-opted by a Government that is seeking to damage further the idea of public higher education. The TEF is a means to further the twin agendas of marketisation and privatisation in the sector, which emerging through the White Paper fundamentally damage social mobility and social justice. I simply cannot lend my intellectual and social capital to it. Some of this rationale is set out in the Alternative White paper:https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/awp-introduction/

My second reason issue is that UCU is currently in dispute over pay, including working to contract. This dispute is focusing our attention on issues of overwork and anxiety/mental health problems amongst staff, increasing casualisation and precarious employment, and gender disparities in remuneration. Many of us resigned as external examiners in support of this campaign (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/26/why-we-are-resigning-as-external-examiners). Out of solidarity with colleagues on the HE single pay spine fighting for better pay and conditions I cannot justify doing this work.

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.

There is plenty of other stuff that I have written against the TEF. However, my endpoint that the TEF will damage both the quality of teaching and learning and the relationships between teachers and students, and that far from enhancing and celebrating teaching (through a culture of promoting excellence) it will solely focus upon the commodification of university life through the proxy of student labour market outcomes, has been amplified. This was emphasised both in Jo Johnson’s speech to UniversitiesUK on 7 September 2017, and also in Chris Husbands’ keynote at the DMU learning and teaching conference yesterday.

Johnson’s speech, titled Embracing accountability and promoting value for money in Higher Education, reiterates the core of the TEF lessons learned summary policy document. In this, strengthening accountability through the integration of rich data about graduate employment (using LEO data), alongside a new supplementary metric on grade inflation, emerges at the same time that the reliance on NSS data is to be reduced. For Johnson, there is a need to pay lip-service to the humane values that underpin higher education, whilst pivoting the re-engineering of higher education around surplus value.

The pursuit of knowledge is the hallmark of a civilized society and for many people a sufficient end for the higher education system in and of itself.

That said, we must accept that the transition from an elite to a mass system of higher education brings with it an expectation of a strong economic return too.

Johnson argues that the current and previous governments’ re-engineering of the system will enable him to support academic and academic leaders in rejecting “the arguments of the statists and the pessimists”, and in justifying the continued existence of English universities through a process of on-going reform. There is no alternative, and “we should welcome the scrutiny and embrace accountability.” However, as Catherine Boyd and David Kernohan note, this “moves the TEF away from something that is done on behalf of applicants towards being something that is done for reasons of policy implementation.” They highlight:

For those who have argued that salary outcomes are a crude or inappropriate measure of teaching excellence, this is bad news. Alongside the halving of the NSS weighting, it looks like the TEF is becoming more focused on student labour market outcomes than teaching excellence.

There was always an inevitability about this transition away from our recent history of quality enhancement across the sector, towards a new normal that subjugates teaching under the rule of money framed by new public management/performance management. Thus, a range of academics no longer discuss the politics of the TEF, rather the focus is how to make it more objective or efficient. This is teaching becoming more efficiently unsustainable beyond the market. Simon Marginson argues:

for better and for worse we live in an era of performance management in higher education. This is dictated ultimately by public accountability, and it is an unanswerable requirement.

There is no space in this argument to deliberate over “outcomes in fundamental areas” or “educational and social objectives”. The rule of money, amplified through the commodification of higher education, becomes the only “viable method for assessing teaching and learning”. This, of course, refuses the history of evaluation rooted in institutional audits, or other models for enhancement-led institutional review (for instance in Scotland).

Marginson continues:

The key to achieving the best possible and least damaging performance management system, is to create a virtuous circle between real outcomes, performance measure and the resulting competitive position.

Outcomes, performance management and competition are the rules through which academic labour is to be kettled.

There is no point in looking for alternative narratives or leadership from senior management within institutions. Janet Beer, the new President of UUK, broadly accepted Johnson’s stated position and argued that universities need to make the case for their work more clearly. Her predecessor, Julia Goodfellow previously noted that “the challenge will be to develop the system to ensure the information is properly communicated and helpful to students in the decision making process”. Effectively, it’s the only game in town so we all better quit moaning and get on with explaining ourselves more effectively. In this moment, the kettle tightens: money in the form of student and institutional debt as a key input; and money in the form of student outcomes/salaries as the key output. This is our teaching excellence.

So yesterday at DMU’s annual learning and teaching conference, the TEF chair, Chris Husbands, reiterated the key points from his post-match analysis of the TEF in a talk entitled 10 lessons from the TEF. The takeaways were a reiteration that: first, democratic accountability is conditioned through value-for-money and efficiencies; second, irrespective of contestation over datasets and outcomes, processes like the NSS and the TEF enable institutional leaders to focus minds on quality improvement; and third, it could be worse (we could end up with the equivalent of Ofsted). There is no space here, and no takeaway, for a discussion of alternative, dialogic processes or strategies. To reiterate, this is the only game in town so we all better quit moaning and get on with it.

Husbands’ 10 lessons focused upon the TEF:

  • measuring the things that matter to students (work, retention, assessment, quality of teaching);
  • being outcomes focused, rather than measuring the things that universities are good at talking about like changes to inputs or processes;
  • enabling metrics and benchmarks to deliver hypotheses and judgements;
  • enabling judgements to be made about strategic clarity, in the relationship between policy, practice and outcomes;
  • focusing minds on impact rather than describing initiatives;
  • catalysing coherent strategies for improvement;
  • shining a light on data (il)literacy, and the impact of innovation on students;
  • supporting analyses of genuine student involvement, embedded at all levels;
  • refusing to accept context as an excuse or point of analysis/challenge for poor performance; and
  • demonstrating that excellence and diversity are interconnected.

He ended by talking about the importance of the subject-level TEF for the investment decisions of students and their families.

Intrigued by his starting point in the strategic value of NSS data that could be triangulated with other datasets, and the importance he placed on situating the TEF against the sector’s history of quality enhancement initiatives, I asked the following:

Following Jo Johnson’s speech to UUK, with the inclusion of LEO data and the reduction in NSS weighting in future iterations of TEF, it appears that salary outcomes are to be used as the measure of teaching excellence. Are you worried [not concerned but worried] that the TEF is becoming more focused on student labour market outcomes than teaching excellence?

[c.f. Andrew McGettigan’s worked on the Treasury view of HE, and this report in the Times Higher Education about reinforcement of sector hierarchies]

He replied: “I’m going to give you the politician’s answer”. He stated that his role was to ensure that the TEF process as defined by government and HEFCE could be robustly implemented; that it was his job to deliver the institutional TEF.

Here I am reminded that I once wrote against a neoliberal curriculum, about who has voice/is silenced and the role of leadership.

It is increasingly less certain that institutional leaders, Vice-Chancellors or Vice-Principals, will challenge the dominant narratives of the State, in terms of the marketisation of higher education. Acting as CEOs the logic is that they will attempt to compete rather than co-operate. Thus, in the UK, University leadership was quiet over the threats of violence made by the State against students who protest, and we witnessed banning orders being sought against protest on campus, PhD students being suspended for protesting via poetry, and elected student representatives being removed from University committees for protesting. This enactment of the University as an enclosed space for dissent is a logical outcome emerging from the rhetoric of competition.

In this process of enclosure, we might ask whether our academic leaders will be able to work communally or co-operatively to roll-back the neoliberal discourse that commodifies all of our social life inside the market, and which kettles free debate about what is legitimate. We might ask then what is the role of the academic as activist in developing alternative discourses that argue for a re-humanisation of educational life and activity.

Game over. Thanks for playing.

 


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


notes against educational ‘managerialism’

Yesterday I wrote that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’ yesterday, and with ‘managerialism’ today.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.

Managerialism

Managerialism is now operating much more intensively inside increasingly corporate educational institutions. It rests on a belief that traditional, public-sector organisations are inefficient and lack the organisation and leadership to maximise student learning outcomes or teaching quality (Friedman 1962; Gates Foundation 2014). New forms of public management, like deliverology (Devarajan 2013) or the World Bank’s science of delivery, are implemented to rationalise and quantify processes and goals that are grounded in techniques of performance management. Often these processes are crystallised inside individuals and institutions as performativity, or the incorporation of hegemonic practices and beliefs (Ball 2003; Butler 2015). Across educational domains, managerialism reshapes the curriculum around commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of teacher/student performance, like income generation, research outputs, employability metrics, or student outcomes and progression rates (Hoareau McGrath et al. 2015). Any hope for those opposed to new forms of managerialism that radical subjectivity might emerge from the messy realities of the curriculum are lost in the processes of performance that subvert the concrete work that teachers and students do inside and outside the classroom.

In theorising these processes, Ball (2012) writes of three stages of neoliberalism, as a governance project that seeks the managerial control of everyday life. The first proto stage refers to the intellectual genesis and maturation of the neoliberal project. This stage witnesses a cultural attack on the everyday reality of the public and of the State, and it lays the groundwork for managing a consensus around the value of the market in defining the production of everyday life. In the second, rollback stage, social life that was hitherto experienced as public, and which included free-at-the-point-of-delivery education, is broken-up. Rollback connects to the third, rollout stage of the new neoliberal normal, through for instance: public policy that enables privatisation; the insuring or indenture of access to public goods like higher education; and, opening-up access to public, educational data for private gain.

Inside education in the global North, these processes are reinforced through new public management techniques (Davies 2014), which accelerate the quantification of academic practices through performance metrics related to teaching quality, learning environment, student outcomes, and research impact (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) 2015). Managerial processes that are grounded in the quantified academic self are amplified by competition, which forces individual universities: to restructure using bond finance to enable capital investment; to rebrand themselves for international markets; to engage in labour arbitrage, or the reduction in labour costs, through precarity and outsourcing; to drive strategies for entrepreneurialism or social enterprise, which refocus academic work on spin-out companies and intellectual property or generate new brand identities; to engage explicitly in corporate partnerships with publishers and finance capital that pivot around the production of value. Here the proto phase of the marketization of higher education meets the rollback of State funding and regulation, and the rollout of opportunities for marketization and accumulation, in a messy and contested set of spaces (Mazzucato 2013).

Such contestation demands the imposition of managerialism inside the corporate university, in order to regulate the institution and those who labour within it. This is imposed through: techniques of co-ordination, like service development plans and workload management that identify academics and students as resources (Ball 2003; McGettigan 2015); performance management techniques that seek to optimise outcomes or impact (DBIS 2015); and the imposition of systems of command, such as those which emerge from more nuanced analysis of the data produced by academics and students, including learning analytics (Crawford 2014) and ‘liquid information’ (Manyika et al. 2013). As a result, managerialism signals appropriate behaviours amongst academic communities, so that obedience is reproduced (Foucault 1975; Tiqqun 2001). For Foucault (1975), such forms of regulation crystallise disciplinary management by: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. Disciplinary managerialism enables a qualitative shift in the types of outcomes accumulated, whether they are framed as student satisfaction, research impact, institutional surpluses, teaching excellence, and so on.

A critical moment in the generation of managerialism across higher education is the entrepreneurial turn inside the University, as that working space mirrors the generation of the creative-commodity economy outside. This turn recasts the academic as innovator whose formation inside-and-outside the University can be witnessed and judged as creative and valuable, not because it is useful but because it can be exchanged and can generate a surplus or a profit (Hall and Smyth 2016). This is not about the relationships that the academic has either with her peers, her students, or most importantly herself (Amsler 2015; bell hooks 1994). It is about the enclosure and commodification of that life under the organisation of the market.

A critical managerial impact of this internalisation of performance is the reduction of academic autonomy, which is accompanied by new, systemic myths that prioritise ‘resilience’ as key performance characteristics (Plan C 2014). An individual’s resilience inside an organisation is here defined as a positive emotional and cognitive adaptation despite experiences of significant adversity. As managerialism generates academic alienation, for instance through targets for external income generation, faster turnaround times for assessment feedback, and new workload models, the resilient individual has to adapt to survive. Managerialism enables the restructuring of the University as a business through the alienated academic self (Tokumitsu 2015). Target-driven fears and anxieties form the internalised boundaries of a structural and structuring performance management (Ball 2003; Hall and Bowles 2016). In education, such internalised managerialism reifies certain forms of work because they are intellectual, creative or social, whilst also internalising the demand to be competitive and outcomes-focused. Thus, as managerialism enforces the routinisation and proletarianisation of educational work (Cleaver 2002), academic labour becomes subsumed inside a structure that exists for the autonomy of Capital alone (Hall 2014; Marx 1993).

One crucial rupture point in this struggle between Capital and Labour for autonomy is the raising of voices that are systemically marginalised. Processes of managerialism tend to increase the pressures on subjects who are female, feminised and/or racialised, in workplaces that function as white, male hegemonies (Alexander and Arday 2015; Gallant 2014; James 2013). Managerialism re-produces educational practice through a white curriculum that is rooted in colonial power, and inside institutions where it is exceptionally difficult for individuals racialised as black to attain high status positions, like professorships (Rhodes Must Fall 2016; Why is my curriculum white? collective 2015). The managerial recalibration of institutions around specific forms of performance that are productive of value amplifies methods of exclusion, because the construction of educational settings is framed by those who have the power to voice in those spaces, and to co-author those spaces. The underlying, on-going logics of colonialism are revealed inside educational institutions that reflect a power structure rooted in further colonisation that serves the purposes of value production, circulation and accumulation.

In responding to the on-going colonisation of education by managerialism, it is important that educators and students contest the democratic deficit inside their own institutions, which is revealed in day-to-day performance management and governance practices (McGettigan 2014). Emergent themes connected to personal narratives need to highlight the local, regional and transnational impacts of managerialism on the bodies and souls of educators and students (Hall and Bowles 2016). This is important because managerialism that is designed to open-up and connect datasets around academic performance, like progression, the repayment of student fees, and future earnings profiles for graduates, stitches education into global geographies of financialisation and marketisation (Ball 2012). As educational performance becomes a tradable commodity, and as curriculum inputs are re-engineered to enhance futures trading in educational outcomes and earnings (McGettigan 2015), there is a need to think through how the management and governance of education might be liberated as a form of open, co-operative, common property that is itself rooted in social struggle beyond the University. Might educators and students build something that is engaged and full of care, and where they no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage their own alienation?

References

Alexander, C., and Arday, J. (eds 2015). Aiming Higher, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy, London: Runnymede.

Amsler, S. (2015). The Education of Radical Democracy. London: Routledge.

Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.

Ball, S. (2012). Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neo-Liberal Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2015). Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Crawford, K. (2014). The Anxieties of Big Data. The New Inquiry Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-anxieties-of-big-data/

Davies, W. (2014). The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE.

DBIS (2015). Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474227/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice.pdf

Devarajan, S. (2013). Deliverology and all that. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/deliverology-and-all

Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Friedman, M. (1962). Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gallant, A. (2014), Symbolic interactions and the development of women leaders in higher education, Gender, Work & Organization, 21 (3): 203-216.

Gates Foundation, The. (2014). College-Ready Education, Strategy Overview. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/US-Program/College-Ready-Education

Hall, R. (2014). On the abolition of academic labour: the relationship between intellectual workers and mass intellectuality. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 12 (2), 822-37. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/597/638

Hall, R., and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 28.

Hall, R., and Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of the Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Hoareau McGrath, C., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M., Manville, C. (2015). Learning gain in higher education. RAND Corporation. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR996.html

hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge.

James, J. (2013), Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals, New York: Routledge.

Manyika, J., Chui, M., Farrell, D., Van Kuiken, S., Groves, P., and Almasi Doshi, E. (2013). Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information. McKinsey Global Institute. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://bit.ly/28Qy8aN

Marx, K. (1993). Capital, Volume 2: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

McGettigan, A. (2014). Financialising the University. Arena Magazine. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://arena.org.au/financialising-the-university/

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.gold.ac.uk/media/PERC%206%20-%20McGettigan%20and%20HE%20and%20Human%20Capital%20FINAL-1.pdf

Plan C (2014). We Are All Very Anxious. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.weareplanc.org/blog/we-are-all-very-anxious/

Rhodes Must Fall. (2016) Rhodes Must Fall. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://rhodesmustfall.co.za/

Tiqqun. (2001). The Cybernetic Hypothesis. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://bit.ly/mTWhMI

Tokumitsu, M. (2014). In the Name of Love. Jacobin Magazine, Issue 13. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-name-of-love/

‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ collective (2015) 8 Reasons the Curriculum is White. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://wire.novaramedia.com/2015/03/8-reasons-the-curriculum-is-white/


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.’