Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

ONE. Performance information: signalisation and dressage

Data is the bleeding edge. Follow the data to see where education is being cracked for value. Follow the data to see who is doing the cracking. Follow the data to see who is engaged in this process of enforced, public and open, educational data production. Follow the data to see who is then enclosing and commodifying that open and public data for profit. Follow the data to see who is selling and re-selling new services back into open and public spaces, and charging rents for them. Follow the data to see the transnational networks of dispossession that are using secondary policy, processes of entrepreneurialism, debt and indentured study, financialisation, and the assault on labour rights, to lever value.

And I am reminded of all this because Martin Eve pointed me to this University of Nottingham video on performance information. Not learning analytics. Not management information, but performance information. The disciplining of academic labour, where that labour is the work of both staff and students. Sold back to us as what students want, because their expectations have changed. Sold back to us in terms of progression and retention. Sold back to us as the new-normal.

Performance information sold back to us. The new normal. Dashboarding for success. For a moment I forgot myself and I read that as “waterboarding [academic labour] for success”.

TWO. I remember…

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of student debt, big data and academic alienation, arguing that “the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of globalisation and the University, arguing that “the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of circuits of affect and resistance, arguing that “social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance, arguing that “flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of money, labour and academic co-operation, arguing that “This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? ”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of research and the circuit of impact, arguing that “Inside the University, impact signals compulsion that is itself self-harming behaviour, and then enforces dressage in the name of power. This point was made at Governing Academic Life by Michael Power, in his focus on the role of impact in acting as a form of governance over academic labour. He argued that impact was an open and public closure of what can be discussed and produced, in order that a governance/command structure for value production could be imposed. Here metrics and investment interact to forms a circuit of capital rooted in academic production, with that productive power of research being disciplined through signalisation that then imposes a form of dressage… we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the proletarianisation of the University, arguing that “This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.”

THREE. What a mess.

This matters because we are now being taught about innovation spillovers by HM Government, and the explicit value of education to the wider economy. We are told that:

the share of hours worked by highly skilled employees is positively linked to almost all of the measures of productivity, profits and trade performance. Expenditure on training is associated with increased labour productivity at the enterprise level. Purchases of goods and/or services from the Education sector (comprising schools, and further and higher education institutions) increases labour productivity at the sector level, total factor productivity at both the sector and enterprise level, and the ratio of exports to output at the sector level. Exposure to spillovers from education purchases is negatively correlated with labour productivity but positively and significantly correlated with all the other performance variables. (p. 15)

And we already know that we have transnational corporations working with HMG or HEFCE to open-up UK higher education in the name of efficiency, like Pearson or Goldman Sachs.

And we already know that Universities UK are driving data-driven change in the name of a smarter, stronger sector.

And we already know that RAND Europe and Ranmore consulting have been working with HEFCE and the Leadership Foundation for HE, for example on impact metrics and the REF.

And we already know of the work around Britain’s “Emergent Corporate Universities”: Academia in the Service of International Capital and the Military Industrial Complex.

Happy days.

FOUR. Data and anxiety: does it really have to be this way?

In her excellent essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford argues:

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind ofsurveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

Overcoming anxiety with anonymity then becomes the thing, as Tiqqun argue. This is the very ability to define a subjectivity beyond the hegemonic control of data as experience:

Establishing a zone of opacity where people can circulate and experiment freely without bringing in the Empire’s information flows, means producing “anonymous singularities,” recreating the conditions for a possible experience, an experience which will not be immediately flattened out by a binary machine assigning a meaning/direction to it, a dense experience that can transform desires and the moments where they manifest themselves into something beyond desire, into a narrative, into a filled-out body.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis on “The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

To use data beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To use data for co-operative performance beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To resist the co-option of data for impact and performance management. If you work in UK HE, good luck with that.


for a political economy of massive open online courses

I have an article coming out in a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology next year, on open education. It’s entitled “For a political economy of open education”.


In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.


I have written about MOOCs and political economy here.

I have written about MOOCs and neoliberalism here.

I have written about MOOCs, networks and the rate of profit here.

I have written about MOOCs and the restructuring of the University here.

on the academic commons

Joss Winn reminds me that Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, “The First International” in late October 1864, included the following statement about the political importance of collective work, association and combination, as a bulwark against the economic and political power of Capital. 

One element of success they [Labour] possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.

I think about this in academia today because Joss is running his final WordPress workshop (related to the Lincoln University Academic Commons). The Lincoln Commons, alongside the work of ds106 and collective work at University of British Columbia was the inspiration for the DMU Academic Commons, which is rooted in collective organising principles, in terms of its decision-making and production/consumption/distribution.

[The DMU Commons is] open, and will encourage generosity, respect, tolerance and sharing. Our DMU Commons will enable permeability and fluidity in collaboration, supporting autonomy in our shared production of DMU as a University committed to engaging with useful social reproduction. Our Commons will help shape DMU as a “knowing University”, where thinking is shared in public, in order to enable society/communities to solve problems, develop alternatives and innovate.

I have discussed the idea of the academic Commons under this tag, although I have been more specific about it, in terms of:

There are examples of student-led, staff-led, public/University spaces, curriculum, journal/publishing, and project sites on the DMU Commons, here.

Current blog-posts and updates are accessible from our aggregator, here.

These developments owe much to the work of Joss Winn and at DMU, Owen Williams.

This earth was made a common treasury/For everyone to share/All things in common.

Bragg, B. 1985. The World Turned Upside Down


For a political economy of open education

Tomorrow I’m speaking on a panel at The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University. The panel is on “Open Education: Condition Critical”.

The purpose is to explore “opportunities to critically and creatively experiment with different ideas of what the university and education can be.”

Event details are at:

My slides are at

I will make the following points in my 10 minutes on a political economy of open education.

ONE. It is worth checking out the following pieces on open in education.

TWO. I want to make three points. First, that a political economic analysis of open education reveals a revolutionising of the means of production and the disciplining of academic labour. Second, that open education is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Third, that we need to ask what is to be done, not in order to recuperate open education but to abolish it? How might we re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism?

NOTE: here ds106 serves as a reminder of the relationships that might point towards an alternative.

THREE. Audrey Watters has written about the co-option of open/openness as a form of “Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.” She argues that “I think the answer is more transparency about our politics. I think, in fact, the answer is politics.” This is a call to critique the interests that drive educational/technological innovation, and their interrelationships. Elsewhere Sarah Amsler has echoed this in a focus on critical pedagogy and the fearless university, when she talks about ‘a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice’.

FOUR. This form of political analysis stands in relation to value, and an engagement with value production and accumulation is central to any understanding of the condition of open education. For Marx in Capital Volume 2: ‘Value emerges as a form of sociability (as capital) from the unity of three circuits. It is formed of moments of the circulation of money, of production, and of commodities. The self-expansion of value is “the determining purpose, as the compelling motive.”’ How does open education emerge from the interrelationships and flows of money/debt/equity, the production of teaching and learning services, and of data/content? How does the unity of these three circuits reinforce hegemonic power? We might speak of openness as hope or emancipation or humanity, but as Anselm Jappe notes: ‘Accumulated value, and the power that flows from it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised.’

FIVE. A critique of open education from the standpoint of value is important because the idea of open [whatever] has been co-opted by those with power as and export/industrial strategy related to financialisation and marketisation. This is witnessed in statements by UK Government Ministers that “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops”, and also by UK Opposition Ministers that “our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy.” These policy statements are then amplified by entrepreneurial activity that is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. As Will Davies highlights, this focus on enterprise or entrepreneurship in policy and practice pivots around the creation of a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns (debt and the future); and second in expanding the arena for competition (into the public sphere and into pedagogic practices). Thus, we witness Vice Chancellors like Martin Bean at the UK Open University stating that: “There is some fantastic work being done, but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of innovation to think bigger, not just about reaching new audiences, but about revolutionising the traditional learning and teaching experiences.” Entrepreneurial activity underpins the production and circulation of value through commodity-dumping in new markets and by making established, public spaces productive.

SIX. This local policy/practice infrastructure is “enriched” by a transnational framework that seeks to create open markets in services and open access to procurement [see, Council of EU:]. This framework then looks to reduce [through arbitrage] the labour content of services and products [see, Gartner:]. Whilst other educational service providers look to create or co-opt “an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners [and learning outcomes]” [see, Pearson’s Five Trillion Dollar Question:]. A Bain and Company note on a world awash with money highlighted the market/finance opportunities of a liberalised educational trading space. Opportunities focused upon: developing exportable services to increase revenues and profits [e.g. MOOCs and OERs]; upgrading low-tech products into premium consumer goods and services [e.g. curriculum components like assessment, and learning analytics]; making services bound by physical geography more portable and global [mobile commodity-dumping]; enabling leading universities in the advanced economies to accelerate the training of home-grown specialists in emerging economies; and importing “highly-skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation for their own education systems to produce a skilled workforce”.

SEVEN. This open educational framework is then used by transnational joint-ventures, in order to leverage surplus value in ways that traditional universities could not do alone. In part this is achieved through the commodification of vast arrays of data, and the creation of new services, which in turn reflect the need to make academic labour productive of value. For example, Coursera partners include: venture capital: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, GSV Capital, International Finance Corporation, Learn Capital Venture Partners; educational publishers like Laureate Education; and transnational bodies like the World Bank. These transnational joint-ventures or associations of capitals demonstrate the interrelationship between profitability and investment. Here open education is a technical response of global capital to lower levels of profitability, the need to increase global consumption of educational services, and the demand to make previously marginal sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Thus, the impact of educational innovation is: first, as a means of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; second, a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; and third, as a means of revolutionising the means of production and disciplining labour.

EIGHT. It is impossible to understand the role of open education without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class.

NINE. What is to be done? Is it possible to re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism? The idea of re-producing the general intellect as mass intellectuality, or an alternative form of sociability that is beyond the market because it subsumes the market inside, and that is beyond financialisation because it liberates time, is critical. For Marx, the general intellect was: “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].” A central concern is how to enact, produce and circulate contemporary space/time, so that the future is not foreclosed, and so that liberation-is-praxis. Liberation demands personal and public struggle, and leads us to question, pace Harry Cleaver, whether the idea of open education might be used to recompose the possibility of educational and societal struggle in more autonomous educational organisations and spaces that exist within and between both the university and the community. Here there is a focus on the forms of academic [i.e. staff and student] labour in order to politically recompose the division between the university [as a factory of ideas] and the community. Is it possible to use the idea of open, public education to abolish the university that is, and to re-produce the university of utopia as an alternative form of sociability?

TEN. There are important examples of struggles for alternatives.

In labour rights: 3cosas; the Australian Actual Casuals; Leeds Postgrads 4 Fair Pay.

In campaigning for the public university, and in the College of Debtors in Defiance, and in remaking the University.

In educational and co-operative spaces like the Social Science Centre, and Open Data Manchester, and in the FLOK Society project, and in the idea of the Commons and communing and commonism.

These examples remind us that it is possible to challenge a false idea of material abundance (rooted in normalised ideas of growth, accumulation and debt), alongside a false idea of immaterial scarcity (reinforced in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership), and the pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce. As Bauwens and Iacomella argue ‘we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”’

ELEVEN. We might ask whether educational practices that are rooted in open co-operativism provide a better alternative political economy and set of possibilities for struggle. Open co-operatives:

  • emerge from democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives;
  • connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution;
  • embody and critique/develop the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives;
  • define an alternative framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities;
  • enable a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft);
  • connect a global educational commons that is rooted in critical pedagogy;
  • offer possibilities for the conversion, dissolution or creation of established/emergent/new educational institutions, which are themselves both transitional and pedagogic.

A focus on open co-operativism as a pedagogic process, rather than fetishizing open education as an allegedly emancipatory outcome, might enable a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice.

Open Education: Condition Critical

On November 20th I’m speaking on a panel at The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University. The panel is on “Open Education: Condition Critical”.

The purpose is to explore “opportunities to critically and creatively experiment with different ideas of what the university and education can be.”

Event details

Thursday November 20th 4:30-6:30pm

Coventry University, Disruptive Media Learning Lab, 3rd floor Frederick Lanchester Library

Free entrance. Please register at:


Sean Dockray (The Public School)

Richard Hall (De Montfort University Leicester)

Shaun Hides (Coventry University)

Sharon Irish (University of Illinois/FemTechNet)

Pauline van Mourik Broekman (Mute)

Panel scope

What for decades could only be dreamt of is now almost within reach: the widespread provision of free online education, regardless of a student’s geographic location, financial status or ability to access conventional institutions of learning. Yet for all the hype-cycle that has been entered into over MOOCs, many experiments with Open Education (OE) do not appear to be designed to challenge the becoming business of the university or alter Higher Education in any really fundamental way. If anything, they seem more likely to lead to a two-tier system, in which those who can’t afford to pay (so much) to attend a traditional university, or belong to those groups who prefer not to move away from home (e.g. lower-income families), have to make do with a poor, online, second-rate alternative education produced by a global corporation.

Open Education: Condition Critical will thus examine some of the opportunities that exist for experimenting, critically and creatively, with very different ideas of what the university and education can be in the 21st century. In doing so, rather than focusing on the 2012 batch of extremely publicity-savvy xMOOCs (Edx, Udacity, FutureLearn etc.), it will draw attention to a range of more radical developments in the Open Education arena. They include The Public School, FemTechNet’s DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Courses), the self-organised ‘free universities’ associated with the Occupy, anti-austerity and student protests, and even so-called ‘pirate’ libraries such as and

Open Education: Condition Critical has been organised to mark the publication of Open Education: A Study in Disruption (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014), co-authored by Coventry University’s Open Media Group and Mute Publishing as a critical experiment with both collaborative, processual writing and concise, medium-length forms of shared attention.

On the abolition of academic labour

In my on-going quest to abolish myself, I have a paper accepted in the open access journal, TripleC: Communication, Capitalism and Critique, “On the abolition of academic labour: the relationship between intellectual workers and mass intellectuality”.


This article analyses the ways in which academic labour as a productive activity is subsumed inside the circuits and cycles of finance capital. These circuits are redefining universities as transnational associations of capitals, through which the concrete and abstract realities of academic labour are recomposed for value production and accumulation. One way of critiquing and moving beyond such a recomposition is through a reconsideration of academic labour as a fetishised form of labour, and subsequently framed in terms of the idea of ‘mass intellectuality’. The potential for mass intellectuality to enable liberation from the domination of capitalist social relations is contested, but the idea of socially-useful, living knowledge offers a mechanism for rethinking the value of academic labour, and pointing towards its abolition. Thus, the article asks whether it is possible to dissolve academic labour into the fabric of society as intellectual work, through which another image of society and social production becomes possible. Here the ideas of open co-operativism and fearless practice underpin a politics of alliance against capital that seeks to abolish the present state of things.

on the proletarianisation of the University

The subsumption of academic life, through competition and financialisation, and driven by the disciplinary control of data and debt, enforces widening inequalities inside higher education (HE). Moreover, subsumption works to modify the processes of accumulation, which enable academic labour, in the form of student labour-power or staff teaching or shared research, to be proletarianised. The process of proletarianisation is global, and is influenced both by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy, and internationally through the role of trade partnerships and innovations like MOOCs. The end result is an increase in the number of academic labourers, in the form of postgraduates who teach, adjuncts, casual teachers, associate/full professors, and crucially students, who lack control over the means of production. In each of these cases individual labourers survive by selling their labour-power in the market.

This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.

For Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, this process of proletarianisation accompanied the globalisation of the circuits of production. This is reinforced for transnational HE through its explicit connection into the circuits of value production and accumulation, inside mechanisms like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto:

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Thus, we witness reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; and we witness postgraduate researcher-led committees that “have been pushing the[ir] University to honour the essential role that teaching assistants play in University life in the form of fair pay and treatment.”; and we witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; and we witness a documenting of the processes and pains of casualisation. As students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal they are forced to contend and compete globally. These proletarianised labourers are forced to compete as technological, entrepreneurial, and impactful.

For Michael Richmond, one outcome of this process is that people are forced to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards.

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

The reality is that, besides the social status and the myth of the autonomous entrepreneur, the role is a miserable one. They put in longer hours than anyone, often paying themselves poverty wages at first and taking no money out of the business (in fact, usually the opposite) as it often isn’t profitable anyway.

With such a configuration of production, the worker is sometimes left without a traditional boss to hate – leaving either an abstract concept of “the system” or, more likely, themselves, as the culprit. Meanwhile the entrepreneur, no less guided by the coercive laws of competition as any 19th century factory owner or Google CEO, no longer lives the capitalist’s dream of not having to work as instead they play several roles at once, often further hampered by actually “believing” or being emotionally invested in what they’re doing.

[W]orkers’ and managers’ immiseration coincide, where the exploited and the self-exploited service richer or credit-worthy consumers while the rentier class hoovers up most of the dosh through property and financial gatekeeping. The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

Michael Roberts has argued cogently how the technologised, entrepreneurial individual is an outcome of the pressures of competition as they emerge from the market correction and deleveraging in the global economy. He has also argued that the crisis is one of profitability and investment, and is affecting both compensation for labour and hours worked. The end-product is that people are being forced into precarious, self-employment (as self-exploiting entrepreneurs) and are working longer hours for lower pay, whilst inequality widens on a global terrain. This is an echo of Marx and Engel’s argument in the Communist Manifesto that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.

Across globalised HE, we witness zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, the need for collective action like the 3cosas, and so on. In a competitive, transnational educational market, academic labour rights will be threatened by the equalising pressures of transnational competition and productivity, which includes new forms of competition from private providers. These might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations. Whilst these innovations need to be analysed in terms of the tensions that emerge between the forces of technological production and individual labour time that can be exploited or alienated, they are also driven by a need to overcome the historic tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This acceptance of immiseration is one outcome of recalibrating higher education inside a national export strategy. In his higher education position paper, Robbins Rebooted, Liam Byrne MP, argued that:

If we want a model of more inclusive growth, where more people earn more – at the top of the hourglass, then we need a higher education system that helps to build better jobs and equips people with the skills for high skilled, high value-added, non-routine jobs.

It reminded me of something blunter that Paul Hofheinz, President of the Lisbon Council said to me…: “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others.”

So our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy

This is an acceptance that for vast swathes of the global population there is only immiseration and low-skilled, low value-added, routine jobs in a transnational market. This is about competition and the incorporation of HE inside that logic, so that competition is driven by precarity and casualisation and competition between entrepreneurs.

Here Will Davies’ recent work on neoliberalism is useful enables us to analyse capitalist work inside academia in light of (self-exploiting) entrepreneurial activity that is:

  • enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism;
  • operating through counter-acting norms that can never be stabilised;
  • rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition; and
  • grounded in vision and desire.

The avaricious desire is therefore to recalibrate the whole of existence as an entrepreneurial life, in order to widen the orbit of productive labour. In part, this is done through the individuated, technologised Self. It is also achieved through the entrepreneurial recalibration of the collective labourer. Critically, this means that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, impact, technological innovation and so on. As Marx argued in Chapter 16 of Capital:

Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is essentially the production of surplus value. The labourer produces, not for themself, but for capital. It no longer suffices, therefore, that they should simply produce. They must produce surplus-value.

That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolteacher is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of their scholars, they work like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.

To re-quote Michael Richmond:

The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

A critical issue for academics and students as labourers emerges from the process of their working lives as they are rooted in the creation of circulation of services that are compensated through “a share of the surplus product, of the capitalist’s revenue” (Marx, Grundrisse). Thus, those who labour to provide a service, alongside those who labour to produce surplus value, are faced by capital’s drive to expand and accumulate value, and to reduce costs in the face of maximising profit. For Marx, profit was key in disciplining and exploiting (productive) labour and in driving down labour costs. Thus, in speaking about the relationship between public infrastructure, [technological innovation], the role of the State and the drive for private profit, Marx argued the following.

The separation of public works from the state, and their migration into the domain of the works undertaken by capital itself, indicates the degree to which the real community has constituted itself in the form of capital. A country, e.g. the United States, may feel the need for [technological innovation] in connection with production; nevertheless the direct advantage arising from them for production may be too small for the investment to appear as anything but sunk capital. Then capital shifts the burden on to the shoulders of the state; or, where the state traditionally still takes up a position superior to capital, it still possesses the authority and the will to force the society of capitalists to put a part of their revenue, not of their capital, into such generally useful works, which appear at the same time as general conditions of production, and hence not as particular conditions for one capitalist or another – and, so long as capital does not adopt the form of the joint-stock company, it always looks out only for its particular conditions of realisation, and shifts the communal conditions off on to the whole country as national requirements. Capital undertakes only advantageous undertakings, advantageous in its sense. … Capital must be able to sell the [technological innovation] in such a way that both the necessary and the surplus labour are realised, or in such a way that it obtains out of the general fund of profits – of surplus values – a sufficiently large share to make it the same as if it had created surplus value. The highest development of capital exists when the general conditions of the process of social production are not paid out of deductions from the social revenue, the states taxes – where revenue and not capital appears as the labour fund, and where the worker, although he is a free wage worker like any other, nevertheless stands economically in a different relation – but rather out of capital as capital. This shows the degree to which capital has subjugated all conditions of social production to itself [Marx, Grundrisse)

Critically, proletarianisation is amplified not only by the privatisation of the conditions for social reproduction but also by the demand for labour to be productive (i.e. to expand capital). As soon as it becomes unproductive, then it will not be employed or it will be outsourced. Investment in new physical and virtual spaces through which surpluses can be invested and returns taken out is pivotal in the expansion of capitalism. Thus, the idea of traditional HE needs to be addressed against the production and circulation of value, and in response to potential blockages that might induce a crisis by constricting capital flows. Innovations like MOOCs might fruitfully be analysed against these potential constrictions or barriers to the social reproduction of capital, which maintain an increase in the rate of profit and leverage further investment.

Thus, Marx and Engels argue in the Communist Manifesto, emerges a:

class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce.

The growth of technological and entrepreneurial activity inside and against the University forms a way for capital to leverage the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested. Educational innovation also enables a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive. Therefore, it becomes important to analyse the role of innovation in revolutionising the means of production and in proletarianising the University. One signal that this is occurring is Pearson’s focus on “doubling the amount of really high value learning [at no extra total cost]” through: being more global; being more mobile; thinking holistically; being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes. Pearson argue:

building an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners

Responses to this entail a critique of academic labour inside the University and across the terrain of HE that also includes open environments and Commons. Such responses might usefully focus on the following.

ONE. Critiques of the value of academic labour, as it is generated both by tenured/non-tenured staff and through the labour of the student. This will enable the latter to become more than the carrier of technologised, entrepreneurial value, born out of the marriage of debt and data. Recalibrating the work of academics (and sub-strata of academics, like adjuncts, tenured/untenured and so on) and students as labourers, and therefore as the working class governed by the wage relation (even where it is debt-driven), is critical in refusing proletarianisation. This has implications for the control of time and the autonomy of capitalist work. Academics and students may feel that they have more autonomy, but the wage-relation and the real subsumption of work affects that reality. As Marx notes in Wage Labour and Capital

the putting of labor-power into action — i.e., the work — is the active expression of the laborer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity.

But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class , unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class ; and it is for him to find his man — i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.

Even the entrepreneur as commodity-producer is obliged to sell her products in competition. Critically, the means of production inside HE, in terms of the content, the infrastructures, the data and learning analytics, the applications and so on, are not owned by the entrepreneur unless she becomes a member of the capitalist class. Generally, the technologised, entrepreneurial labourer is forced to sell her labour-power and her products as commodities for a wage.

TWO. Critique of the mechanisms through which debt/indenture and the need to compete on a global terrain for a wage underpin proletarianisation. This means that transantional businesses governed by partnerships accords like the TTIP have power over labour and can restructure on a global basis, underpinning labour arbitrage.

THREE. The ways in which the expansion of the circuits of value-production and accumulation dominate the why of education, and underpin increasing academic alienation as autonomy over the mode and means of production are lost.

A critical issue is whether there are moments of solidarity across the academic labourer as a collective worker (student, worker, tenured/non-tenured academic and so on), in order to support collective action that looks towards the abolition of alienation through the abolition of capitalist work. Otherwise, as Marx notes in Wage Labour and Capital, academic labour will be increasingly subject to regulation through the exhausting logic of competition.

Now, the same general laws which regulate the price of commodities in general, naturally regulate wages , or the price of labor-power. Wages will now rise, now fall, according to the relation of supply and demand, according as competition shapes itself between the buyers of labor-power, the capitalists, and the sellers of labor-power, the workers. The fluctuations of wages correspond to the fluctuation in the price of commodities in general. But within the limits of these fluctuations the price of labor-power will be determined by the cost of production, by the labor-time necessary for production of this commodity: labor-power.

What, then, is the cost of production of labor-power?

It is the cost required for the maintenance of the laborer as a laborer, and for his education and training as a laborer.

The squeeze on remuneration and the potential for solidarity amongst collective labour has been argued by the IT Consultancy Gartner:

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital…. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

Following on from Will Davies’ work, we might ask whether and how solidarity can be sought that refuses or pushes-back against proletarianisation in and through the University? In particular, the following questions feel important.

  • How might the notion of political decision-making or action be harnessed in ways that broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond the University?
  • Does such deliberation lead to stagnation or reconfiguration? Do planning, debt and data subsume the future to incentivised utility-maximisation?
  • How is it possible for individual agency and collective institutions to be criticized and re-imagined simultaneously, in order to overcome neoliberal narratives?

Thus, academics might ask whether, in a globalised life that is restructured around the metrics of efficiency, value, enterprise, and where social life is restructured for-profit, are there alternative, qualitative descriptions of life that might enable alternatives to be developed? One possibility lies in the idea of the Commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning, which is a global idea of socialised solidarity. Elsewhere I have argued for a critique rooted in mass intellectuality and open co-operativism, as a mechanism for framing a useful higher education that recognises its own alienation through

  • democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives
  • connections to the circuits of p2p production and distribution
  • pedagogic moments that reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives
  • a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities
  • a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)
  • connecting a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy
  • conversion, dissolution or creation of co-operatives that are transitional and pedagogic

Refusing the proletarianisation of the University hinges on the creation of a ‘direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life’ (Marx on Private Property and Communism). This might be realised in spaces that incorporate increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. This requires that we have a more mature discussion of the possibilities for pedagogic production as a social activity that are for-society rather than for-profit.

In part this recognises that HE is folded into the circuits of capitalism precisely because no space is more important for the generation and accumulation of the knowledge, practices and skills produced co-operatively at the level of society, as ‘mass intellectuality’. Is it possible that a critical political economy of higher education as it is proletarianised might offer a way of developing an emancipatory critical pedagogy on a global scale? Might such a political economy enable the knowledge, practices and skills produced socially and co-operatively inside-and-beyond HE to underpin new social relations of production as a pedagogic project beyond the market?

Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference on Thursday in Brighton, on Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university. My slides are available here. I will be arguing three points.

ONE. Technology reveals an entrepreneurial reconfiguring of the idea of the University, which is increasingly witnessed in/catalysed by the policy/practice statements of politicians like David Willetts and Liam Byrne. The roll-out of innovations like the FEER amplify this narrative. However, critiques of the pedagogic pathology of entrepreneurialism are emerging (e.g. in Will Davies’ new book on the Limits of Neoliberalism), related to the expansion of the market and the use of debt to foreclose on the future. These critiques force us to question the ways in which entrepreneurial techniques are being used to recalibrate the University and the relationships between students/staff and students/debt, as higher education is restructured for value. Moreover, they reveal a deeper relationship between transnational frameworks, technology and higher education.

TWO. Technology is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Technology is one mechanism for managing the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation on a global terrain and across time. It also enables labour arbitrage to take place on that same scale, catalysed by transnational activist networks. Technological innovations might usefully be seen as responses to: lower levels of profitability across global capitalism; increasing global, educational consumption; and making previously marginal (and public) sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Technological innovation is therefore: a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; a mechanism for the redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; a way of revolutionising the means of production.

NOTE: it is important to see technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation. This needs to be seen in terms of the production and accumulation of value in order to reproduce power-over the world. This is the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

THREE. What is to be done? A re-imagination based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. Here I ask Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for value? Is there a co-operative crack through which “mass intellectuality” might be liberated or emerge? I look to some of the work that Joss Winn and I have done on open co-operativism and mass intellectuality to suggest the following discussion points for the co-operative, public university as an associational network.

  • Can the co-operative, public university be configured along the lines of the democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution?
  • Can the co-operative, public university reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university define a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities?
  • Can the co-operative, public university represent a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)?
  • Can the co-operative, public university help to connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy?
  • Can the co-operative, public university be based on Winn’s ideas of conversion, dissolution or creation, as a transitional and pedagogic project?

notes on the university and a pedagogy for change

“We often cause ourselves suffering by wanting only to live in a world of valleys, a world without struggle and difficulty, a world that is flat, plain, consistent.”

bell hooks (2008). Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge.

“It is important for this country to make its people so obsessed with their own liberal individualism that they do not have time to think about a world larger than self.”

bell hooks (2000), ‘Simple Living: An Antidote to Hedonistic Materialism’. In Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara, Regina Austin, Clyde Taylor (eds), Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems. New York: W. W. & Company.

“Feminist effort to end patriarchal domination should be of primary concern precisely because it insists on the eradication of exploitation and oppression in the family context and in all other intimate relationships. It is that political movement which most radically addresses the person – the personal – citing the need for the transformation of self, of relationships, so that we might be better able to act in a revolutionary manner, challenging and resisting domination, transforming the world outside the self.”

bell hooks (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

“A key issue for Student as Producer is that social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice. This transformation includes the institution within which the pedagogical activities are taking place, and the society out of which the particular institution is derived. At a time when the market-based model for social development appears increasingly untenable, the creation of a more progressive and sustainable social world becomes ever more necessary and desirable.”

Neary, M. (2010). Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange, 1(1).

“This analysis suggests that a post-capitalist university is one where the labour power of individuals is not measured relative or equivalent to each other according to the magnitude of its socially determined value, represented by the universal commodity: money.

“Their respective labour power is understood qualitatively in terms of their individual experience, skills and knowledge of the social and physical world: their ability or capacity as social human beings, and it is not deemed deficient during acts of ‘unequal’ reciprocity. In a post-capitalist university, social relations would accept absolute difference between individuals, rather than acknowledge difference while at the same time organising our social lives around an objective form of equivalence: money.

“In a capitalist university, students’ and academics’ labour power are qualitatively different use values brought into an exchange relation, yet it is a distinctive relationship because it is at the same time co-operative and productive. It produces knowledge, which might be sold directly through consultancy, patents, etc. or through its role in the reproduction of labour power, it will be sold elsewhere by the student for a wage.

“Neary posited the student as producer without analysing the student’s role as consumer. Moten and Harney argue students are producers through social, cooperative production. As I have tried to show, this social co-operation is expressed as the relative and equivalent poles of the value form, in which the producer and consumer are immediate to one-another at all time in a unity of opposites, dominated by the money-form.”

Winn, J. 2014. Academic labour, students as consumers and the value form.

“Before this dangerously authoritarian mindset has a chance to take hold of our collective imagination and animate our social institutions, it is crucial that all Americans think critically and ethically about the coercive forces shaping US culture – and focus our energy on what can be done to change them. It will not be enough only to expose the falseness of the propaganda pumped out by the commanding neoliberal cultural apparatuses. We also need to create alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be for our children and ourselves.”

Giroux, H. (2014). Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability. Truth-Out.

“At this moment, football is full of philosophers. People who understand much more than me. People with fantastic theories and philosophies. It’s amazing. But the reality is always the reality. A team that doesn’t defend well doesn’t have many chances to win. A team that doesn’t score lots of goals, if they concede lots of goals, is in trouble. A team without balance is not a team.”

Mourinho, J. 2014. José Mourinho takes aim at Chelsea’s ‘philosopher’ critics ahead of Atlético tie.

“VIII. All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

“XI. The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx, K. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology

I have a new article out in Learning, Media and Technology, with the fun title of “The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology”. The article is available (if you subscribe) here. Sadly, the article is only available behind a paywall, although there are 50 free copies here. I was approached by the editor to write a theoretical piece for Learning, Media and Technology. I accepted because that is the kind of thing that academics do. Martin Weller writes critically about open access and open scholarship. Wherever possible I will try to find ways to publish openly, as I did with this article on digital literacy.

The abstract is appended below.


This article considers the relevance of Autonomist Marxism for both research and practice in education and technology. The article situates the Autonomist perspective against that of traditional Marxist thought – illustrating how certain core Autonomist concepts enable a critical reading of developments in information and communication technology. These include notions of the ‘social factory’, ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘cognitive capital’, the ‘general intellect’ and ‘mass intellectuality’, and the ‘cybernetic hypothesis’. It is argued that these perspectives are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of education and technology inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. The Autonomist approach can be criticised – not least for its apparent network-centrism and its disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production. Nevertheless, this position offers a powerful ‘way in’ to understanding education and technology as key sites of struggle. It lays bare the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work, while also suggesting possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary education for capitalist work.