on educational technology and divestment

I spoke yesterday about the relationships between higher education institutions, the policy makers who frame the space inside which the University is being financialised and marketised, the technology companies which are attempting to leverage value from the education sector, and the finance/venture capitalists that are underwriting educational technologies. There is a slideshow on my slideshare, and a podcast of the session here.

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this transnational network, or association, of capitals both for higher education practice and for students and academics. I have also written elsewhere about the power of such a dominant network of merchants in higher education. I have also written elsewhere about how these networks amplify the militarisation of higher education. However, there is one specific point that I made yesterday, which I wish to reiterate here, which is connected to divestment. The recent occupation by students at the London School of Economics included in its list of demands divestment, stating:

We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

This idea of questioning which firms, companies, products, whatever, universities invest in recomposes any discussion of educational technology. There are some fundamental questions here about the networks of hegemonic power that universities are folded into, which link technology and data mining firms, venture and finance capitalists, academics, and the military. So we might ask, for example:

Who supplies our virtual learning environment?

Is there a parent company?

What are the relationships of the parent company to finance or venture capital?

What other companies does this parent company own? What activities are they involved in? Securitisation? Training the military? Biotechnology?

What networks of power is the company that supplies our virtual learning environment mapped onto?

What networks of power is the University mapped onto through its connections rooted in educational technology?

Through its deployment of educational technologies, how is the University complicit in activities that reinforce and reproduce hegemonic power? How does it reinforce and reproduce unsustainable narratives of growth? Given the energy and carbon embedded in high technologies, how does such deployment map onto concerns voiced by the keep it in the ground campaign?

This final question is rooted in our academic engagement with high technology firms that are seeking to use education in order to expand the orbit for value accumulation and extraction, in particular where fundamental questions are being raised about the impact on the global climate of unrestricted models of economic growth. All of a sudden we are forced to ask fundamental questions of political economy about the educational technologies that we deploy.

Clearly inside a policy space that is being opened-up for-profit through competition, divesting from such webs is problematic, and demands a larger conversation about the idea of the University as a public good. In the UK, former Universities Minister, David Willetts argued “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops.” Around the same time, the Institute for Public Policy Research noted in its report, Securing the future of higher education that there was a need to open the market-up through: first, access to open data (which would increase accountability and consumerism); second, the rule of money in underpinning efficiency and improving the student experience; and third, by encouraging competition from new providers who would bring innovation, entrepreneurialism and cost-efficiency.

As Will Davies notes in the limits of neoliberalism such entrepreneurial activity is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. These associations of capitals, or venture capitals, which are able to leverage value transnationally are rooted in competition and an idea of entrepreneurial activity that is rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition.

Investment in educational technology is also a space which, as Audrey Watters notes in Men Still Explain, is dominated by men from the global North.

Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

There are serious questions about whether academics and students are content with these hegemonic positions and whether we are able collectively to understand the role of educational technology inside our universities and colleges without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class. We might wish to use such a critique to question where academic labour is invested and from where is might be divested. Such a critique needs to be aligned with the realities of divestment from fossil fuels. This is a political issue that is in tension with the realities of the security state and the regimes of power that are maintained through transnational flows of capital, and which educational technology reveals. We should be seeking to discuss on campus whether we are content with our educational connections to educational technology products that are rooted in financialised and marketised responses to the secular crisis of capitalism. We should be seeking to discuss on campus how educational technology reinforces our implicit, academic links to venture capital, private equity, the military and security firms.

My presentation closed with two questions.

Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles, rather than for value?

What does divestment imply for the use of educational technology?

We should be seeking to discuss on campus what our activities and our relationships help to legitimate, and whether a diversity of alternative positions is possible beyond the market and those who maintain the power of the market over everyday, public life.


The University and the Secular Crisis

I am delighted to have a paper accepted by the Open Library of the Humanities on the University and the Secular Crisis. The paper builds on my inaugural, the slides for which are here. It also extends the arguments that I made on this site here and here and here and here, in an article about the abolition of academic labour.

The article will be out in September(-ish), but the abstract is appended below.

Abstract

The economic crisis of 2008 was followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. For several recent authors this forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis. This article is situated against the changing landscape of English HE and seeks to understand the implications of the secular crisis on that sector and on the idea of the University. It examines how responses to the secular crisis have amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. It then places this analysis inside the political economic realities of there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. The argument is then made that as this cultural turn affects the idea of what the University is for, both historically and materially, academics and students need to consider the potential for developing post-capitalist alternatives. The central point is that by developing a critique of the restructuring of higher education and of the idea of the University through political economy, alternative forms of knowing and developing socially-useful practices can emerge.

Keywords: higher education; political economy; secular crisis; university


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”.

Abstract

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.

NOTE

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.


CAMRI presentation: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

I’m speaking at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) on 25 March 2015 about the relationship between capitalism, educational technology, and the proletarianisation of the University. How lovely.

The working title is: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

The working abstract is…

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between space and time, and to subsume academic labour inside processes for valorisation.

However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. Through such a deformation, it also reminds us of alternative historical and material re-imaginings and alternatives like the Chilean CyberSyn project, the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, the Hornsey Experiment, and so on. This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education and academic labour to be co-opted for value-production. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects with limited power-to produce a world beyond value. A question is the extent to which pedagogical and transitional alternatives might be described, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


On my inaugural

So. Here we are.

It was my Professorial Inaugural yesterday. There is a slides/audio recording of it here (my jibber-jabber starts around 5 minutes in, but there is a rolling slideshow beforehand. If you watch this, do so whilst listening to Airbag by Radiohead). There is a recording of the audio on SoundCloud here.

Emma Dyer, Ian Pettit, Mark Hulett and David Kernohan made all this possible, and I am immensely grateful to them.

I am also immensely grateful to all those who travelled from far-and-wide to listen to me. This has been a difficult few years and to see so many people I love in the same space was wonderful, amazing, hopeful. I hope you all know how much you mean to me.

There is a collection of stuff related to the idea of 2+2=5.

ONE. I asked for people to contribute to a Spotify playlist, rooted in the words: education; faith; mass intellectuality; courage; solidarity; love; University; crisis. The final-cut playlist is at 225lols, but the collaborative Spotify playlist is still live at prof_lols.

My friend Richard Snape wrote a lovely piece about his music choices here.

TWO. My friend Andrew Clay created a teaser trailer at 225lols.

THREE. There are some tweets captured at the hashtag #225lols. I have Storified these here.

FOUR. The event was framed around the idea of collective work. I wanted to argue that we are persistently told that this abstract world, defined by capitalist social relations, is all we have. That in the face of environmental and social despoliation and degradation, all we can have is rooted in a marketised world. That all we can have or aspire to is rooted in a world of limited, value-driven commodities. That our common humanity is irrelevant in the face of the need to produce and accumulate value. This is a world that is defined through labour, but which negates the humanity of those who labour. This idea, that we have to believe that 2+2=5, irrespective of what our common sense tells us, is psychologically damaging. As we fall under the rule of money, we are told that all we can have is not a commons. I wanted to ask, in the face of this dissonance, how might we re-imagine the University? Can we reclaim our power-to-do in this world, against their power-over us?

After the fact, I was asked two key questions. The first was what can we/a lecturer do? My answer, simply, is to seek spaces for solidarity inside/outside the University. To look for cracks and spaces for solidarity and to associate around that solidarity. To push-back against the market, which is in fact about the accumulation and expansion of their power-over the world. Inside, I stated that people should join the union, because collective labour is a space of strength and safety. Inside, I asked people to work with students and colleagues as academic labourers or scholars, on producing rather than simply consuming the world. Work collectively and care about that work.

Courage in being for ourselves.

Faith in each other, and our concrete realities.

Justice in an unjust world.

This emerges from the idea of collective work. Collective work, rather than individuated, entrepreneurial, technologized work that leaves us vulnerable and at risk, is critical. If you want to read more about collective work, consider reading this on collective empowerment, or this on Hong Kong’s umbrella movement, or this on Autonomy in Brazil, or this on the Zapatista Little Schools or this on the Social Science Centre, or this on the Digilit Leicester Project, or this on DMU’s Policy Commission.

The second question was about the nature of the rupture in the fabric of space/time that I referred to as the secular crisis. I see the recalibration of capitalism after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with the subsequent restructuring of the idea of all-meaningful-life-as-work and all-life-as-the-production-of-value, and the inevitable re-structuring of the University that followed, as a rupture. However, I see this as hopeful, because it forces us to see through the charade of there is no alternative. Because for a majority of people, it is a charade. A form of living death. At once, the rupture in the fabric of space/time enables us to see the inequities that emerge, and to question whether collectively we need to outsource our lives to the market, or whether there might be another way. A way for us to take ownership of the production of this world and our lives. A way for us to push back or refuse the dissonance of 2+2=5. A way to use the secular, systemic crisis of capitalism to look for an alternatives. To look for a transition through co-operation.

And that possibility is a truly beautiful thing.

Hope that we might make something different.

Peace.

 


on chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety-hardened

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

Is that you do it to yourself/Just you and no one else

You do it to yourself

Radiohead. 1995. Just.

 

That there/That’s not me

I go/Where I please

I’m not here/This isn’t happening

I’m not here/I’m not here

Radiohead. 2000. How to Disappear Completely.

Since my Mom passed in April 2013 the tinnitus has been dreadful. The tinnitus, and the sinuses scarified. From my ears across my cheeks, and running above my eyebrows. My sinuses feeling like someone had been scraping at them with a rusty spoon. And so fucking, cripplingly full of something. Pressure. Unnaturally full and irritated. So that the something, the pressure in my sinuses and the tinnitus and the soreness merged. Merging in my sinuses with a constant ringing in my ears. And a desperate, cloying, black fatigue in my soul.

A desperate fatigue in my soul that made living and surviving a trial. Because when you are used to being a bit manic, in always moving and never sitting and never being but always doing, fatigue is the very worst thing. The inability to do and to prove myself over-and-over again. The forced labour of sitting with myself, and imagining my bodily failure, the realisation of my uselessness, rather than the joy of being still. The end of days.

And I remembered that my breakdown of September 2000 was preceded and signalled by a virus, and triggered by the fury of living and working too fast, and accompanied by an acute attack of vertigo, with terrible chronic fatigue and sinusitis following in its wake. The days spent bedridden and railing at my mortality and the weakness of my flesh. The days when walking across the bedroom to the toilet was exhausting. And the panic that followed and swarmed from December 2000 to, well, now. The insidious panic that swarmed and found the cracks in my psyche, and found a home in the cracks inside, and refused to leave. And the panic that was always there inside; until the inside cracked under the pressure of a manic life; so that the panic leached out from the cracks and into the pores; so that no amount of running could sweat it out; and no amount of scrubbing could remove the stain.

And I forgot that I spent five years recovering. That I spent five years trying to reboot my health and my life. A kind of forced recovery to be what I had been, only minus the panic and the dark thoughts and the brooding. Five years of trying to recover my fitness; by walking and t’ai chi; never knowing whether this five mile walk would leave me bedridden for days or just okay. The apparently intermittent nature of the fatigue meaning that today’s walk up five flights of stairs might leave me feeling fine tomorrow; but tomorrow’s walk up five flights of stairs might leave me unable to work or think or do or be for days on end.

Bedridden. Russian Roulette every day. Every. Desperate. Day.

And always, I now realise, the tinnitus and the scarified sinuses were a signal in amongst the noise of the fatigue. But I treated them all as separate and compartmentalised. The body and the mind compartmentalised. So I saw an acupuncturist for my sinuses. And I saw a counsellor and a therapist for my panic. And I saw a GP for my vertigo. And I did t’ai chi and I read self-help books and I walked in order to find the solution. The one thing that would reboot me; the one thing that would heal me; the solution that would help me to start over again.

And it took until the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes before I knew I would recover and be okay. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck; then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects. Just patched up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go. Warier for sure, but back. Back.

And I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. That if I broke again, I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to cope with the psychological damage again. That if I broke again then I would kill myself. Because the effort it had taken to rebuild myself; to live again; had been my everything. For five long years. And frankly it was too much.

The scars were so deep so that my truth was that another breakdown equalled game over. I couldn’t face those inner daemons running feral again. I was not. I am not. Strong enough.

And in Sick and Tired, Nick Read argues that chronic fatigue, accompanied by tinnitus, irritable bowel, sinusitis and whatever else

is another personal strategy to cope with the contradictions and complexities of contemporary life… to give up the struggle altogether… a state of sheer exhaustion, apathy and inertia, like somebody has pulled the plug and drained out the very essence of life.

He argues that patient histories reveal the extraordinarily-driven nature of sufferers’ everyday lives, focused upon exacting personal standards for performance and high levels of responsibility throughout a life. The result is an overextended, overcommitted lifestyle that is breathless and manic and focused on perfection. And in that period up to September 2000 I had been running an education and technology project in 11 universities, and living in Darlington, and trying to write and to publish, and setting-up and chairing the Walsall football supporters’ trust, a six-hour round trip away, and trying to maintain an active life beyond. Too much responsibility; with everything having to be 100 per cent and perfect; or I was a failure. And my body having asked politely for a while, through increasing levels of tiredness and that inner voice that says “slow down” and the occasional bouts of dizziness, eventually shut down. Apparently out-of-the-blue. Like being hit by a bus.

Only the warning signs were there all along. But I ignored them and my inner voice and kept running. Because what else was there to do? As Read argues

Such people often sleep poorly and seem quite literally to work themselves to a standstill, but instead of being able to negotiate some help or relief in some of their roles, they let their illness do the negotiation for them.

And in the aftermath I had blood tests for the fatigue. I sat for hours with a towel over my head breathing in a steam bath to try to clear my sinuses. And I wondered why I was breathless, and never considered that it was the weight of responsibility and despair settled in my chest. And I waited for the dust to settle and my soul to recover. Just enough.

And recently I have been thinking so much about that time of my life. As I tried to reboot. Because the aftermath of my Mom’s passing was accompanied by such awful vertigo, and such dismal tinnitus, and such pressure in my face, and the cloying fatigue that makes existing a trial and survival from day to day the only thing. So that hope was gone; run out of town by the return of chronic fatigue. And the frustration was that I had forgotten the lessons of the last time/the first breakdown.

I had forgotten that the responsibility of sorting power of attorney and end-of-life decisions for my Mom, and working our whether my Dad and sister were okay, and liaising with consultants, and communicating with a disparate family, and driving 50 miles twice a week to visit a critically ill relative, and writing project bids, and managing a team, and presenting at conferences, and preparing an application for a Chair, and being a National Teaching Fellow, and writing, and being in therapy, and living my life, and riding my bike, and being a husband, and everything else, would rub my soul until it bled. Rub my soul and the fabric of my being until they bled.

And in the bleeding the hope and meaning bled out too. As Read argues of “Jack”

He had worked all his life to compensate for the feeling that he was never good enough, but in doing so he created a false sense of self that had no real meaning. Confronted with that dreadful realisation, he suffered a physical, emotional and spiritual collapse.

The focus on spiritual is critical. My chronic fatigue was more than physical exhaustion. It was and is the exhaustion of my soul. My tinnitus is my soul ringing in my ears. My soul singing at the pain of it all. And my sinuses, inflamed, are a brutal reminder of my despair at and in the world. Forcing me in combination to ask, who am I? Do any of the things I have achieved or done or been really matter? And in the midst I lost hope. Laid bare, all that was left was the courage of an eight year-old boy to get up each day and to try to be. The courage of an eight year-old forcing the forty-three year-old to confront his lack of faith in himself. Courage and faith before hope. And maybe courage and faith before justice and hope. The hope that peace will follow.

And there have been a series of qualitative shifts. As I read Sick and Tired and realised that until my emotional and spiritual health was rebalanced I would not and could not be well. The recognition that I needed a better solution than this pill or that nasal irrigation or this nasal spray. That maybe it wasn’t about what I put into me but what I removed. And about how the forty-three year-old could ask for what he needed so that the eight year-old could be released.

So I realised that my NHS Doctor is amazing but that medication and rest were not a viable, long-term prescription. That chronic fatigue and sinusitis needed a more holistic treatment. And that I needed to stop outsourcing my health and welfare to various doctors or therapists, and to stop fetishizing the NHS or doctors or therapists in the process. That I have been ill for 14 years, or maybe for 43, and I am at one end of the bell curve, and need to own that for myself.

So here was the prescription and the thinking and the plan of action.

I need the anti-depressants (I think) and I trust my NHS Doctor, and the Flixonase seems to work, so let’s keep that for a while.

I was recommended to see another NHS Doctor who didn’t think that my sinus problems were food related. This didn’t seem to be right. My gut was telling me that this was not right. But I decided that I needed to push for an ear, nose and throat referral, so that I could get a scan of my sinuses, so that I could eliminate any physical/anatomical issues. So I pushed.

I was recommended to see a private GP about potential food intolerance. And she took a history and listened and recommended some IgG tests. And she told me about the lack of peer-reviewed double-blind research. And she told me to go away and read about it. And she told me to talk to peers. And she treated me like an intelligent man. And she told me that none of this would work if I wasn’t working on my core relationships, including with myself. And she told me that we needed to stop putting things in and consider taking things out. And the interesting thing is that my gut was telling me to stop eating wheat and dairy, and the tests told me the same, plus soya. And my gut was telling me that after 25 years as a vegetarian, I needed meat. Organic, high-quality meat. And it interests me that all along my gut told me these things, and that Joss Winn gave me the courage to back my gut, when he told me to see the GP and to get the tests done “because you’ve been ill for 14 fucking years Richard, and this way you’ll have some more information to make decisions about your life.”

And I found a new faith in my friends.

And I found a new faith in my therapist. A qualitatively new faith in my therapist.

And I found the beginnings of a new faith in myself. That I could ask for help and be assertive in asking for what I need.

And within two weeks of my wheat-free, dairy-free, soya-free, egg-free, beer-free, organic meat-and-fish loaded, fresh fruit and vegetables, oat-cake/rice-cake and hummus diet, my sinuses are 70 per cent better. And I’m riding again. And the tinnitus is so much better.

And what I am left with is the pain in my sinuses when I overdo it. And this happened this week. When I rode for the third time and then ignored the eight year-old who said “we’re tired. No more for now. Stretch and a bath.” So I did some weights and had a bath, and then walked too far the next day. And then was hit with fatigue and someone/me scraping at my sinuses and the ringing in my ears. Hit full-on by the same bus. So that I struggled to get out of bed. I ignored the voice and was made to pay. Bedridden, just for a day.

And my therapist told me that I sounded manic. To calm down. And she was right. I could feel my circuitry being overloaded, so that the wrong music on the radio threatened panic. So that the drilling outside threatened overload in my cortex. So that my own internal relations were stretched and skewed. So that I almost lost faith in myself as the daemons ran feral in my mind. Because I had never sat with my fatigue. I had never respected the inner voice of the eight year-old; to care for him; to self-care. I had always run and run and run and broken. The drive to proceed and exceed tripping an urge to be always-on.

And now, 24 hours later, the panic and the overload has subsided because I have found the courage to reassert faith in myself. To get some justice for the eight year-old by honouring his voice in the future, and to give myself some hope that even in the darkest moments there might be some peace. I had thought about what I do to myself, and how that hurts. How that is a form of self-harm. So that if I trust my gut and the inner voice I might avoid foreclosing on the future.

<breathe>Courage, faith, justice, hope, peace <breathe>.

And I realised that I am increasingly anxiety-hardened. This is my wisdom. In the midst of the renewed panic of “fuck, fuck, fuck, what if I break again?” I realised that I would survive, and that it would not be the end of my days.

This I see afresh how this recent fatigue is a form of self-harm. A witnessing of my own self-harm. The realisation of my own inability to self-care, at times. And it has shown me that I need to listen and respect my self. That I need to stop repeating my past in my present. That my fatigue and sinusitis and the fucking ringing in my ears are reminders of past trauma that I don’t have to reproduce time-and-again.

And I begin to wonder, as I am anxiety-hardened, what it means to be anxious inside a system that reproduces and actively encourages anxiety. What does it mean to be already anxious inside the anxiety-machine? What does it mean to suffer with chronic fatigue inside a system that encourages and demands and accumulates overwork and always-on and “fitter, happier and more productive”?

I feel that this is increasingly about values and humanity and our innate human usefulness and solidarity, in open and politicised opposition to the universe of value production and accumulation. And the recognition that this is itself about/a manifestation of power and powerlessness. Fatigue and sinusitis and tinnitus as a concrete manifestation of despair and powerlessness and abstraction. As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And yet this self-care has to happen inside a system that reproduces our powerlessness over our own use or worth or value or time or activities. A system that reflects and echoes past traumas, which are rooted in our previous powerlessness. And these acts of powerlessness are repeated ad nauseam until our souls bleed. Our anxieties around our performance and our labour and our value are a symptom of our distress at being and doing inside this systemic anxiety machine.

Here I return to the emotional dissonance in our souls, between our wish for a concrete, useful life, and the abstraction of everyday work.

The constancy of the destruction of our concrete world in the face of our enforced and enclosed abstracted lives for work, make those lives “increasingly muted”. How is it possible to become for ourselves, as opposed to being for the abstract destruction of our concrete selves in the countless self-harming activities we witness and reproduce and ignore every single day? How is it possible to end these culturally-acceptable self-harming acts, every, single day?

And Donald Winnicott writes in the Concept of the Healthy Individual that

Health here includes the idea of tingling life and the magic of intimacy. All these things go together and add up to a sense of feeling real and being, and of the experiences feeding back into the personal psychical reality, enriching it and giving it scope.

This is not my manic overload, or my medicated sinuses, or my outsourced intervention, so that I can be productive in an abstract sense. It is my concrete, humane power-to listen to my gut instinct and to stop poisoning my body with processed and refined foods. To listen to my eight year-old as my governor, and to respect and have faith in what he needs. To attempt self-care as an anxious person inside the anxiety machine, by practising being true, necessary and kind to myself. To take a more wise, anxiety-hardened path that accepts my good enough nature and my usefulness and my worth, and refuses the clamour to abstract and foreclose on my future. That seeks to produce another kind of life. Productive of values rather than value. Productive of courage and faith and justice and peace, rather than the ringing of my soul in my ears.

To stop scarifying my sinuses. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

To stop. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

To be. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.

Radiohead. 2000. Optimistic.


On the context and use-value of academic labour

Michael Roberts has argued that the UK’s economy, and in particular the productive sectors of the economy, are struggling to recover from the global financial shock of 2008. Roberts argues that

What the comparative data show is that real GDP in the UK underwent the joint-second largest contraction of the G7 economies during the 2008-09 economic downturn.  Following the global financial shock, GDP in the UK fell by 7.2% between Q1 2008 and Q2 2009; this was the joint-second largest peak-to-trough fall among G7 economies.  This is bigger than the fall in GDP in the G7 economies on average and bigger than in the European Union.

I think this confirms my forecast back in 2005 that if world capitalism went into a slump that the UK would suffer more than most because it was, more than any other, a rentier economy, i.e. its prosperity depended on its importance as a global financial centre where it could extract rent, interest and dividends out of the surplus value created by other economies.  In the global financial crash, such economies were likely to take a bigger hit that those with a more productive base.

In the recovery period, the UK’s growth in the period following the recession has been slower than in other major economies.  Average growth in the UK has also been slightly lower than that of the OECD total. 

If we combine the change in employment with the change in real wages, it reveals just where the pain for working people has been felt.

On this measure, British workers have suffered the most in the last five years, with a cumulative fall of 7.3% points, mainly from a decline in wages, but also from a fall in employment.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that a mid-range household’s income between 2013 and 2014 was 6% below its pre-crisis peak. This was felt equally across high and low income groups when the cost of living was taken into account… The IFS said that inflation between 2008 and 2013 was 20%, while energy prices rose by 60% and food prices were up by 30% over the same period. “Looking forward, there is little reason to expect a strong recovery in living standards over the next few years….Given this, it seems highly unlikely that living standards will recover their pre-crisis levels by 2015 to 2016.”

The capitalist mode of production is for profit.  Getting profitability back up in a major slump requires cutting costs (laying off labour, reducing wages and stopping new investment).  American capitalists have resorted to straight reductions in the labour force rather than the backdoor trick of reducing real wages, as in the UK.  Either way, working people pay for correcting the failure of capitalist production. The ‘British solution’, however, will also delay the recovery and the push its capitalist sector into a lower medium-term growth rate.  That’s because the growth in productivity (output per employee) will stop if the labour force is not sacked and there is no new investment in technology to raise output per person.

The ramifications of this attrition on productivity and real wages, with a concomitant focus on organisational development and technology-fuelled restructuring, are being felt through UK higher education, with a series of strikes that reflect a range of labour rights issues inside universities, including: high-rates of pay for vice-chancellors, who are behaving more like CEOs of global businesses; outsourcing of services and labour functions; the precarious employment of non-tenured staff; the docking of pay based on partial working to contract, for two hour strikes; the denial of labour rights (sick- and maternity pay, paid holidays) to increasing numbers of staff employed on zero-hour and sub-living wage contracts; and so on. The arguments around these issues are also reflected in an increasing narrative of the customer, or the student-as-customer, inside the University. Moreover, the critical terrain on which this is being played out is the cost-base for the institution and its financial sustainability. Thus, the markers for this are: the fee-cap on students, through which the value of a degree is presently monetised at £9,000 per annum (although with interest the future costs of indenture leverage the long-term reproduction of credit and wage labour/exploitation); the global drive to control the price at which the labour-power of academics can be purchased through precarious contracts, adjunct labour and attrition on staffing levels and costs; purchasing high value labour from key academics/professors who can contribute to an institution’s global brand through research and development; the drive upwards of management costs, in order to reflect perceptions that high-performers must be retained; and so on.

What is missing in this debate about the fee-cap, or student-as-consumer/customer, and the pay of vice-chancellors and institutional managers is a meaningful discussion about the value of academic labour. What is its use-value for society, as opposed to its exchange-value or its price as a commodity (as academic labour-power). It is labour-power that generates value, surplus value and hence capital. In the Grundrisse (p. 167), Marx argued that labour power is: “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.” Labour differs depending upon whether it produces use-value (or forms of material wealth) or exchange-value (which is the source of profit and profitability). The labour that produces use-values is concrete, qualitative labour, whereas exchange-value emerges from quantitatively measurable abstract labour. Through exchange, the products of labour are abstracted or alienated, rather than being objectified as use-value. Under the organisation of capitalist production and the coercive laws of competition that work in tandem with the need to turn a profit, exchange and the market dominates over society. The need to abstract labour and to drive exchange for value-extraction underpin organisational development and technological innovation (capital intensity), and the need to drive down labour costs (as means of production), and this catalyses the real subsumption of labour. Increasingly academics are seeing their own labour abstracted for exchange and subsumed under the laws of competition.

As Wendling notes (p. 52), “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made… Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.” It is against this tyranny that the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, need to be discussed and re-evaluated. What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarious employment, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. This focus on production for exchange is then furthered through the cultural imperatives of student-as-consumer, league tables, impact-measures, knowledge exchange and so on.

What might be needed, in order to push back is a re-focusing on the liberation of academic labour-power, knowledge, skills and practices for use-value that can be used inside and across society. This is the liberation of real wealth outside of Capital’s system of value, and the reclamation of use-value beyond its instrumental use in the market and for consumption. As Marx notes (Capital Volume 1, pp. 300-01)

The value of labour-power and the value which that labour-power valorises… in the labour-process are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference was what the capitalist had in-mind when he was purchasing labour-power… What was really decisive for him was the specific use-value which this commodity possesses of being a source not only of value, but of more value than it has itself. This is the specific service the capitalist expects from labour-power, and in this transaction he acts in accordance with the eternal laws of commodity-exchange. In fact, the seller of labour-power, like the seller of any other commodity, realises… its exchange-value, and alienates… its use-value.

This set of contradictions and tensions, between use and exchange inside the production and movement of value, and the role of labour as commodity needs to be addressed in the context of the University. What is the work that academics do actually worth? How does it add value and for whom, and how might its social potential be liberated for the use-value of the working class? This means that academics need to address the mechanisms through which the University is mechanised and outsourced, in order that only those with leverage skills are valued. As Marx notes:

along with the tool, the skill of the worker in handling it passes over to the machine. The capabilities of the tool are emancipated from the restraints inseparable from human labour-power. This destroys the technical foundation on which the division of labour in manufacture was based. Hence, in place of the hierarchy of specialized workers that characterizes manufacture, there appears, in the automatic factory, a tendency to equalize and reduce to an identical level every kind of work that has to be done by the minders of the machines; in place of the artificially produced distinctions between specialized workers, it is natural differences of age and sex that predominate… In so far as the division of labour reappears in the factory, it takes the form primarily of a distribution of workers among the specialized machines. (Capital Volume 1, p. 545)

The motion of the whole factory proceeds not from the worker but from the machinery [and therefore] the working personnel can continually be replaced without any interruption to the labour process. (Capital Volume 1, p. 546)

As the University is fully restructured in response to competition and marketization, we witness increasingly exploitative and mechanical conditions of labour. This process delivers performativity and entrepreneurial activity that are themselves internalisations of the need to innovate and exchange, and these processes enable the capitalist, in the form of credit rating agency or vice-chancellor or bond-holder or whatever, to purchase academic labour-power for profit. Increasingly, University management acting as agents for Capital confront academic labour, and: catalyse the internalisation and reproduction of forms of performance management; drive down labour costs through transnational competition; or drive capital intensity and productivity. Pace Marx (Capital Volume 1, p. 723), in spite of these tensions the academic labourer belongs to Capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist.

An added tension or factor in this process is the increasing internationalisation of UK universities. This is important given the structural weakness of the UK economy. The monetisation of UK debt through Government purchases of its own bonds, replicated by the US, Japan and the European Central Bank, can only lead to default. This is particularly the case given the collapse of the post-war Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, the removal of the metallic base to global currencies (in 1971 Nixon stated that the United States would no longer redeem currency for gold), and the deregulation of the spaces in which transnational capital operates. The logic of a global system based on the deregulated transnational finance capital is the endless reproduction of credit to compensate for the lack of demand caused by falling wages in the global North, and huge numbers of new workers drawn from subsistence and part-subsistence into dependency on capitalist wage labour in the global South. This process is witnessed in university engagements in the bond markets and the leveraged growth of student debt, alongside the restructuring of the University as the educational pivot for an association of capitals.

Critically then for universities and for academics contesting the value of their labour is the threat of the structural problems in the UK economy outlined by Roberts, and the wider geopolitical problems facing the failing US petro-dollar. As my friend and colleague George Lambie notes:

The short-term growth in shale oil, and the conquests of Iraq and Libya, plus the seizure of their gold, gave a temporary reprieve for a global economy influenced by the USA. However, the role of Iran alongside the new configuration of power forming around Russian State oil giants, Gazprom and Rozneft, China’s vast gold holdings, and the realisation that significant parts of the global economy wish to trade outside the orbit of the dollar, places stress on the international system inside which universities are being recalibrated.

It is against a pressurised or collapsing dollar system that the value of academic labour and the liberation of its products as socialised use-values needs to be discussed.


On the Education (Information Sharing) Bill and accumulation

Earlier this month Tony Hirst pointed out some upcoming possibilities for the “distribution and application of open public data (that is, openly licensed data released by public bodies.” Of particular interest in the debate over opening-up higher education is the Education (Information Sharing) Bill, 2013-14. Tony notes that 

The bill allows for “student information of a prescribed description” to be made available to a “prescribed person” or “a person falling within a prescribed category”. If the bill goes through, keeping tabs on these prescriptions will be key to seeing how this might play out.

The Draft Bill notes:

13. The three clauses in this Bill are intended to make the sharing of information between Government Departments and schools, colleges and other assessment centres easier. This is expected to have the following effects: first, to enable parents and students to make more informed choices as to education and/or employment destination; secondly to help schools and colleges to assess their information, advice and guidance services; and thirdly, to inform Government about which qualifications and courses lead to sustained employment outcomes and higher income returns.

Last week in a piece On co-operation, accumulation and the University, I wrote about how spaces were opened-up through policy or coercion, as terrains for the accumulation of Capital:

through the commodification of digital infrastructures, it enables new services to be turned into products and sold or to be rented out. In this way, although movements claim to be for “open” or “free” on the web, without a democratic control of that infrastructure, and without a social or communal definition of its value, it simply becomes a new set of spaces to be enclosed for the creation of value, or the dictates of competition, or the extraction of rent.

It’s important to keep an eye on where the policy and processes for enclosure or commodification begin. I argued that it is

through the policy activity of the State, in converting the process of education into a service for Capital (through training in basic commodity or leveraged skills, or in creating spaces for skills that can be commodified), and then into a commodity for valorisation (like the creation of courses that must be purchased by students using a debt-driven fee, or the commodification of research as knowledge transfer or incubation, or the sale of student data to publishers), that education is transformed. Critical in this transformation is the subsumption of the circuits of educational practices and knowledges inside the circuits of capital. Education (c.f. low-cost degrees, student-as-consumer or entrepreneur, or MOOCs) becomes a series of individually-purchasable commodities, which open-up new markets and mass markets, as costs fall and production increases.

This Private Members’ Bill, sponsored by Andrew Selous (PPS to Iain Duncan Smith). Selous argues on his website that:

A few months ago, I got the chance to bring a private member’s bill before Parliament and it was an education issue that I chose to raise.  My Education (Information Sharing) Bill will publish for the first time, information on which vocational qualifications, GCSEs and A levels lead to the highest and lowest earnings returns.  It will mean that young people and their parents will get reliable information on which courses and qualifications are likely to lead to a job and higher earnings.  Pupils, teachers and parents will be able to see the earnings premium between say doing a GCSE in chemistry as compared with one in additional science.

The Bill will allow schools and universities to link earnings and employment information with the subjects and qualifications school children and university students have studied.  This already happens with further education colleges like Central Bedfordshire College and there is no question of individual student data being made public, it would be the overall information for earnings and employment for the subjects and qualifications concerned.

Schools, colleges and universities need the information the Bill will provide to assess their own effectiveness in creating routes to employment and good earnings. Critically they will really help young people and their parents to take much more informed decisions.  I think this is a poverty reducing measure.

The Bill will also show the earnings potential of apprenticeships.  At the moment only five per cent of students take an apprenticeship after their GCSEs and only three per cent after their A levels.  I believe that this low take up is in quite large part because pupils and parents do not realize that apprenticeships are leading to some of the highest paid and most prestigious careers in the UK and abroad.

Selous reminds me that in a Novara discussion on Finance, Financialisation and English Higher Education, Andrew McGettigan argued:

Data around the state-backed student loan company/book becomes critical. Loans unlike grants generate information via HRMC. Pattern-matching that links UCAS tariffs to retention data to loans and loan repayments will enable actuarial tables to be produced that in-turn differentiate HEIs and courses and entry grades. This will form the performance metric par excellence because it will have a present and future pound sign attached. Such information means that Government can monitor the spend of public money and possibly remove access to the loan book for certain HEIs or courses. The use of data linked to profitability is therefore disciplinary. As the PCJF analysis of linked FBI files showed, federal agencies were functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America. There is reason, therefore, to suspect that data about student repayment and university performance will be shared across geographies-of-neoliberalism in the same way to discipline behaviour.

These data are increasingly problematic because modelling on graduate salaries uses historic data, and we lack complete datasets. Modelling suggests that there is no uniform premium but a polarisation/hierarchy of graduate classes based on social capital accrued. Moreover, our basic assumptions about employability and wages are under threat, and predictability of repayments is a problem.

The involvement of global private finance is key to the expansion of the sector and the competitiveness of individual universities as competing capitals. Thus, we see Goldman Sachs and the Ontario Teachers Pension scheme lobbying for investment with universities in for-profit joint ventures in foreign markets, funded by bonds or equity. Investment is not for efficiencies in-country (e.g. the UK), but to take the established UK HE model abroad and to monetise degree-awarding powers.

As I noted: “Whether we like it or not private finance and the disciplinary nature of both the student loan book and big data are restructuring academic labour and the idea of the university as a public or socialised good.”


Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education

I have a new paper published over at the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies (JCEPS). The Journal is non-profit making and open, and is a space for Marxist and other Left analysis of education.

My article picks up some of the themes I have been playing around with here, and is titled: Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education. The abstract is appended below.

Across higher education in the United Kingdom, the procurement and deployment of educational technology increasingly impacts the practices of academic labour, in terms of administration, teaching and research. Moreover the relationships between academic labour and educational technology are increasingly framed inside the practices of neoliberal, transnational activist networks, which are re-defining UK higher education as a new model public service. This paper highlights the mechanisms through which educational technologies are used to control, enclose and commodify academic labour. At issue is whether academics and academic staff developers have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, and whether such a critique might enable technologies to be deployed for the production of socially-useful knowledge, or knowing, beyond monetization in the knowledge economy.


On Globalisation and the University

I: on globalisation

In his Globalization: nine theses on our epoch, William Robinson argues that “activists and scholars have tended to underestimate the systemic nature of the changes involved in globalisation, which is redefining all the fundamental reference points of human society and social analysis, and requires a modification of all existing paradigms.” In the systemic changes that are driven by and which drive globalisation, we are increasingly witnessing a transnational conflict between capital and both an impoverished labour force in the global South, and a labour force that is being increasingly proletarianised in the global North. Robinson argues that this conflict is incubated through and exacerbated by technologically-mediated innovations in capitalist production processes that increasingly discipline labour. Disciplinary practices include: threats of outsourcing; using technology and efficiencies in production to drive down wages; enforcing changes to terms of employment; attrition or privatisation of social welfare; the use of technology to monitor work; and increasingly deflationary economic policies which attack standards of living for all-bar social elites. The ability of capital to discipline labour is critical because, as Simon Clarke has noted, as capitalism restructures itself, the conditions for the renewed production of surplus value is set by dominating and restructuring labour power and means of production, rather than by stimulating consumption.

For Robinson the mechanisms through which transnational capital is hatched out of national capitals in the global North is a central theme of globalisation. He sees a corollary in the capture by transnational elites of the state apparatus for control in the global North and the attempt to do so in the global South. He then argues in a discussion paper that in understanding the mechanics of capitalism in its neoliberal stage, and in shaping responses to it, it is critical to analyse how globalisation is “a qualitatively new transnational stage in the on-going evolution of world capitalism”. This echoes Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument that

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

Here capital needs other economic systems, including public sector spaces, as soil and medium for accumulation, with new roles for nation states under the logic of competition, in policing order and law, and in setting a clear economic direction.

II: defining a new epoch

For Robinson, globalisation as a new epoch in the history of capitalism is made up of four key strands. These strands need to be applied to specific contexts, like the terrain of higher education and the impact of technology on it, in order that a meaningful critique can be generated.

  1. The first strand is the rise of truly transnational capital, pivoting around an integrated global production and financial system. Thus, we witness the growth of transnational, educational corporations like Pearson, and the involvement of the investment banking arms of Goldman Sachs, or of consultants like McKinsey, or of outsourcing corporations like Capita, in opening-up education, and the use of technologically-driven services to commoditise the space further. Through these integrated systems, education providers are tied into networks of defence, security, finance and policing activity, and processes of outsourcing and change management that are driven by the need to extract surplus value.
  2. The second strand is the coalescence of a new class group which Robinson describes as “the hegemonic fraction at a world level of global class structure”. This transnational capitalist class is grounded in global markets and circuits of accumulation. This differentiates it from the hegemonic fraction of the previous epoch of capitalism, which focused upon national markets and circuits of capital. Inside higher education we witness a cadre of public administrators, for example in the UK Department for Education, actively courting and working with global corporations and management consultants to implement social education policy.
  3. The third strand is the rise of “a transnational state apparatus”, which forms a loose coalition of institutions which is comprised of all super-national, transnational and international institutions, for example the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the North American Free Trade Association and so on. In those nation-states that are in crisis, like Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland, the structures of the nation state are being transnationalised so that they relate to and underpin an emerging transnational structure. Education cannot escape this locus of control.
  4. The fourth strand is the appearance of “new forms of global inequality that cut across the old north-south and nation state lines that group new types of transnational social inequality”. In this, technologies are being used to help reconfigure institutions and capitalist relations of production, in order to generate new configurations of global power that operate transnationally, and access to technologies reinforces these systemic inequalities.

As Robinson argues, “[w]e need to understand these things”, if we are to analyse how our work inside the University is co-opted for the extraction of value by transnational elites, which operate inside-and-against national politico-jurisdictional boundaries through networks of corporations, think tanks, administrative institutions, private equity firms etc.. Simply thinking in terms of learner’s rights, or personalisation, or digital literacy, or critical pedagogy is meaningless without situating that [whatever] in the context of globalised capitalist relations of production.

This process of understanding might take our use of technology inside the University and relate it to the offensive undertaken by capital in its post-Fordist, neoliberal phase, where it breaks free of nation state constraints on accumulation, and especially the relationship between capital and labour that generated a social welfare and social democratic model of the second-half of the Twentieth Century. This model included the idea of the University as a public good, or as a publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated good, which could respond to local or national need. However, it restricted the ability of capital to drive the rate of accumulation and profit at an appropriate level, and as such capital sought to restructure global production and consumption processes, in-part through technological innovation. As George Lambie has noted:

It is important to understand that it is not so much the geographical distribution of labour that is the problem for workers, but the global restructuring of the relationship between capital and labour… Labour is [now] a factor of production that, like all others, must be utilised in a manner that maximises profits.

Thus, we see a global break with the need to be responsive to any social democratic framework, in the face of a new, transnational model of accumulation that is dominated by finance capital.

Robinson argues that this new model has four critical outcomes.

First, “new capital-labor relations… based on a cheapening of labor, on the notion of flexible labor or deregulated and de-unionized labor, becomes now the general, worldwide model.” Thus, we witness hyper-exploitation inside factories in the global South that support the economies of the global North, alongside the disciplining of technologised and service-sector labour in the global North through threatened outsourcing or the commodification and leverage of core or developmental skills. Lambie has argued that:

If the post-war Keynesian consensus produced the Fordist worker, globalisation has resulted in a ‘Walmart-isation’ of labour, typified by part-time, non-unionised, depoliticised, disempowered and quiescent employees with few benefits, rights or opportunities to influence the conditions dictated by capital.

At issue here is the extent to which higher education in the global North underpins that on-going commodification process, either in new forms as it promotes innovations around personalisation and accreditation, like badges, digital literacy etc., or through its standard structures carried in distance learning, internationalisation strategies etc.. One might ask how such practices form a means of further restructuring a flexible, globalised regime of labour relations.

Second, there is “a dramatic round of extensive and intensive expansion of capitalism itself”, so that there is no outside of the system of value-extraction, enclosure and accumulation. This includes states that held out against full integration in the circuits of capital, like China, and pressure on revolutionary states such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Angola. Thus, we see the current vogue for universities in the global North to commodity-dump cheap educational products through MOOCs or distance learning, or to extract high-level skills through internationalisation strategies, or to enable capital to reproduce its structures through educational “outreach” in the global South. A recent Bain Consulting report on A world awash with money noted:

By using distance-learning technologies to “export” higher education, leading universities in the advanced economies can accelerate the training of the home-grown specialists the emerging-market economies will need. And by “importing” the talent of engineers, managers, physicians and other highly skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation before their own education systems can produce the skilled workforce they require.

However, we also see the intensive expansion of capitalism through aggressive privatisation of the previously public spheres like education. This also means that we are increasingly witnessing the conversion of the cognitive capital produced inside the University, like the human genome or services based on learning analytics or drone research, into accumulation and the commodity-form, driven by intellectual property rights. Thus, the University is used to enable the geographic spread of transnational capitalism, but it also enables capital’s circuits to be deepened through the commodification of intellectual life inside new terrains.

Third, a global legal and regulatory structure is created in order to facilitate the emerging global circuits of accumulation. Thus, not only does the World Trade Organization catalyse multilateral, bilateral, and global free trade agreements, but the IMF and the World Bank are recast in order to underwrite and catalyse structural adjustment on a global stage. This is critical because under austerity policies, the global market has a declining ability to absorb global economic output, which then stresses the system through under-consumption/over-accumulation. With no massive public works and limited focus on war as a means for the State to absorb surplus value, we witness a focus on redistributing wealth through quantitative easing and privatisation from the poor to the wealthy. One might also view the underwriting of student loans as a new, derivative-driven bubble, the role of universities in on-line strategies that include MOOCs, and the engagement of private providers in the global educational space, as mechanisms for meeting the production/consumption gap in output.

Fourth is the “neo-liberal structural adjustment programs which seek to create the conditions for the free operations of the emerging transnational capital across borders and within each country, so that capital, particularly emerging transnational capital, is unhindered by both state borders and by regulations within states.” As I argue elsewhere

Beyond their capitalisation by transnational networks to attempt either the restructuring of the University or the release of the surplus intellectual value contained inside it for entrepreneurialism, technological innovations are also aimed at maintaining an increase in the rate of profit. Hence the role of transnational educational corporations like Pearson, or of transantional finance capital, like Goldman Sachs, in the privatisation of higher education, with technology as a crack in that idea that the University might be publically-financed, governed and regulated.

Thus, in the range of global educational initiatives, that encompass MOOCs, global digital literacy, cloud-based innovations and outsourcing, internationalisation strategies, data mining, mobile learning etc., 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.

III: a new epoch as crisis

These outcomes are clearly linked to the on-going crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase, and are connected to over-production and the falling rate of profit, which in-turn catalyses a desperate rush for new markets. Simon Clarke has argued that over-production occurs because capital drives beyond its natural limits, leading to a crisis of disproportionality in the production process made worse by credit bubbles and commerce, so that it becomes a general crisis of overproduction. Thus, the greater the mass of surplus value to be released as commodities, the more frantic is the search for new markets, and the more vulnerable is accumulation to disruption when it confronts the limits of profitability, for instance in falling demand. We might also witness this in the production/consumption of higher education as credit-fuelled study and in the recalibration of universities as businesses that underwrite a Government’s Industrial Strategy. This in-turn risks a crisis of disproportionality/profits in the circuits of educational provision.

In these processes of transnational valorisation/accumulation, Robinson argues that:

the network nature and structure of the global economy, organized as subcontracting and outsourcing chains which are quite endless, which cross national borders and so forth and also as a network structure in the sense that a network is where a segment can attach to a network, and by that attachment, it is connected to all kinds of other elements and other forms of organizations it would not be networked to literally and then it can detach and reattach itself to other networks. It’s more like a global spider web, except again that you have power being centralized, exercised through decentralized networks but concentrated.

This is again important in assessing both the role of the University in structuring those networks, but also in revealing how technologies are used to amplify the mechanisms through which the University can be further enmeshed in the circuits of capital. A corollary of this is seen in the recalibration of the relationships between academic management and academic labour through financialisation, debt and indentured study, the idea of student-as-global-consumer, and the use of technology to discipline working practices. It is impossible to assess this process properly without thinking through the relationships between the University and transnational finance capital, and the idea that the University is being increasingly subjected to pressure for structural adjustment. This, in turn, includes the ways in which what Robinson calls “the transnational state” sets primary and secondary policy that creates the conditions for globalised capital accumulation. In the UK this includes the Coalition’s restructuring of secondary education curricula, the momentum for performance management of teachers, the removal of VAT exemption for shared services, raising the cap on student fees, using student number controls and core/marginal provision to drive change, and co-hosting educational technology symposia with corporations like Goldman Sachs.

Thus, the State is now a key instrument of the global capitalist system in creating an environment in which capital can reproduce itself and in widening and deepening the interests of global capital over national capital and national labour forces or the unemployed. Education and the place of the University has to be seen in light of this globalised social polarisation and social reproduction, and the increasing levels of global inequality that follow in its wake, which includes falling living standards and the extension of precarious working and living conditions in the face of austerity in the global North. As Robinson cautions us

[This is]not a crisis for the capitalist system unless those that are starving to death or those that don’t quite know how they will be able to survive actually resist those conditions… If half or two-thirds of humanity just quietly starved to death, there wouldn’t be a crisis of the system, only for those people starving. But since they are resisting, it is a systemic crisis.

Thus, Robinson notes that we increasingly face “a crisis of legitimacy in the sense that states are facing legitimization crises everywhere–that’s the famous crisis of governability.” The view that market mechanisms are the sole arbiter of social relationships and that efficiency in the name of the accumulation of capital are our only ways of constructing a meaningful life-world, is increasingly under attack. Witness the students in Occupation at Sussex University stating that:

Perhaps most importantly the decision to bring private providers into the education sector reflects a larger ideological push by this and previous governments to marketise education as a consumer good. For management at Sussex this is certainly a continuation of departmental teaching and university-wide job cuts over the past 5 years under the guise of “deficit-cutting”. We stand firmly against the segregation of our campuses along producer/consumer lines and reject this false dichotomy. Moreover, we reject the way in which outsourcing further segregates different members of the campus community, whose job statuses, though necessarily complementary in practice, become suddenly dissociated financially and institutionally, leading to a complete breakdown of the social cohesion intrinsic to any healthy and normally functioning organisation. We wholly reject the undemocratic and unaccountable structures and procedures which this management has procured in order to force its agenda on members of the Sussex campus community. We reassert that Education is a public good that is and should remain free of perverse market incentives in every aspect of its provision.

IV: capital’s response to the crisis and Robinson’s Nine Theses

It is useful to state Robinson’s Nine Theses, as an analytical tool for framing what might be done to resist transnational capital.

First, the essence of the process is the replacement for the first time in the history of the modern world system, of all residual pre (or non) –capitalist production relations with capitalist ones in every part of the globe.

Second, a new ‘social structure of accumulation’ is emerging which, for the first time in History, is global.

Third, this transnational agenda has germinated in every country of the world under the guidance of hegemonic fractions of national bourgeoisies.

Fourth, observers search for a new global hegemon and posit a tri-polar world of European, American, and Asian economic blocs. But the old nation-state phase of capitalism has been superseded by the transnational phase of capitalism.

Fifth, the ‘brave new world’ of global capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic.

Sixth, ‘poverty amidst plenty’, the dramatic growth under globalisation of socioeconomic inequalities and of human misery, a consequence of the unbridled operation of transnational capital, is worldwide and generalised.

Seventh, there are deep and interwoven gender, ethnic and racial dimensions to this escalating global poverty and inequality.

Eighth, there are deep contradictions in emergent world society that make uncertain the very survival of our species – much less mid- to long-tem stabilisation and viability of global capitalism – and portend prolonged global social conflict.

Ninth, stated in highly simplified terms, much of the left world-wide is split between two camps.

Thus, the globalised terrain upon which universities now exist as competing capitals, forces them to:

  • become efficient in service-provision, for example through outsourcing, privatisation or cloud-based services;
  • respond to indentured/debt-fuelled student life and expectations, linked to personalisation, employability, bring your own device;
  • compete internationally either through traditional mechanisms like overseas campus provision, or through virtual, technocratic innovation;
  • drive mobility and flexibility as a means of leveraging surplus value from employees;
  • engage with high-risk, financialised growth strategies, for example medium/high yield bonds;
  • connect to the research and development imperatives of globalised capital for securing new terrains for accumulation, including data mining and learning analytics, or drone-based/makerspace-type research;
  • drive the reskilling of global labour as a commodified workforce through employability strategies that are underwritten by concepts like badges and digital literacy; and
  • connect to the politico-jurisdictional imperatives of globalised capital by suppressing academic dissent, or investing in security/policing functions.

This is important because as Robinson’s analysis enables us to see, the University is enclosed by the realities of transnational capital, through which we witness the complete commodification of social life based around segmented structures and hierarchies. Here, the relations of the capitalist economy structure all spheres of life, and a set of mutually-reinforcing social, economic and political institutions and cultural and ideological norms fuse with and facilitate a new period of capitalist accumulation. The cultural/ideological component here is set in-part through education and technology, and is based upon consumerism and cut-throat individualism rather than collective well-being. Through the focus on mobility, flexibility and employability, and the recalibration of student life through debt, collective action is confronted and marginalised by a focus on personal aspiration. As a result, the University becomes a node in a global productive structure with a concentration of services, knowledge, finance and technology in the global North and of productive labour in the global South. As Robinson notes, “The dominant global culture penetrates, perverts and reshapes cultural institutions, group identities and mass consciousness.”

As I noted elsewhere in discussing academic exodus, pace John Holloway, the ideological, political drive towards, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing means that the University has little room for manoeuvre in resisting the enclosing logic of competition and in arguing for a socialised role for higher education. This means that the internal logic of the University is prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships:

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.

Thus, we need to see the University as a business recalibrated inside the structural power of fully mobile transnational capital. This is disciplinary and based upon dense networks of supranational institutions and relationships, alongside the co-option of national jurisdictions for: fiscal and monetary policies that enable macro-economic stability; creating an infrastructure for global economic activity; and social control. For Robinson, capital needs state power rather than the nation state, which acting as the neoliberal state becomes an agent for wringing concessions from global labour.

V: what is to be done?

Critiquing the role of transnational corporations in controlling assets and trade, and in driving speculation and speculative bubbles that threaten livelihoods and lives, is critical in understanding how economic power drives political action. Witness this report from Bain Consulting on A world awash in money

As fluid as the movement of capital has become thanks to information technology and high-speed communications, the barriers that impede its flow to and among the capital-hungry developing markets will remain formidable. Investors will continue to favor the advanced markets, which are well endowed with the “trust architecture”—strong property rights protections, reliable legal systems and institutional depth—that owners of capital value.

Under the conditions outlined above the content of university life is driven by the realities of globalisation that form a socio-cultural space that reinforces disempowerment, in spite of rhetoric about learner’s rights, social justice or mobility, or economic equality. What is worse is that the University risks becoming a node in the permanent structural violence that is visited against the majority of the world’s poor, ostensibly in the global South. Internationalisation strategies, MOOCs, intellectual property and patent law, structural adjustment, exporting mobile learning, all become circuits through which capital is accumulated from the South. This is continually restructured through corporate management, the store of capital in spaces that service tax havens for the North, and the location of centres of technology and finance in the North. However, the threat of a new international division of labour is also realised as the immiseration of the middle classes in the North as they are indentured or threatened with outsourcing, and as their futures are asset-stripped and accumulated by transnational elites.

Robinson argues that the left has two responses. These are: first, the neo-Keynesian approach that seeks rapprochement with capital, based on social democracy and redistributive justice, in order to make it work ethically; second, those who see capitalism as inherently wicked and to be rejected/resisted without working through a coherent socialist alternative to the transnational phase of capitalism. In developing a set of possible alternatives that move beyond these positions, he argues that:

we should harbour no illusions that global capitalism can be tamed or democritised. This does not mean that we should not struggle for reform within capitalism, but that all such struggle should be encapsulated in a broader strategy and programme for revolution against capitalism. Globalisation places enormous constraints on popular struggles and social change in any one country or region. The most urgent task is to develop solutions to the plight of humanity under a savage capitalism liberated from the constraints that could earlier be imposed on it through the nation state. An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project… The popular mass of humanity must develop a transnational class consciousness and a concomitant political protagonism and strategies that link the local to the national and the national to the global.

Thus, it is possible to see cracks in the contradictions of global capitalism, and to develop popular alternatives, like the range of social centres, or co-operative alternatives, or occupations that form oppositional moments to specific issues, but these need viable socio-economic alternatives to sustain them. This is a form of Gramscian mass intellectuality, whereby counter-hegemonic positions are developed and nurtured through solidarity actions. These counter-hegemonic positions need to be grounded in a political economy that reflects a socialised, rather than privatised globalisation; a globalisation from below that both demands global solidarity actions and is based on participatory practices, like general assemblies or associational democracy.

Robinson offers the possibility that alternatives might include: “some type of global Keynesianism, a global redistributive project, a global reform capitalism”; “global fascism” as a reactionary political project focused on coercion, and the militarisation and the masculinisation of popular culture and of social relations; or “a global collapse of civilization, a degeneration of civilization. And again, we’ve seen such outcomes throughout history when no social force can stabilize a particular system, when a civilization cannot resolve its internal contradictions”. More hopefully, he argues for “a global 21st century socialism” infused democratically, with examples that emerge from the co-operative movement in South America, in Venezuela and Cuba.

Critical in the development of a viable alternative is Robinson’s idea that “we always make our own collective history and so the future is never predetermined.” Thus, Ellen Meiksins Wood states:

We really can begin to look the world not as a relationship between what’s inside and what’s outside capitalism, but as the working out of capitalism’s own internal laws of motion. And that might make it easier to see the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures.’

Crucially then, there is a role for those who labour inside the University in revealing the systemic nature of globalised capital in co-opting all of human existence for profit-maximisation, growth strategies, and accumulation. Moreover, there is an imperative for connecting critique to the mechanisms through which capitalism in its neoliberal phase increasingly consumes and destroys humanity and nature. As Lambie argues, revealing these mechanisms highlights how the family, community and workplace are eroded, and how social welfare is damaged, leading to precarious or vulnerable futures. Thus, the connection of academic critique to the mechanisms through which austerity reproduces and extends the power of transnational elites may reveal the true class position of global labour, including those who regard themselves as the educated middle class. In this, the development of solidarity actions grounded in mass intellectuality is critical.

From inside the University, those solidarity actions might be focused upon developing critiques of the following.

  1. The global processes of labour arbitrage, whereby technology is used to deskill and discipline global labour, including inside the academy. This stands against the ideal of many educators for the democratic agendas of digital literacy or learner’s rights.
  2. How transnational capital uses the global processes of competition and free trade agreements to discipline transnational labour, through the use of cloud technologies and outsourced services, through workplace monitoring, and increasingly friable labour conditions.
  3. How globalised, neoliberal cultural norms emerge from the objective conditions of capitalist work, and the everyday reality of those objective conditions for those who work in the global South and whose work in the global North is proletarianised. This includes the ways in which universities reinforce those objective conditions and act as institutions of the state in underpinning the agency of transnational finance capital, like investment banks, management consultancies, technology firms, private equity etc..
  4. How universities focus their research and development on social need that is defined locally rather than amplifying global transnational value extraction.
  5. Shining a light on models of accumulation that are riven with new forms of imperialism, and capital flows from the global South to the securitised, debt-driven global North.
  6. Developing mechanisms for understanding how the tensions that are revealed in the high levels of debt-to-GDP on both national and global scales might be resolved, or how alternative value forms and social relationships beyond a currency that is underpinned by oil might be developed.

Key is describing and deliberating the relationships between the University and specific social forces that might be used to catalyse a new political consciousness. At issue is how the University and academic labour might resist co-option on a global scale, in order to support those social forces that might fight for a different form of valorisation and for policies that are based on social need as the central development strategy of the State.