notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

I presented at the Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues seminar on Wednesday. My paper is based on a submission under review to a forthcoming special issue of TripleC on academic labour, and underpins work that I am doing towards a monograph on the alienated academic, for Palgrave Macmillan.

The key points from my paper and the subsequent discussion are noted below.

ONE. Individual stories

Individual stories and narratives matter in lifting and sharing our everyday experiences, and enabling us to theorise those narratives and then to uncover the structures and processes that dominate our everyday. This includes: the ways in which human capital theory and productivity dominates our lives, including beyond work; how families have to endure the breaking of shared social forms of care, wealth or practice, and have to be responsive and “resilient” as if they were competing businesses; the disciplinary power of institutional and transnationally-networked structures like debt over our lives, in the everyday; the projection of pain across intergenerational terrains, and a questioning of our ability to self-care. There are others, but these were live in the room. The question is how to understand these things and reveal their causes, as an immanent or negative critique, in order to pre-figure something different.

TWO. Academic labour in crisis

The subsumption of higher education (HE) under the structuring logic of value, as a response to a global, secular crisis of capitalism, has highlighted that there can be no autonomy for the academic labourer beyond the temporary amelioration of her labour relations with those who direct the HE for the logic of accumulation, commodification, and profit-maximisation. This leads to a contradiction between: first, the fetishisation of specific capabilities related to human capital, and in particular entrepreneurialism and employability: and second, the proletarianisation of academic labour through organisational development and technological rationalisation. One result of the internalisation of performativity is an increasing number of published narratives of academic and student ill-health or of their quitting the academy, and in particular of a rise in anxiety.

There is a rupture in the academic psyche, as an outcome of the alienation of the academic labourer from: first, her labour-power, which is made precarious as it is sold in the market; second, the products of her labour, which are financialised and marketised for their exchange-value rather than their social utility; third, herself as she becomes a self-exploiting entrepreneur; and fourth, her humanity as a species-being, reinforced through global competition. In order to cope with such alienation, academics increasingly employ forms of cognitive dissonance, which in turn reshapes scholarship and research as knowledge transfer, spillover activity and impact, and redefining teaching as excellence.

THREE. The proletarianisation of HE

Higher education is also caught up in cyclonic processes of production, consumption and financialisation. In particular, the instantiation of data/debt/money for our social relations drives competition between academics, between subject teams across universities, between HE institutions. Competition exists for student numbers, over the quality of scholarly publications measured in research excellence exercises, and over quality of teaching measured in student satisfaction and teaching quality excellence frameworks. As a result, competition instantiated through metrics and league tables dominates academic labour time.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on HE demand the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on its costs. The increased technical composition of an individual university is a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). As a result, the focus becomes human capital theory as a theory of productivity that is made manifest in the intensification of labour time. This now operates in policy and in practice inside higher education for instance through: technological and organisational innovation; the ability of a university to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing, so that it can maintain competitive advantage; the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, with individuals becoming self-exploiting entrepreneurs; the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on).

Thus, there are: reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; struggles led by postgraduate researcher-led committees that push the University to honour the essential role of teaching assistants in the form of fair pay and labour rights; quitlit reports of academics leaving the profession; individuals who witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; reports of the suicides of those who are classified as precarious, or for whom status is being removed; and networks reporting on the processes and pains of casualization.

Reports of overwork as a form of proletarianisation is a filament that enables us to trace the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, in particular the idea of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army not only conditions the work of those employed inside the University, but also those beyond it, in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to paid employment. Before questioning whether it is possible to develop a critical political economy of HE, it is important to delve below the surface reality of proletarianisation, to uncover its roots in alienated labour.

FOUR. Alienated labour

In the wider political economic realities inside which HE and universities are reproduced, the starting point is alienated labour and the endpoint its overcoming or abolition. As Marx (1857/1993, 831) noted in reaching below the surface of competition and value production, we need to address how ‘this process of objectification in fact appears as a process of dispossession from the standpoint of labour or as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital.’ Thus, as Simon Clarke argued:

Marx’s critique of liberalism sought to recover, both in theory and in practice, the constitutive role of human subjectivity behind the immediacy of objective and constraining social relations within which our social identity confronts us in the form of an external thing. (Clarke 1991, viii-ix.)

At the root of Marx’s critique of capital was the analysis of how such activity was alienated under capitalism, underscoring the ‘devaluation of the human world’ (Marx 1844/2014, 82) and the domination of the ‘object produced by labor, its products, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer’ (Marx 1844/2014, 83). The labourer’s activity is alienated from her precisely because it cannot satisfy her intrinsic needs. At best it provides means of subsistence. At worst it requires increasing amounts of cognitive dissonance in order both to re-enter the market to resell her labour-power, and to believe that she loves/likes what she does. This takes the form of further self-alienation.

Whilst the arguments for entrepreneurialism, employability and the development of human capital inside HE are situated superficially in the development of the individual and her capabilities, as wants that emerge from inside her, they are a function of the desire to expand value production. This is witnessed in the ongoing disciplining of that academic labour-power through performance management and metric-based monitoring. In the process, alienated labour forms the basis of competition and the separation of the individual from her species being/community of humans through the confrontation that emerges in the sale of labour-power (Marx, 1844/2014).

Crucially, Clarke argues (1991, 54) that it is important to base an analysis of alienation on the relations of production inside capitalism, and to ‘penetrate beneath the alienated form of labour to see the fundamental contradiction between labour, as the active agent of production, and its alienated (commodity) form which explains both its foundation and the possibility of its overcoming.’ Here one of the most important outcomes for academic labour is that a critique of political economy demonstrates how its focus on status underpins liberal society’s preoccupation with private property (including intellectual property and intellectual/social capital). As a result, the foundation of private property is shown to be social and historical, rather than naturalistic, and this opens-up possibilities for challenging the neoliberal obsession with abstract, superhuman individuality. Instead it reveals the specific, historical, relations of production which characterise the nature of academic work.

FIVE. Weltschmerz

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

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

The critical issue is that academic alienation is rooted in enforced compliance and coercion, and in a refusal to locate solidarity across a wider social terrain. Marx (1844) knew that this is the logic of capitalism that defenestrates labour, in order that it can accumulate autonomy:

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

With the formal subsumption of higher education under capitalist social relations, this sense of hopelessness is reinforced as we witness just how far the limits to our alienation from space, society and nature can be pushed. What this entails for the academic/student is an end to self-care; of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds; of the apparent impossibility of scaling-up kindness. It also demands a culture of omertà, or the silence of those in the know, who must co-operate even as they compete, and thereby generate complex inter-relationships rooted in uncertainty and anxiety. Is it then possible to define a new form of sociability across the social factory?

SIX. The Possibilities for Mass intellectuality

Marx (1857/1993, 694) argued that the dynamics of capitalism meant ‘the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].’ As a result, the craft and technical skills, capabilities, and knowledge of the social individual are absorbed into the things she produces. Therefore, the ‘general intellect’ of society, i.e. its general capacity for natural science fused with philosophy in the broadest sense, is absorbed into capitalised technologies and techniques. This reduces labour costs and increases productivity. Moreover, the relationship between natural science and philosophy, and the ability to think critically about human experience, are corrupted, such that the two are divorced from one another.

It is important to understand the mechanisms through which the general intellect is co-opted for value production, so that it might be reclaimed. Mass intellectuality refers to knowledge and forms of knowing that capital seeks to valorise, and also points towards the immanent (negative) and pre-figurative (positive) potential of new forms of sociality. Mass intellectuality implies a struggle over the proletarianisation of labour, and its emancipatory implications, as the embodiment of the cumulative history of natural science and philosophy. As Postone (1996, 373) argues:

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital… at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it.

A critique that is based upon alienated labour, enables a focus on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge, or ‘mass intellectuality’, as a direct, social force of production. This is an attempt to reclaim the concept of living knowledge as useful work and to reimagine sociability or to define activities that reproduce society against-and-beyond value production; it forms a critique of subjectivity, in its relationship to the prevalent mode of (knowledge) production. Here there must be a refocusing of the academic as a socialised worker, in her relationship to the social factory and social reproduction. As a result, situating the reproduction of the University and of academic labour against intersectional resistances, in particular the gendered and racialised nature of the relationship between HE and society, forms a moment in the development of counter-narratives that point towards ‘the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers’ (Marx 1866).

SEVEN. What Is To Be Done?

The generation of resistances, across an intersectional set of terrains and which acknowledge issues of privilege and powerlessness, require us to move beyond the triptych of private property, commodity exchange and division of labour, to uncover the realities of alienated labour. This is to work against the reconceptualization of academic labour by advocating solidarity inside and outside universities so that academic labour, including that of students, is recognised as having the same fundamental characteristics as other forms of labour and is therefore subject to the same crises of capitalism that are the focus of other social movements. This does not argue for the militant defence of academic labour, but sees it for what it is: wage labour subject to the alienation of the capitalist valorisation process, and to be abolished. Resistance to the processes of work intensification are all the while necessary, but the discovery of new forms of social solidarity and large scale transformation (rather than reformation) of political economy are the end goals.

Here the terrain of personal narratives grounded in alienation, which have yet to reveal their root in alienated labour, open-up the possibility that we might discuss an overcoming of academic competition and overwork. However, developing a counter-hegemonic solidarity requires that such narratives are connected to both a critique of academic labour, and a focus upon social solidarity and the social strike. This situates the exploitation of academic labour against the wider exploitation of paid and unpaid labour in the social factory. Not only must the academic labourer overcome her own competition with other academics to reduce her exploitation, but she must situate this cognitively and emotionally against the abolition of wage-labour more generally.

Of course, this must be attempted in association, so that an alternative intellectual, physical and humane existence might offer new forms of sociability that are grounded in autonomy over time. This requires praxis at the level of society, rather than within specific institutions like universities or inside specific, commodified curricula. As Marx (1844/2014, 115) argues, ‘The resolution of the theoretical contradictions are possible only through practical means, only through the practical energy of man.’

Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues, seminar

Lifted from the Marxism and Education Renewing Dialogues Facebook feed: final notice of Marxism and Education Renewing Dialogues (MERD) Seminar, Education from Brexit to Trump… Corbyn and beyond?

Wednesday 3rd May 2017, 10am-4pm

University of East London, Stratford Campus, Cass School of Education, room ED4.02.

At this 19th MERD seminar we will review the emergent contemporary crises of capitalism. In this context, we will focus on education and educating across the social spectrum of institutional and wider social formation to progress class struggle, critique and action. Our four speakers have provided the following blurbs about their presentations.

Tony Green (UCL Institute of Education)

Educating the Educators and the Emergent Secular Crises of Contemporary Capitalism: From Brexit to Trump and Corbyn… to Snap Election … and Beyond?

The introduction aims to draw attention to a collection of issues and themes likely to occupy us during the day. The broad and open-ended agenda is intended to be suggestive of potentially ‘educative’ contexts about how exchange values dominate use values, and where systemic shifting of value and power upwards in support of structures of global oligarchy and plutocratic elite class hegemony, is concurrent with ongoing secular crises of capitalism. Is the apparent ever-rising tide of ‘prosperity’ contributing to human emancipation and flourishing? We need to address the global capitalist system, and metabolism in its, tensions and contradictions, with complex and dynamic ramifications at local, regional, national and international levels. The aim of these introductory remarks is to remind ourselves of current events and possible underlying dynamics that set analytic, strategic and tactical challenges… not least, the performative … during these ever-interesting times. Huge and urgent questions have to be addressed in specific and local contexts: Are all the cards being thrown into the air? Are there inbuilt legitimation crises playing out across the institutional forms of politics? What are the prospects for the anthropocene? Time to act … now! What is to be done…?

Hillary Wainwright (Red Pepper Magazine Editor)

The importance of practical knowledge to the possibility of a new politics from the left

I’ll draw on themes associated with socialist humanist work of Gramsci, Williams and, Thompson, and against a background of recognising that evocations of the organised working class were thwarted too many times, including by leaderships that did not actually believe in the capacity of the supporters, to convince me. Radical social change is surely more than workplace organisation, radical leadership and a conventional political party of the left.

Terry Wrigley (Visiting Professor at Northumbria University, editor International Journal Improving Schools, and co- coordinator of Reclaiming Schools network)

England is an epicentre and laboratory for neoliberal education policy in advanced econo-mies, with a unique mix of neoconservative ingredients. It has the tightest accountability framework (tests, league tables, Ofsted, performance pay etc), extensive privatisation, a curriculum which systematically excludes critical social knowledge, and hegemonic dis-courses around ‘choice’, ‘standards’, ‘leadership’ and ‘social mobility’. For critical educators, the pressing challenges include:

  • making critical theory and research knowledge available to a teaching profession increasingly restricted to short-term pragmatics;
  • rethinking curriculum, assessment and pedagogy beyond binaries of ‘academic / vocational’ and ‘knowledge / practice’;
  • protecting spaces for critical understanding and creativity;
  • critiquing the distortions of ‘social mobility’ and ‘closing the gap’ in socially just ways;
  • finding educative responses to the social futures facing young people (Austerity, precarity, migration, militarism).

Richard Hall (De Montfort University)
On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality

As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, encumbered by precarious employment, overwhelming debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of any autonomy. Increasingly the labour of those academics and students is subsumed and re-engineered for value produc-tion, and is prey to the vicissitudes of the twin processes of financialisation and marketiza-tion. At the core of understanding the impact of these processes and their relationships to higher education is the alienated labour of the academic, as it defines the sociability of the University. This paper examines the role of alienated labour in academic work, and relates this to feelings of hopelessness, in order to ask what might be done differently. The argu-ment centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour.

Organised by Tony Green and Alpesh Maisuria

The seminar is free and open to all, no registration required. Please circulate widely and feel free to attend as much of the day as you possibly can.

Stratford campus is walkable from the nearest stations: Stratford / Stratford International, and Maryland. More travel information can be found here:

On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality

I have just submitted a manuscript, “On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality” to tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society. The abstract is given below, but the MS is part of a special issue on academic labour, digital media and capitalism. 

Situated in this economic and political context, the overall task of this special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique is to gather critical contributions examining universities, academic labour, digital media and capitalism. We are thus particularly interested in articles focusing on (1) the context, history and theoretical concepts underlying academic labour, (2) the relationship between academic work and digital media/new information and communication technologies/the Internet/social media and (3) the political potentials and challenges within higher education.

My submission focuses upon the links between: the proletarianisation of the university; the life-wide mediations of our alienated labour; the hopelessness that such alienation catalyses; and the possibilities that mass intellectuality offers for new forms of sociability. This connects to the book that I am working on for Palgrave Macmillan on the alienated academic.

In particular, I have been drawn to the following work through this submission:

  • Clarke, Simon. 1991. Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology: From Adam Smith to Max Weber. London: Palgrave. [Thanks Mike!]
  • Dyer-Witheford, Nick. 2015. Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. London: Pluto Press.
  • Federici, Sylvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. Comments on James Mill.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Marx, Karl. 1866. Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions.
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program.
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 1846/1998. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Prometheus.

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

Keywords: academic labour, alienation, higher education, mass intellectuality, proletarianisation

the porous university

There’s a call out for participation (in person, online or via a provocation) at a symposium to be held on Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th May 2017 University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness Campus.  The symposium is called The Porous University – A critical exploration of openness, space and place in Higher Education.

The question that interests me most is: what is the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’?

My response will draw upon Foucault’s idea (in La société punitive, p. 33) that:

The daily exercise of power must be considered a civil war: to exercise power is, in a certain way, to wage civil war and all the instruments, the tactics, one can identify, the alliances, must be made analysable in terms of civil war.

It will also draw upon Guattari’s analysis (in de la production de subjectivité) of capitalist deterritorialisation, which:

[involves] the continuous disruption of production, the ceaseless dismantling of social categories, insecurity and eternal movement… all the while referring to universalizing perspectives, has, historically, never been able to achieve anything but withdrawal into itself, nationalist, classist, corporatist, racist, or paternalist, reterritorializations.

Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

I’m speaking at the University of Worcester Teaching and Learning and Student Experience Conference  on June 15th. The title of my talk is Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education, and will be based on this Open Library of the Humanities paper. The abstract is appended below.

The higher education curriculum in the global North is increasingly co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes, framed by determinist narratives of employability and enterprise. Such co-option is immanent to processes of financialisation and marketisation, which encourage the production of quantifiable curriculum activities and tradable academic services. Yet the university is also affected by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. As the labour of academics and students is increasingly driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of performance, the ability for academics and students to respond to crises from inside the university is constrained by the market. This keynote argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the bounded nature of the curriculum is central. One possible way to address this crisis is by re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Masters House community and the Social Science Centre. Such an exploration, rooted in the organising principles of the curriculum, asks educators to consider how their curriculum reproduces forms of colonisation. It is argued that such work enables a re-imagination of higher education that is rooted in an engaged and co-operative curriculum, with a focus on praxis.

The day before I’ll be speaking at the Oxford Brookes Learning Teaching Conference on The really open university: working together as open academic commons. The two papers will complement each other.

notes on education beyond borders

Jehu has it.

Communists have to decide how they see the next few years unfolding: Are we simply against Trump or the system that made Trump possible as well. The Democrats, who control the movement at present, want to limit the aims of the movement to an anti-Trump agenda. Communists need to sharpen their critique of Trump to go beyond the merely superficial differences between Trump and Pelosi/Schumer.

From the major, surface eruptions of a failing system in inexorable crisis like Trump and Brexit, to the more localised attempts to overcome stagnation and to repatriate social wealth from the public to the private, like the assaults on national, public education, the question is how do we theorise and the dissent, organise and resist on structural/theoretical and concrete/local levels? It is inside and across education that this currently exercises me. What does this mean for those who labour inside schools and universities? What does it mean for the curriculum? How is the field of struggle widened out beyond the classroom?

This recognises the discussions about whether, in the current moment, Trump is weak and incompetent or enacting a frightening escalation that could presage a coup. However, in either analysis we must seek to grapple with Brian O’Neill’s echo of Jehu:

So far, sadly, the opposition to the order has been a kind of unreason, too. It has substituted the cool, tough, political critique of the order that we need with its own brand of fearmongering and the deployment of an ahistorical dread about the return of Nazism.

Our response needs to engage with: the relationship between education and the State; the value and purpose of our everyday interactions with students and their families/communities; the ways in which education enables the social metabolic reproduction of both capitalism and the capital system; and what is to be done as a pedagogic project at the level of society. Simply engaging in refusing the TEF or promoting no borders or whichever rearguard-tactical-response, without a theoretical analysis of why we are in this hateful space, simply leaves us at the mercy of the next demagogue, howsoever they smile whilst issuing kill lists or refusing to disclose whether any detainees have been victims of sexual violence inside Yarl’s Wood or banning visas for refugees from Iraq for six months or wrongly deporting 48,000 students, and on and on and on. And simply looking at Trump as the distilled moment of this excess enables us to continue-on, wilfully ignorant of our own place in the reproduction of oppression.

Moreover, to expect that we can outsource the solution to the next set of politicians is naïve: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Marx, Communist Manifesto). In part this is because the State functions inside-and-for capitalism and is historically and materially contingent on the capital system. However, struggles between states also act as critical moments of antagonism as they vie to become the state of the capital system as a whole. As István Mészáros notes

Thus the reality is not the elimination of nation-state aspirations but an overheating cauldron of perilous contradictions and antagonisms on a variety of levels, ubiquitously asserting themselves among the given and aspiring nation-states and even within the framework of the state formations invented as the projected solution of past inter-state antagonisms, like the—far from unified—European Union…

The overwhelming historical failure of capital was—and remains—its inability to constitute the state of the capital system as a whole, while irresistibly asserting the imperatives of its system as the material structural determination of societal reproduction on a global scale. This is a massive contradiction. Inter-state antagonisms on a potentially all-destructive scale—as presaged last century by two world wars still without the now fully developed weapons of total self-destruction—are the necessary consequence of that contradiction. Accordingly, the state that we must conquer in the interest of humanity’s survival is the state as we know it, namely the state in general in its existing reality, as articulated in the course of history, and capable of asserting itself only in its antagonistic modality both internally and in its international relations.

A response cannot come from accepting the reduction of individuals to their labour-power alone, as is evidenced in State-based proscriptions from both left and right, and in Capital’s desire to subsume all activity under the labour theory of value. Any such response, whether it is about no borders and the free movement of people (as human capital) or the human rights of refugees that are horrifically ignored because they have no market-value (recalling the New Car Recall scene in Fight Club), have to be situated against new forms of social solidarity that are rooted in directional demands and that emerge from new readings of equality, democracy and co-operation.

We can only read issues of equality, democracy and co-operation as they emerge historically and materially from the economic system in which they are subsumed and re-purposed, in this instance the distribution and ownership of labour-power as a commodity. Inside capitalism this then leads to all manner of objectionable ways of categorising individuals based on their human, social, intellectual, cognitive capital, or their being lazy, subhuman or second-class, or their re-composition as skilled/menial workers, whilst all the time we are proletarianised and stripped of our humanity.

Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing else is seen in them, everything else being ignored.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime need; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!

Marx, K. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme.

This is, of course, important in the USA where Yonatan Zunger argues that amongst other groups academics will come under duress (through funding restrictions, issues to do with tenure etc.) ‘because they’re part of those “elites” which are a convenient target for blame, and are also likely to be vocal opponents of the regime.’ Enclosures of academic freedom will be made necessary, in order to decommission the “expertariat” that is seen to threaten the true freedom of the market. And we have already seen Professor Watch-Lists.

We have seen the attack on experts and intellectuals in the UK too, and the denigration of teachers as professionals alongside the reduction of the curriculum to economic outcomes and value-oriented services, which demand performance management and perpetual assessment, and that lead to embodied illness and mental health under siege. And so we might ask, whether being on the streets to question Trump and to push back against State visits is enough? Or whether this is a counter-hegemonic moment when the failing system reveals its antagonism towards humanity as anything other than human capital. And we might ask about the role of educators and students in organising a new social movement, with new directional demands, which lie beyond the organised labour movement and instead coalesce as a new labour movement of the under/over/precariously employed and those who labour for the social reproduction and care of society more widely.

A social movement is a counter-force within an arena of power. At its best a counter-force destabilizes that arena and creates social and political openings, in the moment and in its wake. The longer a crowd exists the more dangerous it becomes. It’s there, in those openings, that we find fertile ground for broad and interpersonal solidarity, trust, dreams of the future, collective desire for anything. That is where we build our positive prescription, our visions. Meaningful, useful dreams are only dreamt in struggle, in the spaces opened and left behind by the fight.

After the fall, Communiqués from occupied California

Such a movement focuses upon critiques of equality, democracy and co-operation in governance, and takes the rejection of the market and of competition, and the mediations of exchange value, private property and the division of labour, as a pedagogic project to be grappled with at the level of society. As such it reinvents the curriculum-as-praxis inside and outside of the classroom. This is the moment at which we attempt to shape a curriculum that is beyond borders, through engagement with the voices of delegitimised academics and students, which make clear how the ongoing colonisation of the curriculum by capital is reflected in its explicit links to colonial repression.

Thus, in responding to social vulnerability, there is a need for those who labour inside the university as academics and students to re-imagine new, public forms of HE. One possibility is through engagement with the voices of delegitimised academics and students, which make clear how the ongoing colonisation of the curriculum by capital is reflected in its explicit links to colonial repression. Such a revelation is a search for radical democracy inside the university, framed by research-engaged teaching and learning that is deliberately militant, public and counter-hegemonic. This positions the curriculum as contingent upon, and sensitive to, societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions, with recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts, and expectations. This is a pedagogical project at the level of society.

Hall, R and Smyth, K. 2016. Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education.

A pedagogical project at the level of society. As a counter-hegemonic project.

Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions

I have a chapter in an edited collection called Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions. The Sense Publishers website contains previews of the first two chapters.

My chapter is entitled: Against Academic Labour and the Dehumanisation of Educational Possibility.

The volume is part of a series on Professional Life and Work, and is edited by Tim Rudd and Ivor Goodson.

The flyer for the volume, with contents, is here.

The context and focus/key areas from the original proposal are appended below.


This edited collection of papers illustrates the continued weaknesses and failings of neoliberal education. It highlights the paradoxes in the broader arguments used to substantiate its perpetuation and intensification, and the striking deficiencies and flaws of its central tenets and mechanisms. The collection provides examples of a range of alternative systems, discourses and action in order to illustrate and re-imagine possible alternatives that can challenge the current ‘orthodoxy’ and taken for granted assumptions that have dominated educational debates in the ‘age of austerity’.

It is argued that the proliferous nature of neo liberalism has seeped into core educational debates and practice to such an extent that mainstream, and arguably ideologically informed, discourse regarding the purpose and direction of education largely ignores, and deflects discussions away from, potentially viable alternatives. This ‘hegemonic newspeak’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 2001) becomes normalised and actualised through discourse symbolically pronouncing a new ‘knowledge society’, which is accompanied by an ideological fetishism surrounding ‘school improvement’, ‘school effectiveness’ and ‘educational change’. However, the concomitant ‘logic’ suggests such goals can only be delivered through dogged adherence to a set of externally imposed ‘standards’, driven by new forms of educational ‘leadership’ and embedded in practice through managerialist practices orientated toward abstract performativity measures.

Yet the paradox in the discourse is clear. Despite decades of policy initiatives aimed at driving up ‘standards’ and delivering ‘educational improvement’, neo liberal policies have served to work to the contrary. Inequalities continue to be reproduced and exacerbated. The extent of system and school improvements and effectiveness remain questionable at best, even when measured against the rigid, limited and abstract measures imposed upon education. Other, potentially more meaningful, signifiers of educational quality have been marginalised in favour of rigid, technicist abstractions that remain incapable of delivering wider change and development. Educators professional autonomy is increasingly being diverted toward an instrumentalist servicing of managerial accountability functions, which ironically have little to do with the qualitative processes of education. As a result we are seeing an increasingly demoralised and de-professionalised workforce. The ‘paradox of performativity’ is that moral and professional commitment and autonomy are eroded, which in turn are detrimental to quality and performance. This in turn raises questions as to whether the wider motivations and dogged pursuit of performativity measures are actually intended to de-professionalise and de-stabilise education as an essential condition to ensure further privatisation is publicly viable. In short, neo liberal education is fundamentally flawed and its logic misplaced, or perhaps misdirected.

Focus and key areas

A range of key elements and aspects that are central signifiers of neo liberal education are explored and critiqued, alongside an exposition of alternative systems, discourse, approaches and practice, and a range of theoretical and conceptual representations.

These include: accountability, performativity and managerialism; forms of measurement, assessment and attainment; critique of learning outcomes and accountability; the marketization and increasing corporate sponsorship of education; privatisation, educational commodification and educational policies; free schools; academies and provider-consumer relationships and ‘logic’ in higher education; profit, labour and surplus; the role of students and educators; dehumanising education and alienation; freedom, choice, commodification; global education reform movements and reproduction; inequality, power, freedom, choice and repressive ideology; historical perspectives on neo liberal education; refraction, variation, neo liberalism and professional knowledge; flexi-schooling; co-operative alternatives; deschooling; and humanist education.

DMU Research Seminar: Immanence in learning

You are warmly invited to the next DMU IEF (Institute for Education Futures) Research Seminar

Title: Immanence in learning

Researcher: Jason Eyre

Date: 18th January 2017, 4.00 – 5.00pm

Location: Hawthorn Building, Room 0.07

Immanence in learning

This paper represents a work in progress. It seeks to present an account of learning which places the emphasis not on the content of what is learned, but rather on the context in which that learning takes place – the when, where and who. Taking a philosophical approach, the paper will argue that the goal of a marketised higher education sector has largely been achieved. However, conceptualising higher education as a commodity requires a stable and predictable ‘product’ that can be standardised and measured to enable its marketing, sale and consumption. Higher learning, by contrast, is highly contested with the various actors (institutions, disciplines, learners) all approaching the learning process with their own motivations and values.

What emerges is an educational milieu characterised by the interplay of forces (Nietzsche), each of which enters into relation with the others based on its own genealogical context (its past), and with an anticipation of its own telos (its future). The domain in which these forces come into relation with one another is the here and now, a spatio-temporal present that constitutes an ever-emerging plane of immanence (Deleuze). We can thereby begin to understand learning in higher education not as the simple transfer and accumulation of knowledge or know-how, but rather as a perpetual negotiation of what emerges as the present. This conceptual shift in turn may permit new and potentially fruitful ways of engaging with the idea of learning in the contemporary university.

writing about academic labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it.

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

Adam Curle: Education for Liberation and the potential for mass intellectuality

On Monday I’m at the University of Bradford speaking at a panel session at the Peaceful Relations and the Transformation of the World: An Academic-Practitioner Dialogue on Peace in the 21st Century. The panel is on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era. In order to ground my work at the intersection of peace studies, the idea of the University, and the concept of mass intellectuality, I have written an essay, attempting to connect Adam Curle’s Education for Liberation from 1973 with our current condition in higher education in the global North. The essay ends by pointing to our work on mass intellectuality inside-against-and-beyond the neoliberal university.

I wrote it whilst listening to Annie Mac Presents.

ONE. A shared humanity

We do not need education without needing a world that is being destroyed.

Our emphasis is on education: within the reality of our social relations, confined by the struggle of daily life, against the hierarchical relations between institutions, academics and students.

We share our work in education so that one day we might become free through education. It can feel like a hopeless act of hope yet as a conscious act of anti-alienation, sharing can be emancipatory.

We have been objectified as Teachers and Learners. These are illusory concepts. Sharing is to resist the commodification of our lives and escape the measures of Capital, its controls of ‘quality’ and its life-support machine of ‘efficiency’.

Sharing brings curricula to life as a flow of ideas, an unstoppable, irrepressible mass intellectuality that recognises no disciplines and responds to every act of discipline.

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

In Education for Liberation, Adam Curle argues for the creation of new educational conditions that refuse the ongoing deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of everyday life, in order to enable individuals (and families, communities, societies) to address themselves.

we try to create conditions in which the fewest obstacles are placed in the way of people coming to terms with themselves.

Curle, A. (1973). Education for Liberation. London: Tavistock, p. v.

NOTE: hereafter reference to this volume is given simply by ‘Curle’ and the relevant page number.

What Curle laid bare in 1973 was the intersectional realities of poverty, oppression, exploitation, hunger, disease and emotional sickness, and a recognition that ‘if all these things were abolished’ then what would be left is our shared humanity. This idea of a shared humanity picks up our utopian desire to connect, not through the exchange-value of our education commodified as a service or financialised and marketised through debt and performance metrics, but by sharing what is socially-useful. This process of sharing knowledge, skills and literacies both inside and outside the formal institution, dissolves the boundaries of that institution. As a result, it resists the enclosure of the university and its knowledge, and pushes back against the idea that the market is the sole arbiter of access to that knowledge.

Moreover, the sharing that rests on dissolving the boundaries that exist: between the inside and outside of the university; between students and teachers; and between those who know and those who do; forms a moment of resistance to the idea that the market is the only way that we can address global emergencies. These emergencies demand social action taken at the level of society. For Curle there is a sense of needing to overcome this restricting alienation because:

Education enslaves: men and women become free through their own efforts. (p. 1)

TWO. The structuring realities of value

The historical context for Curle’s work on education and liberation is important. He is writing shortly after Nixon unilaterally ended the Bretton Woods international monetary system, and as the post-war Keynesian compromise was ending. These are way-markers on the path to neoliberalism that placed an aesthetic appreciation of (economic) value, rather than (humane) values, centre stage. Yet for Curle, ‘the keystone is justice rather than wealth’ (p.1), and this opens-up potential connections between social justice movements and those looking for post-capitalist alternatives, as a response to the emergent, globalised phase of capitalist development. However, this work of connection frames the problems of justice and wealth through political economy, and one that reclaims wealth as social, and specifically as a collective power-to do or to create the world, separated out from accumulated, individualised forms of wealth (as money or financial assets). This is the material and immaterial wealth of art, science, technology and knowledge, which rest on social relationships that themselves refuse to be organised through private property, wage labour and the market.

As Curle was writing, Autonomist Marxism emerged as a conglomerate of different perspectives, drawing on the Italian Operaismo or Workerist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Autonomist Marxism enabled a focus on the question of why capital moved beyond national boundaries in the post-war years and how it was transformed into a globalised, transnational apparatus for accumulating wealth. Critically, this tradition sought to understand the changing nature of the structure and agency of the working class as the neoliberal phase of capitalism intensified. In this analysis, education is crucial in examining the ways in which labour could form oppositional spaces or cracks through which to resist and push-back against the alienation of exchange and the market. Thus, Autonomist critiques of education focus upon the ability of the student/teacher to develop her own self-awareness and to utilise technology to act for herself. This emancipatory project is revealed as in-against-beyond, which questions the structures that reproduce capitalism’s domination, like the State and its educational institutions. These questions emerge from inside those structures and from perspectives that are against them, so that alternatives that lie beyond might be opened up. This recognises that capitalism is a totalising, social universe, and opens-up a global terrain of struggle for autonomy that includes education.

The struggle to control labour presents the working class (including in the roles of student and teacher) with potential educational tools to develop new points of resistance. In developing such alternatives, there are a number of key ideas that emerge from the Autonomist tradition that are useful in addressing how education relate to the agency of the working class, acting for itself:

Each of these concepts forces a reconceptualisation of how we address the production and circulation of social wealth, materialised not as money or surplus-value, but as our social needs and capacities. For Curle (p. 4) this approach, if not the conceptualisation, was central to a project of overcoming the competitive materialism that emerges from global networks of exploitation. That Curle was able to identify and analyse such networks can be traced forwards to the work of Stephen Ball on transnational activist networks that seek to open-up the terrain of education for-profit. These networks of private equity, publishers, policy-makers, pedagogues, think-tanks, educational technology corporations, venture capitalists, and so on, help to deterritoriaise and reterritorialise education, so that only surplus-value can be liberated. As a result:

Accumulated value, and the power that flows from it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised.

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

As Curle argues (p. 5), as these asymmetrical power relations flood through education, ‘one party to a relationship, the weaker, is impeded through the quality of a relationship, from achieving his [sic.] human potential.’ Thus, formal, institutionalised education (and it is such that supplies much of the context for Education for Liberation) ‘reinforces unpeaceful situations’ (p. 6), rooted in belonging-identity and competitive materialism (pp. 7-8). Here Curle’s work traces the outlines of later analyses of the dehumanization inherent in capitalist social relations and the law of value, in particular the impact of capitalism as a totalising system on individual and collective self-worth. For Curle this emerges as guilt and shame. As Jappe notes:

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

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

Yet Curle’s work on situating education for liberation inside dominant ideologies or the system, also connects to alternative possibilities outlined in more mainstream thinking.

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.

social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Keynes, J.M. 1930. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

THREE. On prefiguration and a new education

In responding to this clash of value and values, Curle emphasizes the need for a new education, which demands ‘an alien form of society’ that values the human, or our shared humanity. This is the possibility of personal evolution, or ‘higher-awareness (awareness-identity)’, formed inside a counter-system of education rooted in altruism (or #solidarity) (pp. 8, 9). This counter-system has echoes of Gramsci’s work on hegemony and counter-hegemony, rooted in acknowledging, analysing and abolishing power. For Curle (p. 10), such a counter-system would have higher levels of (social) awareness (beyond value). It would be grounded in awareness-identity (social connections against-and-beyond the market), and as such it would be altruistic and empathetic with peaceful relation that are loving and supportive. Moreover, it would be based on co-operative and egalitarian democracy.

In addressing how education relates to the creation of such a counter-system, Curle (p. 17) diagnoses that we need to reveal the reality of the system as is. Here, hegemony rests on imparting the knowledge needed by the system to reproduce itself by establishing within us the goals that are also of value to the system. In the UK we can witness this in the HE White Paper and the emerging HE and Research Bill, with its focus on human capital theory in education, to be implemented through teaching intensity, productivity, teaching excellence and performance management.

Curle’s responses echo those academic-activists who continue to resist, refuse and push-back against the on-going assault on the idea of higher education. These responses are rooted in prefiguration. For Curle, the existence and celebration of ‘Different values jeopardize what they have, thus endangering their belonging-identity’ (p. 21, emphasis added). As Sarah Amsler notes, prefiguring the kind of world we wish to see is an on-going process that is generative, iterative and educative. It is the governance and organisation of life as a pedagogical project, which enables the negation of that which is dehumanising or alienating. Connecting to Curle’s hope for justice, this is the negation of our negation.

Moreover, such prefigurative and utopian engagements also enable and share moments of solidarity. In developing Curle’s counter-system, this means thinking through the potential for waves of struggle, which demonstrate solidarity between various groups of workers and others across society impacted by austerity. Points of solidarity include: the embodied toll that neoliberal restructuring and austerity takes on mental and physical health, including in families; the control of performance and activity; the reduction of life to work; and, the inability of the curriculum to manage issues of crisis concerning poverty, climate change, on-going colonialism and so on. Points of solidarity connect:

  • Academic staff who are subject to increased workload and performance management;
  • Academic staff whose workload requirements are marginalising the rest of their lives, as parents, carers, partners, friends, so that never-ending, entrepreneurial work dominates;
  • Students whose work is defined by debt as a commodity or purchased as a service, rather than being regarded as work that should be reimbursed through a wage;
  • Students whose education is solely predicated on productivity and employability, with contributions to social or care work being marginalised;
  • Student of colour, who are protesting and refusing the on-going colonisation of the curriculum;
  • Precariously-employed graduate teaching assistants, or those for whom tenure is becoming an impossibility;
  • Professional services staff for whom the restructuring of back-office functions entails outsourcing or an attrition on labour rights, and amplifies forms of social dumping;
  • Graduates saddled with increasing amounts of debt and weak job prospects, in the face of automation, on-going recession, and so on;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is covered by the Educational Excellence Everywhere White paper, which promises the privatisation and data-driven commodification of pre-HE education;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is also affected by the Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Act (2015), which enables metrics and longitudinal data to be collated about individuals to drive the production of economic value;
  • Community groups fighting for social justice, for instance in refugee, housing or gender rights; and
  • Workers in notionally public-facing industries, where ideas of public service or the public good (contested as those terms are) are being lost, and for whom the realities of austerity are disciplinary (such as the campaign for an NHS Reinstatement Bill).

Here there is a need to redefine the terms of resistance as cross-sectoral, acting communally or socially, precisely because those communal or social aspects of our identities are being marginalised or reduced, as work and productivity becomes totalising. There is a need to see this work as educational, rooted in a governance framework and organisation that prefigures what we desire. For Curle this is a constant practice of revealing and resisting minor oppressions that gradually erode our awareness, such as the symbolic racialised nature of the curriculum. Thus, resistance offers the potential for re-humanizing activities (p. 87).

Such forms of resistance also question the very nature of our curricula, and raise the issue of whether our work should be on dismantling the curriculum. Curle wished to see a curriculum that strengthened justice and peace, so that individuals could self-actualise, rather than instantiating a curriculum that is mindless, dehumanizing and intellectually worthless for so many with ‘subtly obnoxious hidden’ elements. Here there is resonance with Rhodes Must Fall and campaigns like #whyismycurriculumwhite, which force us to consider how to connect the inside and outside of the classroom to everyday oppression, and to consider an engaged pedagogy that is infused critically.

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge, p. 13.

Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy”… emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge, p. 15.

FOUR. Against power inside and outside the classroom

The power relations reinforced through the market, wage labour and property relations deny the essential humanity of the teacher-student relationship. Moreover they deny the self-actualisation (awareness-identity) of the individuals in that relationship, both inside and outside the classroom.

Curle (p. 35) hints at this issue of power, referenced above in terms of hegemony and counter-hegemony (the counter-system), when he refers to the altered psychological reality in which authority is shared. He writes that ‘the best way of promoting an appreciation of social justice may be through building a just and equal society in the classroom’ (p. 42). This reminds us of the work of John Holloway on how to change the world without taking power. Here the altered psychological state is not one of taking power, in order to reproduce both it and its injustices. Rather we refuse to reproduce power relations that disable our self-determination. They key is to focus co-operatively on creating a society in which people determine its development.

Like Curle, Holloway is clear that we have to change the world. However, there is no focus on taking State power. Instead he points towards new structures shaped by our agency and autonomy in doing socially-useful things. This concept of doing socially-useful things again relays back to Curle’s awareness-identity and refusal of competitive materialism. However, for Holloway there is a clear distinction between our power to do things (our creative power), and other’s power-over us or over our power to do things. Wage labour and debt (Holloway’s rule of money) offer others the power to command, and they reveal the structuring logic and power of capital, including across the terrain of higher education. The crucial thing for Holloway, as it was for Curle, is that this power to create and to command is a social power. In Holloway’s terms:

Our power to do is always a social power, is always a collective power, our doing is always part of the social flow of doing.

[In its co-option by capital] the social power to do becomes broken, it becomes transformed into its opposite, which is the power of the capitalist to command the doing of others.

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

The problem for educators is that inside the classroom and through the curriculum peace can only ever be an aspiration, because our educational work is alienated from us by capital. What we produce as educators or students is commodified as knowledge transfer or in the form of credits. How we produce as educators or students is governed by performance management or made efficient through technology and organisational development. The relationships that we produce as educators or students are governed by metrics and ideas of consumption and purchase, so that our relationship to ourselves becomes framed by enterprise or employment or future earnings. In this, as staff and students we are objectified because we are commanded.

In moving against these flows of educational alienation, our struggle is to build up our power to do differently and socially.

Our logic is just the contrary, it is the logic of coming together, it is a logic of recovering the subjectivity, which is denied by capital. Subjectivity not as an individual subjectivity, but as a social subjectivity.

if we think of the struggle to change society as class struggle, then it is fundamental to see this struggle as being asymmetrical. And once we start to reproduce their forms, and once we start to think of our struggle as being the mirror image of their struggle, then all that we are doing is reproducing the power of capital within our own struggles.

revolution is a question rather than an answer, because the revolutionary process in itself has to be understood as a process of asking, as a process of moving out, not of telling peoples what the answers are, but actually as a process of involving people in a movement of self-determination.

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

Here then, prefigurative activity as an educational process, operating inside and outside the classroom is central, and it rests on autonomous forms and spaces for action. This means developing confidence in our own structures, in our own time, and in our own space, and as a result develop new ways of (re-)imagining society. As Curle notes (p. 62), it is a process of re-learning the Self.

An ideal society would be self-creating. If it is self-creating, if it is self-determining, then in a sense it doesn’t make sense to project an ideal organization, because the ideal organization would be created by the society itself. 

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

This process of idealisation, self-determination or community self-actualisation (awareness-identity rooted in altruism and solidarity) is a pedagogical project. Moreover, it is developed at the level of the community (i.e. it is not grounded in the institutions of the State that support the system that Curle speaks against). Here, the community is the educating subject and the whole person (cognition, emotion and body) are forged in a process of subjectification rather than commodification. As Curle identifies (p. 67) this requires liberation from educational roles and pedagogic relations of power. It is reflected in writings about the Little Schools from Below.

The Zapatista schools, in which more than a thousand of us set foot in autonomous communities, was a different mode of learning and teaching, without classrooms or blackboards, without teachers or professors, without curriculum or grades. The real teaching begins with the creation of a climate of kinship among a multitude of subjects instead of dividing educators with power and knowledge from naïve students that need to be inculcated with knowledge.

The pedagogic principles are rooted in:

  • the social politics of counterinsurgency;
  • autonomy that is seated in community control;
  • collective work as a foundation of autonomy;
  • the new cultural politics, which is rooted in family relations and is diffused throughout Zapatista society.

Zibechi, R. 2012. The Schools From Below: “A non-institutional education, where the community is the educating subject”.

This has a more insurgent and overtly post-capitalist flavour than that sketched by Curle. However, the latter still identified the concept of school or of schooling as enabling ‘a highly individual exploration by children of themselves and their world.’ Bound by the need to work, Curle highlights that such an exploration would lead to specialisation and training, although the genesis would be interest rather than position or status. Moving beyond a world of capitalist work, for the abolition of wage labour, takes a transformation of mind. Thus, Curle questions ‘Is there any point of working within the system; and can we work outside it?’ (p. 43).

FIVE. Towards mass intellectuality: higher education and responses to the secular crisis of capitalism

One response to this is Curle’s work on awareness and identity through social action or praxis (c.f. Curle, A. Mystics and Militants: Study of Awareness, Identity and Social Action. London: Tavistock). What he calls for is material, cultural and social development that enables:

a coherent philosophy of the relationship of education to society which would make it possible for the real strength of affective education to be directed towards transforming the social setting which neutralizes so much good contemporary work in education. (p. 62)


Education for liberation must, in fact, include instruction in the techniques for creating social change, for building the counter-system. (p. 80)

Education building a peaceful society through connection to our humanity. Liberation from habits of thought, action, and feeling that make us less than human, and that transform the system into a counter-system. Against the institutionalised (though the network) nature of low awareness, belonging-identity and competitive materialism. The human spirit rather than distorted psychological needs. (p. 127)

We know that the secular crisis of capitalism has generated a structural adjustment policy across the terrain of higher education, which reshapes the relationships between academics and students. We know that in this crisis is revealed the ‘means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’ (See: Keynes, J.M. 1930. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren). We know that the system’s counter-measures cannot resolve its underlying problems, rooted in expansion and accumulation, and that those very counter-measures undermine capitalism’s legitimacy (See: Cleaver, H. 1993. Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism: The Insurpassability of Class Antagonisms). We know that the heart of the issue is the collapse in the production for profit by the private owners of the means of production, which has led to deleveraging, liquidation, reduced investment, austerity, indenture and so on. We know that even the authors of the neoliberal moment speak of systemic stagnation (with demographic and educational imbalances, inequality and debt), the failure of monetary policy; below-trend aggregate demand/growth and chronic under-investment, and a need to re-focus on Human Capital Theory, entrepreneurialism, the family as the unit of investment, and future earnings potential (See: Summers, L (2014). Reflections on the ‘New Secular Stagnation Hypothesis’ In: Tuelings, C and Baldwin, R eds.  Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research Press, pp. 27–38). This secular crisis swamps socio-environmental and socio-cultural crises that have disproportionately affected the global South, and which have amplified the impacts of the on-going coloniality and patriarchy of power. As we know, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

In this context it is clear that higher education is in crisis. The idea of the public university is under assault, and both the future of the sector and its relationship to society are being gambled. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is overwhelmingly instrumental. What are the alternatives? As Curle asks, ‘Is there any point of working within the system; and can we work outside it?’

One way of addressing this is by relating education to the concept of mass intellectuality, which emerges from Marx’s work in the Grundrisse on the ‘general intellect’. Marx argued that the dynamics of capitalism meant:

the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].

Through innovation and competition, the technical and skilled work of the social individual, operating in factories, corporations or schools, is absorbed into the things she produces. It is alienated from her, and therefore, the ‘general intellect’ of society, i.e. its general capacity for science in the broadest sense, is absorbed into capitalised technologies and techniques, in order to reduce labour costs and increase productivity.

With the crisis of funding, regulation and governance of higher education, there is a need to understand: first, the mechanisms through which the general intellect is absorbed into the total social production process of value, to which universities contribute; and second, how academic practice enables or resists such co-option. This calls attention to the proliferation of alternative educational practices, which are themselves re-imaginings of the idea of the University as a site for the production of knowledge. These alternatives are rooted in the desire and potential for reclaiming the knowledge, skills, practices and techniques that form the general intellect, in order to produce and circulate new forms of socially-useful knowledge or ways of knowing, being in and creating the world.

From this reclaiming or liberation of the general intellect, away from the valorisation of capital, emerges ‘mass intellectuality’ as a direct, cognitive and social force of production that exists as an increasingly diffuse form of intellectuality. In this form it circulates as a ‘commons’ that is pregnant with critical and practical potential but still remains marginal in the face of general commodity production. As a result, it is constantly being recuperated by capital in the form of the ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’. Virno (2001) argues that

Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity.

The concept of mass intellectuality refers to knowledge and forms of knowing that can be and are being valorised by capital, but also refers to that same knowledge’s immanent (negative) and pre-figurative (positive) critical and re-constructive potential for new forms of sociality. In this way, mass intellectuality implies a struggle over the proletarianisation of cognitive and affective forms of labour, and its emancipatory implications, as the embodiment of the cumulative history of science.

The process of liberating and reclaiming the knowledge, skills, practices and techniques that are produced inside higher educational contexts is central to moving beyond exploitation and valorisation in the market, and in creating democratic, co-operative alternatives. This implies a critique of subjectivity, in its relationship to the prevalent mode of (knowledge) production. As a result, the critical-practical solutions to global, socio-environmental problems need not be framed around economic growth and business-as-usual. This enables a refocusing on the potential for the democratic or co-operative reproduction of the University, and a level of productive, scientific and social knowledge that exists as an immanent, transgressive potential across capitalist societies.

This process argues for the democratisation of higher education as an emancipatory project that must re-appropriate the means of knowledge production in the labour process, and nurture the co-operation of academics and students. By uncovering the widespread, objective conditions for the alienation of the products and processes of higher education from their social utility, it is possible to describe actually-exiting alternatives that identify the material conditions for new democratic models of knowledge production and education.

SIX. Uncovering collective, pedagogic potential

In our collective work on Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, student- and academic-activists have attempted such an uncovering, in order to situate higher education against the ongoing crisis of capitalism with responses from inside and outside the University. We articulate the limits of formal HE, including the binaries of public and private, in a range of national contexts, with a connection to traditions of critical pedagogy in which critical knowing has always been existential, collective and transformative. We challenge the hegemonic framing of learning as separate from society and everyday life.

Our opening section focuses on Power, History and Authority inside formal higher education, and asks what and who has led us to this crisis of higher education? What forms of resistance are taking place inside the University? Here we focus our attention on the following.

  • Struggles inside the classroom over the labour of students and academics, and the potential responses that are enabled through critical pedagogy.
  • The lessons to be taken from the development of co-operative higher education.
  • A theoretical understanding of academic practice by students and staff as public intellectualism, as a form of mass intellectuality.
  • The co-option of open access, which questions the societal value of business-as-usual models for public, higher education.

Our second section examines Potentialities for change and radical experiment in various transnational contexts. We ask whether it is possible to re-imagine the University democratically and co-operatively? Case studies here include the following.

  • Engagement with Brazilian resistance to extreme neoliberalism in the pedagogic practices of the Landless Movement. This discusses the impossibility of being an intellectual worker in the neoliberal university.
  • Discussion of Scottish higher education with reference to case studies of environmental justice, resistance to gender-based violence and trades union activity. This situates the experience of the knowledge worker against that emerging from within social movements.
  • An engagement with strands of mass intellectuality as they emerged historically in Bradford University’s Peace Studies curriculum and the CommUNIty project, as they were infused with a material and cultural analysis of sociability in Latin America.
  • A reflection on the meaning and purpose of arts education in its relationship to societal leadership as it emerges in the global North.

Our final section is rooted in Praxis, and looks at practical, alternative initiatives that are rooted in critical pedagogy and physical places beyond the University.

  • The Birmingham Autonomous University declare six theses on the collective failings of the hegemonic, methodological University, and the possibility that exists for creating a co-operative form of societal engagement.
  • An auto-ethnography of an alternative education project in Oxford, UK, the People’s Political Economy, which is framed by the idea of the organic intellectual in society.
  • A critique of the Lincoln Social Science Centre, UK, which offers a means of analysing the governing principles of transnational alternatives, in order to frame questions about their co-operative and democratic, practical and theoretical viability.
  • An eco-critical, thematic approach to mass intellectuality, rooted in the ethics of environmentalism. This enables the alternatives discussed in this book to connect to a wider environmental and transition/resilience agenda and its relationship to formal higher education.
  • A comparative analysis of indigenous communities and women of colour in the Escuela Política de Mujeres Pazifica, and the Family Inclusion Strategy Hunger collective based in the Hunter Valley, Australia. This analysis specifically relates co-operative, inclusive educational practices of creating ourselves, our relationships and communities differently.

Our work is rounded off with an evaluation and systematic critique of the collaborative approach adopted in its production. How might co-operative writing and publishing inside the University enable voices to be heard that are against and beyond the valorisation of academic labour?

SEVEN. Postscript

These struggles for mass intellectuality are an attempt to build solidarity and sharing (as forms of awareness-belonging) rather than to enable commodification, exchange and accumulation (as competitive materialism and belonging-identity). Thus, liberating science and technology from inside-and-against capital’s competitive dynamics is central to moving beyond exploitation. This is a pedagogical project and therefore education is central to society’s potential to re-imagine.

Radical alternatives rooted in co-operative practice offer mechanisms through which new forms of social power might challenge, resist and push back against the marketisation of public education, indentured study, and the hidden curriculum that asserts the primacy of value-for-money, impact metrics, productivity and efficiency. This helps to reveal how the effects of financialisation and marketisation across an increasingly global, social field like education might be inverted and resisted. This begins by revealing the objective, material realities of social life, so that we might give voice to possible, prefigurative alternatives. Mass intellectuality as a frame of reference enables those alternatives, pace Adam Curle, to encourage different ways of thinking about the role, value and form of higher education institutions in society. This is one possible route to the peaceful, liberated social relations that Curle imagined.