On Wednesday I’m presenting at Bath Spa in an open discussion of my book, The Alienated Academic.
The slides are appended below.
NOTE: I will only speak for 20 minutes but wanted to present a full slide-deck.
Well, this is very exciting, and I have an article accepted for publication in Social Epistemology: a Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy that picks up on some work I have been doing previously on authoritarian neoliberalism (see presentations and notes from a BERA Special Interest Group symposium here and here). The article also attempts to maintain some momentum around academic labour, academic practice, knowledge formation and the critical terrain of decolonisation. In this, I explicitly connect to Audre Lorde’s work on life as a poetic existence.
The article should be out in the Spring.
As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, increasingly encumbered by precarious employment, debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of autonomy beyond the sale of their labour-power. One heuristic for analysing this response is authoritarian neoliberalism, imposed as a means of enacting disciplinary practices in the name of the market with an anti-democratic rationale. This has a distinctly technocratic focus, rooted in techniques of performativity, including audits and assessments of teaching, research and scholarship, grounded in productivity, the management of time and value-creation. However, there are a range of intersectional and geographical responses to such an imposition, through which it is possible to describe alternatives to these architectures of subsumption. In particular, a second heuristic emerges which challenges the restructuring of the University in the global North, erupting from struggles for decolonisation. Here, Audre Lorde’s invocation to an integrated, poetic existence that situates bodies in places, and respects feelings and emotions as the site of epistemological development and understanding, underpins the possibility for dismantling hegemonic knowledge production. The article examines whether humanist narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse their alienated labour and to imagine that another world is possible.
Keywords: academic labour, authoritarian neoliberalism, decolonisation, poetic epistemology.
The references for the article are listed at the end of this blogpost.
Over at the new PostDigital Science and Education journal Joss Winn has a review of my monograph, The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. Joss plays around with the review style, in order to highlight some of the alienating realities of academic (over)work and time. He makes several important points about the book that resonate for me as follows.
I think that it is only right to thank Joss for this very kind review, and to accept that it is densely written and heavily referenced, drawing upon a range of theoretical positions. A friend who has engaged with the book questioned whether it was to0 theoretical, although in the acknowledgements I do point to a range of primers and readers about Marxist theory, and the book is part of a Marxism and Education series. One of the reviewers also argued that it was perhaps over-referenced, whilst another wondered whether my voice got lost in my citation of others.
What interested me in the process of writing was my attempt to understand my own work and academic practice. I could not do this without accepting and drawing upon a range of positions. This is why the literature on feminism, critical race theory, identity politics and intersectionality were so important. It is nice to read that this is received by some as a productive synthesis when I feel that I am simply trying to find my way by listening to a range of alternative positions, and in so doing hopefully enabling others to do likewise. However, in order to find my way I had to read a lot of things, and it feels only right to cite those authors who shape my own position.
One of the critical issues for me now is to think through how a categorical critique of academic experience, practice and work, rooted in the estrangement of the person employed as an academic or fractured as an academic, from her academic self, her academic identity, her academic community, and her academic products, can enable us to overcome the hopelessness of labour. How can sitting with and processing a hopeless position enable us to develop useful alternatives? How can accepting the hopeless university enable us to reimagine and reignite our humanity in the name of another world?
I’ll be speaking about the book at Bath Spa on 23rd January, and also at a University of Sheffield Ed.D. residential on 15th February.
There has been so much discussion of potential job losses across institutions; there has been so much discussion of how negotiations over the USS Pension Scheme will play out; there has been so much discussion of the impacts of the ONS review of the decision of how to treat student loans in the public accounts; there has been so much discussion of the impact of the Augar Review of post-18 education. There has been so little discussion of what this means politically for academic labour.
That isn’t to say that there has not been an on-going statement of how academic work is adversely, toxically, negatively disassembling what it means to be human inside the University. For instance, a recent tweet from an academic at Leeds, liked almost 5,200 times, points to the impact on mental health of the apparent disregard that management have for their academic labourers.
Only, in the thread that follows, academics are not regarded as labourers, rather their fetishised status as privileged knowledge workers takes on the usual, depressing and reified narrative in which individuals who have worked for doctorates are commodified as assets. This represents an ongoing failure to engage with the political economy of academic work, and to see it for what it is: the everyday, coercive re-sale of alienated labour-power, which results in the everyday estrangement of the individual from herself and her community. This community includes the students whom she must sort and separate and grade, her peers against whom she must compete for status and privilege and resources, and her Commons whom she must use as an asset or develop as a market for knowledge transfer or exchange.
Describing the depressive position of academic life is one thing; analysing and moving beyond it demands socially-useful theory, rooted in the ongoing reproduction of alienating capitalist social relations. Academic impact and the public good are socially-useful for capital, and demand a different kind of analysis. Instead praxis demands that rather than fetishising academic labour, we see it for what it is – brutally alienating. As Ansgar Allen wrote in his review of The Alienated Academic, my argument is a:
critique of the academic’s number one fetish: their own world-historical importance, its role in their enslavement to a work ethic built on alienation, and their participation in wider flows of capitalist destruction. Though many in the academy may think otherwise: another world is not possible, at least not a world that issues from the labour of the current academic, however radically inclined.
Thus, my opening chapter focuses upon the academic labourer becoming awakened.
This is a book about estrangement and alienation in academic life; about being a stranger to the nature of your own scholarly work, to yourself and to your peers. This is a book about moving beyond the surface perception of academic work as a labour of love or privilege, in order to understand its essence inside increasingly alienating contexts.
Hall, R. 2018. The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 1.
In expanding upon this idea that work is a withering form of living death rooted in personal losses, and that academia is not privileged and that it is not a labour of love and that in the process of fetishising it we diminish ourselves, I argue that this stops us from seeing the inability of the University to address global emergencies.
Proletarianisation renders institutions hopeless spaces for addressing the wider ramifications of the crisis of value. The University framed by a secular crisis of the value-form remains unable to address fundamental global problems like climate change, because its interaction with the world is mediated through the market, the division of labour and commodity-exchange.
It is increasingly unclear how these institutions and their curricula enable global societies to adapt through collective, educational repair. This is precisely because HE institutions are limited to their ability to coerce individuals in placing their labour-power for sale in the market.
ibid., p. 57
This idea that academics fetishise and universalise their own labour as an objective, public good does nothing but cripple any hopes of self/social-care or renewal.
Academics have been nudged towards accepting these forms of crippling enslavement by focusing upon the alleged privilege of working in education, and the self-sacrifice of public service. This has been a way in which capital has been able to compel overwork and exhaustion across a social terrain… Estrangement from the self emerges from the loss of subjectivity and sensuous, creative practice, inside relations of production with increased technical composition.
As a process of reproduction the labour process forms a motive power underpinning the expanding circuit of alienation, A-A’. This expansion shapes subjugation, because the potential of the labour-power inside each individual labourer cannot be realised except through the objective conditions of capitalist work for value.
Ibid., p. 169
The question is then possibly Lenin’s, what is to be done? Or perhaps Nietzsche’s what next? Later in the book, I argue that individual academics must confront alienating conditions of work that reproduce estrangement across social and personal terrain, at the level of society.
As a growing surplus population drags the experience of exploitation and immiseration from the margins of academic society into its core, through performance management and precarious employment, there is potential for indignation and degradation to be generalised. At issue is how to place transformation of the mode of production at the heart of the matter, rather than amplifying hopelessness. As practices from the racialised, gendered, disabled, homosexual and queer margins of the global North and the global South move back to the centre of production, engagement in survival programmes as a precursor to dismantling the mode of production, are crucial for academics. Academic privilege and hegemonic, alienating academic norms need to be checked by learning from alternative life experiences. This demands a new war of position in the name of survival pending revolution, rooted in co-operation and accepting of the reality that Keynesian, welfare capitalism cannot be reinstalled. Instead, academic hopelessness needs to stimulate an alternative social function as the basis for abolishing wage labour.
Ibid., p. 181
It is not enough to discuss academics as a homogenous group or with an ability to work collectively to confront their conditions of production, in order to challenge the relations of production that are so clearly toxic to so many. It is clear that academics exist in a range of constantly shifting, determinate conditions, which are re-shaping the ways in which academic labour functions through the application of new forms of organisation, precarious employment, rounds of voluntary severance and reorganisation, the imposition of new technologies, policy edicts which drive competitive demands, and so on.
Moreover, these conditions are different for a range of sub-groups and communities of whatever academia is or might be. Where the experience is defined by norms set against the idea of the successful White, male, heterosexual, able Professor, the rest of the academic peloton is forced to recalibrate itself will be recalibrated by this privilege. What this then means if you are an academic of colour, female, have a caring responsibility, are ill, whatever, is that you have to suck it up or take that next course on mindfulness or resilience, or decide that perhaps this isn’t the place for you.
This means that uncovering political composition needs more attention by academics as they try to work for solidarity and collective action. This composition is effectively the ways in which labour organises and resists the labour process itself, in part generated through struggles over pensions or workload or whatever, and which is aimed at refusing the imposition of a new technical composition of capital across the terrain of academic work, which can only ever aim at reproducing exploitation. This technical composition is the ability of capital to annihilate the costs of labour-power whilst enforcing productivity gains or longer working hours upon those who remain. It is no wonder that we see an increase in the academic gig-economy, increasingly technological performance management, a rise in the reserve army of PhD labour with no apparent future, and a narrative that fetishises human capital development with the risk owned by the individual academic.
Of course, one of the issues here is that labour-power is the source of value inside capitalism, and so by annihilating labour capital undermines itself though a crisis of profitability. Yet in order to overcome the political composition of labour, capital has constantly to innovate its technical composition. Is it possible then to use this as a moment to challenge alienating work? Is it possible to analyse the political composition of academic labour, in order to refuse a technical recomposition designed to extend the universe of value?
The theory of class composition restates the problem of power in a perspective where recomposition is not that of a unity, but that of a multiplicity of needs, and of liberty.
Negri, A. (1979). Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. London: Pluto Press, p. 14.
The problem with not being able to do this analytical work, is that the academic has no starting point for refusal, other than a lamentation or a scream against the latest indignity. One result is that there may be anger, but there can be no indignation. For whilst Marx argued that the individual worker would only ever become “an appendage” and mutilated or fragmented, with her family thrown under the juggernaut of capital acting as a werewolf or a vampire, too many academics still cling to the ideas of status and privilege are themselves underpinned by hope rather than hopelessness. This means that there can only be space for anger rooted in powerlessness at the latest excellence framework or demand for impact or research audit or student evaluation or workload plan. And anger rooted in powerlessness leads to a depressive position.
And so the question becomes how to decompose academic labour. How do academics analyse their own social organisation in relation to capital? How do they unpack the conditions and relations of production, where they are employed inside the University acting as a means for the production of value, in concert with transnational finance capital, global educational technology/publishing firms underwritten by venture capital, and policymakers working in partnership with transnational bodies like the World Bank or IMF, and where their work is conditioned by student debt? It is important that this work is done, because the particular situation of the academic is her starting point for analysing the lack of solidarity amongst academics as a group, and for realising the relative solidarity between sub-groups of academics who continue to be made marginal inside the system of hegemonic production. Moreover it is a starting point for realising the relative solidarity between subgroups of academics and a movement beyond the University of groups and individuals made marginal.
Here, class is not enough. As a result, it is important to look at the differential conditions of labour for: Professors; tenured staff; professional services staff; students; postgraduate teaching assistants; precariously employed staff; and to do this in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on. Because it is clear that in order to leverage change inside the Academy, as a moment of prefiguring change outside the Academy, or perhaps where change inside the Academy is immanent to change outside, some people have too much to lose. Too much privilege, too much status, too many resources, and for some, the process of proletarianisation has not impacted enough to spark their solidarity.
It is the proletariat who, for Marx, with a revolutionary class, and the potential for change then stems from those (academics) with nothing left to lose. This means that such a workerist analysis of the condition of academic work needs to consider how that work is integrated into capitalist social relations and relations of production. It needs to consider the divisions that exist between academics, and how those divisions or separations are maintained. This includes disciplinary separations reinforced through league tables and excellence frameworks, as well as separations of status and privilege.
Moreover, such a(n academic) workers’ enquiry might connect academic labour to the idea of autonomous activity outside the University and whether they offer moments of subversion or transgression against the value-relation. Do they enable hegemonic social relations to be subverted? Moreover, is there space for decomposing academic labour, such that the divisions noted above might be dissolved as a stage in moving towards the abolition of that labour, rather than its fetishisation and accompanying hopes that a Utopian state can be restored? Instead, this recognises that academic labour, like all other forms of labour, is not privileged. It is always in a process of being dominated, exploited, reengineered and repurposed for-value, as capital struggles to annihilate its own dependency upon labour-power. This demands that academics see their conditions of labour as continually-changing, and that the only redemption lies in accepting the hopelessness of a compact with a system of exploitation.
The power therefore lies in attempting to see that individuals working collectively makes the world, and need to be alive to both its historical and current, material realities, in order to develop new forms of struggle. Capital’s ongoing struggle to decompose and recompose academic labour means that there can be no Happy New Year, in which a system of exploitation governed through competition and mediated through private property (in the form of knowledge), the division of labour, commodity-exchange and the market, is given away by those with power-over us. There will be no Happy New Year, which is better for our fragmented physical and mental health, precisely because just like the old year, the New Year will be built upon alienated labour-power. Understanding the political economy of academic work is a starting point for establishing our own power-over the world, our own weaknesses, our own associations and spaces of solidarity, such that we might decide what next or what is to be done?
However, this cannot be disaggregated from wider struggles in the world to decolonise, or for gendered rights, or for disability rights, or for environmental rights, or for whatever. This means that different forms of organisation might be needed inside the University and beyond, which also recognise the historical and social specificity of those contexts, whilst working towards dissolving the boundaries between them. This dissolution is the recognition by the academic that she is a socialised worker, and that in this dissolution lies her ability for self-actualisation as a form of self-mediating activity not conditioned by competition, excellence, impact, entrepreneurship, employability, the market, whatever.
If you have no engagement with political economy, good luck with that, because the system wishes to reduce you to your alienated labour-power. And what is worse, it wishes to annihilate the value of that labour-power in every moment of every day, through competition with others on your administration, teaching, assessment, scholarship, research, public engagement, impact, excellence, unemployability, and it wishes to do this transnationally. It is no wonder that your physical and mental health is fragmented, commodified, made toxic.
labour increasingly struggles to be integrated into a global, alienating, social metabolic control, with ramifications for domination and subordination. Thus, a primary aim for revolutionary practice rooted in revolutionary pedagogy is not simply to overthrow capital, but to abolish it as the means of regulating society.
The critical moment for alienated academic labour, is to treat the University as context for radical research that might produce living knowledge capable of revolutionary practice at the level of society (Roggero 2011). It has no revolutionary moment beyond this position, and instead can only act for the recuperation and reproduction of the capital relation. An academic, workers’ enquiry is a departure point for enabling ‘the worker to develop the capabilities of [her] species’ (Marx 2004, p. 447), which will dissolve the capitalist mode of production inside a new, non-alienated mode.
Without such a theorisation it becomes impossible to negate the capital-relation through the expansion of the realm freedom and autonomy. Instead, the focus becomes about issues of free speech, academic autonomy, resistance to casualisation, and other tactical reforms of an otherwise brutalising system. [Revolutionary praxis] entails a focus upon the production of the self as a pedagogic moment grounded in self-mediation as the key organising principle for life.
Ibid., pp. 232, 234, 248
This is the Q&A session from my book launch. For the opening conversation with Sarah Amsler, check out Episode 4.
The questions that I was pre-emailed are appended below.
Would be interesting to hear you(se) talk about the tensions of publishing mainstream academic book in contexts of tyranny of contemporary neoliberal academic research, writing and publishing regime
Here’s a question – open ended, really – about whether the possibility of mass intellectuality is possible without a degree of alienation and disfunction. I remember thinking when I read your and Joss’s book that there is a paradox there about inequality and alienation being a forcing ground for mass intellectuality e.g. the pensions strikes.
In the book you write: “Narratives from academics of colour, precariously employed academics, academics who have been made ill through overwork, marginalised academics with caring responsibilities, each need to be elevated and presented, in order to demonstrate how the system shames and needs to be dismantled”. I wonder how this might be achieved, especially in those universities where dissent on these matters is immediately quelled with charges of gross misconduct.
How for me your detailed blog about the book, especially first and last paragraphs, made a great link for me between the book itself and your proposal for a more personalised follow-up piece. I think you’ve it right there. And I think that too is the basis for a piece for the “lay” – non-Marxist – reader. (You remember how hard I had to work at the embedded conceptualisation!)
I love your courage in atomising the academy as you do in the book, and stitching your own personal (therapeutic) process into the weave.
The power of the work for me was mediated by (1) the Marxist conceptual tool-box (2) your capacity to work to a place beyond the analysis to a place characterised by care, “dignity as a new form of wealth”(p217), “indignation as a motive force”(p204)… Glad you gave us chapter 9!
Powerful also for me was your use of language (as far as I can tell) outside the Marxist toolbox: loved “the academic peloton”(p197), and even better somewhere the alliterative “professorial peloton”.
I’m intrigued by the piece on The Hopeless University, and as in Kleinian therapy, having to go into the depressive position to a new realistic integration.
I’m also intrigued by your passing allusion to “human essence” (p190) – tantalisingly undefined, and perhaps better so, but reminiscent of our conversations of something beyond, undefined, untouched even by the material conditions of our existences under capitalism.
A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology seminar series, at the University of Birmingham. My talk was on the idea/reality of the Co-operative University and anti-technocracy. The issues that I was interested in raising were as follows.
The slides for this are available on my SlideShare.
There is a recording over at the CPT YouTube channel. This is too depressing for me to watch, so I won’t watch it. If it’s full of factual inaccuracies let me know and I’ll make amends. Promise.
I have a new monograph out with Palgrave Macmillan, entitled The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University
The book’s abstract is as follows: Higher education is increasingly unable to engage usefully with global emergencies, as its functions are repurposed for value. Discourses of entrepreneurship, impact and excellence, realised through competition and the market, mean that academics and students are increasingly alienated from themselves and their work. This book applies Marx’s concept of alienation to the realities of academic life in the Global North, in order to explore how the idea of public education is subsumed under the law of value. In a landscape of increased commodification of higher education, the book explores the relationship between alienation and crisis, before analysing how academic knowledge, work, identity and life are themselves alienated. Finally, it argues that through indignant struggle, another world is possible, grounded in alternative forms of organising life and producing socially-useful knowledge, ultimately requiring the abolition of academic labour. This pioneering work will be of interest and value to all those working in the higher education sector, as well as those concerned with the rise of neoliberalism and marketization within universities.
I have written about this project, including the abstracts for each of the nine chapters here.
If you would like a copy for review, please contact Palgrave Reviews and/or drop me a line. Equally, if you would like me to come and discuss the book at seminars/workshops, students or staff, or with union representatives/members, please let me know. There will be a book launch here at DMU in the autumn.
I will be developing some of my thinking about HE at a British Educational Research Association symposium, Debating theories of neoliberalism: New perspectives and framings in education research tomorrow.
My abstract and references are here.
The flyer can be downloaded here.
My slides are appended below.
The argument I intend to make pivots around the following points.
Note that references are also appended below.
I will be developing some of my thinking about HE at a British Educational Research Association symposium, Debating theories of neoliberalism: New perspectives and framings in education research tomorrow.
My abstract and references are here.
The flyer can be downloaded here.
My sides are appended below.
The argument I intend to make pivots around the following points.
ONE. The recent history of academic labour articulates its re-engineering in order that it can reproduce value, or at least become productive of value. This history demonstrates the ways in which academic labour has been conditioned to that end, through the disciplinary apparatus of the State, in the form of the deployment of a militarised apparatus (for instance on demonstrations against fees, or with the increase of cops on campus), and in terms of secondary and primary legislation rooted in finance capital. This is a disciplinary reimagining of the University.
TWO. Here, we remember that Marx and Engels wrote that the State is a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. In our academic context, this forces us to imagine the transnational networks that act as a structure for maintaining the circuits and cycles of capital, which act as flows of power. The whole bourgeoisie incorporates vice chancellors, finance capital, credit ratings agencies, educational publishers/service providers, policymakers and so on. In a post-crisis world, the university is being repurposed such that it acts as a vector for the extreme tensions between conditions of production and the forces of production. This incorporates technological and organisational changes, which are materially affecting the technical composition of academic capital. Here, the State represents the normalisation of specific forms of administration that rest upon a legacy of domination, and the exploitative nature of capitalist social relations.
THREE. It is, therefore, important that we remember how the state militarised against student and staff protests in the UK in 2010-11. This is a marker, a backstop, a baseline for what the orderly application of liberties looks like. It describes the refusal of rights.
FOUR. There are certain heuristics or modes of analysis that emerge from literature on authoritarian neoliberalism, which serve to illuminate the relationship between the State and academic labour.
The first is Stephen Ball’s work on the neoliberal terrain for global education, including its philosophical underpinnings and ways in which the state rolls-back existing narratives and structures, ahead of a re-modelling of/as desire. A pivotal moment in this is the maintenance of order, with its focus upon liberal or social democratic interpretations of engagement with mediations like the commodity, the market and the division of labour, which in turn form ordered liberties that maintain risk profiles. These are not the same as a struggle for rights.
A second is Ian Bruff’s focus upon a cultures, relations, work, activities and so on that are for the market. The market mediates flows of power, through flows of surplus, and yet market is not necessarily free. This inevitably focuses upon coercion in maintaining specific risk profiles and in generating forms of data and information, which themselves generate non-democratic ways of working through policies of inclusion and exclusion or marginalisation that reinforce inequality. We are connected to Raewyn Connell’s analysis of social relations that are immanent to the market, such that narratives are framed continuously in asymmetrical relation to the market.
Third, we are reminded of the corporate parasitisation of the State, such that the latter becomes a vector for the former, in particular in terms of the governance, regulation and financing of State-sponsored activities and infrastructures. These are often viewed in pragmatic terms, as a new normal that simply reinforces existing structures, or as forms of elite power that reinforce and are reinforced by specific mediations. Here I refer to the work of Bob Jessop and Will Davies.
A fourth, critical point is about how these activities reinforce marginalisation for specific bodies that are unable to move through social structures, because of the abstract way in which those structures are reproduced for value. Here, the work of Sara Ahmed, Gurminder Bhambra, and Janet Newman on issues of gender and race (and the intersection of those issues) highlights both the ways in which marginalisation is reproduced (and to what ends), and also enables us to analyse how the processes of marginalisation are infecting segments of society previously inoculated, through the politics of austerity.
Finally, we remember how the state creates a disciplinary infrastructure through gag laws, C51 in Canada, by enabling institutions to prohibit demonstrations, through the use of kettling, and so on. This forms a precursor to policy-related authoritarianism. This policy-related restructuring of academic labour includes accountability regimes, focused upon the minutiae of academic work such as Reform’s criticism of grade inflation, alongside the fear generated by immigration regimes. This is a process of enabling forms of autonomy as types of controlled liberty, rooted in risk profiles that relate to the generation of human capital.
FIVE. The experience of crisis, as the violence of abstraction, creates a new normal or a new form of common sense, which is rooted in the desire to make previously unproductive sectors of the economy productive of value. Productivity is everything. Thus, as Marx and Engels understood, universities are at risk of market exit and under the pressure of new market entrants, as well as being forced into competition for new, overseas markets as a new colonialism, and through performance management in debt are forced to exploit existing markets more thoroughly. This includes the exploitation of their own labour force, who are made responsible for the risk to their own position.
SIX. The State defines its relationship to academic labour through a policy narrative that serves a pedagogic function at the level of society. This focuses upon the reification of human capital, which offers a particular mode of attention or orientation from academic labourers made responsible for enriching their own skills, knowledge and capabilities. Moreover, they are made responsible for generating surplus through productive activity. However, this sits in tension with capital’s drive to annihilate the labour component of work, as a result of which that work tends to be proletarianised. Finally, the implementation of policy through league tables and performance management tends to internalise responsibilisation as a form of discipline that stands against wilful behaviour.
SEVEN. The subsumption of HE and the University as a radical restructuring of academic labour serves to generate new forms of competition, as institutions strive for competitive advantage (relative surplus value). However, the implementation of policy through, for instance, the role of the Office for Students, places the academic and the student (and her family) in an invidious position as they are forced to internalise performance, and the generation of data about performance, alongside a liberal perception of the value of learning for its own sake – even though the latter is marginalised. As a result, deep levels of cognitive dissonance erupt, framed by the contention that trust-based relationships can only be mediated in the (unfree, unequal, coercive) market. Moreover, we are told that these relationships can only be mediated inside a properly-functioning market calibrated by meaningful performance data, and this reinforces the transnational activist networks of educational service providers/publishers, policymakers, non-governmental organisations and so on, which act to crack the sector for value. Our lives are folded into these moments, for value.
EIGHT. A crucial set of responses, as stories from inside the University, emerge, pivoting around casualisation/precarious employment, ill-being and ill-health, suicide and quitting. These demonstrate the deep levels of estrangement and alienation at the levels of: academic labour-power; products of academic labour; academic communities; and the individual academic’s humanity. It becomes important to strip away the layers in which such estrangement or alienation are revealed: illness/overwork; precarity and the attrition on labour rights; the role of money; the extraction of value/surplus-value; the control of labour-power; the mediation of private property; and the reality of alienated-labour. From here emerge anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, loss, and our restricted ability to grieve.
NINE. There is a critical point about the differential impacts of this upon different bodies, and the ways in which those differences are reinforced intersectionally. Analyses of the power and privilege of certain bodies enable the alienating whole to be revealed, whilst also enabling narratives of overcoming involving decentring, refusing responsibilisation, solidarity in the face of coercion, listening to/refusing to accept the silencing of certain voices, and the instantiation of humanity/self-actualisation.
TEN. Moments of listening form a movement towards self-actualisation and also focus upon de-fetishising academic labour, in order to re-focus upon its abolition at the level of society. For Marx and Engels, the crucial moment is the reintegration of intellectual work at the level of society, with a focus upon undermining the violence of abstraction and instituting a new form of common sense. This stands against the outsourcing of solutions to boffins or experts or scientists, because those solutions and that expertise exists at the level of society, in forms that have been seized by the authoritarian State acting for capital.
ELEVEN. We need to be against what the University has become. We need to be against what academic labour has become. We need to imagine a new movement that erupts as abolition.
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You have to know what’s wrong before you can find what’s right
Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.
as far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.
A book against academic labour
I have just submitted my final draft of a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan, in their Marxism and Education series, entitled The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy inside the University. This book reflects my work inside and outside the University over the course of the last decade. In this time, we have witnessed the re-engineering and repurposing of higher education, and the impact this has had on academics, professional services staff and students. In part this catalysed my engagement in a range of protests and occupations in 2010-11, alongside my work in co-operatives like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and Leicester Vaughan College, and with the Open Library of Humanities. This stitches my thinking and my practice into other co-operative movements for dignity, and against the indignity of capitalist work.
However, my thinking and my practice have also been challenged personally, through a decade-long commitment to therapy. On one level, this work represents my attempt to understand, manage and move beyond manifestations of depression and anxiety, including their displacement or appearance as overwork. On a deeper level, it has been fundamental in enabling me to understand my own essence, in terms of how and why I have, at times, been estranged from myself and the world. This book encapsulates a moment and a movement in my recovery of myself in the world.
In terms of the themes of the book, it is meaningless for me to separate out my work inside and outside the University from the work I continue to undertake on myself. It is meaningless for me to separate out my labour as something unique in the practice of my life. As a result, it forms an attempt by me to engage with Marx’s conceptions of estrangement and alienation, in particular focused upon being and becoming, dignity and indignity, objectification and subjectivity, and the possibility for recovering autonomy.
As a result, this is not a book that describes academic life from the perspective of academic labour, in order to recover some idealised or utopian notion of the University. Rather, it is against academic labour, as a case study of the exploitation, expropriation and domination of labour by capital. Rather than reifying or attempting to recover academic labour, I attempt to situate the academic labour process, academic knowledge production, the academic self and academic communities against Marx’s conception of alienation, in order to look towards its abolition. This is influenced by Moishe Postone’s work on capital as a totality that is constituted as the automatic subject through social labour, and in particular the duality of abstract and concrete labour. This refuses the fetishised notion that labour is capital’s opposite and nemesis.
Alienated academic labour and the law of value
I am not using academic labour to critique the crisis of higher education (as a strand of the secular crisis of capital). Rather academic labour is the object of this critique, in order to work towards its abolition. Central to this is an understanding of academic labour in its relation to the structuring reality of the law of value. Understanding how value mediates social reproduction is crucial in understanding whether an alternative form of self-mediation beyond value, rooted in humane values, is possible. Here the work of István Mészáros, Peter Hudis and Simon Clarke are important in enabling me to understand the relationship between alienated labour and second-order mediations that appear to structure the world. This enables us to take a negative dialectical approach, in order to strip back the manifestations of our alienation in anxiety, ill-being, overwork and so on, and to work through their relationship to money and the market, and beyond that to the production of surplus-value, surplus populations and surplus labour, rooted in the division of labour, commodity-exchange and private property, which themselves emerge from alienated labour.
Indignation and dignity
However, in the book I am increasingly drawn towards the relationship between indignation and dignity as a response. Here, the work of John Holloway is important to me as is work around the Zapatista movement. This enables us to connect academic practice to societal, intellectual practice, including that fought for by academic and student activists in occupations and social movements. This is a key connection, and stitches my thinking into intersectional struggles for dignity. As a result, I have been trying to challenge my white, male privilege throughout the book, by connecting to a range of activists fighting for justice. These include: Sarah Amsler; Joyce Canaan; Melonie Fullick; Karen Gregory; Liz Morrish; Sara Motta; Kehinde Andrews; Sara Ahmed; Gurminder Bhambra; Kalwant Bhopal; George Ciccariello-Maher; Nathanial Tobias Coleman; Ana Dinerstein; Emma Dowling; Akwugo Emejulu; Silvia Federici; Priyamvada Gopal; bell hooks; Tressie McMillan Cottom; and Heidi Mirza.
I constantly question whether my thinking, writing and practice has done these inspirational people justice. This also forces me to question constantly my own naïveté in understanding by the positions. Attempting to connect in this way is not a moment of co-option, rather a moment of solidarity. It is an attempt to stitch my own practice into a wider tapestry of refusal, or of the indignation that emerges from capital’s subsumption of our lives and its denial of our dignity. Developing a front of understanding, rooted in a richer understanding of the differential experience of exploitation and domination, is crucial in developing empathy and solidarity, as a movement towards autonomy.
Beyond recent work on the crisis of higher education
This is important because recent work which offers a perspective on the crisis of higher education has tended to focus on the mechanics and ideological underpinnings of marketisation and financialisation, which are often in defence of the ‘public university’ or attempts to discuss public funding, regulation and governance. In general, these focus upon the education sector of the economy, the HE sector as a whole, or make the University the unit of analysis, and several focus on the mechanics or roll-out of neoliberalism. However, there are few books that focus on the academic and her labour as the unit of analysis, and none that do so in the context of the critical terrain of alienation.
Thus, I use a critical social theory of alienation (which has a rich analytical tradition that serves as a heuristic for critiquing academic identity and academic labour). This is a way into a discussion of the abolition of academic labour and the role of public intellectuals in the generation of mass intellectuality, and is framed by the work of Mark Cowling, John Holloway, Peter Hudis, Marcello Musto, Sean Sayers, and Amy Wendling, among others.
The structure of the book
The argument is broken down into three sections and nine chapters. These are as follows (with chapter abstracts).
Chapter 1: Awakenings (structure here)
This chapter scopes and situates academic work against the key themes that underpin that work as alienating practice. It begins by addressing how the idea of academic labour as privilege blinds its practitioners to their estrangement from the products and process of work, alongside the relationships that emerge there, both in terms of the self and with peers. The chapter argues that academic being and becoming is stunted through the divorce of the academic from her labour, which is then overlain by a series of fetishes, including the student experience and ideas of educational value-for-money. This emerges from alienated labour, which is itself hidden by second-order mediations like private property, commodity exchange and the division of labour. This catalyses processes of proletarianisation through commodification, which are addressed in relation to the extant literature on the crisis of academic work.
Section 1: the terrain of academic labour
Chapter 2: Crisis (structure here)
This chapter details the mechanisms through which the secular crisis of capitalism is restructuring academic labour. This is in terms of policy that shapes a competitive environment, the financialisation of academic work through student debt, bond markets and so on, and through the commodification and marketisation of the outputs of academic work. Here, I describe how the incorporation of academic labour into the self-valorisation process of capital through research and pedagogic innovation enables a critique of the proletarianisation of the University.
Chapter 3: Alienation (structure here)
This chapter situates Marx’s analysis of estrangement, alienation, fetishisation and reification against academic labour. It does this through a focus on the activity of production, in its relationship to material and philosophical conceptualisations. As a result, a dialectical understanding of the layers of objectification, separation, mediation and identity-development emerges. This categorical analysis enables an unfolding of capitalism’s mode of social metabolic control, and its relationship to individual essence, human capital theory, and the reality of being othered or negated inside the system. This develops an analysis of the expanding circuit of alienation (A-A’), and the potential for its overcoming through a focus on the richness of human experience.
Section 2: the terrain of academic alienation
Chapter 4: Knowledge (structure here)
This chapter analyses the alienation of the products of the academic’s labour, as teaching or research, which are commodified and marketised for their exchange-value rather than their social utility. This is related to the competitive restructuring processes of research and teaching impact measures. Critical here is a connection to the internalisation by the academic of the disciplinary force of performance management, in the production, ownership and distribution of the products of academic labour. Marx’s conception of the general intellect as a form of alien knowledge and property, and its relationship to the separation of subject curricula and research, is important in describing capitalism as a naturalised system. Here the relationship between subjectivity and objectification, use and exchange, and the potential for new forms of humanism related to the functions of academic knowledge are developed.
Chapter 5: Profession (structure here)
This chapter frames a discussion of whether it is possible for academics to move beyond fetishing their own labour-power as privileged. I ask whether it is possible to reflect at a social-level on the alienation of academic labour-power in terms of the alienation of labour-power in general? The chapter focuses upon the mediated conditions of work, in order to unpick the proletarianisation of academic labour-power. As a result, it becomes possible to describe the autonomy of capital as opposed to labour, and to uncover its ideological basis.
Chapter 6: Weltschmerz (structure here)
This chapter develops the alienation of the academic from herself, as she is increasingly made and re-made as an academic entrepreneur whose labour only has worth where it is value. As a result, the internalisation of specific behaviours that are disciplinary becomes a key outcome for the system of production, with concomitant manifestations of physical and psychological distress. Here ideas of anti-humanism and dehumanism, linked to melancholy, anxiety and ill-being are analysed in relation to the proletarianisation of the University as an anxiety machine. The chapter addresses how formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the reproduction of academic labour in the name of value, feed off and into alienation.
Chapter 7: Identity (structure here)
This chapter address the alienation of the academic from her species through the iron law of competition, reinforced through global academic labour arbitrage, research and teaching metrics, and performance management. The argument connects academic labour to the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape capitalist social relations, in order to discuss the form and the organising principles under which academic labour is subsumed for value. The chapter argues that academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness and alienation from other forms of globalised labour. By refocusing on the form of labour in general, rather than the specific content of academic labour, it becomes possible to move beyond reification towards struggle.
Section 3: the terrain for overcoming alienation
Chapter 8: Indignation (structure here)
This chapter focuses upon the role of intellectual labour in a range of transnational struggles for an alternative form of social metabolic control. Pivoting around counter-hegemony and anti-power, the focus is upon the movement of dignity in the development of revolutionary subjectivity. This chapter discusses the possibilities for autonomous action by academics, which in-turn demonstrates solidarity or association with a range of struggles against labour.
Chapter 9: Autonomy (structure here)
In this chapter, autonomy is critiqued in light of the duality that: first, capital is the automatic subject searching to secure permanent self-valorisation; and second, that our search for autonomy-beyond-labour is the crisis of capital. This struggle pivots around emancipation from labour, and for self-mediation as the key organising principle for life. The chapter focuses on the role of academic work and intellectual labour in developing the realm of autonomy/freedom and reducing the realm of heteronomy/necessity. Here there is a focus upon the richness of human life and the development of alternative forms of social metabolic control. The argument regards alienation and its revelation as a necessity in the transformation to life under communism. Thus, the chapter discusses the potential for the social, collectivised use of academic labour, through the liberation of socialised skills, practices and knowledge from inside the University.
The process of writing as a movement of becoming
The process of writing the book demonstrated to me how far I have come from my PhD, undertaken back when Methuselah was a boy. A year of reading about: academic labour; the labour theory of value; alienation in Marx and Hegel; academic knowledge production and the academic labour process; academic identity and academic being/becoming; and intersectional analyses of labour and the academic experience. This year of reading was distilled down into 300 pages of notes, on top of my already existing, published work on alienation and mass intellectuality. One crucial angle to this was to reflect on my reading through a series of conversations with academics about injustices rooted in (dis)ability, gender, race and sexuality.
This was then distilled down into the nine chapters. I was originally going to have eight, with the last two stitched together. However, I wanted to push myself beyond my usual focus upon explaining (and obsessing about) the crisis through negative critique, and instead to focus upon the possibilities for an alternative mode of becoming rooted in a movement of dignity pointing towards autonomy.
Structuring and restructuring the chapters took a month and underpinned a writing process that mirrored my PhD process – effectively hoover up as much research and reading as possible, structure the notes very closely into a potential argument that speaks to my soul, and then write obsessively. This meant that each chapter was written in around a week, beginning at the start of January. Since then I have written 70,000 words, with two re-drafts/re-readings. In part, using Dragon Naturally Speaking to write/speak/dictate the book has altered the process.
In this moment, I have had to think long and hard about self-care, in the balance between writing and life, and between work and life. Walking and music have been crucial to me.
The scariest moment has been in asking people I trust, including a couple of people I have not met but whose expertise and way of being in the world is an inspiration, to read and provide feedback. This is a moment of high anxiety, to the extent that I tweeted:
You know that moment when you decide to send something to someone who you really admire to read/comment on, when you feel you aren’t fit to lace their boots (professionally)? And that gut-wrenching anxiety? Well that.
This is a moment of baring my soul, of extreme vulnerability, of hope and the fear of despair. As much as I try to sublimate the fear of despair, it often ruptures my being. However, it is important to note that whilst researching and writing I have come off anti-depressants and begun the process of leaving therapy. This is a moment of taking ownership of my life – a movement for autonomy.
It is also important to note that this has happened whilst holding down my role at work, and also attempting to support those leading the Leicester Vaughan College project. This has meant having to work weekends and evenings – there is a conversation here about whether this says something about my estrangement from my wider life. It clearly says something about the integration of my work with my life; the integration of my thinking about my life beyond my labour.
In many respects this has also been a very difficult time for me, and my thinking around alienation has been reflected in my everyday life. A friend asked me what I would do once the book was submitted, given that it has taken up so much of my existence and helped me to redefine myself. She acknowledged that it had helped me to work through and beyond some difficulties, and that it had also served as a distraction. She is right that there is a moment of grief in its submission, and one that mirrors the loss involved in leaving therapy. A loss of the self and my relationship to a fetishised or reified other, to which I have projected bits of myself. However, through this mirroring, there is also a moment of reclamation – of reclaiming my life, potentially with a renewed way of examining it, and the ability to move beyond those things that we fetishise in the world.
A moment of pointing towards values rather than value. This is the real movement.
In the process of writing the book, I have obsessively listened to the following whilst writing and walking and thinking. Maybe they tell us something about the contours of the book.
So it’s us v. them/Over and over again
Us v. them/Over and over again
Us v. them/Over and over again
LCD Soundsystem, Us V Them.
‘An age of crisis, such as the present, is an age of rage. It is an age of frustrated expectations, frustrated hopes, frustrated life. We want to study at the university, but it is too expensive and there are no grants. We need good health care, but we do not have the money to pay for it. We need homes, we can see homes standing empty, but they are not for us. Or quite simply, for the millions and millions of people in the world who are starving: we want to eat: we can see that the food is there, that there is plenty of food for everyone in the world, but something stands between us and the food – money, or rather the fact that we don’t have enough of it.’
‘That does not mean that we do not want money, necessarily. Money is the form that wealth takes in this society, and as the producers of that wealth, we all want to participate in it. In the present society, no matter how austerely we may (or may not) like to live, we need money to live and to realise our projects. So yes, we want more money, for ourselves, for the universities, for schools and hospitals, for gardens and parks, for projects that point towards a different world, and so on. But we do not want a world that is ruled by money, we do not want a world in which the richness that we produce takes the form of money, we do not want a world in which money is the dominant form of social cohesion, the medium through which our social relations are established.’
John Holloway, Rage Against the Rule of Money.
Want to do something about the USS strike? Follow the money. Do not see this as incompetent institutional or sector-wide managers needing to be brought to heel. This is class struggle; it is the asymmetrical struggle between a fraction of total labour encompassing some academics (with support from some students), and capital operating as a transnational activist network, working to reproduce power. Reproducing hegemony through exploitation and domination. Our struggle has to be seen inside-and-against the ongoing re-engineering of higher education – its real subsumption. This is the struggle by an association of capitals to extract value from education through commodification, and to ensure that our educational lives become defined by productivity and human capital theory.
Elsewhere, I write:
This idea of the subsumption of academic labour inside the circuits of capital is increasingly important in light of Marx’s (1992; 1993a) focus on the associational phase of capital, in which development emerges on a global terrain, with an interrelationship between commercial and money-dealing capital and productive capital. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include associations of policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students, who form a deterritorialised network (Ball 2012; Deem et al. 2007; McGettigan 2013; 2014; Robinson 2004). Here, the expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit, and in educational production it is leveraged through the use of finance capital and credit to increase the rate of turnover of specific educational commodities and services-as-commodities (Gartner 2013; Lipman 2009).
Through the USS strike we witness the assault on life by money. This is the commodification of working lives that we say that we love (and that we tell our students we love), and which we are told that we should love (a love that defines our being). And we have seen this coming. Andrew McGettigan has been writing about this for almost a decade. Back in 2011 he wrote about bond finance, making connections between the United States and United Kingdom as the latter began a process of engagement with finance capital through private placements. In it, he quotes an academic and union leader at the University of California commenting on the relationship between bond finance, credit ratings and university strategy:
Moody’s slipped into its bond rating for the UC system the need for the institution to restrain labour costs, increase tuition, diversify revenue streams, feed the money-making sectors, and resist the further unionisation of its employees.
Not only is this a strategy of diminishing a sense of collective, educational use-value, it forms part of the process of dissolving the fabric of the University as a concrete social institution, such that it becomes open to generating tradable services. The rule of money and the role of finance capital has a solvent effect on the relationship between academic labour and the University. The idea is to ensure that high-value academic commodities, including skills and knowledge, can generate exchange-value. Moreover, in the process of dissolving the fabric of the institution, this transfers a significant portion of the risk around performance in the market from the institution to the academic. In this way we see a twin-assault on academic labour: first, in the ramping up of student fees and the ideological repositioning of education around entrepreneurialism and employability; and second, in the assault on pensions, which is the bleeding edge of a wider assault on staff labour rights.
Clearly, this offers a point of potential refusal and struggle, because it is the moment in which student and staff struggles over the alienation of their (academic) labour come into alignment. The terrain of alienation focuses upon control over the labour-process and the products of that labour, alongside conceptions of the self and relationships with others. For too long there has been a denial of solidarity between staff and students and limited push-back against conceptions of students as consumers or purchasers, and education solely for impact, excellence, employability, entrepreneurship and the production of performance metrics. Of course, the ability to push-back depends upon the ability to theorise the position we now find ourselves in, and the extent to which we are able to use this theorisation to imagine that another world is possible. This means that settling solely for reform of institutional governance is a non-starter.
The pensions struggle demands a recognition that our society increasingly pivots around the transfer of risk to individuals as entrepreneurs, in order to support policy directives for productivity. It is about commodification of life, hidden behind an ideological sheen of austerity-inspired entrepreneurialism, employability and human capital development. It is the reduction of life to human capital, and this is reprehensible. It is the de-leveraging or de-risking of society from the individual. The disconnection of the individual from society as the latter is defined solely in terms of value, to the point of denying our common humanity beyond the market. It is the de-leveraging of humane values from institutional meaning, unless they are able to generate value.
Thus, we read that the governance issues around the valuation of the USS fund connect Cambridge colleges, Universities UK and consultants focused upon de-risking. As etymologic notes on Twitter:
The plot thickens: UUK surveys from Cambridge & its colleges were CREATED by a consultant from Xafinity. Xafinity’s work includes “de-risking” Defined-Benefit pension schemes – the company tell investors that this brings additional revenue.
The emerging struggle over the life-blood of the University, and of the power of merchant, credit and finance capital as they insinuate competition inside the logic of education, must pivot around what we want from academic production as a social activity. Do we envisage that it can only serve the market and money? Do we envisage that this is no way to address the range of crises that afflict the planet? This is important because the pensions struggle reflects an ongoing crisis of value, which has been described elsewhere as a secular crisis of capitalism.
Those staff who have faced the threat of large-scale redundancies, including in the present moment at Liverpool, and those casualised and precarious staff, have already faced this reality (including professional services and graduate teaching assistant colleagues who have been fighting for labour rights, maternity/paternity and pensions for years). It is also been clear to many of us that the drive towards metrics is rooted in the commodification of individual, institutional and subject-based performance, from which debt and debt-servicing can form an ongoing income stream, against which to hedge performance in this crisis of value.
The generation of value and the denial of values is a function of stratification and separation, which is amplified where corporations control the surplus value that is produced through commodification. In such moments, they can discipline and divide production through labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with collectivised academic labour. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers fulfilling a range of roles, solidarity and co-operation are under threat because of ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation.
This process needs a market, and if one doesn’t already exist it must be created. This means market exit looms large, and has been written into policy for almost a decade. This need for a market is also extended to potential students who carry debt, and who are encouraged to purchase commodities or services-as-commodities, as positional goods. Thus, the material circumstances of the production, purchase and circulation of educational commodities are critical, and they catalyse policy as a means of restructuring intellectual work or academic labour.
That some academics’ futures are being hedged can only be the beginning for this struggle. The USS strike is about the reproduction of capital on a global terrain. Therefore, responses to it cannot simply be about individual vice-chancellors or institutional governance failings. Responses to cannot simply come from self-appointed spokesman (and they are generally always white, middle-aged men – I note the irony here). We need a set of responses that originate horizontally and collectively, and which seek to remove academic privilege, and to remove the allegedly privileged position of academic labour. We need a set of responses that focus upon intellectual work at the level of society. There are three strands to where we possibly take this moment of revelation and uncovering.
ONE. The University and the capital-relation
In How to Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway argues that we deceive ourselves if we believe that the structures that have developed and which exist in order to reproduce capitalist social relations can be used as a means to overcome its alienating organisation of work. Holloway makes this point for the structure of the democratic state as a symbol of failed revolutionary hope. We might argue the same for the University.
The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.
The USS strike has to be stitched into the reproduction of the University as a node in the reproduction of capital, and more especially in the reproduction of transnational finance capital. This brings academic collectives, including students, into asymmetrical relation with hegemonic power. The struggle has to reflect these asymmetrical power relations, and be geared across a front of solidarity rooted in an alternative form of society, otherwise it will break. This is why I previously wrote about the strike in terms of a wider social strike.
TWO. Breaking the circulation of academic capital
The value of pushing for prefigurative, co-operative and alternative forms of governance for higher education institutions is that they then act as a replicable cell across society as a whole, which potentially draws in students and their communities, academics and professional services staff and their communities, and other groups fighting for social/collective goods. There is a long history of co-operative governance, and inside higher education Joss Winn has maintained a list of writing and projects about co-operation. This is a fundamental starting place for work related to alternative governance. It is crucial work inside organisations, but the ability to affect corporate governance is limited by the range of associated capitals in opposition. The staff and students of any one institution are not simply ranged against that institution, but also against its partners-as-vested-interests, which tend to include finance capital, policymakers, philanthrocapitalists. This is therefore a struggle defined by power, and that is why a reformist agenda that points towards a better or more inclusive capitalist project is destined to fail.
The strength of academic labour in refusing co-option, coercion and exploitation, lies in the fact that capital relies on labour for its reproduction through valorisation and commodification. Academic labour, working in solidarity, has the potential to refuse that reproduction. One of the most important features of the current strike has been an engagement with academic labour, beyond the commodities that it produces, through a reconsideration of the academic labour-process. It is in our ability to disrupt the circulation of value emerging from academic labour that our own strength lies. This is why the UCU call for external examiners to resign their positions is so important, and it is also why action short of a strike or working to contract is so important. The University relies upon an excess of surplus-labour being poured into it because academics continually tell themselves they love what they do, despite the fact that this makes their souls bleed, increases overwork, generates ill-being and mental health issues, and insinuate competition inside each of us.
What is required is a wholesale description of the circulation of value inside the University, and the replication of that across society. Time then becomes critical, because it flags how policymakers do not see the concrete nature of academic work, and instead focus upon its abstract, general properties as evinced through exchange. At some point we need to find strategies for demonstrating an alternative way of imagining academic labour that is not governed by abstract time. However whilst we address this, it becomes important to use managements workload planning in position to demonstrate to students and their communities, families and carers, how much surplus labour is being poured into the institution. This means flagging how much time is allotted for assessment, feedback, curriculum design, lesson design and so on, and what that means for academic lives, workloads and abilities to meet student needs. We need to demonstrate the collective implications of the imposition of overwork and the domination of time over academic practice, in order that we might collectively describe another world.
It is crucial that we focus upon academic labour as a collective endeavour, with its connection across institutions that are either on strike or not on strike, and working inter-generationally between tenured and non-tenured staff and with students/professional services staff, and working inter-communally beyond the University into society. The strength here lies in describing a broad movement of solidarity and dignity, which situates narratives of exploitation that have differential and intersectional impacts. These descriptions of lived experience of the crisis of value can then be used to question our abstract, alienating reality.
THREE. Histories of resistance
It is important to remember that we have countless examples of resistance that have a lineage in praxis back to the eruption of occupations, demonstrations and protests following the Browne review. One of the interesting things for me in the recent pensions strike has been how some academics have become ‘woke’ and yet have not been able to engage with a rich history of academic activism. I think that it is very important that we question why we failed collectively to act when the government, with collusion from vice chancellors, was able to impose huge rises in student tuition fees. It is important that we question why we failed collectively to speak out when the state was brutalizing our students as they marched through London and were kettled on countless occasions earlier in this decade. I think that it is very important for us to question what we will do differently now, in support of our students and their communities, alongside other struggles at the level of society, rather than seeing a pension strike as our soul focus. In this moment we have to move beyond narrow self-interest.
NB I state that we failed collectively, not that we failed individually. I know full-well that many of us did not fail individually.
There are links to a range of alternative education projects on the sociological imagination website, and each of these projects points to a range of strategies and tactics for disrupting the University in its relation to capital, or for disrupting the University as means of production for the capital-relation. We do still have a range of projects looking at the development of alternative forms of governance, including the Social Science Centre in Lincoln in discussions over a Co-operative University being facilitated by the Co-operative College. We also have a series of student-produced, documentary resources about the realities of occupation and the ability to reimagine the University, such as the Really Open University, the Roundhouse Journal’s Reimagining the University and Guy Aitchison’s work on the occupation of UCL, which Connects to the political content of the occupy movement.
I guess what I’m pointing to here is the re-imagination of the pension strike, in terms of what academic labour can learn from social movements and social movement theory.
This is a movement against stratification, separation, divorce and alienation. This is a movement against estrangement from self and other, and it is a movement for solidarity and dignity.