US(S) v Them, over and over again

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

Us v. them/Over and over again

Us v. them/Over and over again

LCD Soundsystem, Us V Them.

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

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

John Holloway, Rage Against the Rule of Money.

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

Elsewhere, I write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE. The University and the capital-relation

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

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

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

TWO. Breaking the circulation of academic capital

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

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

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

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

THREE. Histories of resistance

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

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

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

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

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


On the social (pensions) strike

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

Except self-interest.


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

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

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

McQuillan, M. 2015. Goodbye to all that.


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

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

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

Rolling Jubilee. 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarian neoliberalism, the alienation of academic labour and Walsall FC

Over at the architectural education podcast (Arch Ed Podcast) there is a conversation between me and James Benedict Brown about the state of higher education, with a little bit of jibber-jabber about Walsall FC.

In a connected development, I will be developing some of my thinking about HE in a forthcoming British Educational Research Association symposium, Debating theories of neoliberalism: New perspectives and framings in education research. The flyer can be downloaded here. My abstract is appended below.

Authoritarian neoliberalism and the alienation of academic labour

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. This talk takes a Marxist political economic analysis of the implications of this lack of autonomy, in terms of the conception of subsumption (Hall and Bowles 2016; Marx 1867/2004). Movement towards real subsumption, revealed in financialisation and marketization, enables us to reconsider the utility of neoliberalism as a theoretical framework for analysing the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the re-production of academic labour in the name of value (Clarke 2005; Davies 2014). In particular, this reflects upon ideas of authoritarian neoliberalism in the coercive orchestration of social relations in the name of markets (Bruff 2014). This reflection discusses the imposition of architectures of subsumption through which academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. In analysing these connections it is possible to situate abstract, alienated academic labour alongside its psychological impacts, including anxiety and feelings of hopelessness (Hall 2018). The talk 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 (Johnson 2017). This frames such solidarity in terms of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge work, as a potential moment for overcoming alienation (Dinerstein 2015).


Bruff, I. (2014). The Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism. Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society 26(1), 113-29. Available:

Clarke, S. (2005). The Neoliberal Theory of Society. In Saad-Filho, A., and Johnston, D. (eds), Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader. London: Pluto Press, pp. 50-59.

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

Dinerstein, A. (2015). The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hall, R. (2018). On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 16(1), 97-113. Available:

Hall, R. and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor 28, 30-47. Available:

Johnson, P. (2018). Feminism as Critique in a Neoliberal Age: Debating Nancy Fraser. Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 19(1), 1-17. Available:

Marx, K. (1867/2004). Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.


On the Alienation of Academic Labour and the Possibilities for Mass Intellectuality

There is a great new issue of TripleC (communication, capitalism and critique) out on Academic Labour, Digital Media and Capitalism.

I have an article in there on academic alienation, which scopes the terrain for the book on which I am working for Palgrave Macmillan. The article also points towards some work I have done on Mass Intellectuality.

The abstract is given below. I have then appended my thinking about the structure for my book.


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

The alienated academic

Alienation is a means of critiquing academic identity and academic labour, and of providing insights into the development of alternative forms of praxis. This is a critical way into a discussion of the abolition of academic labour and the role of public intellectuals in the generation of mass intellectuality. In order to connect the realities of the transnational restructuring of higher education in the Global North to academic labour as it is revealed in response to the secular crisis of capitalism, this book offers a mechanism both for articulating what alienation inside the University looks like from the perspective of the academic, and for developing alternative forms of autonomy. This takes the contested idea of the University as a public good one step further, by focusing on the Marxist term of alienation, in order to tie academic autonomy to co-operative alternatives through critical theory. In this way, the book enables student-activists, academics and practitioners in worker and informal education spaces to critique their own practices and to reveal their struggle against objectification or their struggle for subjectivity.

The structure of the book is in three parts. The first part considers the terrain of academic labour, and consists of chapters on Crisis and Alienation. The first details the mechanisms through which the secular crisis of capitalism is restructuring academic labour. The second situates Marx’s analysis of estrangement, alienation, fetishisation and reification against academic labour. It does this in terms of a focus on the activity of production, in its relationship to material, metaphysical and philosophical conceptualisations. As a result, a dialectical understanding of the layers of objectification, separation, mediation and identity-development will emerge.

In the second part, the terrain of academic alienation is analysed, in terms of: Knowledge (the products of academic labour); Profession (academic labour-power); Weltschmerz (academic self); and Identity (species-being). Here the relationship between subjectivity and objectification, use and exchange, and the potential for new forms of humanism related to the functions of academic knowledge are developed. One focus is on the internalisation of specific behaviours that are disciplinary and which become a key outcome for the system of production, with concomitant manifestations of physical and psychological distress.

In the final, concluding section on a terrain for overcoming alienation, there are two chapters on Indignation and Autonomy. Indignation focuses upon the role of intellectual labour in a range of transnational struggles for an alternative form of social metabolic control. Pivoting around counter-hegemonic and anti-power, the focus is upon the movement of dignity in the development of revolutionary subjectivity. In Autonomy, this is developed in order to critique the idea of autonomy, in light of the duality that, first, Capital is the automatic subject searching to secure permanent self-valorisation, and second, that labour’s search for autonomy-beyond-labour – the abolition of itself – makes it the crisis of capital. This work questions the potential for the social, collectivised use of academic labour, through the liberation of socialised skills, practices and knowledge from inside the University.

dismantling the curriculum in higher education

On Wednesday I’m speaking at the University of Greenwich Open Lectures in Teaching and Learning.

The lecture will be broadcasted live via this link:

The slides are appended below the abstract, which is based on this OLH article.


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 discussion argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the commodification of the curriculum is central. This enables us to discuss the possibility that an open curriculum rooted in ideas of mass intellectuality might enable new forms of social wealth to emerge in opposition to a curriculum for private/positional gain. One possible way to reframe the curriculum 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.

In, against and beyond the Co-operative University

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

We feel the things they’ll never feel

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

We see the things they never see

Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck

Wild Beasts. 2014. Wanderlust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slides and notes on academic alienation and mass intellectuality

I presented at the DMU Institute for Education Futures seminar yesterday. My paper is based on a forthcoming article in a 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 slides are appended below.

There are a fuller set of notes here.

Special Issue CfP: Impacts of neoliberal policy on the lived experiences of primary school communities

With Mark Pulsford, I have a Call for Papers for a Special Issue of Power and Education, looking for contributions that ground neoliberal policies and logics in the everyday routines and practices within Primary school communities.

The details of the call can be downloaded from here.

The first-stage is for fully-referenced abstracts to be received by 1st December 2017, and the planned publication date is November 2018.

IEF Seminar on academic labour and alienation

I’m leading the first DMU Institute for Education Futures’ seminar of the 2017/18 season on Tuesday 31st October from 13:00-14:00 in Hugh Aston, room 2.32.

I’ll be speaking On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality.

The abstract is over on the IEF website.

This connects to the monograph I’m working on for Palgrave Macmillan.

There are some previous notes here.

quit moaning about the TEF

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

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

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

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

The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marginson continues:

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

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

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

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

Husbands’ 10 lessons focused upon the TEF:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game over. Thanks for playing.