Notes on mental health in the age of Covid-19

“What if things are going to be absolutely fine?”

Me to myself, sometime towards the end of therapy, after years of asking “are we okay?”


Sticker on street furniture near the Pompidou Centre. It took me a while to remember that I exist. It took me a while to believe that I deserve to exist.

NB It feels important to note that there are some alternative routes you can take around managing your own mental health, and that support is available from a range of organisations including Mind (I had a good experience of therapy in 2000 with Mind in Darlington), Relate and Samaritans. Of course, there will be a range of possibilities for people with a range of life experiences. My point here is not to advise.

ONE. Sharing the wealth?

I left therapy after a decade in May 2019. It was the right thing to do and happened on my own terms, although it was negotiated over a long period with my therapist. This integrative and humanist therapeutic relationship helped me to save my life. It enabled me to hold and contain myself as I relived past trauma, and as I experienced a second breakdown after my Mom’s passing.

I have been thinking about what I have taken from therapy into the world as we now experience it. I have also been thinking about how I would have coped/not coped had I still been in the eye of the storm (I would have found the switch to virtual therapy incredibly difficult, in part because the human is so important in the therapy room and I feel that is missing online).

This morning I saw a retweet about how difficult it is for many to access therapy, either because NHS-funded therapy is time-limited, focused upon cognitive behavioural methodologies (a herd immunity for the soul), and has long waiting lists, or because private therapy is too expensive (although some therapists will undertake pro bono work). The original tweet focused upon crowdsourcing advice for people who are struggling, and a call to ‘share the wealth’, as if the assets that define good mental health are resources to be accessed like those on the Commons.

I have always struggled with this kind of call, although I completely respect the intention that lies behind it. In the same way, I struggle with calls for people to focus upon a positive mental attitude, or to be mindful or resilient (or to engage in mindfulness so they can be more resilient), inside a world that is alienating, and where a corporeal and physical, viral, destabilising force has infected that world. Too often, I see these calls as short-termist, or as an attempt to suture an alienated Self so that it can cope in a world that is increasingly unliveable and toxic.

When I was in therapy, I had a sense that the work was operating on multiple levels. First, my embodied trauma and what had been, because we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Second, the everyday, alienating reality of an unjust world, in which we have to sell ourselves over and over again, and watch as others are brutalised, exploited or expropriated. Third, the closing down of the horizon of possibility for life, given the politics of austerity, climate heating, ecosystem collapse, economic populism, and so on. Fourth, how to struggle for the alternative, at the level of myself, my communities and the world.

Now each of these levels have been infected and recalibrated by the virus. Whilst I give thanks that I have worked through my embodied trauma, and I am able to find the courage and faith to struggle against an unjust world, and to accept the enclosure of our futures whilst attempting to do the right thing, I grieve that this is not universally or equally experienced. This brings me back to the idea that we can share the wealth in terms of mental health, in-part because the process and journey through therapy is so individual (although hopefully experienced in a wider, communal ecosystem of friends, carers, families, communities), and in-part because the idea of equality or equal access under capitalist social relations is nonsensical because we are individuated (and measured in competition with each other).

For instance, we know that many precarious members of our communities, or those who are black or minority ethnic, are anxious about the role of the State during any lockdown as they are at other times. We know that, in spite of the work of mutual aid groups, local councils, voluntary action groups, and so on, people are separated and isolated, and lack the day-to-day support they need. We know that the State and corporate response is on business continuity, business resilience, maintaining some form of capital circulation through monetary intervention, so that productive capacity can be shored-up in the medium term. We know that care has been marginalised because we see how the State fails care-workers and health-workers. We know that those who are regarded as economically unproductive, with apparently lesser human capital (in terms of productive skills, knowledge and capabilities) or social capital (in terms of access to networks), and who are marginalised by dint of race, gender, disability, sexuality, will be further disciplined or ignored.

TWO. A struggle for hope.

With less access to private property, money and social resources, the idea that these individuals or groups can become more resilient through mindfulness or our sharing of well-being or mental health resources, ignores the question: resilient for what and for whom? Whose narrative is being centred? Whose narrative is being heard? These questions feel important because my experience of long-term therapy is that a more positive mental attitude can only emerge from a long period of denial, anger, sadness/depression/melancholia, grief or mourning, and acceptance, in a process that can take years. And as a white man working in academia, I did not have to struggle with everyday micro aggressions or forms of battle fatigue/PTSD on top of my past and present experiences.

So, when I think about sharing the wealth, I think about my own experience as someone who needed intensive therapy (sometimes multiple times a week), with a consistent (flawed) human being, over a decade. It is my own experience of unpacking those layers of self, self in an unjust-capitalist-world, self in a world with an enclosed future, and self-in-struggle. What I write below is not designed to make the situation seem hopeless for those experiencing or living with distress under Covid-19, or those attempting to help. We have to struggle for hope in a world that has been made hopeless. Rather, it is my own stock-check of what I have taken from my own experiences, in no particular order. I have carried these into the world as-is. I completely recognise that for many of us the future is not what it used to be, and that for many others the future was an impossibility.

Billboard near Oxford Road, Manchester. Says it all, really.

THREE. Some things that emerged along the way

  1. Therapy is the most painful and exhausting thing I have ever done Rethinking my life exhausts me and gives me hope. In this corona-crisis I remember that exhaustion and pain. I know that we have been here before. If I could survive my life to this point, I can survive the Corona-crisis.
  2. Therapy demands courage and persistence. I went through a long and tortuous process of giving up and re-finding the hope that I would recover myself. At times, all I had was the courage to persist and to believe that it might be different. It feels no different now as I continue to redraft how I remember the past and how I imagine the future.
  3. I am amazed at what I continue to learn about myself, as I reflect. In this corona-crisis I am learning anew about my body, my mind, my relationships and networks, my community, and the world as it turns. I continue to learn about how to be at home with myself. I continue to think about intimacy and solitude, as opposed to despair and loneliness. It took a decade to get to this, and there is no algorithm for it, just a persistent self-awareness.
  4. Therapy enabled me to remember to internalise how caring my therapist is, and thereby to try to care for myself. The therapeutic relationship helped me to reveal the various sides of my self as they moved through space and time, and to change my life. I learned to self-soothe and to contain how I felt, rather than allowing it to overflow and overwhelm me. Sometimes I find this reality overwhelming, but it has enabled me to centre self-care as much as I can, because if I am not going to care for me in this moment, then I cannot care about others. Self-care includes understanding how and why I have a tendency to self-harm, including obsessing and overworking. I am always trying to remember that I am responsible for how I feel in every moment of my life, and to contain that feeling.
  5. The revelation of my life makes me weep. In each of these life experiences, I remember myself, and call myself out, and call how I feel to my attention, and I respect my humanity, so that I can respect the humanity of others. The corona-crisis is an opportunity for revelation about myself, my relationships, and how I see the world and then struggle for another. I know that I am privileged in this, and I attempt to share my wealth by helping others to hold themselves and their feelings. This is the site of my struggle for another world – to communalise my experience in therapy through my relationships as a long-term process.
  6. Sometimes you meet the most amazing people who hold you whilst you rage; and whilst you weep; and whilst you disintegrate. Because therapy is about disintegration and reintegration. And in processing the fear and rage and grief and disintegration, the reintegration has no blueprint. Some stuff will be reintegrated and some will be discarded or stored. This moment is no different to that of a year ago, notwithstanding I cannot hug my friends or see my Nan or go to a football match. This is still life, and recognising and valuing who is in my heart, or over a wall, or at the end of the phone, or in the pub or coffee shop in nine months time, is important. This helps me to do the work of sharing my wealth by holding others, metaphorically and emotionally and dialectically.
  7. Feeling is everything. Acknowledging feeling is everything. Reducing the cognitive content, and respecting how I feel is everything. It took a long time for me to go with the feeling, and to sit with the feeling, and to trace its contours and its lineages. Sometimes staying with the feeling is fucking impossible, because it hurts too much. My Mom’s death taught me this in spades. For too long in my life, the fear, anxiety, grief, anger were displaced. In spite of this, I make sure that I acknowledge and respect and listen to how I feel. Those around me have to get used to my occasionally drawing their attention to their feelings.
  8. Even though I had to manage my way through various crises in therapy, I always needed to recover my six year-old self. My six year old self kept me safe for a long time. Therapy was about honouring him. I remember him throughout this Corona-crisis. He is my guiding light.
  9. Therapy reminded me that I love being hugged, and to hug. I know that this will be possible once more, and that I must persevere – to persevere is everything.
  10. Therapy reminded me that I needed constant reassurance. I have to give myself reassurance, although perhaps not quite so much these days, because I accept that the future was never some fixed utopia. And I accept now that I am (good) enough.
  11. Therapy taught me about loss, and had a pedagogy focused upon recovery from loss by making sense of it, so that I can live. I am so glad that I was in therapy with this therapist during my Mom’s illness and passing. I take those practices into this Corona-crisis, and as a result I remember not to frame everything around loss. There is so much more to life than loss.
  12. Therapy taught me not to abandon myself. I deserved to be the world after therapy. It is important not to abandon myself, my values and my struggles in this Corona-crisis. In particular, it is important not to abandon myself because I feel forgotten. I try to let others know that they are not forgotten and that they are in my heart.
  13. Therapy is a process and it is not linear. Life is not linear. I did not know this in my heart until I was in very deeply. Now I see my life as a process, unfolding in countless, indeterminate and determinate ways, through myself, my loved ones, my communities and this world. What matters is the concrete: the lived reality of place and people. The Corona-crisis is part of that unfolding, and we must struggle for what makes sense to us, rather than the abstract ways in which people and institutions (including families) exercise power. This means a rejection of certainty, a weighing up of options, and an ability to live with the consequences of my own decisions (be they going to a pharmacist for a friend or not seeing my Nan or approaching my work in a different manner). Moreover, as my life unfolds in a non-linear way and is a process, I work to trust that good enough is good enough.
  14. Because this is an ongoing process of life, acknowledging a shifting feeling is everything. It is okay for me to be anxious or depressed, although I have worked through much of that now. Moreover, it is okay to remember where this anxiety or depression might take me, and it is okay for me to feel my way out of those feelings, rather than being anchored in melancholia. I try to do this by remembering and knowing myself. This is why the reductionism of a positive mental attitude or mindfulness is a struggle for me. I always struggled with the idea that behavioural practices could work on their own. Therapy taught me that my most important doing was related to knowing, remembering, honouring and respecting my being as I tell it out. The process of my life is doing, knowing and being as a movement.
  15. Therapy taught me that sometimes all I can do is hold on for tomorrow, even when sometimes existing from minute-to-minute feels fucking impossible. Persevere.
  16. Therapy taught me about my networks and relationships, that it is okay to give some up when they are not nurturing and are one-sided, and do not give to us. However, it also taught me to keep doors open wherever possible, and to accept the shades of grey, the give-and-take, the imbalance at times. It taught me about my friendships, and who I need to be there at 3am. This is no different now.
  17. Therapy is about love. In these times it is important to remember love, and even in our anger at the situation and the injustices and the exclusions and the marginalisations and the pain, to situate our response around our love for ourselves and the world we wish to create. There is no possibility without love.

THREE. Reconciliation.

Remembering these things, and in particular centring myself and the love I have felt in my life feels crucial in making decisions. These include the decision not to visit my Nan again. She is 60 miles away and extremely vulnerable. She brought me up for a while and is the light of my life. I have had 18 extra months with her since her fall and as her dementia worsens, and I see this extra time as a blessing. I mourn not being able to visit her, but I have been grieving her for a while. In missing her, I celebrate our relationship anew.

Likewise, my Dad and my Father-in-Law who are also extremely vulnerable. They are also too far away and need to self-isolate. They also need networks around them, which is an impossibility in the world we have made. This world we have made and the ways in which it exacerbates vulnerability are part of the reason I am so angry about this Government’s response to the Corona-crisis, and in recognising how our leaders condemn our families through their actions and omissions and carelessness, I remember what we must struggle for.

This also gives me the courage to refuse the implication to be productive. To learn new skills that will make us better human beings. Instead, being in long-term therapy whilst holding down my job and doing some voluntary work, taught me to find ways to prioritise mourning or grieving. I recognise my privilege in this, and that others will be drawn towards anxiety. I use my time in therapy to draw attention to this: How can there be business-as-usual? As my self comes under strain, and the virus infects and inflects my relationships, I am constantly reminded that the strains are secondary to my work, and they are potentially additive to my concerns over our ecosystem. Therapy taught me to have the courage to weep and shake my head, and to have faith in the validity of that response.

I know that there is much grief coming. Yet, I also know that this carries a significant potential energy. This energy will be driven by how I feel, but it will also be centred around relationships that I have kept open, when they might have been closed down. This energy is not simply negative and in relation to loss. It also means maintaining the potential for love beyond loss and grief and apparently hopeless positions. It means weeping and shaking my head as acts of solidarity.

The Reconciliation Statue at Coventry Cathedral. This is all there is.

FIVE. From each, to each.

It is through the courage of my six year old in staying in the game that I can validate my faith in myself, and move towards some form of justice in this world. Through therapy, justice was centred around being heard and validated; upon reconciliation rather than reparation. In each of the crises in my life, there has been no chance of hope or opportunity for peace, because there has been no justice and no reconciliation with the past or present. As a result, I can accept that the future is not what it used to be. The world-as-is, is not the world we thought it would be. Maybe it is not the world we wanted or hoped. My struggle will be for the hope that this world becomes more possible for more people, rather than more austere and impossible for most. However, I am reconciled to the improbability of this possibility.

One of the outcomes of therapy was an understanding of how far I had come, not only in the present and how I live my life, but also in reconciling myself with my past. Moreover, this is a constant reminder to think through what power I do have, and how to use it for self-care as a process of collective care. Having had two breakdowns and long periods of chronic fatigue, in which my body forced my mind to stop making me run and run, I realised that I had to acknowledge what power is available to me. I only give up this limited power when I think I don’t have any at all, and in this moment my doubts swamp my belief. I had to learn to forgive myself a few things.

And so, what might be termed a positive mental attitude took a decade to coalesce or to take a form through which I could leave an intensive and intimate therapeutic relationship. In this coalescing or reforming, I took the energy of the therapeutic relationship as a mode of hope in my own life. Yet I recognise in this my own privilege in being able to pay for this work and the expertise that enabled it. It was an expensive, painful and exhausting decade that enabled me to feel and then to realise that whilst I had never been scared to die, I was no longer scared to live.

I am not sure how sharing the wealth helps with this for those who are isolated, made marginal, suffering structural oppression or exploitation, or in abusive relationships. Perhaps it is all we have in these days of social isolation, when we cannot hold each other physically close and we have limited mental stimulation. We know that the uncertainty is incredibly stressful, and that the psychology of isolation is damaging to our physiology as well as our psychology. Finding any port in a storm demands new connections, possibilities and hopes, and some form of mental and physical activity. Finding any mechanisms for controlling our existence, like establishing a routine, however limited in nature, is crucial. And here I am privileged again because I have a yard in which to sit, a partner, a mutual aid group, a roller for my bike, some t’ai chi I can do, I have books and writing, and 10 years of therapy in the bank. I have resources, activities and some control.

Maybe mindfulness or CBT techniques are better than nothing; that said, over time our collective and individual PTSD will require much more. When we have moved to our new position, we also need to recognise how our way of building the world and our social metabolism with the world has left us so mentally and physically vulnerable. This capitalist society has left shockingly paid people to keep the wheels turning, and to cope with deaths in hospitals and care homes. It has left people with limited resources to have to make decisions that put themselves and others at risk. It has left us divorced and separated from each other and the world, in a dystopian solitary confinement. It has left us so depleted that we are sharing CBT tricks on Twitter and building from the bottom as a just-in-time form of social solidarity. This demands our recognition now so that after-the-fact we can struggle for an intercommunal, intersectional and intergenerational alternative, centred around our humanity and celebrations of our differences. Because the virus has amplified the horrendous, alienating reality of capitalist social relations, and we deserve to live rather than to scrabble for survival.

It is the power of long-term, collective commitments that offers a new hope and a new shared wealth based on unequal individual and collective lives. In this way, I see my therapeutic experience as part of a wider ecosystem that I hold and to which I contribute, and that is shifting and moving. In this way, my thinking about mental health, ill being and moving beyond, replicates some kind of facilitated, mutual aid, in which survivors, self-help groups, voluntary organisations, friendships and professionals develop some alternative practices for-life that can be open to all. From each according to their ability. To each according to their needs.

Hold on to the love that you know//You don’t have to give up to let go

Deadmau5 feat. Cascade, I remember.

Banner, Finsbury Square, Occupy LSX.

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers – never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best.

Morgan, G. (2016). Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career. The Sydney Morning Herald.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance.

Email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm, 10 March 2014.

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Email from Stefan Grimm to various associates, 21 October 2014.

ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the higher education sector of the global economy. I wrote about how overwork is revealed through academic quitlit, in narratives about bullying, in discussions of mental health and academia, and, shockingly, through reports of suicides. These narratives and histories enable academics and students to be classified as precarious or without status, or lacking human (cognitive) capital, or even lacking emotional resilience. In this focus on academic overwork there is an intersection between academic ego-identity, control of the human capital that is the life-blood of the reproduction of the University as a competing business, and the internalisation of performance management/anxiety.

I note that what emerges, through the social relations of higher education “is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.” This drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, means that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, the domination of our academic clock-time by productivity becomes a means through which academics and students internalise entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.

TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

Overwork is a filament that enables us to reveal the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, and in particular the production of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army of precariously employed, sessional or casualised staff, or those who have become unemployed or under-employed, conditions the work of those who remain employed inside the University. They also condition those who labour in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to positional employment.

Marx argued that overproduction, or the accumulation of unsalable inventories, affected those who work both as labourers and who are the bearers (or sellers) of labour-power as a commodity. Universities require an abundant supply of appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address issues of demand in the delivery of teaching, scholarship, research and knowledge transfer. The key to increasing the rate of valorisation of capital is the ability to generate surplus value, in its absolute or relative forms, and employing labour-power as cheaply as possible is crucial. This then requires a level of overpopulation or a reserve army of labour that can be used to drive down costs (including wages, staff development costs, pensions and so on).

There are a series of processes that can drive costs down further, and maintain competitive edge in a global market. Universities might become more capital-intensive, by investing in technology and organisational development (restructuring, new workload models and so on). This increases the organic composition of capital, by increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital that is deployed. Clearly, this leads to problems in the production and accumulation of surplus value, which can only be generated through the exploitation of people as workers. As more constant capital or means of production (e.g. in terms of technology) are set in motion by an individual labourer, there is a pressure to economise on labour-power (as a commodity) or to discover new markets. If the higher education sector were to maintain employment as a constant, universities would need to expand (to generate a larger capital to support employment) or a higher rate of accumulation (of surpluses) would be required. Yet as more rapid accumulation has concomitant increase in the organic composition of capital, this produces a “relatively redundant working population” which is underemployed or becomes unemployed. As a result, there is an increasing set of pressures on labourers to remain employable in businesses and sectors that are increasing their organic composition, and this is manifest in the need to demonstrate perpetual entrepreneurialism.

One result of these pressures on organisations and individuals is increased proletarianisation, through precarious employment, or employment that is stripped of its intellectual content (for instance where that content is outsourced or managed on-line, or where staff-student relationships are mediated technologically), or employment that carries limited social security or welfare benefits, or through excessive performance-management and performativity. Over time, and certainly across a sector like higher education that operates on a world market, these processes that are driven by intense competition accelerate this proletarianisation.

In Capital, Marx articulates the formation of the reserve army of labour as a necessary component of the relationship between the forces and relations of production.

in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels.

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

The increases in productivity catalysed through processes of subsumption enable the search for both absolute and relative surplus value, and alter the composition of social capital as well as the scale of the terrain over which it functions (witness the competition for international markets amongst universities and the wailing over immigration related to students). Moreover, these changes in productivity draw in “a number of spheres of production” such that the university becomes a node in a wider, transnational association of capitals or joint venture that is seeking out surpluses. In terms of higher education, the labouring population of academics and students produces both the accumulation of capital, and through capital-intensive activities, “the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous”. As Marx notes, economising and developing the forces of production interrelates with the relations of production, which for many academics and students becomes increasingly precarious. As a result contingent, flexible or part-time labour, and the disciplinary effects of performance management, signals the generation a new, growing relative surplus population that emerges on a global scale. Moreover, this global surplus population conditions those in work to overwork or to reduced labour rights, because there’s always someone cheaper to be exploited.

The technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

However, crucially, for Henryk Grossman, the issue is not borne of the organic composition of capital, rather it is a function of imperfect valorisation.

[T]he formation of the reserve army, is not rooted in the technical fact of the introduction of machinery, but in the imperfect valorisation of capital specific to advanced stages of accumulation. It is a cause that flows strictly from the specifically capitalist form of production. Workers are made redundant not because they are displaced by machinery, but because, at a specific level of the accumulation of capital, profits become too small and consequently it does not pay to purchase new machinery and soon profits are insufficient to cover these purchases anyway

Grossman, H. (1929). Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown.

THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

It is in Marx’s analysis of the composition of the relative surplus population that we see the impact on academic labour through three forms of the relative surplus population. First, the floating or those who are precariously employed, and whose employment is affected by cyclical fluctuations in recruitment or funding, or by the deployment of innovations, or the employment of cheaper (younger) workers. Second, the latent form refers to those whose work is easily transferred across sectors, such as those with menial or leverage skills. Third, the stagnant form consists of very irregular employment on very bad terms. Crucially for Marx is the idea that these three elements of the reserve army of labour, alongside paupers and the lumpenproletariat, in their relationship to the working class, then offer a theory of the internal differentiation of the working class.

One might see this in the status distinctions between tenured, non-tenured, contract and sessional teaching staff, or between institutional bureaucracies, academics and professional service staff, or between full-professors, associate professors, lecturing staff, research fellows and research assistants, and so on. However, one might also use these categories to analyse academic and student overwork in response to: first, the threat of more efficient labour that can attract research or teaching excellence funding; second, the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious; and third, senior managers’ demands that they become perpetually efficient and entrepreneurial. Here the content of academic labour, the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, is reinvented entrepreneurially. New forms of the academic division of labour are internalised, and where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified, worthless or made superfluous. Or their inability to mourn their lost academic egos becomes rooted in melancholia.

The attempt to become superhuman, in generating and offering-up surplus labour time, generates overwork just as it responds to and reinforces the surplus, reserve army of academics. In this process overwork or surplus labour, and the generation of a reserve army, enable universities to generate new models for performance and competition, and for engaging in financialised growth and market-based exploitation.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

As Simon Clarke has noted, in order to compete and to stave off any crisis of accumulation, institutions tend towards technological or organisational innovations by:

  1. increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  2. reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  3. cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  4. stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  5. stimulating internationalisation strategies, in order to enable exports and new markets for accumulation, as well as cheapening the elements of constant and variable capital.

What emerges in any discussion of the political economy of academic labour is that competition, as a function of the need to become productive of value and to accumulate surplus value or surpluses, worsens the position of the worker be she academic or student.

FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

What appears worse is that the inability to survive in this increasingly competitive space becomes the fault of the individual who is to be made unemployed or underemployed. It is a moral duty to work and to remain employable, and never to draw down on social welfare. As Anselm Jappe notes:

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

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

Thus, the unemployed are workshy or lazy, or lack willpower, or they are stupid. The idea that unemployment is structural and secular, and that it is rooted in a specific form of  political economy, runs secondary to the individual failings that meant Stefan Grimm was unable “to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post”, or which meant that John was forced to inhabit “the zombie zone” beyond HE.

NOTE: there are many accounts of the psychological and embodied damage caused to individuals in this hegemonic, structural narrative.

There is increasing understanding that individuals are placing themselves at risk of harm, where they are forced to respond to narratives of personal failings in relation to work, and where there is a recalibration of work around flexibility (in work and across markets) and competition. As Davies et al. argue, the increasing insecurity that flows from employment inside sectors and business that are responding to austerity negatively effects physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, where agency or autonomy are low or are removed, for instance where performance management is enacted, stress and anxiety are higher.

There is a critical point here for Davis et al. about the internalisation of failings that results in melancholia about the Self rather than mourning for what has been lost. In academia the accumulation of melancholia is catalysed by performance anxiety.

There is an aspect of melancholia that is absent from mourning, an extraordinary reduction in self-esteem, a great impoverishment of the ego. In mourning the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so. The [melancholic] patient describes his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of functioning and morally reprehensible, he is filled with self-reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment… He does not sense that a change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism to cover the past.

Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning & Melancholia. Penguin, pp. 205–206

Correctives to such a view are marginal, and certainly not to be found in the work of institutional occupational therapy or human resources departments that are focused upon emotional resilience or its relationship to the happiness industry. Such correctives again seek to elevate individual, qualitative narratives, and to stress the social and material causes of distress, and the value of solidarity and collective action.

[S]ocial inequalities that exclude or marginalise contribute significantly to the potential for distress. Poverty, impoverished housing and diet, threatening environments, limited resources, restricted choices, demeaning or poorly-paid employment, discrimination, oppression and scapegoating all cause distress… We are more likely to experience distress the more our experiences are invalidated and the more isolated we become from one another. Equally, the further we are from supportive, nurturing relationships, the more that invalidation and isolation will engender distress. People stripped of ameliorative influences such as a loving, supportive family and friends; comfortable, safe environments; and the trust, support and solidarity of others, are increasingly likely to experience diagnosable distress.

Midland Psychology Group. (2012). Draft manifesto for a social materialist psychology of distress. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 12(2): 96-7.

In response to the apparent suicide of precariously-employed John, Karina has argued the following.

We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.

This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?

And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.

Karina. 2016. A few words. CASA: A Home Online For Casual, Adjunct, Sessional Staff and Their Allies in Australian Higher Education

There is a step beyond this, which for The Institute for Precarious Consciousness takes the form of “a machine for fighting anxiety”. They argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside and outside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. Here describing the relationship between overwork and the surplus population of academic labour is simply a starting point.

higher education and the triple crunch

I’m presenting at the Plymouth University Pedagogic Research conference on Wednesday, about higher education and the triple crunch.

There are some notes on the University and the secular crisis [crunch 1].

There are some notes on climate change and liquid fuel availability [crunch 2 and 3] here and here.

My slides are here.

on academic labour and performance anxiety


ONE. The bleeding of our souls.

There is no escape from the living death of capitalist work (Dinerstein and Neary). This leads Cederström and Fleming to argue that our whole existence bleeds our souls in the name of value. The corporatisation of our lives bleeds our souls because:

The real fault-line today is not between capital and labor. It is between capital and life. Life itself is now something that is plundered by the corporation, rendering our very social being into something that makes money for business. We know them. The computer hackers dreaming code in their sleep. The airline stewards evoking their warm personality to deal with an irate customer…The aspiring NGO intern working for nothing. The university lecturer writing in the weekend. The call center worker improvising on the telephone to enhance the customer experience.

This is the world-for-acccumulation, against which Kate Bowles notes universities and academic labour are being restructured so that shame becomes a central tenet of everyday academic life.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing.

Yesterday I argued that there is a broader set of questions for academics here, about how they approach organisational governance co-operatively, in order to generate solidarity that militates against the practices that devolve corporate leadership and responsibility for actions, and thereby enable performance management to become an internalised disciplinary activity. For Bowles, this is academic labour as labour that needs to stand against shame and being shamed through performance:

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.

TWO. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.

The internalisation of performativity, alongside managerialism and marketization/the commodification of everyday practices, is as present inside the University as they are outside. Thus, academic labour is labour that needs to resist its reification and its alienation from its species. As Petrovic argued, as life, relationships, values, the soul, is recast for value or as value-laden, we witness:

[The] transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modem capitalist society

For Stephen Ball this is amplified by performativity that in-turn pivots around mechanisms for control and autonomy, and the deterritorialised nature of performance management so that it both appears and reappears inside-and-outside of the workplace. Thus, performativity is our lack of personal control over our labour, so that we seize on the enforcement of:

a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. The issue of who controls the field of judgement is crucial. (p. 216)

This is the entrepreneurial turn inside the University, as that working space mirrors the need to generate the creative-commodity economy outside. This turn recasts the academic as innovator whose formation inside-and-outside the University can be witnessed and judged as creative and valuable, not because it is useful but because it can be exchanged. This is not about the relationships that the academic has either with her peers, her students, or most importantly with herself. It is about the enclosure and commodification of that life under the organisation of the market.

THREE. Zero autonomy and performance anxiety.

Elsewhere I wrote that the impact of this need to perform and to be seen to perform is a function of a lack of autonomy. However, it is also formed of the systemic myth that is peddled about how if only we were more resilient then the world would be ours.

We are conditioned to rely on the rugged, resilient individual. To develop the rugged, resilient individual. And in the process we are all demeaned. In the process we are all alienated from our humanity.

In this, recognition of our alienation not as academics, but as labour and as labour-power, matters. This is an alienation from our very selves, as more is demanded of us: more extensive lists of projects to manage; the next EU bid to chase; your team’s development reviews to finalise faster; your own research to be done on your own time; your need to bring in external income to justify performing at that conference; more value to create; more capital to set in motion; more surpluses to be generated. This is the restructuring of the University as a business through your work and your alienated self.

This alienation is witnessed in Miya Tokumitsu’s connection of the relationship between academic practices and academic psychology:

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

This underpins the increasing exploitation of the academic soul at work. It I why I was awake at 4am yesterday and today, worrying about those essays to be marked, about whether the three journal articles in review and the eight conference presentations accepted and the two book proposals and the proposed new Centre for Pedagogic Research are enough (enough already!) or made me a good enough academic (when I feel like a shameful fraud), and whether I am giving my team enough direction, and whether I need to find more time for trades union activities because solidarity is a weapon. Am I enough? Am I good enough? How am I judged, by you and by me? What is my value? Alienated from my self and my relationships through capitalist work.

And these fears and anxieties remind me that as I internalise a structural and structuring performance management, this is overlain on top of a hackneyed academic psychology that is prone to intense negativity, including: over-analysing my performance and my thinking until my mind bleeds; being convinced that everything has to be perfect for everyone forever, except for me; being unforgiving and overcritical of me; being unable to be in this world; being too deliberate in my use of language/discourse/action and search for hidden meanings where there may be none; making myself too responsible about stuff for which I am not responsible; and lacking faith in myself.

As Tokumitsu argues, this enables those in-power or with power-over the world to entreat educators to “do what you love”, and to give everything. This is hardly harmless. It reifies certain forms of work as loveable because they are intellectual or creative or social, rather than proletarianised, whilst its demands are made competitive and outcomes-focused and routine so that this very work underpins self-hatred. It is the sublimation and the very negation of the self; it is the identification of the ego with the performance; it is the bleeding of the soul. And the governor for this is the interplay between structural, organisational management, and crippling, personal, psychological self-doubt. Just work that bit harder, that bit faster, that bit better and we’ll tell you we are proud of you… And I read this into The Underbelly of Putting Yourself Last: Mental Illness, Stress, and Substance Abuse, and I read this into reports on mental health and Ph.D. study.

All this reminds me that a while back I wrote about courage and a friend’s cancer diagnosis that had been too long in arriving, and the realisation that “and now here we are.”

And now here we are. And for all sorts of reasons I read those five words with an intense scream against the pain that this life has become and the choices we are forced to make, in order to justify our lives as hard-working and worthy of justice. And I scream against the pain of the compromises that are contained in those five words. And I recognise that it is in the moment of a crisis that the things that we do, and the compromises that we make, to be a manager or a co-worker or for the clock or for impact or for efficiency or for whatever, resolve.

My alienated self; my soul at work; my mind bleeds; am I good enough? And I wrote to my friend over the weekend that this lack of autonomy was a form of structural domination, which wears us out socially and collectively, and which doesn’t matter to management because there is such a reserve army of labour to fill-in. The precariously employed, the casualised, the hourly-paid, the hopeful post-graduates, the lower-cost. So you have to perform, and this is their domination over us, reproduced through the logic of competition; competition between universities; competition between individuals; competition inside yourself.

FOUR. And it wears me out. It wears me out.

“You wear out, Ed Tom. All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it… Anyway, you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from…”

“They sat quietly at the table. After a while the old man said: She mentioned there was a lot of old pictures and family stuff. What to do about that. Well. There ain’t nothing to do about it I don’t reckon. Is there?”

“No. I don’t reckon there is.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2005. No Country for Old Men.

The logic of academic competition that owns you as you ask “do I do enough?” “Prove it.” The future owned by fear. The future of “I do enough”, “I am good enough”, owned by the past of “do I do enough?”, “was I good enough?” Never thinking “I am” because the shadow of “am I?” is unforgiving. The logic of academic competition that uses the National Student Survey, Research Excellence, impact metrics, restricted promotions processes, and so on, as forms of academic cognitive behavioural therapy; as forms of restructuring what it means to be an academic; reifying what it means to labour in a University, so that performance is internalised. So that guilt and shame trump solidarity, unity and faith. So that in the battle to survive we forget that capitalist work is ‘a form of living death’ (Dinerstein and Neary (ht @josswinn)).

This means that, in Ball’s terms, we are subsumed under an imperative that makes:

management, ubiquitous, invisible, inescapable – part of and embedded in everything we do. Increasingly, we choose and judge our actions and they are judged by others on the basis of their contribution to organizational performance, rendered in terms of measurable outputs (p. 223).

This is the battle between an academic ego-identity that is increasingly status-driven and reified, a managerial cadre that seeks control through its own autonomy and performance management techniques, and the possibility of a socialised self that might refuse capital as the automatic subject. In this we need to recognise the duality that, first academic labour is labour and is locked in a struggle with capital over the production of value, and second that increasingly this form of labour is revealed as kettled inside a structure that exists for the autonomy of Capital.

This autonomy is a battle over productive and useful time. As Marx notes in Capital Volume 2:

It is plain that the more the production time and labour-time cover each other the greater is the productivity and self-expansion of a given productive capital in a given space of time. Hence the tendency of the capitalist production to reduce the excess of the production time over the labour-time as much as possible. But while the time of production of a certain capital may differ from its labour-time, it always comprises the latter, and this excess is itself a condition of the process of production. The time of production, then, is always that time in which a capital produces use-values and expands, hence functions as productive capital, although it includes time in which it is either latent or produces without expanding its value.

Inside a competitive market, all of life must become productive of value, and idle or working time, has to be annihilated. The self that produces things that cannot be exchanged has limited value and must be annihilated. The life that is consumed by working time rather than productive time is inefficient, and must be recalibrated by speed-up, always-on, the annilhilation of space by time. This is our internalisation of the capital’s necessity for perpetual time-space transformations, in order to generate and accumulate surplus-value and wealth. This is the time-space transformation through student debt, financialisation, the international university, the MOOC, and the University as an association of capitals.

This is the demand that academic labour fights against its fixity inside the walls of the University.

This is the demand that academic labour is always-on, always circulating, always looking for spaces to generate value.

This is the bind that academic labour now finds itself in: based in a belief system based on love or care or the student experience; courted and reified as special and high status and as commodity; kettled by performance anxiety and performance management; disciplined by academic cognitive behavioural therapy; forced to be responsive to the university as competing business in a landscape that is being reterritorialised on a global scale; forced to reinvent itself for expansion and accumulation; never allowed to be.

Never allowed to be.

Never allowed to be.

And it wears you out.

On the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance

ONE. Academics and socially necessary labour time.

In the University, abstract time dominates: the 50-minute hour; the four-week turnaround for feedback on work; being always-on through tethered technologies; the production of journal articles and books; the production and circulation of learning materials; the production and circulation of assessments and feedback; the exchange of ideas as commodities; the governance of production and circulation by intellectual property, patent and copyright law. A value-chain that is real and virtual, and governed by abstract time whilst its temporalities are regulated by the cultural space/time of student-as-consumer.

Abstract time dominates the life of the University as academic labour is really subsumed and recalibrated by capital. As the products of academic labour are re-constituted as commodities, academic labour is disciplined by impact, performance management and internalising league tables and satisfaction scores. The focus becomes less the concrete labour that produces a journal article or a podcast or a report, but the value that can be extracted from those products as they are exchanged through research funding or knowledge transfer or the fees that accompany student retention, and then realised through the accumulation of wealth.

Thus, we see the embodiment of the abstract labour of the academic in the new commodities that form the backbone of a new process of exchange and value creation/extraction. Time is central in this process. The concrete labour which is employed in the process of making a book or an on-line course does not create value, but the time it takes to write the book or course is alienated from the academic as s/he faces the demands of producing them in a competitive environment. This concrete academic labour may have a use for someone, as peer-review or piece of research or whatever, but as the University is subsumed under the dynamics of the market and as its products are required for exchange, that labour becomes an abstracted measure of value. This is an environment where value emerges based on the average time actually required across society, given generally available technological and organisational development, to produce the specific commodity. This average, this socially-necessary labour time, is abstract labour dominated by exchange in the market. Through exchange and competition, any differences in the concrete labour embodied in the book or the online course are averaged out.

As Postone (1993) writes in Time Labour and Social Domination:

As a category of the totality, socially necessary labor time expresses a quasi-objective social necessity with which the producers are confronted. It is the temporal dimension of the abstract domination that characterizes the structures of alienated social relations in capitalism. The social totality constituted by labor as an objective general mediation has a temporal character, wherein time becomes necessity (p. 191).

Thus, the University enmeshed in the market becomes a source of value and also seeks out value from new markets. The attrition on the average time it takes academic labour to produce, circulate or exchange commodities damages the sociability and solidarity of the academic’s wider communities with whom s/he is now in competition. Thus, the socially necessary labour time of academic production increasingly dominates the life of the academic and the student. This domination is made worse for the academic as the University is subsumed under value accumulation, because the academic means of production are necessarily revolutionised through technological and organisational change. This leads to speed-up, impact, always-on, performance management, in order that the productivity of the academic in one day or one month or one year can be measured against her peers through the socially-necessary labour time that determines what her productivity should be. In a competitive market, if that four-week turnaround time is three weeks elsewhere the academic labour rights will be threatened. This measure intensifies and dominates her work.

TWO. Academic subordination to abstract time.

As the University is marketised and academic labour is made productive of value, as Wendling notes (p. 196), abstract time permeates and mediates social relations. Quantifying the time taken to produce, circulate and exchange becomes a form of domination because humanity is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between teacher and student is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between author and peer-reviewer is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between administrator and teaching team is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between Vice-Chancellor and outsourcing partners is subordinate to capitalist time. The social relationships of the University are alienated through their subordination to capitalist time. Productivity; time not task; efficiency not humanity.

Here, the individual academic’s work is made social, and lives or dies through profit and loss. The space/time of academic life is recalibrated through exchange and profit and loss. The space/time of academic life is recalibrated through the production, circulation and consumption of the commodity form. The space/time of academic life is recalibrated through the specific historical dynamic of capitalism.

E.P. Thompson recognised this in terms of work-discipline and labour, and the ways in which the systemic domination of the measured time to produce, circulate and exchange products ‘influence[d] the inward apprehension of time of working people?’ (p. 57) As time became increasingly alienated, Thompson argued that our humanity also became alienated from us because our ‘task-orientation’ was subsumed under the clock. Here the production of human necessities and the costs of social reproduction became subordinate to the production of value, and clearly demarcated as something separate from capitalist work. Moreover, “work” and “life” become increasingly demarcated, so that “passing the time of day” becomes objectionable and a waste of the capitalist’s time. As Thompson argues, ‘In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to “pass the time”.’ (pp. 90-1)

THREE. Time is our everything.

Marx argued this at length in the Grundrisse, and began to develop an analysis of the interrelationships between time in the circuit of production and time in the circulation of commodities, and capital’s drive to control time by reducing socially necessary labour time through technology and organisational developments, by maximising the time available for surplus labour, and by reducing circulation time, in order to turn capital over more quickly.

in addition to the labour time realized in production, the circulation time of capital enters in as a moment of value creation — of productive labour time itself. While labour time appears as value-positing activity, this circulation time of capital appears as the time of devaluation. The difference shows itself simply in this: if the totality of the labour time commanded by capital is set at its maximum, say infinity, so that necessary labour time forms an infinitely small part and surplus labour time an infinitely large part of this [infinity], then this would be the maximum realization of capital, and this is the tendency towards which it strives. On the other side, if the circulation time of capital were = 0, if the various stages of its transformation proceeded as rapidly in reality as in the mind, then that would likewise be the maximum of the factor by which the production process could be repeated, i.e. the number of capital realization processes in a given period of time. The repetition of the production process would be restricted only by the amount of time which it lasts, the amount of time which elapses during the transformation of raw material into product. Circulation time is therefore not a positive value-creating element; if it were = to 0, then value-creation would be at its maximum. But if either surplus labour time or necessary labour time = 0, i.e. if necessary labour time absorbed all time, or if production could proceed altogether without labour, then neither value, nor capital, nor value-creation would exist. Circulation time therefore determines value only in so far as it appears as a natural barrier to the realization of labour time. It is therefore in fact a deduction from surplus labour time, i.e. an increase of necessary labour time. It is clear that necessary labour time has to be paid for, whether the circulation process proceeds slowly or quickly. E.g. in trades where specific workers are required, who can, however, only be employed for a part of the year because the products are, say, saleable only in a given season, [in those trades] the workers would have to be paid for the entire year, i.e. surplus labour time is decreased in exact proportion to the reduction in their possibilities of employment during a given period of time, but still they must be paid in one way or another. (For example in the form that their wages for 4 months suffice to maintain them for a year.) If capital could utilize them for 12 months, it would pay them no higher, and would have gained that much surplus labour. Circulation time thus appears as a barrier to the productivity of labour = an increase in necessary labour time = a decrease in surplus labour time = a decrease in surplus value = an obstruction, a barrier to the self-realization process [Selbstverwertungsprozess] of capital. Thus, while capital must on one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e. to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another. The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time… There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production

These contradictions, of the need for labour from which to extract a surplus and to add value to the production process, and the need to destroy the costs of labour, and to conquer geography and temporality for exchange, in order to open-up geography and temporality for the market, are also seen in Capital’s need for control. For Harvey, “time–space compression” to refer to the way the acceleration of economic activities leads to the destruction of spatial barriers and distances. In particular, Harvey argues that new technologies and organisational forms, like high frequency trading, containerisation and so on, underpin expansion. Here, either the time or the distance that separates production from exchange and profit is destroyed. Universities driving the expansion of global markets through outsourcing, internationalisation strategies, on-line delivery and so on, reinforce the subsumption of academic labour inside the disciplinary dictates of control. This is the time-space compression of the lifeworld of the academic and the student, rationalised through a technologised curriculum, and governed by value-for-money, the limits of time-bound pedagogies, and the costs of the production and consumption of academic commodities.

This focus on the control of space/time, in order to maximise the instantaneous accumulation of wealth connects to the cybernetic hypothesis. It was the search for control and minimising the risks to accumulation that led Tiqqun to argue:

A system, to the extent that it is a system, is never pure and perfect: there is a degradation of its energy to the extent that it undergoes exchanges, in the same way as information degrades as it is circulated around. This is what Clausius called entropy. Entropy, considered as a natural law, is the cybernetician’s Hell. It explains the decomposition of life, disequilibrium in economy, the dissolution of social bonds, decadence… Initially, speculatively, cybernetics claimed that it had thus opened up a common ground on which it would be possible to carry out the unification of the natural and human sciences (p. 14).

This entropy was a function of crisis inside a global system of value creation, extraction and accumulation that suffered from disequilibrium and uneven growth, as well as bubbles, booms and busts.

The crises of capitalism, as Marx saw them, always came from a de-articulation between the time of conquest and the time of reproduction. The function of cybernetics is to avoid crises by ensuring the coordination between Capital’s “front side” and “rear side.” Its development is an endogenous response to the problem posed to capitalism — how to develop without fatal disequilibrium arising (p. 21).

Thus, the technologies for control were defined “to maximize the volume of commodity flows by minimizing the events, obstacles, and accidents that would slow them down.” (p. 22) This is increasingly true of the University where flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.

FOUR. Academic proletarianisation and free time.

One result of this is the dissonance for the academic between the cognitive skills, practices and knowledge that are high value, and the increasing routinisation of academic labour.  In particular, Marx argued in Capital, Volume One that machinery and techniques were used to dominate the labourer through proletarianisation.

The shortening of the hours of labour creates, to begin with, the subjective conditions for the condensation of labour, by enabling the workman to exert more strength in a given time. So soon as that shortening becomes compulsory, machinery becomes in the hands of capital the objective means, systematically employed for squeezing out more labour in a given time. This is effected in two ways: by increasing the speed of the machinery, and by giving the workman more machinery to tend. Improved construction of the machinery is necessary, partly because without it greater pressure cannot be put on the workman, and partly because the shortened hours of labour force the capitalist to exercise the strictest watch over the cost of production.

Where labour rights and the reduction in the hours of working are enforced this leads to increased capital intensity as the capitalist seeks to “convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman”. As Jehu argues this intensification and exhaustion form a process of domination of the body of the labourer and the time for the production of value. Value emerges from more time that is productive through the overcoming of entropy, and yet capital needs the destruction of time. Thus

in labor theory, reduction of hours of labor not only accelerates the development of the productive forces, with this development of the productive forces successive reductions of labor becomes becomes necessary: it “must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable.”

Which is to say, reducing hours of labor first and foremost accelerates the demise of capitalism and wage slavery — freeing up disposable time for the great majority of society.

Therefore in any resistance to Capital’s domination, the recovery of time is pivotal. This is the case because value is measured through social time, which Capital tries to destroy through the co-option of science, co-operation and social commerce, in order to reduce necessary labour time and to attempt to liberate the creation of wealth from labour. Yet Capital measures all value by labour time and the extraction of surplus labour. This is the critical antagonism: “Capitalism is doomed, in sum, because it demands — at the same time — more labor and less labor.” (Tiqqun, p. 37) Thus, for Tiqqun

the new revolutionary subject would reappropriate its “creativity,” or its “imagination,” which had been confiscated by labor relations, and would make non-labor time into a new source of self and collective emancipation. (pp. 37-8)

Wendling also highlights that Marx saw the possibility for liberation in a reclaiming of wealth as ‘disposable time’ (Grundrisse, p. 708). Disposable time, rather than time that is owned by the capitalist and alienated from the worker, is the key to social emancipation. Around free-time, available for social reproduction, education and liberating the general intellect, forms a political battleground. Moreover, it becomes a battleground for social use and wealth, rather than the production for exchange and value. As Wendling notes:

in the communist future, which is not subject to the calculus of value, time must diminish in importance. When we extrapolate Marx’s visions of free time, therefore, we must not only envision the lengthening of the disposable hours the worker marks between short stints of productive labor. We must instead imagine a modern life freed from time, or at least modern life freed from time’s abstract and alienating dominations. (p. 199)

FIVE. Free time and the academic/student relationship

Giroux argues that

Civic engagement seems irrelevant and public values are rendered invisible, if not overtly disparaged, in light of the growing power of multinational corporations to privatize public space and time as it disconnects power from issues of equity, social justice and civic responsibility. Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs.

This is as true for the two critical relationships of academic and student and academic and public. These relationships offer the possibility of intimacy, care, acceptance and liberation, but inside an increasingly commodified academic process they risk being destroyed by an abstraction. For many academics this is what the duality of student-as-consumer and student-as-producer collapses into: the reality of a concrete relationship, or the abstraction of a process of learning. This process is increasingly enclosed by time-bound teaching sessions or impact/satisfaction metrics and money, which is a form of structural domination over people. This then threatens the idea that epistemological liberation might be underpinned by dialogue and struggle that emerge from a concrete pedagogical alliance rather than an abstract process.

Such an alliance pushes back against the idea that academic/student/public might be locked inside a commodified, abstract, time-bound process that is based on the exchange of money, time, expertise, skills, feedback, peer-review, rather than being rooted in a humane relationship  that has a use and that is based on solidarity and sharing. As Giroux continues this is about liberating time from its structural domination over us:

The formative cultures, institutions and modes of critical agency necessary for a vibrant democracy do not exist in a culture in which knowledge is fragmented, power concentrated in few hands and time is reduced to a deprivation for large segments of the public – one consequence of which is the endless struggle by many Americans simply to try to survive at the level of everyday life. The colonizing of time, space and power suggests taking back people’s time in an era when the majority must work more than ever to make ends meet. There is no democracy in a country in which for most people time is a deprivation rather than a luxury. Time is crippled when it is trapped within an endless need to fight to merely survive in order to have enough to eat, have access to decent health care, day care and a social wage. The struggle over time is inextricably linked to a struggle over space, institutions, public spheres, the public good, power, the future and the nature of politics itself.

In Marx’s terms, this struggle demands the analysis of the position of the labour of the academic inside the market, as it is subsumed for the creation and accumulation of value, rather than for its public use/good. Such labour is useful but it is increasingly incorporated inside a social universe whose gravity is value. The increasing value of academic labour enabled through its marketisation and enabling its further exchange begins to dominate the processes of academic production. It dominates working practices, academic relationships, the technologies and intensity of academic labour on a social scale. Thus, as the academic labour of the teacher and the student is restructured by strategies for value creation and accumulation, it has to behave like any other form of labour. It has to satisfy a specific social need and be measured in terms of the totality of academic labour. It is measured and disciplined by socially necessary labour time.

This process of liberation of time for use rather than exchange is the solidarity that might be developed, not be fetishising academic labour, but from seeing it in terms of public and social labour, dominated by time-space compression. Marx noted in Capital, Volume One that:

From this moment on, the labour of the individual producer acquires a twofold social character. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold needs of the individual producer himself only in so far as every particular kind of useful private labour can be exchanged with, i.e. counts as the equal of, every other kind of useful private labour. Equality in the full sense between different kinds of labour can be arrived at only if we abstract from their real inequality, if we reduce them to the characteristic they have in common, that of being the expenditure of human labour-power, of human labour in the abstract. (p. 166)

This argument of commonality and of the solidarity that emerges from global exploitation points towards the potential that labour has to be socially useful and thereby liberated as a common treasury. This is about liberation from the domination of abstract time and the recovery of Thompson’s task-oriented life. This is about refusing, inPostone’s (1993, p. 202) terms, the conception of time that is “uniform, continuous, homogenous… [and] empty of events”. In this view, useful labour emerges through tasks and events that reproduce society against-and-beyond value production. They are a form of sociability that do not occur within time, but instead structure and determine that time (Postone, p. 201).

Potentially then, this is bell hooks’ self-actualisation: a capacity to live more fully and deeply. This is a capacity to integrate intellectual and emotional life through a society that is against value and for humane values. This is a humane capacity that is also the capability to liberate time for use and solidarity, rather than exchange. Here, academic life is not driven by a commodity-valuation based on the domination of abstract time. Academic life is governed by time that is useful for social reproduction. It is not about impact metrics or performance management or turnaround times or workload management. It is based on personal and social relations that dissolve the barriers between work and life, and which enable the teacher and the student to form a pedagogical alliance for the collective, socially-negotiated overcoming of capital’s power-over learning, teaching and the curriculum. This concrete alliance, revealed inside-and-against abstract time, is the beginning and end of our pedagogical fight for free time; a concrete struggle against abstract processes for value creation and accumulation; our concrete potential to be and to become.

Some notes on environmental crisis and the internationalisation of higher education

ONE. Educational truth: there is no alternative to economic growth

David Willetts’ speaking at the UK Quality Assurance Agency, We need to talk about Quality: MOOCs:

when Goldman Sachs are investing and Stamford say it is significant and big players are coming in, my view is, this is a significant moment in the spread of education, notably, but not only higher education. So yes, I do think this is significant. Its significance comes in different ways; I think it is significant for the brick [sic.] countries and developing countries which have extraordinary ambitions to grow the number of their young people with education qualifications and when you try to think how a country like India or Indonesia or Mexico or Colombia is going to achieve some of their remarkable ambitions for growth it is hard to see how they can do that without using a lot of online learning as one of the delivery mechanisms.

Pearson CEO John Fallon writing about African Outcomes on the Pearson Africa blog:

The universal power of education to transform lives for the better feels more urgent in Africa, too. Better education, of which literacy and numeracy are the bedrock, will be fundamental to sustaining growth and prosperity across the continent over the next decade, just as it surely will be throughout the rest of the world. For example, despite high unemployment rates on the continent, employers often struggle to fill vacancies. In a PWC survey of 1,330 global CEOs, over half report concerns about finding the right talent to reach business targets. Vast skills gaps are holding back job creation and growth in many African economies; there is a disconnect between what is being taught in schools and the knowledge and skills young people need to become engaged and productive citizens.

Just as countries as diverse as the US and China are shifting from measuring progress in education by inputs – such as teacher/pupil ratios, textbooks or laptops per child or total spending levels – to focusing on learning outcomes, so Africa needs to do the same.

The McKinsey Center for Government’s report on (global) Education to Employment:

Around the world, governments and businesses face a conundrum: high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of job seekers with critical skills. How can a country successfully move its young people from education to employment? What are the problems? Which interventions work? How can these be scaled up? These are the crucial questions.

Education-to-employment solutions need to scale up. There are three challenges to achieving scale: first, constraints on the resources of education providers, such as finding qualified faculty and investing in expansion; second, insufficient opportunities to provide youth with hands-on learning; and third, the hesitancy of employers to invest in training unless it involves specialized skills.

The NUS Charter for becoming a global University:

Embedding internationalisation across all departments in the institution is key to enhancing the global competitiveness of all UK universities. Each university should have an international strategy which addresses the entire institution to create a global culture among all students and staff and to develop globally employable and mobile students and staff. Students’ unions should be actively involved in forming these strategies.

Because there is no alternative.

TWO. Growth, hegemony and power

In an article on the Network of Global Corporate Control, Vitali, Glattfelder, and Battiston highlight the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations. They reveal

a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy… a core of 1318 companies [representing] 20 per cent of global operating revenues and… the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms… representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues’… a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies … controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth … Most were financial institutions.

The B-20 sponsored Global Business Coalition for Education

brings the business community together to accelerate progress in delivering quality education for all of the world’s children and youth.  We believe that education is the birthright of every child and the key to expanded opportunity and future employment.  For companies, investing in education promotes economic growth, leads to more stable societies, fosters healthy communities and makes it easier to do business. Education spurs innovation and increases the skills of employees, the income potential of consumers and the prosperity of communities where business operates.

The B20 (check out the network of CEOs of Global Corporations, OECD, World Economic Forum, the International Chamber of Commerce, and McKinsey & Company), 2012 Task Force Recommendations:

The b20 believes that business has an important role to play in rebuilding trust and helping to address key global issues. Today’s challenges are too large, too complex and too interrelated to be solved by governments – even by those belonging to the g20 alone. We all have to play our part.

Through the b20, business leaders have engaged as corporate global citizens, working closely with other stakeholders to address seven of the most pressing global challenges. Business leaders are impatient with theoretical discussion and long reports, and want practical solutions with concrete actions. It is with this spirit that we have approached the b20.

ceos have developed action plans this year in these seven areas – starting with “What should business do?” before looking at what governments should do, as well as what governments, businesses and other stakeholders can do together.

These action plans provide the basis for a new global growth agenda in that they propose a set of structural improvements to economies that would have the combined effect of increasing both the quantity (rate) and quality (inclusiveness and resilience) of global economic growth. They are intended as a serious contribution to the g20’s fundamental mission, articulated at its 2009 Pittsburgh Summit, of promoting “strong, sustainable and balanced” growth.

More effectively and efficiently unsustainable.

THREE. Hedging the planet

Monsanto Buys Climate Corp For $930 Million

Monsanto broke the news this morning that it was buying Climate for approximately $930 million. The idea is to sell more data and services to the farmers who already buy Monsanto’s seed and chemicals.

In his piece on Why food riots are likely to become the new normal, Nafeez Ahmed writes:

Whether or not those prices materialise this year, food price volatility is only a symptom of deeper systemic problems – namely, that the global industrial food system is increasingly unsustainable.

climate is not the only problem. Industrial farming methods are breaching the biophysical limits of the soil.

High oil prices will continue to debilitate the global economy, particularly in Europe – but they will also continue to feed into the oil-dependent industrial food system. Currently, every major point in industrial food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. To make matters worse, predatory speculation on food and other commodities by banks drives prices higher, increasing profits at the expense of millions of the world’s poor.

The link between intensifying inequality, debt, climate change, fossil fuel dependency and the global food crisis is now undeniable. As population and industrial growth continue, the food crisis will only get worse. If we don’t do something about it, according to an astounding new Royal Society paper, we may face the prospect of civilisational collapse within this century.

The OPEC World Oil Outlook for 2012 noted:

OPEC’s focus remains on bringing stability to the market, given that oil is expected to satisfy the largest share of the world’s energy needs for the foreseeable future. In this spirit, the WOO 2012 – the publication’s sixth edition – consistently provides a detailed breakdown and analysis of the key issues that might shape the global energy future, particularly in relation to the oil market. From a supply perspective, the world has more than enough oil resources to satisfy consumer demand for many decades. The US Geological Survey estimate of ultimately recoverable oil resources continues to be revised upward. It is now approaching four trillion barrels. Technological advances have improved the recovery from producing fields and extended the reach of the industry to explore and produce from frontier areas and new plays. Moreover, there remain many areas, both OPEC and non-OPEC, that still have not been explored.

In an HSBC Climate Change Global report, Scoring Climate Change Risk: Which countries are most vulnerable?

Uncertainty surrounding the scale and speed of future impacts mean that climate, food, energy and water risks need to be factored into investment strategies. In this note, we assess the climate vulnerability of the G-20 countries in terms of their exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. We find that India, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil are the most vulnerable. Currently, these five economies account for 15% of global output. By 2050, HSBC’s economists estimate that these countries will contribute almost 37%. We believe the time for integrating the climate factor has arrived.

This makes an assessment of how climate factor is fusing with underlying resource stress critical for long-term investment strategy. In our view, evaluating country vulnerabilities to the climate factor is a critical tool for risk management, informing both asset allocation and the understanding of pressures along global value chains.

Because it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

FOUR. Reality bites

A leaked draft of the IPCC’sglobal review of future impacts from global warming predicts system break-downs across the board

Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic stressors and multidimensional inequalities, which shape differential risks from climate change (very high confidence).

Impacts from recent extreme climatic events, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires, demonstrate significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to climate variability (very high confidence).

These experiences are consistent with a significant adaptation deficit in developing and developed countries for some sectors and regions. Climate-related hazards constitute an additional burden to people living in poverty, acting as a threat multiplier often with negative outcomes for livelihoods (high confidence).

Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, such as reductions in crop yields or destruction of homes, and indirectly through increased food prices and food insecurity. Limited positive observed impacts on poor people include isolated cases of social asset accumulation, agricultural diversification, disaster preparedness, and collective action. Violent conflict strongly influences vulnerability to climate change impacts for people living in affected places (medium evidence, high agreement).

Large-scale violent conflict harms assets that facilitate adaptation, including infrastructure, institutions, natural capital, social capital, and livelihood opportunities.

The Royal Society’s People and Planet reportfrom 2012 argued that there is an urgent need to address issues of climate change and resource availability across the globe. The report argued:

in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced. This will entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth. Decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs is needed urgently. Changes to the current socio-economic model and institutions are needed to allow both people and the planet to flourish by collaboration as well as competition during this and subsequent centuries. This requires farsighted political leadership concentrating on long term goals

Is there really no alternative?

FIVE. What is to be done?

Naomi Klein in the New Statesman argues that climate scientists are beginning to align their scientific approach and analyses of data to direct action.

what [University of California’s Brad] Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what [the Tyndall Centre’s] Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012, Anderson and Bows argue:

in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In a Royal Society paper, Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?, Ehrlich and Ehrlich note that:

Besides focusing their research on ways to avoid collapse, there is a need for natural scientists to collaborate with social scientists, especially those who study the dynamics of social movements. Such collaborations could develop ways to stimulate a significant increase in popular support for decisive and immediate action on the predicament. Unfortunately, awareness among scientists that humanity is in deep trouble has not been accompanied by popular awareness and pressure to counter the political and economic influences implicated in the current crisis. Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster.

The needed pressure, however, might be generated by a popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, ‘foresight intelligence’ to provide the long-term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply.

While rapid policy change to head off collapse is essential, fundamental institutional change to keep things on track is necessary as well. This is especially true of educational systems, which today fail to inform most people of how the world works and thus perpetuate a vast culture gap.

In The Republic of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State, the Government argues for five interconnected revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; and Latin American dignity; in order to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence. The aim is:

The combination of ancestral forms of knowledge with state-of-the-art technology can reverse the current development model and contribute to the transition towards a model of accumulation based on bio-knowledge.

This is a world of disjuncture, disunity, discontinuity, where our lives inside capitalism become riskier as the repetitive, precarious nature of its alienation and dehumanisation is revealed. What is the role of the academic in denying capital’s power-over our lives? What is the role of the academic in the revolt against Capital’s subsumption of our lives to the profit motive and the rule of money? What is the academic’s role in our recovering of our subjectivity? As Marx argued in the Collected Works (Volume 3):

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth… The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life…

The University remains a symbol of places where mass intellectuality, or knowledge as our main socially-productive force, can be consumed/produced and contributed to by all. The University remains a symbol of the possibility that we can create sites of dissent, opposition and critique, or where we can renew histories of denial and revolt, and where new stories can be told, against states of exception that enclose how and marketwise our assemblies, associations and organisations.

There is no alternative.

SIX. Courage.

Stephanie Dowrick reminds us of the importance of courage in the face of crisis.

Courage is a way of living in the world. It arises out of the cultivation of an attitude that you can then bring to any situation, even when you feel at your worst. It is courage that is needed when a crisis has long ceased to be exciting and has become instead a new version of your old life to which you must adjust. It is courage you need when life has become “impossible”, bleak, scary or perhaps dangerously flat.

Courage is what allows you to experience that even when life has apparently betrayed you, or you have come to see how you have betrayed yourself, life itself is still present. In the presence of life, or maybe in the presence of your own consciousness of the life that is within you, it is impossible to be totally diminished by events that are outside you, or are outside your control, no matter how deeply and permanently they affect you.

Courage can be admired from any distance, but you can discover it only through lived experience. Sometimes this has to be achieved in the midst of hardship. Sometimes it is found through an experience of intense physical achievement that brings supreme joy as intention and action unite.  Often though, courage takes on meaning through an experience of profound suffering when what had seemed eternal or essential dissolves or disappears, and your faith in life, in yourself, or in God, hits the line.

You face the truth of that suffering within yourself. You face the truth of it, and the truth that it will not be adequately met with facile solutions or other people’s platitudes, but only with your own version of strength and compassion.

Talk: The challenges of resilient learning and the production of a university experience

On Thursday 20th June, I’m keynoting the University of the West of Scotland Learning and Teaching Conference. My talk is entitled:

The challenges of resilient learning and the production of a university experience

My slides are here.

The Spotify playlist that accompanies the talk is here.

The talk is a triptych: hope; despair; and courage (#solidarity).

The talk may follow this path:

  1. We are told that business-as-usual has been disrupted but that there is no alternative to finding new mechanisms for growth. We hide from the narrative that it is easier to imagine the end-of-the-world than it is to imagine the end-of-capitalism. Yet this state of grace is all we are taught, and even worse it feels like it is all that we imbibe with our mother’s milk.
  2. Hope: if only we can find the superhero inside, who is able to mange debt and disruption, and in the process become resilient, there would be no need for alternatives. Maybe resilience gives us hope?
  3. Despair: look behind the curtain and you see: the crash in real wages; a student debt bubble; rising youth unemployment; the State and its institutions disciplining and delegitimizing its students’ voices; energy and environmental crises; and an outpouring of anger. Is this what business-as-usual looks like? Is there really no alternative? Will becoming resilient make a difference?
  4. Courage (#solidarity): how do we work to make hope possible? What can we learn from critical pedagogy? What can we learn from historical and current alternatives? How do we look beyond the market and the knowledge economy, to manage our historical materialism in association and democratically? How do we liberate knowledge from the University for global knowing? How does hope rest on courage?

And what, exactly, is the role of the University in this process of disruption and in making alternatives?

I am indebted to Joss Winn, Mike Neary, Sarah Amsler and Andrew McGettigan for helping me to find some slides/images, some words and some courage.

On the secular crisis and a qualitative idea of the University

I was struck over the weekend by a friend’s statement that “I struggle to translate your critiques into the various education/technology contexts of the global South”. This is an issue that generally plagues those of us who work in higher education in the global North, and for whom the wider, global context is increasingly viewed through the prism of competition. Earlier this year, at the Alpine Rendez-Vous, a specific workshop tried to pull out some key questions for those working in the interstices between higher education and technology, in order to address some of these issues of private/public, quantitative/qualitative, development/global sustainability etc.. The workshop focused some thinking in the following areas.

  • Have we implicitly assumed that the western/European model of universities is necessarily the sole or best expression of a culture’s or a community’s higher learning and intellectual enquiry?
  • As western/European pedagogy, or rather the corporatised, globalised versions of it, now deploys powerful and universal digital technologies in the interests of profit-driven business models, should we look at empowering more local and culturally appropriate forms of understanding, knowing, learning and enquiring?
  • Is encapsulating the world’s higher learning in institutions increasingly modelled on one format and driven by the same narrow global drivers resilient and robust enough, diverse and flexible enough to enable different communities, cultures and individuals to flourish amongst the dislocation and disruption we portray as characterising the crises?
  • Our responses, for example personal learning environments or the digital literacies agenda, seem implicitly but unnecessarily framed within this western/European higher education discourse – can these be widened to empowered other communities and cultures entitled to the critical skills and participation necessary to flourish in a world of powerful digital technologies in the hands of alien governments, corporations and institutions?

Our increasing inability to view globalised higher education from any perspective other than that of competing nation states in a transnational system, and of universities as competing capitals inside that world-view, is highlighted by Matt Lingard’s report on the Universities UK event, Open and online learning: Making the most of Moocs and other models. Critically, Lingard highlights how MOOCs are being utilised to catalyse further marketisation of education in the global North with the on-line space being used less as a socially transformative experience, and more as a space for public/private partnership, in order to lever global labour arbitrage and strengthen the transnational power of specific corporations:

The world of MOOCs is full of partners. Universities are partnering with delivery & marketing platforms such as Coursera & Udacity. Companies such as Pearson are partnering with them to proctor in-person exams (eg find a test centre for your edX MOOC). The sponsors of the UUK event were Academic Partnerships & 2U. Slightly different services, but both working with universities to develop & deliver online courses. David Willetts hopes that MOOC & industry partnerships will develop & potentially help with the UK skills gap (such as computer science).

This increasingly competitive, efficiency-driven discourse focuses all activity on entrepreneurial activity with risk transferred from the State to the institution and the individual. The technology debate inside higher education, including MOOCs, falls within this paradigm and acts as a disciplinary brake on universities, just as the State’s marshaling against opposition to austerity acts as a disciplinary brake on individual or social protest. What is witnessed is increasingly a denial of socialised activity beyond that which is enclosed and commodified, be it the University’s attempt to escape its predefined role as competing capital, or the individual’s role as competing, indentured entrepreneur. As these roles prescribe an increasingly competitive identity for the student and the University, what chance is there for describing global alternatives that are not those of neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, the Education Sector Strategy 2020 of which declares:

Education is fundamental to development and growth. Access to education, which is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, is also a strategic development investment. The human mind makes possible all other development achievements, from health advances and agricultural innovation to infrastructure construction and private sector growth. For developing countries to reap these benefits fully—both by learning from the stock of global ideas and through innovation—they need to unleash the potential of the human mind. And there is no better tool for doing so than education.

The rights of the child are tied to strategic development investment, which is likely to come from transnational corporations and States in the North, with an outcome a strengthening of those labour pools for privatised knowledge, innovation and enterprise. In part, this reflects Marx’s development in the Grundrisse of a theory of crisis related to overproduction in one arm of the system:

in a general crisis of overproduction the contradiction is not between the different kinds of productive capital, but between industrial and loan capital; between capital as it is directly involved in the production process and capital as it appears as money independently (relativement) outside that process.

As a crisis of overproduction emerges in educational commodities in the global North, technology becomes a fundamental strand of a strategy for commodity-dumping and value extraction from other arms of the globalised system. Thus, the World Bank notes:

Another set of changes is technological: incredible advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and other technologies are changing job profiles and skills demanded by labor markets, while also offering possibilities for accelerated learning and improved management of education systems.

Technology ties the interface between development and education to labour markets and capitalist work, rather than to solving issues of social production, sustainability or global leadership in a world that faces: economic stagnation, including the threats to national and corporate debt and liquidity of an end to the bull market in bonds, a dislocation between the real and shadow economies, and falling corporate revenues that impact the rate of profit; climate tipping points through increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the oceans and atmosphere; problems of access to liquid resources like oil with a potentially catastrophic focus on shale oil and gas; and problematic access to food staples through commodities trading.

The issue of social production leads me back to the idea of the secular crisis, and Harry Cleaver’s work on reading capital politically. Cleaver’s first thesis on the secular crisis states that:

secular crisis means the continuing threat to the existence of capitalism posed by antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings.

This systemic threat to the system is a function of the crisis inherent in capitalism’s need to maintain an increase in the rate of profit catalysed through revenues that can be levered from new markets, lower labour costs, or technological innovation. This tends however, to Cleaver’s second thesis, that of the crisis of the class relation:

The basic antagonistic forces which are inherent in the social structure of capitalism, which endure through the ups and downs of fluctuations and restructurings, which have been repeatedly internalized without ever losing their power of resurgence, are the negativity and creativity of the working class. The working class persistently threatens the survival of capitalism both because of its struggles against various aspects of the capitalist form of society and because it tends to drive beyond that social form through its own inventiveness. As opposed to all bourgeois ideologies of social contract, pluralism and democracy, Marxism has shown that working class anatagonism derives from capitalism being a social order based on domination, i.e., on the imposition of set of social rules through which, tendentially, all of life is organized. Class antagonism is thus insurpassable by capitalism within its own order because that antagonism is inseparable from the domination which defines the system.

In reflecting on the experiences of a competitive higher education in the global North and its role in the marketisation of everyday life in the global South, we might reflect on Cleaver’s use of the idea of systemic domination in the name of value, and his idea in Reading Capital Politically that we need to think about power and the use of a life constructed qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

The intensity of the struggle is dictated by the degree of power. When workers can organize sufficiently to directly appropriate wealth, they do so. At the same time, they struggle to obtain the kind of wealth they want — the work conditions, the leisure time activities, and the use-values. In this sense, too, the struggle is qualitative as well as quantitative.

In a globalised life that is restructured around the metrics of efficiency, value, enterprise, and where all life is enclosed and measured for-profit, are there alternative, qualitative descriptions of life that might enable alternatives to be developed? Are there alternative spaces that might be described qualitatively? One possibility lies in the idea of the commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning; a global idea of socialised solidarity that is exemplified in recent work on the wealth of the commons. This is a set of interconnected spaces that are social and negotiated, focused on a social dialogue between abundance and scarcity that enables democratic governance to shape life. As the epilogue to the wealth of the commons states:

To us, the evidence seems clear: people everywhere have a strong desire to escape the helplessness that institutions impose on them, overcome the cynicism that blots out optimism, and transcend the stalemates that stifle practical action. Another world is possible beyond market and state. This book chronicles some new ways forward – and the beginnings of an international commons movement.

It is inside this statement, and through a rediscovery of our global narratives of the commons and commoning that I might begin to reframe my work against the various education/technology contexts of the global South. Merely reframing it around solutions to the secular crisis of capitalism emerging in the global North does nothing for the development of a qualitatively different, resilient education. It is educational ideas and stories that are beyond the market and the state, which are social and co-operative that need to be described and nurtured. We might then begin to describe an alternative, qualitative future for the idea of the University in the face of the secular crisis.

Making the Cloud work for you: institutional risk and governance

On Thursday I am presenting at BETT13 on “Making the Cloud work for you”, with a subtitle of “institutional risk and governance”.

My presentation is here:

These are my notes for those slides, which are a mix of a case study of learning and teaching a De Montfort University and an approach to personal/institutional risk.

SLIDE 3: thinking about the pedagogic development of cloud-based technologies has amplified issues around the following [risks].

  1. How does the use of cloud-based technologies affect how an institution maintains a level of curriculum control or control of curriculum change-management processes? Control might be required for quality assurance, curriculum transparency or accountability. Where academic autonomy and the use of technologies in the curriculum is devolved, how do cloud-based technologies affect ad hoc curriculum design/delivery, as opposed to strategic control. How do staff digital/technical literacies affect this approach? What are the implications where staff are operating beyond a hosted/in-house LMS?
  2. How do institutions support/nurture in-house skills development? Do they focus on what is of quality or is distinctive or is interesting, and then outsource or migrate that which is deemed boring (depending on risks to data etc.)?
  3. How do institutions analyse and prepare for elasticity of demand and new service-provision, where technologies or techniques are in the cloud? How d they focus on developing technologies that will enable emerging and future web applications?

SLIDE 4: this is DMU’s Core/Arranged/Recommended/Recognised technology model. This is defined as follows:

Core: integrated corporate systems, including the Blackboard VLE, the staff/student portal, library management systems, MS Lync, streaming media (the DMU video server), dropbox facilities like Zend, and the DMU Commons (our.dmu), are available to students/staff to use with the devices and services of their choosing, and extended through tools that the institution arranges, recommends or recognises.

Arranged: accounts are created on key plug-ins or extensions beyond the core, like plagiarism detection tools (Turnitin), external blogs and wikis, like Campus Pack, and synchronous classrooms (WizIQ, WebEx).

Recommended: recommendations are made with supporting training materials, for connecting key, web-based tools into the core/arranged mix. This might include using RSS to bring in content from Twitter, SlideShare, iTunes or YouTube, or supporting SKYPE.

Recognised: the institution is aware that students and staff are experimenting with other technologies and maintains a horizon-scanning brief, until and unless a critical mass of users require the recommendation of specific tools.

SLIDES 6-11: whether or not one buys into the critiques of how neoliberal policy is opening-up higher education, it is clear that HE is seen as a marketised space into which services can be sold. Lipman defined this as a $2.5 trillion market in education that is restructuring the reality of education and training. This has ramifications for those who work in institutions that are, at least in-part, publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated. How value is defined in that restructured space, beyond the rule of money, needs to be assessed, including which services will be outsourced to the cloud and why. This is more important because, as Macquarie Capital Equities Research House argues, the market for cloud-based solutions is growing and becoming more aggressively competitive. Witness Google’s Knowledge Graph and the application of big data/semantic web to web-based service development. The rate of profit is critical here in how it affects the restructuring of businesses that operate “the cloud” and which will be looking for new markets, and for those universities which are being recalibrated through HE policy as businesses and which need to extract value from their operations. UK Government policy, the pronouncements of UK Vice-Chancellors like Malcolm Gilles, and reports from think-tanks like Educause create a cultural space inside civic society that helps to reframe educational policy around deterministic uses of technology.

SLIDE 12: Stakeholders inside universities might reflect on how technology is deployed inside hegemonic, fiscal “realities”. These include the following.

  • The drive for public-private partnerships, or private finance initiatives that drive efficiencies, value-for-money etc.. This underpins ideas of service re-engineering, outsourcing of services to lower-wage/cost spaces, and consultancy for new services. This is about disciplining labour and extracting surplus value from outsourced services.
  • The generation of discourses of efficiency/productivity that are rooted though analytics, big data, the reduced circulation time of information-based commodities, changes in production through outsourcing, and workload/workforce monitoring.
  • The legitimation of further innovation and R&D, through discourses of value-for-money, commercial efficiency, business process re-engineering (c.f. European Vision 2020; HEFCE 2012).
  • The need to maintain technological innovation, in order to stay one step ahead of competitors. This connects to Marx’s idea of the moral depreciation of technologies/machines, and the need for constant innovation/value-creation.

Each of these pressures act on universities, and catalyse the need to consider cloud-based migration.

SLIDES 14-17: the second big risk is to users and institutions of placing data in the Cloud, especially where that data is stored on services hosted by a corporation based in the USA, or where hardware is physically located in the USA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have both raised concerns over the Justice Department’s use of courts in the USA to subpoena access to data that has left a user’s device and is stored in “the cloud”.

SLIDE 18: universities might wish to consider the following cases, which affect the storage of corporate assets (research data, personal information, communications, assessments and evaluations etc.) in the cloud.

  • Twitter: the EFF/American Civil Liberties Union reported on the U.S. Department of Justice’s subpoena to Twitter for Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir’s tweets regarding Wikileaks. The Salon reported:

The information demanded by the DOJ is sweeping in scope. It includes all mailing addresses and billing information known for the user, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts, as well as the “means and source of payment,” including banking records and credit cards. It seeks all of that information for the period beginning November 1, 2009, through the present.

  • LinkedIn: opens-up attempts to crack a service, and to enable hackers to aggregate data for future cracking of other services, for instance by confirming guesses about passwords. This enables the comparison of hacked data against pre-computed versions and broadens “guessable” data. How does this affect the recommended technologies that staff/students use? In June 2012, ComputerWorld noted:

More than 60% of the unique hashed passwords that were accessed by hackers from a LinkedIn password database and posted online this week have already been cracked, according to security firm Sophos.

  • Facebook, Google and Twitter: there is now an obligation to identify “trolls”, and internet companies will have to surrender the details of those posting libellous messages. How does this affect staff and student professional development/identities?
  • Leveson: Jeremy Hunt’s private Gmail account, which was used to conduct official business was subject to Freedom of Information, according to the Information Commissioner.

This raises issues of: cloud-based service availability and resilience; confidentiality/privacy and personal/institutional data; copyright/copyleft/content distribution; data security/back-ups control/deletion.

SLIDES 19 and 20 demonstrate how important it is to protect critical assets or data from providers and to think about service resilience, even when dealing with a behemoth like Amazon Web Services which has suffered outages.

SLIDE 21: demonstrates just how ubiquitous cloud services are, and how deeply interconnected they are to broader geographies of transnational finance capital and corporate governance. Thinking through what transnational corporate governance means for your institutional data/services/technologies is critical.

SLIDES 22-23: some final governance issues for institutions and their staff.

  • Risk-management operates at a range of scales: does it matter if someone accesses your stuff? [c.f. Dropbox; subject to FoI] If so, canyou build Chinese walls or local alternatives?
  • What about corporate governance, including access to services that are marketised? [e.g. the recent Google-Verizon issue, which flagged the possibility of a two-speed internet, especially for multimedia distribution/consumption. See also the potential costs of accessing data in a marketised HE space.]
  • Does it matter if the academic who is responsible for the curriculum/assessment that is managed in the Cloud, in non-institutional services gets hit by a bus? [What should be managed in-house or hosted via a contract?]
  • Do we understand that data is being transferred into a service and that we have responsibilities? [T&Cs; Intellectual Property; protected characteristics; indemnities for libel].
  • How do we work-up the digital literacies of our staff/students in these spaces?

Some themes and some music

This year I have written increasingly about the following issues.

  1. The mechanisms through which higher education as a previously socialised or social good has been marketised, in order that value can be extracted from it.
  2. The mechanisms that inscribe the higher education sector inside the circuits of transnational finance capital, in order to enable the extraction of surplus value.
  3. The impact of the historic tendency of the rate of profit to fall on both the higher education sector and individual universities as competing capitals.
  4. The role of technology as a crack through which higher education and universities can be privatised, in particular related to the impact of finance capital and proprietary vendors like Blackboard, Pearson and Goldman Sachs.
  5. The relationships between the university and alternatives to them, student debt, technology and academic labour.
  6. The mechanisms through which technology is used to militarise higher education.
  7. The relationships between student debt, the idea of the student-as-consumer, and the role of technology, in disciplining academic labour.
  8. The techno-determinist co-option of innovation and innovations like learning analytics, BYOD, mobiles and MOOCs, so that their dehumanising impacts are forgotten.
  9. The impact of austerity politics, liquid fuel availability, and climate change on the politics of higher education.

Next year I plan to develop some work on academic labour and forms of activism, and the development of an ethical digital literacy.

Anyway, in writing this stuff I wondered what I had been listening to, and it seems that I have been obsessed with the following things, some of which are from 2012 and some of which are not. The combination of these things may, or may not, explain a lot.

  • Giacomo Puccini: Turandot.
  • Micachu and the Shapes: Never.
  • Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz.
  • Low: C’mon.
  • Death Cab for Cutie: The Photo Album.
  • SBTRKT: <untitled>.
  • Orbital: Wonky.
  • The Men: Open Your Heart.
  • Sons of Noel and Adrian: Knots.
  • Bombay Bicycle Club: A different kind of fix.
  • Simian Mobile Disco: Unpatterns.
  • Silverclub: Silverclub.
  • Daughter: various EPs.
  • Stay+: various EPs.
  • Stubborn Heart: <unnamed>.
  • James Blake: Enough Thunder.
  • Bon Iver: Bon Iver.
  • blur: 13.
  • Four Tet: Pink.
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Architecture and Morality.

I have created a playlist of this stuff on Spotify, and there are some other collaborative (or not) playlists under my hallymk1 account.

In solidarity.