Open Education: Condition Critical

On November 20th I’m speaking on a panel at The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University. The panel is on “Open Education: Condition Critical”.

The purpose is to explore “opportunities to critically and creatively experiment with different ideas of what the university and education can be.”

Event details

Thursday November 20th 4:30-6:30pm

Coventry University, Disruptive Media Learning Lab, 3rd floor Frederick Lanchester Library

Free entrance. Please register at: http://criticalopeneducation.eventbrite.co.uk

Panellists

Sean Dockray (The Public School)

Richard Hall (De Montfort University Leicester)

Shaun Hides (Coventry University)

Sharon Irish (University of Illinois/FemTechNet)

Pauline van Mourik Broekman (Mute)

Panel scope

What for decades could only be dreamt of is now almost within reach: the widespread provision of free online education, regardless of a student’s geographic location, financial status or ability to access conventional institutions of learning. Yet for all the hype-cycle that has been entered into over MOOCs, many experiments with Open Education (OE) do not appear to be designed to challenge the becoming business of the university or alter Higher Education in any really fundamental way. If anything, they seem more likely to lead to a two-tier system, in which those who can’t afford to pay (so much) to attend a traditional university, or belong to those groups who prefer not to move away from home (e.g. lower-income families), have to make do with a poor, online, second-rate alternative education produced by a global corporation.

Open Education: Condition Critical will thus examine some of the opportunities that exist for experimenting, critically and creatively, with very different ideas of what the university and education can be in the 21st century. In doing so, rather than focusing on the 2012 batch of extremely publicity-savvy xMOOCs (Edx, Udacity, FutureLearn etc.), it will draw attention to a range of more radical developments in the Open Education arena. They include The Public School, FemTechNet’s DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Courses), the self-organised ‘free universities’ associated with the Occupy, anti-austerity and student protests, and even so-called ‘pirate’ libraries such as libgen.org and aaaaarg.org.

Open Education: Condition Critical has been organised to mark the publication of Open Education: A Study in Disruption (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014), co-authored by Coventry University’s Open Media Group and Mute Publishing as a critical experiment with both collaborative, processual writing and concise, medium-length forms of shared attention.


Notes from a place of resistance

These notes were written whilst listening to Rave Tapes by Mogwai and this alt-J performance on npr.

I attended a seminar in Brighton on Thursday called Resisting Neoliberal Education: Alternative Systems, Discourse and Practice. My notes and thoughts from the event follow.

ONE. In the round-table introductions I realised that of the 15 attendees, I only knew three people. That means there are 11 other stories of resistance in the room. That’s a lot of new potential energy and possibility for #solidarity and association, and also hope.

TWO. In the roundtable Stephen O’Brien from Cork spoke about how he had written a triptych on learning outcomes, and made a point about how certain language and meaning and ways of working in the world get written into culture so that resistance becomes difficult. Contesting the hegemonic power of learning outcomes in educational practice and theory situates us asymmetrically against Pearson Education and their absolute obsession with learning outcomes as an educational business model. It situates us against the idea that aligning high stakes testing and educational improvement is a form of economic patriotism. It situates us against the commodification of educational relationships through data-mining and learning analytics. It situates us with Walter Stroup and his “rebellion” against standardisation. In this I am reminded that the detail is really important, and that life histories of specific technologies (follow the technology), fiscal innovations (follow the money), and pedagogical innovations (follow the technique), enable us to see who has voice and power. Pace Marx (footnote 4, Chapter 15, Volume 1 of Capital), we might note:

[a specific innovation] reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

Critical in understanding and critiquing capitalist social relations and alternatives to it, is a focus on how learning appears to us, and how it appears to those with power [or their power-over our power-to-do].

TWO. In the roundtable, someone, and it’s remiss of me to forget who, spoke of the “unattractive nature of academic life” in its current anxiety-hardened, precarious form. I think that collectively we were questioning the representation and formation of the University and the consequences for learning and teaching (as opposed to the student experience).

THREE. Several people spoke about the idea of the public good. Rarely did we mention co-operativism or the Commons. I think that in re-imagining the University inside a new form of sociability, this is a rich space of potential and possibility. Joss Winn’s blog-post on re-imagining pulls a lot of this together, including Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer and the genesis of the Social Science Centre. There is also work to be done for us in thinking through and living the possibilities for transitional alternatives. I think that it is important to see alternative forms as transitional and pedagogic, and not to be fetishized. I reconsidered this in the face of Nadia Edmond’s (firm-but-fair) challenge to me about whether spaces like the Social Science Centre were alternatives that were sustainable or whether they are (my words) simply academic philanthropy. I also reconsidered this in light of remembering that the Really Open University had deliberately used the phrase “re-imagining the University.” The critical thing for me about the Social Science Centre is that it forms a laboratory for co-operative production, consumption and distribution that is about democratic organising principles (governance) for both the Centre and its activities, and its content (e.g. childcare arrangements, curricula, events). Whilst the current Know-How course might be represented inside some universities and through some courses, there are some “scholars” who do not wish to/cannot undertake such a course inside. Equally, the content and curriculum is co-negotiated and produced in a way that is different from the bulk of curricula inside. Finally, the production, consumption and distribution of the curriculum circulates inside-and-through the organisation of the Social Science Centre and informs its governance.

FOUR. A sense of work inside/outside the University was seen as pivotal in resisting or defining something different. This reminded me of Elise Thorburn’s brilliant article on autonomy and the Edufactory, in which she writes about the power-to-do that is situated in three strands: first, inside general assemblies as democratic governance and organisation; second, through militant research done in partnership; finally, through work done in public. I think this is the key to much of our re-imagining; that it is done in public as a democratic act of militant research. Someone at the seminar spoke of activist knowledge that “rows in behind”, as an act of solidarity and love. Through such acts, as a kind of solidarity economy, we might enable the amplification of alternatives as an asymmetrical definition of possible forms of sociability beyond the market. Here we might engage with the idea that no alternative is beyond the structural domination of capitalist social relations, but that we might take them to be transitional through a pedagogic appreciation of what it is to be in/against/beyond. But this takes courage and faith. Not to fetishise the institution, which is itself alienating, but to look for points of solidarity.

FIVE. Over lunch Steve O’Brien used the word monastic to describe much of his recent academic work. I love that term. I feel that in the aftermath of the moments of rage and impotence in the academic (staff and student) protests of 2010-11, for personal and academic reasons I became monastic, returning to theory and harvesting historical and material and global stories of resistance and alternatives and mending myself. There is something here about asking whether it is possible to rebuild oneself in the face of systemic alienation, as a brutal form of therapy, in order to embody one’s position. In order to return to a room where people can meet to listen and speak and voice effective demands.

SIX. Throughout I was reminded of fellowship and the links between fellowship, liberation and de/legitimation. This made me reconsider why I keep returning to this quote about liberation, the individual, the community and association, from Marx in The German Ideology:

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.

This is about collective and invisible work in the name of counter-narratives and not fixed alternatives.

SEVEN. Ciaran Sugrue spoke about the defence mechanisms that individuals have as “multiple scripts” that are played out differentially depending on context. Steve O’Brien reminded me that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” These two interventions made me reconsider our defences against a world that is increasingly abstract and polarised around inequality and agony. This is especially so where Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK, the Labour Party, accept an hour-glass economy and the fact that some people will be losers in a globalised economy. Here we might again ask what does it mean to be inside/outside and how are our multiple scripts or defences, acts of self-harm or self-care? The work of Frantz Fanon on cognitive dissonance is important for me here, especially in Black Skin, White Masks.

EIGHT. Throughout I had the work of Anselm Jappe on my mind, and the asymmetry between humane values and the production and accumulation of value. In spite of my knowing that sociability, solidarity, fidelity, courage, hope, whatever, are produced and reproduced inside-and-against private property and value, I am reminded that Jappe wrote:

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 (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”). (p. 11)

But that in spite of this historically, material formation of values:

even value itself is not a “total” structure. It is “totalitarian” in the sense that it aspires to turn everything into a commodity. But it will never be able to because such a society would be completely unliveable (there would no longer, for example, be friendship, love, the bringing up of children, etc.). The necessity for value to expand pushes it towards destroying the entire concrete world and at every level, economic, environmental, social and cultural. The critique of value does not only foresee an economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions but also the end of an entire “civilisation” (if one can call it that). Even so, human life has not always been based on value, money and labour, even if it seems that some kind of fetishism has existed everywhere. (p. 12)

NINE. It feels important to me to have access to what someone called “resources for resistance”, to situate my work fixed in space-time, against those of others. I hope we can create such a collective thing. Someone else spoke of sharing stories and building life histories as a means of “keeping each other’s fire burning.” These are forms of Luddism. Forms of hacking. Forms of re-imagining.

TEN. I was reminded of Allyson Pollack’s work on an NHS Reinstatement Bill, as an act of courage, public justice and hope. I wondered about the possibility less for a manifesto, and more for a free, public Higher Education Re-instatement Bill.

ELEVEN. I read of Chris Hedges’ work on capitalism’s sacrifice zones, and the idea that “There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” Moreover, these zones are deliberately sacrificed in the pursuit of profit: “These are areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed”. This reminded me that as Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued:

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

In this she saw hope because:

the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

This forced me to re-think:

  • Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
  • In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
  • Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
  • How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  • What is to be done?

TWELVE. I don’t think I used the word neoliberalism once. I realised that I have dropped it from my vocabulary as inappropriate. For me the issue is Capital and Labour, and neoliberalism was just a global, political economic, phase we were going through. This is about hegemony and counter-narratives. Here the work of William Robinson on global capitalism is important to me. Equally important is finding ways in which we can take the energy of the dominant discourse and (akin to a form of t’ai chi) displace it or use it against itself, by revealing stories of inhumanity and inequality and courage. Through an appeal to what it is to be a concrete human rather than an abstraction.


Resisting neoliberal education: alternative systems, discourse and practice

I’m heading down to Brighton for a seminar on “Resisting Neoliberal Education: Alternative Systems, Discourse and Practice”. The title of the event has made me consider what resistance might mean in my own set of contexts. This relates to my work inside higher education, in struggling for the idea of co-production of the university’s organising principles and curriculum, and for the idea of collective labour. It also relates to my work outside the university, in spaces like the Social Science Centre, in thinking through actually-existing, theoretically-grounded alternatives that are rooted in forms of open co-operativism.

I am also constantly reminded of the ways in which an idea of neoliberalism is being resisted, and how important it is that such resistances take place and are remembered as pedagogic acts rooted in specific places. In this, I am less interested in the academic debates around whether neoliberalism has lost its analytical and descriptive meaning. I am always interested in praxis. That said the works that I draw on most in discussing neoliberalism, emerge from the following.

Ball, S.J. 2012. Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neo-Liberal Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Davies, J. 2011. Challenging Governance Theory: From Networks to Hegemony. London: Pluto Press.

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

Deem, R., Hillyard, S., and M. Reed, eds. 2007. Knowledge, Education and New Managerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deem, R., Ka Ho Mok, and L. Lucas. 2008. Transforming Higher Education in Whose Image? Exploring the Concept of the ‘World Class’ University in Europe and Asia. Higher Education Policy. 21: 83–97.

Jappe, A. 2014. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 25 (2): 25–37.

Lipman, P. 2009. Neoliberal Education Restructuring: Dangers and Opportunities of the Present Crisis. Monthly Review. 63 (3). http://bit.ly/qDl6sV.

Manzerolle, V. 2010. The Virtual Debt Factory: Towards an Analysis of Debt and Abstraction in the American Credit Crisis. tripleC: Cognition, Communication and Co-operation. 10 (2): 221–36.

McGettigan, A. 2013. The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press.

McGettigan, A. 2014. Financialising the University. Arena Magazine. http://arena.org.au/financialising-the-university/.

Roberts, M. 2014. The current long depression and its nature. Weekly Worker, 1028. http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1028/the-current-long-depression-and-its-nature/

In-part I am concerned about what resistance means in terms of self-ham and self-care. I have written elsewhere about the idea of academic exodus from the determining logic of Capital and of academic co-option to the violence of abstraction. I wonder what it means to resist, and how much energy it takes to actively resist? I wonder whether it is possible, in the organisation both of the university and of the curriculum, to resist through acts of kindness and solidarity in the co-production, co-consumption and co-distribution of the university. I wonder how it is possible to join-up acts and cracks and spaces of resistance inside/outside the university, so that we can form a grand, alternative alliance that is against someone else’s power-over our lives.

I wonder what it is that we are resisting? In my mind, this is currently the power of others (notionally corporate in management style) over the fabric of our existence, and over the time of our lives. This power-over us is revealed through the growing global inequality that sees power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority. It is revealed in the enclosure and financialisation of our everyday existence and of our time. It is revealed through the labour theory of value that determines how we reproduce the world, not for ourselves but for others. This is their power-over the world, and our lack of power-to-do anything except work.

So I wonder if it is possible to resist, or if this really is futile? Because we have no autonomy, and their reproduction of their wealth and power demands that we are subsumed under the logic of competition and finance and the market, and if we resist we are left in penury or unemployed or disciplined by the State. And if we take to the margins, and marginalise ourselves, well what then? Is it possible to subvert the energy of neoliberalism, and to take and repurpose its energy so that it is shown up for what it is? Is it possible to act as a mirror to its global iniquities, in order to change the possible outcome?

What is it possible to do, when between rival views of the world, force and power decides? I will be thinking about this over the next day. And about the works that I currently draw on in defining and thinking about practices that might enable us to say no, or to refuse, or to push-back, or to walk away.

Bauwens, Michael and Franco Iacomella. 2012. Peer-to-Peer Economy and New Civilization Centered Around the Sustenance of the Commons. In The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, edited by The Commons Strategy Group. http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/peer-peer-economy-and-new-civilization-centered-around-sustenance-commons

Braverman, H. 1998. Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

CASA. 2014. A home online for casual, adjunct, sessional staff and their allies in Australian higher education. http://actualcasuals.wordpress.com/.

Cleaver, H.. 1993. Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism. http://libcom.org/library/theses-secular-crisis-capitalism-cleaver.

Cleaver, H. 2002. Reading capital politically. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Cumbers, A. 2012. Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy. London: Zed Books.

FLOK Society. 2014a. Open Letter to the Commoners. http://en.wiki.floksociety.org/w/Open_Letter_to_the_Commoners.

FLOK Society. 2014b. General Framework Document. http://en.wiki.floksociety.org/w/General_Framework_Document.

Friends of the Earth. 2014. Economic justice and resisting neoliberalism. http://www.foei.org/what-we-do/economic-justice-resisting-neoliberalism/

Giangrande, N. 2014. Resisting neoliberalism: a lesson from Uruguay. http://www.equaltimes.org/resisting-neoliberalism-a-lesson

Giroux, H. 2014. Online articles. http://henryagiroux.com/online_articles.htm

Kleiner, D. 2014. The Telekommunist Manifesto. Network Notebooks 03. Accessed June 18, 2014. http://www.networkcultures.org/_uploads/%233notebook_telekommunist.pdf.

van der Linden, M., and Roth, K.H. 2014. Beyond Marx: Theorising the Global Labour Relations of the Twenty-First Century. Leiden: Brill.

Neary, M. 2012. Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University. The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 10 (2): 233–57. http://www.jceps.com/PDFs/10-2-08.pdf.

PG4FP. 2014. http://leedspostgrad4fairpay.wordpress.com/.

Robinson, W. I. 2004. A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

The Social Science Centre. 2014. http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/.

Thorburn, E. 2012. Actually Existing Autonomy and the Brave New World of Higher Education.Occupied Studies. http://bit.ly/xzcPRO.

3 cosas campaign. 2014. http://3cosascampaign.wordpress.com/.

Maybe this boils down to Kenny Rogers. Maybe we just have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.


#Solidarity and the fitter, happier, more productive University

On the back of my inaugural, my friend Matt emailed me saying:

I said I had a question, which essentially boils down to the phrase ‘common wealth’ that you used at one point in your talk. Universities – and particularly ‘science’ or ‘scholarship’ – are increasingly global affairs, but you didn’t have a lot to say about that in your talk. The majority of the content was focused on more locally-bound issues, democratic participation in institutional ownership, defining shared values and methods to achieve shared goals in locally-driven initiatives, and somewhat less about the role British (and other) institutions can play in global issues of science, social affairs, economics, health: many of which you mentioned as challenges (e.g. oil shortage, marginalisation, labour exploitation) but not as part of your vision for the university. How does your re-envisioning of the non-faster-higher-stronger university plug into that international network and world context?

In the autumn of 2013 I wrote a series of blog posts about the creation of a higher education market, inside which the University is being restructured globally as an association of capitals, and about the role of merchants and merchant capital inside that market in circulating and accumulating value. I then tried to make the case for the Co-operative University as a node in a counter-hegemonic network predicated on a global alliance of the Commons. Increasingly my vision for the University is framed through its abolition in the face of the domination of finance capital, and the liberation of our collective space-time beyond the market as it has subsumed the University. This is the power of Marx’s view that inside capitalist social relations:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

So how do academic labourers work with that as a form of struggle or antagonism, in order to transition away from an alienated life? It may be that the revolutionary nature of capitalism, where all that is solid is transitory and transitional in a process of expansion, signals the courage to develop something new. Nothing is sustainable inside capitalism, so why it the system itself? Especially where the secular crisis demonstrates the global iniquity and injustice of its dynamics? In my post on the role of merchants in higher education I write the following.

The question is how to reveal and critique the material conditions of the working class, including those of teachers, educators and students, as they are subordinate to autonomous commercial and/or finance capital. How is it possible to recuperate the autonomy of educational producers in a way that pushes back against the hegemony of venture capital or MOOC providers acting as commercial capitalists? Is it possible to develop forms and stories of co-operative production and consumption that are beyond the money-form or cost savings? Is it possible to critique the idea of public rather than open education, and as a result to liberate skills, knowledges and practices against their marketization, and where they do not act to drive down wages through speed-up, or labour mobility, or the creation of proprietary skills that can be commodified? Is it possible to push-back against the use of open education to create a reserve army, or surplus population, of skilled workers as a disciplinary tool on wages?

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

Too many of the critiques of higher education focus upon its recuperation, as if it can somehow avoid the restructuring that is taking place across the global economy as a whole. As if higher education as a sector can avoid this restructuring which is taking place across the whole of the global economy. Witness the educational implications of the idea of immaterial scarcity framed by, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership/the Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership and global intellectual property law. However, too many analyses of the crisis of higher education cannot escape the lamentation for the status of academics in the face of the rule of money. In a recent Inside HigherEd article, Altbach and Finkelstein argue for “A career structure that permits reasonable security of tenure” and “Salaries that permit a middle-class life style for academics”, “and reasonable remuneration for those who are hired”. In arguing against a defensive lamentation for what the University was, I have argued that

it is the globalisation of the struggle that matters now. Not on the canvass of a defensive, elegiac, educational lamentation for a paradise lost, but based on the historical, objective realities through which transnational finance capital is restructuring production through policy and technological practice. This means standing against the defence of the University as an organisation that is reinscribed inside those processes for accumulation, so that we can move beyond those dynamics.

In these terms, what matters is how we attempt to overcome the alienation of political economics, and its symptoms in liquid fuel availability and carbon emissions. Here the role of the academic as organic intellectual is important, in particular as s/he relates to the University as a site for the social production of ideas. However, the issue is how that then forms a moment of sociability beyond the market. Where the processes of financialisation are closing-down/fore-closing on our ability to solve global problems, by commodifying academic labour, we face the issue of whether it is possible to recuperate the University at all. In this instance the question turns to what can be liberated from higher education, in terms of governance, regulation, and academic practices/sociability, before it is enclosed. So I am thinking about the idea of the University situated in space-time, and in particular its potential relationships with other activist organisations and individuals in a range of communities. But I am also thinking about the idea of the academic as an activist situated in space-time, and in particular in relation to other community activists. My own agency is limited by space and by time, but there is a series of groups, networks and spaces with which I feel specific solidarity and wish to associate, in order to discuss a transition beyond capitalist social relations. Inside a system in which “all that is solid melts into air”, this is my starting-point for plugging myself “into that international network and world context”. There is hope that solidarity at a range of scales and with a range of organisations can amplify melting and disintegration where there is a critique of value and power, and an active, associational politics to work for something different. The power-to-do something different. My focus, as I noted in the lecture, is on my own abolition before my own space-time is enclosed through financialisation. Before capitalist social relations can foreclose on my future. Before I cede power-over my life to the violent abstraction of value. I want to push-back with others, wherever I can, as an act of solidarity. This is life as a constant act of #solidarity. The question is where and how can I do that? In a recent article on academic labour I argue for “the ideas of open co-operativism and fearless practice [which] underpin a politics of alliance against capital that seeks to abolish the present state of things”.

[I]t is the spread of ideas across transnational activist networks of co-operators that might enable a reconnection of academic labour as labour across society, in a form that enables it to support mass intellectuality rather than private accumulation.

I want to explore how we might connect the local/national/global cracks in the production, circulation and accumulation of value, as a form of power-to-do in the world. This is rooted in the battle of ideas and the potential of organic intellectuals to develop ideas from anywhere. I want us to be able to express an alternative, local/national/global power-to-do, to make the world differently, rather than in the way prescribed by those with power-over us. This might involve an exodus from the University as it is currently re-produced through the REF, satisfactions scores, indenture and so on. It might involve fighting for labour rights inside the University and beyond with the Australian CASA group or Leeds Postgrads for Fair Pay or the 3Cosas. It might involve work with autonomous groups providing alternatives in co-operative laboratories that are theoretically-grounded, like the Social Science Centre. But this work has to connect to local/national/global stories of precarity and injustice across society, and must involve our collectively pushing back against institutional strategies that reinforce inequality. It must involve work with local/national/global groups arguing for social justice. It almost certainly involves the courage and faith to work towards a grand alliance of the Commons that can join social and environmental justice groups, in order to give hope.


On my inaugural

So. Here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage in being for ourselves.

Faith in each other, and our concrete realities.

Justice in an unjust world.

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

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

And that possibility is a truly beautiful thing.

Hope that we might make something different.

Peace.

 


on the proletarianisation of the University

The subsumption of academic life, through competition and financialisation, and driven by the disciplinary control of data and debt, enforces widening inequalities inside higher education (HE). Moreover, subsumption works to modify the processes of accumulation, which enable academic labour, in the form of student labour-power or staff teaching or shared research, to be proletarianised. The process of proletarianisation is global, and is influenced both by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy, and internationally through the role of trade partnerships and innovations like MOOCs. The end result is an increase in the number of academic labourers, in the form of postgraduates who teach, adjuncts, casual teachers, associate/full professors, and crucially students, who lack control over the means of production. In each of these cases individual labourers survive by selling their labour-power in the market.

This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.

For Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, this process of proletarianisation accompanied the globalisation of the circuits of production. This is reinforced for transnational HE through its explicit connection into the circuits of value production and accumulation, inside mechanisms like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto:

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Thus, we witness reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; and we witness postgraduate researcher-led committees that “have been pushing the[ir] University to honour the essential role that teaching assistants play in University life in the form of fair pay and treatment.”; and we witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; and we witness a documenting of the processes and pains of casualisation. As students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal they are forced to contend and compete globally. These proletarianised labourers are forced to compete as technological, entrepreneurial, and impactful.

For Michael Richmond, one outcome of this process is that people are forced to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards.

The point here is that you’re not just supposed to be paid nothing and get treated like garbage, you have to act like this is all part of your career plan. The demand here is a performative one. I had to “show him that I wanted it” – a demand that is largely unquantifiable but nevertheless psychically demoralising, designed perhaps to differentiate the boss from their staff affectively, even morally, in an industry of surprising equality of immiseration between the ostensible capitalist and the worker.

The reality is that, besides the social status and the myth of the autonomous entrepreneur, the role is a miserable one. They put in longer hours than anyone, often paying themselves poverty wages at first and taking no money out of the business (in fact, usually the opposite) as it often isn’t profitable anyway.

With such a configuration of production, the worker is sometimes left without a traditional boss to hate – leaving either an abstract concept of “the system” or, more likely, themselves, as the culprit. Meanwhile the entrepreneur, no less guided by the coercive laws of competition as any 19th century factory owner or Google CEO, no longer lives the capitalist’s dream of not having to work as instead they play several roles at once, often further hampered by actually “believing” or being emotionally invested in what they’re doing.

[W]orkers’ and managers’ immiseration coincide, where the exploited and the self-exploited service richer or credit-worthy consumers while the rentier class hoovers up most of the dosh through property and financial gatekeeping. The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

Michael Roberts has argued cogently how the technologised, entrepreneurial individual is an outcome of the pressures of competition as they emerge from the market correction and deleveraging in the global economy. He has also argued that the crisis is one of profitability and investment, and is affecting both compensation for labour and hours worked. The end-product is that people are being forced into precarious, self-employment (as self-exploiting entrepreneurs) and are working longer hours for lower pay, whilst inequality widens on a global terrain. This is an echo of Marx and Engel’s argument in the Communist Manifesto that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.

Across globalised HE, we witness zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, the need for collective action like the 3cosas, and so on. In a competitive, transnational educational market, academic labour rights will be threatened by the equalising pressures of transnational competition and productivity, which includes new forms of competition from private providers. These might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations. Whilst these innovations need to be analysed in terms of the tensions that emerge between the forces of technological production and individual labour time that can be exploited or alienated, they are also driven by a need to overcome the historic tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This acceptance of immiseration is one outcome of recalibrating higher education inside a national export strategy. In his higher education position paper, Robbins Rebooted, Liam Byrne MP, argued that:

If we want a model of more inclusive growth, where more people earn more – at the top of the hourglass, then we need a higher education system that helps to build better jobs and equips people with the skills for high skilled, high value-added, non-routine jobs.

It reminded me of something blunter that Paul Hofheinz, President of the Lisbon Council said to me…: “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others.”

So our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy

This is an acceptance that for vast swathes of the global population there is only immiseration and low-skilled, low value-added, routine jobs in a transnational market. This is about competition and the incorporation of HE inside that logic, so that competition is driven by precarity and casualisation and competition between entrepreneurs.

Here Will Davies’ recent work on neoliberalism is useful enables us to analyse capitalist work inside academia in light of (self-exploiting) entrepreneurial activity that is:

  • enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism;
  • operating through counter-acting norms that can never be stabilised;
  • rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition; and
  • grounded in vision and desire.

The avaricious desire is therefore to recalibrate the whole of existence as an entrepreneurial life, in order to widen the orbit of productive labour. In part, this is done through the individuated, technologised Self. It is also achieved through the entrepreneurial recalibration of the collective labourer. Critically, this means that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, impact, technological innovation and so on. As Marx argued in Chapter 16 of Capital:

Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is essentially the production of surplus value. The labourer produces, not for themself, but for capital. It no longer suffices, therefore, that they should simply produce. They must produce surplus-value.

That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolteacher is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of their scholars, they work like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.

To re-quote Michael Richmond:

The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

A critical issue for academics and students as labourers emerges from the process of their working lives as they are rooted in the creation of circulation of services that are compensated through “a share of the surplus product, of the capitalist’s revenue” (Marx, Grundrisse). Thus, those who labour to provide a service, alongside those who labour to produce surplus value, are faced by capital’s drive to expand and accumulate value, and to reduce costs in the face of maximising profit. For Marx, profit was key in disciplining and exploiting (productive) labour and in driving down labour costs. Thus, in speaking about the relationship between public infrastructure, [technological innovation], the role of the State and the drive for private profit, Marx argued the following.

The separation of public works from the state, and their migration into the domain of the works undertaken by capital itself, indicates the degree to which the real community has constituted itself in the form of capital. A country, e.g. the United States, may feel the need for [technological innovation] in connection with production; nevertheless the direct advantage arising from them for production may be too small for the investment to appear as anything but sunk capital. Then capital shifts the burden on to the shoulders of the state; or, where the state traditionally still takes up a position superior to capital, it still possesses the authority and the will to force the society of capitalists to put a part of their revenue, not of their capital, into such generally useful works, which appear at the same time as general conditions of production, and hence not as particular conditions for one capitalist or another – and, so long as capital does not adopt the form of the joint-stock company, it always looks out only for its particular conditions of realisation, and shifts the communal conditions off on to the whole country as national requirements. Capital undertakes only advantageous undertakings, advantageous in its sense. … Capital must be able to sell the [technological innovation] in such a way that both the necessary and the surplus labour are realised, or in such a way that it obtains out of the general fund of profits – of surplus values – a sufficiently large share to make it the same as if it had created surplus value. The highest development of capital exists when the general conditions of the process of social production are not paid out of deductions from the social revenue, the states taxes – where revenue and not capital appears as the labour fund, and where the worker, although he is a free wage worker like any other, nevertheless stands economically in a different relation – but rather out of capital as capital. This shows the degree to which capital has subjugated all conditions of social production to itself [Marx, Grundrisse)

Critically, proletarianisation is amplified not only by the privatisation of the conditions for social reproduction but also by the demand for labour to be productive (i.e. to expand capital). As soon as it becomes unproductive, then it will not be employed or it will be outsourced. Investment in new physical and virtual spaces through which surpluses can be invested and returns taken out is pivotal in the expansion of capitalism. Thus, the idea of traditional HE needs to be addressed against the production and circulation of value, and in response to potential blockages that might induce a crisis by constricting capital flows. Innovations like MOOCs might fruitfully be analysed against these potential constrictions or barriers to the social reproduction of capital, which maintain an increase in the rate of profit and leverage further investment.

Thus, Marx and Engels argue in the Communist Manifesto, emerges a:

class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce.

The growth of technological and entrepreneurial activity inside and against the University forms a way for capital to leverage the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested. Educational innovation also enables a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive. Therefore, it becomes important to analyse the role of innovation in revolutionising the means of production and in proletarianising the University. One signal that this is occurring is Pearson’s focus on “doubling the amount of really high value learning [at no extra total cost]” through: being more global; being more mobile; thinking holistically; being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes. Pearson argue:

building an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners

Responses to this entail a critique of academic labour inside the University and across the terrain of HE that also includes open environments and Commons. Such responses might usefully focus on the following.

ONE. Critiques of the value of academic labour, as it is generated both by tenured/non-tenured staff and through the labour of the student. This will enable the latter to become more than the carrier of technologised, entrepreneurial value, born out of the marriage of debt and data. Recalibrating the work of academics (and sub-strata of academics, like adjuncts, tenured/untenured and so on) and students as labourers, and therefore as the working class governed by the wage relation (even where it is debt-driven), is critical in refusing proletarianisation. This has implications for the control of time and the autonomy of capitalist work. Academics and students may feel that they have more autonomy, but the wage-relation and the real subsumption of work affects that reality. As Marx notes in Wage Labour and Capital

the putting of labor-power into action — i.e., the work — is the active expression of the laborer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity.

But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class , unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class ; and it is for him to find his man — i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.

Even the entrepreneur as commodity-producer is obliged to sell her products in competition. Critically, the means of production inside HE, in terms of the content, the infrastructures, the data and learning analytics, the applications and so on, are not owned by the entrepreneur unless she becomes a member of the capitalist class. Generally, the technologised, entrepreneurial labourer is forced to sell her labour-power and her products as commodities for a wage.

TWO. Critique of the mechanisms through which debt/indenture and the need to compete on a global terrain for a wage underpin proletarianisation. This means that transantional businesses governed by partnerships accords like the TTIP have power over labour and can restructure on a global basis, underpinning labour arbitrage.

THREE. The ways in which the expansion of the circuits of value-production and accumulation dominate the why of education, and underpin increasing academic alienation as autonomy over the mode and means of production are lost.

A critical issue is whether there are moments of solidarity across the academic labourer as a collective worker (student, worker, tenured/non-tenured academic and so on), in order to support collective action that looks towards the abolition of alienation through the abolition of capitalist work. Otherwise, as Marx notes in Wage Labour and Capital, academic labour will be increasingly subject to regulation through the exhausting logic of competition.

Now, the same general laws which regulate the price of commodities in general, naturally regulate wages , or the price of labor-power. Wages will now rise, now fall, according to the relation of supply and demand, according as competition shapes itself between the buyers of labor-power, the capitalists, and the sellers of labor-power, the workers. The fluctuations of wages correspond to the fluctuation in the price of commodities in general. But within the limits of these fluctuations the price of labor-power will be determined by the cost of production, by the labor-time necessary for production of this commodity: labor-power.

What, then, is the cost of production of labor-power?

It is the cost required for the maintenance of the laborer as a laborer, and for his education and training as a laborer.

The squeeze on remuneration and the potential for solidarity amongst collective labour has been argued by the IT Consultancy Gartner:

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital…. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

Following on from Will Davies’ work, we might ask whether and how solidarity can be sought that refuses or pushes-back against proletarianisation in and through the University? In particular, the following questions feel important.

  • How might the notion of political decision-making or action be harnessed in ways that broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond the University?
  • Does such deliberation lead to stagnation or reconfiguration? Do planning, debt and data subsume the future to incentivised utility-maximisation?
  • How is it possible for individual agency and collective institutions to be criticized and re-imagined simultaneously, in order to overcome neoliberal narratives?

Thus, academics might ask whether, in a globalised life that is restructured around the metrics of efficiency, value, enterprise, and where social life is restructured for-profit, are there alternative, qualitative descriptions of life that might enable alternatives to be developed? One possibility lies in the idea of the Commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning, which is a global idea of socialised solidarity. Elsewhere I have argued for a critique rooted in mass intellectuality and open co-operativism, as a mechanism for framing a useful higher education that recognises its own alienation through

  • democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives
  • connections to the circuits of p2p production and distribution
  • pedagogic moments that reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives
  • a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities
  • a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)
  • connecting a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy
  • conversion, dissolution or creation of co-operatives that are transitional and pedagogic

Refusing the proletarianisation of the University hinges on the creation of a ‘direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life’ (Marx on Private Property and Communism). This might be realised in spaces that incorporate increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. This requires that we have a more mature discussion of the possibilities for pedagogic production as a social activity that are for-society rather than for-profit.

In part this recognises that HE is folded into the circuits of capitalism precisely because no space is more important for the generation and accumulation of the knowledge, practices and skills produced co-operatively at the level of society, as ‘mass intellectuality’. Is it possible that a critical political economy of higher education as it is proletarianised might offer a way of developing an emancipatory critical pedagogy on a global scale? Might such a political economy enable the knowledge, practices and skills produced socially and co-operatively inside-and-beyond HE to underpin new social relations of production as a pedagogic project beyond the market?


Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference on Thursday in Brighton, on Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university. My slides are available here. I will be arguing three points.

ONE. Technology reveals an entrepreneurial reconfiguring of the idea of the University, which is increasingly witnessed in/catalysed by the policy/practice statements of politicians like David Willetts and Liam Byrne. The roll-out of innovations like the FEER amplify this narrative. However, critiques of the pedagogic pathology of entrepreneurialism are emerging (e.g. in Will Davies’ new book on the Limits of Neoliberalism), related to the expansion of the market and the use of debt to foreclose on the future. These critiques force us to question the ways in which entrepreneurial techniques are being used to recalibrate the University and the relationships between students/staff and students/debt, as higher education is restructured for value. Moreover, they reveal a deeper relationship between transnational frameworks, technology and higher education.

TWO. Technology is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Technology is one mechanism for managing the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation on a global terrain and across time. It also enables labour arbitrage to take place on that same scale, catalysed by transnational activist networks. Technological innovations might usefully be seen as responses to: lower levels of profitability across global capitalism; increasing global, educational consumption; and making previously marginal (and public) sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Technological innovation is therefore: a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; a mechanism for the redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; a way of revolutionising the means of production.

NOTE: it is important to see technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation. This needs to be seen in terms of the production and accumulation of value in order to reproduce power-over the world. This is the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

THREE. What is to be done? A re-imagination based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. Here I ask Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for value? Is there a co-operative crack through which “mass intellectuality” might be liberated or emerge? I look to some of the work that Joss Winn and I have done on open co-operativism and mass intellectuality to suggest the following discussion points for the co-operative, public university as an associational network.

  • Can the co-operative, public university be configured along the lines of the democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution?
  • Can the co-operative, public university reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university define a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities?
  • Can the co-operative, public university represent a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)?
  • Can the co-operative, public university help to connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy?
  • Can the co-operative, public university be based on Winn’s ideas of conversion, dissolution or creation, as a transitional and pedagogic project?

Building Sustainable Societies: sustainable education

In June I presented in Leeds at the Building Sustainable Societies, Sustainable Education conference. I spoke about Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University.

My slides and some resources are available on this blog-post.

However, the lovely Jack Palmer at Leeds has published notes from the day’s discussions, which are an interpretation of what I said, alongside the arguments of Adam Elliott-Cooper and Martin McQuillan.

Since then I have written about or contributed to discussions on two other areas that connect with these discussions.

The first are some more notes on the University as an anxiety machine, which connects to Kate Bowles’ writing on academic overwork, and Melonie Fullick’s work on academic productivity. I attempted to begin to theorise this in terms of circuits of productive research and the idea of the circulation of impact. In the face of the concrete anxiety of life, with cognitive dissonance reproduced instantaneously and continuously, does a University life make any sense?

The second area connects with Joss Winn’s writing on open co-operatives and the co-operative university. This led me to write about open co-operativism and mass intellectuality, perhaps as a way of pushing back, or refusing, the university as an anxiety machine.


On the non-sense of an abstracted higher education

There is a chapter in Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia, in which he argued that the processes of industrialisation that underpinned Stalin’s five-year plans were used to recalibrate the world so that two plus two could be said to equal five. Lyons argues that in the apparent social and economic scarcity, enforced ideologically through production in a (State) capitalist system, a war mentality emerges that forces the pace of life for production. In this space, collectivised efficiency in economic production becomes the compelling motive, and one that was reinforced culturally, every single day and in every single act.

Optimism ran amuck. Every new statistical success gave another justification for the coercive policies by which it was achieved. Every setback was another stimulus to the same policies. The slogan “The Five Year Plan in Four Years” was advanced, and the magic symbols “5-in-4″ and “2 + 2 = 5″ were posted and shouted throughout the land.”

The preliminary triumphs which evoked the slogan 2 + 2 = 5 were in many ways disastrous. They corroborated the taskmasters’ inherited conviction that any miracles could be worked through the sorcery of naked force.

For Lyons this was catastrophic in its implications for everyday life and for everyday sociability. A meaningful life is all but ended, as existence is structured around work to the point where even our very connection to our humanity and those of other human beings is mediated technologically or stripped from us as a commodity. Our very humanity is scrubbed out of our pores through the dehumanisation of labour and ideology, as we are told that there is no alternative.

But under the roar of industrialization life was increasingly muted. The modest indulgences of the year before seemed long, long ago and rather incredible. A full meal became life’s central preoccupation for the mass of the population. Overhead the heavy artillery thundered and spat fire; in the trenches of everyday existence people stepped cautiously, doused their lights and spoke in whispers. The laconic announcements of executions lost their power to interest, let alone move people.

And for Lyons, this was the nature of power viewed through the lens of scarcity rather than of humanity and humane values viewed as abundance. This was the triumph of a social life rooted in the accumulation of value, where the market, planning, efficiency, the collectivised individual and the individual collectivised, were mechanisms for the circulation and expansion of power. In this space, socialisation becomes an abstracted form of psychosis.

The communist millennium seemed to a few faithful just over the horizon—but they were the few who wielded the power of the state and could enforce their distortions upon a sixth part of the globe. It was a mood which stopped at nothing to attain its objectives.

The production of everyday life defined, legislated and regulated, in order to reproduce power for the few. The organising principles for this life, culturally, politically, legally structured and reproduced in every single moment of every single day, in order to make the abstract definition and domination of a particular worldview, our collective, everyday, concrete reality.

And Orwell echoed this dystopian logic; this despairing logic; the logic of anti-hope and anti-humanism; the logic that is their power-to reproduce the world in order to maintain their power-to reproduce the world; the logic of scarcity and not abundance; the logic of the use of technology and information to create a harmonious society.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?

And I feel this as cognitive dissonance every single day. When I am told that our work and our everyday needs to focus on finding ways to help staff to monitor and intervene in learning. To monitor and intervene in learning. Like it’s a dispute. Or a technique. Or a piece of fine-tuning. When I read that education might help us in “determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society”. The recalibration of labour inside education as an industry, rooted in the production of value, and through corporate paradigms that are defined around scarcity of resources and the reiteration of intervention and monitoring, so that students and academics can bear their individuated roles as entrepreneurs. The self-harming, entrepreneurial behaviour rooted in scarcity and the expansion of value, and the forgetting of values.

And all the while this drip-feeds itself into my social life. What feels like a desperate attempt to cling on to an abstract perception of normal. What we hoped and believed might come to pass. To make #learnervoice, #edtech, #highered, #digitalliteracy, #yourhashtaghere, more than normal. To make #whatever matter. To make #whatever count. For it to be more than #meh, because our educational labour might set us free, if only we worked hard enough and raised enough debt and accepted that their past and their present foreclosed on our future. And never to question what #whatever counts for, when all sociability forces us to conform or be monitored and intervened. And never to question what is the point exactly of a hegemonic view of #highered in the face of #savegaza. Never to push for an alternative, counter-narrative of #highered, which might be made less abstract because of the concrete reality of #savegaza.

So I read of a new Project that “aims to inspire young girls to enter male dominated careers, by featuring women who can act as role models alongside neat news stories and other features”, whilst I recognise that this just leaves us feeling depleted because “True solidarity cannot pay lip service to feminist, de-colonial, anti-racist projects while maintaining individual investments in a system that works for only the most privileged bodies”. And I wonder if this the best that we can do? To prepare our lives for better or more efficient work through #whatever? And here I feel a deep echo of what Josh Ellis describes as being broken-hearted.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?

This feels like the worst kind of dissonance. Two worlds set apart as abstract and concrete, as value and values, revealed as a deeply-held grief that I always knew was in my heart, but that has ruptured so that no amount of papering over can hide the fact. That I get up and do the things that the totalitarian system demands of me, in order to exist, because trying not to is overwhelmingly marginalising. Because I see that 2+2 equals something. But what? And this totalitarianism morphs and flows into every crevice of life, attempting to reassemble not just my labour, but my humanity, and my friendship, courage, fidelity, respect, dignity, solidarity, faith, love, into a structure that accumulates power-over. This is the destruction of how I view my concrete world through its abstraction inside capitalist work; the attempt to hold in place the reality that our hegemonic view of #whatever trumps our actual ability to save Gaza or Aleppo, or to close Gitmo, or to understand the oil and gas implications of the Ukraine, or to address fears about the leaking of methane from under the Arctic. This is the world in which the power of the rule of value can be used to try to intimidate academics to remain silent. Because hegemonic narratives reinforced as power-over, force us to self-harm in our silence. The abstraction of everyday life under the rule of value makes us complicit in the destruction of our collective concrete world.

And we witness and reproduce this everyday in the reality that we cannot save anything really, and anyway there is a cricket Test Match to play, and a Commonwealth to game, and because we must have #lightsout for the war to end all wars. And if only social life could be more efficient because there is not enough to go around, unless we continually expand the abstracted way that we view the world. And dominate others in the process. And deny the concrete reality of our relationships. So that, as Tiqqun wrote in the cybernetic hypothesis, this becomes “the most consequential anti-humanism, which pushes to maintain the general order of things, all the while bragging that it has transcended the human.”

And so all we are left with is the kettle or lamentation or accepting, as Winston Smith must in 1984, that 2+2=5.

Unconsciously, he traces “2+2=5″ in the dust on the table, and thinks of Julia. They saw each other once after being released, purely by chance. He followed her on her walk, always a few feet behind. Eventually she stopped and he put his arm around her waist, but felt revulsion at the thought of making love to her. She did not respond; her body felt rigid and lifeless. They sat down on a bench with some distance between them. After some time, she told him, “I betrayed you.” He told her the same. They agreed, through a distant conversation, that there are some things they can do to you that make you think and care only about yourself. After that, it is impossible to ever feel the same way towards one who you loved.

A scarcity of value, or an abundance of love? Josh Ellis writes that

I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.

The constancy of the destruction of our concrete world in the face of our enforced and enclosed abstracted lives for work, make those lives “increasingly muted”. How is it possible to become for ourselves, as opposed to being for the abstract destruction of our concrete selves in the countless self-harming activities we witness and reproduce and ignore every single day? How is it possible to end these culturally-acceptable self-harming acts, every, single day? How do we refuse the reduction of our humanity to just another commodity in the market, or to #whatever? How is it possible to make sense of an abstracted #highered in the face of the concrete reality of #savegaza?


Notes on the University as anxiety machine

There is a point that Joss Winn and I make in a critique of academic labour that is against hypostatizing labour as ‘identity’ because this can only lead either to learned helplessness in the face of governmentality or performativity, or to resistance based on recapturing a golden age of labour. The argument here is that inside the University as it is restructured for value, and as it is recalibrated as a means of production, academics and students are separated and exploited through their abstract labour. Even worse, this separation afflicts and undermines the relationships that emerge between those with tenure (who are transformed into the impacted), and the precariously employed graduate student or post-doc, or the undergraduate who is forced into a precarious existence rooted in unpaid academic labour that is disciplined through a financialised existence. This precarious, unpaid academic labour is grounded in the abstract production of first, notes, coursework, exams, projects, groupwork, and second, of entrepreneurial skills and capacities, and digital literacies. This precarious work takes the monitoring that is internalised inside universities through the growth of student satisfaction and future earnings and employability data, and around league tables, and around research impact, and force feeds the same levels of performance anxiety to its students. This is realised in the normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.

And all the while the labour of the professoriate is unhelpfully reified and acts not as a conduit for hope or courage, but as a container for disappointment and anxiety. This reminds me that Kate Bowles wrote a while back about why academics overwork. She compared the recalibration inside the university as an anxiety machine to that inside the peloton in pro-cycling as it is recalibrated around the leading cyclist, who maybe doping or have a better, quicker machine, or better nutrition, or better whatever. She wrote the following.

This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.

This is why I’m finding Daniel Coyle’s book (co-written with pro cyclist whistleblower Tyler Hamilton) about the culture of doping such a thoughtful companion to this difficult time. In the past 24 months, armchair fans like me have asked why so many elite athletes took up performance enhancement, at such personal risk and cost.  The answer’s pretty simple, it turns out. In the Darwinian world of pro-cycling at the end of the 1990s, racing teams learned that the only way to level out competitive opportunity was to meet the standards set by the most committed. To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.

This book has made me think differently about the question of why academics overwork. I now think we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.

This resonates for two reasons. The first is that, just as the high-performing athlete recalibrates the performance of those around her, and creates a productive new-normal, so the workaholic professor does the same. And the irony of my sitting here at 11.22pm writing this is not lost on me. And maybe this is because I am committed. And maybe this is a form of flight or a defence against the abstract pain of the world. Maybe it is a form of self-care, through which I am trying to make concrete how I feel about my past and my present. And maybe as Maggie Turp argues, this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. I am performance managed to the point where I willingly internalise the question “am I productive enough?”, which aligns with “am I a good academic?”, which aligns with “am I working hard enough”, which risks becoming a projection onto those around me of “are you working/producing enough?” My example is potentially toxic because being good enough in this productive space is never enough. My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value. The defining, status-driven impulse is to increase my value as an entrepreneur, and to demonstrate that through the traces I leave in publications, or managing a team, or in leading research bids, or in blogging and emailing at all hours. And the toxicity reduces my/our immunity and leaves us addicted to our status as all that we have. And all that we have is a reified, anxiety-infused identity.

The second reason is that the high performing athlete is competing. We are locked into a system that leaves us all played out. The logic of competition inside capitalism is rooted in the production of value and the accumulation of surplus value, and this tends towards an ongoing technological arms race designed to give competitive edge. This arms race is rooted in time, and more especially the socially necessary labour time it takes to produce. If my neighbour can turnaround exam papers in four weeks but I can do it in three, or if she has time to produce two peer-reviewed papers but I can squeeze out three, and if I can get my team’s appraisals done in two weeks, and if my performance is based on making my labour time more efficient, then what are the implications for those around me? What are the implications for academic labour more generally, in the drive to reduce the socially necessary labour time it takes to valorise the labour of academics on a global scale?

We might also ask whether this drive both for performance and to make the labour of academics and students productive of value has implications for the work of precariously employed academic staff? Does the valorisation of this work and its co-option inside globalised circuits of capital disconnect those with tenure from those without? Does the valorisation process rooted in impact measures and knowledge exchange/transfer, and commercialisation, and entrepreneurship, mean that the work of the academic peloton is always recalibrated around the highest performing academic athlete? Is this why we do not see the professoriate resisting the financialisation of the university? Because they have a stake in the university as a generator of status and power; a stake in the transnational circuits of power that define their work? The only problem with grounding a concrete existence in the abstract and reified labour of reproducing power is that you fear that power to be transient and scarce and to be hoarded or defended. The defence of the scarcity of power and status amplifies and transmits anxiety; it projects anxiety throughout the academic peloton, reinforced through signalisation and dressage.

Elsewhere I wrote about the University as anxiety machine, where the projection of anxiety emerged through the fabric of relationships.

This is the dissolution of the University as a means for the domination/hegemony of a particular world view or a specific class. This is the dissolution of the University as a coercive space that is re-forged inside-and-against student-debt and impact and research excellence and analytics and employability and entrepreneurship. This is the dissolution of the University as the civil society of tenured professors versus casualised precariat.

I wonder if the University’s functions now are being redesigned so that they reproduce a sense of anxiety as a permanent state of exception inside teams and individuals. I wonder whether the focus on productive labour, on the socially necessary labour time of abstract academic work, and the entrepreneurial turn across higher education, each create an atmosphere of anxiety. I wonder whether the reproduction of an ambiance of anxiety is a co-operative endeavour that emerges from inside the University as a means of production that is governed by metrics, data and debt, and out of which value is scraped through the alienation of time. This reminds me of persistent inferiority and internalised responsibility, and of the shock doctrine that recalibrates what is possible.

Are defence or refusal possibilities inside the University as an anxiety machine? What is the psychic impact of: alienated labour; the disciplining of academic labour; the cognitive dissonance inherent in the contradictions of abstract/concrete labour; the rule of money? How do we learn to self-care as opposed to self-harm inside the University? One of the ways in which self-care might emerge is in looking at who is pushing back against financialisation and alienation, be that in casualised labour, or trades union anti-casualisation strategies, or through a precariat charter, or in actions like 3cosas, or in post-graduates for fair pay. These are not organisations of those with tenure, but they force us to consider both the university as anxiety/performativity machine and the idea of making opposition public, as an association of the dispossessed or impacted. They reignite the concrete/abstract relationship between higher education and the public.

This feels more important to me, in questioning the public role of my work, and in making my work feel concrete and about doing/being, rather than feeling abstract and for value. As a result, I begin to think about self-care in terms of my relationships to my public activities, and these are rooted in specific communities that have deliberation, a critique of work (rather than labour), and the idea of “the public” at their heart. The first is the DMU Policy Commission, which developed a charter of 100 ideas to change Britain, and which had a deliberative, co-operative, critical scholarly production process at its heart. The second is the Digilit Leicester Project, which has teacher agency and collegiality, not as a fetishized, aristocracy of labour, but as a means of self-empowerment, at its heart. The third is the Social Science Centre, which has a deeply politicised approach to relationship-building that is against academic dilettantism, and which is rooted in inclusive and co-operative production of the world. The question is whether and how these projects as activities or as doing, enable me to be in the world beyond my reified academic labour. Do they thereby enable me to overcome the concrete/abstract tensions that my labour produces and which are potentially projected as anxiety-inducing on those around me?