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?


governing academic labour: on the circuit of impact

ONE. Coercion through signalisation and dressage

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes of emergent military tactics focused upon the co-operation and the accumulation and co-ordination of co-operative, productive forces that Marx sees inside the factory.

Hence, the need to find a whole calculated practice of individual and collective dispositions, movements of groups or isolated elements, changes of position, of movement from one disposition to another; in short, the need to invent a machinery whose principle would no longer be the mobile or immobile mass, but a geometry of divisible segments whose basic unity was the mobile soldier with his rifle. The same problems arose when it was a question of constituting a productive force whose effect had to be superior to the sum of the elementary forces that composed it (p. 163).

Thus, the machinery of capitalism is constructed co-operatively to maximise the articulation or productive capacity and capability of the elementary parts from which it is composed. “Discipline is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 164). Foucault argues that this is done in three ways (pp. 164-7).

  1. The individual body becomes an element that can be placed, moved or articulated on others, so that its space-time co-ordination, rather than its humanity (courage, faith, hope, whatever), become fundamental.
  2. The chronological series (such as the circulation of production or money) that discipline must combine in order to form a composite time are also part of the machinery. The times of each element must be adjusted so that the maximum quantity of forces can be extracted and combined for an optimum outcome, or impact. “There is not a single moment of life from which cannot extract forces, providing one knows how to differentiate it and combine it with others” (p. 165).
  3. The carefully measured combination of forces requires a precise system of command. The productive activity of the disciplined individual must be punctuated and sustained by the injunctions of those in power, which are internalised and do not need explanation. Here signalisation and dressage are critical, so that obedience is reproduced.

This then leads to four characteristics of individuality: cellular (distribution in space); organic (encoded in activities); genetic (in the accumulation of time); and combinatory (through the composition of forces). The outcomes of this disciplinary process are: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. This then enables a qualitative shift in the accumulation of outcomes, whether they are framed as money, value, impact, or more importantly power. This is the tension between the social contract and the desire of social groups for autonomy, and the disciplinary, militarised dream of subordination through coercion and through perpetual forms of training to docility.

TWO. Neoliberalism, pedagogy and power

This focus on power connects to John Holloway’s argument in How to Change the World Without Taking Power that “The hierarchisation of struggle is a hierarchisation of our lives and thus a hierarchisation of ourselves.” What drives an alternative is the negation of hierarchical power within

a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

Holloway notes:

For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

I remembered this as I read Jehu tweet that:

Neoliberalism is not at all concerned about markets, but about concentration of power.

And that

Imposing a neoliberal regime on Mexico is just actually concentration of Mexico’s resources in Washington’s hands.

And that

This has nothing at all to do with “freeing markets from state control”, but freeing the productive forces from the Mexico state’s control.

And that

Every state tries to control its economy. For Washington, however, the world market is its economy.

This is about the production, circulation and accumulation of power, with the market as a lever to that end. This is less a project about marketisation and financialisation than it is about those tactics of signalisation and dressage that underscore the reproduction of power-over the world. Holloways argues that we cannot live in ignorance of the power relations that discipline our lives through the perpetual forms of activity and training, especially inside and through higher education, which coerce us. He argues for the positive creativity that emerges from the negativity of critique and from our “refusal of capital”, through the direct and active production of an alternative pedagogical terrain focused on doing rather than preparation for capitalist work. The recuperation of doing, as opposed to capitalist labour, and the development of our shared power-to create the world, rather than simply to maximise profit is central to this project. Critical here is a focus on power that is produced from processes which signal and that enforce dressage, by recalibrating the work of individuals co-operatively.

THREE. On the production and circulation of impact

Inside the University, impact signals compulsion that is itself self-harming behaviour, and then enforces dressage in the name of power. This point was made at Governing Academic Life by Michael Power, in his focus on the role of impact in acting as a form of governance over academic labour. He argued that impact was an open and public closure of what can be discussed and produced, in order that a governance/command structure for value production could be imposed. Here metrics and investment interact to forms a circuit of capital rooted in academic production, with that productive power of research being disciplined through signalisation that then imposes a form of dressage.

Power then argued that the really existing practices that emerged from the institutional recalibration around impact catalysed knowledge transfer and exchange, policies around public engagement and the co-option of the public by the private, the impact of impact on future earnings, and the use of data and analytics to drive future investment. Effectively the latter forms a complementary, data-driven disciplinary layer to the proposed credit default swaps and derivatives in student loans that drive the incorporation of higher education inside the circuits of transnational capital. For Power, these innovations then promised to deliver new dimensions of academic performance, which are revealed as: cellular (distribution in academic space, like the classroom and archive); organic (encoded in academic activities like research and scholarship); genetic (in the accumulation of academic time inside-and-beyond the university); and combinatory (through the composition of forces inside and through universities as associations of capitals). The outcomes of this disciplinary process are the production and accumulation of power over academic labour that is realised: through tables of performance that coerce competition; prescribing the movements of academics through data-driven investments and strategies for enterprise, like the Future Earnings and Employment Record; imposing exercises like knowledge transfer and exchange; and arranging tactics like the REF or the NSS. Thus, impact accounting is a new vector of managerial control of academic activity.

One critical point that Power made was about the way in which the terrain of research was shifting, in part driven by processes of financialisation across higher education. He argued that the circuit of research/impact inside the productive forces of the University was shifting from:

Research – Impact – Research

in which a research idea was measured and quantified for impact to underscore further research, to a point where impact was the catalyst for the circulation of research. Thus, systemically the cycle was shifting so that the circuit of research (production) was forced to align with the circuit of impact (money/finance). Critical here is the realisation of the circuit as:

Impact – Research – Impact or even Impact – Research – Impact’

This connects to Marx’s argument about the circulation of commodities in Volume 1 of Capital.

The simplest form of the circulation of commodities is C-M-C, the transformation of commodities into money, and the change of the money back again into commodities; or selling in order to buy. But alongside of this form we find another specifically different form: M-C-M, the transformation of money into commodities, and the change of commodities back again into money; or buying in order to sell. Money that circulates in the latter manner is thereby transformed into, becomes capital, and is already potentially capital.

Now let us examine the circuit M-C-M a little closer. It consists, like the other, of two antithetical phases. In the first phase, M-C, or the purchase, the money is changed into a commodity. In the second phase, C-M, or the sale, the commodity is changed back again into money. The combination of these two phases constitutes the single movement whereby money is exchanged for a commodity, and the same commodity is again exchanged for money; whereby a commodity is bought in order to be sold, or, neglecting the distinction in form between buying and selling, whereby a commodity is bought with money, and then money is bought with a commodity. [2] The result, in which the phases of the process vanish, is the exchange of money for money, M-M. If I purchase 2,000 lbs. of cotton for £100, and resell the 2,000 lbs. of cotton for £110, I have, in fact, exchanged £100 for £110, money for money.

Now it is evident that the circuit M-C-M would be absurd and without meaning if the intention were to exchange by this means two equal sums of money, £100 for £100. The miser’s plan would be far simpler and surer; he sticks to his £100 instead of exposing it to the dangers of circulation. And yet, whether the merchant who has paid £100 for his cotton sells it for £110, or lets it go for £100, or even £50, his money has, at all events, gone through a characteristic and original movement, quite different in kind from that which it goes through in the hands of the peasant who sells corn, and with the money thus set free buys clothes. We have therefore to examine first the distinguishing characteristics of the forms of the circuits M-C-M and C-M-C, and in doing this the real difference that underlies the mere difference of form will reveal itself.

What, however, first and foremost distinguishes the circuit C-M-C from the circuit M-C-M, is the inverted order of succession of the two phases. The simple circulation of commodities begins with a sale and ends with a purchase, while the circulation of money as capital begins with a purchase and ends with a sale. In the one case both the starting-point and the goal are commodities, in the other they are money. In the first form the movement is brought about by the intervention of money, in the second by that of a commodity.

In simple circulation, C-M-C, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of their use-values, i.e., the form of money; but that same value now in the circulation M-C-M, or the circulation of capital, suddenly presents itself as an independent substance, endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own, in which money and commodities are mere forms which it assumes and casts off in turn. Nay, more: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters now, so to say, into private relations with itself. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value; as the father differentiates himself from himself qua the son, yet both are one and of one age: for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and so soon as this takes place, so soon as the son, and by the son, the father, is begotten, so soon does their difference vanish, and they again become one, £110.

Value therefore now becomes value in process, money in process, and, as such, capital. It comes out of circulation, enters into it again, preserves and multiplies itself within its circuit, comes back out of it with expanded bulk, and begins the same round ever afresh. [14] M-M’, money which begets money, such is the description of Capital from the mouths of its first interpreters, the Mercantilists.

This final point is critical in our understanding of how the impact agenda, as a form of universal equivalent in academic practice, might become a form of power over academic labour. Through the attempts to start and end with impact, managerial control signals the forms of practice that are acceptable and also attempt to overcome the barriers to the accumulation of impact as it is realised in money, value and/or power. These barriers are reproduced and presented by academic labour’s intransigence in its cellular, organic, genetic, and combinatory characteristics, rooted in the humanity of co-operation rather than the inhumanity of coercive competition for value. Thus, systemically we see imposed: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. In an ideal world, such performance management would underscore the circuit of academic research in the form:

Impact – Impact’

Here, we would witness the constitution of a productive force whose effect would be superior to the sum of the elementary forces that composed it. This would be an overcoming of academic labour. It’s abolition rather than its governance, in the name of power. Yet power-over depends on the subjugation of living labour and the production/accumulation of value. This is a critical, systemic tension: the need for power-over labour, at the same time that its abolition is demanded. As I note elsewhere on the domination of merchants in higher education:

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 [society] to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power [and produce new forms of sociability]. 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?

I am left with some questions.

  • How might we use the circuit of impact, and the productive power of research, especially where it is connected to the pedagogic power of student-as-producer, to reveal the face of power?
  • How do we reveal the humanity of doing as a pedagogical act of resistance?
  • How might we reassert the role of production against the imperative for a circuit of Impact-Impact’ that works to negates research as an autonomous activity?
  • How might we reveal the tendency of finance capital to reduce the impact agenda to power-over living labour through dead labour incorporated in the circuit of impact?
  • How might we overcome the signalisation and dressage that forces academic self-harm?

NOTE: as Michael Power spoke about academic researchers as “impactees”, Andrew Mcgettigan noted that they/we might also be the “impacted.” In the process of trying to find spaces to refuse our objectification and alienation, the latter might offer a more grounded way of overcoming impact. In particular, the notion of being impacted is an act of doing that is against our subjecticity or our being. It reveals their power over our potential subjectivity. This is critically and qualitatively different to the alienating internalisation that emerges from our performativity as impactees. Describing the ways in which we are impacted  might offer a way into a radical subjectivity that is rooted in the production of new forms of critical knowledge in everyday life. Here we might coalesce alternatives to the ideological and material conditions of domination that crystallised from the crisis, in particular where those alternatives emerge around the creation of democratic, open, research co-operatives. Whether this can happen inside the University, public or not, is increasingly problematic.


Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University

On Monday 30 June, I’m presenting in Leeds at the Building Sustainable Societies, Sustainable Education conference. I’m speaking about Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University.

Abstract

This presentation considers the interconnections between critical pedagogy and the idea of mass intellectuality, in order to reflect on the current crisis of higher education. The argument will situate the liberationist perspectives of critical pedagogy inside the idea of mass intellectuality, or the process of democratic knowledge production at the level of society. It will be argued that in the face of the secular crisis of capitalism, which is recalibrating the idea of the University and of higher education through marketization and competition, it is the development of mass intellectuality that offers a mechanism for a different, co-operative form of social sustainability. In confronting enforced, structural changes, this approach offers more than the tropes of individual resilience, or of mitigation or adaptation, which emerge from readings of environmental sustainability. In fact, it enables a critical, alternative reading of the social sustainability of higher education strategies for internationalisation, entrepreneurialism, consumerism, and so on. These alternatives pivot around the re-politicising both the curriculum and the University, and are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of higher education inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. As a result, mass intellectuality potentially offers a richer way in to revealing higher education as a key site of struggle over the production and accumulation of value. More importantly, in forcing educators and students to ask “what is to be done?”, a focus on mass intellectuality suggests possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary higher education for capitalist work. As a result we might ask whether alternative forms of social sustainability are desirable and possible.

My slides are available here.

I will make the following argument.

ONE. The idea of the University has to be developed in relation to the production, circulation and accumulation of value. This is a form of sociability and power that recalibrates the world and amplifies suffering. There are some ideas here.

TWO. We are witnessing and through our labour we are party to the restructuring of the University for value. A range of transnational networks and policy advocates, as well as representative academic and managerial groups, amplify this as an entrepreneurial turn inside the University. In particular the University is being culturally redefined through a range of counter-measures that intend to reinstate stable forms of accumulation. Here the daily violence of debt, unemployment and the collapse in real wages make concrete the realities of an abstracted life. There are some ideas here.

THREE. The University is disciplined by transnational activist networks that form associations of capitals, designed to transform governance, regulation and funding for value. This is antagonistic and intergenerational, and it threatens social cohesion. There are some ideas here.

FOUR. Are defence or refusal possibilities? If so, where are they witnessed? In occupations; in the work of precariously employed labour; in flights of fancy; in the social factory? There are some ideas here.

FIVE. 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? There are some ideas here.

SIX. How do we understand the relationship between mass intellectuality and the idea of the University? How do we build a counter-hegemony rooted in: radical subjectivity through the production of new forms of critical knowledge in everyday life; spaces for the refusal of the violence of abstraction; occupation of the idea of the public; alternatives to the ideological and material conditions of domination; the creation of democratic, open, worker co-operatives; and an abundance of love, rather than a scarcity of value? There are some ideas here.


on Mass Intellectuality

Ahead of our workshop on Mass Intellectuality, Joss Winn has argued the following about the term Mass Intellectuality.

A couple of people have questioned our use of the term ‘mass intellectuality’ for the title of our proposed book: ‘Mass Intellectuality: the democratisation of higher education. It’s a term that comes from Autonomous Marxism, based on Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’. Richard and I intend to introduce and discuss the term in our introduction to the book.

Here’s what Paolo Virno had to say about it:

“Mass intellectuality is the composite group of Postfordist living labour, not merely of some particularly qualified third sector: it is the depository of cognitive competences that cannot be objectified in machinery. Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity. General intellect needs to be understood literally as intellect in general: the faculty and power to think, rather than the works produced by thought – a book, an algebra formula etc. In order to represent the relationship between general intellect and living labour in Postfordism we need to refer to the act through which every speaker draws on the inexhaustible potential of language to execute contingent and unrepeatable statements. Like the intellect and memory, language is the most common and least ‘specialised’ conceivable given. A good example of mass intellectuality is the speaker, not the scientist. Mass intellectuality has nothing to do with a new ‘labour aristocracy’; it is actually its exact opposite.”

Source: ‘General Intellect by Paolo Virno

Mass intellectuality is against-and-beyond the restructuring of society for capitalist work and for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. As I write elsewhere on the co-operative university:

From such a reframing emerges a focus on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge, or ‘mass intellectuality’, a direct, social force of production [which is socially useful, and based on an alternative value-form that will work in terms of the social reproduction of society in a different image.]. As the University of Utopia argued:

“Mass intellectuality is based on our common ability to do, based on our needs and capacities and what needs to be done. What needs to be done raises doing from the level of the individual to the level of society.”

These struggles for mass intellectuality are an attempt to build solidarity and sharing related to the social and co-operative use of the knowledge, skills and practices that we create as labour. This is deliberately opposed to their commodification, exchange and accumulation by a transnational elite. Thus, liberating science and technology from inside-and-against capital’s competitive dynamics is central to moving beyond exploitation. Inside critical and co-operative (rather than co-opted) educational contexts, the processes of learning and teaching offer the chance to critique the purposes for which the general intellect is commodified rather than made public.They offer the opportunity to reclaim and liberate the general intellect for co-operative use.


three presentations on academic labour

I have three presentations coming-up at really exciting events. The presentations are on academic labour, and I’m pleased that Joss Winn is also involved in two of these.

The first is at the Governing Academic Life conference, which is “oriented by the concern to think critically about the conditions of possibility of the academy today”. There is an amazing list of speakers at this event. I’m speaking about “Academic labour and co-operative struggles for subjectivity’

Abstract 

The academic has no apparent autonomy beyond the temporary amelioration of her labour relations with those who direct the University for the logic of accumulation, commodification, and profit-maximisation. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students. This transnational activist network forms an association of capitals (Ball, 2011; Marx, 1993) that subsumes and disciplines academic labour.

This subsumption of academic labour emerges under “the social tyranny of exchange-value” and the profit motive (Wendling, p. 52). What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarity, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. This focus on production for exchange is then furthered through the cultural imperatives of student-as-consumer, league tables, impact-measures, knowledge exchange and so on. Against this tyranny might the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, be re-evaluated for its social use?

Such a re-evaluation demands that academics imagine that their skills, practices and knowledges might be shared and put to another use, in common and in co-operation. We might ask, is it possible to live and tell a different, overtly political story of academic labour? This focus on politics and organisation is a focus on recovering subjectivity as an academic and a labourer. As Cleaver (1993) notes in his final two theses on the Secular Crisis of Capitalism, this idea of recovering subjectivity through radical democracy is critical in liberating humanity from the coercive laws of competition and the market. For Cleaver, the creation of a revolutionary subjectivity is entwined with the need to develop: [a] politics of alliance against capital… not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism. Here the idea of academic as labourer is central, rather than academic as fetishized carrier of specific skills, practices and knowledges.

This paper will make three points. First, it will address the mechanisms through which the academic is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University as it is recalibrated as an association of capitals. Second, it will ask whether and how academic labour might be renewed as part of a social struggle for subjectivity? The potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, will be highlighted. Third, the paper will ask whether it is possible to liberate academic labour for use-value that can be used inside and across society?

References

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

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

Marx, K. 1993. Capital, Volume 2: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Wendling, A. E. 2009. Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


 

The second is at the Building Sustainable Societies conference, which aims “to develop collaboratively a definition of social sustainability, we suggest it might include: a society with a more equitable distribution of economic resources; greater equality, rights and social justice; fair and equal access to essential services such as housing, health, transport and education; a renegotiation of the work-life balance; and opportunities for everyone to participate actively in community life and decision-making.” I’m discussing Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University

Abstract 

This presentation considers the interconnections between critical pedagogy and the idea of mass intellectuality, in order to reflect on the current crisis of higher education. The argument will situate the liberationist perspectives of critical pedagogy inside the idea of mass intellectuality, or the process of democratic knowledge production at the level of society. It will be argued that in the face of the secular crisis of capitalism, which is recalibrating the idea of the University and of higher education through marketization and competition, it is the development of mass intellectuality that offers a mechanism for a different, co-operative form of social sustainability. In confronting enforced, structural changes, this approach offers more than the tropes of individual resilience, or of mitigation or adaptation, which emerge from readings of environmental sustainability. In fact, it enables a critical, alternative reading of the social sustainability of higher education strategies for internationalisation, entrepreneurialism, consumerism, and so on. These alternatives pivot around the re-politicising both the curriculum and the University, and are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of higher education inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. As a result, mass intellectuality potentially offers a richer way in to revealing higher education as a key site of struggle over the production and accumulation of value. More importantly, in forcing educators and students to ask “what is to be done?”, a focus on mass intellectuality suggests possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary higher education for capitalist work. As a result we might ask whether alternative forms of social sustainability are desirable and possible.


 

The third is at the Academic Identities conference. Joss Winn and I will be discussing academic labour.

Abstract

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.

References

Camfield, D. (2007). The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52. 

Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. (2013). What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?, tripleC, 11(2) 237-292.

Hardt, M. and Negri, T. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Krisis-Group (1999). Manifesto against labour. Krisis.

Newfield, C. (2010). The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26. 

Noble, D.F. (2002). Digital Diploma Mills. The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, M.A. and Bulut. E. (2011). Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. New York: Peter Lang.

Postone, M. (1993). Time, Labor and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006). History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18(1).

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

Roggero, G. (2011). The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scholtz, T. (2013). Digital Labour. The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978). Intellectual and Manual Labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. London: Bloomsbury.


Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University

On 30 June I’m presenting at the Sustainable Education strand of the international conference Building Sustainable Societies. I’m planning on speaking about “Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University”. My abstract is appended below.

This presentation considers the interconnections between critical pedagogy and the idea of mass intellectuality, in order to reflect on the current crisis of higher education. The argument will situate the liberationist perspectives of critical pedagogy inside the idea of mass intellectuality, or the process of democratic knowledge production at the level of society. It will be argued that in the face of the secular crisis of capitalism, which is recalibrating the idea of the University and of higher education through marketization and competition, it is the development of mass intellectuality that offers a mechanism for a different, co-operative form of social sustainability. In confronting enforced, structural changes, this approach offers more than the tropes of individual resilience, or of mitigation or adaptation, which emerge from readings of environmental sustainability. In fact, it enables a critical, alternative reading of the social sustainability of higher education strategies for internationalisation, entrepreneurialism, consumerism, and so on. These alternatives pivot around the re-politicising both the curriculum and the University, and are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of higher education inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. As a result, mass intellectuality potentially offers a richer way in to revealing higher education as a key site of struggle over the production and accumulation of value. More importantly, in forcing educators and students to ask “what is to be done?”, a focus on mass intellectuality suggests possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary higher education for capitalist work. As a result we might ask whether alternative forms of social sustainability are desirable and possible.