on educational technology and divestment

I spoke yesterday about the relationships between higher education institutions, the policy makers who frame the space inside which the University is being financialised and marketised, the technology companies which are attempting to leverage value from the education sector, and the finance/venture capitalists that are underwriting educational technologies. There is a slideshow on my slideshare, and a podcast of the session here.

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this transnational network, or association, of capitals both for higher education practice and for students and academics. I have also written elsewhere about the power of such a dominant network of merchants in higher education. I have also written elsewhere about how these networks amplify the militarisation of higher education. However, there is one specific point that I made yesterday, which I wish to reiterate here, which is connected to divestment. The recent occupation by students at the London School of Economics included in its list of demands divestment, stating:

We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

This idea of questioning which firms, companies, products, whatever, universities invest in recomposes any discussion of educational technology. There are some fundamental questions here about the networks of hegemonic power that universities are folded into, which link technology and data mining firms, venture and finance capitalists, academics, and the military. So we might ask, for example:

Who supplies our virtual learning environment?

Is there a parent company?

What are the relationships of the parent company to finance or venture capital?

What other companies does this parent company own? What activities are they involved in? Securitisation? Training the military? Biotechnology?

What networks of power is the company that supplies our virtual learning environment mapped onto?

What networks of power is the University mapped onto through its connections rooted in educational technology?

Through its deployment of educational technologies, how is the University complicit in activities that reinforce and reproduce hegemonic power? How does it reinforce and reproduce unsustainable narratives of growth? Given the energy and carbon embedded in high technologies, how does such deployment map onto concerns voiced by the keep it in the ground campaign?

This final question is rooted in our academic engagement with high technology firms that are seeking to use education in order to expand the orbit for value accumulation and extraction, in particular where fundamental questions are being raised about the impact on the global climate of unrestricted models of economic growth. All of a sudden we are forced to ask fundamental questions of political economy about the educational technologies that we deploy.

Clearly inside a policy space that is being opened-up for-profit through competition, divesting from such webs is problematic, and demands a larger conversation about the idea of the University as a public good. In the UK, former Universities Minister, David Willetts argued “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops.” Around the same time, the Institute for Public Policy Research noted in its report, Securing the future of higher education that there was a need to open the market-up through: first, access to open data (which would increase accountability and consumerism); second, the rule of money in underpinning efficiency and improving the student experience; and third, by encouraging competition from new providers who would bring innovation, entrepreneurialism and cost-efficiency.

As Will Davies notes in the limits of neoliberalism such entrepreneurial activity is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. These associations of capitals, or venture capitals, which are able to leverage value transnationally are rooted in competition and an idea of entrepreneurial activity that is rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition.

Investment in educational technology is also a space which, as Audrey Watters notes in Men Still Explain, is dominated by men from the global North.

Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

There are serious questions about whether academics and students are content with these hegemonic positions and whether we are able collectively to understand the role of educational technology inside our universities and colleges without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class. We might wish to use such a critique to question where academic labour is invested and from where is might be divested. Such a critique needs to be aligned with the realities of divestment from fossil fuels. This is a political issue that is in tension with the realities of the security state and the regimes of power that are maintained through transnational flows of capital, and which educational technology reveals. We should be seeking to discuss on campus whether we are content with our educational connections to educational technology products that are rooted in financialised and marketised responses to the secular crisis of capitalism. We should be seeking to discuss on campus how educational technology reinforces our implicit, academic links to venture capital, private equity, the military and security firms.

My presentation closed with two questions.

Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles, rather than for value?

What does divestment imply for the use of educational technology?

We should be seeking to discuss on campus what our activities and our relationships help to legitimate, and whether a diversity of alternative positions is possible beyond the market and those who maintain the power of the market over everyday, public life.

against educational technology in the neoliberal University

On Wednesday I’m presenting at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI). The talk discussion is titled: against educational technology in the neoliberal University. There are details/an abstract here.

My slides are available from my slideshare.

The University and the Secular Crisis

I am delighted to have a paper accepted by the Open Library of the Humanities on the University and the Secular Crisis. The paper builds on my inaugural, the slides for which are here. It also extends the arguments that I made on this site here and here and here and here, in an article about the abolition of academic labour.

The article will be out in September(-ish), but the abstract is appended below.


The economic crisis of 2008 was followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. For several recent authors this forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis. This article is situated against the changing landscape of English HE and seeks to understand the implications of the secular crisis on that sector and on the idea of the University. It examines how responses to the secular crisis have amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. It then places this analysis inside the political economic realities of there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. The argument is then made that as this cultural turn affects the idea of what the University is for, both historically and materially, academics and students need to consider the potential for developing post-capitalist alternatives. The central point is that by developing a critique of the restructuring of higher education and of the idea of the University through political economy, alternative forms of knowing and developing socially-useful practices can emerge.

Keywords: higher education; political economy; secular crisis; university

For a political economy of Massive Open Online Courses

I have a new article out in Learning, Media and Technology, titled “For a political economy of Massive Open Online Courses”. The abstract and keywords are below.

There are 50 eprints available.


In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.

Keywords: academic labour; MOOC; rate of profit; sociability; technological innovation

notes on the [inevitable] proletarianisation of the University

Some follow-on notes on the proletarianisation of the University.

Going to school, being a student is work. This work is called schoolwork although it is not usually considered to really be work since we don’t receive any wages for doing it. This does not mean that schoolwork is not work, but rather that they have taught us to believe that only if you are paid do you really work.

But the Left runs afoul of that old question posed to previous enlighteners of the working class: who shall educate the educators? Since the Left does not start from the obvious: schoolwork is unwaged work, all its efforts lead to more unwaged work for capital, to more exploitation. All its attempts to increase class consciousness remain oblivious to capital’s constrol on its own ground and so the left ends in consistently supporting capital’s efforts to intensify work, in rationalizing and disciplining the working class. So the “building of socialism” becomes just another device for getting more free work in the service of capital.

For those of us who do not receive such support, not getting a wage means having to work an additional job outside of school. And since the labor market is saturated with students looking for these jobs, capital imposes minimum wages and benefits on us. As a result, we work even more hours or even additional jobs. Since our schoolwork is unpaid, most of us work during the so-called summer vacation. Even if we take the time off we have no money with which to enjoy it. The absurdity of this is even further magnified by the very high productivity requirements which are constantly being imposed on us as students (exams, quizzes, papers, etc.) and by the way we are being programmed so that we impose further productivity requirements on ourselves (extra credit work, outside reading and thinking for our classes – not for ourselves, on-the-job training, student teaching, etc.) On the other hand, we are forced to work for nothing and on the other, we are forced to work for almost nothing.

We must force capital, which profits from our work, to pay for our schoolwork. Only then can we stop depending on financial aid, our parents, working second and third jobs or working during summer vacations for our existence. We already earn a wage; now we must be paid for it. Only in this way can we seize more power to use in our dealings with capital.

The Wages for Students Students. 1975. Wages for Students

York University said classes are still suspended on Tuesday, but said some may resume soon after contract faculty split with teaching assistants and agreed to accept a new contract offer.

[the Canadian Union of Public Employees] says about two-thirds of undergraduate courses at the universities are taught by non-tenured staff who are paid about $15,000 a year.

CBC News. 2015. York University offer rejected by 2 of 3 bargaining units of CUPE 3903

“I feel sick.” Reaction of one of my students when she found out how much I earn as an #adjunct in relation to her #tuition. #afterNAWD

@iamyanity, 6 March 2015

National Adjunct wrote that the goal of the protest is to raise awareness of the problems part-time profs face, including workplace isolation, lack of resources, an increasing workload, little job security, and no support from school administrators.

John Martin, a history professor and chairman of the California Part Time Faculty Association, said hard data about the number of working adjuncts is hard to come by, but evidence suggests it’s “easily” at least 50 percent of faculty at four-year institutions, and probably closer to 60 percent nationwide.

“The California state university system has officially announced that 51 percent of the student body is taught by part-time lecturers,” he said, adding that many of them need several teaching jobs to make ends meet. “It’s just continually rising and rising and rising.”

“The adjunct crisis is one piece of this puzzle,” National Adjunct wrote. “The short answer is that higher education [is] losing its mission. At the same time tuition, student fees, and student debt have increased at unprecedented rates, administrative positions and salaries have risen, while reliance on contingent faculty has jumped to 75 percent. That’s really a stunning number—75 percent of college courses in the U.S. are taught by contingent faculty, most of whom do not earn a living wage, and have no job security!”

Joseph Williams. 2015. Tuition Is Up, So Why Are College Profs on Welfare?

Current student protests are typically about tuition fees, the outsourcing of in-house services, staff redundancies and other issues related to the inexorable move towards a for-profit higher education system. They strive to resist the furtherance of a neoliberal agenda, and express values that are not money-driven.

They also represent a wake-up call especially for academics. Some of us are fortunate to work in institutions that continue to regard higher education as a public good, and to value social democracy, freedom of expression, transparency and consultative practices. Sadly, we can no longer assume that principles of good governance remain the norm across the sector. We must therefore vigilantly guard against the erosion of the principles of good governance in our home institutions at the same time as we support those who no longer work in environments conducive to the upholding of principles we thought went without saying.

Marie-Bénédicte Dembour . 2015. British universities and the prevalence of ‘bad governance’.

The University works because we do.

As it currently stands, TAs at the University of Toronto – Canada’s richest, and purportedly best public university – live at 35% under the poverty line. Once we’re finished our course work, domestic students continue to pay $8,500 for tuition and international students pay over $15,000 – for a library card and monthly meetings with our supervisors. All comparable institutions in the United States offer post-residency fees to reflect this reality.

Sessional professors have virtually no job security and mere $275 in health care despite having the same qualifications as full time faculty.

At the same time, tuition rates continue to climb and class sizes increase.

Where is your money going? Who, exactly, faces challenging fiscal realities? The students and education workers at U of T who live under the poverty line, or an institution that spends $2 billion annually, has billions of dollars in investments, and recently announced an income stream of $200 million for 2015?

CUPE3902 #WeAreUofT. 2015.

Free education is a clearly feminist demand. When you argue for the redistribution of wealth from highly paid university executives to low paid cleaners, you benefit migrant women. When you argue for a liberated curriculum, you benefit overlooked women theorists and academics. When you argue for true living grants for all who study, you benefit the 92% of carers who are women and state living costs as one of the major factors that put them off education. Free education is a demand for liberation, and too often this is forgotten – or worse, name-checked and not acted upon – in the mainstream student movement.

We are not in the University of London by accident. Senate House is the administrative heart of the University, and yet it is a University that does not actually teach anyone directly, it is a service provider to its constituent colleges. This service- and branding-based model is the epitome of the neoliberal model of marketised education. What good is a University that only provides a brand, not education?

You could ask further – what good is a university that not only provides no education directly, but also treats its lowest paid workers appallingly? We stand in solidarity with Nuvia, an outsourced cleaner sacked without warning when six months pregnant and call for fair working conditions for all staff here. The majority of all minimum waged work is undertaken by women, and women are more likely to work part time or on precarious zero hour contracts. The rights of women workers, and of migrant women workers in particular, cannot be ignored by the mainstream feminist student movement any longer.

You could ask even further – what good is a University which not only does not provide education, and treats its lowest paid workers appallingly but also calls the police on its own students?

NCAFC. 2015. Why We Are Occupying Senate House (UoL)

People working in education are the group most likely to be putting in unpaid overtime and clocking up the most free hours a week, according to figures released today.

UCU. 2015. Education workers are doing the most unpaid overtime.

Think about the drive of capitalists to expand their capital, the drive to increase the exploitation of workers. How can they do this? One way is by getting workers to work more for the capitalists, for example by extending the workday or intensifying the workday (speedup). Another is to drive down the wages of workers. And, still another is to prevent workers from being the beneficiaries of advances in social knowledge and social productivity. Capital is constantly on the search for ways to expand the workday in length and intensity—which, of course, is contrary to the needs of human beings to have time for themselves for rest and for their own self-development. Capital is also constantly searching for ways to keep down and drive down wages, which of course means to deny workers the ability to satisfy their existing needs and to share in the fruits of social labor. How does capital achieve this? In particular, it does so by separating workers, by turning them against each other.

The logic of capital has nothing to do with the needs of human beings. So practices such as the use of racism and patriarchy to divide workers, the use of the state to outlaw or crush trade unions, the destruction of people’s lives by shutting down operations and moving to parts of the world where people are poor, unions banned, and environmental regultions nonexistent—are not accidental but the product of a society in which human beings are simply means for capital.

Workers, it appears, have an interest in the health of capitalists, have an interest in expanding demand on the part of capitalists for their labor-power—by education, tradition, and habit, they come to look upon the needs of capital as self-evident natural laws, as common sense. The reproduction of workers as wage-laborers requires the reproduction of capital.

So, we return to our question—what keeps capitalism going? How is capitalism reproduced as a system? I think you can see the answer that I am offering: capital tends to produce the working class it needs. It produces workers who look upon it as necessary—a system that is unfair, one that requires you to struggle constantly to realize your needs, a system run by people out to get you, yet a system where the reproduction of capital is necessary for the reproduction of wage-laborers. What keeps capitalism going? Wage-laborers. The reproduction of workers as wage-laborers is necessary for the reproduction of capital.

Workers are not simply the products of capital. They are formed (and form themselves) through all the relationships in which they exist. And, they transform themselves through their struggles—not only those against capital but also against those other relations like patriarchy and racism. Even though these struggles may take place fully within the confines of capitalist relations, in the course of engaging in collective struggles people develop a new sense of themselves. They develop new capacities, new understandings of the importance of collective struggle. People who produce themselves as revolutionary subjects through their struggles enter into their relations with capital as different people; in contrast to those who are not in motion, they are open to developing an understanding of the nature of capital.

Michael A. Lebowitz. 2004. What Keeps Capitalism Going?

What we are really trying to say is that capitalism, through its process of production, produces an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy or charge, against which it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear, but which nonetheless continues to act as capitalism’s limit. For capitalism constantly counteracts, constantly inhibits this inherent tendency while at the same time allowing it free rein; it continually seeks to avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit.Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities. Everything returns or recurs: States, nations, families. That is what makes the ideology of capitalism “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed.” The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial. Marx termed the twofold movement of the tendency to a falling rate of profit, and the increase in the absolute quantity of surplus value, the law of the counteracted tendency. As a corollary of this law, there is the twofold movement of decoding or deterritorializing flows on the one hand, and their violent and artificial reterritorialization on the other.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 34

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.

Richmond, M. 2014. Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs.

The civilizing moments themselves are transformed into their opposites and become moments of a second barbarism. Freedom and equality, democracy and human rights begin to display the same features of dehumanization as the market system upon which they are based.

The reason for this lies in the peculiar and insidious quality of the secularized constitution of the fetish of the commodity-form. The commodity-form as universal form of consciousness, of the subject and of reproduction, on the one hand, actually extends the space of subjectivity beyond all pre-modern forms but, on the other hand, precisely on account of its unwavering character as unconscious fetish-form, stirs up a cultural liberation which now, with its spatial and social totalization throughout the planet, definitively unleashes the always-latent monstrous moment in this constitution which is violently manifested in its crisis of affirmation. This monstrosity resides in the contentless abstraction of the fetish of the commodity-form, manifested as reproduction’s total indifference to all perceptible content and as an equal, mutual indifference of abstractly individualized men. At the end of its development and of its history of affirmation, the total commodity-form produces dehumanized and abstract beings, who pose the threat of a regression to a pre-animalistic state

Robert Kurz. 1993. Domination without a subject.

While the nominal quantity of money in the world (including shares, property prices, credit, debt, financial derivatives) is constantly increasing, what money is supposed to represent, i.e. labour, is decreasing into ever-smaller amounts. Thus money has practically no ‘real’ value any more, and a gigantic devaluation of money (firstly in the form of inflation) will be inevitable. But after centuries during which money has constituted social mediation at an ever-higher level, its unorganised, yet sustained devaluation can only trigger a gigantic social regression and the abandonment of a large part of social activity that is no longer ‘profitable’. Thus the end of capitalism’s historical trajectory may well land us with a ‘perverse return’ of sacrifice and usher in a new and postmodern barbarism. Indeed, capitalism is even currently abolishing the meagre ‘progress’ that it once brought and incessantly demands ‘sacrifices’ from men in order to save the money-fetish. Cuts in public health budgets even remind Kurz of the human sacrifices of ancient history practised in order to calm furious gods, and he ends by asserting that ‘the bloodthirsty Aztec priests were a harmless and humane bunch compared to the sacrificer bureaucrats of the global capital fetish when it has reached its internal historical limit.’

For Kurz, we are not witnessing a ‘cyclical’ or ‘growth’ capitalist crisis but experiencing the end of a long historical era, without knowing if the future will be better, or if it will turn out to be a descent into a situation where the vast majority of human beings will not even be worth exploiting any more, but will just be ‘superfluous’ (to the valorisation of capital). Moreover, nobody can control such a runaway machine.

Anselm Jappe. 2014. Kurz, a Journey into Capitalism’s Heart of Darkness, Historical Materialism 22.3–4 (2014) 395–407.

echoes do not make revolutions

Esther Leslie. 2014. Satanic Mills: On Robert Kurz. Historical Materialism 22.3–4 (2014) 408-23.

reflections on the post-digital

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective.

An upcoming conference on the flipped university declares that we are living in a post-digital age that is

characterised by transitions of practice and redefining of the individual’s relationships with technology.

The conference seeks to address the question of “What does it mean for higher education to be in engaging in a post digital age? What does it mean for the learner of the future and of today?”

Since we met as the 52 Group back in 2009 the politics of austerity continues to subsume academic and student labour. The realities of this labour are less post-digital and more focused on the interrelationships between first, lives that are subsumed under the dictates of the productive economy, and second, the use of digital technology to proletarianise work. Digital technologies are used to enforce competition and financialisation, and drive the disciplinary control of data and debt, and this enforces widening inequalities inside higher education.

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. 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. Their productive reality points to the future of the learner becoming that of a self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards, whilst inequality widens on a global terrain. This echoes 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.

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. Here Will Davies’ recent work on neoliberalism is useful enables us to analyse capitalist work inside the flipped University, 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 future of the learner is to be recalibrated 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 the IT Consultancy Gartner notes:

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.

Those working in the University need to recover themselves from narratives of organising principles and curricula that are allegedly post-digital and flipped, in order to address the following.

  1. 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?
  2. How is it possible for individual agency and collective institutions to be criticized and re-imagined simultaneously, in order to overcome neoliberal narratives of technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?

One possibility lies in the idea of the Commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning as a global idea of socialised solidarity, rooted in mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. This is a mechanism for framing a socially-useful higher education that recognises its own alienation. Refusing the post-digital, flipped 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. It demands a more mature discussion of the possibilities for pedagogic production as a social activity that are for-society rather than for-profit.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs: http://markchilds.org/2015/02/04/post-digitalism-an-evolutionary-perspective/

Dave Cormier:  http://davecormier.com/edblog/2015/02/05/looking-back-at-postdigital-6-years-later

Lawrie Phipps: http://lawrie.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2015/02/04/pd_review/

David White: http://daveowhite.com/post-digital-revisited/

on academic hopelessness

It has always seemed strange to me… The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

Steinbeck, J. 1945. Cannery Row. New York: Viking.

My friend Jon told me that he was grappling with how to scale kindness. That he wondered whether the question of “how do we scale kindness?” was the most important issue that we face. This question chimes in-part because increasingly we face an intense sense of Weltschmertz; a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects our deeper sense of hopelessness. Our recognition that the world we hoped for may never be. That the concrete world abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. That the struggle we face to enact kindness is made in the face of those traits that we detest and that we are forced to internalise, lest we be abandoned or worse.

And part of our struggle is our coming face-to-face with sin. In The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard connects this hopelessness to a loss of autonomy/freedom that is itself rooted in our inability to escape from sin. We act, we behave, we are compromised. As the commentator, D. Anthony Storm notes:

Sinfulness brings about a loss of freedom. The anxiety of freedom becomes translated into the anxiety over sin. This anxiety increases as the sinful individual contemplates his entrapment in sinfulness.

The choices that we face are personally sinful for the individual attempting to become humane or moral or ethical, because those very choices are compromised and limit either our own or other’s freedom and agency. And so our choices inside a system of structural domination increasingly alienate us both from ourselves and from our place in the social and natural world. We are increasingly alienated from our practices and ourselves. Our freedom in choosing is between increasingly poor alternatives. Is being kind simply reduced to doing the least worst thing?

For Haiven and Khasnabish (p. 33) the politics of austerity has generated qualitatively new levels of uncertainty and anxiety, and increasing alienation. They note that:

[This] fosters a vindictive politics of punitive cuts, surveillance and loathing. All this permits and enables the displacing of the crisis of capitalism onto the social realm, making the systemic crisis of accumulation a general crisis of social reproduction.

And as we project onto the University new ideas of good and bad, rooted in the public and the private, we develop a new depressive position through which despair restricts our autonomy. Because we incorporate their performativity and control, or we internalise the loss of what we hoped the University might become. And all we can hope for is that we can recover the public university through solidarity. Yet at times we refuse to accept that the overwhelming feeling is one of hopelessness, which itself requires a different level of grief and mourning to be internalised, so that we can address our alienation and lack of autonomy in an authentic manner. Pushing back against these twins demands that we sit with them a while rather than defensively lament what we think we have lost. As Martha Crawford notes: “I mourned for all of those I had to let go.”

I mourned for all of those I had to let go.

Still we are unable to let go because our alienation is rooted in enforced compliance and coercion, and in their refusal to accept that those with whom we might identify or find solidarity have relevance or social meaning. So we are unable to let go, and instead we align ourselves to that which refuses our academic autonomy/freedom. Instead of loss or grief, we internalise their competition and entrepreneurial activity, and the induced behaviour is only made congruent with our inner beings through sanctions, surveillance or performance management. Whether or not it aligns with a deeper set of personal values is a very live issue for those who refuse or who need to mourn what is being taken or lost. As I write in a post on the proletarianisation of the University:

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.

As increasingly proletarianised academic labourers, we become an “article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto) Where is the space for grief and the acceptance of hopelessness, so that we may begin again?

Our hopelessness is rooted in the loss of our labour, as it is brought into the service of value. As our labour is commodified our sense that it is a service to ourselves and others is scrubbed clean and handed to Capital. Marx knew that this is the logic of capitalism, that defenestrates labour, in order that it can accumulate autonomy:

Is then only the semblance of an activity, only a forced activity, imposed upon me only by an external and accidental necessity and not by an internal and determined necessity… My labour, therefore, is manifested as the objective, sensuous, perceptible, and indubitable expression of my self-loss and my powerlessness.

This is a world that Werner Bonefeld notes is reduced to an atomised, hopeless existence as labour-under-capitalism, in which our spaces, places, identities, and relationships are all means of extracting value or hoarding wealth. In the process our Selves are denied, and in trying to recover our lost humanity we are forced to ask, how do we scale-up kindness? And in-part this is because, as Jehu argues:

If history tells us anything, it is that people will do everything in their power to avoid resolving the contradictions of capitalism.

Pace David Harvey, we might then argue that our sense of hopelessness is our witnessing just how far the limits to our alienation from space, society and nature can be pushed. The limits to our alienation expanded time and again. And against this we witness an academic life rooted in hopelessness that lies beyond anxiety. This is the world weariness of the traveller who knows that the concrete world she moves through can never be that for which she hoped, for it is too abstracted. That as the limits to the creation of value can only be overcome spatially or via intensification, we witness Capital changing the very terrain on which we operate. That our reality is Capital’s intensifying our very alienation in this abstracted, concrete world. As Biffo Berardi argues (p. 73):

To be recognized in the networked universe one must become compatible with the generative logic of the matrix. What does not belong to a codified domain is not socially recognizable or relevant, although it still exists in the domain of irrelevance, of residuality. It then reacts with rage and despair, in order to violently reassert its existence.

This world of data-driven performance anxiety drives academic commodification as alienation, and leads to plaintive cries in the name of the public good or intellectual autonomy orthe intellectual value of British academia as a whole.

Yet we are witnessing the privatisation of the private as well as the public, and for academics and students this includes their cognitive work. This is the alienation and subsequent hopelessness of intellectual dispossession that Stiegler (pp. 125-6) argued forms

[a] toxic economy of regressive tendencies, implemented by consumerism exercising the psychopower of its cultural hegemony through the intermediary of psychotechnologies, in this way controls the becoming of individual and collective behavior, as well as the dynamic processes of the technical system.

Our atomisation and automisation cannot enable liberation or agency or the reassertion of academic autonomy. The technological system that valorises Capital itself co-opts and reproduces social relationships that it then attempts to modify or destroy. We are constantly torn between social (re)combination and individual atomisation/entrepreneurialism. The social relations of production extend their domination beyond the space-time of our work, into the space-time of our life, in order to occupy and valorise our humanity and our kindness. For Marcuse in One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, our hopelessness is a function of our technological instrumentalisation: “The liberating force of technology – the instrumentalization of things – turns into a fetter of liberation; the instrumentalization of man.” (p. 159) For Berardi (p. 101, 153, 162), this technological context is rooted in constant, global acceleration of consuming and producing the world that itself intensifies Capital’s capacity for rapid deterritorialization. Control enacted through the internalisation and adoption of automatic operational systems forces us to incorporate negative internal objects. The anxieties of the machine, and the anxieties of the University as a node in the machine, are incorporated and projected onto others. Competition, entrepreneurialism, data-driven performance, the academic super-ego are all incorporated as forms of self-harm. Incorporated as behavioural norms that shape the tempo of our hopelessness.

And to scale-up kindness we have to find spaces on the edges of the machine. And this reminds me that Matt Rendall, in writing about the death of the professional cyclist Marco Pantani (p. 4), showed how those edges were defined through the chronic self-harm of the over-performer/entrepreneur/competitive super-ego:

Marco, however, specialised in the impossible. He’d train for eight hours, then, on the final climbs, the final fifty, sixty kilometres, he’d take himself to the limit, push himself to the edge of the abyss, gauging just how far he could lurch, how much his body could take. And that was how he won, free-diving within himself to greater depths and darknesses than others dared, surfacing barely alive, testing blood, from the great apnoea. There was self-mutilation in these performances, a shedding of everything worldly.

What this entails for the academic/student is an end to self-care; of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds; of the apparent impossibility of scaling-up kindness. Because to survive, the academic/student has to shred and shed everything concrete and worldly, and become abstracted. This, as Rendall notes for professional cycling demands a culture both of dietrologia, or the desperate search for hidden dimensions to surface reality, and of omertà, the silence of those in the know. This is a culture that makes absolute demands of its participants. For Rendall (p. 7):

The soul is its raw material, no less than the body. “Nothing goes to waste,” as Marco’s adversary Lance Armstrong put it. “You put it all to use; the old wounds and long-ago slights become the stuff of competitive energy.”

Increasingly, in these spaces of dietrologia and of omertà, a set of productive relations rooted in the valorisation process and the expansion of Capital gives other’s systemic claims over the academic and student. And Rendall has a second analogy that is useful in discussing academic hopelessness. As he noted in A Significant Other (pp. 7, 11):

This is the paradox at the heart of [academia]: to compete, even rivals must cooperate. In doing so, the play of accommodation and opposition creates complex systems never quite in equilibrium, yet rarely chaotic for long, oscillating around limits defined by shared interest.

[The academic] embodies the uncertainties encoded in the very structure of [academia] – human, social, even philosophical questions about the division of labour, the limits of altruism and the extent to which even the most fortunate of lives must fail to realise its potential for happiness.

And we note that it is the politics of austerity and the foreclosing on academic/student freedom/autonomy that amplifies the failure to realise our potential for happiness. This is the hopelessness that we must face and move beyond. Not to resist and turn from, but to sit with and hold, so that our grief can be internalised. So that we can move beyond it, and so that we can recover hope as an authentic moment of freedom. In her thesis on Contesting Illusions: History and Intellectual Class Struggle in Post-Communist Romania, Florin Poenaru argues (p. 44) that:

The question of the meaning of life is always posed with greater acuity in moments of great ruptures and transformation in people’s lives. The 1989 moment in Eastern Europe was such a moment, when “everything that seemed forever, was no more”. This entailed a dramatic shift in the perceptions and understandings of the communist regimes that, in turn, generated highly emotional biographical reappraisals of the past. This raises a series of interconnected questions that an anthropology of being in time can investigate, such as: what is to live a good life in turbulent times and world-transforming transitional periods? What does it mean to act politically? How to capture such elusive feelings of optimism, enthusiasm, pessimism, Weltschmerz that are not simply personal, but generational? How are justifications about one’s life decisions and actions are formulated, expressed and represented? How do feelings of resignation, disappointment, renunciation and despair take shape amid the course of one’s life and how do they gather meaning and political relevance? The ontological level that depicts life as a transition through time is compounded by the level of transition through particular political and economic realities, with breaks and continuities.

And this isn’t simply an anxiety-driven catastrophism, which we hope will announce the inevitable post-capitalism. It is engaging with hopelessness as a way of understanding this secular crisis, and the contradictions that emerge from and flow into it. The contradictions of a world dominated by value, against which we wish to reclaim our entitlement to happiness, kindness, humane values. How is it that we allow Capital to dominate? How is it that through our choices we liberate value in motion? We see this in the environment and nature, in questions about Why should we even bother? We see this in the reproduction of authoritarianism across the State, and in the internalisation of brutalism in our social relationships. We see this in the endless reproduction of inequalities that deny so many their lives, and instead instil only hopelessness.

We might remember that Bloch saw this as a form of confusion, fed upon by hopelessness and which incorporated anxiety and later, as that anxiety coalesced, fear:

Many only feel confused. The ground shakes, they do not know why and with what. Theirs is a state of anxiety; if it becomes more definite, then it is fear.

Here sitting with and then teaching hopelessness, as an authentic pedagogic moment that can be worked upon and moved past, becomes so important. For Bloch, engaging with the internalisation of anxiety and its projection into the world as fear is a means to work through this hopelessness, and to recover a more authentic sense of what the Self might be in the world. Yet this demands that we reveal what frames our abstracted concrete reality, and that we accept and engage with what exactly is generating our life beyond our anxiety; our Weltschmerz. And what, exactly we are internalising and then projecting onto the world.

It is a question of learning hope. Its work does not renounce, it is in love with success rather than failure. Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them, cannot know nearly enough of what it is that makes them inwardly aimed, of what may be allied to them outwardly. The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong. It will not tolerate a dog’s life which feels itself only passively thrown into What Is, which is not seen through, even wretchedly recognized. The work against anxiety about life and the machinations of fear is that against its creators, who are for the most part easy to identify, and it looks in the world itself for what can help the world; this can be found. How richly people have always dreamed of this, dreamed of the better life that might be possible. Everybody’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just stale, even enervating escapism, even booty for swindlers, but another part is provocative, is not content just to accept the bad which exists, does not accept renunciation. This other part has hoping at its core, and is teachable. It can be extricated from the unregulated daydream and from its sly misuse, can be activated undimmed. Nobody has ever lived without daydreams, but it is a question of knowing them deeper and deeper and in this way keeping them trained unerringly, usefully, on what is right. Let the daydreams grow even fuller, since this means they are enriching themselves around the sober glance; not in the sense of clogging, but of becoming clear. [emphasis added]

Only with the farewell to the closed, static concept of being does the real dimension of hope open. Instead, the world is full of propensity towards something, tendency towards something, latency of something, and this intended something means fulfilment of the intending. It means a world which is more adequate for us, without degrading suffering, anxiety, self-alienation, nothingness.

If only we can learn to sit with our hopelessness. To internalise it. To grieve for it. To move beyond it. To teach it.


A friend asked me to question whether I was talking about a hopelessness that is rooted in an inability, or whether instead it was grounded in a lack of an ability – an ability that was latent, hidden or undeveloped. And I think that the former, an inability, uncovers defences and anxieties and fears made concrete because we have incorporated too many experiences and relationships that were bad enough. This inability is then reflected in our powerlessness to face down abstraction that is rooted in the financialisation of the University and that amplifies our subsequent alienation from ourselves. The latter, our latent or undeveloped ability, offers a different route away from hopelessness, and one that can enable us to reflect on (and accept or reject or reform) what we have incorporated, so that we can instead internalise the grief of what is and what cannot be, and to emerge renewed through mourning. This is Bloch’s idea that a life that sits authentically with hopelessness moves towards hope because “it looks in the world itself for what can help the world.” This isn’t a melancholic or despairing hope for a return to an idealised “what was”. In Bloch’s idea, it is an active “becoming”.

I know you leave, it’s too long overdue
For far too long I’ve had nothin’ new to show to you
Goodbye dry eyes, I watched your plane fade off west of the moon
And it felt so strange to walk away alone

There’s no regrets
No tears goodbye

Rush, T. 1968. No Regrets.

Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

ONE. Performance information: signalisation and dressage

Data is the bleeding edge. Follow the data to see where education is being cracked for value. Follow the data to see who is doing the cracking. Follow the data to see who is engaged in this process of enforced, public and open, educational data production. Follow the data to see who is then enclosing and commodifying that open and public data for profit. Follow the data to see who is selling and re-selling new services back into open and public spaces, and charging rents for them. Follow the data to see the transnational networks of dispossession that are using secondary policy, processes of entrepreneurialism, debt and indentured study, financialisation, and the assault on labour rights, to lever value.

And I am reminded of all this because Martin Eve pointed me to this University of Nottingham video on performance information. Not learning analytics. Not management information, but performance information. The disciplining of academic labour, where that labour is the work of both staff and students. Sold back to us as what students want, because their expectations have changed. Sold back to us in terms of progression and retention. Sold back to us as the new-normal.

Performance information sold back to us. The new normal. Dashboarding for success. For a moment I forgot myself and I read that as “waterboarding [academic labour] for success”.

TWO. I remember…

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of student debt, big data and academic alienation, arguing that “the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of globalisation and the University, arguing that “the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of circuits of affect and resistance, arguing that “social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance, arguing that “flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of money, labour and academic co-operation, arguing that “This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? ”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of research and the circuit of impact, arguing that “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… 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.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the proletarianisation of the University, arguing that “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.”

THREE. What a mess.

This matters because we are now being taught about innovation spillovers by HM Government, and the explicit value of education to the wider economy. We are told that:

the share of hours worked by highly skilled employees is positively linked to almost all of the measures of productivity, profits and trade performance. Expenditure on training is associated with increased labour productivity at the enterprise level. Purchases of goods and/or services from the Education sector (comprising schools, and further and higher education institutions) increases labour productivity at the sector level, total factor productivity at both the sector and enterprise level, and the ratio of exports to output at the sector level. Exposure to spillovers from education purchases is negatively correlated with labour productivity but positively and significantly correlated with all the other performance variables. (p. 15)

And we already know that we have transnational corporations working with HMG or HEFCE to open-up UK higher education in the name of efficiency, like Pearson or Goldman Sachs.

And we already know that Universities UK are driving data-driven change in the name of a smarter, stronger sector.

And we already know that RAND Europe and Ranmore consulting have been working with HEFCE and the Leadership Foundation for HE, for example on impact metrics and the REF.

And we already know of the work around Britain’s “Emergent Corporate Universities”: Academia in the Service of International Capital and the Military Industrial Complex.

Happy days.

FOUR. Data and anxiety: does it really have to be this way?

In her excellent essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford argues:

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind ofsurveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

Overcoming anxiety with anonymity then becomes the thing, as Tiqqun argue. This is the very ability to define a subjectivity beyond the hegemonic control of data as experience:

Establishing a zone of opacity where people can circulate and experiment freely without bringing in the Empire’s information flows, means producing “anonymous singularities,” recreating the conditions for a possible experience, an experience which will not be immediately flattened out by a binary machine assigning a meaning/direction to it, a dense experience that can transform desires and the moments where they manifest themselves into something beyond desire, into a narrative, into a filled-out body.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis on “The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

To use data beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To use data for co-operative performance beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To resist the co-option of data for impact and performance management. If you work in UK HE, good luck with that.


Beyond the University? Protest and anxiety

Back in August 2012 I wrote a note on the subsumption of academic labour that included the following.

This latter point brings me to the politics of higher education and the ways in which political society advocates in the name of the real subsumption of academic labour to the dominant order. The political realities of Vice-Chancellors as CEOs of businesses for whom the reality is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall cannot be ignored. This places them in the context of networks of neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks. This political reality disciplines the actions that academic managers and administrators can take, either supported by the State or quiescent in the face of its power, and places them in opposition to those academics and students whose labour they need to recalibrate for the market.

As a result we see a range of political actions aimed at disciplining academics and students, including, but not limited to:

Similarly, this has given birth to a range of solidarity actionscommuniqués, and free universities, that are not simply a recasting of higher education in liberal terms around the notion of economic libertarianism or cost-free learning (as pervades the MOOC debate). These are deeply political claims for higher learning, and a critique and reclaiming of the university against-and-beyond capitalism.

However, the accrual of executive power within universities acting as corporations and the use of technology as a mechanism for surveillance and performance management, means that the explicit subsumption of academic labour under the realities of competition, productivity, efficiency and profit is inevitable. In this process the realities of force and political will by those with power-to create a dominant order trump individual protests. Force married to political will then invades the cultural realities of civil society, so that no matter how we argue for education as a public good, it is subsumed under the rule of money.

In this process of ensuring that the capitalist is the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale, the politics are the thing. How might a counter-narrative be generated that connects academic labour to student protests and the broader work of protests against austerity? What is the role of academic trades unions in coalescing and amplifying protest so that pushing-back against recalibration becomes possible? Or in the face of the logic of discipline and coercion, and a political will amongst networks of legislators and academic managers for recalibration, is the scope for the university to be regenerated as a space of resistance and protest too limited? In fact, is some form of exodus the only option?

It feels important to return to this point about our responses to subsumption, in light of the resurgence of student protest in the UK in the past few weeks, and the broader connections rooted in a counter-hegemonic solidarity. In particular the response of Jerome Roos in his Roar Magazine piece “From New York to Greece, we revolt ‘cus we can’t breathe” is important because it focuses on the concrete lack of justice. This also amplifies the demands of the students in occupation at Warwick, which centre upon justice and voice. The lack of a voice because the lack of justice is an illegal hold that restricts our space to breathe and live, and is a critical metaphor in protest and dissent. It leads Roos to note that (quoting Franz Fanon):

when we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.

And on Campus at Warwick, in the fight against its militarisation (#copsoffcampus), student activists state that:

Whilst we are viewed as consumers and not students, the higher education institution will continue to further marginalise and oppress those within and outside the university.

This reminds me of the Sussex students in occupation against privatisation and outsourcing of whom Gurminder Bhambra wrote:

The eviction and criminalisation of students involved in civil disobedience against policies with which they and many others fundamentally disagree is contiguous with other attacks that undermine our public university system. But despite the barriers put in their way, the ever-creative students at Sussex continue to find new ways to give voice to the broader movements of dissent.

What appears to be emerging is the University as a specifically-recalibrated form of anxiety machine, where the space itself acts as a crucible of projected anxieties and forms of social (self-)harm. The anxieties of senior managers forced to compete for artificially scarce resources in an increasingly marketised and financialised corporate space. The anxieties of the Police described in terms of the following practices by the Warwick branch of UCU:

A video, which was subsequently posted on YouTube, showed students being grabbed and pushed and having their hair pulled, followed by CS spray being used at very close range. Also in the footage, a taser gun can be seen and heard, and there have been subsequent reports that it may have been discharged against one student. At the time of writing, three students are being held at Coventry police station.

The anxieties of students revealed in this statement from a Warwick student activist who was arrested:

Activism is arduous – it is, for myself and I know many others, a flurry of sleepless nights; shirked self-care and study; perpetual vacillation between punishing, disenchanting sadness and the utmost euphoria; it is seconds, minutes, hours in prison cells which can’t quite be traced, which dilate and mystify and fade into oblivion; it is a state of flux, bound somewhere between fantasy and reality, a stasis of promise and despair; of internal conflicts and multiple houred debates which will never find resolution; it is mental health problems we can’t quite process or understand; it is daring to dream within a world of horrors and atrocities. It is all-consuming and obsessive, incarcerating as much as it liberating. 

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 this marketised University space, the idea of the public is being atrophied, kettled, disciplined, sold-off. It is difficult to envisage how the University might be reclaimed. This is more so given the wider sense of social injustice, linked to the politics of austerity. Precarity and volatility, as Ilargi notes at The Automatic Earth, underpins the transfer of resources to those with power and the accumulation of wealth by an elite, which threatens a clash of social forces. This clash is already happening in student/worker occupations, indignations, demonstrations, strikes, and so on, that are aimed against neoliberalism and austerity across the globe. Ilargi notes:

If we presume that a connection exists between the increase in debt on one side and the increase in “asset value” on the other, then I would say chances are we’re looking at both a gigantic wealth transfer from the poor towards the rich and a huge bubble that allows that to happen, and that will make the poor even poorer when it bursts. Which seems inevitable, because debt by itself cannot create value.

And if I’m right, what we’re seeing is not the incredible resiliency of the markets, and no real increase in asset value, but an increase in the threat to the social cohesion of our communities, cities and nations.

However, student protests remind us that it is less difficult to see how higher education might be reimagined beyond the University, as a form of what William Robinson calls social movement unionism.

Increasingly, organizing the working class means organizing informal sector workers. It means shifting from an exclusive focus on the point of production to a focus on both the point of production and reproduction. That’s what the piqueteros do. They say that if you’re unemployed you can’t organize into trade unions and withhold your labour. If you’re structurally unemployed you have to disrupt the daily functioning of the system. Similarly, if you’re an informal sector worker you can’t make demands on capital in the same way as a formal sector worker. So increasingly, the type of working class organization we need must address both production and reproduction – social movement unionism, for instance, linking neighborhood struggles to formal worker centers and so forth. We have to recognise this and work to deepen the transnational character of these struggles across the world.

In reimagining higher education as a point of production, reproduction and circulation of alternatives, this week’s Co-operative Education conference is important through its focus on Education about co-operatives, Education for co-operatives, and Education in a co-operative way. What is needed is a sense of how and where the subsumption of academic labour might be refused, and a higher education rooted in mass intellectuality beyond the University may be a starting-point.


for a political economy of massive open online courses

I have an article coming out in a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology next year, on open education. It’s entitled “For a political economy of open education”.


In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.


I have written about MOOCs and political economy here.

I have written about MOOCs and neoliberalism here.

I have written about MOOCs, networks and the rate of profit here.

I have written about MOOCs and the restructuring of the University here.