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the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”.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.

Postscript

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”.

Abstract

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.

NOTE

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.


on the academic commons

Joss Winn reminds me that Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, “The First International” in late October 1864, included the following statement about the political importance of collective work, association and combination, as a bulwark against the economic and political power of Capital. 

One element of success they [Labour] possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.

I think about this in academia today because Joss is running his final WordPress workshop (related to the Lincoln University Academic Commons). The Lincoln Commons, alongside the work of ds106 and collective work at University of British Columbia was the inspiration for the DMU Academic Commons, which is rooted in collective organising principles, in terms of its decision-making and production/consumption/distribution.

[The DMU Commons is] open, and will encourage generosity, respect, tolerance and sharing. Our DMU Commons will enable permeability and fluidity in collaboration, supporting autonomy in our shared production of DMU as a University committed to engaging with useful social reproduction. Our Commons will help shape DMU as a “knowing University”, where thinking is shared in public, in order to enable society/communities to solve problems, develop alternatives and innovate.

I have discussed the idea of the academic Commons under this tag, although I have been more specific about it, in terms of:

There are examples of student-led, staff-led, public/University spaces, curriculum, journal/publishing, and project sites on the DMU Commons, here.

Current blog-posts and updates are accessible from our aggregator, here.

These developments owe much to the work of Joss Winn and at DMU, Owen Williams.

This earth was made a common treasury/For everyone to share/All things in common.

Bragg, B. 1985. The World Turned Upside Down

 


For a political economy of open education

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

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

Event details are at: http://criticalopeneducation.eventbrite.co.uk

My slides are at slideshare.net/richardhall.

I will make the following points in my 10 minutes on a political economy of open education.

ONE. It is worth checking out the following pieces on open in education.

TWO. I want to make three points. First, that a political economic analysis of open education reveals a revolutionising of the means of production and the disciplining of academic labour. Second, that open education is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Third, that we need to ask what is to be done, not in order to recuperate open education but to abolish it? How might we re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism?

NOTE: here ds106 serves as a reminder of the relationships that might point towards an alternative.

THREE. Audrey Watters has written about the co-option of open/openness as a form of “Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.” She argues that “I think the answer is more transparency about our politics. I think, in fact, the answer is politics.” This is a call to critique the interests that drive educational/technological innovation, and their interrelationships. Elsewhere Sarah Amsler has echoed this in a focus on critical pedagogy and the fearless university, when she talks about ‘a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice’.

FOUR. This form of political analysis stands in relation to value, and an engagement with value production and accumulation is central to any understanding of the condition of open education. For Marx in Capital Volume 2: ‘Value emerges as a form of sociability (as capital) from the unity of three circuits. It is formed of moments of the circulation of money, of production, and of commodities. The self-expansion of value is “the determining purpose, as the compelling motive.”’ How does open education emerge from the interrelationships and flows of money/debt/equity, the production of teaching and learning services, and of data/content? How does the unity of these three circuits reinforce hegemonic power? We might speak of openness as hope or emancipation or humanity, but as Anselm Jappe notes: ‘Accumulated value, and the power that flows from it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised.’

FIVE. A critique of open education from the standpoint of value is important because the idea of open [whatever] has been co-opted by those with power as and export/industrial strategy related to financialisation and marketisation. This is witnessed in statements by UK Government Ministers that “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops”, and also by UK Opposition Ministers that “our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy.” These policy statements are then amplified by entrepreneurial activity that is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. As Will Davies highlights, this focus on enterprise or entrepreneurship in policy and practice pivots around the creation of a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns (debt and the future); and second in expanding the arena for competition (into the public sphere and into pedagogic practices). Thus, we witness Vice Chancellors like Martin Bean at the UK Open University stating that: “There is some fantastic work being done, but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of innovation to think bigger, not just about reaching new audiences, but about revolutionising the traditional learning and teaching experiences.” Entrepreneurial activity underpins the production and circulation of value through commodity-dumping in new markets and by making established, public spaces productive.

SIX. This local policy/practice infrastructure is “enriched” by a transnational framework that seeks to create open markets in services and open access to procurement [see, Council of EU: http://bit.ly/1vOSUxF]. This framework then looks to reduce [through arbitrage] the labour content of services and products [see, Gartner: http://gtnr.it/17RLm2v]. Whilst other educational service providers look to create or co-opt “an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners [and learning outcomes]” [see, Pearson’s Five Trillion Dollar Question: http://bit.ly/1iaRaMp]. A Bain and Company note on a world awash with money highlighted the market/finance opportunities of a liberalised educational trading space. Opportunities focused upon: developing exportable services to increase revenues and profits [e.g. MOOCs and OERs]; upgrading low-tech products into premium consumer goods and services [e.g. curriculum components like assessment, and learning analytics]; making services bound by physical geography more portable and global [mobile commodity-dumping]; enabling leading universities in the advanced economies to accelerate the training of home-grown specialists in emerging economies; and importing “highly-skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation for their own education systems to produce a skilled workforce”.

SEVEN. This open educational framework is then used by transnational joint-ventures, in order to leverage surplus value in ways that traditional universities could not do alone. In part this is achieved through the commodification of vast arrays of data, and the creation of new services, which in turn reflect the need to make academic labour productive of value. For example, Coursera partners include: venture capital: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, GSV Capital, International Finance Corporation, Learn Capital Venture Partners; educational publishers like Laureate Education; and transnational bodies like the World Bank. These transnational joint-ventures or associations of capitals demonstrate the interrelationship between profitability and investment. Here open education is a technical response of global capital to lower levels of profitability, the need to increase global consumption of educational services, and the demand to make previously marginal sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Thus, the impact of educational innovation is: first, as a means of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; second, 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; and third, as a means of revolutionising the means of production and disciplining labour.

EIGHT. It is impossible to understand the role of open education without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class.

NINE. What is to be done? Is it possible to re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism? The idea of re-producing the general intellect as mass intellectuality, or an alternative form of sociability that is beyond the market because it subsumes the market inside, and that is beyond financialisation because it liberates time, is critical. For Marx, the general intellect was: “the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].” A central concern is how to enact, produce and circulate contemporary space/time, so that the future is not foreclosed, and so that liberation-is-praxis. Liberation demands personal and public struggle, and leads us to question, pace Harry Cleaver, whether the idea of open education might be used to recompose the possibility of educational and societal struggle in more autonomous educational organisations and spaces that exist within and between both the university and the community. Here there is a focus on the forms of academic [i.e. staff and student] labour in order to politically recompose the division between the university [as a factory of ideas] and the community. Is it possible to use the idea of open, public education to abolish the university that is, and to re-produce the university of utopia as an alternative form of sociability?

TEN. There are important examples of struggles for alternatives.

In labour rights: 3cosas; the Australian Actual Casuals; Leeds Postgrads 4 Fair Pay.

In campaigning for the public university, and in the College of Debtors in Defiance, and in remaking the University.

In educational and co-operative spaces like the Social Science Centre, and Open Data Manchester, and in the FLOK Society project, and in the idea of the Commons and communing and commonism.

These examples remind us that it is possible to challenge a false idea of material abundance (rooted in normalised ideas of growth, accumulation and debt), alongside a false idea of immaterial scarcity (reinforced in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership), and the pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce. As Bauwens and Iacomella argue ‘we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”’

ELEVEN. We might ask whether educational practices that are rooted in open co-operativism provide a better alternative political economy and set of possibilities for struggle. Open co-operatives:

  • emerge from democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives;
  • connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution;
  • embody and critique/develop the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives;
  • define an alternative framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities;
  • enable a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft);
  • connect a global educational commons that is rooted in critical pedagogy;
  • offer possibilities for the conversion, dissolution or creation of established/emergent/new educational institutions, which are themselves both transitional and pedagogic.

A focus on open co-operativism as a pedagogic process, rather than fetishizing open education as an allegedly emancipatory outcome, might enable a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice.


CAMRI presentation: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

I’m speaking at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) on 25 March 2015 about the relationship between capitalism, educational technology, and the proletarianisation of the University. How lovely.

The working title is: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

The working abstract is…

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between space and time, and to subsume academic labour inside processes for valorisation.

However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. Through such a deformation, it also reminds us of alternative historical and material re-imaginings and alternatives like the Chilean CyberSyn project, the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, the Hornsey Experiment, and so on. This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education and academic labour to be co-opted for value-production. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects with limited power-to produce a world beyond value. A question is the extent to which pedagogical and transitional alternatives might be described, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


Notes on pedagogy, free time and the abolition of wage labour

I’ve been reminded this week, by Joss Winn’s excellent article “Writing about academic labour” that

There is an understandable tendency among critics of the current crisis in higher education to want to restore the university to what it once was, to defend the university from changing into something else, to resist the real subsumption of academic labour under capital. I think this misunderstands the university as a means of production and its historical role.

Joss analyses how the University is increasingly folded inside the ebb-and-flow of capitalism as a process of circulation in the name of value. The flow of circuits of production, commodity and money are structuring and re-structuring what it means to labour as an academic or as a student (wages for students, anyone?). In this way academic labour needs to be critiqued through labour theory, not in order to recuperate a golden age of scholarship and learning, but to re-appropriate and potentially liberate academics and students as organic intellectuals able to help society engage with critical, global problems. As Joss argues, central to this process is an understanding of academic work, by both academics and students, from the standpoint of labour.

When critically approaching the university as a means of production for the valorisation of capital, an emancipatory project must first focus on re-appropriating the means of knowledge production through efforts to control the substance of value: the labour process. This, I think, requires new models of democratic higher education organised directly through the co-operation of academic and student labour; models of practice which aim to re-appropriate the ‘general intellect’ (Marx 1973, 706) and which recognise “the existence of a growing gap between the sort of labour people continue to perform in a society mediated by labor and the sort of labor they could perform, were it not for this ‘necessity’ of capitalism.” (Postone 1993, 370) This effort must be grounded in a thoroughgoing critique of the political economy of higher education that starts from its most simple, immanent categories. It would recognise and develop the significant productive capacity of our existing historical conditions in a way whereby human knowledge or “mass intellectuality” (Dyer-Witheford 1999, 488) is seen as the emancipatory project rather than a resource for valorisation.

In a recent article “On the Abolition of Academic Labour: The Relationship Between Intellectual Workers and Mass Intellectuality”, I also argue for a critique of academic work as labour, in terms of:

  1. the mechanisms through which academic autonomy is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University;
  2. how this alienation relates to the recalibration of the University as an association of capitals;
  3. how academic labour might be understood in concrete and abstract terms, and then abolished as part of a social struggle for subjectivity that is situated against value production and accumulation; and
  4. whether it is possible to liberate academic labour as a form of mass intellectuality that can be used inside and across society?

Akin to Joss, I also wondered about the potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, as transitional, pedagogical moments.

In this, both Joss and I focus upon Moishe Postone’s focus on time and labour as structuring capitalism’s domination.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it. (Postone 1993, 373)

In this analysis, whilst transitional, co-operative organising principles are important, autonomy over time, and agency in the activities that are usefully and socially structured by time are pivotal. Here I am reminded of an excellent blog-post by Jehu on communism and wage-slavery, entitled (pace BB King) “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there”. Here Jehu states that the premise of communism or a post-capitalism cannot be rooted in the abolition of the wage, or in the working class wishing to give up the possibility of an improved standard-of-living rooted in a job that pays a decent wage. Who wants to give up their access to consumer goods and holidays, aside from the impact of indenture and [private/state] debt-bondage on the need to labour? Jehu notes:

why, in all of [the co-operative or solidarity economy or state capitalist/socialist] examples cited, do we never clearly see a path to the end of class, labor, property and the state? Because they can never move beyond certain definite limits, these systems always collapse into some new state, some new method of coercing labor, and some new form of property.

In this argument, post-capitalism “appears in this society as a catastrophe to existing society.” The end of capitalist work is stagnation, no-growth or de-growth, or the inability to buy a specific set of activities or things. This is economic depression, austerity, unemployment, debt and social dislocation. It is also asset and wealth transfer to a transnational elite. Critically, writes Jehu:

To go from a situation where everyone has to sell their labor power to communism under the premises of present society implies an ever bigger shitload of people can’t find work. Communism may be the end of wage labor, but getting to the end of wage labor implies ever increasing unemployment, competition to sell labor power and social disruption. And if people can’t find work, they will turn to people who promise to create work, not those who argue we can live without it.

Trying, then to fight or struggle for any alternative is placed asymmetrically against valorisation as the structuring reality of society, and which forces us at a deep psychological level to accept our alienation from ourselves, because for those who rely on a wage to survive “the end of wage labor [is] an actual mortal threat to [their] physical existence, as the threat of starvation.” Matters are worse, as Simon Clarke argues in an essay on neoliberalism, because:

While real wages may have risen, the creation of new needs by capital has meant that the socially determined subsistence needs of the population have risen more rapidly, forcing an ever growing proportion of the population to seek work to augment the household income in the attempt to meet those needs. At the same time, a growing proportion of the population is unable to meet the ever-increasing employment demands of capital, while those in employment face the ever-growing threat of losing their jobs.

And this precarious existence, coupled to consumer needs, has also faced an assault on societal benefits and collectively-negotiated safety nets:

the mounting cost of collective provision to counter the tendencies of capitalist accumulation has given force to the neo-liberal attempt to replace collective provision with private provision through insurance-based systems, which provides yet another channel through which capital can intensify the exploitation of the mass of the working population by intensifying and profiting from their fear of misfortune.

However, Jehu is clear that there is a distinction between the capitalist class, for whom the end of capitalism would be the end of production for value and power of the means, forces and relations of production, and the working class. Here control of the means of production of use values across society and the liberation of free time as a structuring reality of that society becomes a critical field of conflict, especially in terms of autonomy over the use of time or the availability of free-time.

Theoretically the separation of the production of use values from the production of exchange values can only begin once the productive activity of the working class is not solely engaged in production of exchange value. This requires society has free disposable time to engage in productive activities that do not and cannot in any way aim at producing exchange values.

In other words, the separation of production of use values from exchange values is possible only when free disposable time of society becomes the prime source of use values. I think this cannot happen until almost all (or at least the largest part) of the personal time of individuals in society is free disposable time. The larger the quantity of free disposable time society possesses, the more likely this free time will itself become the most important source of material wealth.

The problem we face at present is that the production of material wealth cannot be separated from the production of value, because the working class has very little time of its own to engage in any activity that is not premised on value production. This cannot be fixed by demanding the state create jobs, handout basic income, raise the minimum wage or other measures very popular on the Left right now. It cannot even be fixed by more advanced ideas like market socialism, cooperatives and even Soviet style central planning.

The problem is not how wage labor is organized, managed or compensated; it is how communists propose to abolish it in a way that does not result in a catastrophe.

In his analysis of neoliberalism, Simon Clarke argues that any struggle for the abolition of wage-labour and for transcending the structuring realities of capitalism runs counter to the realities of needing access to the next [smartfone] or holiday in the Sun or cultural activity, which in-turn requires a perpetual, fiscal transaction in the present. Any such struggle also runs counter to a hegemonic project aimed at the transnational incorporation of the present and the future inside the law of value. As a result all sociability and all of life are re-produced for value.

The economist critics of neoliberalism have repeatedly exposed how restrictive and unrealistic are the assumptions on which the neoliberal model is based. However, to argue that the neoliberal model is unrealistic is somewhat to miss the point, since the neoliberal model does not purport so much to describe the world as it is, but the world as it should be. The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model. This is not merely an intellectual fantasy, it is a very real political project, to realise which neoliberalism has conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilised to realise the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital.

This underscores Ellen Meiksins-Wood argument that:

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

These ideas of labour and time, pivoting around the twin aspects of the concrete and the abstract world, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to exist in a world structured around the wage, underpin the difficulties that Anselm Jappe highlights in his critical analysis of the impact of value and labour on our everyday narratives. He argues that a post-capitalist project would have to overcome the labour theory of value as it plays out in “othering”. He writes of

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

Critically we are reminded of these processes of projection that are themselves defences against the alienation of wage-labour in the State’s reaction to Occupy Democracy in London, and in the party of organised labour’s attack on immigration as a function of “progressive politics”, and in the party of organised labour’s belief that “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others”, and in the reaction of local businesses in #Ferguson Missouri to protests about the shooting of Michael Brown. In the latter it was reported by businesses that:

“I know customers who have left the area … I just want everything to go back to normal and everyone can do business again.”

“We’ve just been trying to go to work, business as usual – nobody wants to take the boards down until we see what happens. It’s more of the not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Whither human or labour rights in the face of economic uncertainty? And who has power-over the narratives that other or that decide who is to be othered? Who has power-over narratives that dehumanise in the face of the scarcity of value? And what courage does it take to refuse or push-back against these narratives?

And earlier this week I saw the film made shortly after the occupation of the Horney College of Art, called The Hornsey Experiment. It reminded me that so many of the defences that appear to have emerged in short-order since 2008, as apparently governmental/neoliberal responses to the forms of direct action that are our collective opposition to the politics of austerity, were also present in the 1960s. That the courage it takes to refuse has a historical and material lineage that is often communal. At Hornsey, there was opposition to the marketization and accreditation of learning, and to the subsumption of learning and teaching for capitalist work, rather than as humanistic activities rooted in love. There was opposition that took the form of general assemblies and occupations. There was opposition that took the form of a new pedagogy of production, with clear links through to the liberation-praxis of the anti-University of London, the Mental Furniture Industry, and Project Sigma. There was opposition that was leaderless and invisible and which lacked demands. There was opposition that simply wished to enact power-over the production of art as a form of sociability, and power-over the organisation of the space, in ways that were against-and-beyond the formalised, accredited curriculum.

The oppositional pedagogy uncovered in the Hornsey Experiment reminded me of the dissonance that Nina Power wrote about, and which might be re-formed as a form of anti-cynicism to prevailing anti-humanist pedagogies.

Theories of universal pedagogy, that is to say, “a pedagogy that takes nothing for granted,” and the attempt to put these into practice may seem out of place in this brave new world of student consumerism and universities-as-businesses, an archaic throwback to outmoded, optimistic Enlightenment models of generic capacity and the promise of knowledge for all. Yet, perversely, the assumption of universalist, egalitarian, rationalist (although not in the sense the market would understand it) principles (or axioms, as we shall see) in education may be precisely the way out of a certain deep cynicism that pervades the attitudes of students toward their degrees, of lecturers to their students, and of the university to its responsibility to educate, and not merely to train.

The Hornsey Experiement was met with threats of Police dogs and barbed wire fences, alongside alleged criticism and cynicism from some local people. Moreover, under the promise of discussions about a new organisational structure, curriculum and pedagogical approach for the College, the occupation ended and was neutralised in the bureaucracy of the College’s administrative structures. The energy of the general assembly was dissipated in the dampening of the committee structure, and in the midst of deliberation in hegemonic structures those with power-over the College securitised the space so that occupations would be harder to achieve, and then excluded students who had occupied, and demanded that visibility and accreditation would be the productive order of things. As Bourdieu and Passeron argue in Reproduction in Education Society and Culture:

An educational system based on a traditional type of pedagogy can fulfil its function of inculcation only so long as it addresses itself to students equipped with the linguistic and cultural capital – and the capacity to invest it profitably – which the system presupposes and consecrates without ever expressly demanding it and without methodically transmitting it.

Those with power-over demand control over our sociability reinforced through a specific type of cultural value, which as Clarke, Jehu and Jappe note has a certain morality attached to it. It is inside-and-against this hegemonic, cultural normalisation that an alternative, transitional politics has to emerge, rooted in the idea of free time. For Alexander Trocchi, in the glow of Project Sigma, this meant the liberation of time for relatively elastic forms of spontaneity and experiment to take root:

Each branch of the spontaneous university will be the nucleus of an experimental town to which all kinds of people will be attracted for shorter or longer periods of time and from which, if we are successful, they will derive a renewed and infectious sense of life. We envisage an organization whose structure and mechanisms are infinitely elastic; we see it as the gradual crystallization of a regenerative cultural force, a perpetual brainwave, creative intelligence everywhere recognizing and affirming its own involvement.

However, at issue is still Jehu’s question of how any such spontaneous, pedagogical experiments enable us to work toward the abolition of wage labour in a way that does not result in a catastrophe. For Marx in The German Ideology this issue has to be addressed communally.

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

Quite how this is to be done in the face of socio-environmental catastrophe, the politics of austerity, crippling levels of personal and State debt, reduced access to cheap, liquid fuel, and the cultural imperative to maintain standards of living and growth-based agendas as the structuring realities of life is another issue.


Open Education: Condition Critical

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

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

Event details

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

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

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

Panellists

Sean Dockray (The Public School)

Richard Hall (De Montfort University Leicester)

Shaun Hides (Coventry University)

Sharon Irish (University of Illinois/FemTechNet)

Pauline van Mourik Broekman (Mute)

Panel scope

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

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

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