The really open university: working together as open academic commons

I have been asked to speak at the Brookes Learning Teaching Conference 2017. I love this kind of invite, which enables a testing of ideas and a lot of listening to the practices, activities and hopes of others. My abstract is detailed below. The talk enables me to return to that practical work I was engaged with in 2010-12, around the idea of/re-imagining the university. It also enables me to reflect on my recent work inside the University, on commons and co-operative practices.

This talk questions the role of pedagogic scholarship and innovation in addressing global crises of social reproduction. It argues that working together has both possibilities and impossibilities, which need a richer discussion inside the University.

In the past decade, fall-out from the Browne Review has given birth to a number of alternative education projects. These alternatives focused on creating spaces and curricula that prefigure more democratic ways of doing higher education, in which the boundaries between student and teacher are dissolved and where co-operation and peer-projects between scholars become fundamental. Examples include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Really Open University in Leeds. These projects developed grounded, co-participatory scholarly communities, which acted as incubators for pedagogies like Student-as-Producer (Neary and Winn 2011; Pusey 2016).

However, they also share characteristics with transnational platforms like #RhodesMustFall and#Whyismycurriculumwhite, in attempting to push back against the structuring logics represented by the curriculum (Hall and Smyth 2016). These platforms also connect to co-operative forms of higher education like Mondragon University in the Basque country, the Little Schools of the Zapatista Movement, and the education sector of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

Reflecting on these alternative forms is helpful in analysing our responses to the crisis of higher education, in order to locate spaces for truly progressive pedagogies inside the university. If such spaces do exist, on what are they based and what is their relationship to the curriculum? How do they enable academics and students to respond to issues of inclusivity and diversity, collaboration and peer production? Three responses may be considered:

  • open, academic commons supporting a sharing economy inside and across a porous interdisciplinary curriculum;
  • safe, scholarly communities of practice, perhaps forming solidarity economies that refuse enclosure; and
  • positioning the university and curriculum within (and against?) the development of ‘mass intellectuality’, or socially-useful knowledge produced outside the university.


Hall, R., & Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI:

Neary, M., & Winn, J. (2011). The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In M. Neary & J. Winn (Eds.), The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience (pp. 192–210). Continuum. Retrieved from

Pusey, A. (2016). Pusey, A. (2016). Strike, occupy, transform! Students, subjectivity and struggle. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 26(2), 214-32. Retrieved from:

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

<for some to succeed, some have to fail>

The government is trying to create a market in the education system. This … is the right track for reform, but at the moment there’s a risk that we’re building in the potential for market failures too. A functioning market needs enough genuinely new entrants to challenge existing providers, enough capacity for competition to be meaningful, enough information for providers and users alike, ways of breaking up failing or monopolistic providers, and exit points for providers that aren’t doing a good enough job. The direction of travel is the right one, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done.

Nick Timothy. 2016. Talk at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.

<higher education and market downgrades>

Moody’s considers that policy predictability and effectiveness of economic policy-making — an important aspect of institutional strength – might be somewhat diminished as a consequence of the [Brexit] vote. The UK government will not only need to negotiate the UK’s departure from the EU but will likely also aim to embark on significant changes to the UK’s immigration policy, broader trade policies and regulatory policies. While we consider the UK’s institutional strength to be very high, the challenges for policymakers and officials will be substantial.

As a consequence of the weaker GDP growth outlook and institutional strength, the UK’s public finances will also likely be weaker than Moody’s has assumed so far. In Moody’s view, the negative effect from lower economic growth will outweigh the fiscal savings from the UK no longer having to contribute to the EU budget.

Moody’s changes outlook on UK sovereign rating to negative from stable, affirms Aa1 rating

“We would downgrade the UK’s sovereign rating if the outcome of the negotiations with the EU was a loss of access to the Single Market as this would materially damage its medium-term growth prospects”, said Kathrin Muehlbronner, a Moody’s Senior Vice President and the report’s co-author. “A second trigger for a downgrade would be if we were to conclude that the credibility of the UK’s fiscal policy had been tarnished as a result of Brexit or other reasons.”

Moody’s: UK sovereign rating would be downgraded if the UK was unable to conclude an agreement with the EU that protected core elements of its access to the Single Market.

Overall, the forecasts demonstrate a continuation of the themes raised in previous analysis.

<financial capital, volatility and competition>

a. The latest forecasts, for the period 2015-16 to 2018-19, show a widening gap between the lowest- and highest-performing institutions and increasing volatility of forecasts in the sector.

<tightening margins>

b. Sector surpluses are projected to be between 2.3 per cent and 4.3 per cent of total income in the forecast period; these are relatively small margins in which to operate. However, at institutional level, these range from a deficit of 28.6 per cent to a surplus of 21.5 per cent in 2017-18, equivalent to a range of 50.1 per cent (compared with 30.4 per cent in 2014-15).

These are relatively small margins in which to operate, and mean that even small changes in income or costs could have a material impact on the financial performance of institutions and the sector.

<a looming crisis of liquidity and debt>

c. The trend of falling liquidity (cash) and increasing sector borrowing continues in this forecast period. Borrowing levels are expected to exceed liquidity levels in all forecast years, by £49 million at 31 July 2016, increasing to £3.9 billion at 31 July 2019. This trend of increasing borrowing and reducing liquidity is unsustainable in the long term.

Strong liquidity is particularly important given the growing level of uncertainty and risk in the sector and wider economy.

<the rule of recruitment, retention and progression>

d. The sector is projecting fee income from non-EU students to rise from £3.7 billion in 2015-16 to £4.8 billion in 2018-19 (equivalent to 14.9 per cent of total income). Increasing competition from other countries and proposed changes to student immigration rules suggest these projections may be difficult to achieve. This would have a significant adverse impact on the sector’s financial projections. However, the weaker pound may assist the recruitment of overseas students.

e. The sector is projecting high levels of growth in numbers of total home and EU students (10.3 per cent over the forecast period). This level of growth may be a challenge given the decline in the 18 year-old English population, uncertainties over the impacts of Brexit and increases in alternatives to undergraduate courses, such as degree apprenticeships.


f. Significant increases in capital investment are projected. At over £17.8 billion, this represents an average annual investment of £4.5 billion (2015-16 to 2018-19), 51 per cent higher than the previous four-year average. Despite this, nearly a quarter of HEIs in the sector are planning to reduce capital expenditure over the forecast period.

<never-ending fixed capital lulz: surplus, investment, competition>

g. Investment in infrastructure is particularly important given that, in July 2015, the sector estimated that it still needed to invest £3.6 billion into its non-residential estate to upgrade it to a sound baseline condition.

At a time of lower public capital funding, institutions must deploy more of their own resources or raise finance through external borrowing in order to maintain and enhance their infrastructure. This places greater pressure on HEIs to generate higher surpluses to maintain their sustainability.

<tightening of liquidity/access to capital>

h. The uncertainties faced by the sector as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, coinciding with increasing competition in the global HE market, will lead to a greater focus from investors on the underlying financial strength of HEIs. Consequently, any fall in confidence levels could restrict the availability of finance in the sector and put significant elements of the investment programme at risk. Falling confidence levels are also likely to lead to a rise in the cost of borrowing.

It is also important to recognise that the forecasts assume that the capital markets continue to have confidence in the sector, which depends upon their risk assessment of the sector and individual HEIs.

<contexts for labour arbitrage>

i. Aside from the challenges associated with income generation, the sector will face inflationary pressures on costs, particularly staff costs, operating costs and capital investment costs. j. Pension liabilities are expected to increase from £4.9 billion at 31 July 15 to £7.2 billion at 31 July 2016; an increase of 45.8 per cent. This is due to FRS102 which requires liabilities relating to the deficit recovery plans for multi-employer pension schemes to be reflected in institutional balance sheets. However, the latest estimated valuation of the sector’s largest pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), indicates a significant worsening of the deficit, implying further increases in liabilities are likely

<stranded capital and market exit: thanks for playing>

The significant level of uncertainty in the HE sector and UK economy, as well as the need to sustain a higher level of capital investment to respond to growing competition, will require institutions to aim for higher surpluses in future.

This uncertainty is likely to lead to continued volatility and growing variability in the financial performance of institutions, together with a widening gap between the lowest and highest performing HEIs.

HEFCE. 2016. Financial health of the higher education sector: 2015-16 to 2018-19 forecasts.

<de-regulated and beholden to the financial markets>

The report is damning, and the irony won’t be missed that it comes at a time when the role of the funding council in safeguarding the financial sustainability of the sector is being replaced by a ‘let the market decide’ approach. While the government has its oen [sic.] logic for this approach and is implementing some measures to protect students in the case of ‘market exit’, it will come as a shock to universities that the oversight, guidance and practical – financial – support previously offered by HEFCE may no longer be available in their hour of need.

Indeed, it is new for HEFCE to use such strong and foreboding language about the overall state of HE. Previous iterations of these forecasts have been far more positive about the sector’s financial situation and have smoothed over cracks with reasonable rhetoric. But HEFCE is either no longer willing, or no longer able, to spin such a rosy picture.

The HEFCE report shows the grim state of affairs in which universities find themselves: the short-term diagnosis is one of stability – the 2014-15 numbers were healthy enough – but the prognosis is poor. Expect a need for some serious remedial action in board rooms across the land.

Bagshaw. A. 2016. Getting worse: HEFCE’s bleak prognosis for university finances.

<global labour arbitrage>

Insecure working practices now permeate every section of our society. Although students probably don’t realise it, most of them are taught at some point, perhaps even for majority of their time at university, by people on insecure casual contracts. Some universities have been accused of trying to ape the worst practices of the likes of Sport Direct.

The exploitative use of casualised contracts – including hourly-paid, part-time and even zero-hours ones – breeds insecurity and stress, and forces people to work long hours for poor pay. Many work for more than one university to make ends meet. It cannot be right that the people teaching our students are constantly anxious, not knowing from year-to-year, term-to-term, or even month-to-month, whether they will have a job or how much they might earn.

Inevitably, casualisation has an impact on education. US research demonstrates that students who take large numbers of courses with teachers employed on insecure contracts, or who are in institutions with large numbers of non-permanent staff, tend to graduate at a lower rate and are more likely to drop out of college.

Hunt, S. 2016. Tef: dump the pointless metrics and take a hard look at casualisation.

<fuck college>

as the terms innovation and disruption become mainstream there are still pockets of discovery value for investors in the world today. From curing cancer with the cloud to solving space to creating an alternative to fossil fuel in lithium, opportunities abound for those willing to look beyond today’s headlines. The world is changing as a new generation (Gen-Z) is poised to take the mantle from Millennials while the payback for college becomes harder to justify.

The average return on going to college is falling. For the typical student the number of years to break even on the cost of college has grown from 8 years in 2010 to 9 years today. If current cost and wage growth trends persist then students starting college in 2030/2050 will have to wait 11/15 years post college to break even. 18 year olds starting college in 2030 with no scholarship or grants will only start making a positive return when they turn 37.

Graduates studying lower paying majors such as Arts, Education and Psychology face the highest risk of a negative return. For them, college may not increasingly be worth it.

<enterprising human capital>

Corporates may have to do more themselves and develop their own talent identification systems. New entrants and business models are emerging to meet some of these challenges.

the vacancy rate does imply that the increased need for specialization is a factor and that the labor market is moving faster than education can respond. Arguing against this is the threat from artificial intelligence to pattern recognition and human decision making jobs (47% of total US employment is at risk from computerization according to a recent Oxford University study). This hollowing out of the labor market risk makes future-proofing very difficult, but there is a clear growth opportunity in professional training.

When it comes to money and finances, Gen-Z and Millennials hardly resemble one another. While Millennials are often cast as the “follow your dreams at all costs” generation, Gen-Z appears acutely focused on the financial consequences of their decisions. TD Ameritrade’s 2nd Annual Generation Z survey, for example, revealed that 46% are worried about accruing student loan debt while a study by Adecco showed that Gen-Z’ers are more concerned about the cost of education than Millennials. Meanwhile, sixty percent of Gen-Z believes that “a lot of money” is evidence of success, while only 44% of Millennials believe the same (Cassandra Report).

In combination with their financial conservatism, Gen-Z is also entrepreneurial.

Boroujerdi, R.D., and Wolf., C. 2015. Themes, Dreams and Flying Machines. Goldman Sachs Equity Research.

<against the stagnation of immobile capital>

We’ve written before that despite the protestations of academic insiders, MOOCs have real promise—not just as supplements to brick-and-mortar degree programs, but as viable alternatives for large numbers of students. And a “new system of signaling and talent identification” is sorely needed. A national exam system, in particular, would help level the playing field for students who didn’t want to attend an elite college, or couldn’t afford to.

The current American higher education regime is not working for a huge number of students, and, as this report suggests, those who continue to cling to the status quo are in denial. The system has to change, and it will.

The American Interest. 2016. Goldman Sachs: Higher Ed Ripe for Disruption.

on world-weariness

The reflection in the water showed an iron man still trying to salute
People from a time when he was everything he’s supposed to be
Everything means nothing to me
Everything means nothing to me

Elliott Smith. 2000. Everything means nothing to me.

I’d forgotten that I wrote about academic hopelessness eighteen months ago.

[I]ncreasingly 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.

I ended by refusing to look at the positives. I ended by refusing to ignore my refusal. I ended by attempting to validate hopelessness rather than believing against all the odds that somehow it will all work out okay, if we just try harder or push for our shared humanity. If only we believed in higher education.

Instead I wondered:

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

It struck me on my walk to work today that I have refused my refusal in the past few months. I have refused to teach myself about my hopelessness. I have ignored the voice inside me which believes that we are fucked. I have attempted to think that our work and our way of living more humanely will eventually save us. Or even if they won’t, and if barbarism or the Age of Kali is all we have, then I will die fighting. And this morning I woke with that sense of Weltschmertz alive inside. That sense of world-weariness or of despair reframing what it means to be angry and frustrated and indignant about the injustice that is all around. A sense of hopelessness that enables me to rethink what it means when I say that I refuse to be indifferent (c.f. Mike Neary). That I might instead be indignant. A sense that indignation might stem from hopelessness.

For a while I have felt that I need to temper my indignation at local, UK issues like the implementation of the teaching excellence framework, with the pragmatics of going into occupation of it in my own institution, in order to effect some work that is participative and about our social life and our relationships rather than exchange-value and the market. I have written about being indignant about the imposition of the TEF and how pedagogic leaders should be refusing it, rather than helping to shape it from the inside. And about how such indignation is exhausting.

And it is exhausting being against this wide-ranging assault on academic labour, academic practice, academic development, and academic identity. It is exhausting realising that their assault on the fabric of what we might refer to as public or social, and then later as a good, is the dismantling of the spaces that we once regarded as autonomous. Equally, it is exhausting bearing the brunt of their anger about our social, cultural, intellectual or oppositional capital. Knowing that their anger kettles our academic practice as staff and students. Knowing that their anger reshapes the funding, regulation and governance of the space, so that what we do has to be restructured so that it performs. Knowing that the marketisation of the space and the on-going demand for competition will force managers inside universities to recalibrate these as places for the expansion of value, and the production of surpluses, and the production of educational commodities.

And as a result, any attempt to push-back, so that education becomes an act of care, or a form of wider moral, pedagogic responsibility beyond the market, and beyond human capital theory, becomes increasingly difficult.

On the HE white paper and academic practice

However, I have also written about how pedagogic leaders should be refusing, and yet they are not. Even worse they are in the game. Defining the game. Situating the game against the student experience or teaching quality or learning environment, rather than going into occupation of those terms/spaces or refusing their co-option for performance management and marketised outcomes.

And I am reminded of Peter Scott’s The Weapons of the Weak, in which he argues for generating currents of ideological resistance that: are collective and organised rather than private and unorganised; are principled and selfless rather than opportunistic and selfish; must have revolutionary consequences; and must negate rather than accept the basis of domination.

It is this last point that increasing vexes me in terms of higher education. Where is the space for the curriculum-as-praxis as a means of negating the basis of domination? Where is the space to critique the governance and content of higher education that is simply more efficiently marketised and financialised? Where is the space to refuse the performance management and performance data and curriculum-for-the-market? Where is the space to refuse the domination of monopoly finance capital over the curriculum and the classroom? And this matters because the conversations that we have still speak of openness and the student experience and our classroom relationships and students-as-partners and co-creation and even emancipation. And yet how strong must the cognitive dissonance be, at whatever level, in order for us to carry on believing that these are ever possible inside the politics of austerity? That these are ever possible inside the rule of money that perverts pedagogic practice?

Inside the toxic domination of the rule of money that perverts pedagogic practice and classroom relationships.

These things we desire.

They. Are. Impossible.

Worse, they are co-opted and occupied and polluted. Expropriated for value.

And yet this is not the seat of my hopelessness. Our compact with the relationships that frame our domination. Our reproduction of the basis of our own domination. These are a reflection of a wider hopelessness rooted in our inability to effect any meaningful engagement in civil society with global emergencies. These are a reflection of a wider hopelessness that is rooted in our inability to overcome the separation of our identities as academic or student, or tenured and non-tenured, or status-whatever and status-whatever, rather than as humans.

And our status-driven lives, insecurities, compromises mean that we are stripped of our ability to work co-operatively (rather than being coerced into competition by an increasingly authoritarian State) on social emergencies, if we engage with these at all. The backdrop to the enclosure of our pedagogical lives and the foreclosure of our futures is situated against the closing-down of our ability through the University to engage with social crises of reproduction. The closing-down of our ability to effect any discussion of environmental crises or the secular crisis of capitalism, or the relations of production that form the basis of our domination. The closing-down of our wider connections to civil society, so that we are unable to discuss #Delhismog and #Delhichokes, or #standingrock, or Larsen A, or Syria, or the prevalence of food banks, or the crisis in children’s mental health, or #blacklivesmatter, or #whyisthecurriculumwhite, or whatever.

The closing-down of the University as a space for civics; as a space for a public pedagogy that refuses demonization; the closing-down of the University as a space for anything except value-creation or human capital. So that if we do discuss these things it is in the context of value, enterprise, employability, capitalised student experience. So that we attempt to dance to the tune of political society and the (integral?) State, rather than effecting change in civil society. Or even worse, effecting change in the latter where that contributes to our own performance management.

And this is the space in which my hopelessness emerges. A world-weariness that is beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui. A deeper hopelessness that questions whether we will ever be able to answer “What is to be done?” A deeper hopelessness that believes all I can do is refuse and apply negative critique. A deeper hopelessness in the realisation that our subversion and occupation are not enough, and that in fact they are exhausting. A deeper hopelessness which appreciates that maybe lamentation is required. Sitting with lamentation whilst the anger and frustration and indignation is reproduced and reformed inside. Sitting with the hopelessness and lamentation in order to decide how to address how I might refuse to be indifferent.

Because for the moment there is no space inside higher education to generate alternatives to the basis of our domination, or for the social strike, or for the production and circulation of directional demands. And playing in the margins feels hopeless. And hoping that it will turn out okay feels hopeless. And playing the game according to their rules is hopeless.

So that maybe my hopelessness is the only way in which I can address the world.

So maybe it is only through hopelessness that I can address the world.

What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see
That all I want now is happiness for you and me

Elliott Smith. 2000. Happiness.

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

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

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

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

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.

TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

I’ve just submitted a chapter for a book project being managed out of the University Estácio de Sá in Rio de Janeiro. The editors have four previous volumes entitled Education and Technology: Partnerships (although the original idea is a little lost in translation), published as yearly e-books that disseminate research conducted mainly in Brazil and Portugal. Previous material is available in their blog (in Portuguese)

In 2016, the editors plan to do something different through a special volume entitled Education and Technology: critical approaches. My chapter is titled Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety, and the abstract is given below.


This chapter argues that data is the bleeding edge of educational innovation. By following the traces and trails of data, it is possible to uncover where education is being cracked open for the production, circulation and extraction of surplus value. In part these processes of cracking are amplified by the on-going financialisation and marketisation of higher education that continue to kettle academic practices of teaching and research. By uncovering the flows of value, it is also possible to demonstrate the transnational associations of capital that are profiting as a result of the data-driven reimagining of higher education.

This uncovers mechanisms grounded in: enforced, public and open, educational data production; the enclosure and commodification of open and public data for-profit; the selling and re-selling of newly-commodified and technology-rich services back into open and public spaces; the generation of a rentier higher education economy rooted in high technology; the use of secondary legislation or policy related to employment and entrepreneurial activity, alongside primary legislation, to drive change; the exacerbation of debt and indentured study; and, the use of technology in performance management of academic labour.

The chapter articulates these processes in the context of global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises and their symptoms, and in particular the generation of academic anxiety. Such anxiety emerges against the on-going precarity described by students and academic staff through technologically-mediated performance management. As a result, the chapter asks what can be learned from counter-hegemonic projects, in order to describe alternative uses for educational data?

writing about academic labour

I have three things recently published or forthcoming that are about academic labour and its relationship to society. These pick-up on two themes that have been increasingly important to me: first, academic alienation and anxiety, or the idea that the University is an anxiety machine; and second, the potential for mass intellectuality as a form of liberatory praxis.

The first piece focuses on the processes of subsumption that are reshaping academic labour, and the resultant impact on individual’s subjectivity and health. Co-written with Kate Bowles, this takes the idea of the University as an anxiety machine, and is called Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. The abstract is as follows:

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the re-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.

The article is published in a special issue of Workplace: A journal for Academic Labor, edited by Karen Gregory and Joss Winn, on Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

The second is a book chapter in a collection entitled The Philosophy of Open Learning: Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons, edited by Markus Deimann and Michael A. Peters. My chapter is called Another World is Possible: The Relationship between Open Education and Mass Intellectuality.

This piece critiques the promise of open education through the concept of mass intellectuality that I have discussed elsewhere, and which is becoming increasingly important to me as a way of analysing the idea of higher education in an age of crises. In the chapter I connect open education to the proletarianisation of higher education, and go on to ask the following.

  1. How is it possible to re-imagine open education, in order to overcome proletarianisation through technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?
  2. How might open education broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond HE, as a pedagogic project?

My response is rooted in sharing and grounding collective practices for open and co-operative education through democratic pedagogy and organising principles.

The third is the book Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, which I have co-edited with Joss Winn. The summary, description and chapter/author list is given here. It’s good to see this work moving towards fruition, precisely because it’s a discussion of the potential for actually existing liberation.

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, M. 1996. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 373)

notes on peace education and indignation

On Monday I contributed to a panel discussion on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era, as part of the Adam Curle Symposium hosted by the Peace Studies Division at University of Bradford. I made the following points..

ONE. The essay I produced ahead of the event situates the historical context for Curle’s Education and Liberation against the collapse of the post-war Keynesian compromise. In the West that compromise had ushered in a view of the State as guarantor of the production and distribution of certain forms of socialised wealth, grounded in access to healthcare, welfare benefits, social housing and free education. Yet by 1973 that political moment was under stress, as issues of profitability that had affected the major economies since the 1950s led to Nixon decoupling the dollar from gold. This was a critical way-marker in the development of neoliberal governance and the hegemony of monopoly finance capital, framed by the petro-dollar. Maybe, as Jehu questions, this was the moment when we reiterated our choice of barbarism over socialism.

TWO. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement would amplify Curle’s criticism of a dominant, global system rooted in competitive materialism and belonging-identity (rather than awareness-identity). Instead, Curle argued for an education counter-system rooted in a societal counter-system that was borne of a different formation of social wealth. This focus on wealth is central to the argument of his book, because it is situated asymmetrically against value as the dominant structuring form of society that is reproduced under capitalism. Here John Holloway’s focus on the first sentence of Marx’s Capital is important because it emphasises how capitalist social relations abstract and corrupt our concrete world, including how we relate to each other and the values that we embody (such as peace, justice, trust, faith, tolerance and so on). The first line of Capital reads as follows:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[1] its unit being a single commodity.

Holloway argues:

It is easy to skip over the significance of the first sentence precisely because of what the sentence itself asserts. It is the very fact that wealth appears as a collection of commodities to us who live in capitalist society that makes us take this appearance for granted. We are used to seeing wealth in that way. When we think of wealth we usually think of material wealth, of the things that a person has, probably of money, the general equivalent of commodities. If we refer to someone as being wealthy, we generally mean that she or he has a lot of money, and can therefore dispose of an immense amount of commodities. In other words, the form in which wealth appears leads us to establish an identity between wealth and the immense collection of commodities, to treat them as being identical. And if this were so, then it would indeed be right to treat the first sentence as curtain-raiser, as a sentence that has significance only in leading us on to the central issue, the commodity.

However, wealth does not have to be thought of in this way. For English-speakers, this is perhaps easier to see if we go back to the original German term that Marx uses, Reichtum, which could just as easily have been translated as “richness”: in capitalist society, richness appears as an immense collection of commodities. There is certainly no sharp difference in English between the concepts of richness and wealth, but richness strikes us as having a broader meaning: a rich tapestry, an enriching conversation, a rich life or experience, a rich diversity of colours.

THREE. In the current moment this rich diversity of colours has been corrupted (like corrupt computer code) precisely because the history and materiality of our social and cultural lives has been distorted through the reality of economic crisis. I refer to this as a secular crisis of capitalism. Our enriching conversations are corroded through the toxicity of an on-going and immanent crisis of economic reproduction that catalyses debt, privatisation and financialisation, and the demonization of the powerless, whose lives are made precarious. The counter-measures that are required to maintain the system that Curle pushed against are not working, and they are delegitimising that system whilst they shore it up. This is the terrain upon which our ongoing cognitive dissonance, or even worse our dissociation, is borne.

NOTE: As a result we cannot face the ecological rift that has occurred in the metabolic relationship between humans and the planet: we are unable to do anything meaningful about carbon emissions as they breach 400ppm; we are unable to do anything meaningful about the assault on biodiversity and ocean acidification, or damage to the nitrogen cycle, the overuse of phosphates, and so on. How can we find peace when we are so embedded inside capitalism’s war on the planet?

FOUR. This war also threatens to become inter-generational. There is a looming disconnect between those who benefitted from the aftermath of Bretton Woods and millenials, although following Milton Friedman in The Role for Government in Education many of the arguments made in the global North now stress the importance of student debt being a family investment in human capital. Thus, the UK Government’s focus on future earnings and employability, and the Treasury’s explicit demand for tax data to be linked to student outcome/loan repayment data, de-territorialise and then re-territorialise the system through metrics, debt and risk. Here Curle’s fears around the development of competitive materialism and belonging-identity are realised as families become the very fabric of competition rather than of societal co-operation. And this is amplified because, as Oskar Negt states:

The labor power that capital can tie down by dint of Taylorism is markedly decreasing in both capitalist countries and Third World countries. More and more living labor power is slipping out of capital- ist production processes. This must have political consequences, which will also affect the formation of theories… Today, by comparison, we have a structurally growing industrial reserve army that is tending toward including the whole of society and, increasingly, threatening to cut labor power off from reality…

The fewer opportunities a subject has to appropriate these productive forces, the more often the latter turn into destructive forces. This is one of the core issues in our theory of labor power. It is not only that a growing number of work- ers—and also a growing number of labor characteristics—are unemployed in capitalist labor conditions; it is also that in the long term, these characteristics are being scrapped by being deobjectified.

We are forced to compete so that our alienation becomes more manageable.

FIVE. This secular crisis is political and economic and is rooted in an ideological position that has generated monstrosities in UK higher education like the White Paper’s proposed teaching excellence framework, and the obsession with teaching intensity and productivity in the Green Paper. As our educational lives are subsumed under the structuring realities of value, rather than alternative conceptions of social wealth, one outcome is the disconnection of our educational souls. As our curricula are restructured around performance management, progression, retention, student-as-purchaser, education commodified as a service, learning analytics, employability, and so on, our conversations with our students, our peers and ourselves are in tension with our desire to care. The rule of money places us in conflict with our desire to care, and so we dissociate, rage or employ cognitive dissonance as defences. For Curle, such a world was rooted in psychological alienation that itself emerges from social, political and economic violence. For Marx, in the German Ideology, such alienation was fourfold: from the process of production; from the things that we produce; from our society; and from ourselves. In the incorporation of all forms of education inside the production processes of capitalism, in the damaging realities of over-testing,  monitoring, permanent technological and organisational restructuring, precarious employment and so on, those very spaces that set out to be rooted in care, justice and peace are reproduced as anxiety machines.

SIX. Inside our anxiety machines, time is weaponised against us. We are forced to internalise the system’s demands around contact hours, workload planning, absence management, imposed deadlines for impact relating to teaching and research, and so on. As a result, both space and time are made unsafe for staff and students, who must also contend with the boundaries of relationships that at once appear to be rooted in care/contract and use/exchange. These are the contested qualities of being that are embodied in our formal educational institutions. We might then wonder what else we can set in-motion inside-and-outside the school or university that refuses this reality? Here, our learning is enriched through engagement with the struggles of campaigns against the ongoing re-colonisation of the university’s history and material realities, grounded in its organising principles, financing and curricula, like Rhodes Must Fall or Black Lives Matter. It is also enriched through the educational work rooted in co-operative values and organisation. These examples force us to consider how to frame a richness of life or experience, or how to stitch a rich tapestry, which prefigures the world we wish to see. Such prefiguration is educational, iterative and generative of new possibilities. However, crucially it is also inter-generational, open and public, radical in that it stresses the need to find alternative forms of value that works to create the society we would wish to live in, and democratic. Such prefigurative activity is borne of a realisation: that our current forms of social reproduction are in crisis; that new forms of solidarity across indebted generations and between those suffering in healthcare or education or social services or housing are needed; and, that these new forms of social solidarity might coalesce around directional demands, like the social strike that stops the system and forces conversations.

SEVEN. It is in co-operatively-negotiated, solidarity actions that peace might re-emerge as a possibility or as a guide to our direction of travel. For solidarity enables us to move across boundaries between contexts and disciplines to examine

the real object of knowledge, which is the social phenomenon as a whole.

Schmidt, A. (1968). On the Concept of Knowledge in the Critique of Political Economy, p. 93.

Yet peace is grounded in: individual and collective courage to act; faith in each other and ourselves; justice for the wronged, othered and alienated; and, hope for setting in motion a different world. Peace emerges through education as a form of social wealth that is against-and-beyond capitalist social relations. It emerges as indignation with the present state of things, where we recognise that it cannot emerge through private property and wage slavery, or through the State taking control of production. As Jehu argues:

We do need to think about how the immediate seizure of what we need to live (in places like the UK this would also mean mass non-payment campaigns) could open into new forms of social organisation; also about how import-export relations can be sustained in industries that are necessary to social reproduction once the power of capitalist owners has been annulled… Capital is vulnerable to radical approaches that emphasize real relations over material relations. Our approach should be guided by the desire to address issues in a way that does not make capitalist categories our starting point.

Only when we have recognised and held the tension of the values inside us, which are revealed as embodied or psychological illness, can we begin to be and to create anew, by prefiguring the world we wish to see. Prefiguring this world is situated against challenge and struggle.

We do need to think about this; but the question of how to re-organise the world market along ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ lines is meaningless without an acceptance that mass movements can only succeed by making severe inroads into bourgeois property relations.

it is in the middle-term of active struggle that a movement against capital must necessarily arrive at the stage of greatest tension and uncertainty. It is a moment in which the most fundamental contradictions of class and ownership cannot be ‘knitted together’ into a woolly hegemony and then handed over to a ‘future’ which can scarcely mask its ingratitude.

De-Arrest Editorial Services (2016). Demeaning the Future.

Thus, peace is contingent on the development of mass intellectuality as a force for the production of Curle’s counter-system, rooted in new relations of production, where our co-operative engagement might recuperate the social brain from its co-option solely for the production and accumulation of value. We need to be disinhibited from seeing peace education as an on-going, day struggle, which is enacted at the level of society.

Adam Curle: Education for Liberation and the potential for mass intellectuality

On Monday I’m at the University of Bradford speaking at a panel session at the Peaceful Relations and the Transformation of the World: An Academic-Practitioner Dialogue on Peace in the 21st Century. The panel is on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era. In order to ground my work at the intersection of peace studies, the idea of the University, and the concept of mass intellectuality, I have written an essay, attempting to connect Adam Curle’s Education for Liberation from 1973 with our current condition in higher education in the global North. The essay ends by pointing to our work on mass intellectuality inside-against-and-beyond the neoliberal university.

I wrote it whilst listening to Annie Mac Presents.

ONE. A shared humanity

We do not need education without needing a world that is being destroyed.

Our emphasis is on education: within the reality of our social relations, confined by the struggle of daily life, against the hierarchical relations between institutions, academics and students.

We share our work in education so that one day we might become free through education. It can feel like a hopeless act of hope yet as a conscious act of anti-alienation, sharing can be emancipatory.

We have been objectified as Teachers and Learners. These are illusory concepts. Sharing is to resist the commodification of our lives and escape the measures of Capital, its controls of ‘quality’ and its life-support machine of ‘efficiency’.

Sharing brings curricula to life as a flow of ideas, an unstoppable, irrepressible mass intellectuality that recognises no disciplines and responds to every act of discipline.

The University of Utopia (n.d.). Anti-Curricula. A Course of Action.

In Education for Liberation, Adam Curle argues for the creation of new educational conditions that refuse the ongoing deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of everyday life, in order to enable individuals (and families, communities, societies) to address themselves.

we try to create conditions in which the fewest obstacles are placed in the way of people coming to terms with themselves.

Curle, A. (1973). Education for Liberation. London: Tavistock, p. v.

NOTE: hereafter reference to this volume is given simply by ‘Curle’ and the relevant page number.

What Curle laid bare in 1973 was the intersectional realities of poverty, oppression, exploitation, hunger, disease and emotional sickness, and a recognition that ‘if all these things were abolished’ then what would be left is our shared humanity. This idea of a shared humanity picks up our utopian desire to connect, not through the exchange-value of our education commodified as a service or financialised and marketised through debt and performance metrics, but by sharing what is socially-useful. This process of sharing knowledge, skills and literacies both inside and outside the formal institution, dissolves the boundaries of that institution. As a result, it resists the enclosure of the university and its knowledge, and pushes back against the idea that the market is the sole arbiter of access to that knowledge.

Moreover, the sharing that rests on dissolving the boundaries that exist: between the inside and outside of the university; between students and teachers; and between those who know and those who do; forms a moment of resistance to the idea that the market is the only way that we can address global emergencies. These emergencies demand social action taken at the level of society. For Curle there is a sense of needing to overcome this restricting alienation because:

Education enslaves: men and women become free through their own efforts. (p. 1)

TWO. The structuring realities of value

The historical context for Curle’s work on education and liberation is important. He is writing shortly after Nixon unilaterally ended the Bretton Woods international monetary system, and as the post-war Keynesian compromise was ending. These are way-markers on the path to neoliberalism that placed an aesthetic appreciation of (economic) value, rather than (humane) values, centre stage. Yet for Curle, ‘the keystone is justice rather than wealth’ (p.1), and this opens-up potential connections between social justice movements and those looking for post-capitalist alternatives, as a response to the emergent, globalised phase of capitalist development. However, this work of connection frames the problems of justice and wealth through political economy, and one that reclaims wealth as social, and specifically as a collective power-to do or to create the world, separated out from accumulated, individualised forms of wealth (as money or financial assets). This is the material and immaterial wealth of art, science, technology and knowledge, which rest on social relationships that themselves refuse to be organised through private property, wage labour and the market.

As Curle was writing, Autonomist Marxism emerged as a conglomerate of different perspectives, drawing on the Italian Operaismo or Workerist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Autonomist Marxism enabled a focus on the question of why capital moved beyond national boundaries in the post-war years and how it was transformed into a globalised, transnational apparatus for accumulating wealth. Critically, this tradition sought to understand the changing nature of the structure and agency of the working class as the neoliberal phase of capitalism intensified. In this analysis, education is crucial in examining the ways in which labour could form oppositional spaces or cracks through which to resist and push-back against the alienation of exchange and the market. Thus, Autonomist critiques of education focus upon the ability of the student/teacher to develop her own self-awareness and to utilise technology to act for herself. This emancipatory project is revealed as in-against-beyond, which questions the structures that reproduce capitalism’s domination, like the State and its educational institutions. These questions emerge from inside those structures and from perspectives that are against them, so that alternatives that lie beyond might be opened up. This recognises that capitalism is a totalising, social universe, and opens-up a global terrain of struggle for autonomy that includes education.

The struggle to control labour presents the working class (including in the roles of student and teacher) with potential educational tools to develop new points of resistance. In developing such alternatives, there are a number of key ideas that emerge from the Autonomist tradition that are useful in addressing how education relate to the agency of the working class, acting for itself:

Each of these concepts forces a reconceptualisation of how we address the production and circulation of social wealth, materialised not as money or surplus-value, but as our social needs and capacities. For Curle (p. 4) this approach, if not the conceptualisation, was central to a project of overcoming the competitive materialism that emerges from global networks of exploitation. That Curle was able to identify and analyse such networks can be traced forwards to the work of Stephen Ball on transnational activist networks that seek to open-up the terrain of education for-profit. These networks of private equity, publishers, policy-makers, pedagogues, think-tanks, educational technology corporations, venture capitalists, and so on, help to deterritoriaise and reterritorialise education, so that only surplus-value can be liberated. As a result:

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.

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

As Curle argues (p. 5), as these asymmetrical power relations flood through education, ‘one party to a relationship, the weaker, is impeded through the quality of a relationship, from achieving his [sic.] human potential.’ Thus, formal, institutionalised education (and it is such that supplies much of the context for Education for Liberation) ‘reinforces unpeaceful situations’ (p. 6), rooted in belonging-identity and competitive materialism (pp. 7-8). Here Curle’s work traces the outlines of later analyses of the dehumanization inherent in capitalist social relations and the law of value, in particular the impact of capitalism as a totalising system on individual and collective self-worth. For Curle this emerges as guilt and shame. As Jappe notes:

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

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

Yet Curle’s work on situating education for liberation inside dominant ideologies or the system, also connects to alternative possibilities outlined in more mainstream thinking.

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.

social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Keynes, J.M. 1930. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

THREE. On prefiguration and a new education

In responding to this clash of value and values, Curle emphasizes the need for a new education, which demands ‘an alien form of society’ that values the human, or our shared humanity. This is the possibility of personal evolution, or ‘higher-awareness (awareness-identity)’, formed inside a counter-system of education rooted in altruism (or #solidarity) (pp. 8, 9). This counter-system has echoes of Gramsci’s work on hegemony and counter-hegemony, rooted in acknowledging, analysing and abolishing power. For Curle (p. 10), such a counter-system would have higher levels of (social) awareness (beyond value). It would be grounded in awareness-identity (social connections against-and-beyond the market), and as such it would be altruistic and empathetic with peaceful relation that are loving and supportive. Moreover, it would be based on co-operative and egalitarian democracy.

In addressing how education relates to the creation of such a counter-system, Curle (p. 17) diagnoses that we need to reveal the reality of the system as is. Here, hegemony rests on imparting the knowledge needed by the system to reproduce itself by establishing within us the goals that are also of value to the system. In the UK we can witness this in the HE White Paper and the emerging HE and Research Bill, with its focus on human capital theory in education, to be implemented through teaching intensity, productivity, teaching excellence and performance management.

Curle’s responses echo those academic-activists who continue to resist, refuse and push-back against the on-going assault on the idea of higher education. These responses are rooted in prefiguration. For Curle, the existence and celebration of ‘Different values jeopardize what they have, thus endangering their belonging-identity’ (p. 21, emphasis added). As Sarah Amsler notes, prefiguring the kind of world we wish to see is an on-going process that is generative, iterative and educative. It is the governance and organisation of life as a pedagogical project, which enables the negation of that which is dehumanising or alienating. Connecting to Curle’s hope for justice, this is the negation of our negation.

Moreover, such prefigurative and utopian engagements also enable and share moments of solidarity. In developing Curle’s counter-system, this means thinking through the potential for waves of struggle, which demonstrate solidarity between various groups of workers and others across society impacted by austerity. Points of solidarity include: the embodied toll that neoliberal restructuring and austerity takes on mental and physical health, including in families; the control of performance and activity; the reduction of life to work; and, the inability of the curriculum to manage issues of crisis concerning poverty, climate change, on-going colonialism and so on. Points of solidarity connect:

  • Academic staff who are subject to increased workload and performance management;
  • Academic staff whose workload requirements are marginalising the rest of their lives, as parents, carers, partners, friends, so that never-ending, entrepreneurial work dominates;
  • Students whose work is defined by debt as a commodity or purchased as a service, rather than being regarded as work that should be reimbursed through a wage;
  • Students whose education is solely predicated on productivity and employability, with contributions to social or care work being marginalised;
  • Student of colour, who are protesting and refusing the on-going colonisation of the curriculum;
  • Precariously-employed graduate teaching assistants, or those for whom tenure is becoming an impossibility;
  • Professional services staff for whom the restructuring of back-office functions entails outsourcing or an attrition on labour rights, and amplifies forms of social dumping;
  • Graduates saddled with increasing amounts of debt and weak job prospects, in the face of automation, on-going recession, and so on;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is covered by the Educational Excellence Everywhere White paper, which promises the privatisation and data-driven commodification of pre-HE education;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is also affected by the Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Act (2015), which enables metrics and longitudinal data to be collated about individuals to drive the production of economic value;
  • Community groups fighting for social justice, for instance in refugee, housing or gender rights; and
  • Workers in notionally public-facing industries, where ideas of public service or the public good (contested as those terms are) are being lost, and for whom the realities of austerity are disciplinary (such as the campaign for an NHS Reinstatement Bill).

Here there is a need to redefine the terms of resistance as cross-sectoral, acting communally or socially, precisely because those communal or social aspects of our identities are being marginalised or reduced, as work and productivity becomes totalising. There is a need to see this work as educational, rooted in a governance framework and organisation that prefigures what we desire. For Curle this is a constant practice of revealing and resisting minor oppressions that gradually erode our awareness, such as the symbolic racialised nature of the curriculum. Thus, resistance offers the potential for re-humanizing activities (p. 87).

Such forms of resistance also question the very nature of our curricula, and raise the issue of whether our work should be on dismantling the curriculum. Curle wished to see a curriculum that strengthened justice and peace, so that individuals could self-actualise, rather than instantiating a curriculum that is mindless, dehumanizing and intellectually worthless for so many with ‘subtly obnoxious hidden’ elements. Here there is resonance with Rhodes Must Fall and campaigns like #whyismycurriculumwhite, which force us to consider how to connect the inside and outside of the classroom to everyday oppression, and to consider an engaged pedagogy that is infused critically.

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge, p. 13.

Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy”… emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge, p. 15.

FOUR. Against power inside and outside the classroom

The power relations reinforced through the market, wage labour and property relations deny the essential humanity of the teacher-student relationship. Moreover they deny the self-actualisation (awareness-identity) of the individuals in that relationship, both inside and outside the classroom.

Curle (p. 35) hints at this issue of power, referenced above in terms of hegemony and counter-hegemony (the counter-system), when he refers to the altered psychological reality in which authority is shared. He writes that ‘the best way of promoting an appreciation of social justice may be through building a just and equal society in the classroom’ (p. 42). This reminds us of the work of John Holloway on how to change the world without taking power. Here the altered psychological state is not one of taking power, in order to reproduce both it and its injustices. Rather we refuse to reproduce power relations that disable our self-determination. They key is to focus co-operatively on creating a society in which people determine its development.

Like Curle, Holloway is clear that we have to change the world. However, there is no focus on taking State power. Instead he points towards new structures shaped by our agency and autonomy in doing socially-useful things. This concept of doing socially-useful things again relays back to Curle’s awareness-identity and refusal of competitive materialism. However, for Holloway there is a clear distinction between our power to do things (our creative power), and other’s power-over us or over our power to do things. Wage labour and debt (Holloway’s rule of money) offer others the power to command, and they reveal the structuring logic and power of capital, including across the terrain of higher education. The crucial thing for Holloway, as it was for Curle, is that this power to create and to command is a social power. In Holloway’s terms:

Our power to do is always a social power, is always a collective power, our doing is always part of the social flow of doing.

[In its co-option by capital] the social power to do becomes broken, it becomes transformed into its opposite, which is the power of the capitalist to command the doing of others.

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

The problem for educators is that inside the classroom and through the curriculum peace can only ever be an aspiration, because our educational work is alienated from us by capital. What we produce as educators or students is commodified as knowledge transfer or in the form of credits. How we produce as educators or students is governed by performance management or made efficient through technology and organisational development. The relationships that we produce as educators or students are governed by metrics and ideas of consumption and purchase, so that our relationship to ourselves becomes framed by enterprise or employment or future earnings. In this, as staff and students we are objectified because we are commanded.

In moving against these flows of educational alienation, our struggle is to build up our power to do differently and socially.

Our logic is just the contrary, it is the logic of coming together, it is a logic of recovering the subjectivity, which is denied by capital. Subjectivity not as an individual subjectivity, but as a social subjectivity.

if we think of the struggle to change society as class struggle, then it is fundamental to see this struggle as being asymmetrical. And once we start to reproduce their forms, and once we start to think of our struggle as being the mirror image of their struggle, then all that we are doing is reproducing the power of capital within our own struggles.

revolution is a question rather than an answer, because the revolutionary process in itself has to be understood as a process of asking, as a process of moving out, not of telling peoples what the answers are, but actually as a process of involving people in a movement of self-determination.

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

Here then, prefigurative activity as an educational process, operating inside and outside the classroom is central, and it rests on autonomous forms and spaces for action. This means developing confidence in our own structures, in our own time, and in our own space, and as a result develop new ways of (re-)imagining society. As Curle notes (p. 62), it is a process of re-learning the Self.

An ideal society would be self-creating. If it is self-creating, if it is self-determining, then in a sense it doesn’t make sense to project an ideal organization, because the ideal organization would be created by the society itself. 

Holloway, J. (2005). Change The World Without Taking Power.

This process of idealisation, self-determination or community self-actualisation (awareness-identity rooted in altruism and solidarity) is a pedagogical project. Moreover, it is developed at the level of the community (i.e. it is not grounded in the institutions of the State that support the system that Curle speaks against). Here, the community is the educating subject and the whole person (cognition, emotion and body) are forged in a process of subjectification rather than commodification. As Curle identifies (p. 67) this requires liberation from educational roles and pedagogic relations of power. It is reflected in writings about the Little Schools from Below.

The Zapatista schools, in which more than a thousand of us set foot in autonomous communities, was a different mode of learning and teaching, without classrooms or blackboards, without teachers or professors, without curriculum or grades. The real teaching begins with the creation of a climate of kinship among a multitude of subjects instead of dividing educators with power and knowledge from naïve students that need to be inculcated with knowledge.

The pedagogic principles are rooted in:

  • the social politics of counterinsurgency;
  • autonomy that is seated in community control;
  • collective work as a foundation of autonomy;
  • the new cultural politics, which is rooted in family relations and is diffused throughout Zapatista society.

Zibechi, R. 2012. The Schools From Below: “A non-institutional education, where the community is the educating subject”.

This has a more insurgent and overtly post-capitalist flavour than that sketched by Curle. However, the latter still identified the concept of school or of schooling as enabling ‘a highly individual exploration by children of themselves and their world.’ Bound by the need to work, Curle highlights that such an exploration would lead to specialisation and training, although the genesis would be interest rather than position or status. Moving beyond a world of capitalist work, for the abolition of wage labour, takes a transformation of mind. Thus, Curle questions ‘Is there any point of working within the system; and can we work outside it?’ (p. 43).

FIVE. Towards mass intellectuality: higher education and responses to the secular crisis of capitalism

One response to this is Curle’s work on awareness and identity through social action or praxis (c.f. Curle, A. Mystics and Militants: Study of Awareness, Identity and Social Action. London: Tavistock). What he calls for is material, cultural and social development that enables:

a coherent philosophy of the relationship of education to society which would make it possible for the real strength of affective education to be directed towards transforming the social setting which neutralizes so much good contemporary work in education. (p. 62)


Education for liberation must, in fact, include instruction in the techniques for creating social change, for building the counter-system. (p. 80)

Education building a peaceful society through connection to our humanity. Liberation from habits of thought, action, and feeling that make us less than human, and that transform the system into a counter-system. Against the institutionalised (though the network) nature of low awareness, belonging-identity and competitive materialism. The human spirit rather than distorted psychological needs. (p. 127)

We know that the secular crisis of capitalism has generated a structural adjustment policy across the terrain of higher education, which reshapes the relationships between academics and students. We know that in this crisis is revealed the ‘means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’ (See: Keynes, J.M. 1930. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren). We know that the system’s counter-measures cannot resolve its underlying problems, rooted in expansion and accumulation, and that those very counter-measures undermine capitalism’s legitimacy (See: Cleaver, H. 1993. Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism: The Insurpassability of Class Antagonisms). We know that the heart of the issue is the collapse in the production for profit by the private owners of the means of production, which has led to deleveraging, liquidation, reduced investment, austerity, indenture and so on. We know that even the authors of the neoliberal moment speak of systemic stagnation (with demographic and educational imbalances, inequality and debt), the failure of monetary policy; below-trend aggregate demand/growth and chronic under-investment, and a need to re-focus on Human Capital Theory, entrepreneurialism, the family as the unit of investment, and future earnings potential (See: Summers, L (2014). Reflections on the ‘New Secular Stagnation Hypothesis’ In: Tuelings, C and Baldwin, R eds.  Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research Press, pp. 27–38). This secular crisis swamps socio-environmental and socio-cultural crises that have disproportionately affected the global South, and which have amplified the impacts of the on-going coloniality and patriarchy of power. As we know, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

In this context it is clear that higher education is in crisis. The idea of the public university is under assault, and both the future of the sector and its relationship to society are being gambled. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is overwhelmingly instrumental. What are the alternatives? As Curle asks, ‘Is there any point of working within the system; and can we work outside it?’

One way of addressing this is by relating education to the concept of mass intellectuality, which emerges from Marx’s work in the Grundrisse on the ‘general intellect’. Marx argued that the dynamics of capitalism meant:

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].

Through innovation and competition, the technical and skilled work of the social individual, operating in factories, corporations or schools, is absorbed into the things she produces. It is alienated from her, and therefore, the ‘general intellect’ of society, i.e. its general capacity for science in the broadest sense, is absorbed into capitalised technologies and techniques, in order to reduce labour costs and increase productivity.

With the crisis of funding, regulation and governance of higher education, there is a need to understand: first, the mechanisms through which the general intellect is absorbed into the total social production process of value, to which universities contribute; and second, how academic practice enables or resists such co-option. This calls attention to the proliferation of alternative educational practices, which are themselves re-imaginings of the idea of the University as a site for the production of knowledge. These alternatives are rooted in the desire and potential for reclaiming the knowledge, skills, practices and techniques that form the general intellect, in order to produce and circulate new forms of socially-useful knowledge or ways of knowing, being in and creating the world.

From this reclaiming or liberation of the general intellect, away from the valorisation of capital, emerges ‘mass intellectuality’ as a direct, cognitive and social force of production that exists as an increasingly diffuse form of intellectuality. In this form it circulates as a ‘commons’ that is pregnant with critical and practical potential but still remains marginal in the face of general commodity production. As a result, it is constantly being recuperated by capital in the form of the ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’. Virno (2001) argues that

Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity.

The concept of mass intellectuality refers to knowledge and forms of knowing that can be and are being valorised by capital, but also refers to that same knowledge’s immanent (negative) and pre-figurative (positive) critical and re-constructive potential for new forms of sociality. In this way, mass intellectuality implies a struggle over the proletarianisation of cognitive and affective forms of labour, and its emancipatory implications, as the embodiment of the cumulative history of science.

The process of liberating and reclaiming the knowledge, skills, practices and techniques that are produced inside higher educational contexts is central to moving beyond exploitation and valorisation in the market, and in creating democratic, co-operative alternatives. This implies a critique of subjectivity, in its relationship to the prevalent mode of (knowledge) production. As a result, the critical-practical solutions to global, socio-environmental problems need not be framed around economic growth and business-as-usual. This enables a refocusing on the potential for the democratic or co-operative reproduction of the University, and a level of productive, scientific and social knowledge that exists as an immanent, transgressive potential across capitalist societies.

This process argues for the democratisation of higher education as an emancipatory project that must re-appropriate the means of knowledge production in the labour process, and nurture the co-operation of academics and students. By uncovering the widespread, objective conditions for the alienation of the products and processes of higher education from their social utility, it is possible to describe actually-exiting alternatives that identify the material conditions for new democratic models of knowledge production and education.

SIX. Uncovering collective, pedagogic potential

In our collective work on Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, student- and academic-activists have attempted such an uncovering, in order to situate higher education against the ongoing crisis of capitalism with responses from inside and outside the University. We articulate the limits of formal HE, including the binaries of public and private, in a range of national contexts, with a connection to traditions of critical pedagogy in which critical knowing has always been existential, collective and transformative. We challenge the hegemonic framing of learning as separate from society and everyday life.

Our opening section focuses on Power, History and Authority inside formal higher education, and asks what and who has led us to this crisis of higher education? What forms of resistance are taking place inside the University? Here we focus our attention on the following.

  • Struggles inside the classroom over the labour of students and academics, and the potential responses that are enabled through critical pedagogy.
  • The lessons to be taken from the development of co-operative higher education.
  • A theoretical understanding of academic practice by students and staff as public intellectualism, as a form of mass intellectuality.
  • The co-option of open access, which questions the societal value of business-as-usual models for public, higher education.

Our second section examines Potentialities for change and radical experiment in various transnational contexts. We ask whether it is possible to re-imagine the University democratically and co-operatively? Case studies here include the following.

  • Engagement with Brazilian resistance to extreme neoliberalism in the pedagogic practices of the Landless Movement. This discusses the impossibility of being an intellectual worker in the neoliberal university.
  • Discussion of Scottish higher education with reference to case studies of environmental justice, resistance to gender-based violence and trades union activity. This situates the experience of the knowledge worker against that emerging from within social movements.
  • An engagement with strands of mass intellectuality as they emerged historically in Bradford University’s Peace Studies curriculum and the CommUNIty project, as they were infused with a material and cultural analysis of sociability in Latin America.
  • A reflection on the meaning and purpose of arts education in its relationship to societal leadership as it emerges in the global North.

Our final section is rooted in Praxis, and looks at practical, alternative initiatives that are rooted in critical pedagogy and physical places beyond the University.

  • The Birmingham Autonomous University declare six theses on the collective failings of the hegemonic, methodological University, and the possibility that exists for creating a co-operative form of societal engagement.
  • An auto-ethnography of an alternative education project in Oxford, UK, the People’s Political Economy, which is framed by the idea of the organic intellectual in society.
  • A critique of the Lincoln Social Science Centre, UK, which offers a means of analysing the governing principles of transnational alternatives, in order to frame questions about their co-operative and democratic, practical and theoretical viability.
  • An eco-critical, thematic approach to mass intellectuality, rooted in the ethics of environmentalism. This enables the alternatives discussed in this book to connect to a wider environmental and transition/resilience agenda and its relationship to formal higher education.
  • A comparative analysis of indigenous communities and women of colour in the Escuela Política de Mujeres Pazifica, and the Family Inclusion Strategy Hunger collective based in the Hunter Valley, Australia. This analysis specifically relates co-operative, inclusive educational practices of creating ourselves, our relationships and communities differently.

Our work is rounded off with an evaluation and systematic critique of the collaborative approach adopted in its production. How might co-operative writing and publishing inside the University enable voices to be heard that are against and beyond the valorisation of academic labour?

SEVEN. Postscript

These struggles for mass intellectuality are an attempt to build solidarity and sharing (as forms of awareness-belonging) rather than to enable commodification, exchange and accumulation (as competitive materialism and belonging-identity). Thus, liberating science and technology from inside-and-against capital’s competitive dynamics is central to moving beyond exploitation. This is a pedagogical project and therefore education is central to society’s potential to re-imagine.

Radical alternatives rooted in co-operative practice offer mechanisms through which new forms of social power might challenge, resist and push back against the marketisation of public education, indentured study, and the hidden curriculum that asserts the primacy of value-for-money, impact metrics, productivity and efficiency. This helps to reveal how the effects of financialisation and marketisation across an increasingly global, social field like education might be inverted and resisted. This begins by revealing the objective, material realities of social life, so that we might give voice to possible, prefigurative alternatives. Mass intellectuality as a frame of reference enables those alternatives, pace Adam Curle, to encourage different ways of thinking about the role, value and form of higher education institutions in society. This is one possible route to the peaceful, liberated social relations that Curle imagined.

notes on education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’

To set you up for life [in debt]

Going to university is still a big decision, and it’s a choice which more and more of you are making. We want that decision to pay off, to set you up for life, and our reforms will make sure universities do just that.

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students

The measures will enable information on earnings and employability to be evaluated more effectively which will inform student choice. This data, presented in context, will distinguish universities that are delivering durable labour market outcomes and a strong enterprise ethos for their students.

DBIS. 2015. Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act: Education Evaluation fact sheet.

We intend to increase undergraduate tuition fees for home/EU undergraduate students in line with the inflationary increases allowed by government. You should therefore expect an inflationary increase in your fees in each subsequent academic year of the course, subject to government regulations on fee increases.

Exeter University. 2016. Tuition Fees

it is certainly not fit for the future

We all know that there is still a big debate to be had about the financial viability of the student loan system. This afternoon is not the occasion to rehearse the fragility of the Ponzi scheme that now underpins that system, but I often used to debate with the Minister’s predecessors whether Britain could look forward to a debt write-off of £70 billion or £80 billion. The basic message was pretty simple: the student loan system as currently set up is not fit for purpose, and it is certainly not fit for the future.

Liam Byrne. 2016. Higher Education and Research Bill, Second Reading

Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust, who have championed that access for more than a decade, repeated their fears in their briefing on the Bill, including, specifically—this has been alluded to but the Secretary of State was unable to give an answer—the fact that English students have the highest level of debt in the English-speaking world. The figures are: £44,000 on graduation and over £50,000 for those requiring maintenance loans.

Gordon Marsden. 2016. Higher Education and Research Bill, Second Reading

We know that loans and more debt at a time of economic uncertainty are a luxury few in our society can afford. The biggest division in our society today is between those who are able to turn to the bank of mum and dad, and those who are not; university education and the possibility of higher fees is simply a bigger part of that picture of whether we may end up crushing talent, rather than developing it, if we do not act. Nothing in this Bill will change that. Nothing that this Government are doing will change that problem of all 18-year-olds being held back by not having the bank of mum and dad—I refer not just to those who want to go to university, but to those who have fantastic business ideas and those who want to go into FE. A truly socially mobile country would seek to work for 100% of 18-year-olds, not just 50% of them. It would recognise that the debt they might incur might affect not only their choice of whether to go to university, but their ability to get on the housing ladder and the ability for their families to look to the future at all. I say that as someone who represents too many families who have £10,000 to £15,000-worth of unsecured debt hanging over their heads as it is. If the Bill does not address that issue—indeed, if some of the changes it is making are making it even more likely that these people will incur higher debts—we will lose that talent, to the detriment of us all.

This is taking place in a country where a rising number of middle income families are now in rented accommodation because they simply do not have the savings even to begin to get on the housing ladder. We are asking them to take on more debt, and potentially to subsidise more debt for their children, and this will hold too many back.

Stella Creasy. 2016. Higher Education and Research Bill, Second Reading

The experiences of graduates in the labour market in their first six months after graduation were mixed and heavily dependent on the subject they studied and the institution they went to.

Degree subject and institutional type have a large impact on graduate earnings and there are clear gender inequalities in graduate pay.

We found that many of the attitudes graduates had last summer about the cost of their degree, its overall value, and their levels of student debt had not changed over time.

The freezing of the repayment threshold on student loans has undermined graduates’ trust and confidence in the student loans system.

Graduates are accumulating non-student debt and are carrying debt over from their time studying.

Graduates are struggling to afford life after university and are choosing to live back with their parents to save money.

Ultimately, the student loan system threatens to add to the increasing intergenerational unfairness. The concern over student debt and the rising consumer debt owed by graduates is creating a cash shortage for many, leading to expectations that home ownership and even a pension are out of reach. This is coupled with the issue of the varied graduate outcomes that the cohort have received. Poor job security and low wages are hitting many graduates, particularly those who are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, which is compounding the impact of debt and creating a fairly grim outlook for the last of the millennial generation.

NUS. 2016. Double Jeopardy Assessing the dual impact of student debt and graduate outcomes on the first £9k fee paying graduates.

immiseration and the organic composition of capital

Over and above differential access to different types of HE, individuals’ socioeconomic background may also continue to have an effect on their labour market outcomes after graduation. This might be because students from more advantaged backgrounds have higher levels of (non-cognitive) skills (see for example Blanden et al. (2007)) skills that are not measured by their highest education level, or by their degree subject or institution. Alternatively, advantaged graduates may earn more because they have greater levels of social capital and are able to use their networks to secure higher paid employment. The literature on this is quite limited in the UK but does suggest that graduates from more advantaged backgrounds, particularly privately educated students, achieve higher status occupations and earn a higher return to their degree.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 7.

The IFS working paper proposes an economic model in which firms choose between two organisational forms: the old, centralised form and the newer, decentralised one. Here, we think of the choice of organisational form as a choice of ‘technology’, just like IT is a kind of technology. The decentralised organisational form is more profitable if and only if the supply of graduates is sufficiently high. When the economy starts with a very low proportion of graduates, the traditional organisational form will dominate. As the relative supply of graduates increases, the relative wage will fall and, once it reaches a critical threshold, firms will begin to adopt the newer decentralised form of organisation. The relative wage will stay at that critical level until all the firms have switched to the new form. After that, the relative wage should fall if the supply of graduates continues to rise. Thus, there exists a transitional period when the relative wage of graduates is invariant to supply changes.

Hence, we believe future increases in the proportion of graduates in the UK will tend to reduce graduates’ relative wages, unless some other skill biased technology becomes available. And that technology has to be sufficiently general to be applicable in all sectors (like how the IT revolution and decentralised organisational form spread across the economy). But we do not expect a future UK higher education expansion to automatically generate such a new general technology. The decentralised organisational form was first implemented by US firms and US multinationals before it was adopted by UK firms. Now that the UK is surpassing the US in terms of the proportion of graduates, there is not another readily-available general technology that the UK can adopt from the US.

Blundell, R., Green, D. and Jin, W. 2016. The Puzzle of Graduate Wages. IFS Briefing Note BN185.

We estimate that our average teacher would have cleared his debt by age 40 under the old system, but would still have £37,384 of debt in 2014 prices under the new system and have £24,479 to be written off at the end of the repayment period (age 51). (The debt to be written off under the new system would rise to £42,247 if he had borrowed enough to cover a PGCE course as well.) By contrast, we estimate that our average lawyer would repay his debt in full under both systems, achieving this in his early 30s under the old system and in his early 40s under the new one.

savings at younger ages under the new system are offset by increased costs in later life. After the point at which graduates would have repaid their debt under the old system, most will end up paying substantially more per year for several years. These costs amount to around an additional £430 per year on average between ages 31 and 40 in 2014 prices (equivalent to around 1.6% of net earnings) and around an additional £1,090 per year on average between ages 41 and 51 in 2014 prices (equivalent to around 3.7% of net earnings). This may make it more difficult for affected individuals to meet ongoing expenses over this period.

Crawford, C. and Jin W. 2016. Payback Time? Student debt and loan repayments: what will the 2012 reforms mean for graduates? IFS Report 93.

what worries the strategists of capital

If the low economic growth of the past decade continues, the proportion of households in income segments with flat or falling incomes could rise as high as 70 to 80 percent over the next decade. Even if economic growth accelerates, the issue will not go away: the proportion of households affected would decrease, to between about 10 and 20 percent—but that share could double if the growth is accompanied by a rapid uptake of workplace automation.

These findings provide a new perspective on the growing debate in advanced economies about income inequality, which until now has largely focused on income and wealth gains going disproportionately to top earners. Our analysis details the sharp increase in the proportion of households in income groups that are simply not advancing—a phenomenon affecting people across the income distribution. And the hardest hit are young, less-educated workers, raising the spectre of a generation growing up poorer than their parents.

Dobbs, R., Madgavkar, A., Manyika, J., Woetzel, J., Bughin, J., Labaye, E, and Kashyap, P. 2016. Poorer than their parents? A new perspective on income inequality. McKinsey Global Insight.

At least as measured by GDP, the economy and society as a whole is 5% better off. But is it? The income of the already-rich has risen by just over 10%, while the income of the already-poor as fallen by 50%. Does the former really swamp the latter when it comes to the well-being of society?

This has been an uneven economic recovery, looking across regions, income and age cohorts. Large parts of the UK – many regions, those on lower incomes, the young, renters – have not experienced any meaningful recovery in their incomes or in their wealth.

it is clear that recovery has been associated with both the incomes and, more strikingly, the wealth of the least well-off having broadly flat-lined. Recovery has not lifted all boats, especially some of the smaller ones. This pattern may go some further way towards solving the recovery puzzle. Whose recovery? To a significant extent, those already asset-rich.

Haldane, A.G. 2016. Whose Recovery? Bank of England.

So the world economy has still not recovered to pre-crisis levels.  More important, the majority of households in the major economies have seen no ‘recovery’ at all.  The great jobs expansion is been mainly in low-paid, low productivity sectors or in self-employment where incomes are relatively lower.

What worries the strategists of capital is that their failure to get capitalism going again or reduce the burden for the majority to pay for it is beginning to end their political control of the majority. Brexit, the rise of Trump and other ‘populist’ leaders now threaten the end of the neoliberal ‘free trade, cheap labour’ agenda of globalisation

Roberts, M. 2015. Globalisation and whose recovery?

Policymakers should strengthen defenses against protracted periods of global financial turbulence and tighter external financial conditions.

Priorities include reining in excess credit growth where needed, supporting healthy bank balance sheets, containing maturity and currency mismatches, and maintaining orderly market conditions.

And policymakers need to stand ready to act more aggressively and cooperatively should the impact of financial market turbulence and higher uncertainty threaten to materially weaken the global outlook.

IMF. 2016. World Economic Outlook (WEO) Update: Uncertainty in the Aftermath of the U.K. Referendum, July 2016.

declining productivity is primarily reflection of the fact that an increasing proportion of the labour force and employment is essentially “warehoused” in lower productivity occupations, pending either their final elimination and replacement or (hopefully) an accelerated move into higher productivity occupations.

In other words, as technology evolves, parts of the economy become extremely competitive but these segments tend to slowly and gradually reduce productivity of everyone else. The classic example is clearly impact of Amazon on Wal-Mart or impact of electronic trading on equity or fixed income traders or technological impact on clerical, accounting or legal profession. Indeed, the same largely applies to manufacturing. Whilst economists were correct to argue in 2008/09 that the US would experience a manufacturing renaissance, we were right that it was unlikely to lead to any significant rise in employment, as technology can now deliver superior outcomes with much less labour.

Most investors would immediately argue that this is good news as there is higher productivity per employee. Unfortunately, these investors would be wrong, as this argument ignores cross-sectional movement of labour.

key difference is that whereas past technological evolutions were aimed to supplement humans, the Third Industrial revolution is aiming to replace them completely, and hence we continue to view it as intrinsically far more disruptive.

as billions of young people based in least developed countries might encounter much greater difficulty than the 1970s- 90s generation in integrating into the global economy. In a world of ‘declining returns on humans’ having too many young people might be a recipe for social and political dislocation rather than growth, even if the business climate is improved. In our view, it is quite likely that when historians examine the last one hundred years, they would classify 1950s-1990s as the ‘golden age’. Although there would be inevitable academic disputes about exact boundary (i.e. whether the golden age ended in 1980s or whether there were two golden ages, i.e. 1950s-mid 1960s and 1980s-90s), however, as an overall period, we think it was time of increasing opportunities and generally rising returns on human capital. However, 2000-2030s will likely be classified distinctly differently.

Macquarie Research. 2016. What caught my eye? v.61 ‘Lumpenproletariat’ & deglobalization.

Education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’.

Vesuvius, I am here/You are all I have/Fire of fire, I’m insecure/For it has all been made to plan

Though I know I will fail/I cannot be made to laugh/For in life as in death/I’d rather be burned than be living in debt

Sufjan Stevens. 2010. Vesuvius.

on DMU’s Institute for Education Futures

I’ve been at De Montfort University since 2002 leading on our agenda for education and technology or e-learning or technology-enhanced learning or enhancing learning through technology. In that time I’ve also been pursuing pedagogic research through: first, a raft of national/international projects; second, through publications; and third, as a National Teaching Fellow. This has drawn me increasingly into supporting pedagogic research and innovation across the University, through project work, mentoring, supporting DMU Teacher Fellow and National Teaching Fellow applications, setting up the DMU Academic Commons, and so on.

In late 2014 I set up a Centre for Pedagogic Research (following very useful conversations with Debbie Cotton at Plymouth), but within a year the General Election made it plain that the Government’s direction of travel was to re-focus higher education policy through a new Green and then White Paper, and both new policy and primary legislation. As a result we had to take a position on how to respond to both the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and any forthcoming REF. This catalysed conversations about building institutional capacity and capability related to pedagogic innovation, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and research in our Education Division, in order to create a structured environment for engaging with TEF and REF (Education Studies) at DMU.

The result of these conversations is the creation of a new Institute for Education Futures at DMU, of which I am Co-Director with Dr Sarah Younie. This is an end to my leadership of our education and technology agenda, and a new start in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, although the IEF will have a cross-institutional role working with staff (and students). I have appended our working Vision and Objectives below. However, it is important to note four things in relation to the IEF at this point.

NOTE 1: The IEF’s work has a clear connection to DMU’s Strategic Framework, which is working towards a corporate step-change in pedagogic practice, innovation and scholarship, including the following.

  • An explicit commitment to teaching quality, in all its forms.
  • The creation of a stimulating teaching and learning environment re-framed through pedagogic innovation.
  • The sustainability of a pedagogic culture rooted in student achievement.

The IEF will generate additional benefits for DMU, in terms of other Framework priorities: a scholarly culture that delivers research with impact; the social and economic development of Leicester (linked to #DMULocal) through research linked to social justice; and diverse international agendas (linked to #DMUGlobal).

NOTE 2: I have already signalled that I would like to see the IEF build capacity for pedagogic innovation democratically and co-operatively (taking on-board some of the co-operative leadership principles outlined in my work with Joss Winn and others), so that we can respond to and attempt to influence strategic priorities. Therefore, the work will be predicated upon:

  • an (infra)structure that enables the sharing of academic practice, skills and knowledge by all staff (academic and professional services) and students;
  • co-operative internal and external funding bids rooted in the TEF criteria of teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes, alongside the REF focus on impact and environment;
  • the facilitation of grassroots, concrete, thematic networks of educational and pedagogic practice, inside and outside the University; and
  • a mentoring and peer review strategy for outputs and impact.

Sharing, co-operative, grassroots and peer-enabled. Other values and approaches are available.

NOTE 3: I have been an outspoken critic of the Government’s HE proposals for some time. I have blogged extensively about performance management, the TEF, the Green Paper and the White Paper on this blog and through peer review. I have also refused to apply for any post related to the implementation of the TEF. I remain in support of the Second Convention for HE’s aims, and I continue to work with those engaged with co-operative education. However, I work inside a University that is being recalibrated through policy and legislation as a competing business. Thus, my intention through the IEF is to continue to critique our current dystopic HE system, and work for a re-imagining of what HE might be, whilst accepting the concrete reality of my everyday existence inside the University, alongside the limitations that league tables, TEF/REF, and so on, place on my academic labour and my agency. That said, I will continue to work co-operatively for alternative possibilities in my everyday work, and this means working prefiguratively inside the University (in terms of deliberation, values, governing principles and so on). It is crucial that we are able to demonstrate what else might be possible. The maxim here is Render unto Caesar… (cheers Klaus).

NOTE 4: I hope that the IEF will emerge as a self-critical scholarly community, with a level of internal, co-operative self-governance that enables people to find their voice. The focus on Futures in the Institute title is important, and it suggests possible utopias, such as those hinted at by the University of Utopia. Our work may sit against the nostalgic futures craved by Astrov in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (thanks @nosnilwar), but it is more likely to be a re-focusing of potential energy on re-imagining that which continues to be defined for us as a productive educational life, so that we can describe an alternative, social commonwealth.


The Institute for Education Futures (IEF) will place De Montfort University at the heart of a global pedagogic and educational network engaged in the dynamic interrelationships between educational processes and societies. The IEF will be a bridge between education sectors and types of provider. It will catalyse policy-into-practice, so DMU can address crucial questions about educational futures and become world-leading in this field.


The objectives of the IEF are as follows.

  • To act as a bridge between REF and TEF activities.
  • To act as a bridge between different sectors of formal and informal educational practice.
  • To build a REF202X Education Studies submission.
  • To establish a distinctive scholarship culture, in order to inform DMU’s engagement with the TEF, and the delivery of the University Learning Teaching and Assessment Strategy, including support for individual pedagogic projects.
  • To widen and deepen DMU’s educational and pedagogic research culture, including support for early-career researchers and for career-progression, and through publication and public dissemination
  • To create one unified research unit, combining and amplifying research in the Learning Futures Institute, the Centre for Pedagogic Research, and the Education Research Group.


The view from my new office is quite nice, if you ignore the car park (unless you like car parks).