Why you’re never working to contract

During the last #USSstrike, on non-picketing days, I practiced working to contract. Working to contract is part of the broader strategy known as ASOS – action short of a strike – and it means fulfilling your contractual obligations, but not more than that. Together with many other UCU members, I will be moving to ASOS from Thursday. But how does one actually practice ASOS in the neoliberal academia?


I am currently paid to work 2.5 days a week. Normally, I am in the office on Thursdays and Fridays, and sometimes half a Monday or Tuesday. The rest of the time, I write and plan my own research, supervise (that’s Cambridgish for ‘teaching’), or attend seminars and reading groups. Last year, I was mostly writing my dissertation; this year, I am mostly panickedly filling out research grant and job applications, for fear of being without a position when my contract ends in August.

Yet I am also, obviously, not ‘working’ only when I do these things. Books that I read are, more often than not, related to what I am writing, teaching, or just thinking about. Often, I will read ‘theory’ books at all times of day (a former partner once raised the issue of the excess of Marx on the bedside table), but the same can apply to science fiction (or any fiction, for that matter). Films I watch will make it into courses. Even time spent on Twitter occasionally yields important insights, including links to articles, events, or just generic mood of a certain category of people.

I am hardly exceptional in this sense. Most academics work much more than the contracted hours. Estimates vary from 45 to as much as 100 hours/week; regardless of what is a ‘realistic’ assessment, the majority of academics report not being able to finish their expected workload within a 37.5-40hr working week. Working on weekends is ‘industry standard’; there is even a dangerous overwork ethic. Yet increasingly, academics have begun to unite around the unsustainability of the system in which we are increasingly feeling overwhelmed, underpaid, and with mental and other health issues on the rise. This is why rising workloads are one of the key elements of the current wave of UCU strikes. It also led to coining of a parallel hashtag: #ExhaustionRebellion. It seems like the culture is slowly beginning to shift.

From Thursday onwards, I will be on ASOS. I look forward to it: being precarious makes not working sometimes almost as exhausting as working. Yet, the problem with the ethic of overwork is not only that is is unsustainable, or that is directly harmful to the health and well-being of individuals, institutions, and the environment. It is also that it is remarkably resilient: and it is resilient precisely because it relies on some of the things academics value the most.

Marx’s theory of value* tells us that the origins of exploitation in industrial capitalism lie in the fact workers do not have ownership over means of production; thus, they are forced to sell their labour. Those who own means of production, on the other hand, are driven by the need to keep capital flowing, for which they need profit. Thus, they are naturally inclined to pay their workers as little as possible, as long as that is sufficient to actually keep them working. For most universities, a steady supply of newly minted graduate students, coupled with seemingly unpalatable working conditions in most other branches of employment, means they are well positioned to drive wages further down (in the UK, 17.5% in real terms since 2009).

This, however, is where the usefulness of classical Marxist theory stops. It is immediately obvious that many of the conditions the late 19th-century industrial capitalism no longer apply. To begin with, most academics own the most important means of production: their minds. Of course, many academics use and require relatively expensive equipment, or work in teams where skills are relatively distributed. Yet, even in the most collective of research teams and the most collaborative of labs, the one ingredient that is absolutely necessary is precisely human thoughts. In social sciences and humanities, this is even more the case: while a lot of the work we do is in libraries, or in seminars, or through conversations, ultimately – what we know and do rests within us**.

Neither, for that matter, can academics simply written off as unwitting victims of ‘false consciousness’. Even if the majority could have conceivably been unaware of the direction or speed of the transformation of the sector in the 1990s or in the early 2000s, after the last year’s industrial action this is certainly no longer the case. Nor is this true only of those who are certainly disproportionately affected by its dual face of exploitation and precarity: even academics on secure contracts and in senior positions are increasingly viewing changes to the sector as harmful not only to their younger colleagues, but to themselves. If nothing else, what USS strikes achieved was to help the critique of neoliberalism, marketization and precarity migrate from the pages of left-leaning political periodicals and critical theory seminars into mainstream media discourse. Knowing that current conditions of knowledge production are exploitative, however, does not necessarily translate into knowing what to do about them.

This is why contemporary academic knowledge production is better characterized as extractive or rentier capitalism. Employers, in most cases, do not own – certainly not exclusively – the means of production of knowledge. What they do instead is provide the setting or platform through which knowledge can be valorized, certified, and exchanged; and charge a hefty rent in the process (this is one part of what tuition fees are about). This ‘platform’ can include anything from degrees to learning spaces; from labs and equipment to email servers and libraries. It can also be adjusted, improved, fitted to suit the interests of users (or consumers – in this case, students); this is what endless investment in buildings is about.

The cunning of extractive capitalism lies in the fact that it does not, in fact, require workers to do very much. You are a resource: in industrial capitalism, your body is a resource; in cognitive capitalism, your mind is a resource too. In extractive capitalism, it gets even better: there is almost nothing you do, a single aspect of your thoughts, feelings, or actions, that the university cannot turn into profit. Reading Marxist theory on the side? It will make it into your courses. Interested in politics? Your awareness of social inequalities will be reflected in your teaching philosophy. Involved in community action? It will be listed in your online profile under ‘public engagement and impact’. It gets better still: even your critique of extractive, neoliberal conditions of knowledge production can be used to generate value for your employer – just make sure it is published in the appropriate journals, and before the REF deadline.

This is the secret to the remarkable resilience of extractive capitalism. It feeds on exactly what academics love most: on the desire to know more, to explore, to learn. This is, possibly, one of the most basic human needs past the point of food, shelter, and warmth. The fact that the system is designed to make access to all of the latter dependent on being exploited for the former speaks, I think, volumes (it also makes The Matrix look like less of a metaphor and more of an early blueprint, with technology just waiting to catch up). This makes ‘working to contract’ quite tricky: even if you pack up and leave your office at 16.38 on the dot, Monday to Friday, your employer will still be monetizing your labour. You are probably, even if unwittingly, helping them do so.

What, then, are we to do? It would be obviously easy to end with a vague call a las barricadas, conveniently positioned so as to boost one’s political cred. Not infrequently, my own work’s been read in this way: as if it ‘reminds academics of the necessity of activism’ or (worse) ‘invites to concrete action’ (bleurgh). Nothing could be farther from the truth: I absolutely disagree with the idea that critical analysis somehow magically transmigrates into political action. (In fact, why we are prone to mistaking one for the other is one of the key topics of my work, but this is an ASOS post, so I will not be writing about it). In other words, what you will do – tomorrow, on (or off?) the picket line, in a bit over a week, in the polling booth, in the next few months, when you are asked to join that and that committee or to a review a junior colleague’s tenure/promotion folder – is your problem and yours alone. What this post is about, however, is what to do when you’re on ASOS.

Therefore, I want to propose a collective reclaiming of the life of the mind. Too much of our collective capacity – for thinking, for listening, for learning, for teaching – is currently absorbed by institutions that turn it, willy-nilly, into capital. We need to re-learn to draw boundaries. We need thinking, learning, and caring to become independent of process that turns them into profit. There are many ways to do it – and many have been tried before: workers and cooperative universities; social science centres; summer schools; and, last but not least, our own teach-outs and picket line pedagogy. But even when these are not happening, we need to seriously rethink how we use the one resource that universities cannot replace: our own thoughts.

So from Thursday next week, I am going to be reclaiming my own. I will do the things I usually do – read; research; write; teach and supervise students; plan and attend meetings; analyse data; attend seminars; and so on – until 4.40. After that, however, my mind is mine – and mine alone.


*Rest assured that the students I teach get treated to a much more sophisticated version of the labour theory of value (Soc1), together with variations and critiques of Marxism (Soc2), as well as ontological assumptions of heterodox vs. ‘neoclassical’ economics (Econ8). If you are an academic bro, please resist the urge to try to ‘explain’ any of these as you will both waste my time and not like the result. Meanwhile, I strongly encourage you to read the *academic* work I have published on these questions over the past decade, which you can find under Publications.

**This is one of the reasons why some of the most interesting debates about knowledge production today concern ownership, copyright, or legal access. I do not have time to enter into these debates in this post; for a relatively recent take, see here.