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.

I am a precarious, foreign, early career researcher. Why should I be striking?

 

OK, I’ll admit the title is a bit of clickbait. I’ve never had a moment of doubt around strikes. However, in the past few weeks, as the UCU strike over pensions is drawing nearer, I’ve had a series of conversations in which colleagues, friends, or just acquaintances have raised some of the concerns reflected in, though not exhausted by, this title. So, I’ve decided to write up a short post answering some of these questions, mostly so I could get out of people’s Facebook or Twitter timelines. This isn’t meant to try and convince you, and even less is it any form of official or legal advice: at the end of the day, exercising your rights is your choice. Here are some of mine.

I am precariously employed: I can’t really afford to lose the pay.

This is a very serious concern, especially for those who have no other source of income or savings (and that’s quite a few). The UCU has set up a solidarity fund to help in such cases; quite a few local organisations have as well, and from what I understand early career/precarious researchers should have advantage in applying to these. Even taking this into account, this is by no means a small sacrifice to make, but the current pension reform means that in the long run, you would be losing much more than the pay that could be docked.

But I am not even a member of the Union!

Your right to strike is not dependent on your membership in a(ny) union. That being said, if you would like the Union to represent/help you, it makes sense to join the Union. Actually, it makes sense to join the Union anyway. Why are you not a member of the Union? Join the Union. Here, have a uni(c)o(r)n.

unicorn-toys
Yes I know it’s the worst pun ever

 

 

 

 

I am afraid of pissing off my supervisor/boss, and I rely on their good will/recommendation letters/support for future jobs.

There’s a high chance your supervisor is striking – after all, their pensions are on the line as well. Even if they are not, it is possible that if you calmly explain why you feel this is important, and why you think you should show solidarity with your colleagues, they will see your point (and maybe even join you). Should this not be the case, they have no legal way of preventing you from exercising your basic employment right, one that is part of your contract (which, presumably, they will have read!).

In terms of future recommendations, if you really think your supervisor is evaluating your research on the basis of whether you show up in the office, and not on the basis of your commitment, results, or potential, perhaps it’s time to have a chat with them. Remember, exercising the right to strike is not meant to harm your project, your colleagues, or your supervisor: it is meant to show disagreement concerning a decision that affects you, was taken in your name, but you most likely had little or no say over. Few supervisors would dispute your right to do that.

I’ll be able to strike when I’m more senior/securely employed.

UK abolished ‘tenure’ about thirty years ago, so no one’s job is completely safe. Obviously, of course, this doesn’t mean there are no differences in status, but unfortunately, experience suggests that job security does not directly correlate with the willingness to be critical of the institution you work in. Anyway, look at the senior academics around you. Either they are striking – in which case they will certainly support your right to do the same – or they are not, which would suggest that there is nothing to suggest you will if, and when, you get to their career stage.

Remember, this is why precarity exists: employers benefit from insecure/casual contracts exactly because they provide an army of reserve (and cheap) labour in case the permanently employed decide to strike. Which is exactly what is happening now. Don’t let them get away with it.

I don’t want to let  my students down.

This obviously primarily applies to those of us who are teaching and/or supervising, but I think there is a broader point to be made: students are not children. Universities dispensed with in loco parentis in the 1970s. It’s fine to feel a duty of care for your students, but it also makes sense to recognize that they are capable of making decisions for themselves – for instance, whom they will invite to give a public lecture, how they will vote, or how they will interpret the fact their lecturers are on strike (here‘s a good example from Goldsmiths). Which is not to say you shouldn’t explain to them exactly why you are striking. Even better, invite them to help you organize or come to one of the teach-outs.

Think about it this way: next week, you can teach them one of the following: (a) how to stand up for their rights and show solidarity, or (b) how to read Shakespeare (sorry, English lit scholars, this came to mind first). You’ve got (according to employers’ calculations) 351 days in a year to do the latter. Will you use your chance to do the former?

I won’t even get to a pension; why should I fight for the benefits of entitled, securely employed academics?

If you are an employee of a pre-1992 university in the UK, chances are you are enrolled in the USS. This means you are accruing some pension through the system, thus the proposed changes are affecting you. The less you’ve been in the system – that is, the shorter the period of time you’ve been employed – the more of a difference it makes. Remember, entitled academics you are talking about have accrued most of their pension under the old system; paradoxically, you are set to lose much more than they are.

I feel this struggle is really about the privilege of white male dons, and does not address the deeper structural inequalities I experience.

 It’s true that the struggle is primarily about pensions, and it’s true that the majority of people who have benefited from the system so far are traditionally privileged. This reflects the deeper inequalities of UK higher education, and, in particular, its employment structure. My experience is a bit of a mixed bag: I am a woman and ethnic minority, but I am also white and middle-class, so I clearly can’t speak for everyone, but I think that this is precisely why it’s important to be present in the strike. We need to make sure it doesn’t remain about white men only, and that it becomes obvious that higher education in England rests not on the traditional idea of a ‘professor’, but on the work of many, often precariously employed, early career researchers, women, minorities, non-binaries, and, yes, foreigners.

Speaking of that – I’m a foreigner, why should I care?

This is most difficult for me to relate to, not only because my work has been in and on the UK for quite a while but because, frankly, I’ve never felt like not a foreigner, no matter where I lived, and I always thought solidarity is international or it is nothing. But here’s my attempt at a more pragmatic argument: this is where you work, so this is where you exercise your rights as a worker. You may obviously have a lot of other, non-local concerns – family and friends in different countries, causes (or fieldwork sites) on other continents, and so on, but none of that should preclude the possibility to be actively involved in something that concerns your rights, here and now. After all, if you can show solidarity with Palestinian children or Yemeni refugees, you can show solidarity with people working in the same industry, who share many of your concerns.

There is a related serious issue concerning those on Tier 2 visas – UCU offers some guidance here; in a nutshell, you are most likely safe as long as you don’t intend to be absent without leave (i.e. consent from your employer) for many more consecutive days during the rest of the year.

There are so many problems with higher education, this seems like a very minor fight!

True. Fighting for pensions is not going to stop the neoliberalisation of HE or the precarisation of the academic workforce per se.

Yet, imagine the longer-term potential of an action like this. You will have met other (precarious) colleagues (especially outside of your discipline/field) on picket lines and at teach-outs; you will have learnt how to effectively organize actions that bring together different groups and different concerns; not least importantly, you will have shown your employer how crucial for teaching, and research, people like you really are. Now, that’s something that could come handy in future struggles, don’t you think?